- the contrapasso for heresy—burial within tombs in the city of Dis—is a troping of death itself, suggesting that somehow these souls are more “dead” than the other dead souls
- Dante focuses on one type of heresy, Epicureanism, a materialist philosophy: for Dante, the Epicureans affirm that soul dies with body, rejecting the immortality of the soul
- the Epicureans believe that soul dies with body—“che l’anima col corpo morta fanno” (Inf. 10.15)—and this canto thus offers an opportunity for a meditation on the body/soul nexus, as also in Inferno 13 and Inferno 25
- heresy is here thematized as willful self-separation of the soul from God and performed as dialogue that is not dialogic, with language that is weaponized to inflict hurt
- in the case of the Epicureans, Dante dramatizes their materialism, showing that the souls he meets are eternally enmeshed in the transitory and ephemeral, perfect reflections of the Principe’s dictum from Il Gattopardo: “ma al di là di quanto possiamo sperare di accarezzare con queste mani non abbiamo obblighi” (But beyond what we can hope to caress with these hands we have no obligations [Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo, ch. 1])
- both featured souls are Florentines and each speaks to one of Dante’s own abiding earthly passions: one speaks of Florentine politics (Farinata degli Uberti) and the other, by way of his son Guido, of poets and intellectualism (Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti)
- another contrapasso: these souls who are so materialistically attached to the present can know events in the future but not in the present
- the issue of the magnate families who were excluded from Florentine governance by the Ordinamenti di Giustizia of 1293 (see Lansing and Faini, cited in Coordinated Reading)
- Dante’s friendship with Guido Cavalcanti, intertwined in the Commedia with his friendship with Forese Donati; both friends were magnates
- the (painful) presence of love in Hell: the link between love and sin
After Dante and Virgilio enter the city of Dis, in verse 106 of Inferno 9, they find a landscape of cemeteries.
The tombs are open—the covers are removed—and they are engulfed by flames. Dante asks who are the souls “buried within those sarcophagi”: “seppelite dentro da quell’arche” (Inf. 9.125). The answer is that here may be found heretics, indeed the founders of heresies (“eresiarche”), with their followers from every sect: “Qui son li eresiarche / con lor seguaci, d’ogne setta (Here are arch-heretics / and those who followed them, from every sect [Inf. 9.127-129]).
The contrapasso of the heretics, who are “buried within those sarcophagi” (Inf. 9.125), thus involves a troping of death. Their entombment within the kingdom of the dead suggests that they are in some way “more dead” than the other dead and damned souls. In Hell they are buried in tombs that signify their willful turning away from the life of Christian truth to the death of disbelief.
The definition of heresy in the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads:
Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him. (CCC 2089, accessed 9/29/15)
The website Catholic Answers offers the following explanation of this definition:
To commit heresy, one must refuse to be corrected. A person who is ready to be corrected or who is unaware that what he has been saying is against Church teaching is not a heretic.
A person must be baptized to commit heresy. This means that movements that have split off from or been influenced by Christianity, but that do not practice baptism (or do not practice valid baptism), are not heresies, but separate religions. Examples include Muslims, who do not practice baptism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not practice valid baptism.
Finally, the doubt or denial involved in heresy must concern a matter that has been revealed by God and solemnly defined by the Church (for example, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the Mass, the pope’s infallibility, or the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary).
It is important to distinguish heresy from schism and apostasy. In schism, one separates from the Catholic Church without repudiating a defined doctrine. An example of a contemporary schism is the Society of St. Pius X—the “Lefebvrists” or followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre—who separated from the Church in the late 1980s, but who have not denied Catholic doctrines. In apostasy, one totally repudiates the Christian faith and no longer even claims to be a Christian. (Catholic Answers, “The Great Heresies,” accessed 9/29/15)
Dante tells us that there are many kinds of heretics entombed in the sixth circle. At the beginning of Inferno 11 he will support this claim by having the travelers pass the tomb of Pope Anastasius II (Inf. 11.6-9). Following a medieval tradition, Dante believed that Pope Anastasius embraced the heresy of Acacius, patriarch of Constantinople. Acadius denied the divine nature of Christ by affirming that Christ possessed only a human nature. Dante will return to heretical belief regarding Christ’s two natures in Paradiso 6, where he focuses on the opposite error: the Emperor Justinian says that he was converted by Pope Agapetus I from the heretical belief that Christ possessed only a divine nature (Par. 6.13-21).
