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 are probably 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
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.
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, there are those moments
of moral crisis when the
animal within is aroused to indulge some thoughtless desire, but the frontal
the impulse message and paralyze it with a proposed analysis.
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
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 cultural history. People
clearly were haunted by conflicts between their upper and lower brains long before
there was any neurological diagnosis of the problem.
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.
2.) The signature triumph of the cortex in prehistory was the
Neolithic domestication of animals.
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). (Recall
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
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.
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
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,
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
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 18]. 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 foundations of unhappiness.
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.
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
intellectual features serve one central purpose. As Dante explains in a
remarkable letter to
one of his patrons, young Can Grande "Big Dog" della Scala,
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
Can the poem work this meditative magic for you? 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.
"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 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
festival adds depth to the Phaedo [Lesson
14], or as the Jewish Passover enriches the gospel accounts of Jesus'
death. Dante's story is indeed an imitation of Christ [recall Christian
imitation from Lesson 16]:
the harrowing of hell on Good Friday plus Holy Saturday;
the resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday, plus three days
the ascent into heaven.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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. 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.
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
images begin with those that have
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
cities, 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 pre-modern standards very shockingly so.
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 nonetheless is broad enough to describe no fewer than ten
geo-poetic regions of the underworld: an outer belt of uncommitment 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
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
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.
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
18], 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
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.
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
tossed in a tempest of passion with her silent boy friend Paolo
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 17]. Francesca's enchantment by the book is a parody of Augustine's
conversion by Paul's Epistle to the Romans [recall Augustine from
She fell for the wrong Paul.
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.
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.
sophisticated cortex is 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 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
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 [recall
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
On the Styx,
the pilgrim greets a non-threatening
Fillipo Argenti with
undeserved blows (Inf.
and then helplessly cowers in terror before demons that appear to guard the
of Dis (Inf.
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
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.
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
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
Dis lies a third river, a manmade Channel of Blood guarded by
a dysfunctional Minotaur and a herd of armed
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 end of
suffering. 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.
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 described in earlier lessons of this web [for example, in
Lesson 11]. 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,
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
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.
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
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.
(Circles 8-9): Dante gets the dirt on Dante
does not need interference from the lower brains to produce misery. The
intellect is quite capable of spinning false realities and making them
over again, whenever it may seem convenient to revise the truth (i.e., compound the lies). When
the storyteller's art is applied, any wrong
can be made to appear as innocent or appropriate; blame can always be
transferred to the accusers. We are all familiar with
these deceptions in our age of moral
relativism, talking heads and spin. Based on Dante's personal
experience, Inferno warns that these deceptions are among the sources of
greatest unhappiness. .
polysemantic system of Inferno is itself a kind of fraud. Dante overtly condemns others for faults that he covertly understands to be
his own. One example is the pope
hole in Malebolge (circle 8, ditch 3;
where the pilgrim denounces simony (selling of services) but implicitly
exposes his own greed. The personal analogy is made clear when, in
the hole upside down, Pope Nicholas III mistakes the pilgrim for
Pope Boniface VIII, Dante's arch-enemy who had detained him at the
Vatican while sending the expatriate Black Guelphs and French troops into Florence
to overthrow Dante's government and to expel the Whites.
can Dante be mistaken for his enemy? Like Boniface, Dante is a
perpetrator of self-serving imperialist fraud.
Boniface had decreed that all political
power everywhere rests in the papacy; in On Monarchy
Dante had contended that it rests completely in the Roman emperor, under
total separation of church and state. The two ideologies were similar
frauds in the sense that they were pretexts for personal political ambitions and
also in that they were delusional, ending in frustration and
shame. Dante's characterization of Nicholas as a thief motivated by
financial insecurity is a similarly dark self-reflection. Nicholas and Boniface
practiced simony, but Dante too sold out, abusing his office as poet in
an unseemly attempt to gain a big Virgilian payoff.
The Malebolge episodes
(circle 8) also reflect Dante's dishonesty as an officer of Florence and his
subsequent hypocrisy and cover-up. With their new Black leadership
installed and the Whites driven out, the
Florentines accused and convicted Dante in absentia of charges of corruption in
public office, either as road superintendent or city prior or both.
