If you haven’t yet read The Divine Comedy, the Year of Mercy is the time to do it. Named by Pope Francis as one of his favorite books, this narrative poem by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri is widely considered to be the most preeminent work of Italian literature, as well as one of the greatest poems ever written. The impact of this work was so monumental that by writing The Divine Comedy in the Tuscan dialect, Dante laid the foundation for a nationalized Italian language.
But what, you may ask, does this epic poem’s 100 cantos have to do with pornography? At first glance, The Divine Comedy is a fictional recounting of Dante’s journey through the afterlife—the Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (heaven). At a deeper level, however, it is an allegory of the soul’s journey to God, which often includes recognizing, renouncing and healing from sin.
When someone starts using pornography, their gradual descent into addiction is quite similar to the opening of The Divine Comedy, when Dante awakens from slumber only to find himself lost in the woods. I don’t mean that one cannot be immediately fascinated by pornography, but that if one continues to view it regularly, those hooks of pornography, as it were, will sink deeper and deeper into a man’s heart, until what he thought he could walk away from at any point in time, he now realizes he cannot.
The question becomes, then, what does one do to make it out of the woods, to break free from the enslavement that pornography brings? For true healing to take place, pornography users usually travel a path quite similar to Dante’s journey.
Resolve. The first action that is necessary is to recognize that you are, in fact, lost. When Dante realized he had strayed from the true path, he set his eyes upon the heights of Mount Joy and immediately began to attempt an ascent. When a man, trapped by pornography, sees what he is turning into, and how pornography has distorted his sense of self-worth, his masculine identity, his view of women and so forth, he is rightly repulsed and immediately resolves to do better, to be better. “I will never do this again,” he may say in all sincerity as he strives to be the man he was created to be.
Discouragement. Despite his best intentions to ascend Mount Joy, Dante is almost immediately blocked by three wild animals. In the same way, a man’s resolve is often threatened by the vice he has become accustomed to. He wants purity of heart, self-mastery, perhaps even sanctity, but he feels unable to attain it. And since his habit of pornography has trained him to be soft and undisciplined, he is faced with the fact that this ascent to freedom will be much harder than he first thought. Just as Dante was driven back into the dark wood by the she-wolf of incontinence, so the addicted man is driven back to the thing he perceives to bring comfort and escape. In his discouragement, he will be tempted by what Friedrich Nietzsche called ressentiment, where one demonizes a good he feels unable to attain. This hopelessness was expressed well by St. Augustine in the Confessions:
I was sighing, all bound as I was, not by external chains, but by the chain of my own will. The enemy had possession of my will, and in this way he had involved me in a chain by which he held me bound. An unlawful desire is indeed produced by a perverse will, and in obeying an unlawful desire a habit becomes established; and when a habit is not restrained it grows into a necessity.
Courage. Just as Dante may have been tempted to give up and go home, Beatrice sends Virgil—a beacon of reason—to lead him on a journey he at first felt ill-equipped to undertake. Similarly, Our Blessed Lord has given us the faculty of reason, the weapons of his grace, and his unfaltering, perfect love. With these things, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37). The journey back to wholeness may be daunting, but “with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26).
Recognition of Sin. Together, Virgil and Dante descend into the Inferno, wherein Dante begins to recognize sin for what it is. While Dante doesn’t reference pornography specifically in The Divine Comedy, he does speak of “the carnal,” those who chose to commit certain sexual sins. In the second circle of hell, Dante encounters a couple being whipped around violently, as if by a great whirlwind. He calls out “O wearied souls” and the two—Paolo and Francesca—are permitted to pause to tell them the story of how they committed adultery.
