Literature,  The Good Life

“A Longer Ladder Yet to Climb:” De-creating the Self in Dante’s Inferno

by Ellie Peters

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

— John 12:24

What if the biggest obstacle that stood between you and who you were made to be was…yourself? This is one of the core insights at the heart of The Inferno. The first of three installments in the famed Divine Comedy, the story follows Dante and his guide, the classical poet Virgil, on an allegorical journey through hell as Dante seeks moral and spiritual renewal. It is anything but a predictable trek through fire and brimstone: in this version of hell, everyone suffers a literalized (and dramatized) version of their specific moral failings. There are souls who freeze in the numbing slush of gluttony while others sweat under heavy boulders of greed; some shape-shift in a deceitful mirage from human to reptile form, and still others perpetually inflict and self-repair the gory wounds of schism. The imagery of these ruined souls is so larger than life that as a reader, you often are not sure of how to react, whether to freeze in fear or burst out laughing. Dante himself vacillates between a wide range of reactions, until he comes face-to-face with the most bewildering sight of all: himself. Imagine someone making their way through an old-fashioned carnival who locks eyes with their reflection in a wavy funhouse mirror, finding their own image among the collection of acrobats and lions. In the same way, Dante comes face-to-face with the grotesque reflection of his own flaws among hell’s collection of the damned. In doing so, his problem is diagnosed: all that stands between him and the paradise of Divine love is himself. Or, rather, the self-made persona of achievements, upstanding reputation, and self-centered ambitions that once gave the disgraced Italian politician such a vivid sense of life. 

Simone Weil, French philosopher and mystic, claims that our sense of self—however closely we may cling to it—is our biggest liability. In her book, Gravity and Grace, she says that “we possess nothing in this world except the power to say, ‘I.’ ”We as humans, in other words, are born with the remarkable ability to claim and shape our own sense of personhood. Weil calls this our “imaginary divinity”– our belief that we are the masters of our own existence and that we reach our highest fulfillment in becoming who we want ourselves to be. We order our lives around this belief, cobbling together dreams, personal qualities, ambitions, relationships, and careers into a DIY “self” that gives us a feeling of purpose and worth in the world. How often do we hear someone declare:  “I am an artist”; “I am a physician”; “I am a mother”; or even, “I am a knitter, food snob, introvert, or enneagram type 3,” as if to declare the defining feature of his or her existence, the thing that, in the end, contains his or her highest and most complete fulfillment? As natural as these “selves” are (let’s admit it–we all have one), Weil believes that they can obstruct the most fulfilling existence available to us. So long as we are the gods of our own existence, our highest end can only refer back to…ourselves. We have no available time, energy, or personality left to be a part of something greater. To borrow Weil’s language, this kind of self-referential life is like a shadow that “stops the light of God, and [we] take this shadow for being.”

Dante comes to realize this very thing as he journeys through hell and then further on into Purgatory and Paradise. But he’s not the only character in The Inferno who has to face himself. Virgil, perhaps even more than Dante, clings to a distinct sense of his own personhood, and he illustrates with comedic and terrible clarity the way in which this “self” prevents him from being all that he could be.

Among the countless people in hell whose identities have been obscured by their sins, Virgil’s identity as a renowned poet and source of wisdom remains sharply clear. As the famed author of the classic poem, The Aeneid, he is instantly recognizable both to readers and to characters within the story.  Indeed, when Dante and Virgil reach Limbo, the circle of hell where Virgil lives along with the philosophers, artists, and other honorable pre-Christian pagans, Homer dubs him “the prince of poets.” Dante–an accomplished poet himself–refers to him as the “immortal sage” whose “heroic verses” have served as a source of personal inspiration and guidance. Virgil clearly clings to this identity (in fact, he points out proudly that Limbo is literally lit by the shining intellectual radiance of himself, Aristotle, Homer, and the other virtuous pagans who live there), and he tries to leverage it against the obstacles that he and Dante encounter. For a while, he holds his own. His knowledge of hell’s landscape and the system of Divine justice that governs it does prove useful in getting him and Dante through the first few terraces of the inferno. But as they descend deeper into the pit, cracks in Virgil’s veneer of brilliance start to emerge, and you start to realize that he is in over his head. This is hell, not a literary apprenticeship. Dante’s predicament is spiritual and moral, not intellectual. And Virgil, for all of his good qualities, is a pagan who has been eternally condemned.

It all finally breaks down in hell’s lowest subdivision, the one reserved for the fraudulent, where Dante and Virgil encounter not only the most complexly evil souls and fiendish monsters so far, but also a terrain that proves itself hellish to navigate. Deep, ring-shaped ditches sit nested within each other, each one containing a separate variety of liar and the exaggerated punishment they suffer, while horned demons armed with pitchforks and rude pranks act as staff to keep the place running. The only prayer of getting across in one piece is the series of bridges that cut across the ditches. And, to Dante and Virgil’s dismay, one of them turns out to be broken. They run into this predicament just as a troupe of demons, evidently bored with their task of shoving the souls of embezzlers back down into their bath of boiling pitch, spots them and comes rushing to the attack:

        With that same storm and fury that arouses
        all the house when hounds leap at a tramp
        Who suddenly falls to pleading where he pauses–

        So rushed these Fiends from below, and all the pack
        Pointed their gleaming pitchforks at my Guide
        But he stood fast and cried to them, “Stand back!
        They swung their forks saying to one another:
        “Shall I give him a touch in the rump?” and answering;
        “Sure; give him a taste to pay him for his bother.” (XXI, 70-75, 103-105)

Crude as the demons are, Dante is terrified, unable to take his eyes off of their menacing weapons and grimacing faces. But Virgil is oddly confident, even going so far as to assure Dante that he has no reason for fear as he, Virgil, “[knows] these matters.” He then demands a parley with the demon troupe’s leader, Malecoda, and attempts to negotiate a safe passage by making an appeal to Divine power: 

        “Do you think, Malecoda,” my good master said,
        “You would see me here, having arrived this far
        Already, safe from you and every dread,

        Without Divine Will and propitious Fate?
        Let me pass on, for it is willed in Heaven…” (XXI, 82-86)

This appeal to Divine authority at first appears to go well. In sharp contrast to the rowdy goons in his charge, Malecoda responds calmly and even courteously, ordering the demons to lower their weapons. He then not only promises Virgil that he will not harm them, but goes on to give detailed instructions on how they can circumvent the broken bridge and offers to send a few of his demons as guides to ensure their safety along the way. Virgil, ever a sucker for reasonableness, buys it all hook-line-and-sinker. He has no idea that he’s just been checkmated.

You see, Malecoda’s instructions are actually a brilliant rhetorical trap. They consist of three parts: a confirmation that the next bridge is indeed broken, a promise that there is another intact bridge just beyond the next bend in the road, and a statement of the current date and time of day. The first and third parts are obviously true, but the middle statement is an outright falsehood: there is no other intact bridge. It’s like an infernal version of the game, Two Truths and a Lie, and Virgil not only loses, but fails to realize he’s even playing.  Blinded by the truth of the bookend statements, he assumes that because two parts of Malecoda’s counsel are true that all of it is. As a result, he lets the demons play with him

If this logical blunder weren’t embarrassing enough, Virgil also exposes himself as criminally naive in his understanding of evil. Recall his argument for why Malecoda should let them pass: he basically just says, “you have to let us through because God said so.” It is an appeal to reason. And it makes sense: since it is true that God’s Will does rule the universe, it is futile to try to thwart it. But when you remember that he is saying this to a group of demons, it comes off as hilariously lame, like a harried sibling telling his antagonizing little brother to quit it because “Mom said.” Got em’, Virgil.

 It is a basic truth that sin and evil are a function of broken desires, not of broken reason. The demons don’t give two figs what God wills–reason be damned! They are out to do as they please in defiance of God and at Virgil’s expense. Dante, ironically, sees this so clearly: as they walk off with Malecoda’s hand-picked group of “bodyguards,” he begs Virgil to just let them go on alone, insisting that the demons can not be trusted, whatever Malecoda says. But Virgil apparently has no ability to comprehend this. It is as if he is so defined by his intellect that reason is the only category he thinks in, and he makes the critical mistake of assuming that these snarky demons with pitchforks will respond to him rationally.

It is a little while before Virgil realizes that he has been outwitted, but the moment seals his utter and complete humiliation. After narrowly escaping a surprise ambush by Malecoda’s goons, he and Dante find themselves in the ditch of the hypocrites. And of all places, with souls who bear the unbearable weight of their self-fashioned reputations in the form of beautiful cloaks made of lead, Virgil finally comes face-to-face with the flimsiness of his own self-fashioned identity. Upon learning from a passing soul that the promised bridge in fact does not exist, he realizes the extent of Malecoda’s trickery and exclaims aloud (with surprise that he can’t quite hide) that the demon lied. And without dropping a beat, the passing soul replies flatly:

        “…Once at Bologna I heard the wise
        discussing the Devil’s sins; among them I heard
        that he is a liar and the father of lies.” (XXIII, 139-41)

You can not miss the main implication: anyone with an ounce of true wisdom would have known instantly that demons are, first and foremost, liars. Fraud unmasked: Virgil—the author of The Aeneid whose intelligence shines like a light—is not wise. This is not just an attack on his pride; it amounts to the loss of his very sense of self. Virgil’s identity revolves around his reputation for wisdom. But this identity turns out to be only a dim, shadowy imitation of true wisdom. Once the farce is exposed, capital V-“Virgil” is also exposed. He is not the “immortal sage” that both he and Dante thought he was, and his intelligence is not enough to get him and Dante through this infernal journey.