The mystery of Christ’s two natures is a recurring theme throughout the Commedia. For Dante’s consideration of the duality of Christ in malo, see the Introduction to Inferno 25.
Through the reference to Pope Anastasius in Inferno 11, Dante indicates that there are many types of heretics housed in the city of Dis, although in Inferno 10 he focuses almost exclusively on Epicureans.
Dante in fact stages an encounter with only one kind of heretic. At the beginning of Inferno 10 the travelers find themselves in the part of the cemetery that houses the “followers of Epicurus” (Inf. 10.14). Epicureanism, a materialist philosophy, is presented by Dante as the rejection of the immortality of the soul.
As Dante puts it, these are the shades of “those who say the soul dies with the body”: “che l’anima col corpo morta fanno” (Inf. 10.15). The belief that the soul dies with the body is obviously not compatible with Christianity, a religion that holds to the immortality of the soul. In effect, Epicureanism, the rejection of the immortality of the soul, constitutes atheism, as Boccaccio explains in writing of Guido Cavalcanti in Decameron 6.9:
. . . Guido alcuna volta speculando molto abstratto dagli uomini divenia; e per ciò che egli alquanto tenea della oppinione degli epicuri, si diceva tralla gente volgare che queste sue speculazioni erano solo in cercare se trovar si potesse che Iddio non fosse. (Decameron, 6.9.9)
Guido, given to speculation, would become much abstracted from men; and since he was somewhat inclined to the opinion of the Epicureans, the vulgar averred that these speculations of his had no other scope than to prove that God did not exist.
There is an ongoing meditation on the body/soul nexus throughout the Commedia. In Inferno 10, Dante opposes the belief that, without the body, soul ceases to exist. For more on Dante’s thoughts on the body/soul nexus, see the Introduction to Inferno 13 and the Introduction to Inferno 25.
Dante’s treatment of the Epicurean heresy is fascinatingly oblique. He addresses the Epicurean rejection of the eternal and transcendent by showing us two souls who remain eternally enmeshed in the transitory and ephemeral.
In effect, Dante has dramatized their materialism.
Materialism as attachment to present reality is beautifully expressed by the Prince in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo: “ma al di là di quanto possiamo sperare di accarezzare con queste mani non abbiamo obblighi” (But beyond what we can hope to caress with these hands we have no obligations [ch. 1]). Consider too the telling phrase attributed to Cardinal Ottaviano degli Ubaldini, “’l Cardinale” of Inferno 10.120: “Io posso dire, se è anima, che l’ho perduta per parte ghibellina” (I can say that—if there is a soul—I have lost it for the Ghibelline cause; cited by Sapegno in his commentary to Inferno 10).
The narrative structure of Inferno 10 reflects the enmeshed density of this excessive attachment to the present.
By splicing the dialogues with Farinata and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti into one another, Dante dramatizes the way that these souls are so caught up in their own selves that they literally do not hear or in any way register each other’s suffering. Thus, the exquisitely poignant twenty-one verses (52-72) that make up the encounter between Dante and Cavalcanti senior are entirely ignored by Farinata, who resumes speaking to Dante in verse 73 as though his tomb-mate Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti did not exist and as though the conversation between Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti and Dante about his son Guido had not occurred.
Dante’s text thus performs a non-dialogic dialogue: in this canto dialogue is not dialogic, but rigidly monologic and exclusionary. We have seen salvific language in the Commedia (we think of Beatrice’s “Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare” in Inferno 2.72); now we see weaponized language.
In Inferno 10, language is the weapon of choice.
To add to the density of this canto, both featured souls are Florentines and each speaks to one of Dante’s own abiding passions: one speaks of Florentine politics (Farinata degli Uberti) and the other, by way of his son Guido, of poets and intellectualism (Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti).
For Dante, this encounter thus stages his own (materialist) attachment to his place of origin as well as his love for his friend and fellow poet, Guido Cavalcanti.