We are not sure of the exact allegations that Dante refused to answer,
but they cannot have been minor offenses, if we judge on the basis of
the penalty imposed. Dante was sentenced to death by burning if he should ever be caught in Florence--and
indeed he stayed out of town for the rest of his life. Can we sure
that Dante deserved this sentence? Standard accounts of Dante's life
suggest that the charges against him were trumped up and politically
motivated, but this view is supported only by circumstantial
evidence (i.e., the Blacks expelled the Whites so they must have
fabricated the case against Dante simply to get rid of him). We should
hold a man innocent until proven guilty, of course, but in this case it
seems clear that the
the crime and punishment system of Inferno, Dante's graft should be
punished by the Malebranche demons who submerge bribe-takers in the
boiling tar pit of Malebolge (circle
8, ditch 5; Inf. 21-22). In fact, this pit (road tar?) holds special
terror for the pilgrim. The bumbling but vicious Malebranche (the
prototype Keystone cops) understand the pilgrim's guilt, though
Virgil does not, and they threaten to tear him with their pitchforks.
Following the example of the clever grafter
22: 31-123), however, the pilgrim narrowly escapes these
tormenters. Using Virgil's backside, he slides to safety in the valley
of the hypocrites (Inf.
23: 1-57) where he finds reflections of his career as
prior, the Jolly Friars Catalino and Roderino. When these
hypocrites jointly governed Florence as co-magistrates a generation
before Dante's time, they proclaimed themselves bipartisan peacemakers
but secretly served only one faction (the Guelphs against the
Ghibellines), and eventually they were expelled for corruption. Dante's
career in office followed the same path.
Beneath hypocrisy Dante shows us a lower depth of self-righteous fraud
in which blame is transferred to the accuser. After
concealing his faults and attempting to run and hide from the punishment
deserves, the pilgrim tries to rescue his reputation by shifting the
blame, accusing his accusers of being crooks.
Virgil teaches the pilgrim to look after his fame (Inf.
24: 1-60), the pilgrim undertakes a rhetorically heavy but factually
ungrounded tirade against Florence. He portrays the city as a shameful den of thieves who
dishonor one another and hate God (Inf.
24: 61- 25:151), a city deserving Dante's curse (Inf.
Ironically it is this image of Dante as a
wronged prophet that has been handed down through the biographical
tradition of the poet's life, beginning with Boccaccio's tribute to his
literary predecessor (written cir.1350-1355, a generation after Dante's
death). The truth is that the pilgrim's hysterical accusations against
Florence are made in the land of fraud. The words cannot be taken at
fraud puts Dante in the danger that Homer's braggart Odysseus discovered in the
cave of Polyphemus. [Recall the man-eating cyclops whose name means
"much fame," discussed in
The famous are eaten like the Black Bull
of Lascaux. That's the fate of Dante's Ulysses in the Valley of the
Heroes in Malebolge (circle 8, ditch 8;
26:43-142)--to be cooked over the flames. He
"veils himself in the flame that burns him." Allegorically, this is
Dante's state, too, in the depth of his deceits among his patrons in
exile. Making himself shine for others with his intelligence and
seemingly clever words, Dante inwardly burns for his lies. Others can see
his bright little flame, amid thousands of other flames like those of so many
fireflies, but they cannot see him as he really is, being burned in the flame.
The exile lives trapped in a
fictitious fantasy world of his own making, not the world of nature in which he
might have been happy, his mind devoted to truth.
the entertainer's talents of Odysseus at the foreign court of Phaeacia,
yet he could not get home simply by telling a good story. Odysseus
was delighted by the cunning lies he concocted, no matter who was hurt
by them, but apparently nothing was more painful to Dante than the life
of lies that he had developed in his alienation from Florence.
Confessing these matters, albeit allegorically, Dante maintained an
appreciation for the truth. For that reason, in his own mind at least,
he gets to climb Mount Purgatory and burn away his unhappiness, where
Ulysses drowned within sight of the shore.
at the neuron level
Maladies of mind are not always caused by improper thinking, for
some have chemical and physiological causes. For those who can think
themselves out of unhappiness, however, there are at least two different ways to go about
it. A bad neural network can be bypassed and replaced with a new one or, alternately,
the old network can be repaired.
