Lesson 22





1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis


5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote







































































































































































































































































































































































































Dante goes deeper
than you think!


1. Read Dante's Inferno cantos 11-23 (Damrosch B939-B985). A prose paraphrase of Dante's Inferno also appears on this website.

2. Skim the page below, and then journal for an hour.

3. If you are enrolled in this course for credit, go to the Angel web site, take the quiz for this lesson, and submit your World Literature Journal to Dr. G.







What makes us unhappy?














Left: rendering of
the triune brain, minus the evolutionary descriptors. The sensing module at the bottom is the "hindbrain."
The feeling module is the "midbrain" and "limbic system."
The thinking module, for which we deem ourselves homo sapiens, is the cerebral
"cortex" on top.  

























Left (Gustave Doré's illustration for Inferno [1861]): Dante meets decapitated Bertrand de Born,
a poet who like Dante advocated rebellion. He
carries his head
 in hand:
Because I
severed those
who once were united, I carry
my intellect split
off from its
former body. That's my just reward [contrapasso]"

Inferno 28: 112)

 Image left: Dante's fraud beast Geryon  (Inferno 17:1, here illustrated by William Blake) is a splendid prefiguration of
the triune brain; Geryon has the head of a nice-looking man, the limbs of a beastly mammal, and the trunk and tail of
a vicious reptile.






















Image left:

St George and the Dragon
(cir. 1505 AD, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC): the beast
is no match for the knight on his obedient steed, as his lady is a thinker of pure  heavenly thoughts (compare Dante's Beatrice).



















Left: mid-15th century image of Dante by Andrea del Castagno (Uffizi Museum, Florence).























"Allegory" literally means "other words." An interpretation of a poem or story into other words is an allegory. 

















having multiple






Dante transcends himself in Inferno.

























Virgil lectures Dante on the circle and
ring structure of
the underworld
Inferno 11:1.
















The compulsive behaviors  punished in circles 2-4 are vices of immoderation,
based on Aristotle's ethic of the golden mean.






































Image left: section from Dante Gabriel Rossetti's romantic Paolo and Francesca (1855). Some 19th and 20th century readers saw Francesca as a heroine.
















The compulsive behaviors that Dante describes in circles 5-6 are produced by the amygdala.







The fight or flight response is imaged
in the angry and sullen souls in the Styx. Uncontrolled conflict and competition cause personal suffering and social chaos.







Left: Florentine noble Farinata degli Uberti (d. cir. 1264) who returned from banishment by force of arms after the battle of Montaperti in 1260. Within two years after his death, because of the bloodshed he caused, Farinata's family was banished permanently. He is an alter of Dante's own unproductive anger at Florence. Image by Andrea del Castagno (Uffizi Museum, Florence).


















Left: a piece of the Parthenon frieze representing the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs. The contention of human and animal in man is an ancient theme.






In Inferno's lowest
regions, circles 7-9, the intellect is strong but corrupt, devoted to the creation of unhappiness.





































Left:  Dante's meeting with his teacher Brunetto Latini (Dore's illustration). We must emphasize that this is a dream image of Brunetto. It is not how Brunetto really is or was; it is how Brunetto appears to Dante when Dante is not thinking wisely but using his mind  maliciously to against Florence.

















































Left: ancient Athenian  Harpy, female counterpart to the beast-man centaur. Harpies haunt the Wood of Suicides (Inferno 13).

































































LOWER BRAIN: The compulsive behaviors are punished in circles 2-4.



MIDBRAIN: A special case of compulsion, anger, is punished in circle 5.




The line between the anger compulsion and intended  violence divides the animal and human domains.
Intentional wrongs are punished in circle 7 (belligerence)





circle  8 (general fraud)














and circle 9 (personal fraud).




















animal and cerebral

Humans are equipped not with one brain but several brains (or brain module complexes, if you prefer) that work together, more or less. Today's brain maps may be less accurate than medieval world maps, but in crude outline our mental predicament is understood in terms of a triune brain

  • at the base lies an unconscious "reptilian brain" that controls our physical bodily functions automatically, without requiring us to think about them, although our most basic sensations, such as hunger, pain and chill, arise here;

  • in the middle there's a "mammalian brain" that we become well aware of from time to time when we are angry, fearful, lustful, or otherwise emotional; 

  • superimposed on top, as a kind of zoo keeper over this menagerie, is the "human brain"--the conscious thinking and speaking part, the cerebral cortex. 

These brains often coordinate our experience of the world by networking in seamless harmony with each other, but at times their views come into conflict and confuse us. For example, in moments of moral crisis when the animal within is aroused to indulge some thoughtless desire, the frontal lobes intercept the impulse message and paralyze it with a proposed analysis. Eating the whole box of doughnuts, are we, fatso?

Despite its huge size advantage and relative cleverness (including its exclusive access to language), the cortex wins a high percentage of these disputes only in mature, healthy, trained individuals performing under low to moderately stressed conditions. At times a king but often only a pretender, the cortex spends enormous energy inventing fictions and rationalizations to explain its lapses in control. The devil made me do it! Everybody does it! Of course I knew what I was doing! It won't happen again!

