Saint Francis vs. Aristotle: An Uneven Fight

Dante himself stated that the canticle of hell was meant to strike terror into the hearts of men, in his letter to Cangrande della Scala. He describes so minutely the punishment and pain that the condemned souls suffer in the first kingdom of the afterlife so that the fear of having to undergo them for all eternity will arouse in human beings a surge of repentance. Dante’s Inferno has nothing of the mystical about it: it is real, tangible, just as real and tangible is the pain that its inhabitants feel with their bodily senses. The hell of the Divine Comedy, in short, is a frightening place, and obviously no reader, of whatever time, would want to be part of it. Following, as he read, Dante’s journey in the first canticle, medieval man was constantly pervaded by a sense of anguish that came from knowing that this kingdom exists and that it could be awaiting him – an anguish that Dante, as though he were its director, manages to increase or diminish according to the poetic demands of the work.

Each reader of the Divine Comedy could be asked which passage from the Inferno is for him the most terrifying, and each one would answer this question according to his own sensibility. Thus it is not possible to say which passage is the most terrible and distressing, nor can we draw up a sort of case study in this regard. Nonetheless, I would like here to focus attention on a precise place in the Inferno where this sense of anguish must have reached, at least for people of the Middle Ages, a true summit: this is the story told by Guido da Montefeltro to explain to Dante how his soul came to the kingdom of damnation (Inf. XXVII, 112-123). The story is well known: after a life of crime, Guido decided to take the Franciscan habit to redeem himself from the sins he had committed and save his soul. However, he went to Pope Boniface VIII, convinced he had a plan to destroy the fortress of Palestrina where the Colonna family, Boniface’s enemies, were holed up, with the promise that the Pope would pardon his actions, which Guido himself judged to be sinful. When he died and his soul was separated from his body, he saw arriving on one side a devil to take it to hell and on the other Saint Francis in person coming to his aid.

So let’s imagine the scene and, identifying with Guido, try to think of the relief this soul felt at seeing none other than Saint Francis of Assisi coming to save him from those horrible clenches. For what devil would have been able to compete with Francis? He was ready, then, to be taken by the hand by the founder of the Franciscan Order when suddenly that relief that we too feel turns instantaneously into anguish: without Francis even saying a word, the devil explains to the saint that this soul cannot be saved, given that not only could the absolution promised by the pope not wash away the guilt of someone who, like Guido, had not repented, but neither was it possible to repent of an action in the same moment in which it was performed:

For who repents not cannot be absolved,
Nor can one both repent and will at once,
Because of the contradiction which consents not.

Everything happens very quickly: happiness yields to desperation in one brief moment. Saint Francis cannot do anything for his fellow friar who, after comprehending the total helplessness of this great saint who was even considered the alter Christus, is grabbed by the devil and taken before Minos to be judged.

In this passage Dante succeeds in describing with wonderful clarity the change in Guido’s state of mind as he thought he was saved and then suddenly sees himself to be irredeemably damned. This change is experienced also by the reader who identifies with Guido and imagines himself in the man’s place. But how was it possible that a saint like Francis did not do anything to save his soul? How could it be that he did not intercede for Guido’s salvation, considering that he, as ‘another Christ,’ has a power comparable to God’s? Why did he not turn his eyes towards heaven imploring divine forgiveness for this soul?

Given this equivalence between Saint Francis and God, the question that we have asked ourselves, and that perhaps also the medieval reader asked, is absolutely legitimate and finds an answer, to my mind, in the philosophical culture in which Dante himself was trained. The fact that Saint Francis lost the match with the devil finds its justification not in any poetic license the poet might have taken, but in a precise doctrine that was conveyed in the culture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. And if this were not the case – we should emphasize – the story of the twenty-seventh canto could have been interpreted as an unwarranted stance assumed by the author who, on his own initiative, diminished the ‘power’ of Francis alter Christus, preventing him from doing what it would have been possible for him to do. If the saint could not do what he wanted to do – this is the heart of the matter – this depends on the fact that even God himself would not have been able to save the soul of Guido da Montefeltro, yielding, as Francis did, to the devil’s logical acuteness. According to the doctrine which Dante had well in mind, divine omnipotence ran up against a limit right in the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction, which maintained that it is impossible for a thing to be and not be at the same time. For a thirteenth-century intellectual, the proposition “this page is white” was valid only in the moment when it was uttered (‘ut nunc’) since God, intervening with his supreme power, could have made it become black. What he could not make happen is the possibility that both blackness and whiteness were inherent in the page at the same time. Starting from this premise, that is to say from the fact that a principle exists that not even God can waive, the Franciscan theologian Matteo d’Acquasparta recognized in it the foundation of human knowledge.

In the passage from the Divine Comedy that we have chosen to consider, the impossibility of saving Guido da Montefeltro’s soul clearly refers to this doctrine inherent in Aristotelian logic. The devil, in short, place Francis in front of the only limitation that his power as alter Christus was not able to overcome: Guido’s soul was damned in that, because of the contradiction which consents not, he could not commit a sin and in the very same moment repent of it. Thus, for a mere logical ‘quibble,’ Guido’s soul, which could be that of anyone, is taken to hell after having tasted the hope of salvation. The devil’s comment is terrible as, in accordance with medieval iconography, he hoists Guido onto his shoulders, saying, “Peradventure/ Thou didst not think that I was a logician!” Cold Aristotelian logic, at least in this case, wins out over the love that the Creator harbours for his creature!