The network bypass method is practiced these days in cognitive psychology.
This fix avoids the negative. As we think of more and more reasons to
be unhappy, or as we replay the same unhappy thought over and over, our sense of depression grows
with the ever more-strongly bonded neurons in that potentiated network.
This is the neurology of Aeneas' downward spiral into a debilitating
sense of "the tears of things," as he retells the tragic fall of Troy
every night at Carthage to please self-destructive Dido (Aeneid
book 2). The problem with playing Homer every night is induction, that whatever we choose to think becomes increasingly
easier to believe the more that we think it [recall Lesson
15]. Therefore, cognitive therapies rely on positive thinking to
induce happiness. In time, patients in this therapy simply forget to be unhappy.
Their old thoughts slowly weaken with
disuse as the new network grows stronger through repetition. Aeneas
takes on the new project of developing Rome, a project big enough to
keep his mind off his past losses.
Not only the Aeneid but fiction in general can help
authors and audiences to build network bypasses. And these cures can be
substantial: instead of writing simply an
after-dinner song that aids tonight's digestion and sleep, more ambitious
fiction can attempt to produce lasting changes in the brain. We might
imagine that this personal rehabilitation is what poor old exiled Dante was doing at his
writing table for the last seven years of his life, composing the Commedia. Yet
why would he begin such a task by reflecting on all of the past errors of
his life, as Inferno seems to do? Wouldn't that negative focus simply reinforce his unhappiness,
as cognitive theory suggests? Why write Inferno?
There is a second way for writers to harness literature's power of
instruction. It's Dante's dark path through the woods, the network
repair method. In psychology, its parallel is classic
psychotherapy. Freud's "talking cure" repairs the problem network by
confronting negative thoughts directly. In a successful network repair, the
patient describes the sources or origins of the unhappiness in an
autobiographical narrative, and this
story-telling itself begins the therapeutic process.
Although psychotherapy seems
far removed from cognitive therapy and its underlying neurological theory, there is
theoretical justification for it--and justification that does not depend
on any of Freud's superseded ideas about the unconscious or other aspects of human nature.
tell a story about ourselves, we divide in two: the person talking (the
from the person talked about (the subject). When the narrator gets proper control, the
subject (the unhappy one, the nightmare self) comes under control. It's
this narrator's control that is the key to overcoming unhappiness, but
there are right and wrong ways to go about it. The narrative must be self-constructed, but
cannot seem to the self to be dishonest. In Dante's idiom, if there's
fraud, we still flounder in the deepest circles in hell. The way out
begins with intellectually satisfying confession.
Before Freud and Dante, the practice of self-transcendence,
attempting to gain perspective or
objective distance from one's past, was used in the medieval church, more or less as in
today. A sinner had to confess, fully and freely, in order for the healing
process to occur. Whether medieval Christianity revealed God or God's
plan for mankind can be questioned, but the culture undeniably helped to
reveal individuals to themselves, for the important and necessary
purpose of self-improvement. In this sense it kept alive the ancient
injunction of the Delphic oracle, know thyself. Dante obviously
was well aware of network repair in this public ritual form, and he
followed Augustine's confessional lead in adapting it to the practice of
beings have not only multiple brains but also, if they live long enough,
multiple lives from which stories can be made.
Dante the aging poet transcends his younger selves, represented by the pilgrim
who was the victim of his appetites, the coward who lived in terror of violence,
the intellectual who devoted his mind to malice and fraud. The poet in retrospect
understands and admits those terrible mistakes. The Inferno is Dante's first-stage mind repair, his confession, his talking cure, his
means to establish perspective and objectivity that enable the pursuit of happiness
and journal topics
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
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
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 good 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
reading a few excerpts or lecture notes.
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
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.
Letter to Can Grande della Scala (excerpts),
dedicating the Paradiso:
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 . . .
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
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.
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
. . 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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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)
in red, (3) human intentional vices in
blue (for hostility and fraud).
