Justice is a transversal theme throughout Dante’s Divine Comedy, not to mention many of the most important literary works man has produced. As we start our journey with Dante we find that the very gates of Hell have been erected by the Holy Trinity in the name of Justice ((Inferno, III, 4-7.)). There the first souls we come upon are those who have neither lived for God nor rebelled against Him but have lived only for themselves. They are the petty souls that both “mercy and justice hold them in contempt” ((misericordia e giustizia li sdegna. Inferno, III, 48. Translations to English are from Anthony Esolen unless otherwise indicated.)) for their lukewarmness, bringing to mind the grotesque warning of Revelation 3:16. ((“So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you from my mouth.”)) The souls in Hell are always there for a specific and permanent reason and we, accompanying Dante (the character), must learn that this is just. If we are tempted to pity them, we, like Dante who wept at what he saw, must heed Virgil’s reproach: “Here pity lives the best when it is dead.” ((Qui vive la pietà quand’ è ben morta. Inferno, XX, 28.)) Thus from the outset it would seem that Hell is the place where justice is applied with full rigor and Heaven where mercy abounds for all. However this sort of dichotomy has no place in Dante’s work nor his cosmic vision. In fact this absolute dichotomy between justice and mercy belongs wholly to the pre-Christian era. Sophocles’ Antigone is just one example of the classic Greek tragedy, born of an irreconcilable conflict before which man remains powerless. Dante, better than anyone in the history of literature, depicts the seamless reconciliation of these two virtues in the Cross of Christ.
The problem of justice will not find its solution until Dante’s cosmic vision is completed in the Paradiso, but it comes only after a long build-up in which two entirely different worldviews must confront each other: the pre-Christian and the Christian. These two worldviews inevitably produce radically different philosophical approaches to the concept of justice. The question of the efficacy of praying for those in Purgatory will help us begin to reveal the mystery of justice. In Canto VI of the Purgatorio, Dante has been petitioned by a group of souls to pray for them so that they could sooner reach the sanctity of Heaven and he questions Virgil about the curious request, something that Virgil had described as useless:
“O my true light, you seem to have denied explicitly, in a particular verse,” said I, “that prayer can bend high Heaven’s decree,
Yet this is all the people pray for here. And so will every hope of theirs be vain? Or haven’t I yet got your meaning clear?”
Replied the poet then, “My text is plain, nor is their hope deceived, if you attend closely, and if you thought is whole and sane.
For judgment’s summit is not leveled if in but one instant burning love fulfills what here a man must wait to satisfy,
And in the place where I affirmed that word, one’s sins could not be recompensed by prayer— for prayer was separate from the Lord…” ((io cominciai: “El par che tu mi nieghi, / o luce mia, espresso in alcun testo / che decreto del cielo orazion pieghi; / e questa gente prega pur di questo: / sarebbe dunque loro speme vana, / o non m’è ‘l detto tuo ben manifesto?”. / Ed elli a me: “La mia scrittura è piana; / e la speranza di costor non falla, / se ben si guarda con la mente sana; / ché cima di giudicio non s’avvalla / perché foco d’amor compia in un punto / ciò che de’ sodisfar chi qui s’astalla; / e là dov’ io fermai contesto punto, / non s’ammendava, per pregar, difetto, / perché ‘l priego da Dio era disgiunto. Purgatorio, VI, 28-42.))
It is well known that the line Dante refers to is spoken by the Sibyl of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Stop hoping you will change the will of the gods by praying.” ((“Desine fata deum flecti sperare precando.” Aeneis, VI, 376.)) In this passage the soul of Palinurus begs Aeneas to bury his body so that he may cross into the underworld to receive his rest and the Sibyl rebukes him for trying to bend the will of the gods. In the Purgatorio Dante allows Virgil to be his own exegete. First Virgil explains that the will of God and a person’s prayer for mercy are not in conflict but that, in His omniscience, God knows all before it occurs and His will is fulfilled – not changed – by a personal act of loving mercy in the form of a prayer. God being outside of time, the prayers of the faithful reach Him after a person has died and yet they can have efficacy before. ((Boethius’ understanding of time and eternity is evident here. Cf. Consolation, V, VI.)) Secondly, only prayers directed to the true God can bring about any fruits so, the pagans’ prayer, directed at false gods, would indeed be in vain. After giving his answer Virgil admits however that ultimately it must be Beatrice who clarifies this question.
