Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 4, Virtuous Pagans)

After leaving the Vestibule of Hell where all the agnostics live Dante finds himself in another after worldly chamber.  It’s not exactly Hell, not exactly Heaven.  It’s a sort of twilight world where “there were no wails but just the sounds of sighs rising and trembling through the timeless air.”  What sort of place is this, Dante wonders?  And what sort of people are these?  This is the place called Limbo.  Virgil describes the situation of Limbo’s inhabitants to Dante: “…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…”  There are several key points in this speech.  First of all, Virgil is using a Christian concept (sin) even though he himself is not Christian.  He’s also relaying another concept: effort alone will not get someone into Heaven.  He uses a third Christian concept when he talks about Baptism.  Dante had already gone through the gateway to Hell. Baptism is a similar gateway to Heaven; only instead of abandoning hope (as the gateway to Hell says) Heaven is the fulfillment of Christian hope.

Putting these concepts together Virgil (through Dante as author) has given a very short catechism of the Christian faith.  Sin is the universal disease of humanity.  Good works are not enough to cure that disease.  Baptism is necessary to wash away the stain of sin.  But Virgil lived before Jesus.  So why is he (and the others) in Limbo?  Virgil explains it this way: “if they came before the birth of Christ, they did not worship God the way one should; I myself am a member of this group.  For this defect, and for no other guilt, we here are lost.”  This is a harsh verdict for modern readers.  It was hard for Dante too.  He says “the words I heard weighed heavy on my heart; to think that souls as virtuous as these were suspended in that Limbo, and forever!”  Virgil is his hero and Dante has to report that his hero will not make it to Heaven.  Dante is sentimental but he’s also a devout Catholic and a firm believer in “the teachings of unerring Christian doctrine.” 

Virgil is a pagan.  He hasn’t been baptized and he hasn’t worshipped God the way he should.  Dante has no choice but to leave him in Limbo.  That doesn’t mean nobody ever got out of Limbo.  Virgil goes on to say that “a mighty lord” once came down and “took from us the shade of our first parent.”  That was Adam.  This mighty Lord (Jesus Christ) also took Abel, Noah, Moses, Abram, David, Israel, and Rachel, among others.  However this was a one-time deal.  Virgil says “before these souls were taken, no human soul had ever reached salvation.”  That means great non-Christian poets (Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan) won’t go to Heaven.  Neither will great classical heroes: Electra, Hector, Aeneas, Caesar.  Neither will great philosophers: Aristotle, Socrates, Plato; nor great mathematicians and scientists like Euclid and Ptolemy or physicians such as Hippocrates. 

This doesn’t seem fair.  But that’s not Dante’s point.  We might argue that many so-called “Christians” have been baptized and live bad lives.  Dante would say, yes, there are many bad Christians but they will still go to Heaven if that is God’s will.  Not fair.  Look at those other guys who got out.  Adam disobeyed God; Noah got drunk; David was an adulterer; Israel (Jacob) cheated in business deals.  Dante would argue that we (in the modern world) have a sort of moral/therapeutic do-it-yourself theology.  We think if we’re nice we should get to go to Heaven free; if there is a Heaven.  Dante thinks that’s the kind of delusion that lands souls in either the Vestibule of Hell or in Limbo.     

Thursday, February 12, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 2-3, Going To Hell)

At the beginning of Plato’s Republic there’s a scene where Socrates is talking to an old man.  Socrates wants to know what it’s like to get old and be closer to death.  It’s worth repeating the old man’s response because it relates closely to Dante’s Inferno:

“let me tell you, Socrates, that when a man thinks himself to be near death, fears and cares enter into his mind which he never had before; the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there of deeds done here were once a laughing matter to him, but now he is tormented with the thought that they may be true: either from the weakness of age, or because he is now drawing nearer to that other place, he has a clearer view of these things; suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others. And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings. But to him who is conscious of no sin, sweet hope, as Pindar charmingly says, is the kind nurse of his age: ‘Hope,’ he says, ‘cherishes the soul of him who lives in justice and holiness and is the nurse of his age and the companion of his journey; hope which is mightiest to sway the restless soul of man.’  How admirable are his words! And the great blessing of riches, I do not say to every man, but to a good man, is, that he has had no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and when he departs to the world below he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men.”

Now consider this week’s reading in Dante’s Inferno.  Virgil has just met Dante in the dark woods of this world and he’s come to take him on a journey down through Hell.  Dante will continue (without Virgil) up the mountain of Purgatory and on into the divine realm of Paradise.  Dante asks “why am I to go?  Who allows me to?  I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul.”  It’s interesting how Virgil answers.  Dante isn’t going because he’s been a good man.  He’s been granted this favor because he has a special guardian.  Virgil tells him “I was among those dead who are suspended, when a lady summoned me… (and she said) my friend strays on a desert slope… give him your help.”  Who is this guardian of Dante’s soul, urging Virgil to go help him?  “I am Beatrice, who urges you to go…”

Beatrice doesn’t want Dante to get old before he starts thinking about his ultimate fate.  She wants him to start thinking about it now, before it’s too late.  Dante finds out that once someone dies and enters the Inferno it’s too late to turn back.  In Canto III the gateway to Hell says: Abandon Every Hope, All You Who Enter.  Dante is appalled and says to Virgil, “master, these words I see are cruel.”  But this isn’t Hell yet.  This is just the Vestibule of Hell.  The Vestibule is the place for those who were “neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God, who undecided stood but for themselves.”  They were people who were agnostic and refused to decide.  They weren’t necessarily bad people but “Heaven, to keep its beauty, cast them out, and even Hell itself would not receive them.”  These souls were actually a great multitude and Dante says, “I wondered how death could have undone so many.”  Somehow it doesn’t seem fair but then he reasons that “this was that sect of evil souls who were hateful to God and to His enemies.  These wretches, who had never truly lived…”  Dante has just begun his education and he’ll meet more interesting people along the way.  Next stop he’ll meet Socrates!  In Hell?  Surprise, surprise.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 1, Introduction)

Taking a journey through hell is an old tradition in Western literature.  In The Odyssey Homer writes about Odysseus going down to Hades.  While he’s there he encounters shady ghosts inhabiting a shady world.  They are semi-human.  They can talk and still retain their own identities.  Odysseus even recognizes his own mother and Achilles.  But Achilles best sums up Hades when he says he would rather be a slave on earth than rule the whole kingdom of the underworld.  Dante has a much different view than Homer’s.  Dante begins The Inferno this way: “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.”  This is no ancient mythic hero like Odysseus.  It’s Dante himself.  He puts himself in his own poem.

There are several interesting points about this passage.  First of all we find Dante as a middle-aged man still living on earth.  He’s midway through his journey of life.  And he says “I woke to find myself in a dark wood.”  Why is he in the dark wood?  He doesn’t say.  How did he get there?  He doesn’t know that either.  But we get a clue when he adds “for I had wandered off from the straight path.”  This is very different from the journey of Odysseus.  Odysseus was on a journey to get back home from Troy.  He hadn’t wandered off from any straight path.  He was just trying to get back home.  The gods instructed him to go through Hades first and even told him how to do it.  But Dante has no instructions from the gods.  He has no instructions at all.  And Dante begins his journey for a very simple reason: he’s lost.  He doesn’t know where home is; much less how to get there.  That’s what happens when you leave “the straight path.”  And on top of that, he’s being menaced by ferocious creatures blocking his way wherever he turns.

It seems like a hopeless situation.  But in the midst of all this fear and confusion, when everything seems lost, someone comes to Dante’s aid.  And it’s a very strange character to show up in an epic poem.  It’s not a mythological hero.  We might expect someone like Odysseus or even Achilles who could assist Dante.  They had been to an epic poetry hell before and knew their way around.  But Dante has a different kind of epic hero in mind.  Virgil.  Not only is Virgil a real man; he was one of the world’s premier epic poets.  The problem was this: when Dante was living Virgil had been dead for over a thousand years.  So already in Canto 1 we can sense the poetic genius of Dante.  He could have chosen Aeneas as his guide.  After all, Aeneas was the mythic hero of an earlier epic poem (The Aeneid) and had made his own journey into hell too.  Why not use Aeneas as a guide?        

