03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas Art & Humanities

Dante’s Inferno: “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” (Circle 8)

June 22, 2020

In honor of re-reading Dante’s Inferno this quarantine with a friend and then moving on to (finally) read Purgatorio & Paradiso I went back looking at all essays I wrote and fell in love with my badass 20 year old self. 🙂 So in search of written material ready for the blog I present to you a series of 4 essays on Dante’s Inferno written by yours truly many years ago while studying in Florence, Italy for 6 weeks. I had the wonderful pleasure to also visit Dante’s home in Florence and his burial place in Ravenna, I think that makes me a groupie! 🙂

JMF

P.S. Want to read my first & second posts? Click here:


As Dante the Pilgrim and his guide, Virgil, continue to move down through Hell they witness an intensity of filth and increasingly brutal punishments. The stench increases in proportion to how close they get to Lucifer and the punishments are directly correlated to the wickedness of the sin. To medieval theologians, and thus to Dante the Poet and the Pilgrim, sins such as Fraud and Betrayal are ranked lower down than Sins of Violence and Inconsistency. Fraud, the largest section in Hell, is closer to Lucifer than murder, wrath, and various other sins that today we view as more malevolent. Today’s society supports punishing murder with and “eye for an eye,” yet gives a slap on the wrists to those guilty of “white collar” fraud. In certain cases, Dante’s categorization may be more accurate because the various Sins of Fraud often negatively affect more innocent lives in the long run than the Sins of Violence.

The pimps and seducers are in the first bulgia of Malebolge. Today, most people see pimping as wrong but definitely not a sin that should be punished harsher than murder. To the medieval mind, however, death is a release of the soul to its final home, Heaven. In contrast to the murderers, a fraudulent sinner can cause continual damage. Once the body is dead, the soul is “free.” Murder is a one-time offence to the body, while pimping, seducing, and flattery can be a repeat offense that causes damage to the body and oftentimes to the soul. A pimp can destroy the life of his prostitute, her family, and any others she may influence later in life (like a child). In the same manner, a seducer can harm the life of his sexual prey and any children she may bear from the encounter. Seducers are often times flatterers, and his victim also becomes his puppet who he bends to his will. Jason the Argonaut ruined Medea, Creusa, and Hypsipyle, “who had in turn deceived the other women” (Inferno, Canto XVIII line 93). Jason’s sin is the destruction of these women’s lives, their children (Medea murdered her own children), and the people they influence due to the marionette-like control the seducer, pimp, or flatterer poses. (As Pinocchio gleefully says: “I’ve got no strings to hold me down, to make me fret, or make me frown.”) These types of sinners become masters of destruction. Like a mafia godfather, the pimps, seducers, and flatterers often spill very little blood themselves but their influences on others cause ripples of destruction, more than they could ever commit on their own.

Similarly, the Simonists and Barrators create their own idyllic situation by selling influential positions to those “undeserving” of them. Both of these actions are illegal today but we would never dream about putting a “dirty” politician to death before a murderer. Think about the overarching power a prominent politician or religious leader has over a flock of people. They make decisions that affect the lives of their congregation. If a seat of power is sold to someone of low morals or unjust policy, it could destroy and kill many more than a murderer. Although Pope Clement V is not dead by the time the Divine Comedy is written, Dante alludes that he will soon join the other corrupt popes in their hellish baptismal fonts. Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon, France. In King Philip’s hands he was no more than a puppet. A puppet ruler is dangerous because the true master is often secretly malicious. If loyalties can be bought and sold then one can never be sure of the truth. The responsibility and trust handed over to people in power cannot be tainted with the color of money.

Just like the Simonists and Barrators, who execute their influence negatively, the fraudulent counselors of war and violence also create far-reaching destruction. The eighth and ninth bolgia overflows with trusted confidants whose violent genius caused greater pain and death than they could of imagined. Just because one does not hold the handle of the sword does not mean one is not guilty of death. Most of the sinners in these bulgias were architects of ideas that enabled others to secure victory for their twisted desires. I was surprised to see Ulysses in Hell because our current society praises him for his cunning and inventive thinking. The legend of the Trojan Horse went down in history even after the city itself was lost to time. Dante invents another story for Ulysses that blames him of making his crew “so anxious for the [forbidden] way that lay ahead that then [Ulysses] hardly could have held them back” (Inferno Canto XXVI line 122-123). Even without the story of the Mountain of Purgatory that seals Ulysses’ faith as a sewer of discord, he could still be considered at fault for the trickery of war we now praise as the Trojan Horse. The type of war and violence prevalent in our world today has changed our perspective of this sin. In the Middle Ages, war was played by rules and it was a straightforward battle of sword against sword. Technology changed the way war was fought. In today’s age, wars can be fought from the comfort of a boardroom. Today we proclaim the Counselors of War and Violence as geniuses ahead of their time, back then they were seen as cruel architects of destruction.

Counterfeiters, are they frustrated artists or malicious sinners? In terms of Dante, counterfeiters betray their victims by blurring their sense of truth. Your word is often your most important tool. A handshake, official seal, or signature indicates that what is said or written before tells the truth and that you put your full confidence in it. A falsifier, whether of money, other persons, of skill, or of the truth, bends reality to fit their needs. Counterfeiters, like Master Adamo, fake the values of our money and destroy the symbolism and significance society places in it. Impersonators, like Gianni Schicchi, make you mistrust any others because they lie about a basic human indicator: your name. Alchemists misrepresented their skills and the liars trick others with believable fabrications. We don’t think of these sins as very dangerous, but when what we believe as truth is discovered to be a farce we begin to question everything. Just like in the movie Inception, the idea that “this world is not real” can grow to disease the mind. These falsifiers shake the foundation of knowledge and can affect future acceptance of what is the truth. They are a disease to a stable society and thus they are plagued with disgusting physical deformities in Hell.

All of the fraudulent maliciously and consciously destroy the bodies and souls of the living. These sins are considered worse than the Sins of Inconsistency and Violence because they are calculated and planned for destruction. All of these sinners sin so that they may gain the upper hand. They measure the damage that they can inflict upon their victims and reap the temporal rewards they receive. These sinners control others either with flattery and influence or money and power to do any evil deed for them. God is not fooled by their deception and he sees who is actually in charge of destruction. They make their victims believe their lies and false truth and thus make them lose the only certain thing in the world: the truth.

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