Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

Inferno Cantos VIII-XIV

A. S. Kline Authored by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002, All Rights Reserved.

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Meditation VIII: Inferno Canto VIII

MedVIII:1 Approach to Dis: Inferno Canto VIII:1

Another little boat, and not the last, sails over the Styx. Phlegyas, who scorned the power of Apollo, in his anger, is the boatman, and anger is what he displays. The boat settles lower in the water under the weight of the living Dante. The spirits are insubstantial, while their punishments are heavy. Dante is heavy while his punishments are as yet light.

Now one of those wonderful swift portraits of an individual that Dante does so well, catching in a few words some essential characteristic, element of personal history, or contribution of knowledge of a name, and leaving the figure there frozen for posterity. Yet these individuals are captured by generic characteristics, or historical reputation, they are still not the complex individuals of reality, or psychologically oriented art, they are usually not shown in complex situations, they share the slightly naïve Medieval outline and colouration, while anticipating the more developed characters of the Renaissance and its painting, the subtlety say of a Giovanni Bellini. Here then is Filippo Argenti, that fierce Florentine spirit, and a contemporary of Ciacco. Instantly memorable, completely generic, as a representative of the angry soul.

But think how it must have been for Dante’s own audience, as these people not long dead sprang to life again in his art. How strange. How brave of him and dangerous, how judgemental. There is Filippo, the arrogant man, mired, weeping, torn until he even rends himself! What would his descendants think of a picture like that. No libel laws, but enough hatred must have been incurred towards Dante the exile, as he set his enemies in Hell, or merely those whose reputation placed them there. Imagine a recently dead figure of our time appearing in a novel or play, condemnatory and hostile to them, and not a Hitler, not a world figure associated with clear-cut evil, but a local and domestic individual, and not as now appearing in some work that is ‘merely art’, but in what was well believed to be a ‘vision’ of the real afterlife! Francesca, and now Filippo, adding to the list of notable vignettes in the Commedia, adding to its feeling of reality, solidity, its personal urgency and its dramatic flavour.

The Commedia is conversational, interrogatory, full of rhetoric and dialogue, autobiographical monologue, pleas and commands, prophecies and prayers. Its use of speech is one of the finest things about it, learnt perhaps from Ovid and Virgil, but achieving new impact through Dante’s mastery of the appropriate phrase, he who rehearsed in his mind endlessly no doubt, the perfect retort, the exact answer, the upstaging remark, the put-down, the humble and winning petition, all those things he may have been uncertain of in his own life, that here in his writing could be said once and for eternity, with no fear of a slip, an embarrassed silence, incorrect timing, or of receiving an unanticipated reply. Dante controls everything, as God controls his greater universe.

MedVIII:2 The Fallen Angels: Inferno Canto VIII:64

Moated, burning Dis, the great city is in front of them. Here is Hell’s analogue to Rome or Florence, walled and towered and gated, a parody of the City of God. It is guarded by more than a thousand fallen Angels, those creations of God, who fell with Satan, from Pride, and to whom disdain and anger belong also. They challenge the living Dante’s presence there. And Dante turns, in his personal urgency, to the Reader. He looks out for a moment from the text and addresses us. This is personal, this is what we all have to experience if we go that way. Virgil again reaffirms the spiritual authority that allows the Vision’s journey to take place. Virgil offers hope to counter fear, as the Purgatorio counters the Inferno, and is its reversal, a spiral up to balance a spiral down, a progress to counter a stasis.

‘Yes’ and ‘No’ war inside Dante’s head. Is there a fleeting thought here of Abelard again, another fallen ‘angel’, fallen through spiritual weakness, and then through intellectual pride? Abelard’s own Sic et Non (Yes and No)

had examined 158 problems with conflicting authorities, and insisted on always examining the evidence, texts that Bernard considered revelatory and not to be questioned. It left a picture of Abelard as an inveterate sceptic.

Virgil, prevented from going on by the insolence of the Angels, waits for the coming of a Divine messenger to open the gate of the city. The need is apparent elsewhere, it seems, without Virgil requesting assistance. Dante creates beautiful suspense in a few words at the end of the Canto, as we imagine in our mind’s eye the journey of the messenger, already on his way.

Meditation IX: Inferno Canto IX

MedIX:1 Conscience and Obduracy: Inferno Canto IX:1

Dante questions Virgil about his descent from Limbo, and discovers Virgil has been here before, down as far as the Giudecca at its base, to bring a spirit out of there: we wonder who. The guide is thus a knowledgeable guide who will travel with Dante as far as the garden of the Earthly Paradise at the top of Purgatory.

The attitude of the Fallen Angels has caused anger in Virgil, so that we see an affirmation of the fact that anger causes anger, and its provocation is self-fuelling. Above the tower of Dis, the Furies, the Erinyes, Eumenides or Kindly Ones, the pangs of Conscience that pursue the guilty now appear. They are still seeking revenge for Theseus’s raid on Hell, when he tried to rescue Persephone, and was in turn rescued by Hercules, who also captured Cerberus in one of his labours. They call for Medusa so that Dante can be turned to stone, that is his heart can be hardened. Dante is warned by Virgil to turn his back to avoid the possibility of seeing her. The veiled meaning of the clouded verse is simply that obduracy hardens the heart against God, and stifles the conscience, delaying repentance. It is a facet of spiritual anger and pride. The heavenly messenger now appears and chastises the Fallen Angels for their intransigence and recalcitrance. The poets can now enter the city in safety. They pass on the Sixth Circle of the heretics.

Meditation X: Inferno Canto X

MedX:1 Farinata: Inferno Canto X:1

A plain of burning sepulchres with lifted lids. Here are the heretics, but not as we might expect the heretics of the Early Church, no Arius, no Sabellius, though they do later pass the tomb of Anastasius, and none of the radical religious rebels of the Middle Ages, but instead the free-thinkers who denied the soul’s immortality, as Dante supposes Epicurus to have done. They are therefore trapped in the mortal tomb. Dante questions, Virgil replies, they will be entombed with their bodies and the lids shut, on the day of Judgement. Virgil rebukes Dante, and elicits a humble and polite reply.

Now the challenge. An unknown voice rises from one of the tombs. It speaks with old-fashioned courtesy, and calls, Tuscan to Tuscan, Florentine to Florentine, linking the city of Florence to the City of Fire, Hell. Is not Florence extended around Hell, and interwoven with it, with all an exile’s love, hatred and longing? The signal is sounded for the threads of Dante’s personal and political life to be entwined once more in the poem. Dante shows fear. Virgil says: ‘What are you doing? Che fai?’ This is Farinata.

The Individual again. Such a clearly delineated portrait of the old aristocrat, ‘erect in stance and aspect, as if he held the Inferno in great disdain’. Here is a root of that European tradition of the demonic soul, Don Juan, Faustus, Prometheus, the unrepentant, the free-thinker. Virgil thrusts Dante towards him, towards Farinata’s contempt, to receive his first question: ‘Who were your ancestors?’ Pride, free-thinking obduracy, the self-willed man. Yet this is Farinata, of the Uberti, the great-souled Ghibelline, the victor at Montaperti, by the River Arbia, in 1260, who put country before party, who refused to raze Florence to the ground. Whose family was finally exiled after his death.

Here are Dante’s personal echos, Florence, his father’s Guelph allegiance, his own Ghibelline leanings, his looming political exile, an exile that Farinata will, in a moment, predict, to take place within fifty moons. And now an interlude, Cavalcante, to tie the whole Canto even more tightly into Dante’s personal life.

MedX:2 Cavalcante: Inferno Canto X:52

A kneeling figure shows its face from the tomb, it is Cavalcante, the father of Dante’s friend Guido, the poet, searching for his son. Where is he? If Dante’s journey is accomplished through power of intellect, then Guido, at one time husband of Farinata’s daughter Beatrice, should be there with him, a sweet compliment to Guido’s mental abilities. Dante makes a slip of the tongue, and speaks of Guido in the past tense. There is a deep irony here, since Guido, a white Guelf, exiled in June 1300, in a move that Dante was party to, was still alive at the time of the vision but fated to die in that August of 1300. So that Dante meets Cavalcante almost at the moment of his son’s death, and in a sense mocks his own manipulation of time in the Commedia. Cavalcante fades back again into the sepulchre, like an operatic voice raised in an aria of hope, and then stilled. Dante in a moment will apologise for his slip of the tongue, an error, but a prophetic one.

