The Divine Comedy by Dante ALIGHIERI · Digital Dante Edition with Commento Baroliniano · MMXV ·   Columbia University

Inferno 11


Aristotle, Pagan Authority of a Christian Hell

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 2, “Infernal Incipits,” pp. 45-47; “Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell,” in Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture; “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime: Humanism, Ethics, and Social Anxiety,” in Dante and the Greeks, ed. Jan Ziolkowski (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), pp. 163-79.
  • the organizational template of Hell offers a dramatization of the principle of difference
  • the treatment of violence offers an implied positive evaluation of material goods
  • Dante cites the invented torments of his Inferno, thus intertwining his text with the “reality” of Hell
  • Dante’s strong personal connection to Aristotle’s works: “la tua Etica” (verse 80) and “la tua Fisica” (verse 101)
  • the word “incontinenza”, the technical Aristotelian analogue to vernacular “dismisura”: a non-dualistic template for vice and virtue
  • an exposition of the principle of mimesis, Christianized

Inferno 11 is not a dramatic canto. It can seem rather dry, since it is devoted to outlining the structure of Dante’s Hell. But Dante’s choices have juicy implications in both the narrative/diegetic and the ideological/cultural domains.

Narratologically, this canto reveals a canny and interesting choice on Dante’s part: he has delayed his exposition of the structure of Hell. Not until we are one-third of the way through Inferno does Dante offer us the organizational template of Hell. What are Dante’s reasons for postponing an explanation of the ideological basis of his Hell?

Ideologically, the structure that is now revealed is profoundly counter-intuitive. Rather than basing his Hell on a Christian template, for instance using the seven deadly sins, as we might have thought he was doing in the early circles (but see the commentary to Inferno 7, where I discuss the implications of including prodigality along with avarice in the fourth circle), here we learn that Dante chooses to base the organizational template for his Hell on . . . Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

No previous (or subsequent) Christian afterlife vision invokes a classical philosopher as its authority.

In introducing the structure of his Hell, Dante uses the language of difference, the language of più e meno that will dominate much of Paradiso:

Inferno 11 [is] the canto that expounds difference, clustering quantifiers in an effort to give verbal shape to the hierarchy of hell: “tre cerchietti” (three little circles [17]), “primo cerchio” (first circle [28]), “tre gironi” (three rings [30]), “lo giron primo” (the first ring [39]), “secondo /giron” (second ring [41-42]), “cerchio secondo” (second circle [57]). We find as well an impressive spate of the adverbs first used in canto 5 to render difference, più and meno: since fraud “più spiace a Dio” (displeases God more [26]), the fraudulent are assailed by “più dolor” (more suffering [27]); since incontinence, on the other hand, “men Dio offende e men biasimo accatta” (offends God less and incurs less blame [84]), God’s vengeance is “men crucciata” (less wrathful [89]) in smiting such sinners. We find expressions that convey difference geographically, dividing those who are below and within from those who are above and without: while the fraudulent “stan di sotto” (are below [26]), the incontinent are not within the city of Dis, “dentro da la città roggia” (inside the flaming city [73]) but “sù di fuor” (up outside [87]). We find phrases like “di grado in grado” (from grade to grade [18]) and “per diverse schiere” (in different groups [39]), and verbs that denote differentiation, such as distinguere and dipartire: the circle of violence “in tre gironi è distinto” (is divided into three rings [30]), and the incontinent are “dipartiti” (divided [89]) from the souls of lower hell. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 45)

Virgilio’s discourse in Inferno 11 is a great act of differentiation. When he is annoyed at the pilgrim in verses 76-77, he essentially asks how Dante can have failed to grasp the principle that underlies all created existence: the principle of difference. The lexicon of differentiation that saturates Inferno 11 will be reprised, strangely but coherently, in Paradiso, the canticle that focuses on creation and created existence.

The travelers have come to the edge of a steep cliff and, while acclimating the pilgrim’s nose to the stench that comes from below, Virgilio describes the structure of Hell. He makes an initial distinction between sins of violence and sins of fraud (“o con forza o con frode” in Inf. 11.24), indicating that fraud is more grievous and hence is the lowest of sins.