Here we can draw a connection between Palinurus and Polyneices, the brother of Antigone in Sophocles’ famous tragedy by the same name. Polyneices has fallen into the same fate as Palinurus after his uncle and the newly named King of Thebes, Creon, orders that he be left unburied. Alasdair MacIntyre, in his After Virtue, comments that tragic drama is made possible by the irresolvable conflict between two rival goods or virtues and that it is Sophocles, especially in Antigone, who most explores these heart-wrenching situations. Sophocles differs both from Plato, who argues that all virtues are not only compatible but also mutually supporting, and a modern individualistic view that denies that any hierarchy of values can be established given the great variety of human beliefs. This view is similar to that of the Sophists whom Plato fought against. Sophocles holds the tragic position that, though there is an objective moral order, we are often incapable of finding a harmony and must recognize the authority of both rival and irreconcilable virtues. In the end, it is only by the intervention of the gods that the conflict is ended, though it never reaches a real resolution. In the play, no one is saved by their adherence to one virtue or another and Fate’s unwavering edict against the house of Oedipus is carried out to the extreme. In an attempt to avoid the conflict between Antigone’s mercy towards her brother and Creon’s justice, the Chorus pleads with Creon to choose mercy. Creon’s obstinacy leads to a truly tragic massacre and though we are inclined to think that the proper resolution would have been for Creon to acquiesce to the demand for mercy, we should recognize that this would not have been a true reconciliation but rather one value wining out over the other. The pre-Christian tragedy of human existence is exactly this: the irreconcilable conflict between two incompatible goods. In its deepest sense, the paradox is set between man’s infinite longing for life and the certainty that will die – the only certainty life gives.
Shakespeare masterfully depicts these two concepts of justice side by side in the Court scene of The Merchant of Venice. A similar plea for mercy is repeated and rejected but this time the result is not tragedy but comedy (for all but one). In Act IV, Shylock, a money lending Jew, demands the forfeit of his bond for a pound of the merchant Antonio’s flesh, Antonio having been unable to pay his debt in time. Portia, the lover of Antonio’s friend Bassanio, enters disguised as a lawyer and tries to convince Shylock to take the path of mercy with one of the most famous odes to mercy in all of literature:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest
God’s When mercy seasons justice.
Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
Here it is worth noting that Shakespeare echoes Dante, knowingly or not: “But by the bounteous gifts of divine grace— whose rain descends from mists of such great height…” ((ma per larghezza di grazie divine / che sì alti vapori hanno a lor piova. Purgatorio XXX, 112-3.)) Mercy, being a characteristic of Divine love, cannot be produced by mere human means. Before this inspiring ode Shylock proves himself to be totally consumed by cruelty exclaiming “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, The penalty and forfeit of my bond”, rejecting even triple the money owed him, and even refusing to provide Antonio with a surgeon to bind his wounds because it was not stipulated in the bond. Shylock’s fate is now set as Portia not only upholds his right to take Antonio’s flesh according to justice but orders him to do so according to the law he has invoked. However, true to Shakespearian dramatic style, just before Shylock’s knife falls, Portia reveals that the full measure of justice requires that Shylock take “no jot of blood” along with the pound of flesh that he is now obligated to take by justice. Shylock tries to escape his fate but it is too late and more charges are brought against him for attempting against the life of a citizen of Venice. While it was just that Shylock take his pound of flesh, his punishment was also just. And while Antonio owed a debt that he could not pay in time, he is freed by Portia’s love for Bassanio which she extends to Antonio: “Being the bosom lover of my lord, Must needs be like my lord. If it be so, How little is the cost I have bestow’d In purchasing the semblance of my soul From out the state of hellish misery!” (III, iv). While justice and mercy are opposites in the eyes of Shylock, to Portia, because of Bassanio’s love, it is just that Antonio should receive mercy. Though the play is a comedy, there is no doubt that Shylock is a tragic character not unlike Creon who, though left alive at the end of the play, has nothing left to live for and even begs for death: “Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that” (IV, i).
