“We see a deadly sin in every home”: Contrapasso In Dante’s Inferno and Se7en

By Noel Weichbrodt

“I won’t deny my own personal desire to turn each sin against the sinner.”2 “Love, which absolves/None who are loved from loving, made my heart burn/With joy so strong that as you see it cleaves/Still to him, here. Love gave us both one death.”3 So say John Doe and Francesca in Se7en and The Inferno respectively, two works that incorporate the medieval idea of contrapasso into their schemes of justice. While The Inferno was written circa 1300 by the greatest of medieval Christian poets, Dante, Se7en is a film, made in 1995, written by Andrew Kevin Walker. How has contrapasso changed in its leap from the summit of medieval thought to the explicit depths of postmodern 20th century America? I hope to examine that question in this paper, while addressing the development of the idea through time, and noting the differing concepts of justice, sin, and punishment in these two works. First, what is contrapasso?

The ideas behind contrapasso begin with the Bible. In Exodus, the Law addresses retribution for crime; “But if if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”4 In the New Testament, Jesus says “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”5 So, the idea of contrapasso contains the idea of retribution and reciprocation for what crimes a person commits, both on the physical body and on the social person.

If you read further in Exodus, though, the conception of retribution becomes more complex. No longer is it just a simple reciprocation of violence. “If a

man strikes the eye of his...servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye.”6 Here we find not just simple tit-for-tat, but a sort of judgment of social and existential impact of the crime that is included in the punishment.

Moving on to Aristotle, this idea is picked up and amplified. “...evil man seeking pleasure is punished like a beast of burden. Hence, they say, those pains should be inflicted that are especially opposed to the pleasures men love.”7 The Philosopher picks up on the Exodus approach to punishment, but takes the inner sin of a man and exposes it for all to see by making that sin apply to the external body (be it social or physical) of the man.

The Theologian, Thomas Aquinas, takes Aristotles’ idea, and gives it a name: contrapassum. In his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, the Divine Doctor notes “But the evil man who seeks pleasure ought to be punished by pain or sorrow... Hence...those pains should be inflicted that are directly contrary to cherished pleasures, for example, a drunkard should be forced to drink only water.”8 And in the Summa Theologica, he creates the word contrapassum, defining it as “counter-suffered.” Thomas uses both the Bible’s idea of retributive justice and Aristotle’s extension of justice to the external person. “[Contrapassum is] an exact concordance of a reaction with the antecedent action,” and the nature of justice requires that the punishment be harsher and deeper than the crime.9

We have now come to Dante. It is he who uses the word contrapasso, a Italianized version of Aquinas’ contrapassum. He uses it in a speech by Count Ungulio in the Eighth Circle of Hell to denote the suffering in hell that extends or

reproduces the sin in the human body. Dante shows changes both in the external body and in the moral framework of the punished.10 In Dante, this is illustrated numerous times, but a brief example for now would be the punishment of gluttons. The Pilgrim finds them wallowing in mud like the pigs they modeled in their life. Here, there is both physical change (from walking upright to wallowing, blind) and in moral framework (pelted by the rain, wallowing in the mud, they realize that in life they were caught in a pig-pen of sin). Whereas Exodus, Aristotle, and Aquinas all discussed repayment/retaliation for a single, particular action, Dante repaid the the soul’s distinctive career of sin characterized by one special sin with contrapasso.11

In the final work examined, Se7en takes a more literal bent to Dante’s idea of contrapasso. In the John Doe quote this paper opened with, he says “I won’t deny my own personal desire to turn each sin against the sinner.” Somerset, the older detective played by Morgan Freeman representing Virgil, comments that the punishments were not so much repentance, but “forced attrition” for the person’s sins. Se7en seems to ignore the “moral interpenetration”12 that The Inferno represented so well, and instead extends the literal, perverse, revisiting of the sins on the sinner by killing them with their sins. In the very first killing, the glutton is forced to eat until he dies. A very literal use of contrapasso, but one that does take up on the idea of moral framework change, or even moral awareness of their sin. In Se7en, contrapasso is used mainly for ironic effect in the killing of living people.

Evident from this previous discussion, then, is that The Inferno has a complex

understanding and use of contrapasso shown by Dante’s imaginative break with historical understanding of retributive justice. Also evident is that Se7en contains puzzling moral dilemas—the killer in the movie kills according to contrapasso, not waiting for divine justice to occur in Hell. These two topics need further explication.

Contrapasso punishment is meted out in Hell in The Inferno. The punishments show the deviation of the soul’s proper motion (note the Aristotelian language here) from God towards earthly desires.13 This punishment is not simply retributive, but also symbolic of the perverse or false love that the soul deviated from God for. In Hell, the sinners punishment is more revelation to the sinner of his sin than retribution against the sinner for his sin.14 In that way, the punishment of the sinner’s perversity is a parody of his sin, a sort of fun-house mirror image of the sin that characterized the sinner’s life. Further, the punishment seems to be a dramatic consequence or hyperbolic extension of the sin. These details of Dante’s use of contrapasso are illustrated in the punishment of the Lustful in the Fifth canto. This paper began with a quote from Francesca, whose sin was lust. She, along with all the others whose lives were characterized by lust, are floating in the air, buffeted by wind and stuck to their lovers in an eternal embrace. Their external bodies are buffeted by wind as their inner reason and will was buffeted by desire.

