- classical culture viewed in swift succession both positively (in bono) and negatively (in malo): the transition from Aristotle as the supreme philosophical authority at the end of Inferno 6 to the classical monster Plutus at the beginning of Inferno 7.
- the de-classicizing—Christianizing—of Fortuna in this canto: the viewing of Fortuna as a minister of Providence as a way of stemming the social anxiety caused by the changes in Florentine society
- the concept of misura is introduced with respect to the sinners of this circle, who treat wealth and money in an immoderate way, without misura: “con misura nullo spendio ferci” (no spending that they did was done with measure [Inf. 7.42]).
- the concept of misura is a vernacular expression of the Aristotelian concept of continenza, which Dante will introduce in Inferno 11
- explicit anti-clericalism introduced in this circle, through the inclusion of popes and cardinals among the misers
- Dante explores the moral issues associated with wealth management in Florentine society, as he had already begun to do in moral canzoni like Poscia ch’Amor and Doglia mi reca
- a note on the astrologer Cecco d’Ascoli, who attacks Inferno 7, verse 89, in his philosophical poem Acerba
Inferno 6 ends with a discussion that is overtly Aristotelian: as discussed in the Introduction to Inferno 6, the question of a being’s “perfection” is rooted in Aristotelian philosophy. Inferno 7 begins with the need to placate the classical monster-guardian Plutus (not Pluto, the god of the underworld, but Plutus, god of wealth, son of Demeter and Iasion), who stands watch over the fourth circle. (The presence of Plutus is akin to the presence in previous scenes of the classical monster-guardians Charon, Minos, and Cerberus.) Plutus shouts out a challenge to the travelers in a garbled mixture of Greek and Hebrew:
“Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!”, cominciò Pluto con la voce chioccia (Inf. 7.1-2)
“Pape Satan, Pape Satan aleppe!” so Plutus, with his grating voice, began.
Here we are faced with a striking example of the reversals in Dante’s treatment of classical culture. At the end of Inferno 6, Aristotle’s philosophy and language provide the “scïenza” that the pilgrim needs, and indeed Virgilio exhorts the pilgrim: “Ritorna a tua scïenza” (Remember now your science [Inf. 6.106]). Aristotle is the “maestro di color che sanno” (the master of those who know [Inf. 4.131]), as Virgilio is “quel savio gentil, che tutto seppe” (that gentle sage, who knew everything [Inf. 7.3]). Conversely, now, at the beginning of Inferno 7, Aristotle’s language, Greek, is used by Dante, with Hebrew, to compose Plutus’ degraded language, a monstrous form of self-expression.
Herewith some linguistic/stylistic comments à propos the opening of Inferno 7:
- Although Greek and Hebrew were languages that Dante did not know, he had access to medieval glossaries that provided rudimentary knowledge of their forms and sounds.
- We will see quite a few “harsh rhymes” in this canto, in a kind of opening salvo of the tonality of lower hell. Eventually, the poet will explicitly thematize his need to seek out “harsh and grating rhymes” to compose hell: the “rime aspre e chiocce” of Inferno 32.1. He first establishes this “stylistic” category by way of Plutus’ “voce chioccia” (grating voice) of Inferno 7.2.
- the repetition of “pape” in Plutus’ exclamation subliminally prepares us for the presence of popes—il papa—among the sinners of this circle.
But, for all the distancing from classical culture that Dante effects at the outset of Inferno 7, Aristotle’s presence in Inferno 7 is far deeper even than his presence at the end of Inferno 6, and signals a willing dependence on the Greek philosopher’s system of ethics that is not well enough integrated into our reading of the Commedia. Much of the commentary to this canto will be devoted to exploring the deep and latent Aristotelianism of Inferno 7, centered on the concept misura, which is the vernacular expression of the Aristotelian concept continenza. A fuller discussion of the cultural context and transmission of these ideas may be found in my essay “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime,” cited in Coordinated Readings.