Introduction: uncommitted souls in the whirlwind
Acheron, joyless river of
death Inf 3:70
Charon the ferryman
1: limbo of the pagans Inf. 4:1
Homer and the poets
Lords and ladies on
the green 4:106
Circle 2: the lustful
Inf 5:1 Minos the judge
Paolo and Francesca
Circle 3: the gluttons
The Dog Cerberus 6:1
6:34 prophecy of Florence
Circle 4: the greedy
Inf 7:1 The
monster Plutus 7:1
the misers and
Virgil's sermon on
Lady Fortune 7:67
angry and sullen
souls in River Styx
5: the angry Inf
8:1 Phlegyas' boat 8:1
8:31 (parallels Franchesca)
outside the City of Dis
Furies and Medusa
Help from Heaven
9:64 (devils parallel Cerberus)
6: the heretics
Inf 9:106 Epicurus
Circle 7: the violent
11:1 three rings
Virgil describes the lower
circles and rings
Violent against others:
Violent against self: the
wood of suicides 13:1
Pier delle Vigne 13:31
Jacomo and Lano
Violent against God :
Capaneus the fefiant
Ancient Giant of Crete
Jacopo Rusticucci 16:1
The money men
Circle 8: the frauds in Malebolge's 10
Sink 1: pimps: Venedico Caccianemico
Sink 2: flatterers 18:91 Thais
Sink 3: simonists 19:1 Pope Nicholas
Sink 4: prophets
magicians and witches
Sink 5: bribe takers 21:1 Malebranche 21:31
Sink 6: hypocrites
Virgil's anger 18:127
Sink 7: thieves 24:61
Virgil preaches fame
Agnello and Buoso 25:34
Sink 8: rogues of war
Dante curses Florence
Ulysses and Diomede
Guido Da Montefeltro
Sink 9: Sowers of discord 28:1
, Bertrand de Born
Geri del Bello
Dante's family feud
Sink 10: 29:37 the
Adam of Brescia 30:49 Sinon 30:91
the giants 31:1
Circle 9: River Cocytus Inf 32:1
Ring 1: Caina, treachery against family
Alessandro & Napoleone 32:40
Ring 2: Antenora, treachery against city
degli Abbati 32:70
Ring 3: Ptolomaea, treachery against guests
Count Ugolino & Bishop Ruggeiri
Friar Alberigo & Branca d'Oria 33:91
Ring 4: Judecca, total treachery
Lucifer with Judas, Brutus, & Cassius 34:1
exit to purgatory 34:70
7. Further general info for Dante
Dante on the Web
Dante Studies by Otfried Lieberknecht
8. Homer and Dante. Compare the last voyage of Ulysses, in Inferno 26: 85-142,
with Homer's account of Odysseus' voyages in the Odyssey. It has been said that Dante did not
know Greek so he cannot have known Homer's poems, but he could have
known a translation, and he was certainly well aware of the so-called
"medieval matter of Troy," retellings of the Trojan War by medieval
authors. If you had to decide whether or the the extent to which Dante
knew Homer, what clues are available?
9. The name "hell" as used in
conventional Christian rhetoric slanders the ancient Hellenes, and their legendary common ancestor Hellen, the eldest son of the flood survivors Deucalion and Pyrrha (see
Apollodorus, Library 1.7.2). The Hellenists' Roman and later
Christian conquerors mythologized Hellenist culture, and its mysteries of
the afterlife, as a dark underground of evil and well-deserved
suffering. The revision
began with Emperor Augustus' favorite poem, the Aeneid, which made his
destruction of Greek civilization into an act of piety. When pilgrim Dante sees Hellenic heroes in the
underworld through Virgil's imperialist Roman eyes, they are a people who did not
follow God's laws but were misguided by their own appetites, hatefulness and
Is Virgil a
reliable guide? How accurate
are the Roman critiques of the Greeks? Do you think there is some truth in them, or
they merely pretexts for Roman imperialism?
both Greece and Rome are superseded, at least after Dante gave up on
becoming another Virgil. What grounds does Dante have to believe that
the medieval Roman Catholic culture of his period was superior to its classical
Marc Siegel, "Can We Cure Fear?" Scientific American Mind
"'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
"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
"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."
Powers of Literature