FARINATA DEGLI UBERTI (died 1264, the year before Dante’s birth) was a member of a noble family and a great military leader of the Ghibellines in the generation before Dante’s. When the Ghibellines had the opportunity to destroy Florence, Farinata stayed their hand. When the Guelphs (the party to which Dante’s own family belonged) took power again, ousting the Ghibellines, Farinata’s family holdings were destroyed, an event referenced in Inferno 23 (see verse 107). The conversation between Dante and Farinata is a second installment in Florentine politics, following Inferno 6: this installment treats historical events that occurred a generation earlier than those recounted in Inferno 6.
CAVALCANTE DE’ CAVALCANTI (died c. 1280) was also a noble, less involved in Florentine politics than Farinata. Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti’s son, the poet Guido Cavalcanti, was married to Farinata’s daughter. Guido Cavalcanti was, according to the Vita Nuova, Dante’s “first friend”, one with whom he wrote poetry and shared an intellectual life. In conversation with his best friend’s father, Dante here suggests that Guido “disdained” the one to whom Virgilio is leading him (Beatrice), thus pointing to the huge ideological and poetic divergence that arose between the two friends. This characterization of Guido is not misleading, in the sense that in much of his poetry Guido Cavalcanti did not see objects of love as salvific, as potential “beatrici” (the word “beatrice” literally means “she who beatifies”). With the exception of some of his ballate, Guido embraced a tragic view of love, and therefore the beloved, however noble in herself, is a destructive force.
By the last two decades of the Duecento, a class of very wealthy nobles with a history of violence were classified as “magnates”. This group was excluded from Florentine governance by the Ordinamenti di Giustizia of 1293. In her book The Florentine Magnates (the full reference is in Coordinated Reading), the historian Carol Lansing writes thus of magnates and of the Ordinamenti di Giustizia:
The laws restraining the magnates were a part of this transition to guild rule. The early statutes were an effort to pacify the city by ending the vendettas that led to factional clashes … Who was restricted under the statutes? The guildsmen who wrote the laws apparently knew whom they wanted to include but because of the fluidity of urban society had some difficulty in naming specific criteria for magnate status. The group was called “potentes, nobiles, vel magnates”, powerful men, nobles or magnates. A law of October 1286 defined them as those houses which had included a knight within the past twenty years. (Lansing, The Florentine Magnates, p. 13)
In effect, magnate status was defined by knighthood and a past record of violence, implied by their posting security. (Lansing, The Florentine Magnates, p. 147)
Historian Enrico Faini in a study titled “Ruolo sociale e memoria degli Alighieri prima di Dante” (see Coordinted Reading) defines the magnate class in Dante’s time thus:
Per gli uomini dell’età di Dante il nobile non era più il vecchio miles/cittadino, ma il cavaliere addobbato e straricco, il ‘magnate’ così come veniva definito dagli ordinamenti popolari.
For the men of Dante’s age the nobleman was no longer the old citizen-soldier, but an extremely rich and festooned knight, as the “magnate” was defined in the popular ordinances. (“Ruolo sociale e memoria degli Alighieri prima di Dante,” p. 2)
If you consult Carol Lansing’s book The Florentine Magnates, you will find an Appendix that lists the magnate families excluded by the Ordinamenti di Giustizia. On this list we find the names Cavalcanti and Uberti.
When the Ordinamenti di Giustizia were instituted in 1293, Dante was 28 years old. His family was not excluded by the Ordinamenti, as it did not then possess sufficient wealth or social standing. (See Faini on the backward slide of the Alighieri family fortunes.) The Cavalcanti family, however, was listed among the magnates and was excluded. Thus, Dante was able to participate in the Florentine government, and indeed went on to serve as a prior, while Guido Cavalcanti was not accorded this privilege.
Mario Marti plausibly suggested decades ago that this divergence was a contributing factor in the rift between the two friends (for discussion of Marti’s and other views see my essay “Amicus eius: Dante and the Semantics of Friendship” cited in Coordinated Reading). This theme was picked up recently by Silvia Diacciati:
Quella di Dante fu una svolta “democratica” che l’amico e magnate Guido Cavalcanti, col quale aveva un tempo condiviso la medesima visione aristocratica della cultura, non poté accettare . . . (Diacciati, “Dante: relazioni sociali e vita pubblica,” p. 23)
Dante’s was a “democratic” turn that his magnate friend Guido Cavalcanti, with whom he had once shared the same aristocratic vision of culture, could not accept . . .
