by Dante Alighieri
Inferno Man and the Natural World Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Canto.Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation.
[Dante to Pope Nicholas III]: "I’d utter words much heavier than these,
because your avarice afflicts the world:
it tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.
You, shepherds, the Evangelist had noticed
when he saw her who sits upon the waters
and realized she fornicates with kings,
She who was born with seven heads and had
the power and support of the ten horns,
as long as virtue was her husband’s pleasure.
You’ve made yourselves a god of gold and silver;
how are you different from idolaters,
save that they worship one and you a hundred?" (Inf. XIX, 103-113)
In condemning the simonists, Dante paints their practices as highly perverted and unnatural. Here, "she who was born with seven heads" is pagan Rome, blessed by seven heads (representing the seven sacraments) and supported by "ten horns" (the ten commandments). Dante’s message: the Catholic Church (represented by the female Rome) only has power as long as her rich husbands, the "kings" with whom she "fornicates," decide to remain virtuous. When they disagree with the Church, they withdraw their financial support and the Church loses influence. To emphasize the Church’s corruption, Dante pictures her as a hideous monster with a writhing gaggle of seven heads, ten horns, and the rampant lust to "fornicate" with any rich man who comes her way. Not only does this undermine the spiritual purity for which the Church stands, degrading God to a material idol of "gold and silver," but also usurps the natural order of good over evil. As Dante puts it, such simony – the selling of the Divine Word for gold and silver – "tramples on the good" and "lifts up the wicked."
As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;
they had their faces twisted towards their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them. (Inf. XX, 10-15)
For claiming the superhuman (and thus unnatural) power of seeing the future, the magicians, diviners, and astrologers are subjected to an inversion of their natural form. Their faces, instead of gazing forward, are reversed on their shoulders so that they must face and walk backwards. Their sight has literally been reversed so that their sense of direction (and, possibly, time) is backwards.
[Ulysses]: "And I and my companions were already
old and slow, when we approached the narrows
where Hercules set up his boundary stones
that men might heed and never reach beyond;
upon my right, I had gone past Seville,
and on the left, already passed Ceuta.
‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘o you, who having crossed
a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west,
to this brief waking-time that still is left
unto your senses, you must not deny
experience of that which lies beyond
the sun, and of the world that is unpeopled.
Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’" (Inf. XXVI, 106-120)
Ulysses’ words, however inspiring, urge men to reach further and achieve more than mankind, by nature, can accomplish. By bypassing the Pillars of Hercules, Ulysses’ crew transgresses the boundaries of the known world and passes into the unknown realm where mortal realms end. As if this did not exceed man’s natural boundaries and violate God’s will enough, Ulysses spurs his men to "experience…that which lies beyond the sun" in the name of "worth and knowledge." But like Nimrod’s tower of Babel and Icarus’ flight, Ulysses’ pioneering arrogantly assumes that man can reach God’s level and is thus sinful. For exceeding his nature, God punishes Ulysses by killing him and his whole crew.