The multiplicity of the brain is a modern discovery in bioscience, but it is well expressed throughout literary history. People clearly were haunted by conflicts between their upper and lower brains long before there was any neurological diagnosis of the problem.

  • In prehistoric Europe, cave artists described the animal within, though they usually portrayed it as the surviving spirit of a wild beast that they had hunted and eaten. (Recall lesson 5.) The signature triumph of the cortex in prehistory was the Neolithic domestication of animals.

  • By classical times, as exemplified in Plato, intellectual training systems had been devised to strengthen the uplifting power of thought (from the cortex) over the unhappy excesses of feeling and emotion (from the lower animal brains).   

  • By the European High Middle Ages, intellectuals had developed a far more pervasive system for mind control. The church attempted to nurture cerebral brains by repressing "vices" (base urges from the lower brains) and stimulating "virtues" (ideals of the cortex). Although beastliness obviously survived in them, medieval Europeans on the whole developed enough self-control to allow nation-states and large scale business organizations to emerge from the Dark Ages. Even the romancers eventually were impressed by the church's teaching that passion and indulgence lead to tragedy, not happiness. [Recall medieval romance in Lesson 20.]

In fourteenth century Italy, educated people knew the complexities of mind sufficiently well to go along with Dante's descent into bestial hell and ascent into intellectual heaven. When the pilgrim Dante enters through hell gate and wonders where he is, his guide Virgil tells him that they have come to the place of "sorrowful people who have lost the good of intellect" [il ben de l'intelletto] (Inferno 3: 1-21). This asylum has separate wards for the various states of depression, but all of its inmates are unhappy and dysfunctional because they lack appropriate cerebral regulation.

Between our lower brains and the cortex above, communications primarily take place across a network of two-way, single lane pathways, where the message traffic going up can block and overpower the messages going down, at least temporarily. This efficient wiring helps to explain what the newspapers and history books often show: individuals very often lapse into unintelligent, unforeseeing states that result in terrible suffering for themselves and others. The first third of Dante's Inferno attempts to describe these painful compulsions which seem so avoidable from the detached perspective of rational hindsight.

More originally, the rest of Inferno deals with a different, darker and more dangerous brain problem that Dante describes as malice. (See Virgil's discussion of circles 7-9, Inf 11:1-66.) The intellect that lets individuals limit impulsive behavior also enables premeditated murder, robbery, fraud, graft and many other entirely voluntary forms of hostility and deceit. Unlike non-cerebral animals, human beings consciously intend and devise harm to others, to themselves, and to the world in general. The cortex not only plans and executes this destruction; it cleans up the mess afterward by sanitizing the story. It makes excuses or justifications that explain away the horrors.

It is fitting that guide Virgil and pilgrim Dante spend most of their time among the malicious intellects. In Virgil's clever brain, Rome's destruction of Greek civilization became the Aeneid, and in Dante's tortured logic the glorious imperialism of the Aeneid became an excuse to commit treason against republican Florence [recall lesson 21]. Dante knew first-hand how intellectual dishonesty compounds unhappiness. He had covered up personal misdeeds, then shifted the blame to those who succeeded him after his fall. His unbending pride in exile ultimately led him to a rebellion that forever ended his chances of returning home. No wonder he could imagine that he had visited the very foundations of unhappiness.

Through misery to bliss
the general plan of the Commedia

Although it is a dream vision full of surreal images and fantastic turns of events, the Commedia is rational in structure overall. Each of its characters represents a general concept or category, and each of its narrative episodes is symbolic. Its 100 metrical songs ("cantos") are divided into three equal parts ("canticles" Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso), and fractal-like, each stanza of each canto of each canticle is three lines long. Three simultaneous points of view (the pilgrim's, the several guides' and the narrator's) assure a constant detachment from the action and complexity of analysis.

The poem's intellectual features serve one central purpose. As Dante explains in a remarkable letter to one of his young patrons, "Big Dog" della Scala, the Commedia is designed "to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of bliss." (For excerpts from this famous letter, see Note 3 below. Can the poem work this meditative magic for you? If you are in misery, perhaps it can! See reading tips in notes 1 & 2 below.)

An original student of poetic traditions, Dante understood that arts are means to induce joy and other mental states.  He classified literary works in terms of the moods that they produced in him as a sympathetic reader. The depressants he called "tragedy," and the stimulants were his "comedy."  In Inferno the poet distilled the spirits that he had experienced as downers, including pre-Christian mysteries and underworld descents in the tradition of Homer, along with contemporary war and crime stories. In Paradiso, a fantasy of ascension into the sky, he reflected the joy that he had found in his most beloved inspirational literature, especially upbeat Christian mystical writing and moralized romance. In Purgatorio, in between, went the relaxed bittersweet mix that we today call "tragicomedy."

The Commedia combines all of these moods in one continuous and unified narrative, a story of Dante's pilgrimage from hell to purgatory to heaven at Easter season in 1300 AD. The Christian holiday works in the background of Dante's story, much as the Jewish Passover enriches the gospel accounts of Jesus' death. Dante's story is indeed an imitation of Christ:

Curiously, however, Dante's imitation is presented in the surreal form of a dream vision: the poet is asleep, meeting the dead through incubation. If the pilgrimage is not literally or historically true, if it is illusory or fictitious as a dream, then how can it also be a serious imitation of Christ? Dante resolves this difficulty in his letter to Big Dog.

This famous letter follows well established Christian traditions of Biblical scholarship in its explanation that there are four kinds of scriptural meaning: a historical level, plus three "allegorical" or hidden contexts--figural, moral, and anagogical. The poet illustrates these four kinds of meaning in the Hebrew Exodus, a story of particular relevance to his own exile.

  • Historical (literal) meaning: the Exodus happened as a factual, historical event; the ancient Hebrews left Egypt and went searching for a new homeland.

  • Figural meaning: the Exodus story prefigures the story of Jesus. Freeing his people from slavery, Moses anticipates the savior Christ. Figural meaning gives us understanding of past events in the larger, overall context of history.

  • Moral meaning: the Exodus story is an image of moral conversion from sin to grace as the Hebrews gave up their unhappy life in Egypt to follow the way of the Lord. Unlike the previous levels, the moral level tells what we should do now, in the context of the present day.

  • Anagogical meaning: the Exodus story is a parable about the fate of the soul after death, as it leaves the corruption of the body (imaged as the "flesh pots" of Egypt) and enters the presence of God in a purified state. The anagogical context is what the story means for our future.

In Dante's poem, the pilgrim follows the path of Christ (figural), he learns how to avoid suffering (moral), and Virgil and other guides show him the fate of souls after death (anagogical). In contrast to Exodus, however, the Commedia takes the anagogical meaning for the primary or literal one. This emergence of the anagogical to the surface of the story allows the historical level to be hidden down below among the allegories. Hence, the poem does not look much like autobiography, but autobiographical meaning is an intended context or subtext. The Commedia is a public poem with confessional secrets, many of which still can be extracted through interpretation because of the shards of historical information that remain for us to read of Dante's life.

The general plan of Inferno

To the extent that Dante succeeded in his polysemantic plan, his writing is both learned and self-absorbed, simultaneously objective and subjective. The characters met by the pilgrim in the Commedia illustrate general points of religious, moral and spiritual typology, but they are also reflections of Dante's own character.

The self-images in Inferno are of course negative, and progressively more negative as the descent continues. The images begin with those that have grand literary pretensions, those who imaginatively engage in adulterous affairs, those who drink too much, and those who are obsessed by money--all of these weaknesses being the least of Dante's problems, in his self-analysis. The portraits then darken into reflections of those who are angry and violent, as Dante certainly must have been in the combative world of Florentine power politics, but there's worse to follow below. The final images are the most unhappy, depicting those who scheme to betray their neighbors, families and friends, as Dante regretted that he had done in the most dismal moments of his life. The poet visits the shadows, as Odysseus and Aeneas had gone before him, to gain perspective on himself, but this time the disclosure is intimate, and by all pre-modern standards very shockingly so. 

Inferno does not describe all of the types of depression that were known in Dante's period. For example, there's no circle of the slothful in Inferno, presumably because Dante did not worry that laziness was one of his bad habits. But  the scope of coverage in Dante's poem nonetheless is broad enough to describe no fewer than ten geo-poetic regions of the underworld: an outer belt of un-commitment plus nine descending circles of sorrow that are increasingly difficult for the pilgrim and the reader to pass. The first few circles (on sex, liquor, and money) are quick reads, but then the plot thickens as the poet turns to deeper problems. Circles seven and eight, concerning intentional violence and fraud, are especially labyrinthine as they are subdivided into multiple rings.

At the foundation, in the pit of circle nine, where immobile Lucifer and his companions are frozen in a river of their own tears, the pilgrim learns that rebellion against God is the ultimate futility and source of all pain. Readers looking for a scary or eloquent devil are bound to be disappointed. The poet's striking image of Lucifer, weeping and powerless in his futile quarrel with the nature of reality, finally liberates the pilgrim from his fantasies that any good can come from evil.

To simplify all of this infernal complexity, literary commentators typically describe the structure of the Inferno as tri-partite, with the inmates classified as the compulsive, the violent, and the fraudulent. These classifications are based on Virgil's general description of the underworld (Inf. 11:80) which, in turn, loosely follows Aristotle's ancient analysis of incontinence, brutishness and malice (Nichomachean Ethics 7:1). For students today, I believe that the three general disorders in Inferno are better described as the major dysfunctions of the triune brain [discussed above]:

  • Reptilism or dominance by hindbrain sensation over intelligence: the compulsive are captive to their uncontrolled appetites for sex (circle 2), food and drink (circle 3), and wealth (circle 4).

  • Mammalism or dominance by midbrain emotion over intelligence: the angry are driven by conflict and competition, or the fight-or-flight response, in the hostile City of Dis (circles 5-6).

