Dante’s Inferno: Canto 11 Retelling —Virgil Teaches Dante

Chapter 11: Virgil Teaches Dante

Dante and Virgil arrived at a steep bank from which they could look down into the dark, deep pit of Hell. They did not stay there long, for the stench arising from the lower Circles was too rank for them to bear. They moved back from the edge of the pit onto a tomb. On the tomb was written a name and a sin. The name was that of Pope Anastasius II, and his sin was to be a heretical follower of Photinus, who denied the divinity of Christ, believing instead that both of His parents were mortal human beings.

Virgil said to Dante, “We cannot continue on our journey yet. We will stay here a while so that we can become accustomed to the stench arising from the lower Circles of Hell. Once we have become used to the stench, we will continue our journey.”

Dante replied, “That’s fine, but I don’t want to waste time while we wait. Do you have any ideas?”

Well done, Virgil thought. You don’t want to waste time, and indeed time is not a thing to be wasted, especially now, when you are on a journey to save your soul.

“Yes,” Virgil replied. “As we wait here, I will be able to tell you how Hell is organized. That way, you will be better prepared for what is to come.

“First, let’s have a review. Even before entering Hell Proper, you saw the Vestibule of Hell, where those who did not choose between good and evil are punished. These souls are not worthy of Heaven, and Hell does not want them. These souls did nothing memorable — good or bad — with their lives.

“After passing through the gate above which are words written by God, we crossed the River Acheron and you saw my residence in Limbo, the first Circle of Hell. In that place the virtuous pagans and the unbaptized reside. It is a place of sighs, not screams.

“Then you saw the first of the three great divisions of Hell according to the pagan idea of sin: incontinence, violence, and fraud. The sins of incontinence are less evil than the sins of violence and of fraud because the sins of incontinence are those of a lack of self-control, not of malice aforethought.

“Circles 2 through 5 are devoted to the sins of incontinence. In Circle 2 are punished those who could not control their lust. In Circle 3 are punished those who could not control their desire for food and drink. In Circle 4 are punished the prodigal and the miserly: those who could not control their desire either for money or for the things that money can buy. In Circle 5 are punished those who could not control their anger.

“In Circle 6 are those who committed heresy. Because heresy is an essentially Christian sin, it is outside the pagan classification of sins.

“Below are the final three Circles of Hell. These Circles are devoted to punishing those who are guilty of malice, which is committed through violence or fraud. Fraud is something that is committed only by human beings — animals are violent but do not commit fraud — and so God hates fraud more than he hates violence.

“In Circle 7 are punished those who have committed violence. There are three kinds of violence:

“One, a sinner can be violent against neighbors. A sinner can do this by harming the person or by harming the person’s property.

“Two, a sinner can be violent against self by committing suicide. A sinner can also be violent against self by so violently wasting his wealth that he courts death.

“Three, a sinner can be violent against God by blaspheming Him. A sinner can also be violent against God by opposing Nature, which God created; for example, the Sodomites oppose Nature by engaging in sex that is incapable of resulting in children.

“In Circles 8 and 9 are punished those who are guilty of committing fraud. Fraud is depriving another person of a right through the use of willful misrepresentation.

“The two major kinds of fraud are simple and complex. Simple fraud is punished in Circle 8. Simple fraud does not involve the betrayal of a special trust. Ten kinds of sinners engage in simple fraud:

“One, Seducers and Panders,

“Two, Flatterers,

“Three, Simonists,

“Four, Fortune-Tellers and Sorcerers,

“Five, Grafters — those who give or accept bribes,

“Six, Hypocrites,

“Seven, Thieves,

“Eight, Evil Deceivers/Those Who Misuse Great Gifts,

“Nine, Schismatics; That is, those who caused divisions (in families and in religion), and

“Ten, Falsifiers; that is, Alchemists, Evil Impersonators, Counterfeiters, and Liars.

“Complex fraud is punished in Circle 9. Complex fraud does involve the betrayal of a special trust. Complex fraud is fraud to which is added treachery toward those to whom we have a special obligation to be honest and forthright. Four kinds of sinners engage in complex fraud:

“One, Traitors against kin/family,

“Two, Traitors against government,

“Three, Traitors against guests or hosts, and

“Four, Traitors against God — the worst sin possible.”

Dante said to Virgil, “I don’t understand why the sinners in Circle 5, those who could not control their anger, are not punished in Circle 7 along with those who are violent. We saw the sinners in Circle 5 fighting each other. Isn’t that violence?”

“The two sins are different,” Virgil replied. “In Circle 5 are punished those who are guilty of one kind of intemperance — they did not control their anger. The violence they do is not out of malice but rather out of intemperance.

“In Circle 7 (and Circles 8 and 9) are punished those who are guilty of malice. Instead of being guilty of not controlling themselves, they are guilty of using their self-control to deliberately commit violence (or fraud).”

“I have one more question,” Dante said. “How is usury offensive to God?”

Virgil replied, “Human industry and Nature are related. Human beings are meant to work the way that Nature does. A farmer does good by growing plants. This is the sort of work that human beings are supposed to do. A craftsman also works with Nature by taking raw materials and turning them into useful products. A usurer lends money at interest and makes money that way. The usurer does not make anything; the usurer produces neither food nor useful items. God wants human beings to work with Nature and to be productive.

“Now we are ready to continue our journey. We have grown used to the stench, and you now have a better understanding of the organization of Hell.”

I think you have learned quite a lot, Virgil thought. You have learned the main point: The deeper you go into Hell, the worst the sins become. The sins of incontinence are the least evil. Lust is the least evil sin of all. The sins of incontinence are punished outside the walls of the city of Dis, which is the city of Lucifer. The sins of heresy, violence, and fraud are punished within the walls of the city of Dis.

The sins of fraud are the most evil. The sins of complex fraud are more evil than the sins of simple fraud. Being a traitor against God is the worst sin possible. As you would expect, Lucifer, the angel who led the rebellion against God, is the worst sinner of all time.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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