Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 7

by John Stamps

Today in Canto 7 we officially lose our souls. Greed robbed them from us. In the fourth ring of the Inferno, Virgil and Dante encounter the greedy damned. Jesus pointedly warns us: “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). But of course we don’t believe Him.

In this canto, we confront two gods from pagan antiquity, Plutus and Fortuna. Dante’s treatment of them is startling. First we meet Plutus. Don’t confuse Plutus with Pluto, the god of the underworld. Plutus is the Latin form of πλοῦτος—riches. He is the god of wealth. Plutus clucks at Virgil and Dante like a brainless chicken: “Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!” The weird gibberish might mean he’s invoking the pope, he might be summoning the devil, he might even be reciting the Hebrew alphabet; but otherwise, Virgil isn’t afraid of him one bit. He rebukes him and Plutus collapses like a battered Venetian frigate:

Shut up, cursed wolf of hell!
Swallow your rage and let it gnaw your guts.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
As in a fresh breeze when a ship’s mast snaps,
The sails once puffed and stretched fall in a heap;
So did that cruel beast drop to the earth.

Dante then encounters a sumo wrestling match straight from Hell. He calls it a jousting (giostra) contest. The greedy tango, feint, and smash each other, not with lances as in a classical joust, but by huge weights shoved with their chests:

I saw far more than I had elsewhere seen,
howling on one side, howling on the other,
popping their chests to roll enormous weights.
They slammed those stones together front to front,
then straight off each side turned about and yelled,
“Why do you fritter?” “Why the fists so tight?”
So in the visible circle they went round
on either hand to the point opposite,
bellowing out their poetry of shame,
and when they’d gotten halfway Around the ring,
they turned around to have another joust.

The next round of insults starts the mindless and futile contest all over again. This infernal face-off ad infinitum between the high-rollers (“Why grab so tight?)” and the skinflints (“Why chuck away?”) aptly summarizes the vice of greed. Of course greed is a non-stop bruising, brawling, bashing, and insulting competition between hoarders and squanderers. Their disordered loves have snatched away the world they love:

Evil spending and evil grasping have taken
the lovely world from them and put them to this scuffle.

Dante is amazed how many greedy souls there are in the Inferno, way more numerous than the gluttons. Then he asks Virgil, who are the greedy sinners sporting tonsured haircuts? Virgil replies:

Those whose heads have no cap of hair to crop
were all clerks, even popes and cardinals,
whose avarice browbeats, bullying to the top.

Why should greed seize Christian leaders? You might think any Bible reader would have natural immunity from the vice of greed. But you’d be wrong. Not for nothing did Judas betray our Lord for 30 pieces of silver.

The greedy hoped showing off their ostentatious status symbols – Gucci, Armani, Cartier, Balenciaga “ugly sneakers”—would differentiate them from the hoi polloi. But in Hell the greedy are anonymous and indistinguishable. Their mindless pursuit of wealth completely erased their personhood. Every greedy person looks exactly like every other greedy person.

Why have the greedy lost their faces and their names? Why can’t we recognize them? Virgil replies:

Forget it, it’s an empty thought.
The nothing-knowing life that made them foul
dims them beyond all recognition now.

Losing your name is ironic mockery. The greedy who seek to glorify their ego by “gaining the whole world” have lost themselves. It is so painfully ironic that the very attempt to elevate your name by the Ferengi1 accumulation of riches, you lose your name under the weight of accumulated possessions—whether you hoard them or you ostentatiously consume them.

Virgil and Dante the pilgrim then discuss Fortuna, the second god . . . I mean, goddess . . . from antiquity. She is far more interesting than Plutus. If you came to The Divine Comedy straight from reading The Consolation of Philosophy, you’d be surprised how Dante the poet treats Fortuna. Boethius lamented loud and long to Lady Philosophia how Fortuna had mistreated him. But Philosophia reminded him, Fortuna is a “monster” and she wears many disguises in order to deceive us. (Book II., prosa 1) The happiness she offers us is counterfeit. The wheel of Fortune is fickle. How could a truly wise person expect it to be otherwise?

But in Canto 7 Virgil explains to Dante that Dame Fortune is not a monstrous deity but an angel! She is God’s special messenger to apportion riches and blessings on Planet Earth:

He chose a general minister and guide
To scramble now and then the empty goods
from race to race, from one blood to another,
past all defence man’s shrewdness might devise.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
Your wisdom cannot duel hers: she sees
ahead, she judges, and she follows through
in her realm as the other heavenly powers
In theirs.

Fortuna guides her own heavenly sphere to shine on her own portion of the heavens. But Virgil does not want Dante to loiter among the avaricious. They need to press on. They pass by a bubbling, boiling brook that flows into a nasty swamp, identified here as the infamous river Styx. When Dante stops to look closer, he realizes that the nasty stream contains yet more lost souls. They have passed into ring 5 of the Inferno, the circle reserved for the wrathful:

I saw people in that slough all slammed with mud,
stripped naked, and their faces torn with rage.
They thumped other not with hands alone
but with the head, the chest, the feet, the teeth!—
Stopping to rip each other limb from limb.

Dante depicts another hellish wrestling match, this time infernally suited for the wrathful. They don’t burn up like a crispy marshmallow, like you might expect in Hell. Instead they seethe, fume, bubble, and boil over with rage. Fury possesses them because they don’t get what they want. And like the greedy, the wrathful are nameless and faceless. Rage has dis-integrated them. Their humanity is extinguished. The wrathful—and the greedy–have wasted their lives.

Socrates famously described us human beings as leaky jars.2 Whatever we pour in, we leak out. Our wants and desires are endless. We imagine if we can only buy that new Tesla, that existential ache in our gut will be filled. But we delude ourselves. Money can’t buy me love and possessions will never make me happy. This world is not enough. As Jesus warned us—quite sternly, I might add—we can gain the entire world and still lose our very selves. It’s an unpleasant truth.3

In Canto 8, Dante encounters an old foe from Florence. The meeting is not friendly.

 

Footnotes

[1] Or Ayn Rand, which is the same thing.
[2] Gorgias 488e–499e
[3] Make sure you watch Heather Easterling’s video on Canto 7. Of course it’s wonderful. She’s a Zag!

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