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Dante Alighieri

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Inferno | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Inferno, why does Dante the author choose Virgil to guide Dante the character?

Dante the author believes that Virgil is well qualified to be Dante the character's guide. In Virgil's The Aeneid, Aeneas travels through the underworld and returns to the land of the living, just as Dante the character does in Inferno. Therefore, Dante the character gains the "knowledge" of the underworld that Virgil has when Virgil becomes his guide. Virgil is also a renowned poet and by claiming him as guide, Dante the author implies that he is in the same league as Virgil, or nearly. Dante the author depicts Virgil as a teacher and protector to Dante the character, as well as guide. This gives Dante credibility by association.

In Canto 18 of Dante's Inferno, how does the name of the eighth circle of Hell relate to its structure?

In Canto 18, Dante learns that the name of the eighth circle of Hell is Malebolge. The literal translation of this word is "evil pouches." The name of this circle of Hell is directly related to its structure, consisting of ten concentric trenches, or "pouches," each one a little lower and a little smaller than the one before, reflecting the complex nature of fraud and the many ways it can manifest. Stone bridges connect the pouches. The pouches are evil because they are full of tormented sinners. Virgil and Dante make their way down the path to different pouches where some sinners are forced to stand in excrement and others are whipped by demons.

How does the punishment suit the sin of simony in Canto 19 of Dante's Inferno?

Simony is commercializing the gifts of God, which should be free. It is an abuse of power by those who are charged with ministering in the Church. In the Bible, Jesus's disciples are given the Holy Spirit in the form of "tongues of fire" that fall upon their heads on the day of Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter, celebrated as a Christian holiday). This gives them the power to do God's work. In Dante's Inferno, the simonists are punished by having the soles of their feet set on fire, as a terrible parody of the flames of Pentecost. They were supposed to do God's work, but they did not. The pope Dante talks to is subject to more intense flames than the other sinners due to his position as the highest-ranking member of the Catholic church.

In Canto 19 of Inferno, why does Dante describe a time when he broke a baptismal basin at San Giovanni church?

In the midst of describing the sinners who are imprisoned headfirst in holes in the rock, Dante explains that once, not long ago, he broke a basin used for baptizing at the Florentine San Giovanni church. He did this, he notes, to save "someone who was drowning in it." According to Dante, he did this to "set men straight." It can be inferred that this is a real event that happened, and that there are incomplete or untrue stories about it that Dante wants to clear up. However, the story also plays a role in developing the plot and themes of the poem. Dante did something that seems wrong—destroying Church property—but was actually a morally correct choice. In the same way, Dante may criticize the Church and its leaders in his epic poem, including criticizing popes. However, he does this because it is the morally correct thing to do. He uses his poem to respect God by telling the truth.

How do Dante and Virgil react to the sight of sinners in Canto 20 of Inferno?

Dante is very affected by the weeping, twisted fortune-tellers and magicians he sees in Canto 20. Their twisted forms and their incessant weeping causes such a strong reaction that he addresses the reader directly: "think for yourself/how I could ever keep my own face dry/when I beheld our image so nearby and so awry." Dante seems to be calling upon the reader to feel the same pity he feels, or at least to sympathize with his emotions. Pity is a common response for Dante. This is partly because he is a human who is still living, and so still has a flawed understanding of God's justice. But it's also because his reactions provide a contrast to Virgil's responses to these same sights. Virgil is not only unmoved by the suffering of the sinners here, he also calls Dante "foolish" because the soothsayers are particularly impious: they behaved as though they could foretell or even change the future, which is willed only by God. As a representative of human reason, Virgil demonstrates to Dante that emotions should be tempered by reason. As a person who is no longer living, Virgil also has a clearer sense of God's justice, unclouded by the limitations of life. While Dante's emotions are understandable, Virgil is there to remind him that he should not be overcome by them.

Why does Virgil tell Dante to hide while he talks with the Malebranche in Canto 21 of Inferno?

One reason Virgil asks Dante to hide may be that the demons here are more dangerous or unpredictable than in other places. Virgil has traveled through Hell before and may be somewhat familiar with their tricky nature (though not familiar enough to not be taken in by their tricks). Virgil may not be as confident in his ability to protect Dante as he was before the fallen angels managed to stump him at the entrance to Dis. Dante may also need to hide because the sins punished here are among the crimes he was accused of when the Blacks exiled him from Florence. Although that is still in the "future" according to the poem, Dante often refers to events surrounding his exile in the poem, and those in Hell seem to be able to see this event in Dante's future. Virgil may think that the demons here will try to put Dante with the sinners in the pitch based on the false charge with which he will be accused. The Malebranche seem like they would be willing to punish anyone, even a person who was falsely accused. Virgil wants to explain that their journey is by God's will before the demons get a chance to do any damage.

In Canto 22 of Inferno, who is Ciampolo, and why does Dante describe him as "rich in artifice"?

Ciampolo is the sinner whose "homeland was the kingdom of Navarre." He speaks at length with Dante in Canto 22 of Inferno. He is punished in the eighth circle of Hell—the circle devoted to punishing the fraudulent—for graft, or taking bribes. After Ciampolo speaks at length, describing the sins of several other sinners who are there with him, Dante notes that this man is "rich in artifice." Artifice means "cunning trick" or "artful deception." This refers to both the type of sin Ciampolo has committed and his present behavior. His sin is a type of fraud, a sin that takes a certain amount of cleverness in building a false image to cover up the corrupt reality. Ciampolo also tries to trick the demons into letting him go, telling an elaborate lie that appeals to demons hungry to torment the sinners.

In Canto 23 of Dante's Inferno, why is Caiaphas punished with the hypocrites?

A hypocrite is a person who says or does one thing but believes another. In the Bible, Caiaphas is a member of the Jewish leadership at the time of Jesus's crucifixion. He advised the religious leaders to allow Jesus to be executed in order to keep the peace and protect the rest of the Jewish population from the Romans. He did this knowing that Jesus was innocent of the charges against him. Therefore, he was a hypocrite because he acted against a man he knew was innocent. And he encouraged others to become hypocrites—to condemn Jesus as guilty knowing he was not—by his bad counsel. Thus, he is not only punished as a hypocrite, but the other hypocrites walk on top of him, showing that his form of hypocrisy was more severe than theirs.

In Canto 24 of Inferno, what is the significance of Dante's struggle to climb up out of the hypocrites' pouch?

In Canto 24 of Inferno, Dante describes the difficult ascent out of the ditch where the hypocrites are punished. He says that he "could hardly make it up from spur to spur." In the poem, ascending is symbolic of coming closer to God, while descending is symbolic of moving farther away from God. So, having a difficult time ascending symbolically suggests that getting closer to God can be a difficult task, especially when one has lost "the path that does not stray." Dante is traveling the path from sin and darkness to love and light, and it is an uphill battle. The very human Dante can hardly make it, even with a guide and good will from Heaven.

How is divine justice portrayed in Inferno and what approach does Dante's take to the concept?

Divine justice is represented as eternal punishment suited to the gravity of the sin committed during a person's life. The idea of infinite punishment for a finite crime is a disturbing concept, and Dante's detailed descriptions of the different circles and their torments only add to it. While Dante insists that Divine Justice is correct and wise and that it is impious to question it, the poem continually encourages readers to sympathize with, and even have mercy on, the sinners. It also implicitly urges readers to feel disgust and horror when seeing the ways in which sinners suffer with no hope of redemption.

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