Dante’s decision to place the much-respected Brunetto Latini in the seventh circle of hell is his declaration that no matter how good or wise someone may be, sin is sin and must be punished accordingly. Dante writes that when he was speaking to Latini, he walked “as one who walks in reverence meditating good and evil” (l. 45 p. 120). Apparently, Dante the character was baffled to find Latini there and by “meditating good and evil,” was trying to resolve his questions and understand Latini’s presence. Even in hell Dante listens to Latini, takes his advice, and heeds his warning. It is clear then why Dante doesn’t condemn him quite as wholeheartedly as he does some of the other sinners, like the simoniacs.
What is a bit unclear to me is Latini’s speech to Dante. Latini says “your good works will be your enemy,” which leads me to speculate that somehow Latini’s sin of sodomy was tied to his good works (l. 64 p. 121). Knowing that he was a prominent scholar, politician, and writer, and thinking that good works would then most likely involve teaching, mentoring, or otherwise imparting his knowledge, perhaps his sin occurred with someone with whom he had a “student-teacher” relationship. This line of thought, however, reminds me that Dante and Latini apparently had just that sort of relationship, and since Ciardi’s notes make it seem like Dante was the only person to know of Latini’s homosexuality, I wonder how Dante would have known this unless he was the other sodomite in Latini’s homosexual relationship. If this is the case, it would explain why Dante “went astray from the straight road and woke to find [himself] alone in a dark wood” (ll. 1-3 p. 16). The pun on “straight” is just too amusing to ignore, and yet I doubt they used that term then in the same way we do today. In fact, all of these speculations are most likely unfounded and irrelevant, but the possibilities intrigue me.
If Dante’s belief that all sinners must be punished in accordance with their sins is true, and assuming that my speculations are also true, then Dante would have realized his fate as soon as he saw Latini. This may explain some of his hesitation and surprise at discovering Latini among “that ghostly crew” (l. 22 p. 120). I believe, however, that if homosexuality is indeed a sin and hell is as Dante depicts it, homosexuals would not be in the seventh circle, but rather, in the second with the carnal. The two sins go together I think under a broad category of “sexual sin.” But personally, I don’t think anyone goes to hell because of a sin or any other action. It’s entirely possible for homosexuals to go to heaven just like anybody else. This is a protestant view though, and one which Dante would not share.