Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, March 02, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 18-20, Fraud and Malice)

Before heading into the lower depths of Hell now’s a good time to review where Dante has taken us so far.  We’ve passed through several stages.  The Vestibule for “undecided” and Agnostics; a place for Virtuous Pagans who lived good lives but weren’t baptized; then four levels of punishment for those whose sins were based on lack of self-control; a separate level for Heretics; and finally a level for those whose sins were violent.

To get to the next level Virgil and Dante have to ride down on the back of the winged mythological creature Geryon.  Here Dante informs us that “there is a place in Hell called Malebolge” (literally translated as ‘evil pockets’) where those guilty of Fraud and Malice have been consigned.  Their sins run deeper than simple lack of self-control or violence.  Their sins are intentionally deceptive and malicious so the punishments are more severe.

Canto 18.  Pimps.  Dante takes the opportunity in The Inferno to accuse his fellow Italians of specific sins.  In this level he particularly has it in for Bologna.  One of the pimps at this level says “this place is packed with us Bolognese…remember we have avaricious hearts.”  Their avarice isn’t just simple greed.  They’ve turned their avarice in a particular direction by acquiring women willing to serve as prostitutes.  Their punishment is to be whipped by devils: “Just at that point a devil let him have the feel of his tailed whip and cried: ‘Move on, you pimp, you can’t cash in on women here!’”  And this level also includes Seducers as well as Pimps.  Consider Jason, whom we’ve met before in Euripides’ play Medea: “with his words of love, and loving looks, Jason succeeded in deceiving young Hypsipyle… He left here there, with child, and all alone; such sin condemns him to such punishment, and Medea, too, gets her revenge on him.” Flatterers are included here too.  Flattery is based on deceit and is therefore a kind of fraud.  Their punishment is more loathsome than painful: “from where I stood I saw souls in the ditch plunged into excrement that might well have been flushed from our latrines.”

Canto 19.  Simonists.  Simony is buying or selling Church positions or offices.  Our edition summarizes this section by saying that Dante “the Pilgrim responds with equally high language, inveighing against the Simonists, the evil churchmen who are punished here.”  Dante mentions three contemporary Popes who will wind up at this level.

Canto 20.  Soothsayers.  Soothsayers are those who practice sorcery and magic.  This practice might not seem so bad in a modern age which accepts Wicca and Ouija boards as harmless alternative spiritual practices.  Not so, says Virgil: “Who could be more wicked than that man who tries to bend divine will to his own!”  The punishment for soothsayers is interesting: “their faces looked down on their backs; they had to move ahead by moving backward, for they never saw what was ahead of them.”  Folks who tried to use magic to look into the future are condemned to look backward forever.  One notable character at this level is “Tiresias, who changed his looks: from a man he turned himself into a woman, transforming all his body, part for part…”  We’ve met this guy before.  In Sophocles' play (Oedipus the King) Oedipus asks Tiresias to help him investigate the murder of the previous king, Laius.  Who knew Tiresias was a transgendered person?  But Dante put him in Hell for practicing sorcery.  This section also shows why The Inferno is much more meaningful to readers who have read other Great Books.  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Cantos 14-17, Sins Against God, Nature and Art)

Dante has now passed through the four levels of Upper Hell (the Lustful, Gluttons, Hoarders and Spendthrifts, and the Wrathful and Slothful).  Those were the realms of souls who were all guilty of some form of Incontinence; they couldn’t control their passions.  Then he passed into Lower Hell through the circle of the Heretics.  Now he’s ready to proceed among the souls who were guilty of the more serious sin of violence.

Lower Hell requires some explanations, definitions and deep thinking.  In Canto 11 Virgil explained to Dante that “violence can be done to God, to self, or to one’s neighbor.”  What does Dante mean by the term “violence”?  Violence to others is defined this way: “by violent means a man can kill his neighbor or wound him grievously; his goods may suffer violence by arson, theft, and devastation…”  And there’s also a violence reserved for suicide: “Man can raise violent hands against himself and his own goods…”  These two circles make sense and are self-defined.  But what about the third circle of punishment for violence?  How can someone practice violence against God, Nature and Art?  This doesn’t seem possible.  Here are Dante’s explanations.

