Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, March 02, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 18-20, Fraud and Malice)

Before heading into the lower depths of Hell now’s a good time to review where Dante has taken us so far.  We’ve passed through several stages.  The Vestibule for “undecided” and Agnostics; a place for Virtuous Pagans who lived good lives but weren’t baptized; then four levels of punishment for those whose sins were based on lack of self-control; a separate level for Heretics; and finally a level for those whose sins were violent.

To get to the next level Virgil and Dante have to ride down on the back of the winged mythological creature Geryon.  Here Dante informs us that “there is a place in Hell called Malebolge” (literally translated as ‘evil pockets’) where those guilty of Fraud and Malice have been consigned.  Their sins run deeper than simple lack of self-control or violence.  Their sins are intentionally deceptive and malicious so the punishments are more severe.

Canto 18.  Pimps.  Dante takes the opportunity in The Inferno to accuse his fellow Italians of specific sins.  In this level he particularly has it in for Bologna.  One of the pimps at this level says “this place is packed with us Bolognese…remember we have avaricious hearts.”  Their avarice isn’t just simple greed.  They’ve turned their avarice in a particular direction by acquiring women willing to serve as prostitutes.  Their punishment is to be whipped by devils: “Just at that point a devil let him have the feel of his tailed whip and cried: ‘Move on, you pimp, you can’t cash in on women here!’”  And this level also includes Seducers as well as Pimps.  Consider Jason, whom we’ve met before in Euripides’ play Medea: “with his words of love, and loving looks, Jason succeeded in deceiving young Hypsipyle… He left here there, with child, and all alone; such sin condemns him to such punishment, and Medea, too, gets her revenge on him.” Flatterers are included here too.  Flattery is based on deceit and is therefore a kind of fraud.  Their punishment is more loathsome than painful: “from where I stood I saw souls in the ditch plunged into excrement that might well have been flushed from our latrines.”

Canto 19.  Simonists.  Simony is buying or selling Church positions or offices.  Our edition summarizes this section by saying that Dante “the Pilgrim responds with equally high language, inveighing against the Simonists, the evil churchmen who are punished here.”  Dante mentions three contemporary Popes who will wind up at this level.

Canto 20.  Soothsayers.  Soothsayers are those who practice sorcery and magic.  This practice might not seem so bad in a modern age which accepts Wicca and Ouija boards as harmless alternative spiritual practices.  Not so, says Virgil: “Who could be more wicked than that man who tries to bend divine will to his own!”  The punishment for soothsayers is interesting: “their faces looked down on their backs; they had to move ahead by moving backward, for they never saw what was ahead of them.”  Folks who tried to use magic to look into the future are condemned to look backward forever.  One notable character at this level is “Tiresias, who changed his looks: from a man he turned himself into a woman, transforming all his body, part for part…”  We’ve met this guy before.  In Sophocles' play (Oedipus the King) Oedipus asks Tiresias to help him investigate the murder of the previous king, Laius.  Who knew Tiresias was a transgendered person?  But Dante put him in Hell for practicing sorcery.  This section also shows why The Inferno is much more meaningful to readers who have read other Great Books.  


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