MedX:3 Prophetic Vision Inferno Canto X:94

Farinata having shown the powerful, determined nature of his character, by returning to the conversation, and examining Dante further, prophesying exile, now answers Dante’s courteous question on the nature of his prophetic ability. The damned souls can see the far future but not the present, and this far-sightedness will vanish completely on Judgement Day when time will end. Virgil reassures Dante that his full fate will only be revealed by Beatrice, when he sees her, thus offering a double hope, both of meeting her again, and of learning something more favourable about his future life. The poets are now at the dividing line between the upper circles of Hell those of incontinence, and the lower Circles, of Malice, separated into those of Violence and Fraud.

Meditation XI: Inferno Canto XI

MedXI:1 The Structure of Hell: Inferno Canto XI:1

While the poets now mark time before descending to the remaining three circles, Virgil informs Dante about the structure of Hell. Dante’s concept of Hell derived from many sources including Virgil’s own Aeneid, while the internal divisions arise from ideas in Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas and others. The classification is fundamentally intellectual, and does not follow the concept of the seven deadly sins, nor Aristotle’s distinction in the Ethics between incontinence, malice and bestiality, nor Cicero’s idea in the De Officiis of injury done by force or fraud, but is an original concept deriving from these and others. Dante’s structure flows from his treatment of freewill as God’s greatest gift, distinguishing man from other creatures, and sin as a failure to use, or misuse of, or abuse of, freewill, the Divine gift.

So we have seen the spiritually neutral who failed to use freewill: the un-baptised who had no opportunity spiritually to use it in the correct way: then the circles of lust, gluttony, avarice, and anger, those who failed to use freewill to restrain their desires: and the heretics whose intellectual errors and pride constituted a misuse of freewill.

Virgil now explains the lower circles, which contain those who are guilty of malice, the deliberate abuse of freewill. They are divided between those who maliciously commit harm by force or violence, those who commit harm by fraud or deceit, and those who do so by treachery. The seventh circle of the violent is subdivided into those committing violence against their neighbours, themselves, or against God. The eighth circle of the fraudulent is for those who were not in positions of special trust, the ninth is for those who were trusted above and beyond natural ties, and so committed acts of treachery.

Dante’s subdivisions of the violent and of the fraudulent reflect the fact that God is love, and that love is reflected in natural bonds, and radiates from God. So the violent inflict greater damage the nearer their violence touches God. Neighbours, self, God: concentric rings with an implication of God within the self, and of love flowing from God to the Individual and then Society. The fraudulent attack the natural bonds between human beings. The treacherous also attack the special bond of trust between themselves and those against whom they commit their treachery.

Given the emphasis on freewill it is a rational enough classification. The main point is the relative sinfulness of the categories: incontinence, malicious violence, malicious fraud and treachery. We would treat violence as more reprehensible than fraud or treachery now, but that is partly because our western legal and moral codes place emphasis on the secular earthly life and the integrity of the body and of this life, and not on the certainty of an afterlife. We are in fact much more flexible in our evaluations, taking account of conflicting goods, mental forces, the possibility of reparation of harm, and our view of biological human weaknesses, and cultural and environmental factors. We are also more focussed on intent, so as to distinguish the non-malicious from the malicious action. The spiritually neutral, the un-baptised and the heretics would not be eligible for any punishment under secular law. Our attitudes to suicide, and the modern challenges of abortion, euthanasia, medical interference etc are not capable of Dante’s cruder treatment. Nevertheless his core values of Love (or at least empathy and compassion) and the right use of Freewill are central to our secular laws also.

