A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Inf. 21-28)

In Canto 26, in the eighth malebogia where false counselors suffer their torments, Virgil and Dante meet Diomedes and Ulysses. Dante would have known these Greek heroes through Virgil's Aeneid, where they are involved with the plot for the Trojan Horse, which leads to the fall of Troy. The Horse in the Aeneid serves a role similar to the apple in Genesis. They are both felices culpae that lead to the salvation which comes from Rome and from Christ.

I think its fair to say that Ulysses is one of the most sympathetic figures in Hell, and I worry that if I find him sympathetic, I'm missing something. Perhaps Ulysses is tricking both Dante and us in much the same way that he tricked the Trojans. By giving us a gift, he lulls us into thinking he's our ally. But he can't be, can he?

Ulysses tells us that he had "fervor to gain experience of the world / and to learn about mans vices, and his worth" (Inf 26:98-99). When he and his comrades reach the end of the Mediterrean Sea, he says to them, "'O brothers,' I said, 'who, in the course / Of a hundred thousand perils, at last / Have reached the west, to such brief wakefulness / of our senses as remains to us, / do not deny yourselves the chance to know following the sun -- the world where no one lives. / Consider how your souls were sown: / You were not made to live like brutes or beasts, / But to pursue virtue and knowledge'" (Inf. 26:112-120). Here is where I wonder if I'm being tricked. Whenever we encounter Ulysses in literature, we connect him with knowledge and bravery. We see this when he is Odysseus in the Iliad and the Odyssey, when he is Ulysses in the Aeneid, as the narrator in Tennyson's poem, as Leopold Bloom in Joyce's novel. Of course human beings were made to pursue virtue and knowledge. An essential message throughout the Inferno is that the sin leads away from virtue and knowledge, and sinners, who have turned toward sin, live like brutes and beasts. (Dante captures this both beautifully and frighteningly in the metamorphoses of Vanni Fucci in Canto 24, Agnello and Cianfa in Canto 25, and Buoso and Francesco in Canto 25. Serpents bite each of them continuously, which leads to a brutish metamorphoses that strips them all of their humanity.) How can any of this be wrong? How could this be a trick?

We were also made -- we might respond to Ulysses -- to live in communities, to be surrounded by and care for loved ones. Aristotle tells us, as Dante surely knew, that human beings naturally desire to know and naturally live in political communities. Yet here, the Greek hero eschews his foundational political responsibilities. Ulysses tells us that what moves him is "Not tenderness for a son, nor filial duty / Toward my ag'd father, nor the love I owed / Penelope that would have made her glad" (Inf. 26:94-96). None of these things could overcome Ulysses's desire for knowledge. And even though Ulysses suffers in this part of Hell because he offered fraudulent counsel, he must also suffer because he neglected to be tender to his son, he neglected the filial duty he owed to his father, and he neglected the love he owed to his wife. He is treacherous not only toward Troy, which he helped destroy, but to his own family, which helped make him who he was. Ulysses's quest for knowledge wasn't rightly ordered.

Flavia asked last time how we are to understand Dante's affective responses to the damned. Like her, I'm not sure what the answer is to that. I do notice, however, that throughout the Inferno Dante's actions ever so subtly mirror the sins of those he meets. In Canto 26, for example, Dante's fervor for knowledge almost gets the better of him. "Rising to my feet to look, I stood up / On the bridge. Had I not grasped a jutting crag, / I would have fallen in without a shove" (Inf. 26 43-45). We live in a world that all too easily confuses data with wisdom, that all too often valorizes the search for individual fulfillment over the duties toward and love for others, that in the name of enlarging our humanity by giving us more knowledge ends up making us more brutish because we become more excarnated. Perhaps Dante wants us to remember that knowledge is never neutral, and virtues can only be understood in their specific contexts.

Dante had a jutting crag and Virgil to help him. We have Dante to help us.

[For Part 3, see here. For Part 2, see here. For Part 1, see here. For the introduction, see here. I want to make this post specific to one passage in these cantos because it will enable people to comment even if they have not gotten through Canto 28. On Wednesday, I'll post again on Cantos 29-34, which will finish the Inferno, and I'll offer some thoughts to tie things together then.]

[Return to the main page]


About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

I have much the same response to Ulysses as you do--as I also have a similar response to Milton's Eve, who's portrayed with astonishing sympathy and generosity in PL 9-10. But without being too post-structuralist about it, I think it's perfectly possible that parts of the poem are simply in tension with one another: Dante's poetry may render beautiful and sympathetic things that his words officially condemns. That doesn't mean the project fails or is fatally undermined or anything--just that the poem, like a human being, is composed of conflicting impulses (hating the sin, when you genuinely love the sinner, isn't as straightforward a project as it sounds!).I also can't help noting that the word that Ulysses uses--experience--comes up again in Canto 28 when Virgil explains what Dante is doing in hell: Ulysses speaks of being driven by his longing for experience or expertise (26.98 and 26.116), while Virgil explains that Dante has been brought down to hell for exactly that reason (28.48) (English translations vary, but the Italian root word is the same). Now, it's easy to say that Dante's is a different kind of experience than Ulysses, which we might characterize as the result of a restless dissatisfaction, or sinful self-seeking, but in the context of the poem itself, and its tremendous ambition, that's not a totally satisfactory distinction. After all, it's just two cantos earlier that Virgil has urged Dante to cast off sloth and seek fame ("Without fame, he who spends his time on earth/leaves only such a mark upon the world/as smoke does on the air or foam on water" [24.46-51]). This doesn't sound very Christian! It's true that, in 26 Dante does worry about misusing his poetic gifts, and speaks of needing to "curb [his] powers/lest they run on where virtue fail to guide them" (26.21-22)--but then a moment later he enters into an exquisite pastoral simile, comparing what he sees in hell to a peasant lying on a hillside in a summer night, looking at fireflies. In other words, I guess I'm returning to my point that there are real tensions between poetic creation and moral instruction. Dante's totally aware of those tensions and is working through them, but that doesn't eliminate them. (I mentioned in my comment on Part 3 that I hadn't seen Dante explicitly wrestling with those tensions, as poets like Chaucer and Herbert and Milton do--but in these eight cantos, actually, he does it quite a lot. In fact, it seems that one of the major themes of these eight cantos is language and its uses: what different languages or forms of speech can do and mean.)

I find it interesting to examine the roles that Virgil, Dantes official guide, plays in his relationship with Dante. He is a mentor/teacher, sometimes lecturing/explaining and sometimes reprimanding. Occasionally he seems to be a bit overbearing but mostly he is patient with Dante. It seems to me that he portrays the Wisdom that comes from Experience. Reason, that Vergil is representing, however imperfectly, fosters such Wisdom Virgil tries to protect Dante, but not too much. He knows when to let go and allow Dante to go forward and make his own mistakes. In Canto XXIII he becomes a father figure. as my master went down over that bankcarrying me upon his breast,not as a companion, but as a son.Virgil can be tricked by some devils in Hell (Canto XXIII) but he does not lose Dantes respect and affection and even reverence.I find it amusing to read how Dante expresses his judgment about Boniface XIII, not waiting for the Ultimate Judges verdict. He calls Boniface, the Prince of the New Pharisees and says refers to him as the Great Priest (may ill befall him!) (Canto XXVII) The pope was apparently still alive when Dante was writing the Comedy but surely he was no longer a target of the Popes wrath. The highlight of these past cantos for me is Canto XXVIII that narrates the fate of sowers of discord. Since I have a particular antipathy toward radio and TV pundits that foment dissension, I take delight that Dante has placed them with a person who carries his brain detached from its source in his body.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment