Love in Hell

At long last, here’s a little bit on the Inferno, after which it will be time, as Monty Python liked to say, for something completely different…

I believe the emotional core of Dante’s poem about Hell is pity. I mean emotion in terms of what any of us are likely ever to feel, rather than the ecstasy of the Beatific Vision with which the poem ends (or more accurately, the point at which, in Dante’s own language, it fails). And perhaps rather than emotion I should use a phrase like inward disposition. But that’s too bloodless. Let’s just say the core of the poem — and in fact all three cantiche, not just the Inferno — is pity.  We don’t like pity these days. In fact I would say that usually we despise pity. We have to some extent replaced pity’s position among the virtues with what we call empathy. I will think momentarily about whether it’s a fair swap. First, I want to begin with two quotations, neither of them from the Inferno.

For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself.

That’s Bob Dylan, last line of the song “Thunder on the Mountain.” If pity in itself is bad, what do we think of self-pity? And here is a young lady named Canacee, from The Canterbury Tales:

What is the cause, if it be for to telle,

That ye be in this furial pyne of helle?

Quod Canacee unto this hauk above.

Is this for sorwe of deeth or los of love?

For, as I trowe, this ben causes two

That causen most a gentil herte wo;

Of other harm it nedeth nat to speke.

For ye yourself upon yourself yow wreke,

Which proveth wel, that either love or drede

Most been encheson of your cruel dede,

Sin that I see non other wight yow chace.

For love of God, as dooth yourselven grace

Or what may ben your help; for west nor eest

Ne sey I never er now no brid ne beest

That ferde with himself so pitously.

Ye slee me with your sorwe , verraily;

I have of yow so gret compassioun.

For Goddes love, com from the tree adoun;

And, as I am a kinges doghter trewe,

If that I verraily the cause knewe

Of your disese, if it lay in my might,

I wolde amend it…

I don’t want to get into the story Chaucer (or the Squire, rather) is telling here, but I have to mention that one thing I love about this soulful expression of pity is that Canacee is in this moment looking up into a tree. She’s actually spread her skirts out to catch the bird she is talking to in case she (the bird) falls, because the bird has been tearing at herself and beating herself and looks like she may perish. This directionality, I think, says so much about why we despise pity: we think of pity only as looking down. In fact we live with far more egalitarian values than Dante knew, and so we are far less comfortable looking down or up. Our ideal is that each individual or group should meet the other on equal terms. To look up or down is to judge and to be in a position of relative power or subservience. To take pity on someone is a version of having power over them, and to sue for pity is to admit some sort of inferiority in relation to the object of your pleas. We speak of empathy these days rather than pity, I think, because we imagine that particular psychological act to operate on a level. And yet it would be hard to imagine an age in which more people were concerned (or so it seems, especially in public discourse and in social media) constantly to establish themselves on what we call the moral high ground. But I think that is a slightly different matter, for the person on the moral high ground does not pity the barbarous other below him, so much as he has contempt for that other. Dante the narrator exhibits contempt in Hell, also, but it is distinct from pity, and the two responses on Dante’s part do not usually overlap. Ours is an age of widespread contempt, but also, in my experience, more empathy than in our bleaker moments we are inclined to allow; but one thing I don’t see much of is true pity. 

Personally, I cherish modern egalitarian values: I hold them to be the best hope for cultivating that most precious and mysterious thing, which we call individual human consciousness; as well as for fostering the most necessary and equally precious thing, the staple of consciousness and source of its ability to connect to the world and each other, which we call love. The reality of love, which I take to be a revelation though someone else might prefer to call it self-evident, guarantees the validity of our most idealistic egalitarianism. Paradoxically, however, I also recognize that our egalitarian values are frequently inadequate because fundamentally inaccurate or incomplete in their suppositions about how the world really is, how human beings actually work. Love, as Dante’s Comedy so amply affirms, is indeed the great leveler, indeed to a degree we can no longer really imagine. To put it in Dante’s Christian terms, i.e. the terms of the Comedy, it is love that brings the divine to the human level (in Christian tradition the Incarnation is, significantly, described as God condescending to become human), for the purpose of elevating the human to the level of the divine. But such motion is of course only conceivable in a cosmos in which it is possible in some metaphysical sense to move upwards or downwards, to occupy different ranks and stations in a divinely ordered creation. It is from properly cleaving to or embodying its particular rank and station that each being draws its dignity and, in the eternal world — the world of the Comedy — its blessing or its damnation. This was Dante’s understanding, fundamentally onto-hierarchical, and it is the only understanding of the world in which pity, properly understood, makes sense as a concept. To be clear: the hierarchy in question is both moral and metaphysical, and most importantly it is moral because it is metaphysical. How does that compare to our moral world, which seems to be hierarchical as well (or is it still?) but without any sponsoring metaphysical hierarchy? It’s a serious question. 