We have reached the fourth circle, the home of the shades who sinned through avarice and through prodigality. These sinners are misers who held onto their material goods excessively and prodigals who spent their material goods inordinately. In Wordsworth’s words: “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”.
In Inferno 7, Dante treats both kinds of excess in wealth management—holding on to wealth too much and holding on to wealth too little—as equally sinful. Both constitute a lack of misura, a lack of moderation or temperance. Dante therefore uses one formula to cover both types of excess, both avarice and prodigality, a formula that is based on the term misura and that is equally true of both misers and prodigals: “con misura nullo spendio ferci” (no spending that they did was done with measure [Inf. 7.42]).
It is important to note from the outset, as most commentaries do not, that, through his focus on misura, Dante departs from the traditional Christian template of the seven deadly vices, which includes only avarice, not prodigality. Dante views the moral pathology of these sinners as excess, whether it be excess in holding on or excess in letting go.
Misura/measure is a quality of mind that is balanced, proportionate, and moderate with respect to desire. Dante introduces the concept of misura in Inferno 7 (the word appears here for the first time) in the context of wealth management: human attitudes toward wealth. We will find the negative form of misura, the word dismisura—lack of measure—in Inferno 16 and in Purgatorio 22. In Inferno 16 the context is a discussion of the nouveaux riches who corrupt Florence with their arrogance and unmeasured excess: “orgoglio e dismisura” (Inf. 16.74). In Purgatorio 22 Dante confirms his commitment to the ethical scheme implicit in Inferno 7, showcasing the term “dismisura” again in the context of Mount Purgatory’s terrace of avarice and prodigality:
Or sappi ch’avarizia fu partita troppo da me, e questa dismisura migliaia di lunari hanno punita. (Purg. 22.34-36)
Know then that I was far, too far from avarice—it was my lack of measure that thousands of months have punished.
Up to this point the reader of Inferno might have believed that Dante’s Hell is organized in a way that loosely accords with the Christian scheme of the seven deadly sins (more properly the seven capital vices), because the first circles of Hell do in fact overlap with the least grievous of the seven capital vices, traditionally ordered thus: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust.
If we were to organize the seven capital vices from least to most grievous, we would begin with lust, proceed to gluttony, and then to avarice—just as in circles 2 to 4 of Dante’s Hell.
Given that we have passed through the circles of lust (circle 2) and gluttony (circle 3), it would be natural to expect to find that the next circle is the circle of avarice. Dante’s Mountain of Purgatory is explicitly organized according to the seven deadly vices and follows the order of vice listed above (with pride at the bottom and going from the bottom of the mountain to the top). But prodigality, which appears coupled with avarice in both Inferno and Purgatorio, is not one of the seven deadly vices. Only avarice is.
In “Aristotle’s Mezzo” (cited in Coordinated Reading), I discuss the presence of prodigality in the fourth circle:
While the commentaries draw attention to the Aristotelian mean when glossing the specific verse “che con misura nullo spendio ferci” (Inf. 7.42), there is a critical blind spot vis-à-vis the larger manifestations of Aristotle’s presence in Inferno 7: for instance, why are the prodigals here with the misers? Only Aristotle and an ethical system based on a spectrum in which sin is the extreme—in this case avarice is one extreme and prodigality the other—and virtue is the mean can account for the provocative and rarely discussed pairing of prodigals and misers in the fourth circle of Dante’s hell. As Dante says, these souls are gripped by opposing sins, which force them constantly to move “da ogne mano a l’opposito punto” (from each side toward the opposite point; Inf. 7.32); they are divided by sins that are contrary to each other: “colpa contraria li dispaia” (contrary sin divides them; Inf. 7.45). From the moment that we are shown two groups of opposed sinners in the fourth circle, prodigals as well as misers, we need to be aware that we are not operating in a univocally Christian ethical framework. We should already be able to infer, long before reaching Inferno 11, that these first circles of hell are not simply governed, as their order might have induced us to believe, by the system of the seven capital vices, for that system does not include prodigality. (“Aristotle’s Mezzo”, p. 168)
We need to ask the question: what are the prodigals doing here? The answer is quite remarkable and certainly warrants more attention: the model of vice and virtue that Dante has adopted in Inferno 7 is not Christian.
