Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 31-34, Summary)

When we come to the final stages of the Inferno Dante is forced to stretch the limits of human language.  Describing these lower chambers of Hell is no easy task.  Dante puts it this way: “to talk about the bottom of the universe the way it truly is, is no child’s play, no task for tongues that gurgle baby-talk.”  Hell is no place for children or for grown ups who still think like children.  How can we, for example, understand a man like Nimrod?  Virgil says, “He is Nimrod… he can no more understand our words than anyone can understand his language.”  Who’s Nimrod?   Wikipedia says, “Nimrod, king of Shinar, was, according to the Book of Genesis…the son of Cush and great-grandson of Noah. He is depicted in the Bible as a mighty one in the earth and a mighty hunter. Extra-biblical traditions associate him with the Tower of Babel and led to his reputation as a king who was rebellious against God.”  Apparently in Hebrew “marad” means “to rebel” and adding an “n” before the name makes Nimrod = “The Rebel.”  Obviously Dante hasn’t just plucked characters at random and placed them in Hell on his own whims.  He has his reasons.  Nimrod is in rebellion against God and was probably a “mighty hunter” of men.

Nature did well to throw away the mold for making more men like Nimrod.  But Nature kept on making ordinary men and to Dante that’s just as bad.  Here’s a great irony in the Great Books.  It’s hard to think of two authors more different than Dante and Freud.  But here’s a quote from Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents” (GB Series 1): “Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and kill him. Homo homini lupus (Man is a wolf to man).”  This sounds a lot like the characters we’ve met in the Inferno.

Men sometimes do terrible things and have terrible things done to them.  In Canto 33 Count Ugolino is nailed up in a tower with his young sons so they will all starve to death. We read in the Gospel of Mark (GB Series 3) where Judas betrays Jesus to the authorities and causes Jesus to suffer a painful death by crucifixion.  For that reason in Canto 34 “That soul up there who suffers most of all, my guide (Virgil) explained, is Judas Iscariot.”  What a gruesome image.  Satan is stuck up to his waist in ice gnawing on the head of Judas.  The Inferno notes “If once he (Satan) was as fair as now he’s foul and dared to raise his brows against his Maker, it is fitting that all grief should spring from him.”  In the Inferno there’s enough grief to go around all the circles of Hell.  And it all goes back to the fallen angel who first rebelled against God.  Reading through these levels of pain is not a leisurely way to spend a cozy evening in front of the fire.  But Dante’s Inferno can be instructive if we read it the right way.  The old Greek tragedy plays taught us that wisdom comes through suffering.  And Aristotle (“On Tragedy” GB Series 5) says tragedy provides “incidents arousing pity and fear, whereby to provide an outlet for such emotions.”  The Inferno is the “tragedy” section of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  We should pity those who suffer.  Those who cause others to suffer should fear the wrath of God.  This is the tragic wisdom of Dante’s journey through Hell.


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