Empathy means imagining how it is for another. From this it is often supposed to follow, as the French proverb has it, that tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner — to understand all is to forgive all. There is actually quite a lot of ancient and theological wisdom in that proverb and I wouldn’t dream of throwing it out. But what I wondered while I was reading the Inferno was whether empathy and pity are compatible as values. I believe that they are, but only if one is able to live in a world of paradox, because they are superficially contradictory. Herein lies the contradiction: pity is a matter of judgment, while empathy is meant to train one away from judgment or at least from voicing and applying judgment. We are, as ever, caught between the worlds of mercy and of justice, or truth — as General Loewenhielm might say (that would be in Karen Blixen’s masterpiece Babette’s Feast). But as the good General also says: Mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!

We are inclined to think that judgment, when put into practice, always results in punitive action or some sort of prudish and puritanical scorn. This is, presumably, why no one likes to be considered “judgmental.” But of course judgment also means simply discerning a subject’s proper station (or you could say, purpose) in existence and then that subject’s actual position relative to that station, and this sort of judgment is necessary for any action or responsiveness to the reality we meet. One hopes to become more discerning and prudent as one grows older, not less, and it is precisely through such maturation that one becomes more tolerant and open-minded. Or so I was taught, when I was young, by my mentors — who, let it be known, were humanist and secular to a one. The fact is that empathy by itself generates no imperative. Reimagine Bob Dylan’s line quoted above as, For the love of God, you ought to be empathetic with yourself. It’s ridiculous. The most sense such a statement could make would be paraphrasable as: be conscious, be mindful. Okay, that’s fine, one strives to be conscious or mindful, aware, sensitive even to one’s own inner life. That, too, is an aspect of maturation. But I think you would not exhort someone to be self-conscious with a phrase like For the love of God. What I am getting at is this: empathy is gentle and it is necessary, but pity is potent. Perhaps this is because empathy is the imaginative appropriation of another’s state, but pity is your own state. 


The adjective corresponding to empathy is or ought to be pathetic, while the adjective corresponding to pity is piteous or pitiable. The word pathetic is no longer used in English in this more basic, literal way, meaning full of feeling or something that ought to incite feeling. But that is what the root of the word empathy means, simply feeling. Interestingly, we use pathetic to describe something we scorn because we consider it (or him or her) failed or debased in some way, something that has fallen far short of what it ought to be — in other words, something that is pitiable. And those adjectival forms of pity, piteous and pitiable, we don’t really use anymore, because we don’t really think of pity as a basic, even unavoidable, part of life, let alone a kind of virtue, even perhaps an expression of charity, of love. So it seems that there has been a sort of semantic drift, as the linguists say, which would seem to correspond with a general moral drift in the culture. Or you could say that empathy and pity are meant to work together. We have become conscious of and articulate about empathy in ways our forbears in the West were not, outside of certain religious contexts (I have in mind chiefly the late medieval fixation on the passion of Christ). I would say that that is to our credit. But I think that we have at the same time lost sight of the necessity and the roots of the distinct emotional response to the facts of the flawed world and of human being that is properly called pity. 

This has been a more abstract and speculative train of thought than I’d intended. Rather than derail further, I’ll try to bring the main point home (assuming I have a main point) by looking again at Chaucer’s Canacee, for here we see both empathy, as we should now call it, and pity. And we see how closely these two states coexist. 