Canto 14.  Violence against God: Blasphemy.  How can someone practice violence against God?  The soul practices violence against God through blasphemy.  One of the things Dante wants to get through our heads is the seriousness of sin and how it leads to Hell.  In Canto 14 he says he “saw God’s justice in its dreadful operation…a fall of slowly raining broad flakes of fire showered steadily” on blasphemers.  Dante gives a concrete example in Capaneus, “one of the seven kings who assaulted Thebes…he blasphemed against Jove, who then struck him with a thunderbolt…and now, even in Hell he defies Jove’s thunderbolts.”  Blasphemers refuse to acknowledge the superior power of the gods.  This refusal to accept reality and the natural order of things leads to Hell.  Virgil comments on Capaneus this way: “he scorned, and would seem still to go on scorning God and treat him lightly.”  This is the reason Capaneus is in Hell.

Canto 15-16.  Violence against Nature: Sodomy.  How can someone practice violence against Nature?  The soul practices violence against Nature by doing things that are unnatural, against nature.  After leaving the blasphemers behind Dante says “we saw a troop of souls come hurrying toward us beside the bank, and each of them looked us up and down, as some men look at other men, at night, when the moon is new.”  Dante is using discretion but readers know what he’s talking about.  In Dante’s view it’s unnatural for men to be attracted to other men.  What’s the punishment for this sin?  “A member of this herd who stops one moment lies one hundred years unable to brush off the wounding flames.”  In other words, the punishment for lust is more lust, only intensified in Hell.

Canto 17.  Violence against Art: Usury.  How can someone practice violence against Art?  The soul practices violence against Art by misusing or perverting the purpose of Art.  This sin is similar to misusing or perverting Nature.  In Canto 11 Virgil said “Art, as best it can, imitates Nature.”  Usurers pervert the natural use of money and try to make money by using unnatural means.  This is a sin against the “art” of creating wealth.  Their punishment is appropriate to their sin because “around each sinner’s neck a pouch was hung…”  And this is where sins of violence give way to sins involving fraud and malice.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 12-14, Violent Sins)

Once Virgil has outlined the geography of Hell to Dante they’re ready to continue on their journey.  Dante says “your explanation certainly makes clear the nature of this pit and of its inmates.”  Now that he’s been given a roadmap Dante can understand where they’re headed: “In the first of the circles below are all the violent… to God, to self, or to one’s neighbor.”  The next three circles will show the punishment for those who lived violent lives.  But the punishments will vary depending on how that violence was done.

Canto 12 shows the punishment for violence against others.  This is less serious than violence done to one’s self or to God.  It’s easy to see why violence against God is the most serious sin of the three.  But it seems odd that in Dante’s view it’s more serious to harm myself than it is to harm others.  In the proper perspective it makes sense that suicide is worse than murder.  So this first level of violent souls houses those who spent their lives bringing violence to their neighbors; those who loved war and tyranny and murder.  It includes characters such as Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun.

Canto 13 is reserved for those who committed suicide.  Now Dante explains why suicide is worse than murder.  A Stoic philosopher, for example, believes suicide is an honorable way to exit when life becomes unbearable.  But Socrates didn’t think suicide was an acceptable solution and neither does Dante.  Why not?  Here’s the explanation given by Dante through one of the characters at this level of Hell: “My mind…believing death would free me from all scorn, made me unjust to me, who was all just.”  This particular soul had been a good man (he was “all just”) on earth until he committed suicide.  That was his undoing.  It’s interesting how suicide is punished and may give some insight into why Dante thinks it’s worse than murder.

“The moment that the violent soul departs the body it has torn itself away from (by suicide), Minos sends it down to the seventh hole; it drops to the wood, not in a place allotted, but anywhere that fortune tosses it.”  Here we should pause and reflect on what is actually happening.  The souls in this level of Hell had abandoned all hope (remember the sign above the gate to Hell).  But these particular souls had abandoned all hope before they ever left the earth.  By choosing suicide they gave up their future choices for any other path through life or any other destiny.  This is the reason why a soul who commits suicide is assigned “not in a place allotted, but anywhere fortune tosses it.”

