Why does a person commit suicide? Despair. Hopelessness. Depression. Hatred of self? Seeing oneself as unworthy as worthless.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy starting with Inferno, the suicides are relegated to the seventh ledge of Hell. They are trees and bushes and thorny plant-like, immobile and bleed when branches are torn or vegetation wrecked. Suicide is immoral according to Dante because it is a rejection of the gift of life, which is God’s to give and take (Dreher, 130).
As a just punishment for carelessly discarding their bodies, which are meant to move about and sense the world around them , they are immobile and imprisoned (Notes for Canto 13, 456). Each soul in this ledge are full of regret and longing, separated from their bodies for now, until the Last Day when they will be reunited, but it will be in pain and regret, for they discarded their bodies. They eschewed their purpose. By killing themselves, they denied their God-given purpose–their bodies are good. And denying they are creature and not Creator. We cannot do whatever we wish with our bodies–even kill them ourselves.
In Hell, there is no movement, at least toward something. In Purgatory, there is movement, movement upward, always moving toward God by grace. Grace leads the soul onward and upward. Whereas in Hell, there is no movement. The circle of the suicides portrays this well. The souls here are literally immobile. In Hell one is stuck within the Self. Like Sisyphus rolling the stone up a hill to fall back down again. Hell is trapped within the Self, never growing, never moving toward an end, stuck inward, upon itself.
The souls in the seventh circle wallow in self-pity. Turned in upon themselves. Only seeing themselves. They have failed to love others and especially themselves. Pier della Vigna is the one who speaks to Dante in this seventh ledge. He speaks of envy. His enemies slandered him and in his envy toward them, he killed himself. Envy is a poison, love its antidote (Dreher, 230). In his despair, Pier kills himself instead of seeking things above, he demands justice that he did not get, so extinguishes his life.
Suicide is despairing of the self of the body and soul unity. It is taking into one’s own hands life and death. Trapped within the mind of despair, one takes life away. Envy can certainly lead one to despair and suicide, so can many other things. Despair can bring a person to a stand still and despair of life itself, becoming immobile like the trees in Inferno. The only thing that pulls us out of ourself is God’s love. God’s love moves us, giving us life, causing us to grow.
(More on envy in the next entry: Canto 13: purgatory and the envious)
(Several insights gleaned from conversations with Dr. Matt Moser, notes from Tony Esolen and Rod Dreher. And from Jon Foreman music.)