The story of Paola and Francesca, forced to reenact their lustful gaze forever in Hell, can teach us several things about the reality of porn. First, just like the whirlwind in which the carnal find themselves, lust and pornography can excite, but cannot satisfy. Turning to pornography for sexual satisfaction is like a man who turns to salt water to satiate his burning thirst. It doesn’t work. Second, notice that Dante calls Paolo and Francesca “weary souls,” an apt description for the ones who have traded in reason for unbridled passion that neither satisfies nor consoles. Third, the whirlwind wherein Francesca and Paolo are forced to eternally look upon the shade of the other’s body serves as a mutual reminder of their sin. When we sin sexually with another, we are not loving the other, we are using the other. This is particularly evident in pornography where the user treats the other, not as a person with intrinsic dignity, or even with a mind of her own, but as a sex object.
Renunciation of Sin. To his relief (and many generations of readers), Dante leaves Hell and moves into Purgatory. If Hell was where Dante recognized sin, Purgatory is where he learns to renounce it. Within Canto XIX, Dante encounters a mysterious woman from whom we can learn that the degree to which we recognize the reality behind the fantasy of pornography will greatly affect our ability to renounce it.
When Dante first lays eyes on this woman—who represents the abandonment of reason to physical appetite—he writes,
There came to me in a dream a stuttering crone,
squint-eyed, clubfooted, both her hands deformed,
and her complexion like a whitewashed stone.
In my experience, this is usually the reaction people have when they first encounter hard-core pornography. It is jarring, unbeautiful, and unwelcome.
However, what happens next to Dante is most certainly analogous to the way in which pornography that once seemed disturbing can become increasingly attractive to us. Dante writes,
I stared at her; and just as the new sun
breathes life to night-chilled limbs, just so my look
began to free her tongue, and one by one
drew straight all her deformities, and warmed
her dead face, till it bloomed as love would wish it
for its delight. When she thus transformed,
her tongue thus loosened, she began to sing
in such a voice that only with great pain
could I have turned from her soliciting.
While hard-core pornography may at first repulse, if we stare upon it long enough, as Dante stared upon the woman, we begin not only to like it, but crave it. We become intoxicated. Soon, that which should be offensive seems wholesome.
When a man is tempted to look at porn or is committing the very act of looking at it, his conscience—if he hasn’t almost killed it—is calling out to him, urging him back to sanity. If, by God’s grace, he listens to it, he will in an instant see the vileness of the act he is committing, rise there and then, and flee.
In this scene, Dante experiences a similar prick of conscience, caused by a heavenly woman who appears and summons Virgil (who, you will remember, represents reason) to strip the mysterious woman of her attractive façade.
He seized the witch, and with one rip laid bare
all of her front, her loins and her foul belly:
I woke sick with the stench that rose from there.
I turned then and my Virgil said to me
I have called at least three times now. Rise and come.
It is when we finally see past the false promises of pornography and cling to the assistance the Lord and reason provide, that we are able to move forward on our spiritual journey.
The Path of Grace. Of course, the journey to freedom from pornography—or any sin—extends well beyond one moment of renunciation. Throughout Purgatorio, we watch as souls experience the purification necessary to one day enter Paradise.
It is tempting, when attempting to recover from an addiction to pornography, to think that once sin is renounced, we are healed—we are free. Consider the moment when, in Purgatory (Canto XXV), Dante follows Virgil along a “narrow path along a ledge” where below the lustful are being purified by fire. Virgil repeatedly says “walk only where you see me walk,” reminding Dante and us that it is all too easy to slip back into sinful behavior—we must continue to be vigilant, recognizing that casting off vice is a process.
It is important to note that, while Dante is able to witness the joys of Heaven while he is still alive for the purposes of this poem, this is not entirely the case for us. Certainly, a porn addict can recover and live a life full of authentic, self-giving love. Yet, disordered appetites and the temptation to lust will never completely disappear, because we are fallen human beings. We must continue to strive, every day, to renounce sin, even after being “sober” from pornography use for quite some time.
Dante does give us hope, though, of a place and time when these misguided appetites will be eradicated completely. At the end of The Divine Comedy, full of awe at the wonders of heaven, Dante exclaims,
Here my powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,
By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. (Paradiso, XXIII, 142-145.)
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear to Dante and Virgil” was painted by Ary Scheffer in 1855.