Virgilio then outlines the sins of violence, which will make up the seventh circle, in Inferno 11.28-51. He divides the sins of violence into three categories: violence against God, violence against oneself, and violence against one’s neighbor (Inf. 11.31). He further indicates that each category can be inflected in two ways: as violence against persons and as violence against possessions (Inf. 11.32). The result is that the seventh circle is subdivided into three rings, each of which houses two modalities of the same kind of violence:

VIOLENCE (Circle 7):

  • Ring 1: Violence against others, 1) in their persons and 2) in their possessions (Canto 12)
  • Ring 2: Violence against the self, 1) in one’s person and 2) in one’s possessions (Canto 13)
  • Ring 3: Violence against God, 1) in His person and 2) in His possessions (Canti 14-17). A further complexity, to which I return below, is that for the purposes of this taxonomy God has two “possessions” (nature and art), and that therefore there are three kinds of violence against God, rather than two.

The first two kinds of violence, violence against others and violence against the self, place a significant stress on possessions and material goods, very apparent in Dante’s language: “in lor cose” (in their things [Inf. 11.32]), “nel suo avere” (in his possessions [35]), and “ne’ suoi beni” (in his goods [41]). Both violence against others and violence against the self feature the abuse of material goods, which need to be protected from violent depredation. Material goods, in other words, are here viewed not as objects of disdain and reprehension, but rather as objects to be protected from human violence.

The positive evaluation of material goods that is implied by this taxonomy of violence is another indication of the Aristotelian mode of Inferno 11, a mode that distances Dante from a Franciscan approach toward material goods.

Beginning in Inferno 11.52, Virgilio deals with the sins of fraud, which he subdivides into fraud practiced against those with whom one does not have a special bond of trust (Circle 8), and fraud against those with whom one does have a special bond of trust (Betrayal, Circle 9). He outlines ten kinds of fraud that will be found in Circle 8 and concludes by telling Dante that the traitors of Circle 9 are with Lucifer (aka Satan or Dis, cf. “Dite” in Inf. 11.65), that is in the very bottom-most pit of hell.

We remember that Virgilio had mentioned going to the very bottom of hell in Inferno 9, when he explains to Dante that he was conjured by the sorceress Erichtho to go to the “cerchio di Giuda” (Judas’ circle [Inf. 9.27]), described as “’l più basso loco e ’l più oscuro, / e ’l più lontan dal ciel che tutto gira” (the deepest and the darkest place, / the farthest from the heaven that girds all [Inf. 9.28-29]). We now know that Virgilio went to the circle that houses traitors, which is located, according to Inferno 11, at “’l punto / de l’universo in su che Dite siede” (the point of the universe where Dis sits [Inf. 11.64-65]). And we know that the “cerchio minore” (smallest circle [Inf. 1164]) holds the soul of Judas, who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.

The taxonomy of fraud is less complex than that of violence, since it does not boast the subdivision that inflects violence either against a person or against a possession. But fraud is massive: it dominates both Circle 8 and Circle 9. There are ten types of fraudulent sinners in Circle 8 alone, packed into verses 58-60: “ipocresia, lusinghe e chi affattura, / falsità, ladroneccio e simonia, / ruffian, baratti e simile lordura” (hypocrisy and flattery, sorcerers, / and falsifiers, simony, and theft, / and barrators and panders and like trash [Inf. 11.58-60]).

In narratological terms, fraud will occupy almost one-half the real estate of hell: the pilgrim enters the eighth circle in Inferno 18 and leaves the ninth circle when he leaves hell in Inferno 34.

After learning about fraud, the pilgrim interjects a question. He wants to know why the sinners that they have seen on their journey thus far are not within the city of Dis: “perché non dentro da la città roggia / sono ei puniti, se Dio li ha in ira?” (why are they not all punished in the city / of flaming red if God is angry with them? [Inf. 11.73-74]). Going back over the landscape of hell that the reader has already traversed, Dante-poet now uses a shorthand based on what we have witnessed in the invented world of Dante’s own hell. He has Virgilio refer to each sin of upper Hell by its Dantean contrapasso:

Ma dimmi: quei de la palude pingue, 
che mena il vento, e che batte la pioggia,
e che s’incontran con sì aspre lingue,
perché non dentro da la città roggia
sono ei puniti?                         (Inf. 11.70-74)

But tell me: those the dense marsh holds, or those
driven before the wind, or those on whom
rain falls, or those who clash with such harsh tongues,
why are they not all punished in the city
of flaming red if God is angry with them?   