In a way, the sinners punishment seems to be not just revelation and justice, but an ironic joke of God on the sinner.15 As readers, we can see God’s symbolic punishment of the person’s sin, while the sinner experiences the pain of the

punishment and the continual realization of the cause of that punishment.16 Perhaps the highest ironic joke that the reader of The Inferno and God share is the punishment of the greedy. As the Pilgrim moves deeper into Hell in canto Seven, Satan’s banner is advancing to the cry “Pape Satan, pape Satan, aleppe!” Beneath the Pilgrim, Dante describes the greedy as a faceless bunch like the faceless coins they desired, running in circles, carrying giant stones shaped as coins, which they use to bash and ram each other with, screaming “Why do you hoard?!”17 The irony of the punishment is apparent to the reader, while the sinners bodily suffer the fun-house mirror interpretation of their internal sin.

Se7en’s literal, less imaginative use of contrapasso is a result of the film’s moral dilemmas. The sinner’s internal sin is used to cause not their eternal, divine punishment, but their worldly death. (Although the film is set in Hell, represented by New York City, the people are alive, and not already dead and condemned.) This death is not at the hands of the Angel of Death, but a serial killer named John Doe intent a divine mission of exposing the universality of sin in mankind. Where does he obtain his authority to mete out justice in this way? For Dante, this was answered by an appeal to Divine Law and eternal justice (God had condemned the souls in Hell to eternal punishment). But in Se7en, the killer kills victims who, though in sin, are seeming innocent and undeserving of their horrifically painful deaths. Take the killing of the man who represented Sloth for example. Although a homeless drug addict, was this man really deserving of being slowly killed over a course of months by being chained to a bed, kept alive by drugs, while his muscles atrophied, bedsores festered, and insects gnawed at him? Whom among us is such a low-life as to deserve to suffer such a death at the hands of man?

An additional moral dilemma is that of Detective Mills at the end of the film. When he finds out that John Doe has killed his wife, he faces a choice: either he gives in to Wrath and kills John Doe, thus fulfilling justice that cannot be fulfilled by the corrupt civil justice system, or he gives up his wrath and lets John Doe’s fate be determined by the judicial system in Hell. In the final cut, Mills chooses to kill John Doe, thus making his sin of Wrath the seventh and final sin John Doe has caused. But in an alternate, unfilled ending, the morally pure Detective Somerset kills Doe, thus resolving Mill’s dilemma. How does contrapasso fit into this dilemma? The contrapasso of John Doe would be having the very subject of his murderous efforts, Mills, kill him. But the irony is that by giving Doe his contrapasso punishment, Mills commits the seventh deadly sin and thus stands condemned of the very thing he kills John Doe for.

One more point on Se7en. Perhaps the film is more faithful to Aquinas’ definition of contrapassum, for it not only tries to come up with a sort of justice for sinful acts, but also shows the application of contrapassum in the realm of moral virtue. Aquinas’ contrapassum contains not only the recompense of sin with punishment, but also the recompense of merit with reward.18 Detective Somerset, who remained in Hell while keeping his moral high ground, gets rewarded at the end of the movie by leaving Hell and retiring to a nice, normal house upstate. Thus, the Divine justice of contrapassum is fulfilled for the detective.

Over the course of this paper, I have examined the roots of contrapasso, explored Dante’s complex conceptions of contrapasso, and become embroiled in Se7en’s interpretation of contrapasso. Contrapasso can perhaps be summarized to mean punishment in the internal and external person for the person’s sins. In

Dante, contrapasso comes to mean the perversion of the sinner’s internal characteristic sin to painfully punish the external body of the sinner. In Se7en, contrapasso is used for ironic effect as the sinners are killed by a perversion of their sin.

In conclusion, two keys for our understanding of contrapasso. The common theme of both The Inferno and Se7en is the suffering of sinners for their sin. For Biblically, suffering allows you to understand sin, as demonstrated by Jesus in his suffering and death on the cross. Second, another idea found both in the medieval Inferno and the postmodern Se7en is the universality of man’s sin. John Doe, as he rides to his death, says “We see a deadly sin in every home.” Dante, as he travels through the circles of hell, realizes that the only reason he does not stand condemned as a sinner like the rest of those damned souls is by God’s grace. We all deserve contrapasso.

1 John Doe in Se7en, New Line Cinema, 1995, Directed by David Fincher.

2 Ibid.

3 Francesca in The Inferno, by Dante C. V, 92-94. Translated by Robert Pinsky. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1994). P. 41

4 Exodus 21:23-25, NKJV.

5 Matthew 7:2.

6 Exodus 21:26ff.

7 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2152.

8 Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, 2152.

9 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II q. 61 a. 4.

10 Inferno, p. 340.

11 Kenneth Gross, “Infernal Metamorphoses: An interpretation of Dante’s ‘Conterpass’”. Modern Critical Views: Dante, edited by Harlold Bloom. (Chelsea House, New York, 1986). P. 181.

12 Inferno, p. 340

13 Gross, P. 182.

14 Ibid, P. 183.

15 Ibid, P. 184.

16 Ibid, P. 184.

17 Inferno, C. VII, 27.

18 Summa, II-II q. 61 a. 4.