Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Cantos 5-8, Intemperance)

When Dante and Virgil leave Limbo they enter into the first official circle of Hell.  If we think of The Inferno as a kind of moral geography then this is the region for those whose primary sin was lack of self-control.  The Great Books translation uses the term Incontinence to describe this section of the map but in modern usage that’s an unfortunate choice of words.  Intemperance is closer to Dante’s meaning; or lack of restraint.  There are several levels in this “Upper Hell” and it includes those who were Lustful, Gluttons, Hoarders and Spendthrifts and the Wrathful and Slothful.

First stop is The Lustful.  It should be noted that all the sins in Upper Hell are relatively simple and straightforward.  These weren’t necessarily what we would call bad people.  They just couldn’t control themselves.  But they couldn’t control themselves in different ways.  Thus, we have different levels and punishments for each sin.  For example, at this level we find The Lustful souls.  Virgil explains to Dante that in “this place of punishment all those who sin in lust have been condemned.”  We might ask what’s wrong with lust?  Virgil says this level is reserved for “those who make reason slave to appetite.”  It’s not that sex is necessarily sinful.  It’s just that these folks have subverted the natural order of things.  Reason should control our sexual urges, not the other way around; and these folks failed to do that.  Cleopatra is at this level; and Helen and Paris.

The next level is reserved for Gluttons.  Here we should note that the punishments in Hell are calibrated to fit particular sins.  Cerberus is a good example of how gluttons are punished.  Cerberus is “a ruthless and fantastic beast, with all three throats howls out his doglike sounds… his belly swollen, and he has claws for hands...  he quiets down with the first mouthful of his food, busy with eating, wrestling with that alone.”  In this world Gluttons ate too much.  So in Hell they must live with a beast who has the same cravings.

The Hoarders and Spendthrifts come next.  Hoarders are misers in the worst sense of the term.  They’re tight-fisted to an extreme.  And Spendthrifts spend money in an extravagant, irresponsible way.  They squander wealth and waste its real value to themselves and to the community.  Dante paints a picture of these two extremes, “one side screaming ‘why hoard?’ the other side ‘why waste?’ …they could not judge with moderation when it came to spending… opposing guilts divide them in two… eternally the two will come to blows.”  Money itself is not the problem but “it was squandering and hoarding that have robbed them of the lovely world, and got them in this brawl.”

Finally we come to the Wrathful and the Slothful.  At this level there’s a sort of “swamp that has the name of Styx.”  And here Dante saw “muddy people moving in that marsh, all naked, with their faces scarred by rage.”  They fight and bite and claw each other continually.  Virgil says these are “the souls of those that anger overcame… and beneath the slimy top are sighing souls who make bubbles at the surface.”  The ones below the surface are the Slothful; those too lazy to fight and they tell Dante “now we lie sluggish here in this black muck!”  Again we see two extremes: one extreme is furious activity, the other extreme is debilitating indolence.  And that’s the key to understanding all of Upper Hell.  All these poor souls had improper relationships toward sex, food, money and action.  Their sins are human and understandable.  But they still lead to Hell.


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