The Devil in Dante. Page 3

  Also - and here Dante is making a break with the existing literary tradition-most of the damned are not tormented by demons. Instead of being given up to the whims of torturers, they undergo a punishment marked out with precision, corresponding to their crime, and its execution is usually confined to themselves, or else to animals or natural forces.

Dante gives us no information as to the dispositions, knowledge, or sufferings of the demons in hell. He may have deliberately refrained from painting the devils in detail so as not to take away from his main subject.

  As for the demons outside hell, we are told quite a lot about their character and the part they play. They are endowed with a will that always seeks evil; they are each other's enemies; they are liars; they try to catch souls with the bait of false pleasures. They attack the good everywhere. When a preacher instead of teaching the Gospel tries to exalt himself or to be funny, it is because the there is a devil lurking in the peak of his hood.

The Divine Comedy gives us three typical examples of the devil's intervention at the hour of death. The first anecdote is about Guido di Montefeltro (Inf. 27). This warrior, whose activities had been foxy rather than leonine, became a monk to expiate his sins and thus piously would he have ended his life had he not been led back to his perfidious ways. According to what he is supposed to have told Dante, Boniface VIII appealed to Guido to help him confound the Colonnas. At first he refused. Then, on the assurance that the pope could absolve him in advance from the sin he was about to commit, he finally gave the successful advice to make but not keep a certain promise. When he died, Francis of Assisi came to fetch his soul, but in vain. Guido was easily proved guilty by a black cherub, on the ground that a man cannot be absolved from a sin he does not repent and therefore cannot al the same lime will sin and absolution, "per la contradizzion che nol consente." The devil ended up, to Guido: "Ah! you never knew I was a logician!"

  The second example concerns his son, Buonconte di Montefeltro (Purg. 5). Buonconte was killed al the battle of Campaldino in 1289, and his body was never found. This was because as he was dying, the sinner was inspired to call on our Lady. Thai saved him: when the devil came to lake possession of his soul, an angel snatched ii away from him. The devil, enraged, cried, "O you from heaven, why ate you doing me out of my right? Was one small tear enough to rob me of my prey? Very well, so be ill Al all events I can do what I like with his body"-and using the strength that belongs to his nature, the devil stirred up a violent storm and swept Buonconte's unburied body down the Arno.

The third example is outstandingly odd. Given that in a state of grace God lives supernaturally within us, working in and through us, the idea easily follows that in a state of sin ii is the devil who lives in us. The next stage is possession and by going a bit further one teaches Dante's fabulous notion-why should not the devil continue to use a man after he is dead? No one would suspect that he was dealing with a corpse. This was the fate of Branca d'Oria and his father-in-law, Michel Zanche. "They are here with us in hell," says one of the damned to Dante. "What's that? What are you saying? Don't be absurd - d'Oria is still alive, eating, drinking, sleeping, wearing clothes. . . ." "No, d'Oria's body is animated by a devil, who makes him talk and move just as if it were his soul" (Inf. 33).

[Last] [Next] What more striking way could there be of demonstrating what it means to be given up to the devil by sin? This flight of fancy was not Dante's own. We find it in a number of earlier authors, just as we find the theme of angel and devil fighting over a corpse. So far, then, there is nothing to show that Dante had any original views on matters diabolical. Up to this point his demonology is a summary, an outline. Not only has he made no effort to produce anything new about the psychology of demons, but as if to avoid the rocks on which the imagination of his predecessors foundered, he seems to have done his best to get out of describing demons altogether He replaces them, where he can, by animals and monsters or by mythological characters who are already fitted out with both history and physiognomy.

Only when Lucifer himself comes on the scene does Dante begin to show interest in the devil and give us a new conception of his character.