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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.  

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