  • Humanism or dominance by a corrupt intelligence: the willfully violent (circle 7) and the frauds (circles 7-8) are cerebral but maliciously so, in justifying or rationalizing unhappiness. By dedicating our most powerful brain to the support of suffering, they are afflicted with the greatest pain.

Some notes on these three sources of unhappiness follow. An enlarged outline of Inferno appears at note 6 on this page below. Of course, readers should make their own outlines and summaries as practical ways to develop personal comprehension the poem.

 Reptilian compulsions
 (circles 1-4)

The young pilgrim Dante who tours hell is not the creator but the creature of his "Master" Virgil. Both of these characters are the creatures of Dante the poet who writes the comedy, detached from Franchesca (Inf 5:70), Ciacco (6:34), Argenti (8:31), Farinata (10:22) and the other sufferers in Inferno, even when the pilgrim or Virgil sympathizes with them.  

The pilgrim's respect and fondness for Virgil are apparent in both Inferno and Purgatorio, but the poet Dante's point is that in the grand scheme of things Virgil's place is in limbo, like other ancients who passively await the arrival of help that never comes. Virgil knows a lot about suffering and the desire to overcome it, but he does not know happiness. Although the historical Virgil had a real Roman Emperor to celebrate, and a great empire through which to become famous, this extraordinary political opportunity did not make him happy. Because Dante similarly has dreamed of becoming the poet laureate of the new Holy Roman Empire [as described in Lesson 21], Virgil's expertise in suffering and remorse make him an outstanding guide to disabuse Dante of his illusions. However, Dante somehow must surpass Virgil, from whom he has learned his art, if he is to accomplish the intent of the Commedia, to lead his readers to the state of bliss.

Virgil's primary lesson for young Dante is the profoundly simple one that happiness is a state of mind, not a product of external circumstances. The sufferers in Inferno do not recognize their own free will. Like zombies or automatons, they are drawn to Acheron, the river of sorrow that drains to itself all who see themselves only as products or creatures.

When they heard Charon's cruel words, the naked and weary dead grew more pale and gnashed their teeth. Weeping in despair, they blasphemed God, blamed humankind in general, and cursed their parents, their place and time of birth, and the sperm and egg of their conception. They were headed for the further shore that awaits all those who are fearless of God.
                                          Inf 3:100

The depressed are not despised by God or predestined to suffering, but that is how they misunderstand their condition. Virgil knows that they suffer voluntarily; "they yearn to be here," as he explains. Self-destructively imagining themselves as victims, they do not see that there is any way out of their pain. They believe that their Creator has imprisoned them in torture chambers from which there can be no escape. In place of true judgment, or proper exercise of intellect, they accept a preposterous fantasy of doom. Minos lashes them with his reptilian tail.

This passive victim syndrome is shown in its simplest forms in the compulsions of circles two through four (cantos 5-7) where souls are driven by wind, beaten down by rain, or caught like video game figures in repeating loops of pointless conflict. For these unhappy souls, the pursuit of sex, food and money (both the spending and hoarding of money) is frustrating because obsessive, ungoverned by rationality. Virgil takes his analysis (Inf. 11:80) from the description of incontinence in Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics 7:1), where an incontinent person may know better than to be so self-indulgent but nonetheless fails to moderate the unintelligent impulse for food, sex and other pleasures. Unhappiness results because the reasoning mind acknowledges the problem but views itself as defeated and helpless to control behavior.

The most famous victim in this part of Inferno is the unrepentant adulteress Francesca da Rimini who is tossed in a tempest of passion with her silent boy friend Paolo (Inf 5:52-142). The pair were caught in a compromising position and murdered by her husband. Francesca claims to have been driven by love, with irresistible pressure from reading the storybook of Lancelot and Guinevere [recall romance from Lesson 20]. Francesca's enchantment by the book is a parody of Augustine's conversion by Paul's Epistle to the Romans [in Augustine's famous autobiography, Confessions]. She fell for the wrong Paul.

The pilgrim swoons with sympathy upon hearing Francesca's story, for it parallels his own. This passionate younger Dante is the lyricist of courtly love whose Vita Nuova (1295) records his longing for young Beatrice Portinari, even after her marriage and death. The pilgrim has been enticed into Inferno only because he imagines that Beatrice pities his suffering and is summoning him to her in the afterlife (Inf 3:94). Francesca is a porn image of Beatrice; her silent partner Paolo is a reflection of unhappy, passive Dante caught up in futile obsession for a body that does not exist.

Mammalian Emotions
(Circles 5-6)

Violence, according to Virgil's guide Aristotle, can be  another type of "incontinence," another compulsive disorder. This accords with modern understanding: violence sometimes indeed is as involuntary as the blink of eye. Our brain structure explains how this can be.

