Major Themes: Sin
In this section we will examine:
- how Dante classifies the different sins punished in Hell
- why Dante saw some sins as more serious than others
- why the sins of usury (money-lending), sodomy and blasphemy are linked in Dante’s scheme
- how Dante presents the psychology of sin
- what Dante believed to be the general nature of sin.
Canto XI is central to understanding how Dante saw sin. Here, Virgil sets out a broad scheme, explaining the structure of Hell. In lines 16–66, he explains the arrangement of three of the circles within the city of Dis; violence, simple fraud and treacherous fraud. Then, in response to a question from Dante, he describes the earlier circles: lust, gluttony, avarice, anger (76–90). Then, responding once again to a question from Dante, in lines 97–111, he explains the sin of usury. He therefore explains all of the sins encountered, with the exception of heresy. (As well as the heretics, he also omits to discuss the Neutrals (or ‘ignavi’) of Canto III and the souls of Limbo (Canto IV).)
Many modern readers are puzzled by aspects of the structure and classification of sin in the Inferno; and, indeed, the fact that Dante needs to seek clarification from Virgil on certain points suggests that the poet was aware that much of what Virgil says would have also been difficult for his readers to understand. We need to be careful not to give Virgil the last word on sin – after all, if Dante were able to say all he had to say about sin in the course of a hundred lines or so, much of the remainder of the Inferno would be redundant. But the problems we may encounter as modern readers in understanding the arrangement and classification of sin in the Inferno XI help us to understand what Dante believed sin to be.
Types of sin
Virgil distinguishes between three types of sin: sins of ‘incontinenza’, sins of ‘violenza’, and sins of ‘frode’. We shall examine these in the order of gravity accorded to them in the Inferno, starting with sins of ‘incontinence’, then moving onto ‘violence’, and concluding with ‘fraud’.
‘Incontinenza’ is the last type of sin which Virgil describes, but the first Dante encounters within Hell (remember that the Neutrals are outside Acheron, and therefore are not included within the circles of Hell). Recall how Virgil sets up his account of ‘incontinenza’ in Inferno XI. Dante wonders why it is that sins such as lust should be punished outside the City of Dis (70–75). Virgil reprimands him, and tells him to recall his Aristotle (‘la tua Etica’, the Nichomachean Ethics, which Dante evidently knows). ‘Incontinenza’, which characterises those sins punished outside of Dis, offends God less and attracts less blame (‘men Dio offende e men biasimo accatta’ (84)) than those sins of violence which are punished within Dis, and which Virgil describes as ‘malizia’ and ‘la matta bestialitade’.
In separating sins of ‘incontinence’ from other types of sin, Dante draws on a division commonly made in medieval theology which derives in turn, as Virgil’s words suggest, from Aristotle. For Aquinas, who followed Aristotle in this, for example, an incontinent sinner is fully aware that he should not sin, but is led by his passions: as he puts it in his commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, ‘the incontinent still judges rightly about what he should do or avoid, and only his passions are astray’ (In Ethica Nichomachea 7.8 (1151a, 12–13)). Aquinas contrasts incontinent sinners with those who are ‘intemperate’: in those sinners, ‘reason itself is perverted’ and the intemperate sinner ‘approves of his corrupt desires’. Here, the distinction that is being made is a psychological one: an incontinent sinner does not fully embrace his or her sin, but is simply unable to prevent him- or herself from committing it.
Sins of violence
The sins of violence are organised into a hierarchy: sins of violence against others are held to be less grave than sins of violence against oneself; violence against God is the most serious of all the sins of violence. Why might this be? One indication might be found in the Bible. In Matthew 22. 37–40 the story is told of how a Pharisee asked Christ which was the greatest commandment in the Law: ‘Jesus replied: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: "Love your neighbour as yourself." All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’
Sins of violence against God
One cluster of sins is particularly perplexing to us as modern readers: sodomy, usury, and blasphemy are all classified by Virgil as being forms of violence against God, ‘forza ne la deïtade’ (46). The difficulty for us lies first in understanding why Dante considered these to be sins at all, then in understanding why he believed they were linked, and finally in explaining why Dante thought that they were so serious. We shall therefore pay special attention to these sins.
Usury is perhaps the most complicated case, and Virgil explains it to Dante at some length. He begins by making an important, but initially difficult point, setting up a relationship between the ‘divino ’ntelletto’, ‘natura’, and ‘arte vostra’. Virgil explains that nature takes its course from the divine intellect, and that human labour should reflect that. Human labour is therefore almost God’s grandchild, ‘vostr’arte a Dio quasi è nepote’ (105). So the divine intellect provides the course for nature to follow; human labour in turn should follow the orderly course of nature. But why should usury be a sin? Usury generated profit through the charging of interest on money lent. It was therefore considered to be an unnatural generation of money, and an unnatural imitation of reproduction as it occurs in nature (Aristotle in his Politics established this notion, which was drawn on by Aquinas). So usury is portrayed as an offence against nature, and therefore indirectly against God.
Virgil also tells Dante to recall the beginning of Genesis (107): he is referring to the moment after Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree of knowledge, and God tells Adam that ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree…Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it…By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food’ (Genesis 3. 17–19). Human work, therefore, is part of what God has commanded for us. Usury is a way in which money is generated without the need for human work, and is therefore presented as also being an offence against ‘l’arte vostra’.
Given what has been said so far, we can also understand the place accorded to sodomy and blasphemy. Sodomy (you should be aware that some scholars have argued that for Dante sodomy was not necessarily associated with sexual behaviour, although most agree that the sin is in fact defined as homosexuality) is condemned in the Bible for going against nature: Adam and Eve had been told by God to ‘be fruitful and increase in number’ (Genesis 1. 28). Blasphemy is forbidden in the Ten Commandments (‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God’ (Exodus 20. 7)) and is therefore presented as a direct offence against God.
At first sight, it may be surprising to find that Dante considers fraud to be the gravest type of sin. Virgil makes a further complication in Canto XI, distinguishing between treacherous fraud, committed against someone who has had particular reason to trust the perpetrator (‘in colui che ‘n lui fida’ (53)), and simple fraud, committed against someone who has no such particular reason (‘in quel che fidanza non imborsa’ (54)).
Simple fraud turns against the bonds of love between humans that nature makes (‘lo vinco d’amor che fa natura’ (56)). Treacherous fraud not only corrupts that bond of love, but also breaks the love added to natural love, in particular relationships of trust. It is therefore more serious still.
Why should Dante condemn fraud so strongly, placing it in the lowest reaches of Hell? Fraud, for Dante, is an abuse of the intellect: a use of the intellect of the sinner to deceive the intellect of the victim. Part of the answer as to why this matters can be found in the Convivio, where Dante describes human reason as being that which distinguishes humans from animals. It is through reason, in fact, that humans take part in the divine nature (‘con la nobiltade de la potenza ultima, cioè ragione, participa de la divina natura’ (III, 2, 14)); this is why philosophers call man the divine animal (‘però [= therefore] è l’uomo divino animale da li filosofi chiamato’ (III, 2, 14)).
So fraud, more than any other type of sin, corrupts the divine nature of human beings, by misusing their intellect and by breaking the bonds of love between humans.
© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson
This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame