Saturday, March 5, 2011

Essay on Dante's Inferno

Argumentative Essay on Dante's Inferno

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the relevance of Dante's Inferno / Hell to the contemporary reader in the Western world. This essay will demonstrate that there are many issues discussed in Dante's. The Divine Comedy that are as relevant today as they were when Dante first wrote his comedy. Although the views discussed are not common to everyone, it will be shown that such views are still apparent in contemporary society and therefore are relevant to the contemporary reader. It will be shown that even today, many people undertake a journey such as the one Dante describes. It will also be shown that many of the sins that were considered worthy of hell in Dante's time are still considered by some people to be sins today.



The relevance of Dante's hell to contemporary society in the western world could be said to be visible from the very first Canto. Here Dante is lost and unable to find his way back to the right road. "Midway this way of life we're bound upon, I wake to find myself in a dark wood" (Dante, 1949, p71). This could be said to be a representation of the psychological torment of many people who become depressed or unsure of their place in life. Many people are forced to go on a journey within themselves in order face and overcome the fears and dark thoughts that are affecting their lives. To many it is a journey of self-discovery, not always a pleasant one. Often it is difficult for someone to leave the dark underworld within themselves and they can be pushed back again and again "Back to that place wherein the sun is mute" (Dante, 1949, p73). Dante was forced to go through the circles of hell and face all the horrors so that he could safely leave the dark wood. Dante was fortunate in that he had Virgil to guide him on his way. Many do not have the good fortune to have such a guide to help them during their darkest hours. For some the journey through darkness and despair must be faced and endured alone. Dante's journey is one in which he faced and described what he perceived to be the sins of the world.

It is in the vestibule of hell that Dante met some of the unfortunates who were on the edge of hell. These people who were not actually in hell itself were the ones who were considered too tepid, dull or stupid to have made much of a difference to life, their own or anybody else's. These people were constantly running futiley in circles unable to make a choice. They were so inept and insignificant that they were not considered good enough even for hell. " No reputation in the world it has, Mercy and doom hold it alike in scorn" (Dante, 1949, p86) Some would argue that this sort of person can be seen in society today. These people are too weak or inept to make an effort to turn their lives around and become useful citizens of society. If this type of person works they often resent having to do what they are doing but are unable to choose to change their job, they do not have the gumption or willpower to change. These people are incapable of making a decision. They are so inept that even if making a decision would improve their circumstances, they can't make that decision for fear they might miss another better opportunity. They are fence sitters. It could be said that some of the unemployed people today are of this type. They curse and winge and blame everybody else for their misfortune. These people are common in society today. They create their own hell, living on the fringes of life and "it's blind life trails on so low and crass that every other life it envieth" (Dante, 1949, p86).

The first circle of hell - the "Limbo where the Unbaptized and the Virtuous Pagans dwell" (Dante, 1949, p90), may be an area where perhaps some may think there is not much relevance for contemporary society. I beg to differ. It must be remembered that there are still those around who hold the belief that to be saved and go to heaven one must recognize and accept God. Even today Missionaries are still going to places such as India and Africa with the sole purpose of converting the people of those countries to Christianity. World wide it is possible to see cultures and civilizations that have been destroyed by the efforts of missionaries and others to civilize and christianize those that were considered pagans.

These indigenous people lived a good life obeying their own laws and following their own religious practices. Their only "sin" was not to be baptized and to practice what was considered by Christians to be pagan beliefs. "They sinned not; yet their merit lacked its chiefest Fulfillment, lacking baptism."(Dante, 1949, p92). Although attitudes and values are changing the indigenous people are still suffering from the attitudes and values that were imposed on them not so long ago. Many Indigenous people are lost between two cultures, their own culture has changed beyond recognition and they are expected to accept and fit in to a dominant culture that in many cases does not accept them. Many of these people today live in what they would argue is a living hell.

The sin of incontinence or lust is one, which is difficult upon first glance, to relate to society today and to find relevance to Dante's inferno. Yet with greater examination it appears that this hell for the lustful exists today. Many people today go through the agony of many romances and breakups. In the Western world it is not considered a sin for people to divorce; in fact it is common. A large part of the community does not consider it immoral to have sexual relationships with one or more partner and yet many people are not finding happiness, they are satisfying lust and perhaps finding that that is not enough. They drift from one relationship to another constantly searching for who knows what. They are "Bond thrall under the yoke of their lust". (Dante, 1949, p98). Of course there are still those church groups and individuals who do consider lust to be a sin and in fact this view can be seen even in a society that claims to be tolerant of sexual freedom. It is not uncommon for women /girls to be labeled "easy", "slut" and other such names. While the sin of incontinence may be somewhat difficult for some to relate to, the sin of gluttony could be said to be one that is well recognized in the western world.

