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Monday, March 16, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 26 Evil Counselors)

It’s not unusual in Dante’s Inferno to meet characters from the Bible or ancient Greece or Rome.  This literary pedigree helps place Dante, in his own estimation, in the top half-dozen poets in the history of literature.  He may be right.  Canto 26 is a continuation of Dante’s unique brand of poetry and moral philosophy.  Here we meet Ulysses (Odysseus in Greek).  Ulysses/Odysseus has an interesting background in the literary world.  Ever since Homer there have been various judgments regarding the character of Odysseus. Sometimes the old Greek tragedians portray him as a hero, sometimes as a villain.  Depending on our point of view even today Odysseus either comes across as a hero or as a villain.  Odysseus will seem like a literary hero to people who admire verbal skills and the ability to persuade others.  This was the stated goal of the Sophists in ancient Athens.  They wanted to teach students how to be persuasive and left moralizing to philosophers; men like Socrates.  The foundation for Sophism is this: Man is the measure of all things.  There may or there may not be gods.  But even if there are gods we’re only human and can’t really persuade them to do what we want.  So we should set our sights on the much humbler task of persuading men instead. 

This sounds reasonable.  But Socrates detested that philosophy and so does Dante.  Dante may come across to some readers as arrogant because he has a high opinion of his own poetic skills.  But at this point in the poem Dante also says “…more than ever I restrain my talent lest it run a course that virtue has not set; for if a lucky star or something better has given me this good, I must not misuse it.”  He doesn’t want to use his verbal skills like a Sophist.  Dante thinks language is a gift given to him by God and he “must not misuse it.”  He also believes Odysseus and men like him use their verbal skills for evil.  And for that reason Dante places them in one of the lowest levels of Hell.  Why?    

Odysseus doesn’t operate under normal human emotions.  He says not the “sweetness of a son, nor reverence for an aging father, nor the debt of love I owed Penelope to make her happy, could quench deep in myself the burning wish to know the world and have experience of all man’s vices, of all human worth.”  What Odysseus wants isn’t the good of his men, or his family, or his country. What Odysseus wants is to experience the highs and lows of life personally.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Lots of Romantic poets expressed this heart-felt desire and Tennyson wrote a famous poem (“Ulysses”) extolling the virtues of heroic effort: “tho' We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
This is a very fine speech.  And Odysseus gives a very fine speech to his men in Dante’s Inferno too.  His speech to his men goes like this: “do not deny yourself experience of what there is beyond… Consider what you came from: you are Greeks!  You were not born to live like mindless brutes but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge.”  This was a fine speech but it was very bad advice (what Dante calls “evil counsel”) because it led his men to their utter destruction.  Dante has the old Roman distrust of Greek oratory.  Beware Greeks bearing gifts.  That’s what led to the destruction of Troy, the ancestors of Rome, who were the ancestors of Italians like Dante.  Dante knows his history and he knows the nature of language when put into the mouths of evil men like Odysseus.


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