Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, November 15, 2010

DANTE: The Inferno

What is justice? Most people believe justice is when bad people are punished and good people are rewarded. That obviously doesn’t always happen in the real world. A lot of times bad people end up being surrounded by wealth and luxury. And a lot of good people wind up with nothing. A few good people even get killed for being good. So why should I try to be “just” or, in modern terms, why should I do the right thing? Dante is one of those who believe justice is when bad people are punished for doing bad things and good people are rewarded for doing good things. The problem as Dante sees it is that we don’t know the whole story. We see bad people being successful and dying a peaceful death in old age in a mansion. We don’t see what happens after that. Dante’s poem about The Inferno tells us what happens to bad people after they die. The tale begins when Dante tells us that Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path. Many people experience a mid-life crisis and some of us go a little wacko during that spell. During his own mid-life crisis Dante wrote a long poem about taking a journey through Hell. This isn’t something everybody can do. And it’s not a task Dante took on lightly. It’s not child’s play to descend into Hell and come back to write about it. Dante trembles a little at the task set before him: Why am I to go? Who allows me to? I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul. But Dante has been chosen precisely because he’s lost in a dark wood. His life isn’t going the way he had planned and he’s wandered off the straight path. He needs help. A benefactor named Beatrice sees his plight from Heaven. She gets Virgil (the long-dead Roman poet) to come back to earth and serve as Dante’s guide. Virgil leads Dante to the very edge of Hell. Over the gate there’s a sign posted: I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY…ABANDON EVERY HOPE, ALL YOU WHO ENTER. This is the entrance for all the souls who didn’t make it to Purgatory or Heaven. For these souls, there is no exit. Entering this world is a one-way street. It’s not like anything we’ve ever experienced before. Dante is often at a loss for words on how to explain the sights he sees, the smells and the sounds, because everything about this underworld is utterly alien to creatures used to living in a world of sunshine. He does his best to describe what it’s like. But we have to strain our imaginations to catch his true meaning. Dante warns us that this won’t be easy: …all of you whose intellects are sound, look now and see the meaning that is hidden beneath the veil that covers my strange verses… During this journey we meet some souls we’ve seen before and some that we haven’t. But they all have one thing in common: they deserve to be in Hell. Why are some souls in Hell while others aren’t? Virgil tries to explain to Dante (and Dante to us) as best he can. In the vestibule (something like a waiting room) there eternally dwell wretches, who had never truly lived… because they had never made a decision to be either truly good or truly bad. Pontius Pilate is an example of this type. Then there’s a circle called Limbo. They’re not quite in Hell either but they’re more at peace with themselves. They just won’t ever make it to Heaven. Here live The virtuous pagans… they have not sinned. But their great worth alone was not enough, for they did not know Baptism, which is the gateway to the faith you follow, and if they came before the birth of Christ, they did not worship God the way one should; I myself (Virgil) am a member of this group. For this defect, and for no other guilt, we here are lost… (Along with)… Homer, the sovereign poet…(and) Hector, Aeneas, Caesar, Socrates, and Plato. Plato? In Hell? Can this be true? Yes, it can. Why? Wasn’t Plato a good man? Probably so. Just being good isn’t enough to get you to Heaven because they did not know Baptism… For this defect, and for no other guilt, we here are lost… Is this justice? Many of us won’t think this is fair. Many dwellers down here don’t think it’s fair either. Maybe it’s not “fair” but nevertheless there they are. And here we are. And we’re just getting started. Welcome to Hell…


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