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The Lesser of Evils
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     Italian poet Dante Alighieri of The Divine Comedy set out long ago to organize what are commonly viewed as the Seven Deadly Sins into an order of severity. He does so on his visual topographic landscape of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, placing each sin according to his belief (his Catholic belief) of where each belongs on the scale of what is most forgivable. In Purgatorio, the sin of Lust is placed highest on the mountain climb to Paradise. With this placement, Dante seems to claim that of all the deadly sins, Lust is the least punishable, and the sinners who take part in it must have less time to serve in Purgatory. It is likely that he does this because he believes Lust fits into the natural plan for life and involves an unselfish love for others. In addition, Lust is the most fleeting of sins and tends to work more "sinfully" when teamed up with other Deadly Sins.

     With Lust lying so very close to the pathway into heaven, one must begin by asking the pointed question "What makes Lust a sin at all?" According to Catholic view, Lust denies one his/her spiritual nature and promotes the lie that earthly pleasures of the body are "all there is." Other people become a means of satisfying needs, and they are merely objects to service and give pleasure. Some principles would indicate that this points to a kind of selfish desire. Proverbs 6:27 questions, "Can a man take fire to his bosom and his garments not be burned?" with the assumption that a reader will answer "No," understanding the message of the verse. So, if Lust truly is a sin worth nailing down, then why would Dante place it in such a way to undermine its severity? In essence, Lust has many traits and factors which could make it a much more virtuous sin in the eyes of God, resulting in its high forgivability rate.

     The first and probably the most important difference between Lust and the other deadly sins is that Lust represents a love that is targeted away from the self. Pride, on the other hand, is a love for the self and its assets, and Envy springs from that feeling of superiority that leads a person to feel they deserve something more than another. Anger is the desire to retaliate when the much-loved self is being threatened. Slothfulness is a love for the comfort of the self, while Greed and Gluttony are both a love for satisfying the self- exclusively or excessively. In contrast, Lust is a drive of admiration and captivation in the presence of another, which is in direct relation to the similar feeling a human being is supposed to experience when thinking of God. Though Lust is considered a sin of the flesh, and not of the spirit, the similarities in their methods of love are striking and difficult to differentiate between.

     Secondly, Lust is a universal, primal instinct encoded for survival. It is no surprise that the Lustful in Purgatory claim to have been "yielding like animals to [their] lusting senses" (84). Where Pride, Envy, Slothfulness, Greed, and Gluttony are not objects of survival at all, they are attributed more closely to the judgment and decision of the sinner. People who commit these kinds of sins are surely held more accountable for their actions in conjunction with the sin itself. Anger, of course, is based in survival instincts, but is more concerned with the survival of the self. Lust results from the desire to procreate, which benefits the species as a whole.

     Lust, in its solo form, appears to be uncommon among sinners in Purgatory. Most of the situations described in both The Inferno and Purgatorio involved lust paired with other sins that brought about its real problem. Paolo and Francesca were two of Hell's sinners of Lust, but it was not Lust alone that brought them there to serve as the iconic example. Though they were sexual lovers, one must consider gluttony and envy as composites in their situation. Their union was adulterous, making it an excessive use of sexuality that works outside of moderate wedlock. In turn, the adulterous relationship likely had some roots in envy, as each belonged to another partner. In another example, Lust paired with Greed serves as a common team: Human nature dictates that one develops the desire to even out the population of the "outside world" with the size of one's own family. This may be so one doesn't have to share as much with the world, or so one can be assured that more earthly possessions or successes will fall into his or her own path by way of those close by. It is composites like these that truly tend to lack virtue. "The Creator himself," claims Pius XII, "established that in the (generative) function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them." Lust alone can exist between a married man and his wife and never interfere with his or her own love for God, but rather complement it.

     Lastly, Lust does not usually persist into eternity at all. Those in the Lust Cornice of Purgatory are destined to serve out their punishment and then continue on into heaven. They simply must wait out their time "within the fire/ that makes those spirits ready to go higher" (148-149), and that sin is cleansed from them, easy as that. Those submitting to Lust on earth in their natural lives are also looking at an advantage when it comes to the lasting power of Lust. Sins of the flesh tend to burn themselves out over time, and the habit likely diminishes out of boredom. At this point, the sinner looks back on their activities with the attitude "what was I thinking?" which commonly leads to repentance. What a great way for human nature and divine influence to work together!

     If Dante has marked Lust highest due it being an unselfish, primal imperfection that becomes a greater problem when paired or tripled with other sins, it is much easier to understand why he didn't feel very threatened by it in his faith. Its lasting power is weak and fleeting, and has no real basis in opposition to the Perfect Love of God or any kind of Divine Truth. However, just because God isn't particularly worried about it doesn't mean one should turn his or her back on it completely! It was included in the carefully narrowed list of Deadly Sins, after all!

 

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. Purgatorio. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Signet Classic, 1957