The Divine Comedy: Week 9, Which Sins are the Worst?

Last week we discussed how Dante posits levels of hell in the Inferno, with sins and their respective punishments getting worse as you move downward through the nine levels.

But how, exactly, does Dante rank the sins from better to worst?

In Canto XI Virgil shares with the Pilgrim the logic of the two-tiered system that ranks the sins in the Inferno. In Upper Hell the sins of incontinence are punished. Sins of incontinence are failures of self-control, self-mastery, self-discipline, and self-restraint. Sins of incontinence include lust, anger, gluttony and sloth.

In the Lower Hell of the Inferno are the sins of malice, sins that involve ill-will toward others. Dante adds a further distinction within the sins of malice, contrasting malice that involves fraud and deception versus malice that involves violence.

The aspect that interests me here is that in the Inferno the sins of incontinence, in lacking malice toward others, are the less grievous sins. As Virgil observes in Canto XI:
"...Do you not remember how incontinence
offends God least, and merits the least blame? will clearly see why they [the incontinent] are separated
from these malicious ones, and why God's vengeance
beats down upon their souls less heavily."
If find this a very sensible and admirable system. As I noted last week, there's something sane and humane in envisioning a hell where punishments vary as befitting the crime. And here I find myself in agreement with how Dante ranks the crimes. I'm with Dante on this: the sins of incontinence are less serious than the sins of malice.

For example, as a teenager I always found it strange that having sex was perceived to be "worse" than someone being mean and hateful to others. A girl who got pregnant was horribly shamed, but a bully? Sex might be wrong, but no malice was involved. The ranking of teenage sins never rang true to me. For me, meanness was always the worse sin. We heard talk after talk about sex, but never anything about malice and meanness. And that just seemed so wrong and off to me.

I feel the same way as an adult. As another example, I know a lot of people who struggle with addictions. Those are sins of incontinence. And yet, addicts are more shamed in churches than those who act in mean, spiteful, and domineering ways. Meanness is always getting a pass. 

All that to say, it seems that in many churches we shame the sins of incontinence more than the sins of malice. And I think we got that backwards. I'm with Dante on this one.

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