Another magnate friend of Dante’s Florentine youth whose intimacy with Dante is attested in poetry is Forese Donati. For the tenzone of insulting sonnets exchanged between the two men see the Introduction to Purgatorio 24.
In “Amicus eius: Dante and the Semantics of Friendship”, I have argued that the Commedia attests to “a kind of psychic bleeding of Dante’s friendship with Forese into his friendship with Cavalcanti and vice versa” (“Amicus eius,” p. 62). A notable example of this “psychic bleeding” is the way in which the scene among the graves of Inferno 10 replays one of Forese’s sonnets to Dante (L’altra notte):
The entire scene of Forese’s L’altra notte, the sighting of the ghost of the father among the graves and the father’s conjuring of the friendship with his son, seems replayed in Inferno 10’s encounter (also among the graves) between a man (now Dante, in place of Forese) and the father of his friend (now Cavalcanti de’ Cavalcanti, in place of Alighiero Bellincione). In other words, Dante in Inferno 10 constructs an encounter between himself and the father of his friend Guido Cavalcanti that in some ways echoes Forese’s imagined encounter with Alighiero in the tenzone. Moreover, the encounter of Inferno 10 is one in which Cavalcanti senior appeals to Dante’s friendship with his son Guido much as Alighiero appeals to Forese’s friendship with his son Dante: “per amor di Dante” in the sonnet L’altra notte has become Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti’s anguished “mio figlio ov’è? e perché non è teco?” ( Inf. 10.60). (“Amicus eius,” pp. 62-63)
Dante’s recall of his early sonnet-exchange with Forese Donati in choreographing the scene of Inferno 10 suggests his enormous personal investment in the materia of this canto.
He is invested in the Farinata encounter through his commitment as a prior to Florentine politics. Dante’s time as prior led to his exile, prophesied by Farinata more explicitly than it had been prophesied by Ciacco in Inferno 6. In order to exact payment for Dante’s cutting remark that Farinata’s family will not succeed in returning to Florence, Farinata prophesies that before 50 moons have passed Dante will himself learn how difficult is the “art” of returning to the city.
A second installment in Florentine politics is thus a second reference to the pain and dishonor of Dante’s own exile.
In the Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti section, Dante’s personal investment is through his intense friendship with Guido Cavalcanti and his commitment as a poet to a poetics that ultimately diverged from that of his friend, whose “disdain” for Beatrice (“ebbe a disdegno” in Inf. 10.63) is a shorthand indicating Guido’s disdain for the poetics of salvation.
The encounter with Guido’s father also suggests that Dante’s own extraordinary gifts were perceived by others in the preceding generation early in Dante’s life (Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti died circa 1280), as I discuss in the Introduction to Inferno 15.
The intensity of Dante’s friendship with Guido Cavalcanti has a long history. In his great youthful poem of perfect friendship, Guido, i’ vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io, Dante marshals his friends’ names, first among them Guido’s, as talismans of intimacy:
Guido, i’ vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io, fossimo presi per incantamento e messi in un vasel ch’ad ogni vento per mare andasse al voler vostro e mio; sì che fortuna od altro tempo rio non ci potesse dare impedimento, anzi, vivendo sempre in un talento, di star insieme crescesse il disio. E monna Vanna e monna Lagia poi con quella ch’è sul numer de le trenta con noi ponesse il buono incantatore: e quivi ragionar sempre d’amore, e ciascuna di lor fosse contenta sì come credo che sarémo noi.
Guido, I wish that Lapo, you, and I were carried off by some enchanter’s spell and set upon a ship to sail the sea where every wind would favour our command, so neither thunderstorms nor cloudy skies might ever have the power to hold us back, but rather, cleaving to this single wish, that our desire to live as one would grow. And Lady Vanna were with Lady Lagia borne to us with her who’s number thirty by our good enchanter’s wizardry: to talk of love would be our sole pursuit, and each of them would find herself content, just as I think that we should likewise be. (Richard Lansing trans.)
