The Divine Comedy: VI. Heretics

One of the prominent feature of Dante’s justice is “contrapasso”, derived from the Latin contra and patior, literally, “suffer the opposite”, in other words, “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap”, or, punishment fits the crime.

Sandro Botticelli's drawing Heretics
“Heretics”, Sandro Botticelli

In the Inferno, the heretics are buried in great tombs of stone, through which flames were scattered, kindling all of them to glowing heat, and from each tomb they cry in agony.

Q: Why are the heretics confined in tombs?

Answer 1: Another word for heretic could be “free thinker.” People thinking for themselves and considering alternative explanations may be the biggest danger the Church faces. Therefore, just as the works of pagan philosophers, like Lucretius, were sealed away in monasteries, the heretical thinkers need to be entombed–even in Hell.

Answer 2: It is written in the Gospels, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” So the real “free thinkers” are those who know the truth. The heretics are those who deny the truth, therefore they are not free but imprisoned by their own denial. As a fitting punishment, they are all confined in tombs of their own making.

Etymology of the Word Heresy

The word heresy is derived from Latin haeresis, meaning “school of thought, sect”, from Greek haíresis, literally, “act of choosing”, derivative of haireîn, “to choose”.

In ancient Greek, the verb hairein, meaning “to take”, gave rise to the adjective hairetos “able to choose” and the noun hairesis “the act of choosing”. In time the noun developed the extended senses of  “a choice”, “a course of action”, “a school of thought”, and “a philosophical or religious sect”. Stoicism was considered a hairesis.(from

In the New Testament, the word “haíresis” have two different shades of meanings, one neutral and the other pejorative. In Acts, they are mostly rendered as “sects”, referring to religious sects in general; whereas in the Epistles, they are “divisions/heresies”, referring to those who create dissension from within the church.

The etymology of heresy, especially the development from “to choose” to “school of thought, philosophical sect” to “willful rejection of the truth” suggests that the beginning or foundation of any belief system is not reason but choice, an act of will.

As C.S.Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce, a response to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, both inspired by Dante:

“Life is not like a pool, but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it. And the creatures grow farther apart as they increase in perfection. Good as it ripens becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.”


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