It’s also instructive what Dante says will happen to these souls at the Last Judgment.  “Like the rest, we shall return to claim our bodies, but never again to wear them.  Wrong it is for a man to have again what he once cast off.  We shall drag them here and all along the mournful forest our bodies will hang forever more.”  On earth they had voluntary given up the bodies they had been given by God.  And since they abandoned their bodies, their bodies abandoned them.  Never more shall the two be reunited.  Like so many of the punishments in Hell this one seems harsh to many modern readers; someone desperate enough to take their own life deserves pity and compassion instead of condemnation.  But it doesn’t take a modern mind to feel love and compassion.  Dante feels it too.  He’s trying to make sense of it all and he would be amazed so many modern minds think they have more love and compassion than he does; possibly even more than God himself.

Friday, February 20, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 11, Punishments of Hell)

At this point in the story Dante is about one-third of the way through Hell.  He has just dealt with the Epicurean heresy of body and soul.  It’s interesting to note that Socrates believed this heresy too.  In the Phaedo dialog he says, “And what is purification but the separation of the soul from the body, as I was saying before; the habit of the soul gathering and collecting herself into herself, out of all the courses of the body; the dwelling in her own place alone, as in another life, so also in this, as far as she can; the release of the soul from the chains of the body? Very true, Simmias said. And what is that which is termed death, but this very separation and release of the soul from the body?  To be sure, he said. And the true philosophers and they only study and are eager to release the soul. Is not the separation and release of the soul from the body their especial study?”

On the edge of a steep bank Dante says “the disgusting overflow of stench the deep abyss was vomiting forced us back from the edge…”  Here’s Dante’s point.  Souls don’t smell; bodies do.  He goes on to say “Our descent will have to be delayed somewhat so that our sense of smell may grow accustomed to these vile fumes; then we will not mind them.”  As they’re waiting for their noses to get adjusted to the stench, Dante proposes they spend their time usefully: “You will have to find some way to keep our time from being wasted…”  And Virgil thinks this is a good idea.  He’ll tell Dante why the punishments of Hell are the way they are and why they’re located where they are.

He begins by stating that in Aristotle’s Ethics there are “three conditions that the heavens hate: incontinence, malice, and bestiality.”  He goes on to explain that “incontinence offends God least and merits the least blame… so you clearly see why they are separated from these malicious ones, and why God’s vengeance beats down upon their souls less heavily.”  In other words, Upper Hell contained those who couldn’t contain their own desires.  Lower Hell is reserved for more malicious souls; souls who on earth lived more like beasts than men.  The results may surprise modern readers.  Usurers, for example, are in Lower Hell.  Their sin was loaning money at unfair rates.  Why is this sin worse than lack of self-control?  The explanation is a little complicated but Virgil tries to explain that “Nature takes her course from the Divine Intellect, from its artistic workmanship… art, as best it can, imitates Nature… so your art may be said to be God’s grandchild.  From Art and Nature man was meant to take his daily bread to live.”  This could mean any art but Dante has asked particularly about usury, so Virgil tells him “the usurer, adopting other means, scorns Nature in herself and in her pupil, Art; he invests his hope in something else.”  The usurer doesn’t trust in the God of Nature; he trusts in his own art of moneymaking by unnatural means.

This isn’t just bad business practice; it’s malicious.  And Virgil says “all malice has injustice as its end.”  The souls in Lower Hell have manipulated art and nature to propagate injustice for their own gain.  This is their primary sin, especially since it is “an end achieved by violence or by fraud.”  Violence is bad but fraud is worse.  Virgil once again explains that “both of these are sins that earn the hate of Heaven… but since fraud belongs exclusively to man, God hates it more and, therefore, far below, the fraudulent are placed and suffer most.”  Dante (and the reader) begin to see the map.  The road to Hell is paved not with good intentions but with intemperance, violence and fraud. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 10, Epicurean Heretics)

Before he travels on into Lower Hell Dante has one more stop to make.  The heading for Canto 10 says he’ll be visiting The Epicurean Heretics.  Who are they?  To help us understand this section a little better it may be well to consider what Wikipedia says:  “For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by peace and freedom from fear; the absence of pain; and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and evil; death is the end of both body and soul and should therefore not be feared; the gods neither reward nor punish humans…”  It’s clear why Dante devoted a whole canto to this sixth circle.  It opposes the whole idea of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

