O mortal men, be wary of how ye judge.
– Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) began his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, in 1308 and completed it a year before his death. In the first third of the poem, the Inferno, he visits hell and all of its sinners on his way to purgatory and eventually heaven in search of his great love Beatrice. In hell, divine judgment (and therefore due justice) is meted out by God in the form of various punishments, always following a logical conclusion of each punishment fitting the crime. For his theological vision, Dante drew heavily upon the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, especially his best-known work, the Summa Theologica.
Aquinas was a realist who believed that truth was to be accepted no matter where it was found, and his work synthesizes elements of Greek, Roman, Islamic, and Jewish philosophy. Dante subscribed to the Aristotelian theory (which he learned from Aquinas, who was a proponent of Aristotle) of misura, or “measure.” Things in the universe needed to be in balance and harmony. Discord in this balance or harmony led to sin, strife, and suffering. Inspired by Aquinas and Aristotle, Dante always took an equitable view of sin and punishment. Hence the seemingly large number of popes and cardinals that Dante puts in hell; despite their clerical rank, they are not immune from God’s truth or punishment.
Dante’s guide through hell in the Inferno is the famous Roman poet Virgil, who was himself famous for his masterpiece the Aeneid, which recounts how the Trojan hero Aeneas’s progeny ultimately comes to form the Roman empire. Dante chooses to have Virgil be his guide and represent human reason. All manner of sins are viewed, discussed, and commented upon by the duo; occasionally Dante even becomes judgmental.
When they reach the fourth circle of hell in the Inferno’s seventh canto, they come upon the “hoarders” and the “wasters,” who are eternally at odds with each other. With a certain poetic justice, they now provide each other’s punishment: the two groups of sinners engage in an eternal Sisyphean struggle to push large bags of money against each other either up- or downhill. Those who hoard shout at the spendthrifts, “Why do you waste?”, while those who were frivolous in their spending shout, “Why do you hoard?” As Virgil says to Dante: “Not all the gold that is or ever was / under the sky could buy for one of these / exhausted souls the fraction of a pause.” In Dante’s balanced view, shaped by Aquinas and Aristotle, the hoarders are just as sinful as the wasters.
During our current pandemic, a focal point of many news stories is to point out how and what people are hoarding. There is a word in German that describes panic shopping as Hamsterkauf—mindless stockpiling, like a hamster storing food in its cheeks. A cursory search of the internet will show that each country has its own particular item or items that they are rushing to stockpile, that they cannot live without. In some countries it is toilet paper; in Italy, Dante’s home country, it is pasta. Do people really need enough toilet paper to fill up a room in their home and last a lifetime or two? Dante would say no, and yet he would be just as critical of someone who dismissed the whole situation out of hand and decided to move forward day by day as if nothing out of the ordinary was occurring.
The Dante of The Divine Comedy seeks to show that balance is the key. It is what elevates us above eternal damnation and suffering, above the interminably long, detoxifying process of purgatory, and finally into the radiant glory of God’s light that illuminates love and truth for all mankind. Today’s hoarders are not to be commended for their foresight. But neither are those people who refuse to take action, who go on with life as usual and continue to have social gatherings when local and state authorities have forbidden it, as if they are immune from suffering.
In canto 26 of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil arrive at the eighth circle of hell. Dante speaks to Ulysses, who is intertwined in an eternally burning flame with King Diomedes. They share the same punishment for their dubious behavior during the Trojan War. Ulysses is punished in part because he was fraudulent towards others (the eighth circle is, in fact, reserved for the fraudulent): he used his gift of persuasion to get his crew to follow him on a fatal adventure rather than go home. Additionally, Ulysses insisted on passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, which at that time was considered the “edge of the world” and not permissible to be navigated. Ulysses recounts the words he used to justify his actions to his crew: “Consider well the seed that gave you birth: / you were not made to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge”.
Dante agrees that we should indeed follow “virtue and knowledge,” but not at the expense of our fellow man. In Ulysses’s case it was forcing his crew to follow him in order to fulfill his own selfish desires. The hoarders and the wasters each hold steadfastly to their selfish desires even at the eventuality of eternal suffering. In modern-day terms, this is the egocentric “me-first” mentality that says we need to purchase goods in overabundance without even a thought that others might need these items too. Dante is urging us at every turn to find the proper balance in things, to find the harmonious center. We should keep his dramatic and poetic images of proportion in mind as we seek to move forward in these difficult times.
Ciro Festa lives in Guilford, Connecticut, with his wife and son. He has a degree in English literature from Quinnipiac University. His poetry was once featured regularly on Dr. David Morris’s radio program, “Live the Journey,” on University of New Haven radio.