The presence of prodigality signals that Dante is here viewing sin through an Aristotelian lens. According to Aristotle, virtue is located at the midpoint of human behavior (the “golden mean”) and vice is located at the extremes. Thus, in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle explains that the virtuous man knows how to treat material goods without excess, with moderation. He is at the virtuous midpoint and is “liberal” (generous) rather than either miserly or prodigal. The virtuous man sins neither through excessive holding onto material goods (“mal tener”) nor excessive spending (“mal dare”): “Mal dare e mal tener lo mondo pulcro / ha tolto loro” (Ill giving and ill keeping have robbed both / of the fair world [Inf. 7.58-9]).
The Aristotelian paradigm offers the extremes of “mal dare” (prodigality) at one end of the spectrum and “mal tener” (avarice) at the other, and it features virtue as the moderate midpoint at which wealth is treated with misura. Dante emphasizes his deployment of a paradigm built on two extremes by repeatedly characterizing the two groups of sinners as opposites: see “oppostito punto” in verse 32, “colpa contraria” in verse 45, “due cozzi” in verse 55.
The virtuous midpoint that resides between the two vicious extremes of mal dare and mal tenere is Aristotle’s liberality. In the language of Inferno 7, we could say that there is an implied “ben dare” and “ben tener” that marks the mean.
With respect to the circle of avarice and prodigality, the Aristotelian paradigm can thus be illustrated as follows:
This paradigm—the mean as virtue with two extremes of vice on either side—can also be applied in contexts other than the handling of wealth, as illustrated by the chart of the Nicomachean Ethics attached below.
The presence of prodigals in the fourth circle of Hell indicates that Dante has here adopted an Aristotelian template that he intercalates with a Christian template. This move effectively prepares us for the stunning revelation of Inferno 11, where Virgilio explains that Hell is structured according to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
Similarly, the concept of misura is effectively the vernacular expression of the Aristotelian concept of continenza, as dismisura is the vernacular expression of incontinenza.
I discuss the history of the word misura in “Aristotle’s Mezzo”:
Paolo Cherchi shows that the mezura of the troubadours coincides with the virtue known to classical antiquity as temperance, a virtue whose cultural prominence in medieval France he links to the widespread circulation of Ciceronian ethical values through works like the twelfth-century adaptation of Cicero’s De officiis attributed to William of Conches, Moralium dogma philosophorum. In that work, Ciceronian temperantia is defined as “dominium rationis in libidinem et alios motus importunos” (the absolute rule of reason over passions and any other unfit impulses). As proof of the correspondence between mezura and temperantia, Cherchi offers the ensenhamen on the four cardinal virtues written by the thirteenth-century troubadour Daude de Pradas (1214–1282), in particular the passage on temperance, in which Daude presents the terms “mesura, / Contenenza o atempranza” (mezura, continence, or temperance)
as synonyms. (“Aristotle’s Mezzo,” p. 166, citing Paolo Cherchi, Andreas and the Ambiguity of Courtly Love Toronto University Press, 1994, the chapter “Mezura”)
For Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, sins of excess desire are classified as sins of “incontinence” (“incontenenza” in Inferno 11.82-83), a term that is analogous to vernacular dismisura, as “continence” is analogous to misura. The taxonomy is clear and has been treated as clear in Dante commentaries: everyone notes that in Inferno 11 Dante explicitly places circles 2 to 5 (lust, gluttony, avarice/prodigality, and anger) under the Aristotelian rubric of incontinence.
The implied philosophy is less clear. The philosophical implications of defining desire in terms of incontinence have been overlooked in a critical tradition that has insisted for centuries on the binary of secular versus divine love.