The gluttonous are graphically described in Dante's The Divine Comedy. "These all lay grovelling flat upon the sod" (Dante, 1949, p105). This statement could be taken to mean, "they lay wallowing in the mud like pigs". Just as Dante used the word Ciacco, which means pig, as a nickname for a glutton, so today the word pig is used to describe someone who is considered greedy or fat. It is considered by society to be disgusting if a person is overweight and overweight people are regarded as gluttons. There is no doubt that many of these people live in hell. They are shunned, scorned and mocked by society for the way they look. Not only are they scorned and hated by society but also they scorn and hate themselves. As Cerberus "Clutches and flays and rips and rends the souls" (Dante, 1949, p104), so they mentally flagellate and hate themselves. They live in a hell, of their own and society's making and it could be said that their hell is not much different to the one described by Dante.

As recorded in The Divine Comedy suicide was considered to be sin at the time in which Dante lived. This attitude is one, which until recently has continued to be held. People who committed suicide, were considered to have sinned and therefore were buried outside the church grounds and were metaphorically, consigned to hell. Those who attempted suicide and failed were either placed in jail or mental institutions. It is not uncommon for those who have attempted suicide to try again and again. They are perhaps the ones who are not able to find a way out of the underworld in which they find themselves. They find no joy in life and perhaps regard those that prevent them from committing suicide as a source of even more pain. "Why dost thou rend my bones? Breathes there no pity in thy breast at all?" (Dante, 1949, p150). Although the repercussions of attempting to commit suicide are not as harsh in today's society it is still regarded by society as some something shameful when it happens. The recent stories in newspapers reporting on the activities of a doctor who tried to assist the terminally ill to commit suicide highlights the attitudes that are held about suicide. The doctor has been given the appellation "doctor death" and legal action taken against him to prevent him assisting those who wish to end their lives. Those who are in pain or feel they are at the end of their life do not legally have the right to take their own life or to ask assistance to do so. There is still a very strong belief in society that only God is seen to have the right to give life and take it away.

The seventh circle in Dante's hell is where the sodomites were sent. The issue of homosexuality today is one that can cause great contention. There are those who hold the belief that homosexuality is not a sin and that homosexuals are persecuted and sinned against. There are also those who believe that homosexuality is a very serious sin. This can be seen time and again in newspaper reports and television news shows when carnivals such as the Mardi Gra are held. Church leaders proclaim carnivals like the Mardi Gra as sinful and try to have them banned. There are those who revile homosexuals as sinners against God and nature. Homosexuals have been murdered and tortured because of their sexuality and they constantly have to defend themselves against the attitudes of a society that can at times be condemning. One can perhaps draw a parallel with this when Brunetto states that the sodomites cannot rest "Should one of our lot rest One second, a hundred years he must lie low." (Dante, 1949, p163) This is perhaps the hell for homosexuals today, the inability to simply be who they are, because of the necessity for constant defense of their sexuality. The development of the AIDS virus has served to increase for many people the fear and loathing of homosexuals. In America there is a church whose members attends funerals of known homosexuals and hold up placards that proclaim such things as "Going to the Pit of Hell". It could be said that many homosexuals live in hell on earth. They are reviled and hated by many people and many keep their homosexuality a secret because of the fears they hold about repercussions.

It could be said that the Barrators in the eighth circle of hell are particularly relevant to contemporary society. These are the "Fellows who'd swear black's white for half a crown" (Dante, 1949, p203). These are the people who are meant to serve the community. Our society has many levels of government and there are frequent news stories about the inappropriate use of funds. An example of this could be said to be the extravagant superannuation packages that MP's are entitled to after three years in parliament. Changes to legislation that will advantage the politicians are passed through parliament in the middle of the night in the hopes of it going unnoticed by the public. Another example is the current furore over Peter Reith's phone card. The public feels that their trust has been betrayed when those that are meant to be serving the needs of the community are found to be lying so that they can line their pockets. The fury of the public is conveyed in the newspaper and in television programs. Once a person who was supposed to be working for the best interests of the community is exposed as corrupt, the public fury has no bounds. These people are pilloried by the media and are often forced to resign. This seems to be somewhat parallel with the circle of hell that the Barrators were in. They were pursued by demons that cheerfully dealt out justice. "On high-hunched shoulder he was carrying A wretched sinner, hoist by haunch and hip, clutching each ankle by the sinew string" (Dante, 1949,p203)

In conclusion, it can be said that, although only a small number of the sins described by Dante in The Divine Comedy have been discussed in this essay, it has been shown that Dante's Inferno/Hell does hold some relevance for the contemporary reader. Today, many people are still facing an underworld of their own and finding it a journey that can be long and difficult. Much of what was considered sinful in Dante's time is still considered sinful in many parts of contemporary society. It could be said that it has been shown that man makes his own hell and that Dante's version of hell is in some cases similar to the hell that man makes for himself. There may not be a hell such as that described in the bible but in can be said that there is for some people there is a hell on earth.

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