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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.


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