Defining desire in terms of incontinence means that it is not defined dualistically (for the same principle, see the Introduction to Inferno 5), for the Aristotelian system of virtue as a mean between two sinful extremes is a unitary system, based on a spectrum of behaviors, not a dualistic one.
The Christian system produces a binary: for every capital vice cited above, Dante in Purgatorio will produce a corresponding virtue. Aristotle’s system instead produces a spectrum, in which the good is located at the mean, rather than being conceptualized as the opposite of the bad.
We need to think more about the productive tensions created by Dante’s deliberate interweaving of the binary Christian system of the vices and virtues with the very different—non-dualistic—Aristotelian system of the golden mean.
Another point worth mentioning is that Aristotle’s concept of the virtuous mean implies, in the context of wealth management, a genuine appreciation of moderate material comfort. In other words, Dante’s use of the Aristotelian template in Inferno 7 distances him from a posture of Franciscan disdain for all material goods.
However, Dante’s thinking about the Church inclines him toward the Franciscan posture, with its strong celebration of poverty as a positive value. And this very canto will indict the avarice of high prelates, popes and cardinals, thus initiating an ongoing critique of great importance to the Commedia.
At the same time, when he has his more secular hat on, Dante is quite capable of appreciating the action of “ben dare” of those great lords who demonstrate the virtue of liberality or generosity in their courts, as a sign of their cortesia.
We can therefore see in Inferno 7 a fascinatingly complex and nuanced approach toward wealth. For more on this tension in the work of Dante and his contemporaries, see the essay “The Sociology of the Brigata” cited in the Coordinated Reading and the Introduction to Inferno 16.
An appreciation of material wealth and the liberality with which it is bestowed can be inferred from many of the encounters with great feudal lords in the Commedia, including the praise offered to the Malaspina family for their “pregio de la borsa” (the glory of their purse) in Purgatorio 8.129. Moreover, the very existence of the infernal category of “violence toward others in their possessions” (see the taxonomy of sin in Inferno 11) is significant in this regard: it is not possible to conceptualize the category of violence toward others in their possessions without the foundation of an appreciation of material possessions as a positive good.
The souls of this circle are symmetrically arranged, as befits their equal distance from the virtuous mean. The misers push heavy stones around the circle in one direction, while the prodigals do the same in the other direction. The pilgrim’s interest, however, is not symmetrically distributed. He is far more interested in the tonsured souls on his left, and wonders aloud whether they were all clerics: “se tutti fuor cherci” (if all were clerics [Inf. 7.38]). Virgilio confirms Dante’s suspicion, adding, scandalously, that the souls of misers include popes and cardinals:
Questi fur cherci, che non han coperchio piloso al capo, e papi e cardinali, in cui usa avarizia il suo soperchio. (Inf. 7.46–48)
These to the left—their heads bereft of hair— were clergymen, and popes and cardinals, within whom avarice works its excess.
Dante’s anti-clericalism thus builds steam in Inferno 7. Up to now it has been expressed obliquely, in the inferences surrounding two indirect verses: “colui / che fece per viltà il gran rifiuto” (he who made through cowardice the great refusal) in Inferno 3.59-60 (a possible reference to Pope Celestine V) and “con la forza di tal che testé piaggia” (using the power of one who tacks his sails) in Inferno 6.69 (a reference to Pope Boniface VIII).
The question of wealth leads Virgilio into a long explanation, in the second half of the canto (Inf. 7.67-96), on the way in which material goods are distributed. Dante had already, in moral canzoni like Poscia ch’Amor and Doglia mi reca, formulated strong opinions on what we can call the moral issues associated with wealth management in Florentine society. Here we can see his continued anxiety about an issue that was roiling Florentine society, as new wealth formed tensions between new magnates and old aristocrats in a rising mercantile world.
