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There are many features of Dante’s Divine Comedy that are likely to puzzle the modern reader. The poem, for example, is stuffed with references to now obscure characters in classical mythology, to arcane debates in medieval philosophy, and to otherwise forgotten players in the tumultuous world of Florentine politics. The Comedy also confronts readers with a vivid rendering of medieval cosmology, in which hell occupies the center of the the earth and the earth sits at the center of a series of concentric spheres, each occupied by one of the seven planets* known to the pre-modern world and emanating outwards until one reaches the realm of God beyond the farthest sphere. Stepping into the imaginative world of the Comedy can understandably feel like stepping into a strange and foreign land.
While Christian readers might be in a slightly better position to make sense of Dante’s work, even they, depending to some degree on their theological background, will find any number of Dante’s choices rather odd. The best known portion of the Comedy, the Inferno, famously depicts Dante’s journey through the realm of the damned. Dante presents hell as a funnel-shaped structure leading down to the center of the earth. Hell is organized around a series of rings in each of which a particular sin is punished. It is clear that Dante is presenting his readers with a hierarchy of vice in which the gravity of the sins increases as Dante progresses downward. The more severe sins are punished in the lowest recesses of hell, while the upper circles punished sins Dante deemed less serious.
Dante’s schema offers contemporary readers an opportunity to consider their own hierarchy of sin and vice. How do we distinguish among the various ways in which we violate the moral law? What sins do we consider more severe? Which sins do we, at least implicitly, treat as less severe? Odds are most of us have thought less about this than Dante has. Odds are, too, that modern readers will take issue with at least some of Dante’s judgments.
Among the more curious and puzzling aspects of Dante’s hierarchy, for example, strikes the reader when they realize that they have made their way through one half of the Inferno and Dante has already dispensed with all but one of the categories of sin. The Inferno composed of 34 cantos, which we can think of as chapters. By the time a reader finishes canto 17, a full half of the text of the Inferno remains but it will be devoted to entirely to the vice of fraud. A surprising development, to be sure.
(Dante Before the City of Florence by Domenico di Michelino, 1465)
We may be surprised, first, by the fact that Dante judges fraud to be a more severe sin than violence, which is the vice dealt with in the preceding ring. We may also be surprised by the fact that Dante devotes so much time to the vice of fraud. He manages to do by dividing fraud into two categories: fraud against those who have no particular reason to trust you and fraud against those who do. The former counts as a rupture of the bonds of common trust among all people, and the latter counts as a rupture of the special trust that forms among those who have established more personal bonds. Dante then divides the ring in which the former kind of fraud is punished into ten separate ditches, allowing him to distinguish among a variety of forms of fraud.
Why does Dante devote so much time to the vice of fraud? Why does he consider it to be the most serious of sins, more serious even than murder? Why does he make such fine distinctions among the varieties of fraud?
Part of the answer lies in how Dante thinks about sin in general. Following a Christianized Aristotelianism, Dante first distinguishes between sins of incontinence and sins of malice. The first several sins in Dante’s schema involve an inability to control oneself. They are sins characterized by a lack of will power and the sudden loss of self-discipline. They are the sorts of sins we may want to resist, but find we ourselves to weak-willed to do so. Sins of malice, however, are what we might think of as pre-meditated sins. They do not involve a failure of willpower but rather an active willing to do harm. Sins of malice include violence against neighbor, violence against self, and violence against God. But Dante judges these sins to be less severe than the sin of fraud because fraud involves and corrupts what distinguishes human beings from the rest of creation. “Fraud is man’s peculiar vice,” Dante writes,
“God finds it more displeasing-and therefore, /
the fraudulent are lower, suffering more.”
One way to think about this is to recognize that intentional acts of fraud involve the uniquely human capacities of reason and speech. Any animal can become violent, but only the human animal is capable of defrauding another. In the Bible, the first act attributed to the human creature is the naming of animals. While we are tempted to read this as a merely endearing episode, especially for children, it suggests to us a profound truth. The truthful deployment of language is at the root of all distinctively human cultural activity. Before we do anything of consequence in the world, we must name it and thus employ our most remarkable tool, the gift of language. In doing so, we are also directly reflecting the God in whose image we have been made, the God whose first recorded act is also the use of language to speak the world into existence. So because it corrupts what is most essentially human, and thus most divine, in the person, Dante judges that fraud displeases God more and is worthy of greater punishment.