Sophocles’ insight into the dramatic nature of human life is perhaps not far from the truth but when his plea for mercy failed, he was trapped in brutal tragedy. Shakespeare possessed a more refined and persuasive concept of mercy but also recognized that this was not enough to overcome the deepest cruelty; Portia’s love and intellect were enough to save Antonio. But there is no doubt that the love that unifies justice and mercy were expressed in its fullest terms in Dante’s Paradiso. In Canto VII Beatrice resolves a number of Dante’s doubts about Divine Justice. First, Dante wonders how it could be just that Christ die on the cross and also just that God punish those who crucified him. ((“The punished vengeance plunges you in thought- how it is just to punish what was just” (come giusta vendetta giustamente / punita fosse, t’ha in pensier miso). Paradiso VII, 20-21.)) Second, Dante asks why God has desired to redeem fallen man in such a way ((“why God chose that man should be redeemed in just this way” (ma perché Dio volesse, m’è occulto, / a nostra redenzion pur questo modo). Paradiso, VII, 56-57.)). To answer the first, Beatrice invokes the dual nature of Christ; Christ’s human nature deserved the Cross but Christ’s divine nature could not have received a greater offense. The second doubt is more difficult to understand because the answer is, as Beatrice says, “More secret than a tomb… from anyone whose native wit hasn’t been fostered in the fire of love.” ((sta sepolto / a li occhi di ciascuno il cui ingegno / ne la fiamma d’amor non è adulto. Paradiso, VII, 58-60.)) Man’s situation was dire: because of the sin of “the man that was not born”, mankind owed an infinite debt. Beatrice explains that “Either the Lord alone for courtesy pardon the sin, or for his foolishness mankind make satisfaction on his own.” ((o che Dio solo per sua cortesia / dimesso avesse, o che l’uom per sé isso / avesse sodisfatto a sua follia. Paradiso, VII, 90-92.)) Justice would require mankind to pay the full weight of the debt; mercy would see God forgive man’s debt in full. It is only through Christ, through his supreme act of love, that these two are united. The solution had to come from God as a grace from heaven, “with the outpouring of his generous heart,” ((de la bontà del cuor ond’ ell’ è uscita. Paradiso, VII, 108.)) because “all the other means would have left justice poor.” ((tutti li altri modi erano scarsi / a la giustizia… Paradiso, VII, 118-9.)) If loving mercy were not at the center of the solution, justice itself would have been compromised. Thus the Incarnation and Redemption of mankind comes about in the same way as creation itself – from the depths of the Heart of God – and justice and mercy are one.
Only now we may return the question of the fate of the “virtuous pagans.” Is it just for them to be excluded from Paradise even though Christ had not yet come? Would it be just for them to be included though in life they had not followed Christ? This is a problem clearly dear to Dante’s heart as it is the last great question Dante will ask in his ascent through Paradise. The question is directed to none other than the Eagle of Justice in Canto XIX, begging him: “Breathe upon me and free me, help me break the long fast and the hunger of my heart.” ((solvetemi, spirando, il gran digiuno / che lungamente m’ha tenuto in fame. Paradiso, XIX, 25-26.)) Anthony Esolen in his commentary gives two possible answers to this dilemma before explaining the Eagle’s answer. Calvin believed that there was no such thing as a virtuous pagan, judging that whatever virtues a pagan could have were mere human virtues, unpleasing to God. Meanwhile a more modern position claims that all, or almost all, will be saved because of God’s infinite kindness. We will see that Dante’s answer resembles Aquinas’ position which involved the possibility of a “baptism by desire” but retains a much more mysterious quality, preserving the gratuitous and unfathomable nature of God’s mercy.