The sophisticated cortex is smart but relatively slow in its recognition and analysis of danger, so we are equipped with a subcortical emergency response system, the much faster but more primitive amygdala, that can seize control of our behavior when an unanticipated threat suddenly appears, especially when we are stressed out. In taking its shortcuts, the hardwired logic of the amygdala sometimes errs in threat assessment and response, and the actor recognizes the mistake only after cortical control has been restored.

This two-brain defense system is the biological basis for laws defining involuntary manslaughter as a lesser crime than premeditated murder; homicide law doctrines of mens re or intentionality reflect the underlying neurology. When driven by the amygdala, actors are not in their right minds, from the point of view of the cortex, and they later may be remorseful for the harm they cause by their rash behavior. Francesca's husband may have been driven to manslaughter by his amygdala, though Francesca assumes that he intended to murder her and deserves to be punished in the lowest part of hell.

As a danger response mechanism, the amygdala is the seat of both aggression and terror. It is the basis of the irrational fight-or-flight response to stress noted in literary representations of behavior as early as Homer's Achilles. In Inferno, Dante's River Styx marks this region of uncontrolled fight and flight. Its fog limits visibility, and swamp gas anesthetizes judgment. Crazy fighters brawl on the surface while terrified flighters hide on the bottom. Failing to lead on this part of the journey, the guide Virgil does not check the pilgrim's bad instincts. An irrational demon Phlegyas is the boatman for this river tour.

On the Styx, the pilgrim greets a non-threatening Fillipo Argenti with undeserved blows (Inf. 8:31) and then helplessly cowers in terror before demons that appear to guard the City of Dis (Inf. 8:64). These uncontrolled reactions allegorize Dante's past irrationality when he picked the wrong quarrels to fight and to fear, mostly to fear. The pilgrim's relapse into anxiety at Dis recalls the opening of the poem, when he retreats from Mt. Happiness because of the phantom leopard, lion and she-wolf that he imagines there. With the benefit of hindsight and rational analysis, the mature Dante understands that, years earlier, he helped to get himself exiled from Florence by inventing some enemies and failing to stand up against others.

The most famous episode in this part of Inferno is the pilgrim's timid encounter in the City of Dis at the fiery tomb of Farinata and Cavalcante (Inf. 10:22-136). Not unlike the amygdala, the burning souls buried in Dis claim to foresee future harms, yet they do not actually know what's happening in the present (Inf. 10:94). Because of this blindness, belligerent Farinata assumes that his family remains safe in Florence, when in fact they are so hated that they have been driven in exile; anxious Cavalcante assumes that his son Guido must be dead, when in fact Guido is alive.

These false assumptions help the pilgrim begin to recognize the errors of his own anger and fear. As a former exile who returned to Florence by conquering the city with the military aid of outsiders, Farinata shows Dante that if he impulsively fights his way back into Florence then, like Farinata, his violent homecoming will earn him the enmity  of the Florentines; foreseeably, his family will be endangered if he becomes unable to protect them. (Dante's wife and children were not exiled with him; apparently due to her family connections with Black Guelphs, they remained in Florence, in possession of valuable property.) Cavalcante's mistaken fear about his son Guido is a reminder that, as city magistrate, Dante had exiled Guido and others to prevent a possible spread of violence, but this preventative act actually created the enemies who eventually prosecuted Dante and forced his exile. Indeed Guido (Dante's fellow poet, to whom Vita Nuova had been dedicated) became sick after a few months in exile, and died soon after his recall to Florence in August 1300; no doubt Dante was blamed.

Dante's punitive peace-keeping and later threats to make war on Florence were ill considered and counter-productive. Instead of finding security, he slept on a bed of fire where he saw that his impulsive actions had ruined his chances of returning home.

 Human Malice: Hostility
(Circle 7)

Beyond Dis lies a third river, a manmade Channel of Blood guarded by a dysfunctional Minotaur and a herd of armed centaurs. These beast-men mark the psychological dividing line between the midbrain and the cortex. Their ambivalent behavior is represented by the belligerent centaur Nessus, barely socialized enough to ford the channel and carry the pilgrim across from the animal to the human side (Inf. 12:49). But arrival on the shores of stronger intellect is not the beginning of joy. The places of intentional violence and other forms of malicious behavior still lie ahead on the pilgrim's tour, and that's about two-thirds of the total lines of Inferno, a proportion roughly equal to that of the cortex to total brain mass.

Bestial imagery does not disappear entirely in these lower circles. In the ditch of thieves in the eighth circle, for example, the crooks Buoso and Cianfa have between them only one body that is human in form; their other body form is reptilian. Since both thieves want the human body, the reptilian thief is always taking it and casting off his reptile body onto the rival (Inf. 25: 34). Another beastly outlier is the clever centaur Cacus who is smart enough to make his living by stealing cattle, though not wise enough to avoid stealing them from strong-armed Hercules (Inf. 25:1). Nevertheless, despite such occasional cases of half-wittedness, circles 7, 8 and 9 are focused primarily on the intellect's creation and support of unhappiness, a corrupt condition of mind that Dante calls malice.

