Aquinas and Dante On Homosexuality

Louis Crompton. Homosexuality and History (Harvard 2003), by Louis Crompton, is by far the best general history of homosexuality yet written, and in his chapter on the medieval world, he has a fascinating discussion of Thomas Aquinas’s and Dante’s treatment of homosexuality.

Thomas Aquinas. According to Crompton, Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, classifies homosexuality under unnatural sex acts, which fall into four categories: sodomy (homosexual relations); masturbation; heterosexual intercourse that lands semen in the “wrong vessel” (the ass or mouth); and beastiality. Elsewhere, Aquinas includes a fifth category as also unnatural–marital sex that uses contraception (187).

By the logic Aquinas follows (natural law philosophy), all these acts are against nature, and therefore sins against the creator of nature. God gave us noses for smelling–that is their end–and God gave men penises and women vaginas for making babies–that is their end. All other uses of the penis and vagina are against nature and, again, an affront to nature’s creator.

Unnatural sex is thus worse than sexual sins generally, for unnatural sex harms God Himself. It is violence against God; an abuse of those organs that rightfully belong to Him. Yes, that means Aquinas believed masturbation could be seen as a worse sin than fornication, adultery–and even rape–because, at least with these, you’re not putting your sexual organs to use in a way not intended by God. There’s a chance that a baby will come of these acts.

If you must do it, do it like the animals. One way that Aquinas supports his natural law position against non-reproductive sex (homosexuality, masturbation, etc.) is by appeal to the animal kingdom. He presumed that non-reproductive sex is absent in animals. Animals, he thought, followed God’s ends for their sex organs, and thus showed the way for humans. Aquinas didn’t know, of course, what modern biology has established: that homosexuality and other seemingly unnatural acts are actually “quite common in the animal world” (188).

Dante. As for Dante, here’s Crompton:

[I]n the seventh circle of his “Inferno” Dante dramatizes the punishment of men guilty of “violence against nature,” or, as he alternatively puts, the “sins of Sodom and Cahors.” (189)

In other words, Dante, following Aquinas and Catholic teaching generally, uses natural law theory to conceptualize homosexuality as “violence against nature.”

What about Cahors? As for Cahors, it was a medieval financial center, and thus a hotbed of usury (charging interest on loans), and this too is treated by Dante as unnatural. Just as the penis is not to be used for ends other than what nature created it for, so money is not to be used for ends other than what it was created for (simple exchange). Usury breeds money unnaturally; it is forbidden, like homosexuality, in Leviticus (25:36-37); and it is therefore not its proper use. It is “violence against nature.” One is not to abuse a vessel’s right use–whether it is a place for depositing money or semen. That means no unlawful deposits or withdrawals–financially or sexually. (Crompton Ibid.) So taught the medieval Catholic priests–and so too do many imams in the Muslim world to this day.

Key passages from Dante’s “Inferno.” Dante is not directly quoted in Crompton, but below are his key passages depicting the punishment of gay people in hell (from Canto XV and XVI of “Inferno” in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation).

Canto XV: Ser Brunetto Latino. Dante begins his description of the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle of hell by speaking with Ser Brunetto Latino, a man Dante knew in Florence. Having died, Ser Brunetto is now being pummeled in hell with fire raining from the sky in a manner reminiscent of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis, and he is, along with his fellow Sodomites, forced to run forever from the rain over hot sands. This makes, of course, for a double bind of torment: he cannot escape the heat from above by ducking into cool sands below, and he cannot escape the hot sands by leaping upward, for the sky rains fire (lines 26-30):

I fixed my eyes upon his baked, brown features,

so that the scorching of his face could not

prevent my mind from recognizing him;

and lowering my face to meet his face,

I answered him: “Are you here, Ser Brunetto?”

Indeed, the unfortunate man is. And Dante knew him in life to be a good man–a man of “repute and excellence”–and so his presence in hell is disorienting. Dante inquires of Ser Brunetto: “I ask of him who are / his comrades of repute and excellence” (101-102), and Ser Brunetto replies:

In brief, know that my company has clerics

and men of letters and of fame–and all

were stained by one same sin upon the earth. (106-108)

In other words, many gay people are good and accomplished–and they might even be in heaven were it not for their unnatural sexual behavior. But sodomy is a relationship breaker with the God of Christian medievalism, and so Dante’s conversation with Ser Brunetto concludes with the damned gay man returning to his fiery ordeal:

I would say more; but both my walk and words

must not be longer, for–beyond–I see

new smoke emerging from the sandy bed. […]

And then he turned and seemed like one of those

who race across the fields to win the green

cloth at Verona; of those runners, he

appeared to be the winner, not the loser. (115-117; 121-124)

But of course, Ser Brunetto was a loser. Big time. And so ends Dante’s Canto XV.

Canto XVI: the Gay Graces. At the beginning of Canto XVI, Dante encounters three more Florentine homosexuals (“…three shades ran, / leaving another company that passed beneath the rain of bitter punishment”), and “when they reached us [Dante and Virgil at the bridge], they formed a wheel, all three of them together” (4-6; 20-21).

In other words, these three gay men, together in their nakedness, mock the traditional Three Graces that are otherwise symbolic of such things as beauty, nature, and fertility. These men are ugly, unnatural, and unproductive, “peeled and naked” (35), and wheeling before Dante, arm in arm, in a macabre circle dance:

Ah me, what wounds I saw upon their limbs, 

wounds new and old, wounds that the flames seared in!

It pains me still as I remember it. […]

As champions, naked, oiled, will always do, 

each studying the grip that serves him best

before the blows and wounds begin to fall,

while wheeling so, each one made sure his face

was turned to me, so that their necks opposed

their feet in one uninterrupted flow. (10-13; 22-27)

The three gay men were dancing exactly, in other words, like the traditional Graces. Dante thus depicts these men as enacting an effeminate freak show of tormented grotesqueness before him, and yet he also loves them for their honorable public lives when they were living, and would embrace and comfort them but for danger to himself:

If I’d had shield and shelter from the fire,

I should have thrown myself down there among them–

I think my master [Virgil] would have sanctioned that;

but since that would have left me burned and baked,

my fear won out against the good intention

that made me so impatient to embrace them. (46-51)

And so Dante tells the Gay Graces:

Your present state had fixed 

not scorn but sorrow in me–and so deeply

that it will only disappear slowly–

as soon as my lord spoke to me with words

that made me understand what kind of men

were coming toward us, men of worth like yours.

For I am of your city; and with fondness,

I’ve always told and heard the others tell

of both your actions and your honored names. (52-60)

Put another way, Dante sees these gay men as good people, and is struggling to reconcile their fate with what he knew of them in life. A similar cognitive dissonance is playing out in Orthodox religious believers who know out-of-the-closet gay people today.

File:Raffael 010.jpg

Image source: Wikipedia Commons. Artist: Raffael (1504-05).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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