It’s interesting to note that when Canacee says, “For love of God, as dooth yourselven grace, / Or what may ben your help,” she is saying exactly the same thing as that last line of the Dylan song. To paraphrase in a more modern idiom: “For the love of God, at least take pity on yourself if no one else will.” The point is that Canacee is urging action. She is definitely not urging the hawk to be in some way more mindful. The hawk is plenty mindful enough already, as Canacee easily discerns. There are only two experiences, she surmises, that can reduce a person (even if that person is, or is temporarily, a hawk) to such a state of rending themselves in grief: either they have lost someone they loved (death, or what is called drede in one line) and so been reminded of their own mortality; or else they have lost love or been unable to obtain love itself. Love and death, that’s it, your only two excuses for mutilating yourself, according to Canacee. Whe she rehearses this rationale to the poor hawk, she is in effect sympathizing, or as we might now say, exercising empathy. One word she actually uses is compassion, which is the Latinate equivalent of the word sympathy. The bird is filling her with compassion, in other words the bird is pathetic, clearly, but more than that she (the bird) is, as Canacee says, piteous. If the bird were only pathetic to Canacee, she would not be able to do much beyond sympathize, show her compassion. But because the bird is piteous, or pitiable (in the slightly more recent idiom), Canacee can actually do something, she can mobilize her own agency rather than just sort of stand there and realize that this here is a truly miserable lady hawk — which is as far as empathy, taken on its own, can go. When Canacee offers to cure the hawk of her malady, be it in her power, then she is not empathizing but taking pity. So the movement, I think, is clear in Canacee, from empathy to pity. And just to be clear, the bird is pitiable because either cause of its condition — the brutal confrontation with mortality or the agonizing loss or refusal of love — is, in the medieval mind, an instance of injustice. Pity is concerned with justice, with how things ought to be, not with how this or that subject happens to be feeling. Life and love are meant to succeed, not to be thwarted. 

That’s all very well,  but what about the Inferno? Well, one of the interesting things about the poem is that Dante places in Hell his personal enemies or people for whom he felt nothing but contempt and loathing and rage, as well as some people that he loved and even revered. For this latter group Dante only evinces pity: pre-Christian heroes, and Christian figures who gave in to certain sins (adultery, sodomy) that, according to Dante’s rigidly moral worldview could only place them in Hell. And yet, these people (pagan philosophers, Vergil himself, Paolo and Francesca, even some of his own mentors and esteemed poetic peers) were, despite their sins, also heroic and impressive in some way. Those for whom Dante shows contempt, on the other hand, don’t tend to be victims of their own historical placement, like the pagans, nor to have given into sins born of desire; rather they are the people guilty of being false, thieves and traitors of all kinds, a group that includes most of the politicians in Dante’s vision of Hell. 

But even towards some of the more heinous sinners Dante demonstrates pity. Not nearly so much as he does toward his friends and mentors up top, but he will ask, even below, the question that seems to relieve some of the suffering of these souls: to wit, he asks them to say who they are and to tell their stories. In this way, their names will be known in the world of the living, and their own side of their tragic stories may even to some extent be heard. I take this as an act of pity, even if it is sometimes brought about not by Dante’s sorrow and remorse — his compassion — at seeing these damned souls, but his curiosity. Dante will even express horror at some of the punishments he sees, despite knowing them to be merited, according to his view of life and of God — for which sorrow he will be upbraided by Vergil, since it is almost a form of blasphemy, questioning God’s judgment. But this is what pity must do. Because pity is an expression of love, and love is the desire that someone or something should be most and best, should be what he or she or it ought to be. The damned, then, more than anyone else, may incite pity. 

