Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.


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