As Virgil analyzes it at the opening of canto 11, malice can take the form of hostility (as shown in circle 7) or fraud (circles 8-9). These two types correspond to the Achillean and Odyssean models of heroism, the extraverted and introverted. The hostile are subdivided into three rings according to the victims of their violence: there's hostility against neighbor, hostility against self, and hostility against God. The frauds similarly are subdivided into two rings: fraud against strangers and personal fraud. Personal fraud is presented as the worst of all painful conditions since it isolates the performer by breaking bonds of trust with family, friends, or community.

The lowest circles are the darkest points in Dante's self-revelation. In the seventh circle, the key interviews, Pier delle Vigne in the wood of suicides and Brunetto Latini on the burning sands, are, like Dante, would-be Roman imperial poets whose political misfortunes have isolated them in self-consuming hatred. The pilgrim is sympathetic to both of these self-afflicted souls, especially the humanist Latini, in reality an international man of letters whose exilic allegorical fantasy Tesoretto was a primary poetic model for the Commedia. Dante's characterization of Brunetto's defiant contempt for the people of Florence indeed is much less fitting to the historical character of Dante's teacher (he returned from exile to hold city offices and eventually die a respected Florentine) than to the permanently alienated Dante. It is not the whole man but only the anger of Brunetto's exile that attracts the angry student's attention; Dante has not seen the better points that this teacher offers.

Brunetto teaches the pilgrim that he will flourish only if he avoids Florence. Dante's exile led him to pride himself in writing abrasive social analysis. The biting sarcasm of the seventh circle powerfully conveys the violent resentment of the aristocratic old guard to the emerging materialism in the early modern European world. The old Roman world with its devotion to nobility and self-sacrifice has given way to a commercial world of antisocial knights of greed and arrogance. Life revolving around money is imaged in the circle of faceless usurers who have no identity other than a purchased coat of arms painted garishly on the money bags hanging from their necks (Inf. 17: 31-78). This is great satire, but Dante's more subtle point is that it is going nowhere on the road to happiness. It is the corrupt cortex justifying and supporting Dante's alienation from home.

Lesson summary: Dante's fantasy world of popes and emperors, Guelphs and Ghibellines, friars and alchemists, dead prophets and courtly lovers is fascinating but initially strange, provoking the copious notes in which scholars have buried the text.  Yet behind all of the Gothic detail of the poem lies a poignant personal confession and surprisingly insightful psychology.

Additional related readings
and journal topics

1. How to learn Dante: Meditations are likely to work only for those who can give full, undivided attention to them. To prevent distractions and maintain focus while following Dante's meditation, find a quiet place where you can read without interruption. Also be sure to set aside substantial blocks of time for the reading (the longer the better), and keep at it. Sure, it's hard these days to find the right place and enough time, but remember that the goal is happiness. Maintain proper priorities. What conflicting activities in your schedule are really aimed at making you happy?

Use tricks to force your concentration. In silent reading we can find our eyeballs scanning down through the lines of a text and suddenly realize that we have not been reading at all: we've been daydreaming or otherwise distracted. Reading aloud is much better than reading silently in this respect. It is hard to read aloud and think about anything unrelated to the reading. 

Writing an outline for yourself, as I have done in note 6 below, can be very helpful to get the general form of the poem into your mind. Even better, try translating or paraphrasing so closely that each sentence must enter into your mind. In Dante's case, if you know Italian, you can write your own translation into English; or if you know any two languages, you can write a translation from one language to the other. Even if you know only one language, you can paraphrase a translation of the Inferno into your own words. A paraphrase is simply a rewording in the same language (such as Italian to Italian, or English to English). I have paraphrased the Inferno in this web to help my focus. This may or may not seem to you to be  a good version of Inferno, but after the exercise of writing it, I feel that I have come to a reasonable understanding of the poem--not that I know it completely but I know it far better than I would have known it simply by eyeballing the text and jotting down a few notes.

If you are really skilled, there's a higher step you can attempt. As poets have done for centuries, you can try imitating Dante. An imitation is more original than a translation or paraphrase. Here you write about a new subject in the way that the source author might have written about it, if he or she had taken on that subject. You can imitate Dante by, for example, writing about a modern politician or church leader or military hero or some other famous character in the way in which Dante might have written about that person. Who do you think is in an "infernal" mental state? What does that soul look like? How is it tortured? If it could briefly speak to you when you visited it, what would it say?

Our brains work best when we are actively doing something (like translating or paraphrasing or imitating--or performing the dialogue, or shooting a film version). Do something with the Commedia to engage with it fully. Do not expect to get the full benefit by reading a few excerpts or lecture notes.

2. Picture unhappiness.  Describe someone who seems particularly unhappy. What do you think could be wrong? How do you think this person might become more happy?

Picture you own unhappiness. To follow Dante's method, fictionalize your unhappiness as a state of torment. Examine it as objectively as you can. Describe what it must look like to outside observers.

Dante portrays the pursuit of sex, food and money (both the spending and hoarding of money) as frustrating when it becomes obsessive, ungoverned by rationality. Would you agree? Is it possible to go too far in these pursuits? 

