03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas Art & Humanities

Dante’s Inferno: “There is no deceit in death. It delivers precisely what it has promised.”

June 29, 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 post on circle 8? Click here: Dante’s Inferno: “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” (Circle 8)


These last two circles of Hell, Fraud and Treachery, really deal with the same basic sin. In both cases, the sinners deceive others of their true intentions solely for personal gain. The underlying evil here is that they willfully harm another soul with a purposeful intention of falsehood. Treachery and lying are still seen as disgraceful in today’s society, and they are never celebrated. One who deceives another has marked themselves as something subhuman, undeserving of compassion or forgiveness. The Greek playwright Aeschylus once said: “I have learned to hate all traitors, and there is no disease that I spit on more than treachery.” Although not everyone included in these categories of Hell are considered evil or despised by many, some of their actions have overshadowed their other redeeming qualities. The types of fraud and betrayal that are common today are different than they were in the medieval times but in essence, Fraud and Treachery, are looked at and treated the same.

The first form of Fraud is Seduction. The allure of seduction entraps many; the femme fatale image is one that has not lost its charm over the ages. Seduction and lust are sometimes hard to separate because they tend to entail the same end: sex. The main difference between the two is intent. Lust is a carnal, primal reaction to a sexually attractive mate, while seduction is enticing others into lust for personal gain. Seduction is the greater evil because you purposefully trick others into sin. Dante describes Jason’s actions of lust: “There with his words of love, and loving looks, he succeeded in deceiving…” (Inferno Canto XVIII line 91-92). The key in this example is trickery, not sex. By deceiving the women into lust, Jason the Argonaut obtained what he needed to succeed in his quest. Seducers get ahead in life through misplaced love and persuaded lust.

Marilyn Monroe played a similar role to Jason & the Argonauts. Famous for her sensuous lips, soft eyes, platinum locks, and curvaceous figure, she oozes sex appeal. Marilyn Monroe is the ultimate seductress. I believe that she is more than just the quintessential sex symbol. Behind those heavily lined eyes is sinful intent and power. She used her allure to her advantage to get out of foster care, to gain stardom, and according to legend, perhaps gain influence in the Oval Office. When faced with the possibility of returning to life in the foster care system, she realized that her escape was in marriage. Marilyn Monroe married her boyfriend Jimmy Dougherty in the early 1940s. This was not a marriage of love, but of opportunity. It worked for her temporary situation and so she used his affection to her advantage. As her marriage fizzled out, her career took to flame. Marilyn Monroe’s acting career was launched in the 1950’s with her prominent roles in Niagara (1953) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). She was type-casted for the blonde bombshell, a role she never really relinquished.

Although on the screen she always played the femme fatale, the role that gave Marilyn Monroe her famous stigma of seductress was reinforced in her private life. Unfortunately, few of her private dealings are faithfully recorded, but, like Dante, I will use legend and common folklore to provide for my argument. Allegedly, Marilyn Monroe had numerous affairs with co-stars, a playwright, a baseball player, and perhaps a president and his brother. There are numerous rumors and gossip surrounding her various affairs and numerous husbands. Each marriage and love tryst made her more famous than the last. Marilyn Monroe’s second and third husbands, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, provided money and connections for her budding acting career; in Arthur Miller’s case, he provided her with a specific movie role in his screenplay the Misfits (1961).

Marilyn Monroe was not a naïve, ditzy blonde; rather she used that stereotype to her advantage. All the men in her repertoire could provide a leg up in society and supply her with material comforts. These are essential goals of a successful seduction. Through the promise lust she was able to gain more wealth, stardom, and prestige for herself. Seducers fall into lust for personal greed and overall gain. As said by Marilyn Monroe: “If you’re gonna be two-faced at least make one of them pretty.” The world will never forget her, but not for her movie roles or singing; instead, it will be for her success in seducing a nation.

In the case of Seduction, the true evil is intent but sometimes it is the opposite when discussing Counselors of War. Those who counsel others on how to cause the most destruction or the most efficient way to win a war often times believe that their actions are for the benefit of the greater populace. This utilitarian mantra, that the best course of action is one where the most people benefit, does not exempt them from eternal damnation. The act of counseling in times of war has changed dramatically since Dante’s time. Today, we rely heavily on science, rather than manpower. Our science has gone beyond simple laboratory experiments; it has developed into incomprehensible theories and formulas. Most Counselors of War may never see their formulas in the “real” world or ever expected them to be used for destruction; but does that exempt them from blame? Dante wouldn’t think so.

The Manhattan Project was a scientific experiment by the United States that resulted in the first atomic bomb attack. Their achievements went up in a (mushroom) cloud of smoke. The scientists who participated in the program succeeded in creating an unbelievably destructive bomb. Although their end result was a weapon of mass destruction, the scientists did not take part in the project simply to destroy lives, but for the overall good and safety of their country. German physicist Albert Einstein warned the United States that Nazi Germany was developing nuclear weapons; he wrote that: “This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed.” In light of this espionage, the Manhattan Project was seen as a necessary defense machine for the United States to produce. To conquer the enemy, the United States had to remain technologically advanced in both the offense and defense. Since the bombings on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945 and Nagasaki three days later the world still asks if this indeed was a necessary step to take.