Virgil then adds a comment or two regarding usury, which allows him to stress that art follows nature which follows God, again the hierarchical flow. Usury employs neither man’s arts (skills, abilities) nor nature’s fecundity, so is unnatural and anti-social. An interesting comment on the growing power of the moneylenders. Florence would of course become the great banking capital of Europe. Our own concepts of economic growth of course depend directly on the use and employment of capital, and the payment of interest, whether the capital is labour or is stored value in the form of money or assets, and whether the interest is in the form of labour, money or assets, since all are convertible into monetary equivalents. Nevertheless we do also understand that there are anti-social aspects of money-driven behaviours, with potentially corrupting effects.

It is near dawn above, and Pisces, the Fishes, the protective sign of the Christian religion, is rising as the poets descend into the depths of Hell.

Meditation XII: Inferno Canto XII

MedXII:1 The Minotaur: Inferno Canto XII:1

Dante supplies a topical simile, the landslide by the Adige, as the poets find the Minotaur guarding the downward gully. Here he symbolises violence, but was also a creature born of Pasiphae’s deception of the bull from the sea, and is himself an unnatural hybrid, half-beast and half-human as are the violent themselves. His presence also carries echoes of the Cretan labyrinth, an analogue for Hell’s imprisoning depths, and of Theseus who penetrated the labyrinth and killed the Minotaur, but also entered Hell himself to attempt to rescue Persephone. The poets evade him, and Virgil explains that the rock-fall post-dates his last visit here in pre-Christian times, and was caused by Christ’s entry into Hell to remove souls from Limbo, at which the universe thrilled with Love.

MedXII:2 The Violent against Others: Inferno Canto XII:49

The unnatural hybrid Centaurs, who fought the Lapiths in anger, are the guardians of the first ring of the seventh circle, that of the violent against others. The sinners boil in a river of blood, their depth within it indicating the extent of their guilt. One of the centaurs is Nessus, symbol of deceit and anger, who revenged himself on Hercules, via Deianira, by soaking his shirt in his envenomed blood.

Dante gives examples of the tyrannically and mercilessly violent. Tyranny is also a violent act against the subject, and here Dante is subtly promoting the idea of Republic and Empire, with citizenship as a key good. He references two ancient tyrants, Alexander of Pherae and Dionysius of Syracuse, and two medieval ones, Ezzolino III, ‘the son of the devil’, and Obizzo, murdered by his son-in-law. Then De Montfort who indulged in a revenge killing, Attila for the number of dead he caused, Pyrrhus and Sextus Pompeius who fought against the Imperial power, and finally two Italians who preyed on travellers.

Dante’s interest here seems limited, and the canto lacks a feel for the individuals. Since the intellectual content of violence is low it fails to spark Dante’s imagination. There is no fundamental moral issue involved: tyranny, vengeance killing and the murder of others for gain are simple wrongs. The concept of the river of blood is a strong image, but we are suddenly tourists as are the poets, ticking off sights seen, adding the river to the list. It is the Centaurs that absorb his poetic attention. Nothing makes more obvious the thrust of the Commedia than seeing how minimally the violent against others are handled, compared with sinners where any subtlety in the misuse of freewill is involved. Here in the circle where we would place Hitler and many other instigators of the mass killing of innocents, there is no true individuality. And that itself may be a subtle implicit comment, expressing the banality of this violence, its sameness, its lack of uniqueness except in terms of numbers and barbarity. We will meet this feeling of the depressing monotony and burden of sin, later in the Inferno, as the weight of the many concentric circles of evil begins to press down on us.

Meditation XIII: Inferno Canto XIII

MedXIII:1 The Wood of Suicides: Inferno Canto XIII:1

Dante now takes inspiration from Virgil’s Aeneid Book III 22 concerning Polydorus’s grave mound, and the myrtle grove around it, and Virgil refers to it. Virgil’s work as a source for the Dis Cantos, and to some extent the Inferno itself, is therefore subtly acknowledged. The wood the Poets reach is guarded by the Harpies, the violent birds hostile to Aeneas, and so the Empire. The episode of the suicides, those who have used violence against the self, also echoes Ovid’s Metamorphoses with its transformations of people into trees, for example Daphne and Myrrha. The passage is wonderfully graphic, and the individual spirit of Pier delle Vigne, poet and chancellor, speaking from the broken branch, questions Dante’s capacity for Pity, before asking to be remembered in the world above. Delle Vigne also gives an opportunity to point out the envy that is rife in political life. Dante expresses his Pity while Virgil questions further on his behalf. Suicide through the pressure of extreme circumstances is understood, but also condemned as an abuse of free-will.

