Contrapasso and the Culture of Death
Dante Alighieri’s 14-century poetic masterpiece The Divine Comedy is not just a work of literary genius—it’s also a spiritual roadmap. Unlike our age of muddy relativism, Dante’s vision is stark. There is good and there is evil. Men and women make a free choice between the two. People who die in a state of grace either go to heaven directly, or pass through purgatory to be cleansed of the after-effects of old sins and readied to meet God face-to-face in paradise. People who die unrepentant go to hell, there to suffer an eternity of torment.
The principle of Dantean hell is contrapasso, according to which the punishments meted out fit sinners’ earthly transgressions. That which they preferred to God while alive becomes the instrument of suffering throughout their soul’s “second death,” the permanent separation from the Creator and therefore from all hope—which the damned are admonished to abandon as they pass through the grim gates of the underworld. Thus, for example, those who hoarded money while alive are condemned to wrestle uselessly over money in hell, while those who were violent are boiled in the innocent blood they have shed. There is a symmetry, Dante is saying, between the evil we do in the flesh and the recompense that is ours in perdition.
In the Dantean hell, the lustful suffer the lightest penalties for their sins. Paolo and Francesca, the doomed lovers whose unruly passions on earth led to their being caught forever in a like whirlwind in the underworld, are tossed about in one another’s company, paired, but without access to the divine and alienated from one another, locked inside the prison of their own sin.
Many are surprised to find that Dante places the sexual sinners in the upper realm of hell, far removed from the worse sinners down below. But what would the Renaissance poet think today? What might a contrapasso Inferno look like in an age of pornography, abortion, sterilization, sex robots, and the “hook-up culture”? Dante might observe that the hell we deserve in the afterlife is already at least partly with us. A Dantean reading of the sexual revolution shows us that there is extensive contrapasso, a parity of sin and suffering, at work in the world today.
Consider abortion. A child is a choice: God’s choice. We never know who God will send us. Every new life is a mystery, a miracle, a grace, a surprise. Yet by the hundreds of millions worldwide, we have thrown these gifts away. We want to control everything, to be masters of contingency and of God’s Creation; in order to be in charge, we must reject the intervention of God in the form of new life.
The world this creates is unspeakably sterile and sad. C.S. Lewis famously said that his conversion from atheism to belief came when he realized that he had been “surprised by joy.” Joy is never planned. Joy comes, inexplicably, from sacrifice. Get rid of sacrifice, and you get rid of joy. Get rid of babies—little bundles of demands and required sacrifices—and you erase joy from the world.
Consider now how this joyless world attempts to produce imitation joy through human artifice. In our sadness at having rejected God’s grace, we turn to fake companionship: the porn star, the one-night stand, the sex doll. The Dantean contrapasso runs right through the heart of the sexual revolution. Our world of hatred, scorn, and contempt for our fellow human beings is the mirror image of the blissful freedom from God’s oversight it promised us. Abortion did not make us happy; rather, it ushered in a living hell of despair. We are slaves of much worse than our passions. Seemingly locked into the cold logic of murder for freedom, we destroy our children in order to secure liberty from the demands that sex places on the human person. We crave companionship, but wage genocide against our unborn sons and daughters.
To whom shall we turn when all hope has been refused? God sent us more and more babies, but we threw them out with the trash. Now we rummage through the detritus of our decadent culture for some hint of salvation, no matter how pitiful. Every time we turn to pornography or prostitution or sex robots or anonymous hook-ups with strangers who also bear the inner wounds of sexual nihilism, we cry out in the silence of our hearts for the joy that God tried to offer us but which—whom—we turned away. It’s contrapasso—our suffering is thematically mated with our sin.
But there is a way out. In The Divine Comedy, Dante’s guide through hell is the Roman poet Virgil, who is human reason personified. Human reason is good, but it can take us only so far. It can also be twisted to justify the kind of slaughter in which we now engage in the service of a secular “solution” to our fallen nature. Dante knows this perfectly well. The shining light of The Divine Comedy is therefore neither Dante nor Virgil, but Beatrice, who personifies the mystery of divine wisdom and love.
Beatrice is Dante’s guide to heaven, whither Virgil—reason alone—cannot go. Dante’s chaste love for Beatrice before her early death, and his continued devotion to her thereafter, show us how to recover our humanity. Love, as St. Paul wrote, and as Christ showed, gives while not asking for anything in return. The economy of grace turns on sacrifice, on openness, and trust. We cannot be in both hell and heaven at the same time. It is an all-or-nothing universe. We choose God—His goodness, and all the sacrifice and willingness to accept surprises (and, ultimately, joy) that go with it. Or we turn away, trapped in the contrapasso hopelessness of the hell we have made for ourselves out of something other than God.