But all that, actually, is not what I want to finish by talking about. You can read the Inferno for yourself and turn down the corner of every page on which Dante expresses some kind of sorrow, horror, or melancholy wonder at the fate of the damned. You will have a very dog-eared volume when you are done. There is one passage that puts pity in a different light than any of those others, and it is here that I will finally quote from the poem. This extended passage is from the second canto. Here the mechanism of the entire Comedy is revealed. Vergil is explaining to Dante. I quote from Singleton’s prose translation (emphasis mine):

…I will tell you why I came and what it was I heard when I first felt pity for you. I was among those who are suspended [i.e. in Limbo, the least bad part of Hell], and a lady called to me, so blessed and so fair that I prayed her to command me. Her eyes were more resplendent than the stars, and she began to say to me, sweetly and softly, in an angelic voice, ‘O courteous Mantuan spirit… my friend — and not the friend of Fortune — finds his way so impeded on the desert slope that he has turned back in fright; and, from what I heave heard of him in Heaven, I fear he may already have gone so astray that I am late in arising to help him. Go now, and with your fair speech and with whatever is needful for his deliverance, assist him so that it may console me. I am Beatrice who send you. I come from a place to which I long to return. Love moved me and makes me speak. When I am before my Lord I will often praise you to Him.’

Vergil then asks Beatrice how exactly she came to be standing there in Hell commanding him to go help Dante. She obliges and explains that,

In Heaven there is a gracious lady who has such pity of this impediment to which I send you that stern judgment is broken thereabove. She called Lucy, in her request, and said, ‘Your faithful one has need of you now, and I commend him to you.’ Lucy, foe of every cruelty, arose and, coming to where I sat with ancient Rachel, said, ‘Beatrice, true praise of God, why do you not succor him who bore you such love that for you he left the vulgar throng? Do you not hear his pitiful lament? Do you not see the death that assails him on that flood over which the sea has no vaunt?’

Thus guilted, as we would now say, into feeling and expressing compassion (the ‘succor’), Beatrice makes quick to find Vergil. (She would help Dante herself if he weren’t already so far ‘astray.’ Dante is in a low place in the beginning of the Comedy, and he has to hit rock bottom, the pit of Hell, before he begin to rise and eventually surpass the low level from which he starts at the poem’s beginning. So a blessed person like Beatrice is not a fit intermediary between the eternal and the divine and the floundering exiled poet of thirty-five years. Beatrice won’t take over from Vergil until Dante makes it up to the top of Purgatory, after which point it is Vergil who is no longer a fit guide.) If you were to state Beatrice’s explanation to Vergil it in terms of plot, it would describe a downward motion: The Blessed Virgin intervenes with Saint Lucia, who intervenes with Beatrice, who intervenes with Vergil, who intervenes with Dante; i.e. from the Queen of Heaven to a saint to a blessed denizen of Heaven to a denizen of Hell and then at last to one who is still among the living in the chiaro mondo, the bright world, but who will shortly have to descend to the absolute lowest level of reality. Why this precipitous downward sweep at the beginning of the Comedy? Because from the divine point of view, the whole cosmos is pitiable. If it weren’t, then of course there would be no hope of redemption.

I have said that pity is a mode of love, and that love is the great leveler, it goes both upwards and downwards, as Beatrice says and as the poem as a whole portrays. But the Latin root of the word pity, pietas, has nothing to do with feeling or love — at least not overtly, according to our usual way of thinking these days. The Latin word pietas, and the adjective pies (this was the primary epithet that Vergil gave to Aeneas), basically means a kind of duty (or dutiful, in the adjectival form). It is heavy with the aura of imperative, with commandment. Note that Vergil’s reaction to Beatrice, so impressed is he, is to ask her to command him. And she does command him: “Go now…” This is — or so people thought for the longest time — the natural reaction of a person, whether virtuous or not but especially when he is virtuous, when he finds himself in the presence of his ontological superior. The higher is supposed to elevate the lower. It was once possible to imagine that authority — the only true, finally real authority — could be ontological rather than moral or legal. My kingdom is not of this world — this is an ontological statement, so to speak, not a political one. And when you believe in an onto-hierarchical reality, you actually want to see that just authority express itself. What marks authority as just? Consider that in Western civilization until very recently the proximity or even the conjunction of love and duty (the willing response to just authority) was not strange. In fact it was the most essential and familiar idea: 

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

Now, isn’t that awfully close to what Mr. Dylan said? For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself. The language of shalt and the language of ought are two very closely related languages, because they both deal not only with actuality, with what is already in this world — that is, the realm of factuality, of pathos and empathy — but with a different world, a world that fiction or fantasy exists to explore, the world of potentiality, of the unreal and the more than real.