With that background in mind we can better understand what Virgil is talking about when he tells Dante “The private cemetery on this side serves Epicurus and his followers, who make the soul die when the body dies.”  Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher but the idea that the soul dies when the body dies is a common theme throughout the history of philosophy.  Remember what our last author (Nietzsche) had to say about body and soul?  He said “The awakened and knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.”  No one could ever accuse Nietzsche of being an Epicurean but on the issue of the nature of body and soul they are in complete agreement.  There is no soul; there is only body.  When the body ceases to exist, “we” cease to exist.  And that’s the exact opposite of what Dante is saying: when the body dies the soul continues on.  Our souls reap punishments or rewards according to what we’ve done in this life.  Who’s right, Epicurus or Dante? 

These are two distinct viewpoints.  Let’s consider the Epicurean viewpoint from Dante’s perspective.  Epicureans want a happy, tranquil life.  Dante wants a happy life too but his notion of a happy life is one that keeps us out of Hell.  Epicurus rejects the idea of an Inferno, or a Purgatory, or a Paradise; happiness is only achieved on this earth by minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure.  Dante agrees that pain is bad and pleasure is good.  But only within the context of God’s will.  Pains and pleasures are the punishments and rewards in the next world for the way we live our lives in this world.  Epicurus rejects this idea.  He believes the gods neither punish nor reward humans.  For Dante this is heresy.  The sixth circle of Hell is reserved for people who think that way.

Epicurean philosophy is seductive. It makes sense on a human level.  But to Dante it’s still wrong; it’s only words, not reality.  As Virgil tells Dante “be sure you choose your words with care.”  Be careful which words and which guide you follow.  They will be your destiny.  In Dante’s view Epicureans got it all wrong and they’re punished in an appropriate way.  They think they know something they really don’t know.  They think they know what the future will bring but they really don’t.  They think both body and soul will cease to exist once the body dies.  Dante tells them “…all of you can see ahead to what the future holds but your knowledge of the present is not clear.”  They can’t see the true path they should be following right now; the path to Heaven.  The Epicurean heretic replies: “…all our knowledge will be completely dead at that time when the door to future things is closed forever.”  At the end of time Epicureans will all be, in a sense, brain dead but their bodies will live on.  For Dante this is not a happy destiny.

Monday, February 16, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Cantos 8-9, Fallen Angels)

Upper Hell is for those poor souls who merely lacked self-control.  They couldn’t control their own desires but their sins weren’t intended to harm other people, only themselves.  When Dante leaves them behind he begins his journey into Lower Hell where there are more serious sins.  These are sins committed with full knowledge, willful intent and malice.  The entrance to Lower Hell is guarded by “…the city we call Dis, with its great walls and its fierce citizens.”  This is not a happy place.  Dante says “I saw more than a thousand fiendish angels perching above the gates enraged, screaming…” and a little later “sprang up three hellish Furies stained with blood…”  Dante begins to lose courage as he has done before because these fallen angels refuse to let him go any further: “You (Virgil) can come, but he must go.”  Dante’s afraid his guide will leave him behind and he’ll be lost in Hell.  Virgil reassures him: “feed your weary spirit with comfort and good hope; you can be sure I will not leave you in this underworld.”  Virgil knows that even he doesn’t have the power to overcome powerful angels but he still tells Dante, “I shall win the contest, no matter how they plot to keep us out!  This insolence of theirs is nothing new…”  And he’s right.  But first Dante has some advice for the reader.  He wants us to read carefully and think deeply.  He says, “O, all of you whose intellects are sound, look now and see the meaning that is hidden beneath the veil that covers my strange verses.” 

Suddenly there comes “a blast of sound, shot through with fear, exploded, making both shores of Hell begin to tremble…”  The fallen angels scatter like frogs around a pond.  What has happened?  Another angel has appeared and this one’s not a fallen angel; “he was sent from Heaven.”  This must be one of Heaven’s top guns; Saint Michael the Archangel.  He speaks like a powerful prince addressing defeated rebels as he says to the whole host of fallen angels “O Heaven’s outcasts, despicable souls, what insolence is this that breeds in you? What do you gain by locking horns with fate?”  See the meaning, as Dante says.  The fallen angels are outcasts.  They rebelled against the powers of Heaven.  Even after failing they were never repentant about what they’d done; they’re still insolent about it.  That makes them despicable in St. Michael’s eyes. 

