May 21, 2017


I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day about the topicality of Dante’s Divine Comedy. What we both agreed upon was that the first of the three canticles of the poem, Inferno, is by far the most topical one. Nowhere else is there a more perfect description of human nature, its weakness, passions, miseries and sordidnesses. And nowhere else is there a deeper sense of justice in the face of sin and evil. We also agreed that the most topic among all the sins mentioned in the Comedy is hypocrisy.

Detail of miniature of Dante and Virgil encountering three couples of hypocrites, clad in gilt hoods, while on the ground are stretched Caiaphas and Annas, in illustration of Canto XXIII. (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450
London, British Library, Yates Thompson, 36 fol-42b Hypocrites

And now, down there, we found a painted people,
slow-motioned: step by step, they walked their round
in tears, and seeming wasted by fatigue.

All were wearing cloaks with hoods pulled low
covering the eyes (the style was much the same
as those the Benedictine wear at Cluny),

dazzling, gilded cloaks outside, but inside
they were lined with lead, so heavy that the capes
King Frederick used, compared to these, were straw.

O cloak of everlasting weariness!
We turned again, as usual, to the left
and moved with them, those souls lost in their mourning;

but with their weight tired-out race of shades
paced on so slowly that we found ourselves in
new company with every step we took;

(Inferno, Canto XXIII)

In fact, if we look at today’s world—particularly in the fields of politics, media, religion, and academia—you can’t help seeing that we’re surrounded by hypocrites—for the record, the word hypocrisy comes from the Greek ὑυπόκρισις (hypokrisis), which means “jealous,” “play-acting,” “acting out,” “coward” or “dissembling.”

We live in a “do as I say, not as I do” culture that is slowly breeding an entirely new generation of Pharisees, blinder than those who killed Jesus, where double-standards ARE the standard and double thinking is routine. What applies to Obama, Clinton, Podesta, etc. doesn’t apply to Trump and his men (and women), and vice versa. The same exact behavior is bad when someone you don’t agree with does it, but great when someone you do agree with does. We preach dialogue but practice monologue. We preach brotherhood but practice Cainhood. Our eleventh silent commandment is, “Preach sugar and honey, practice venom and vinegar.” This whole thing would be a farce if it were not a tragedy—not a small one, but a major tragedy in the rapidly darkening fortunes of the Western world.

Back to the main story, as everybody knows, in Dante’s Inferno there is a level for each sin committed, i.e. different circles, with the depth of the circle (and placement within that circle) symbolic of the amount of punishment to be inflicted. As the eighth of nine circles, Malebolge is one of the worst places in hell to be—and the only circle that has a proper name. Malebolge means evil ditches, or evil bolgias, and this Circle is dedicated to the sins of fraud, and each ditch is for a specific kind of fraud.

Dante and his guide, Virgil, make their way into Malebolge by riding on the back of the monster Geryon, the personification of fraud, who possesses the face of an honest man “good of cheer,” but the tail of a scorpion. In Bolgia Six lie the hypocrites. They are forced to wear heavy lead robes as they walk around the circumference of their circle. The robes are bright and golden on the outside, and resemble a monk’s cowl similar to the elegant ones worn by the Benedictine monks at Cluny, but are lined with heavy lead, symbolically representing hypocrisy. Just as Jesus compares hypocritical scribes and Pharisees to tombs that appear clean and beautiful on the outside while containing bones of the dead (Matthew 23:27).

By the way, who knows whether Dante knew that the specific weight of gold is much higher than that of lead? ;-) Be it as it may, I wish poetry could cure our moral diseases! The Divine Comedy would be our salvation! And instead we cannot but recall Eliot’s famous response when I.A. Richards took up Matthew Arnold’s cry, “it may be poetry will save us”: “it is like saying that wall-paper will save us when the walls have crumbled.” (T. S. Eliot, “Literature, Science, and Dogma,” Dial, 82, 1927: 243)

Interesting stuff, isn’t it? Maybe next time we’ll talk about the ninth circle: Betrayers...

Historiated initial ‘N’(el) of Dante and Virgil in a dark wood, with four half-length figures representing Justice, Power, Peace, and Temperance, with the arms of Alfonso V below, at the beginning of the Divina Comedia, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 1r


  1. Rob, your posts are so interesting. Thoughtful and disturbing as well. We are on the opposite sides of the political spectrum but yet I imagine we want the same things. Honesty and integrity in our politicians. A quest for peace for all mankind. Clean air and water for all.

    I wonder where you are now in your appreciation of what Trump has been doing.

    We just watched the HBO docudrama Wizard of Lies, about the con man, Bernie Madoff, who bilked hundreds out of millions and millions of dollars. His two sons, who were innocent of his crime, suffered. One committed suicide, the other died of lymphoma, surely brought on by the stress of what had happened in his family. Bernie has been described as a sociopath.

    I know you want to believe and perhaps still do that Trump is the saviour for America's ills. I've seen little evidence of that. Rather, he has shown to be the self-serving man he's always been. A hypocrite.

  2. Dear Diana, I haven't changed my mind. Not at all, not in any way, shape, or form. And I'm sure you haven't changed your mind about Justin Trudeau, who is no doubt an honourable man, as Mark Antony would say... ;-)