Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 29-30, Alchemy and Falsifiers)

As we near the end of our journey through Dante’s Inferno we meet the Falsifiers and Alchemists in Canto 29, souls such as Capocchio: “…for the alchemy I practiced in the world I was condemned by Minos, who cannot err… you will recognize Capocchio’s shade, betrayer of metals with his alchemy; you’ll surely recall (if you’re the one I think) how fine an ape of nature I once was.”  Capocchio’s sin is to mimic (“ape”) Nature in ways that deceive.  It isn’t in the nature of things for Nature to deceive.  And in Canto 30 we find the Greek soldier (Sinon) who deceived the Trojans into accepting the wooden horse: “‘My words were false; so were the coins you made,’ said Sinon, ‘and I am here for one false act; but you for more than any fiend in hell!’”  This “you” is a counter-fitting specialist named Master Adamo.  Adamo had “learned to falsify the coin… they encouraged me to turn out florins whose gold contained three carats worth of alloy.” 

Here’s what we nowadays call a teaching moment.  Dante is fascinated by all the bickering back and forth between Capocchio and Master Adamo.  But Virgil reprimands him: “I (Dante) was listening, all absorbed in this debate, when the master (Virgil) said to me: ‘Keep right on looking, a little more, and I shall lose my patience,’ I heard the note of anger in his voice and turned to him; I was so full of shame that it still haunts my memory today.”  Here’s the teaching moment lesson.  Virgil says to Dante: “If ever again you should meet up with men engaging in this kind of futile wrangling, remember I am always at your side; to have a taste for talk like this is vulgar!”  This is the lesson Great Books readers can take away from this incident.  It’s easy to get caught up in squabbles of the moment.  Virgil warns us no matter if it’s partisan politics or workroom gossip “talk like this is vulgar!”  We should rise above such pettiness and focus on permanent things; issues and questions that endure throughout all generations.  Issues the Great Books calls The Great Conversation.  This is what we should be listening to.  If Dante were still around he might warn us that these days it’s easy to get caught up and waste time reading stories and inflammatory comments on the Internet that mean nothing.

So what should we be doing?  One underlying theme of Dante’s Inferno is time.  We all eventually run out of time; then what?  Dante believes we’ll all have to give an accounting for the things we did on this earth with the time we were allotted to live it.  Over and over again we see men (and women) like Capocchio and Sinon and Adamo who get caught up in the schemes of their own times.  They don’t seem like evil people.  Capocchio messed around with alchemy, which was a forerunner of modern chemistry.  What’s wrong with that?  Sinon used deception as a military strategy to bring victory to his side.  What’s wrong with that?  And Adamo added a little alloy to coins to water down the gold a bit.  Is that so bad?  Dante’s message is clear from one end of the Inferno to the other: yes, it’s bad.  Bad enough to get all these poor souls condemned for eternity. 

That’s a harsh message for modern ears.  This kind of punishment looks more like retribution instead of rehabilitation.  And many modern readers will reject Dante for that reason alone.  But Dante would point out that Purgatory is the place for rehabilitation.  He would turn the question around to ask: and what would you do with those who won’t be rehabilitated?  Turn them loose on society?  You call that justice?  Questions about “the permanent things” are always hard.  That’s why they’re permanent.      


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