Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

DANTE The Inferno (Cantos 24-25, Theft)

Before we consider the punishment of thieves it might be a good idea to reflect on the world view Dante had inherited from his love of Roman history.  The ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote: “In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present; I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?”  Virgil was a believer in the virtues of Stoicism and these virtues were passed on through Marcus Aurelius.  Dante himself was educated and formed with a combination of Stoic and Christian philosophy.  So it shouldn’t surprise us that Virgil (Dante’s guide) preaches the same virtues Marcus  preached: “My (Dante’s) lungs were so pumped out of breath by the time I reached the top, I could not go on farther, and instantly I sat down where I was. ‘Come on, shake off the covers of this sloth,’ the master (Virgil) said, ‘for sitting softly cushioned, or tucked in bed, is no way to win fame; and without it man must waste his life away, leaving such traces of what he was on earth as smoke in wind and foam upon the water.  Stand up!  Dominate this weariness of yours with the strength of soul that wins in every battle if it does not sink beneath the body’s weight.’”

With that background in mind it’s easier to see why Dante thinks stealing is so wrong.  Marcus and Virgil both point out that we’re born to work.  That’s what we were made for.  Stealing not only robs other people of the fruits of their labors but it also robs the thief himself from earning the fruits of his own labor.  He’s robbing himself of the man he would have become through the discipline of hard work.  In that sense the thief is stealing his own soul.  This is also the theme in another Great Books reading: Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  A quote from Weber applies to our current reading: “Labor came to be considered in itself the end of life, ordained as such by God.  St. Paul’s, ‘He who will not work shall not eat’ holds unconditionally for everyone.  Unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace.  Here the difference from the medieval viewpoint becomes quite evident.  Thomas Aquinas also gave an interpretation of that statement of St. Paul.  But for him labor is only necessary according to natural reason or prudence for the maintenance of individual and community.” 

Here’s the point.  Dante lived in medieval times.  He couldn’t help but have a medieval viewpoint.  But Dante also had the seeds of a Puritan work ethic that wouldn’t emerge until three or four hundred years later.  The Puritan work ethic agrees with St. Paul that unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace.  In Dante’s Inferno lack of grace can be deadly.  One of Hell’s inhabitants tells Dante “I am stuck so far down here because of theft: I stole the treasure of the sacristy.”  By stealing from the Church he stole his own soul from its supernatural destiny of Heaven.  But the outcome would have been the same whether he had stolen from the Church, from a business or from the government.  It makes no difference; theft is theft.  And the punishment of thieves is unique to their own special sin of stealing.  Their souls become merged with a serpent’s.  The text tells of a serpent’s body intertwining with a thief’s: “…then both started melting like hot wax and, fusing, they began to mix their colors so neither one seemed what he was before.”  A thief loses his personal identity and becomes a generic thief/serpent where “You’re not yourself, and you’re not both of you!”  “You” become a thief/serpent.


Post a Comment

<< Home