Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, February 16, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Cantos 8-9, Fallen Angels)

Upper Hell is for those poor souls who merely lacked self-control.  They couldn’t control their own desires but their sins weren’t intended to harm other people, only themselves.  When Dante leaves them behind he begins his journey into Lower Hell where there are more serious sins.  These are sins committed with full knowledge, willful intent and malice.  The entrance to Lower Hell is guarded by “…the city we call Dis, with its great walls and its fierce citizens.”  This is not a happy place.  Dante says “I saw more than a thousand fiendish angels perching above the gates enraged, screaming…” and a little later “sprang up three hellish Furies stained with blood…”  Dante begins to lose courage as he has done before because these fallen angels refuse to let him go any further: “You (Virgil) can come, but he must go.”  Dante’s afraid his guide will leave him behind and he’ll be lost in Hell.  Virgil reassures him: “feed your weary spirit with comfort and good hope; you can be sure I will not leave you in this underworld.”  Virgil knows that even he doesn’t have the power to overcome powerful angels but he still tells Dante, “I shall win the contest, no matter how they plot to keep us out!  This insolence of theirs is nothing new…”  And he’s right.  But first Dante has some advice for the reader.  He wants us to read carefully and think deeply.  He says, “O, all of you whose intellects are sound, look now and see the meaning that is hidden beneath the veil that covers my strange verses.” 

Suddenly there comes “a blast of sound, shot through with fear, exploded, making both shores of Hell begin to tremble…”  The fallen angels scatter like frogs around a pond.  What has happened?  Another angel has appeared and this one’s not a fallen angel; “he was sent from Heaven.”  This must be one of Heaven’s top guns; Saint Michael the Archangel.  He speaks like a powerful prince addressing defeated rebels as he says to the whole host of fallen angels “O Heaven’s outcasts, despicable souls, what insolence is this that breeds in you? What do you gain by locking horns with fate?”  See the meaning, as Dante says.  The fallen angels are outcasts.  They rebelled against the powers of Heaven.  Even after failing they were never repentant about what they’d done; they’re still insolent about it.  That makes them despicable in St. Michael’s eyes. 

Ever so often St. Michael has to make this unpleasant journey and admonish them.  He probably hated every minute of it.  Dante writes “from time to time with his left hand he fanned his face to push the putrid air away.”  But he’s St. Michael.  This is his duty.  This is his current assignment, unpleasant though it may be.  One of the things Dante wants us to take away from these “strange verses” is the vast distance between St. Michael and the fallen angels.  It’s the vast distance between the final destinies of virtue and vice.  The fallen angels now inhabit the city of Dis.  This is the stink hole where they live and this is what they do all the time.  We don’t know how St. Michael spends his time.  After all, we’re only mortals, even Dante.  But Dante gives us a hint when he says St. Michael “turned then and retraced the squalid path without one word to us and on his face the look of one concerned and spurred by things that were not those he found surrounding him.” One popular image of Heaven is angels sitting around playing harps all the time.  Dante says, think again.  St. Michael must have many heavy responsibilities.  What kinds of responsibilities?  Dante doesn’t know, and neither do we, because we’re only human.  Maybe this is what Shakespeare meant when he wrote in Hamlet: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”


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