In yet another twist in his extraordinarily complex response to classical culture, Dante (through Virgilio) refutes the classical understanding of the goddess Fortuna, which holds that she is blind and therefore arbitrary and capricious in her distribution of material goods, arbitrarily causing some human fortunes to rise and others to fall. Instead he insists that Fortuna is a minister of God, positioned in heaven with the other deities.
In effect, Dante de-classicizes and Christianizes the classical goddess.
A deep cause of this move vis-à-vis Fortuna might be to defuse the abetting social anxiety and envy that was discussed as a primary feature of Florentine life in Inferno 6: as a homeless and stateless exile, Dante had every reason to fear the capriciousness of Fortuna. If instead we conceive Fortuna to be a minister of divine Providence, her actions are by definition not capricious and therefore less threatening. Although we cannot understand or appreciate her actions, they are willed by Providence and therefore must be seen as part of a larger divine plan, which in turn must be construed as good.
For the first time the departure from a circle does not correspond to the end of a canto: in verse 97, with 33 verses of Inferno 7 still to go, Virgilio announces the departure from the fourth circle and the descent toward “maggior pièta” (“greater suffering”). The travelers arrive at the Styx, a swamp (“palude” in verse 106), and see souls immersed whom the narrator calls “genti fangose” (muddy folk [Inf. 7.110]). These souls, “stuck in the mud” (“Fitti nel limo” [Inf. 7.121]), describe themselves as “tristi”—sad, downcast, depressed—and speak of carrying within themselves the black smoke of acedia:
Tristi fummo ne l’aere dolce che dal sol s’allegra, portando dentro accidioso fummo. (Inf. 7.121-23)
We were sad in the sweet air that’s gladdened by the sun, carrying within the dark smoke of sloth.
These souls who say “Tristi fummo” (Inf. 7.121) are in the Styx and must be considered in tandem with the souls of the wrathful who also inhabit the Styx (although not fully immersed), whom we meet in the next canto. Considered together with the wrathful in Inferno 8, it is possible to infer from the tristi of Inferno 7 the lineaments of a Dantean version of a second Aristotelian template, this time with respect to anger rather than with respect to wealth management.
Whereas Aristotle constructs an anger spectrum on which irascibility and lack of spirit are extremes while patience is the virtuous mid-point, Dante constructs an anger spectrum in which righteous anger is the virtuous mean, flanked by the vicious extremes of melancholic tristitia and rabid ira.
The melancholics whose black bile billows inside them are found at the end of Inferno 7, while the virtuous mean is performed by the pilgrim in his righteous anger toward Filippo Argenti, the wrathful soul who assaults him in Inferno 8. The paradigm that results is as follows:
melancholic tristitia ⇤⇤⇤⇤ righteous anger ⇥⇥⇥⇥ rabid wrath
* * *
Note on Cecco d’Ascoli and Inferno 7.89
The philosophical layers that can be uncovered in one canto of the Commedia are well displayed by the complexities that surround verse 89 of Inferno 7: “necessità la fa esser veloce” (necessity makes her [Fortuna] swift). The astrologer and medical doctor Cecco d’Ascoli (1257-1327) inveighed against this verse in his philosophical poem Acerba.