Dante has in this way accounted for all the circles of upper Hell with the exception of the first, Limbo (which, like the sixth circle, heresy, is exclusively Christian and is not referenced in the Aristotelian accounting of Inferno 11). The following breakdown of verses 70-72 highlights the periphrases that Dante deploys for each circle, based on his own invented infernal torment, and shows that Dante has here covered circles 2-5, albeit not in that order:

  • Verse 70: “quei de la palude pingue” (those whom the dense marsh holds): a reference to Styx and therefore to the accidiosi and the wrathful = CIRCLE 5
  • Verse 71: “che mena il vento” (those whom the wind drives): a reference to the lustful = CIRCLE 2
  • Verse 71: “e che batte la pioggia” (those whom the rain beats): a reference to the gluttonous = CIRCLE 3
  • Verse 72: “e che s’incontran con sì aspre lingue” (and who clash with such harsh tongues): a reference to the misers and the prodigals = CIRCLE 4

We see here the Dantean technique of intertwining the “reality” of his invented world with the “reality” of Hell.

Omitting reference to Limbo and to heresy, neither of which can be accommodated within an Aristotelian ethical template, Virgilio answers Dante’s question (why are the sins listed above not included within the city of Dis), by telling him to read his Ethics: “la tua Etica” (Inf. 11.80). “Recall your Ethics” is Virgilio’s way of telling Dante to recall Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle discusses the concept of vice that is rooted in excess desire. This is the lack of moderation that Aristotle calls “incontinence”. It turns out that the sins of upper Hell, those not enclosed by the city of Dis, are sins of incontinence.

Dante here uses the technical Aristotelian label “incontinence” (in its Latin translation): we find “incontinenza” in Inferno 11.82 and 83. In the Introduction to Inferno 7 I discussed the vernacular terms misura and dismisura, analogues of the Aristotelian continenza and incontinenza. As I noted in the commentary to Inferno 7, the use of the Aristotelian term has significant implications that are insufficiently appreciated by Dante criticism, which tends to lapse into dualistic structures that pit vice versus virtue. In such a scheme, desire is easily viewed as negative, as a conduit to vice. But the Aristotelian model of incontinence is not dualistic: it places virtue at the mid-point between extremes of vice.

In the Aristotelian model, vice partakes of the same impulse as virtue, but carries the impulse to an immoderate and excessive degree. For Aristotle, vicious behavior is distinguished from virtuous behavior by the incontinent degree to which the impulse is pursued, not by demonizing the impulse itself. In this context we can better understand that for Dante “desire is spiritual motion”: “disire / ch’è moto spiritale” (Purg. 18.31-32). Desire is an impulse that is not itself vicious in itself but is indeed essential to spiritual life.

In the last section of Inferno 11 Dante returns to the third kind of violence, violence against God, and to the implications built into the idea of “violence against God in His possessions”. For the purposes of this taxonomy God has two “possessions”, namely His “daughter”, nature, and nature’s daughter, God’s “grand-daughter”, human “arte.” “Vostra arte” in verse 103 is to be construed as all human techne, thus art in its broadest sense, including all human work, skills, crafts, and endeavors. Violence against nature is sodomy, while violence against human art is usury.

In verses 97-105, Dante explains the principle of mimesis (Greek) or imitatio (Latin). The first tenet is that nature “takes its course” from God. In other words, nature follows God: “natura lo suo corso prende / dal divino ’ntelletto e da sua arte” (nature takes her course from / the Divine Intellect and Divine Art [Inf. 11.99-100]). The second tenet is that, similarly, our human art follows nature:

l’arte vostra quella, quanto pote,
segue, come ’l maestro fa ’l discente;
sì che vostr’arte a Dio quasi è nepote. (Inf. 11.103-5) 

Your art follows nature, when it can
just as a pupil imitates his master;
so that your art is almost God’s grandchild. 

Dante expresses this principle more fully through a simile: he adds in verse 104 that our art follows nature in the way that a pupil follows a teacher. And, finally, the poet gives the principle of mimesis a genealogical twist, saying that our art is thus “almost God’s grandchild”: “vostr’arte a Dio quasi è nepote” (Inf. 11.105).

