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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. 


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