We rarely use the term wrath anymore. It is designated to graphic and fantasy novels. We’ve caged that wild, untamed sin into an “issue” or a “syndrome” — something that must be managed, in a word: anger. I begin to understand the medieval hierarchy of sin. The sins of lust, gluttony and greed are sins of selfishness. We all have an innate desire to serve ourselves first, to grab, to grasp, to take. But descend deeper and the sins become more complex.We have what is called righteous anger. A little higher, we can couch greed in the word ambition. Higher still, the sins become more external, more outward. Go down deeper into hell, and the sins become more deceptive, more inward, more private and delicate.
To borrow C.S. Lewis’ idea of demons feasting upon us, in the upper regions of hell, the demons might be ravenous, mindless brutes; near its center, the demons would be connoisseurs.
Certainly wrath is easily recognized in bouts of rage and violence. But it can also manifest itself in revenge, vigilantism, and alas, impatience. Feel the prick of conscience? Who isn’t prone to impatience? Or maybe I speak thus because I struggle so much with it. I’ve petitioned God for a gentler, softer spirit and to a certain degree, I’ve been granted much. Yet, there are still so many corners of the heart that need to be swept and dusted. And even when I’ve swept and dusted, I can feel the suppressed emotions pressing against the door.
Dante divides the sinners of the fifth circle like the fourth circle. Instead of misers and prodigals, they are the wrathful and the sullen, because wrath can also be divided into two categories: expressed and repressed. Those who vent their anger in explosive bursts of venomous tantrums and rages are destined to tear at each other on the surface of the waters. Those who swallow their anger and allow it to boil inside — seething, scorning, and scourging others in their hearts — are fated to wallow beneath the cold, murky waters of the Styx.
Styx is a black swamp impeding the way to the walled city of Dis. Phlegyas is the ferryman who is banished to this circle for setting a temple of Apollo on fire after the god raped his daughter. Today, we would be tempted to legitimize Phlegyas as acting out of righteous anger. But vigilantism, remember, is condemned. When scrutinized, the vigilante shows a lack of faith. He lacks faith that God, Himself, will take revenge.
Vengeance is mine, says the LORD.
The Stygian marsh marks the end of upper hell. Inside hell’s gates (which still bear the damage from Christ’s harrowing) are the sins inscrutable to those who don’t or won’t understand. Many cultures and times have condemned lust, gluttony, greed, and wrath, but inside the gates of hell suffer the sinners against Christ. The gates of hell divide the “lost” and those who know better.
One more thing. While Dante is being ferried across the marsh, he is accosted by a foul shade whose voice is recognized to be an old, bitter enemy: Fillipo Argenti, a Black Guelph from a prominent Florentine family who once slapped Dante across the face. Moreover, after Dante was banished from the city, Fillipo’s brother acquired Dante’s estate and possessions. The spirit full of slime rises before the boat, low in the water because of Dante’s weight. Dante asks who he is and the soul answers:
I’m one who weeps.
Unmoved, Dante replied:
Well, then, accursed spirit, keep to your weeping and your misery! I know you, fouled and mucked though you may be.
And Fillipo attacks the boat, but the wrathful shades feed on his fury and tear him to pieces.
Dante is satisfied. And though ultimate revenge has been fulfilled, does this moment reveal a bit of sullenness in Dante’s heart? Does this indicate that he, too, struggles with wrath? It is the first instance where he seems tempted.