To return to Simone Weil, what happens to Virgil here is a perfect illustration of her concept of self-effacement: the stripping down of one’s self that happens as a result of affliction, or suffering. Affliction came for Dante in the form of political disgrace and exile from his home. And for Virgil, it comes in the form of some impudent demons who, in looking for a cheap laugh, deprive him of the reputation that he clings to. However painful this self-effacement is, Weil insists that it is a good thing. To be stripped of oneself in this way (if you accept it and do not seek to be compensated for the loss) is to be “de-created”—that is, wiped clean, made new, and ready, finally, to respond to the call of something beyond yourself, just as pencil responds to the touch and direction of an artist.

This, too, happens to Virgil. His self-effacement at the hands of Malecoda is not the end of his story. In fact, it is followed immediately by what is easily one of the most profound parts of the whole book. Due to the lack of an intact bridge to cross the ditch of the hypocrites, Dante and Virgil are left with no choice but to make a treacherous climb up a rocky slope. But before they get very far, Dante’s exhaustion at last overcomes him and he collapses, completely emptied of the physical and moral strength needed to go on. It is here, in this moment of utter defeat, that a new version of Virgil appears. He cries:

        “Up on your feet! This is no time to tire!…
        The man who lies asleep
        will never waken, and his desire

        and all his life drift past him like a dream…

        Now therefore, rise, control your breath and call
        upon the strength of soul that wins all battles…

        There is a longer ladder yet to climb:
        This much is not enough. If you understand me,
        show me that you mean to profit from your time.” (XXIV, 46-57)

This is his finest hour, the turning point where he becomes the effective guide and true source of wisdom that he was meant to be. Rather than responding with a characteristic show of his own knowledge, he responds from the heart, meeting Dante’s exhaustion with the kind of care that runs so deep, it comes out as a genuinely wise call to perseverance. It is as if the de-creation of Virgil’s “wise sage” self clears the way for his love of Dante (which has always been there) to shine through and drive his actions, just as the sun can more brilliantly illuminate a landscape after a cloud of mist melts away. And it works. Moved by Virgil’s severe encouragement, Dante gets up. Together, the two companions rise, Dante to the next stage on his journey of spiritual renewal, and Virgil into his true calling as an instrument of Providence in Dante’s redemption.

Part of what makes The Inferno so profound is that, allegorical and fantastical as it is, it also resonates deeply with our real experiences as human beings. The story of Virgil’s de-creation is no exception. As creatures who long for purpose, we cherish the personhoods we make for ourselves and the imitation of meaning that comes with them. But affliction comes eventually to us all. And it brings self-effacement. Grief, tragedy, injustice, exhaustion, violence, illness—these, in their most intense forms, have the power to wrench the things we wrap our very identities around out of our tightly-clinging hands. It happens so fast, often in one unforeseen twist of Fortune’s wheel. In the blink of an eye, the relationships, talents, accomplishments, and careers that we assign our personhood to disintegrate. When that happens, our sense of who we are often falls away. In the void that follows, we face a choice. We can respond with resentment, clinging to the wrongs that have been inflicted upon us and fighting for compensation for what we lost.  Or we can respond like Virgil and surrender, allowing the “self” that we had so carefully cultivated to be de-created. Choosing the latter is gut-wrenchingly hard. It means dying. Or rather, allowing a version of yourself to die. But it is perhaps the only way for us to rise to life, into the instrument of Providence that we are called to be. 

This article is republished with gracious permission from Between Cities: A Journal of Christian Thought (March 2024). Between Cities is a student-led journal centered at the University of Minnesota and offering a public forum for thoughtful engagement between Christianity and the life of the university.

Ellie Peters makes her home in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband and two children. She channels her passion for good stories and incarnational human life into teaching, reading, and working at Anselm House, a center for Christian studies. When not not occupied with those activities, she can be found mining for beauty in time with her family, knitting, and on long walks along Lake Superior’s rocky shore.

header image: Gustave Doré, “Be none of you outrageous.” Canto XXI, 70 (public domain). All other images also in the public domain.

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