Dante has constructed a genealogy—nature is God’s child and human art is God’s grandchild—that is also a theory of art: we note the transition from the Divine Art in verse 100 to human art in verse 103. As such, it is a theory of realism that is essential for understanding Dante’s view of his own art. He is a poet who heroically strives to imitate nature/reality to the best of his ability, “sì che dal fatto il dir non sia diverso” (so that my word not differ from the fact [Inf. 32.12]).

We see here a Christianizing of the Aristotelian concept of mimesis, whereby art imitates nature. Dante had already alluded to this doctrine in a Christian context in his linguistic treatise De vulgari eloquentia, where he presents the building of the Tower of Babel by the biblical king Nembrot as an act of hubris. Nembrot’s arrogance involved trying “to surpass with his art not only nature, but also nature’s maker, who is God”:

Presumpsit ergo in corde suo incurabilis homo, sub persuasione gigantis Nembroth, arte sua non solum superare naturam, sed etiam ipsum naturantem, qui Deus est. (De vulgari eloquentia 1.7.4)

So uncurable man, persuaded by the giant Nembrot, presumed in his heart to surpass with his art not only nature, but also nature’s maker, who is God. 

In the linking of “art”, “nature”, and “nature’s maker, who is God”, Dante in De vulgari eloquentia effectively expounds the same doctrine that he later expounds in Inferno 11, without the genealogical language.

Dante’s grasp of the concept of mimesis does not come from Aristotle’s Poetics, a work that was not yet available in the West, but from the Physics. According to Physics II, ii 194a, “ars imitatur naturam in quantum potest” (art imitates nature as far as it can).

When the pilgrim wants to understand better how usury can be construed as a form of violence against God, Virgilio therefore tells him to read Aristotle’s Physics. Having previously instructed Dante to read Aristotle’s Ethics, Virgilio now sends him to yet another Aristotelian text: “la tua Fisica” (Inf. 11.101). As with “la tua Etica” in verse 80, Virgilio again prefaces the philosopher’s title with the pronoun “tua” (your). With this pronoun Dante indicates the profound personal connection, affective and intellective, that binds him to Aristotle’s thought.

At the very end of Inferno 11 Virgilio glosses the concept of usury further by invoking Genesis: “lo Genesì” of verse 107. The convergence of Aristotle with the Bible in the closing verses of the canto—Aristotle’s Physics with Genesis—is an extraordinary testament to the Commedia’s richly multicultural program, here evidenced in Dante’s unique treatment of the organizational structure of hell.


Outline of the Structure of Hell, as Presented in Inferno 11

[Circle 1: Limbo (Inferno 4): not discussed in Inferno 11]

Circles 2-5: Sins of Incontinence: lust (Inferno 5), gluttony (Inferno 6), avarice & prodigality (Inferno 7), tristitia (end of Inferno 7) & anger (Inferno 8)

[Circle 6: Heresy (Inferno 10)]

Circle 7: Violence, subdivided as follows:

  1. Violence against one’s neighbor (Inferno 12)
  • in her or his person, e.g. murder
  • in her or his possessions, e.g. robbery
  1. Violence against oneself (Inferno 13)
  • in one’s person, e.g. suicide
  • in one’s possessions, e.g. squandering
  1. Violence against God
  • in God’s person, e.g. blasphemy (Inferno 14)
  • in God’s possessions:
    • Violence against God’s “daughter”, nature, e.g. sodomy (Inferno 15-16)
    • Violence against God’s “granddaughter”, human “art” (skill, endeavor), e.g. usury (Inferno 17)

Circle 8: Fraud, practiced against those who have no reason to trust you, broken down into 10 categories:

seduction (Inferno 18), flattery (Inferno 18), simony (Inferno 19), false prophesy (Inferno 20), barratry (Inferno 21-22), hypocrisy (Inferno 23), thievery (Inferno 24-25), false counsel (Inferno 26-27), sowing of discord (Inferno 28), falsifers of metals, persons, coins, and words (Inferno 29-30)

Circle 9: Fraud, practiced against those who have reason to trust you, i.e. Betrayal, divided into 4 categories:

Betrayal of family (Inferno 32), of political party (Inferno 32-33), of guests (Inferno 33), and of benefactors (Inferno 34)

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 11 : Aristotle, Pagan Authority of a Christian Hell." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading