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Free Study Guide-The Divine Comedy-The Inferno by Dante Alighieri-Notes
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CANTO SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

CANTO XI

Summary

The two poets are exploring the circle six further on and moving onwards. They reach a steep bank and from below the bank is emanating an overpowering stench. They move backwards under its impact. The pilgrim comes upon the tomb of pope Anastarius. The inscription on the tomb reads that Rhotinus led the Pope astray.

The two poets are forced to stop their journey to get accustomed to the stench before they can move on. Meanwhile, to employ this time gainfully Dante requests Virgil to find a way to use it productively. Virgil has planned to use this time to instruct his ward about the circles they will encounter next.

He instructs the pilgrim that beyond this bank (made of boulders) there are three concentric circles each tightly packed with souls. He says that sins of malice can be either sins of violence or fraud. And Heaven hats both types of sins. Of the two sins committed by man God hates fraud more than violence. And therefore fraud is punished deeper down in Hell and the punishment for fraud is more grievous than the punishment for violence.

Therefore, the next circle (seventh circle) is reserved for sins for violence. Sins of violence are of three types: against one's neighbor or his goods, against oneself or one's goods or against God.

He can destroy his neighbors good by arson, devastation or rob them. So murderers and plunderer are punished in the first round but in different groups.


Man can do violence to his own person or squander and waste his property. Thus people who commit suicide or waste or gamble their wealth and thus suffer on Earth due to poverty are punished in the second round of the circle of violence.

Man can do violence to God by disbelieving in God or by cursing God. He also does violence to God by despising nature and the gifts that God bestows on earth. Thus in the third round (of the seventh circle) are punished those that do violence to God. These include the citizens of the cities of Sodom and Cahors. Those souls that hate God and curse his name too live here.

Fraud can be used against one who trusts you. And also against one who does not put such trust in you. The latter kind of fraud destroys the natural kind of good faith that should exist between men. To abuse it is to break the natural bond of love, which nature creates amongst men. Fraud is punished in the Eight circles and the sins included in this circle are those of hypocrisy, flattery, sorcery, falsification, simony, pandering and seducing grafting and the like.

Defrauding someone who trusts you breaks not only the bond of love nature creates amongst men, but also involves betraying the faith of some one who places his trust in you. Thus it is a bigger sin and is punished in a circle deeper in Hell. This circle is the one around Dis or Lucifer.

Dante wishes to know why the Lustful, Gluttons, Hoarders and Spendthrifts along with the wrathful and slothful aren't punished in the city of Dis, Virgil reminds him of what is written in the "Ethics". The sinners Dante has asked about have committed sins of Incontinence. The three types of sins mentioned in "Ethics" are those of incontinence, malice and bestiality. Of all these, the sins of incontinence are the least grievous. Thus they are punished outside the walls of city of Dis. The city walls demarcate the boundary between the sins of incontinence and sins of malice. The sins of malice are more harmful and deliberate and thus are punished more fiercely than sins of incontinence.

Dante understands this distinction and now asks how the sin of usury offends God's goodness. Virgil reminds him of what "Physics" says about Nature and man's work. Man earns his living from his work and from Nature's bounty. This is also mentioned in the book of Genesis. But a usurer doesn't follow this path. He (usurer) thus uses fraud to make money. This is an abuse of human industry and of God's purpose. Then he asks Dante to move along with him, for according to the stars (Fish is on the horizon and the wain over Caucus) dawn is near and they must hurry. They move along the bank towards a passage that leads them down to deeper circles.

Notes

The two poets draw back from the valley bank because of the overpowering stench emanating from below. Dante detects Pope Anastasius tomb with the inscription informing him that the Pope was "lured away from the straight path" by Phontinus. The Pope mentioned here is Anastasius II who held the papal position from 496 to 498. Phontinus was of deacon of Thessalonica who followed the heresy of Acacias. This heresy said that Christ was not conceived immaculately but was the son of a mortal man, not the Son of God. Pope Anastasius II allowed Phontinus to take communion thereby implicitly supporting this heresy. Thus Pope Anastasius was labeled a heretic and this belief was commonly held for many centuries. But now this has been proved wrong. The Pope was confused with the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I (491 -518) by Dante's probable sources. Phontinus had convinced Emperor Anastasius that the heresy about Christís birth, was true. But Dante was unaware of this mix-up and believed the Pope to be a heretic.

The two poets have to stop awhile to get accustomed to the overpowering stench before they can continue their journey. Dante suggests to Virgil that they find a way to use this time gainfully. It should be noted that Dante has become an eager student avid to learn more. Virgil had the same idea in mind and gives Dante a lecture about the structure of Hell into which they'll travel soon. The valley consists of three circles. In it are punished the sins of violence and fraud. This distinction has been taken from Cicero's "De Officiis". Fraud--a sin, only a thinking creature like man is capable of. It is a bigger sin and punished deeper in Hell than violence.

Sins of Violence are punished in the seventh circle. They are of three types--against one's neighbor or his goods, against one's self or one's property and finally against God. One can be violent to God by cursing his name or abusing nature (his gift to man). Sinners of the last type include citizens of Sodom and Cahors and all men who hate God and curse His name. Sodom is the Biblical city that was full of vicious sexual offenses. For this it was destroyed by God and all its citizens perished. Cahors is a city in the south of France. During Dante's time it was known as being a hotbed of usury. Sodom and Cohors stand for the sins of sodomy and usury respectively. Its sinners are punished in the last round (also the smallest) of the seventh circle.

Fraud can be used against people who bestow their trust in you or against others without such trust in you. The former is more grievous since it not only abuses a special trust someone puts in you but also breaks the bond of common decency amongst men. Hence it is punished last of all in the deepest Hell (around the throne of Dis). The latter abuses only the good faith that Nature creates between men and is punished before. This latter type of fraud includes sinners who are hypocrites, flatterers, dabblers in sorcery, falsifiers, thieves, and simonists, panders, seducers, grafters. In short all types of cheaters who can and defraud their fellow men.

Dante seeks to know why the sinners in the first five circles are punished outside the city of Dis. He is confused because the deeper circles have sinners hated by God. But since the sinners in outer circles are suffering as well but are outside the walls of Dis are they not hated by God? He puts this question to Virgil.

Virgil reminds him of what he has studied in the "Ethics". He is referring to Aristotle's "Ethica Nicomachea" a work with which Dante was thoroughly acquainted. The distinction between sins of Incontinence and violence is taken from Aristotle's works. But Aristotle divided sins into three classes. Incontinence, Malice and Bestiality. In "Inferno" Dante divides sins into two classes Incontinence and Malice. Malice is further split into sins of violence and fraud. Sinners in the ante-Inferno, Limbo and the sixth circle do not fall into either of these classes (Incontinence and Violence). Sinners in ante-Inferno are punished because of their failure to act or to commit themselves to a cause) whereas the ones in Limbo and the sixth circle are punished because they held erroneous belief systems. Thus the first two groups are not in Hell proper and the Heretics are in the region separating sins of Incontinence from those of Malice and belong to neither types of sin.

Virgil reminds him that sins of Incontinence (first five circles) are less severely punished by God than those of Malice. Hence the sinners of the first type (incontinent sinners) are place outside the walls of Dis. They are indeed punished by God but not as much as souls whose sins are of Malice. Incontinence means unrestrained passions or appetites whereas Malice involves deliberate harm to others for gain.

Now, Dante seeks to know how usury (making money by charging disproportionate interest on loans) is a sin. Virgil explains this using Aristotle's "Physics" that says Art (or human industry) is a child of Nature. Because to work man uses the bounty offered by Nature. Hence human work which is a child of Nature is God's grandchild. Since God is the creator of Nature and thus her parent. So any action (like that of usury) that does violence to the human industry does violence to God. He adds that the book of Genesis says that man has to earn his living by his labor. Any attempt to earn otherwise (and not by honest work) abuses Nature and other men's effort and is thus a sin of violence against God and His creation.

Virgil talks about the location of the stars in the sky and says its time for them to move on. Virgil knows the time by the location of stars. But paradoxically, the stars can't be seen from Hell. But Dante the Poet doesnít explain this fact. The Constellation of Pisces (fish) is on the horizon while the Great Bear (Wain) is in the northwest section of the sky (Caurus is the northwest wind). Pisces is followed by Aries in the sky. And as Canto I reveals that the sun is currently rising in Aries, sunrise is two hours away. (Each sign of the Zodiac remains for two hours on the horizon). So, rushed for time, the two poets move towards the bank that lies over the valley.

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