Why does our culture take such a different view of these matters than Dante's culture did? Who profits and who loses with our culture's view? Who profits and who loses in the orientation of Dante's culture?

Dante portrays intellectual dishonesty as the source of deepest unhappiness. Does he have a case--or is this simply his own private experience?

3. The science of free will.

Current science suggests that voluntary acts originate in the unconscious. Experiments have shown that brain activity exists 500 milliseconds prior to conscious desire to undertake an act (Benjamin Libet, Mind Time. Harvard: 2004).  These findings have raised questions about free will, since at the time of its formation we are unaware that an intention has been formed. However, there is also a delay between the consciousness of an intent and the initiation of the intended act. Our ability to choose not to act on an intent is evidence that free will indeed exists.

4. Dante's Letter to Can Grande della Scala (excerpts), dedicating the Paradiso:

Those who want introduce a part of any kind of work ought to offer some information about the whole of which it is a part. I, too, wishing to offer something on the Paradiso, thought that I should write something about the whole Comedy, so that it might be a clearer and easier introduction . . . 

For me be able to present what I am going to say, you must know that the sense of this work is not simple, rather it may be called polysemantic, that is, of many senses. The first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that of that which is signified by the letter. The first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical. For example, consider these words: `When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people, Judea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion' (Psalms 113:1-2). If we look at this passage, it literally means the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses; if we look at it from allegory, it means for us our redemption done by Christ; if from the moral sense, it means to us the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace; if from the anagogical, it means the leave taking of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory. These mystical senses are called by various names. In general all of them often are called allegorical, because they differ from the literal or the historical. The word allegory comes from Greek alleon, which means `other' or `different.'

. . .  The subject of my Comedy, taken only from a literal standpoint, is simply the status of the soul after death. The movement of the whole work revolves around this subject. If the work is read allegorically, however, the subject is man, either gaining or losing merit through his freedom of will, subject to the justice of being rewarded or punished. . .

The title of the book is: `Here begins the Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Florentine in birth, not in custom.' In order to understand you need to know that comedy comes from komos `village' and oda, which means `song', whence comedy sort of means `country song.' Comedy differs from all other kinds of poetry. It differs from tragedy, in that tragedy in the beginning is peaceful and pleasant, but in the end or final exit it is smelly and horrible. Tragedy takes its name from tragos, which means `goat', and oda, so it is a kind of `goat-song', that is, smelly like a goat, as can be seen in Seneca's tragedies. Comedy, however, begins with harshness, and then ends in a good way, as can be seen by Terence in his comedies. . .  They also differ in style: the language of tragedy is elevated and sublime, but comedy is loose and humble. . . 

From all of this it is obvious that the present work is called comedy. It is horrible and smelly in the beginning, in Inferno; in the end it is good, desirable and graceful, in Paradiso. Its style is easy and humble, using the vernacular common language in which also women communicate. . .

The purpose of the whole Comedy, as well as the Paradiso, is both remote and proximate. Leaving off subtle investigation, we can say say briefly that the purpose of the whole as well as the part is to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of bliss... The kind of philosophy under which we proceed here is the business of morals or ethics. Both the Comedy and the Paradiso are composed for practice rather than theory. . .

Concerning the narrative, no summary will be offered at present except to say that the story proceeds from sphere to sphere, and one is told about the souls of the blessed that are found in each circle, and that the true beatitude consists in perceiving the principle of truth, as is revealed by John: `This is eternal life, that they may know thee, the only true God', etc. (John 17:3), and by Boethius in the third book of The Consolation of Philosophy: `The sight of thee is the goal' (Poem 9, last line). To show the glory of blessedness in those souls, as witnesses to all truth, much is required of them which has usefulness and entertainment. Once the principle or the Prime is found, i.e. God, there is nothing more to be sought, since he is the Alpha and Omega, that is, the beginning and the end, as the vision of John calls him, and so the work ends with God himself, who is blessed throughout the ages.

5. Interpretation. Do Dante's four levels of scriptural interpretation make sense still today? How do they differ from modern interpretations of the Bible or other religious scriptures or other literature of any kind?

What about application of these four levels to the Commedia? Are all four meanings really there or not? Do you think there are other meanings that Dante does not mention in the letter to Can Grande?

6. Tri-partite outline of Inferno: (1) reptilian compulsions shown in gray, (2) mammalian emotions in red, (3) human intentional vices in blue (for hostility and fraud).