It’s worth noting, too, that Dante’s work is informed not only by his vast learning, but also by his experience. Dante’s life revolved around his poetry and his civic service to his beloved Florence, from which he was exiled when an opposing political faction came to power. The Comedy dwells on both matters theological and political. Contemporary readers are perhaps especially inclined to skim over the various discussions of Florentine politics, but these same sections now seem to take on a striking urgency. As Dante makes his way through the Inferno, one of the characters he encounters speaks of Florence as a “riven city,” and so too might we describe our own city and country. The disastrous consequences of deep and acrimonious factionalism haunted Dante’s imagination, and they should trouble us, too.
So it is not only the case that fraud is the gravest of sins, in Dante’s view, because it corrupts our uniquely human capacities, it is the gravest of sins, too, because it corrupts the foundations of a just and peaceful civic order. Fraud destroys trust among people. Fraud strikes at the credibility and authority of vital public institutions. Fraud undermines the power of speech to order human relationship, in the absence of which we are left only with various forms of coercion. It should come as no surprise, then, that the record of the primeval history presented to us in Genesis 1-11 begins with the fruitful use of language to bring about what is good and culminates with the corruption of speech as an act of judgment for humanity’s recalcitrant sinfulness.
Trust is a precondition of meaningful communication and fruitful public discourse, it is an essential component of a well-ordered society. Dante understood that pervasive fraud, in its various personal and institutional manifestations, erodes the foundations of civil society by engendering distrust and the presumption of bad faith.
If at first we are perplexed by Dante’s judgment, exploring his reasoning should make us a touch more sympathetic. And if we ponder Dante’s choice at greater length, we may even come to see that he is on to something important, something vital, which we ignore at our peril.
* The medieval planets did not include Neptune or Uranus, which were not visible to the naked eye. They also included the moon and the stars, which we today do not count as planets. For a fascinating discussion of medieval cosmology, see C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image.
Study Center Resources
Pascal’s will be closed from July 27th through July 5th. We’ll be open again on Monday, July 7th.
In next week’s Dante reading group, we will be covering cantos 20-22 of the Inferno. If you’d like to connect with group, please email Mike Sacasas at email@example.com.
Be sure to check out the archive of resources available online from the study center. Classes and lectures are available at our audio archive. You can also peruse back issues of Reconsiderations here.
— In Comment, Tara Isabella Burton reflects on a more thoroughly Christian epistemology:
Finally, we must preserve a faith in imperfect, but nevertheless useful, human communication: language as a site where something real, albeit never something total or complete, can be meaningfully conveyed. The danger that the social-justice model is most susceptible to is a kind of relational nihilism—our experiences are so distinct that we can never really understand one another; the irreducibility of persons becomes mass unintelligibility. Yet, in light of a theology predicated on the Word made flesh, we are called to understand, however humbly, conversation and dialogue as meaningful sites of operation.
— Philip Porter explores a Christian understanding of death, lament, and hope in “Not As Others Who Have No Hope”:
Death is not natural. It’s an interruption of the natural, a waylaying of plans and friendships and desires. This is true even of the holy dead who see the Lord face-to-face now as souls separated from their bodies. Though in heaven, they too remain in a state unnatural to humans. To be a human is to be a body-soul—not one and the other, but both together, at once. A human soul, even in heaven, if it’s not united to a human body, is not a human being. It instead remains in expectation of being so again, of reunion with its body at the general resurrection. But the unnaturalness of death isn’t obvious to most. In fact, it’s likely you’ve heard someone, perhaps many people, tell you, “Death is just a part of life.” But for Christians this can’t be true. Christians are instead confronted by death as an irruption, a festering wound, a ghastly mark on the beautiful handiwork of the Lord’s cosmos.
— Lyman Stone examines the data on police violence for the Witherspoon Institute. “Above the Law: The Data Are In on Police, Killing, and Race”:
Police violence in America is extraordinary in its intensity. It is disproportionate to the actual threats facing police officers, and it has risen significantly in recent years without apparent justification. Its effects are felt across all racial groups, with non-Hispanic whites making up half of all people killed by police officers, even as African Americans are killed at disproportionately high rates compared to any reasonable baseline.