Ever so often St. Michael has to make this unpleasant journey and admonish them.  He probably hated every minute of it.  Dante writes “from time to time with his left hand he fanned his face to push the putrid air away.”  But he’s St. Michael.  This is his duty.  This is his current assignment, unpleasant though it may be.  One of the things Dante wants us to take away from these “strange verses” is the vast distance between St. Michael and the fallen angels.  It’s the vast distance between the final destinies of virtue and vice.  The fallen angels now inhabit the city of Dis.  This is the stink hole where they live and this is what they do all the time.  We don’t know how St. Michael spends his time.  After all, we’re only mortals, even Dante.  But Dante gives us a hint when he says St. Michael “turned then and retraced the squalid path without one word to us and on his face the look of one concerned and spurred by things that were not those he found surrounding him.” One popular image of Heaven is angels sitting around playing harps all the time.  Dante says, think again.  St. Michael must have many heavy responsibilities.  What kinds of responsibilities?  Dante doesn’t know, and neither do we, because we’re only human.  Maybe this is what Shakespeare meant when he wrote in Hamlet: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Saturday, February 14, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Cantos 5-8, Intemperance)

When Dante and Virgil leave Limbo they enter into the first official circle of Hell.  If we think of The Inferno as a kind of moral geography then this is the region for those whose primary sin was lack of self-control.  The Great Books translation uses the term Incontinence to describe this section of the map but in modern usage that’s an unfortunate choice of words.  Intemperance is closer to Dante’s meaning; or lack of restraint.  There are several levels in this “Upper Hell” and it includes those who were Lustful, Gluttons, Hoarders and Spendthrifts and the Wrathful and Slothful.

First stop is The Lustful.  It should be noted that all the sins in Upper Hell are relatively simple and straightforward.  These weren’t necessarily what we would call bad people.  They just couldn’t control themselves.  But they couldn’t control themselves in different ways.  Thus, we have different levels and punishments for each sin.  For example, at this level we find The Lustful souls.  Virgil explains to Dante that in “this place of punishment all those who sin in lust have been condemned.”  We might ask what’s wrong with lust?  Virgil says this level is reserved for “those who make reason slave to appetite.”  It’s not that sex is necessarily sinful.  It’s just that these folks have subverted the natural order of things.  Reason should control our sexual urges, not the other way around; and these folks failed to do that.  Cleopatra is at this level; and Helen and Paris.

The next level is reserved for Gluttons.  Here we should note that the punishments in Hell are calibrated to fit particular sins.  Cerberus is a good example of how gluttons are punished.  Cerberus is “a ruthless and fantastic beast, with all three throats howls out his doglike sounds… his belly swollen, and he has claws for hands...  he quiets down with the first mouthful of his food, busy with eating, wrestling with that alone.”  In this world Gluttons ate too much.  So in Hell they must live with a beast who has the same cravings.

The Hoarders and Spendthrifts come next.  Hoarders are misers in the worst sense of the term.  They’re tight-fisted to an extreme.  And Spendthrifts spend money in an extravagant, irresponsible way.  They squander wealth and waste its real value to themselves and to the community.  Dante paints a picture of these two extremes, “one side screaming ‘why hoard?’ the other side ‘why waste?’ …they could not judge with moderation when it came to spending… opposing guilts divide them in two… eternally the two will come to blows.”  Money itself is not the problem but “it was squandering and hoarding that have robbed them of the lovely world, and got them in this brawl.”

Finally we come to the Wrathful and the Slothful.  At this level there’s a sort of “swamp that has the name of Styx.”  And here Dante saw “muddy people moving in that marsh, all naked, with their faces scarred by rage.”  They fight and bite and claw each other continually.  Virgil says these are “the souls of those that anger overcame… and beneath the slimy top are sighing souls who make bubbles at the surface.”  The ones below the surface are the Slothful; those too lazy to fight and they tell Dante “now we lie sluggish here in this black muck!”  Again we see two extremes: one extreme is furious activity, the other extreme is debilitating indolence.  And that’s the key to understanding all of Upper Hell.  All these poor souls had improper relationships toward sex, food, money and action.  Their sins are human and understandable.  But they still lead to Hell.