Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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.


Post a Comment

<< Home