Guido, i’ vorrei is a dream of ahistorical and dechronologized friendship. The sonnet sings of a friendship that stands outside of time and that remains untarnished by history—by that which necessarily catalyzes our divergent egos and divergent interests and is therefore destined to separate us.
The separation of these friends is a feature of Dante’s written record long before Inferno 10: we think, for instance, of Dante’s demotion of Guido in the catalogues of the De vulgari eloquentia, where Cino da Pistoia is instead promoted to the position of special friend. See my essay “Amicus eius: Dante and the Semantics of Friendship” for a full account and, for the nature of Dante’s and Guido’s divergent poetics, see my essay “Dante and Cavalcanti (On Making Distinctions in Matters of Love): Inferno 5 in its Lyric and Autobiographical Context,” also cited in Coordinated Reading.
For a sense of how far back these topics go in Dante’s life and poetic practice, and how much sheer life is packed into the brief passage on Guido Cavalcanti in Inferno 10, see my commentary to the sonnets Guido, i’ vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io and Amore e monna Lagia e Guido ed io in either Rime giovanili e della ‘Vita Nuova’ or Dante’s Lyric Poetry: Poems of Youth and of the ‘Vita Nuova’.
In Dante’s Lyric Poetry I refute the idea (as I already had in Dante’s Poets) that Inferno 10 is intended to signal Guido’s certain damnation:
I do not subscribe to the view according to which Dante condemns Guido with his father Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti in the tenth canto of the Inferno (even less that he is already thinking about such a condemnation when he wrote Guido, i’ vorrei); I have always maintained that Dante is deliberately ambiguous with regard to the destiny of the friend who, in the fiction of the Commedia, is explicitly “co’ vivi ancor congiunto [still among the living]” (Inf. 10.111). And in any case Dante does not condemn sons for the sins of their fathers: one need only recall the examples – which Dante is at pains to provide us – of Manfredi and Bonconte. (Dante’s Lyric Poetry, p. 120)
Dante does not pre-condemn Guido Cavalcanti to Hell in Inferno 10. Indeed, Dante goes to great lengths to make clear in the Commedia that the damnation of fathers does not determine the damnation of sons. Thus Bonconte da Montefeltro is saved while his father, Guido da Montefeltro, is damned.
However, Dante’s treatment of Guido’s father contaminated the historical reception of the son: “Dante in this sense cast a shadow on Guido’s reputation, linking the name of his friend in perpetuity to hell and damnation in the cultural imaginary” (Dante’s Lyric Poetry, p. 120). Boccaccio’s story of Guido Cavalcanti, Decameron 6.9, provides a striking example of this effect.
Towards the end of Inferno 10, Farinata explains that he can see the future but not the present (Inf. 10.100-08). He sees the future as long as the events are distant, but as events draw more near, they become less and less visible, until finally they disappear altogether: “Quando s’appressano o son, tutto è vano / nostro intelletto (But when events draw near or are, our minds / are useless [Inf. 10.103-4]).
Dante here portrays a figurative eclipse of the sun, whereby the light grows less and less, until finally it is extinguished altogether. Moreover, we have to wonder: if an event was known before it happened, but ceases to be known when it occurs, was it ever in fact known at all? As Farinata says: “nulla sapem di vostro stato umano” (we know nothing of your human state [Inf. 10.105]).
Hence these materialists, who believed only in the present and in what they could see and touch and love in the present, are now cut off from the present altogether.
Dante in this way separates from knowledge those who thought they knew everything worth knowing, thereby again figuring heresy as willful separation from truth and from life.
To recapitulate, the Epicureans’ materialist attachment only to the present, only to their time on earth, their rejection of a future life in eternity, results in their eternal attachment to the present, with all its conflict and pain preserved.
We see the pain caused by excessive attachment—excessive love for things of earth (in other words, for those goods that theologians call “secondary goods”)—in both the interaction with Farinata and the interaction with Cavalcanti senior.
Though Farinata and Dante are fellow Tuscans, and Farinata recognizes Dante from his speech as a fellow Florentine (25-6), they find no common ground; in fact they find only reasons to harm each other. Dante-poet bends theology to reinforce our sense of the harm that is inflicted by Dante-pilgrim on Farinata, having Farinata state that his eternal suffering in Hell is increased by what he has learned of his family’s political destiny from his fellow Florentine: “«S’elli han quell’ arte», disse, «male appresa, / ciò mi tormenta più che questo letto»” (“If they were slow,” he said, “to learn that art, / that is more torment to me than this bed [Inf. 10.77-8]).
The idea that a sinner in Hell can learn something about life on earth while in Hell that can alter his suffering in the afterlife is obviously theologically preposterous. As an idea it is most likely an import from the love lyric, in which there existed the convention of this kind of afterlife hyperbole, usually functioning in reverse: for instance, in the canzone Lo doloroso amor, Dante declares that his soul will be so intent on imagining his lady that it will be immunized from the pains of Hell (Lo doloroso amor, 38–40).
However, Dante certainly knew that Farinata’s remark could have no theological standing, since the torment of Hell is divinely ordained and immutable and will increase only at the Last Judgment as a result of the restoration of the body (as we learned in Inferno 6). Farinata’s statement is yet another example of the degree to which Dante will violate theological principles in order to make his moral and dramatic points.
As with Dante and Farinata, the connections that exist between Dante and Cavalcanti senior do nothing to strengthen bonds between the two. Though Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti and Dante share a love for Guido Cavalcanti, Dante-pilgrim ends up grievously hurting the father, which he does by suggesting to him that his beloved son is dead. Of course, Dante had no intention of communicating Guido’s death (if only because Guido’s death had not yet occurred in April 1300) and in truth Cavalcante almost willfully misconstrues what Dante has to say about his son.
In an extraordinary demonstration of the poet’s ability to use language and syntax performatively, Dante-poet has Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti misconstrue Dante-pilgrim’s use of the passato remoto (“ebbe” in verse 68), taking the tense of the verb as a sign that his son Guido is already dead.
But, again, due to his degree of attachment Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti is primed to be hurt. We can see as much in his very first sally to the pilgrim. His first words to Dante effectively voice a challenge based on the premise that only the best and brightest get to take this trip to Hell. Given that this journey is restricted to those who have “altezza d’ingegno”—high intellect—then his son must be present: “Se per questo cieco / carcere vai per altezza d’ ingegno, / mio figlio ov’ è? e perché non è teco?” (If it is your high intellect / that lets you journey here, through this blind prison, / where is my son? Why is he not with you? [Inf. 10.58-60]).
The futile questions “mio figlio ov’ è? e perché non è teco?” (futile because based on a false premise) sound the alarm. We have only to listen to them to know that this man will figure out a way to confirm his worst fears.
Finally, although Farinata and Cavalcanti senior are tomb-mates—and related through the marriage of their children—they have nothing to say to each other, indeed they do not even hear each other as they each speak to the pilgrim. And though they will endure eternally, and though they can read the future, they have no knowledge of the present. This means that at the Last Judgment, when all time collapses into God’s eternal present, they will cease to have any knowledge at all.
I conclude this Introduction with a paragraph from my essay “Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell” where I consider the special pathos of this episode, in which Dante constrains us to consider the link between sin and love. I connect the palpable presence in Inferno 10 of love that is still recognizable as love to the statement in Purgatorio 17 that all human behavior, whether for good or for ill, has its origin in love:
The mystery at the heart of Inferno 10, the mystery that generates its enormous poetic power, is the connection of love to sin. In the palpable love of the sinners of Inferno 10 Dante dramatizes the law he sets forth in Purgatorio 17, the law that holds that all human action, whether good or evil, has its origin in love. What gives Inferno 10 its special grip on the reader is that the love of Cavalcante and Farinata is still recognizable as love. (“Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell,” in Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, p. 120)
While the original love of most sinners in Hell is perverted and distorted beyond recognition, in Dante’s treatment of the Epicureans Farinata and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti we can still individuate the conversio toward a secondary good that Aquinas delineates as sin. And when that secondary good is a beloved child, whose well-being the father still craves, the impact on us as human beings is very great. This canto forces us to consider how emotions in which we all share can ultimately become reified and sinful.
Put more simply, Cavalcante senior’s desperate questions, “mio figlio ov’ è? e perché non è teco?” (where is my son? Why is he not with you?), may be self-inflicted, but we feel their pathos and poignancy nonetheless.