Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Blogging through Hell (pt. 6) - Hell's Architecture

As our travelers through the realm infernal continue past the Tomb of the Epicurean Heretics, who denied the immortality of the soul and are now destined to spend eternity in a tomb, a fitting rebuke who claimed their entombed bodies were all that would be left of them, a horrid odor blows up into their faces. Virgil recommends that the pair stop to accustom themselves to the malodorous air of lower Hell. To do so, they take shelter behind a massive tomb of Anastasius, the Byzantine Emperor who was led by Photinus into the Arian heresy1. Now, eager to learn and no longer wanting to waste time, Dante asks Virgil to describe the layout of Hell. The positive effects of traveling this arduous path are beginning to show.

We drew ourselves aside behind the cover
Of a great tomb (XI:6-7)
Virgil, happy that Dante seeks to understand, lays out the basic division of Hell into the now famous "nine circles." Each circle holds a different type of sinner, with a punishment that perfectly fits the crime. We've seen this already several times, for example Francesca and Paolo (who couldn't control their bodies in life and are now uncontrollably whipped about in an eternal tempest) and the heretics we just left behind. The primary division of Hell, represented by the gates of the Infernal City of Dis, which Dante has just entered, is between sins of malice and sins of incontinence with the malicious sinners being confined within the city walls and the incontinent being punished outside of Dis (but still in Hell). The distinction between these two types of sinners is important. Sins done with malice are those done intentionally to harm. Sins of incontinence are those committed by an inability to control our passions. Thus, murder (a sin of malice) will be punished in Dis, while wrath (a sin of incontinence) is punished in the River Styx, outside of the city gates.

Further, Dis is sub-divided between those who commit violence and thus who commit fraud. It is instructive to see Dante place both the misers and the sodomites among the violent. He sees both groups committing acts of violence against nature - the one (represented by Sodom) against human nature, the other (represented by Cahors, a city in the south of France that became synonymous with usury in the Middle Ages) against human industry (what Dante calls "l'arte vostra," "your art"). Art, defined more broadly as anything created by man, is to follow nature, which itself follows God's Divine Plan, making human industry "God's grandchild" (XI:105). Therefore, violating human nature (or human industry) is to offended against God. As usury and sodomy are more than incontinent desires, but are willed evil acts, those who die unrepentant of such sins are rightly punished in Dis among the violent malicious.

Map of Dante's Infernal Topography
As Dante's mini-tutorial on Aristotle's ethics comes to an end, Virgil urges him, and us readers, onward in our journey as Holy Saturday is waning.

1. In the Fourteenth Century the heretical Byzantine Emperor (ruled from 491-518) was mistakingly confused with Pope Anatastasius II (pontiff from 496-498), thus Dante has the tomb read, "Pope Anastasius I hold." (XI:8)

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