For one thing, Dante wants to show respect to a fellow Italian poet.  He owed a great deal of his own talent and his own love of poetry to the poetry of Virgil.  For another thing, Dante wants to travel freely among living, and dead, and literary characters.  Virgil will be his guide through this multi-charactered Inferno.  And in more than one sense Dante will be literally following in his footsteps.  Virgil says “follow me for your own good, and I shall be your guide and lead you out through an eternal place where you will hear desperate cries, and see tormented shades, some old as Hell itself, and know what second death is…”  Here’s another odd thing about the choice of Virgil.  Dante was a Christian; Virgil was not.  How can a pagan safely guide a Christian through Hell?  Hell isn’t on anybody’s top ten list of tourist attractions.  But with Dante as storyteller and Virgil as tour guide, maybe it should be.        

Monday, February 02, 2015

NIETZSCHE: Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche and the Great Books)

Some random thoughts on Nietzsche and some of our recent Great Books readings.

The Bible.  Ecclesiastes.  The Preacher did great things.  He tried to become Nietzsche’s Over-man.  Instead of living by society’s rules he did whatever he wanted.  But this philosophy didn’t work for him.  In the end the Preacher concludes: “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.”  This is the kind of thinking Nietzsche despised as mediocrity.   

Sophocles.  Oedipus the King.  Oedipus tried hard to live by society’s rules.  He believed in the Greek gods and he tried hard to avoid the awful fate of killing his father and marrying his mother.  But the will of the gods proved stronger than the will of Oedipus.  Everything the oracles predicted came true.  Killing your father was a Greek taboo.  Marrying your mother was a Greek taboo.  Nietzsche wrote that the Over-man is “the man who breaks their tables of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker…”  The Over-man isn’t bound by laws and taboos.  So what, he says.  But Sophocles doesn’t agree with Nietzsche.  When Oedipus finds out what he’s done he blinds himself.  For Sophocles it’s important to respect the laws of man and have proper reverence for the gods.           

Freud.  On Dreams.  In general Freud agrees with Nietzsche’s analysis of the psychology of religion.  Freud wrote, “prescientific men had no difficulty in finding an explanation of dreams… it was either a favorable or a hostile manifestation by higher powers, demonic and divine… all this ingenious mythology was transformed into psychology and today only a small minority of educated people doubt that dreams are a product of the dreamer’s own mind.”  And it’s not just dreams.  Freud and Nietzsche agree that religion is also a product of the believer’s own mind.

Goethe.  Faust, Part One.  Faust would make an excellent candidate to become a disciple of Zarathustra.  In Goethe’s play Faust says, “There’s nothing we can know!  And that’s what eats my heart out… I’m not afraid of Hell or the Devil…  Not even a dog would go on living this way!  So I have turned, instead, to Magic.”  Replace the word Magic with Zarathustra and Faust would be well on his way to becoming an Over-man trainee.

Kant.  First Principles of Morals.  Nietzsche would not approve.  Kant wrote, “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.”  In other words, what if everybody did it?  He goes on, “We will now enumerate a few duties, adopting the usual division of them into duties to ourselves and to others…”  It would be hard to find a better example of what Nietzsche calls the herd mentality.

Flaubert.  A Simple Heart.  Felicite is a better example of Nietzsche’s herd mentality.  She goes to church daily but understands very little about religion: “Of dogma she understood nothing; did not even try to understand.”  And yet she kept on going, year after year.  When Felicite considered Jesus “she wept when she heard the story of the Passion.  How could they have crucified him like that?”  But Nietzsche wrote: “He died too early; he himself would have recanted his teaching, had he reached my age.”