Two characters appear who apparently threw their lives away through recklessness, and are pursued through the wood by hounds, and then Dante brings us back to a Florentine reference. An unnamed figure gives us some of the history of Florence, partly legend. Dante’s point is that the rejection of Mars was believed to be at the root of Florence’s internal strife. He is using the incident to highlight the violent nature of his own city, within the city of Dis. Nevertheless the incident stirs Dante’s love of his native place, he the exile.

Meditation XIV: Inferno Canto XIV

MedXIV:1 Capaneus, Pride and Disdain: Inferno Canto XIV:1

The Poets cross the burning sand, and Dante adds a reference to Cato, the republican and lawgiver, type of the virtuous pagan. Cato who committed suicide rather than fall into enemy hands. Cato the champion of liberty. Cato, whom we will meet again, since the Mount of Purgatory is in his care. Dante accepts, it would appear, that Cato’s virtue outweighed his suicide, and perhaps that his suicide was a positive act in favour of freedom rather than a negative one of violence against the self. And he follows Virgil (Aeneid VIII) in placing Cato amongst the virtuous. His other source of information being Lucan (Pharsalia II)

Here now is Capaneus (sourced from Statius’s Thebaid), a type of the proud man, disdainful of the gods, who was struck down by Jupiter’s lightening bolt while scaling the walls of Thebes. Dante refers back also to the obdurate Fallen Angels at the gate of Dis. His imagery here intensifies the fiery scene. Capaneus is tortured by his own pride. Pride is the ubiquitous sinful background to Hell.

MedXIV:2 The Degeneracy of the Race: Inferno Canto XIV:73

Dante now invents a rationale for the streams of Hell, and derives an image that perhaps combines the episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Ovid describes the Ages of Man, with the Old Testament dream of Nebuchadnezar. The Old Man of Crete is a metaphor for the decline of man, from the Golden Age of Saturn and its innocence and virtue, to Dante’s own age. Cretan Mount Ida where Jupiter was raised, once verdant is now a spoil heap (Dante reflects the real degradation and deforestation of the Mediterranean environment, a process that the Romans accelerated). The golden head of the statue inside the mountain looks towards Rome, and reflects it, his body images moral and spiritual decline through silver and bronze to his iron left foot, the temporal power, perhaps, and his clay right foot the fragile spiritual power and the corrupted Papacy. Below the gold he is fissured and from there the tears drop that form the rivers of Hell we have seen, Charon’s Acheron, the marshy Styx, and the blood red boiling Phlegethon. Below will be the frozen Cocytus in the ninth circle.

The concept of Crete as a golden cradle of civilisation is interesting, reflecting what we know, but Dante could not, of the Minoan culture, its spontaneous and colourful art and myths, and the Cretan reference echoes the presence of Minos and the Minotaur in the Inferno, as well as passing references to Pasiphae, Daedalus, Theseus and Ariadne. Likewise interesting is the idea that the sorrows of the corrupted world form the rivers of Hell, as its crimes form the grounds for Hell’s punishments. Dante underscores his view of the Papacy as corrupt and the Empire as degenerate, the twin bases of earthly life now clay and iron. Rome is the natural heir of Crete, Dante no doubt following the myth that Teucer of Crete was one of the founders of the Trojan people (Teucrians), from whom came Aeneid, the ancestor of the Romans. So there is a direct link from Crete to the Empire and Papacy, which partly explains Dante’s interest in the Cretan myth complex. The city of Rome, that should be the golden fountainhead, is in fact standing on these feet of iron and clay between which flow the sins and tears of the world. Dante was also brooding over moral and spiritual decline in the Convivio and his Canzoni during the exile period.

Virgil reassures Dante that he will see the river Lethe though, it is on the Mountain of Purgatory where the spirits purify themselves and penitence absolves them of guilt.