The Reading Room
Dante at 700: What the Supreme Poet can teach us about work, love, art, and life: Inferno, Canto VI, Part 2: How Far Do Our Civic Duties Extend?
A Reading Room series on the Divine Comedy
Continuing through the third circle of Hell, we pass with Dante and Virgil through countless shades of the souls of the dead that are lying in the filthy puddles, apparently able to tread weightlessly on top of their prone, rain-soaked bodies. One of the shades sees them and sits up.
“Oh you mortal who are passing through Hell,” he says to Dante, “remember me, if you can. You were still alive when I died.”
Dante says that he does not remember who this person is; the tortures that this man has been subjected to in Hell have rendered him unrecognizable to Dante. He asks the man to tell him who he is and how and why he has wound up in such a place—a place of such dreadful punishment that, though there could be greater torments, none would be more foul.
The shade tells him that he was a contemporary of Dante’s; he lived in Florence, too—“your city.” He said that he had a fairly peaceful life in this city, “which is so full of envy.” Florentines, he says, called him Ciacco (a nickname meaning “pig” or “swine”); he has been sent here, to the third circle of Hell, for the sin of gluttony, to be punished with this battering rain. “And I am not the only one,” he says. “Everyone else you see here—they have all been sent here for the same exact sin.” Those are the last words we hear him speak.
“Ciacco,” Dante responds. “Seeing you in such a miserable state is making me cry. Tell me, though, if you know: what will become of our divided city? Are there any good people in it? Tell me why it has fallen into such a state of discord.”
Because the dead in the underworld are able to see the near-future, Ciacco, tears in his eyes, tells Dante about the internal strife and bloodshed that will soon be coming to their former city. He predicts further power struggles between the competing political parties in Florence. (It had been due to such a power struggle that Dante was exiled from the city a few years before he had begun writing The Divine Comedy.) Dante begs Ciacco to tell him more; he wants to know whether some of his more illustrious deceased contemporaries have merited the “sweetness of Heaven” or the “venom of Hell.”
Ciacco obliges, telling him that not only are the people he asked about in Hell, but that they are “among the blacker souls”—if he wishes to see them, he must descend into even deeper levels of Hell. In exchange for this information, all Ciacco asks of Dante is that Dante—should he make it back safely to Earth—remember him and speak of him to others in “the sweet world.” With that, Ciacco turns his eyes away, bows his head, and falls back into the slushy puddle. Virgil says he will not reawaken again until the resurrection of the dead during the end of days.
We continue on with Dante and Virgil through the filthy mixture, moving slowly over the souls of the dead—trying to tread as lightly as possible on the downtrodden shades.
“Master,” Dante asks Virgil, “these torments that we see here—will they increase or decrease after the Final Judgment?” Virgil responds dismissively, telling Dante that he should have been able to have deduced the answer to his question from an Aristotelian principle (and one which evokes “the Matthew principle” from the New Testament of “to he whom everything has been given, even more shall be given, and to he who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him”): in the end of days, after the Final Judgment has been rendered, the blessed in Heaven will have even more pleasure, and the damned in Hell even more pain.
Dante and Virgil continue along a path on a circular road, speaking much more, but about things that Dante feels he should not repeat. They stop at the edge of a steep cliff, and there see “Plutus, the great enemy”—the gatekeeper to the next circle of Hell.
A country has borders; citizenship does not. We should not think, “I shall emigrate and expatriate and thereby obviate my duties to my state.” The obligations we have to care for those around us—an ethical duty that begins fundamentally at the local level—cannot be negated by moving away from our native land. Our responsibility to do our part in maintaining the health and sound order of the state does not decrease by moving away from it; if anything, it increases.
If we have left, we may need to work twice as hard to contribute toward the proper functioning of the state as those who have remained. After Thomas Mann left Germany in the 1930s, he redoubled his political advocacy efforts on behalf of freedom and democracy and against Hitlerian totalitarianism. After the political prisoner Natan Sharansky escape Soviet Russia, he became—in books such as Fear No Evil and The Case for Democracy—an even more forceful advocate for liberty for the Russian people. After Henry James left America for England, he became even more concerned with the manners and morals of his once-and-always fellow citizens as his late great novels The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl (as well as many of his letters) attest. And much of Camus’ writing, even after he had moved to France, was concerned first and foremost with his native Algeria. These are the kinds of socially responsible citizens Dante would have us be—not the craven opportunists who move in for the gold rush and get out before the truly golden work of building and maintaining a strong, healthy state is calling out to be done.
The truly good citizen does not look for opportunities to abdicate her civic duties. Even in the literal depths of Hell, as Dante and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn both knew (and both very much experienced), we are still obligated to care for our countries. This is what it means to be a good citizen—which, according to Dante, is a nonnegotiable component of being a good person.