In Albert Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt in 1939, he warned the government that:

A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.

He could not imagine the hundreds of thousands lives lost that would prove these preliminary estimations more than correct. According to the Manhattan Engineer District estimations, there was approximately 66,000 dead and 69,000 injured in Hiroshima and 39,000 dead and 25,000 injured in Nagasaki. There are numerous different calculations because the long-term radiation damage and various related injuries incurred at the time of the bomb would not be included in any short-term surveys focused on the actual bomb’s impact. In addition to direct damage from the bombs, the scientists are also indirectly responsible for the slow recuperation and revitalization of the country due to the widespread damage incurred. Also, after the successful bombings on Japan, other countries began to enthusiastically develop their atomic arsenal. Besides human lives, various bomb testing on “useless” pieces of land can also be considered blood on the hands of the creators of the Manhattan Project because it is destruction of a gift God gave us: Earth. We are now in an age of disarmament because current governments have realized the danger of stockpiling these weapons of mass destruction.

Not only is the blood of an estimated 100,000 people killed immediately after the blast on their hands, but also the blood of any others who may perish in the future due to their inventive genius. The ripples that were begun from the creation of the first atomic bomb will never cease; they have unleashed a Pandora’s box upon the modern world. All counseling of war involves in some way the abuse of the intellect. The intellect of Ulysses, Guido, and the participators in the Manhattan Project was exceptionally brilliant. Like any invention of the human mind, this intellect can be used for good or evil. According to Dante, these men used their brilliance, a gift they had received from God, for deception and the creation of destruction. Because of this, they deserve to shine in brilliant flames for all eternity.

The creators of the atomic bombs can be considered Counselors of War, contained in the Eight Bolgia in the Eight Circle of Hell, because, like Ulysses, they used their scientific genius to create a superior weapon to secretly defeat their enemy. Ulysses and the participators in the Manhattan Project are often times celebrated in history because they were strong, patriotic leaders, using their inventive nature for the betterment of their people. Although they were good hearted, these men dishonorably ensured victory for their cause. Unfortunately, the scientists did not fully understand the properties of pure uranium before beginning their project and were not aware of the full damage they would cause. Dante would not acquit them for their ignorance. The lack of knowledge about the outcome of their actions does not give the creators absolution from their scheme. Some of the leaders of the project have come to realize and regret their involvement. J. Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, and later in life he was quoted as saying that “…the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

What is the difference between Fraud and Treachery? Fraud can take on many forms, enacted upon many people, while Treachery is fraudulent action upon those who intimately trust and rely on the evildoer. When Fraud becomes personal, it becomes Betrayal. In Hell, the Malebolge holds all the Fraudulent. After the Circle of the Fraudulent comes the Circle of the Betrayers. Dante and Virgil gain access to the next circle, Cocytus, from one of the Giants. The Giants are in this Circle of Hell because they rose up against their gods, just like the fallen angels and Lucifer rebelled against God. The root of treachery is rebellion and those who are moved to rebel are filled with envy over their masters and they swell with pride at their own ability. To accomplish the more complex forms of treachery requires greater intellect.

For when the faculty of intellect is joined with brute force and with evil will, no man can win against such as alliance.

Inferno, Canto XXXI, line 55-57

Treachery is worse than Fraud because you betray those close to you, those who trust and confide in you. Cocytus is separated into four sections of betrayal, as they go farther down, the crimes become more evil. Caïna is the betrayal against relatives; Antenora is betrayal against party or city; Ptolomea is betrayal against guests; and Judecca is betrayal against lords or benefactors. In today’s society, Judecca would not be in such a prominent position. I believe we would place Caïna in the circle closest to Lucifer because our culture emphasis familial ties. During Dante’s time, the family was a political unit and the connections a benefactor made with a dependent person often overshadowed family loyalty. We no longer define family just by blood; there are adoptive and foster families. To many, Jesus and his disciples could be seen as a type a family; thus making Judas’ betrayal familial. During Dante’s time, family was a political unit, not an emotional one.

The Menendez brothers, Erik and Lyle, are a good example of betrayal against familial benefactors, both contained in Caïna and Judecca. I placed then in Judecca, rather than Caïna because although they killed their parents, thus betraying family, their parents were their primary providers, so also their benefactors. Parents, especially those extremely well off like the Menendez often are the sole mean of income for the next generation. They become “trust fund babies” and their parents become synonymous with benefactor. It is sometimes impossible to clearly separate the various evils in Cocytus because the victims can take on multiple roles in the sinners’ life. The key to unlocking the sin is intent; if the driving factor is material wealth then I consider the victim first a benefactor, more than a family member.  Since Dante considered betrayal of a benefactor as the greater evil, I will place the Menendez brothers there for murdering their monetary benefactors.

It is believed, and supported by the brother’s actions, that they murdered their parents to gain control of their wealth. The murders occurred in a late summer evening in 1989. The brothers shot their father a point-blank range and they targeted their mother as she ran down the hall. They attempted to make the killings seem mob related to cover up any connection to themselves. Their alibi was a pair of movie tickets they had previously bought, ironically to the Bond movie A License to Kill. Although they had this alibi, the police always considered them suspects. Soon after their parents’ death, the brothers seemed to forget of their grief and instead proceeded to lead a lavish lifestyle. They squandered their parents’ former wealth. It is estimated that the brothers spent about $1 million dollars within 6 months of their deaths.

There seemed to be no remorse or immediate regret over the killings. These murders were planned out and done in cold blood. Erik eventually confessed to his psychiatrist who in turn told the police. Confession does not equal remorse. If the murders were done in the heat of the moment, it is more understandable and almost eventually forgivable, but that is not the case here. These brothers were charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. To me, the true evil here is the intent. By planning out and thinking about their parents’ deaths they lost their souls. They were envious of their parents’ wealth, even though their parents more than provided for their comfortable lifestyles. Their preparation and execution of their plan is disgusting. Not only did they betray their parents’ love and trust, but they also ended the lives of their material benefactors. Their greed and envy drove them to commit an unthinkable evil.

In the summer of 1996 the brothers were sentences to life in jail without the possibility of parole. Although they are not dead yet, I will borrow from Dante and send their souls prematurely to Hell. Like Ser Branca D’Oria and Friar Alberigo (in Ptolomea) Erik and Lyle Menendez’s bodies are possessed by demons and their souls have instead fallen straight into Cocytus. As Dante says, “I found one of your men whose deeds were such that his soul bathes already in Cocytus but his body seems alive and walks among you.” (Inferno, Canto XXXIII, line 155-157) This level of betrayal allows for a temporary suspension of the natural course of life and premature judgment.

Like Dante, I shall also include a personal grudge in Hell: Fidel Castro. I believe many others will uphold my decision. He has committed too many sins to name and his effigy is known worldwide. I would love to replace Brutus with Castro, but I will settle on simply placing him in Antenora, where the betrayers of country are kept. He betrayed the people of his country with his eloquent speeches and empty promises that never came into fruition.

Castro rose to power because the people were unsatisfied over the previous president’s political dealings with foreign business and his apparent lack of interests in their needs. The people of Cuba fully believed that Castro was going to act in their best interest and they overwhelmingly accepted him. According to my grandparents’ first hand accounts, during the start of his reign, most of the population was supportive of Castro’s ideals. He first upheld his campaign promises by providing for the poor of Cuba, making education accessible, reorganizing the medical system and enacting the change that they wanted to see, but it did not last for long.

His first broken promise was free elections. The easiest way to retain tight control over a country is to stifle the competition, and many people who disagreed with him were losing their jobs and eventually their lives. My great uncle was a political prisoner, and eventually deported due to his opposing political ideals. Once the country became a one-party government, there was no more need to uphold expensive promises. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba suffered an economic crisis. Because of the US embargo and other unsuccessful attempts to revitalize the economy, the people of Cuba are living in severe poverty.

Although Cuba has a high doctor-civilian rate and universal healthcare, it is not truly beneficial to the mass population. Like Dante, I will include a personal anecdote. My extended family, who live in Cuba, have not seen a doctor in years. It’s free and “accessible” but the doctors are overworked and underpaid, so it is difficult to make an appointment with them. This is a similar situation when it comes to every aspect of Cuban life. The people are desperate for access to goods and services that the government says they provide but are truly unavailable to the general populace. This is not a short-term recession, but a long-term depression. Anyone who can leave does. A leader does not necessarily fail because his people suffer temporarily, but government cannot be successful if its people are not productive and do not have hope for a brighter future. Fidel Castro’s true evil is allowing the economic, social, and political situation to suffer for so long. He has betrayed his country by causing destruction, death, and separation of families. Fidel Castro announced in 2008 that he would not seek another term, if it can be called that. Although there is no reliable proof of his death, I am as certain as any other Cuban that he is dead. To many, this means that the devil has finally reclaimed one of his own.

Judging the different levels of severity of evil is difficult. Many people fit in multiple Circles and Bulgias. Dante considered some sins differently than we do today. As society changes its values, our outlook on them also changes. Today, we hold family, friends, and wealth much higher than Dante did. On the other hand, Dante emphasizes political parties, selling of offices (both religious and political), and counterfeiting more than we do. The basic forms of the sins have not changed but their execution and our outlook on them has.

Marilyn Monroe and the Manhattan Project are good examples of a change in our values. Although we do not necessarily agree with the public image of one and decisions of the other, most people would not place them in any Circle of Hell. Seduction has become commonplace, and weapons of mass destruction are accepted as consequences of science. Both have sired evil, but we rank their importance differently than Dante did. In contrast, the Menendez brothers’ actions are look upon as disgusting and demoralizing. They have essentially lost their lives without being physically dead. Society has decided that these men do not deserve to live free lives ever again. I believe Dante would wholeheartedly agree with my assessment of their actions. Overall, sin is sin and it is always evil but we rationalize and judge it in a different manner. No matter how the world changes or degrades we will always come “out to see once more the stars.” (Inferno, Canto XXXIV, line 139)

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