In the capitolo “Della Fortuna” of Acerba, Cecco d’Ascoli openly censures Dante for “sinning” in his linkage of Fortuna with “necessità” (a code word for determinism). Fascinatingly, he accuses Dante of not sufficiently championing free will:
Non fa necessità ciascuno movendo, Ma ben dispone creatura umana Per qualità, cui l’anima, seguendo L’arbitrïo, abbandona e fassi E serva e ladra e, di virtute estrana, Da sé dispoglia l’abito gentile. In ciò peccasti, fiorentin poeta, Ponendo che li ben della fortuna Necessitati sieno con lor meta. Non è fortuna cui ragion non vinca. Or pensa, Dante, se prova nessuna Si può più fare che questa convinca. Fortuna non è altro che disposto Del cielo che dispon cosa animata Qual, disponendo, si trova all’opposto. Non vien necessitato il ben felice. Essendo in libertà l’alma creata, Fortuna in lei non può, che contraddice. (Acerba, 2.1.719-736. Cited in the edition of Achille Crespi, orig. 1927, rpt. Milano: La Vita Felice, 2011; italics mine)
Each heaven does not determine the soul by necessity as it moves, but only impresses a certain disposition on the human creature. The soul, following its free will, abandons its heavenly disposition and makes itself vile, a slave and thief, estranged from virtue; it strips itself of its noble habits. In this you sinned, Florentine poet, positing that the goods of fortune are assigned by necessity. There is no fortune that reason does not conquer. Think now, Dante if there is a proof that can be adduced more convincing than this one. Fortune is nothing but the disposition of the heavens that dispose the living thing, which then changes to its opposite (from passive to active). Happiness is not brought about by necessity. The soul having been created in liberty, fortune has no power over it that could contradict its will. (Translation mine)
Cecco here accuses Dante of according too much influence to astral determinism (“necessità”). His attack on Dante was noted by contemporaries, and it is important for us to note that they did not dismiss it out of hand. Boccaccio in his Esposizioni writes that the words of Inferno 7.89, if not well understood, could generate “error” (Esposizioni, Canto VII, Esposizione litterale, § 73).
Benvenuto da Imola explicitly refers to a contemporary debate provoked by “necessità la fa esser veloce” (Inf. 7.89). He writes that many had much to say on the subject, that there were those who defended Dante and those who attacked him, and he invokes Cecco d’Ascoli by name in the latter category:
Et hic nota lector quod circa literam istam est toto animo insistendum, quia istud dictum non videtur bene sanum; ideo multi multa dixerunt, alii pro autore, alii contra autorem, sicut Cechus de Esculo qui satis improvide damnat dictum autoris exclamans: In ciò fallasti [sic: Cecco wrote peccasti] fiorentin poeta. (Benevenuti de Rambaldis de Imola, Comentum super Dantis Aldigherij Comoediam, ed. J. P. Lacaita, Firenze: Barbèra, 1887)
And here, reader, note that about this passage one must insist with all one’s spirit, for this word might seem to be not quite sound. Therefore many have said many things, some on behalf of the author, others against the author, like Cecco d’Ascoli who quite recklessly condemns the author’s word exclaiming: In ciò fallasti [sic] fiorentin poeta. (Translation mine)
Benvenuto refutes Cecco d’Ascoli and champions Dante by pointing to the passage in Purgatorio 16 in which Dante explicitly states that humans have reason and free will and that free will trumps the movements of the heavens and astral determinism:
Sed parcat mihi reverentia sua, si fuisset tam bonus poeta ut astrologus erat, non invexisset ita temere contra autorem. Debebat enim imaginari quod autor non contradixisset expresse sibi ipsi, qui dicit Purgatorii cap. XVI: El cielo i vostri movimenti initia, Non dico tutti, ma posto ch’io ’l dica, Dato v’è lume a bene et a malitia.
But may his reverence spare me, if he were as good a poet as he was an astrologer, he would not have inveighed so boldly against the author. For he ought to imagine that the author clearly did not contradict himself, who says in chapter XVI of Purgatorio: The heavens initiate your movements; I don’t say all of them, but, were I to say it, you have been given light to discern good and evil.
It is important to realize that Dante’s contemporaries found challenges in Dante’s text that we no longer see. For more on the controversy generated by Inferno 7.89, see my essay “Contemporaries Who Found Heterodoxy in Dante, Featuring (But Not Exclusively) Cecco d’Ascoli,” cited in Coordinated Reading. For more on points of contact between Cecco d’Ascoli and Dante in this commentary, see the Introduction to Inferno 20, which raises issues of determinism and astrology vis-à-vis the bolgia of the false prophets, and the Introduction to Purgatorio 16.