Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Cantos 21-23, Graft and Hypocrisy)

Our Great Books edition only gives a brief summary of what happens in Cantos 21-22 where graft is punished.  What is graft?  Graft is an unfair or illegal advantage someone gets at the expense of other citizens by misusing public offices for personal gain.  Every sinner at this level of Hell is guilty of some type of fraud.  A “grafter” is someone who has committed an act of fraud that harms the public interest through the bribing of elected officials.  And Dante places sinners guilty of fraud at a significantly lower (worse) level than even violent sinners.  To underscore this fact Dante’s places a “Great Barrier and Waterfall” separating violent from fraudulent sinners.  Why does Dante feel so strongly about fraud?  How is bribing public officials worse than murder?

This may be Dante’s reasoning: murder affects one person and extends to one’s own family and close friends.  But bribery and fraud corrupts the whole community.  Citizens soon lose faith in government if public officials lack integrity.  And when citizens lose faith in their government they start taking advantage of the system to use it for personal gain rather than public good.  This wasn’t just a problem for ancient Rome and medieval Italy.  In many countries today bribery and corruption are routine parts of daily government and business transactions.  Dante hated this kind of activity and concluded (correctly) that it would corrupt and eventually drain the civic spirit of the people.

Canto 23.  Hypocrisy.  Graft is only one of the deadly sins that fall under the banner of Fraud.  We’ve seen that fraud also includes pimps, flatterers, simonists and magicians.  Now we come to the Hypocrites.  Hypocrites claim to have standards or beliefs that don’t conform to their actual behavior.  They talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.  Hypocrisy isn’t confined to Rome or Italy either.  There may even be a few hypocrites in modern America.  There’s an old joke that goes like this.  Two guys are talking about church.  One of them says, “I don’t go to church anymore; there’s too many hypocrites there!”  The second guy responds, “Don’t let that stop you; there’s always room for one more.”  And Mark Twain once said, "Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company."  It’s a clever quote but wouldn’t do much good at this level of Hell.  These hypocrites wouldn’t be good company because none of them are who they seem to be.  They look like one thing on the outside but are really something else on the inside.  Hell just reveals who they really are.  And here’s the appropriate punishment for hypocrites: “All were wearing cloaks with hoods pulled low covering the eyes (the style was much the same as those the Benedictines wear at Cluny), dazzling, gilded cloaks outside, but inside they were lined with lead…”   

Two questions about this Canto.  First, aren’t we all guilty of hypocrisy in one way or another?  The question is rhetorical.  The correct answer is already revealed in the way it’s phrased.  Of course we’re all guilty of hypocrisy “in one way or another” because we’re all guilty of almost anything in one way or another.  Everyone has somehow, at some time, been lustful or gluttonous, spent too much or been too stingy, gotten too angry or been too lazy; which leads us into the second question.  If we’re all, in fact, hypocrites then why is it a sin?  The answer lies in Dante’s view of human nature; we’re all hypocrites “in one way or another” that’s true.  But some hypocrites learn about their true selves.  Then they repent and make sincere efforts to do better.  Hell, on the other hand, is reserved as a kind of “college of sullen hypocrites.”  Sullen students never learn and never change; not now, not ever.  That’s why they’re in Hell forever.


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