Introduction: uncommitted souls in the whirlwind  Inf 3:22
          Acheron, joyless river of death  Inf 3:70
          Charon the ferryman

Circle 1: limbo of the pagans  Inf. 4:1
           Homer and the poets  4:64
           Lords and ladies on the green  4:106
           Philosophers and scientists  4:130 

Circle 2: the lustful  Inf 5:1   Minos the judge 5:1
          Paolo and Francesca  5:70                       

Circle 3: the gluttons  Inf 6:1  The Dog Cerberus  6:1  
          Ciacco  6:34 prophecy of Florence 6:64    

Circle 4: the greedy  Inf 7:1   The monster Plutus  7:1  
           the misers and prodigals  7:40                       
           Virgil's sermon on Lady Fortune  7:67           

           angry and sullen souls in River Styx 7:100  

--story break--

Circle 5: the angry  Inf 8:1   Phlegyas' boat  8:1            
          Fillipo Argenti  8:31  (parallels Franchesca)           
          outside the City of Dis  8:64  Fallen angels  8:82
             Furies and Medusa 9:34                                    
          Help from Heaven  9:64  (devils parallel Cerberus) 

Circle 6: the heretics  Inf 9:106    Epicurus  10:1         
10:22  prophecy 10:73  (cf. Ciacco's)
           Cavalcante Cavalcanti 

Circle 7: the violent  Inf 11:1  three rings              
          Virgil describes the lower circles and rings 
Violent against others: the bloodbath 12:1    
12:1  Centaurs  12:49        
Violent against self: the wood of suicides 
Pier delle Vigne  
Jacomo and Lano 
unnamed Florentine 
Violent against God : fiery sands 
Capaneus the fefiant
Ancient Giant of Crete 
14:73  Edenic  
Bruno Latini 
15:1  another prophecy   
Jacopo Rusticucci  
The money men  

--story break--

Circle 8: the frauds in Malebolge's 10 rings or sinks  Inf 18:1           
                                    the fraud beast Geryon  17:1                  
                        Sink 1: pimps: Venedico Caccianemico   18:40
                                   seducers: Jason  18:67                            
                        Sink 2: flatterers  18:91    Thais  18:118            
                        Sink 3: simonists  19:1   Pope Nicholas  19:90     
                        Sink 4: prophets  20:1    Manto  20:52                
                                    magicians and witches  20:100                
                        Sink 5: bribe takers  21:1  Malebranche  21:31
                                    Ciampolo  22:31                                       
                        Sink 6: hypocrites  23:58  Joke Friars  23:82    
                                    Virgil's anger  18:127                              
                        Sink 7: thieves  24:61    Virgil preaches fame  24:1 
                                    Vanni Fucci  24:97  prophecy; Cacus  25:1  
                                    Agnello and Buoso  25:34   turned serpents 
                        Sink 8: rogues of war  26:1   Dante curses Florence
                                    Ulysses and Diomede  26:33                    
                                    Guido Da Montefeltro  27:1                       
                        Sink 9: Sowers of discord  28:1    Mohammad       
                                     Mosca  28:91 , Bertrand de Born  28:112
                                     Geri del Bello   29:1   Dante's family feud   
                        Sink 10:  29:37  the falsifiers                               
                                     Alchemists  29:73                                   
                                     Adam of Brescia  30:49  Sinon  30:91     
                                     the giants  31:1   Nimrod  31:46            
                                     Ephialtes  31:82   Antaeus  31: 97]         

Circle 9: River Cocytus  Inf 32:1  the treacherous souls                  
                          Ring 1: Caina, treachery against family               
                                      Alessandro & Napoleone  32:40            
                          Ring 2: Antenora, treachery against city             
                                      Bocca degli Abbati  32:70                 
                          Ring 3: Ptolomaea, treachery against guests         
                                     Count Ugolino & Bishop Ruggeiri  33:1    
                                     Friar Alberigo & Branca d'Oria
                          Ring 4: Judecca, total treachery                          
                                     Lucifer with Judas, Brutus, & Cassius  34:1  
                                     exit to purgatory  34:70                            

7. Marc Siegel, "Can We Cure Fear?" Scientific American Mind December 2005:

"'Fight or flight,' or the acute stress response, was first described in the 1920s by Walter B. Cannon, a physiologist at Harvard University. Cannon observed that animals, including humans, react to dangers with a hormonal discharge of the nervous system. The body unleashes an outpouring of vessel-constricting, heart-thumping hormones, including epinephrine, norepinephrine and the steroid cortisol. The heart speeds up and pumps harder, the nerves fire more quickly, the skin cools and gets goose bumps, the eyes dilate to see better, and the areas of the brain involved in decision making receive a message that it is time to act.

"At the center of these processes is the amygdala, an almond-shaped region of the brain. Neuroscientist Joseph E. LeDoux of New York University, a pioneer in the study of the fear cycle, describes the amygdala as "the hub in the brain's wheel of fear." The amygdala processes the primitive emotions of fear, hate, love and anger--all neighbors in the deep limbic brain we inherited from animals that evolved earlier. The amygdala works together with other brain centers that feed it or respond to it. This fear hub senses through the thalamus (the brain's receiver), analyzes with the cortex (the seat of reasoning) and remembers via the hippocampus (the memory-input device).

"It takes only 12 milliseconds, according to LeDoux, for the thalamus to process sensory input and to signal the amygdala. He calls this emotional brain the "low road." The "high road," or thinking brain, takes 30 to 40 milliseconds to process what is happening. "People have fear they don't understand or can't control because it is processed by the low road," LeDoux says."

Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
Copyright © 2005, 2006