Perhaps the best example is that of the Emperor Trajan, one of the three pagans Dante mentions by name in his ascent through Paradise. Trajan is the first of the five flames Dante encounters in Canto XX of the Paradiso. He was famous for his goodness and justice during his nearly twenty years as Roman Emperor, a position permitted to him through adoption by the previous Emperor Nerva. Even Machiavelli recognized his justice, naming him among the “Five Good Emperors”. Dante had spoken of Trajan’s justice in Canto X of the Purgatorio in which he described how Trajan, leaving for battle, stopped at the supplication of a widow who begged that, before he leave, he do justice for her son who had been murdered. Trajan obliged her saying, in the words of Dante, “justice desires it and pity restrains me.” ((guistizia vuole e pietà mi ritene. Purgatorio, X, 93. (My translation))) It is worth noting that the more aggressive of the two is that of mercy which actively prevents Trajan from leaving while justice only wants him to stop. Trajan’s great example of justice – with mercy at its center – moved Pope Gregory the Great so deeply that he prayed for Trajan’s salvation. Legend holds that Trajan was temporarily resurrected so as to receive the Good News and baptism. In the end, Trajan’s salvation cannot be accounted for by his goodness alone because it seems that Gregory’s prayer was also essential, though Gregory would not have prayed for Trajan had he not been so worthy of salvation. Once again, justice and mercy go hand in hand. It is worth noting that, though Dante places Virgil in Limbo, many commentators have expressed with hope that the prayers and love of the saints has done for Virgil what those of Gregory did for Trajan.
Trajan’s adoption should not be passed over lightly. Machiavelli notes that the Five Good Emperors – Nerva, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius – were all adopted. Perhaps it was the knowledge that he received this honor undeservingly that helped Trajan to understand that he ought to live to serve the Empire rather than to be served by it. In this way he models the words of Christ in Matthew 20:28 ((“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…”)) and thus Dante sees him fit to be the first among the five just rulers that make up the Eagle’s beak in the sphere of Jupiter. For Dante, a just ruler could not possibly be conceived as he who implements utilitarian calculations (Mills) or a social contract based on equity (Rawls). Aristotle was more aware of justice’s higher nature, considering that all other virtues were contained within it and that it had no defect by excess ((Cf. Nichomachean Ethics, V, i.)). For Aristotle, the just person is he who lives “in conformity with the law” and also “respects equality”, in the sense of giving each his due, but in the end it is clear that the law must be at the service of justice, making it possible for the existence of “unjust laws” like that which Antigone broke to bury her brother. True human justice for Dante however is necessarily born of a love for justice that almost always implies an explicit love for God. Divine justice, though it may be carried out in a mysterious way, is the fruit of the love of Christ, accepted or rejected by each person in their freedom.
Though often justice and mercy appear to be opposed to each other, both in literature and in our daily lives, Dante’s Divine Comedy shows not only that these two are not rivals but that justice must be centered on mercy, otherwise it fails to be just. In this way Dante overcomes the irresolvable pre-Christian vision of the human condition that is expressed so potently in Sophocles’ tragedies. Justice and mercy are united and eternalized in the Cross of Christ, like the horizontal and vertical beams of which it is constructed. Mercy, as if descended from Heaven, is firmly planted in man’s contingency and elevates justice to a higher level. Before man’s sin God chose both mercy and justice in the form of the Cross; it had to be so because “It had to be by God’s own ways, that to his true life man might be restored: I mean by both God’s pardon and the Cross.” ((a Dio convenia con le vie sue / riparare l’uomo a sua intera vita, / dico con l’una, o ver con amendue. Paradiso, VII, 103-5.))
© 2015 – Michael Taylor para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC