Study Guide

Inferno Lies and Deceit

By Dante Alighieri

Lies and Deceit

Inferno Canto I

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:
so bitter – death is hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I’ll also tell the other things I saw.
I cannot clearly say how I had entered
the wood; I was so full of sleep just at
the point where I abandoned the true path. (Inf. I. 1-12)

From this opening passage, one can see that the nature of sin (or "abandon[ing God’s] true path") is inherently treacherous because its path is "shadowed," "savage," "dense and difficult." As a road overcast with darkness, it limits Dante’s sight, both literally and metaphorically, making it difficult for him to ‘see’ the boundary between good and evil. Dante has already been tricked into his present predicament because he "cannot clearly say how [he] entered / the wood." Sin – deceptively innocuous at this point – has only made Dante "full of sleep," so that he cannot remember when he strayed off the straight road to God.

Inferno Canto X (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)

Then, as if penitent for my omission,
I said, "Will you now tell that fallen man
his son is still among the living ones;
and if, a while ago, I held my tongue
before his question, let him know it was
because I had in mind the doubt you’ve answered." (Inf. X, 109-114)

Dante, unlike the sinners, repents of his lie and contritely reveals the truth. His sense of shame, readers feel, is well-deserved because he has fallen to the spiteful level of the sinners. And it takes a conversation with a so-called "noble sinner, Farinata, to bring Dante to his senses.

[Cavalcanti]: … "If it is your high intellect
that lets you journey here, through this blind prison,
where is my son? Why is he not with you?"
I answered: "My own powers have not brought me;
he who awaits me there, leads me through here
perhaps to one your Guido did disdain."
His words, the nature of his punishment –
these had already let me read his name;
therefore, my answer was so fully made.
Then suddenly erect, he cried: "What’s that:
He ‘did disdain’? He is not still alive?
The sweet light does not strike against his eyes?"
And when he noticed how I hesitated
a moment in my answer, he fell back –
supine – and did not show himself again. (Inf. X, 58-72)

For the first time, we see Dante infected by the deceit that runs rampant in Hell. He lies to Cavalcanti about his son. Whether this is a deliberate attempt to spite the sinner or a mere slip of the tongue is ambiguous. However, he does mislead Cavalcanti by "hesitat[ing] a moment" in revealing the truth. And it is significant that Dante’s lie comes in the circle of the heretics, those who deceive themselves about God’s existence and supremacy. By denying the existence of God, they deny man’s immortal soul; if a loved one dies, the heretic does not expect her to have the privilege of an afterlife. Thus, if Guido is dead and Cavalcanti does not know about it, he is either utterly gone (as the Epicureans believed) or, possibly worse, in Heaven – as far from his sinning father as possible.

Inferno Canto XI (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)

[Virgil]: "Of every malice that earns hate in Heaven,
injustice is the end; and each such end
by force or fraud brings harm to other men.
However, fraud is man’s peculiar vice;
God finds it more displeasing – and therefore,
the fraudulent are lower, suffering more." (Inf. XI, 22-27)

Here, Virgil declares fraud – the deceptive use of language or action – the worst of the three types of sin (incontinence, violence, and fraud). Sadly, it is also the sin man is most susceptible to by virtue of his capacity for language. With their false or insincere words, fraudulent men "bring harm to other men." This particular quality of fraud, with its ability to spread (as rumor or truth), can effectively mislead whole communities of otherwise moral people into sin. To Dante, condemning innocent others to sin through one’s deceitful words is the worst possible act.

Inferno Canto XVI (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)

Faced with that truth which seems a lie, a man
should always close his lips as long as he can –
to tell it shames him, even though he’s blameless;
But here I can’t be still; and by the lines
of this my Comedy, reader, I swear –
and may my verse find favor for long years –
that through the dense and darkened air I saw
a figure swimming, rising up, enough
to bring amazement to the firmest heart,
like one returning from the waves where he
went down to loose an anchor snagged upon
a reef or something else hid in the sea,
who stretches upward and draws in his feet. (Inf. XVI, 124-136)

Right as Dante is about to enter the circles of fraud, reality begins to blur, playing with his sense of truth. This monster which arises from the depths is so unbelievable that it is a "truth which seems a lie." Dante struggles with the idea of not discussing it, for that would be akin to lying; but in the end, he gives in. Interestingly, to justify his description, he "swear[s]" on the truth of his words by "the lines / of this my Comedy." In other words, he’s swearing on himself, which is not only circular but also invalid. So, Dante is either showing signs of excessive pride or is buying into the deception of the fraudulent realms. To compound his deceit, Dante uses a simile (a way of describing something by comparing it to something it’s NOT) of a diver to describe the rising monster.

Inferno Canto XVII (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: the Violent against Nature and Art)

And he came on, that filthy effigy
of fraud, and landed with his head and torso
but did not draw his tail onto the bank.
The face he wore was that of a just man,
so gracious was his features’ outer semblance;
and all his trunk, the body of a serpent;
He had two paws, with hair up to the armpits;
his back and chest as well as both his flanks
had been adorned with twining knots and circlets.
No Turks or Tartars ever fashioned fabrics
more colorful in the background and relief,
nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs.
As boats will sometimes lie along the shore,
with part of them on land and part in water,
and just as there, among the guzzling Germans,
the beaver sets himself when he means war,
so did that squalid beast lie on the margin
of stone that serves as border for the sand.
And all his tail was quivering in the void
while twisting upward its envenomed fork,
which had a tip just like a scorpion’s. (Inf. XVII, 7-24)

Geryon, as Dante so poetically claims, is a "filthy effigy / of fraud." Not only does his form combine the features of a man, a snake, a scorpion, and a random animal – as if he cannot choose what he wants to be – but his entire hide is gaudily adorned with "twining knots and circlets" of many colors and patterns. Ostentatiously beautiful on the surface, Geryon is a monster within. And just as he crosses the line between truth and fiction, he lies "along the shore, / with part of [him] on land and part in water," not truly a fish nor a beast of the land. The final simile comparing Geryon to a beaver cements readers’ impressions of him as devious. He hangs his tail seductively over the void, just as a beaver uses its tail as a lure to tempt fish into approaching and then kills them for food.

Inferno Canto XVIII (the Eighth Circle, First Pouch: Panderers and Seducers; the Second Pouch: Flatterers)

[Virgil]: … "Look at that mighty one who comes
and does not seem to shed a tear of pain:
how he still keeps the image of a king!
That shade is Jason, who with heart and head
deprived the men of Colchis of their ram…
With polished words and love signs he took in
Hypsipyle, the girl whose own deception
had earlier deceived the other women.
And he abandoned her, alone and pregnant;
such guilt condemns him to such punishment;
and for Medea, too, revenge is taken." (Inf. XVIII, 83-96)

Jason, the mythical leader of the Argonauts, shows that Virgil’s "persuasive word" can be turned to evil uses. Although the Italian phrase used to describe Virgil’s speech, "parole ornate," remains the same, Mandelbaum chooses to translate Jason’s speech as "polished words" instead of "persuasive." This highlights Jason’s flashy image and professed gallantry, which woo women to him, while allowing his vile nature to lurk underneath. Here, in the first ring of fraud, readers begin to doubt the goodness of the "persuasive word," or elaborate language, when they see that it can persuade people with false hopes and lead to tragic consequences.

Inferno Canto XIX (the Eighth Circle, Third Pouch: Simonists)

I stood as does the friar who confesses
the foul assassin who, fixed fast, head down,
calls back the friar, and so delays his death;
and he cried out: "Are you already standing,
already standing there, o Boniface?
The book has lied to me by several years.
Are you so quickly sated with the riches
for which you did not fear to take by guile
the Lovely Lady, then to violate her?"
And I became like those who stand as if
they have been mocked, who cannot understand
what has been said to them and can’t respond. (Inf. XIX, 49-60)

When mistaken by Pope Nicholas III for his successor Pope Boniface VIII come to replace him in Hell, Dante is tempted to play along and to trick Nicholas into believing he will bring him some relief. This is evidenced by his hesitation to refute Nicholas’ words and it is not until Virgil scolds Dante into telling the truth that he reveals his true identity. Thus, Virgil’s claim that fraud is the worst and most human sin gains legitimacy here because even the moral Dante is swayed for a moment to succumb to deceit. The scene receives an even greater flavor of dishonesty when Dante describes himself (in a simile) as a friar with the authority to confess a sinner – something which he definitely is not. That Dante even dares to suggest such a dishonest image implies that he is feeling the effects of the fraud all around him.

Inferno Canto XXIII (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators; Sixth Pouch: the Hypocrites)

He [the Friar] answered: "Closer than you hope, you’ll find
a rocky ridge that stretches from the great
round wall and crosses all the savage valleys,
except that here it’s broken – not a bridge.
But where its ruins slope along the bank
and heap up at the bottom, you can climb."
My leader stood a while with his head bent,
then said: "He who hooks sinners over there
gave us a false account of this affair."
At which the Friar: "In Bologna, I
once heard about the devil’s many vices –
they said he was a liar and father of lies." (Inf. XXIII, 133-144)

Malacoda, who was supposedly trying to help Virgil, deliberately gave him false information to torture him. Ironically, the truth comes from the hypocrites, who also rebuke Virgil for so naively trusting a demon, a known "liar." So even the seemingly infallible Virgil, master and guide for Dante, can be deceived.

Below that point we found a painted people,
who moved about with lagging steps, in circles,
weeping, with features tired and defeated.
And they were dressed in cloaks with cowls so low
they fell before their eyes, of that same cut
that’s used to make the clothes for Cluny’s monks
Outside, these cloaks were gilded and they dazzled;
but inside they were all of lead, so heavy
that Frederick’s capes were straw compared to them.
A tiring mantle for eternity! (Inf. XXIII, 58-67)

The hypocrites or Jovial Friars have all the hallmarks of a deceitful people. They are "painted" and their "cloaks were gilded" so that "they dazzled." On the surface, these sinners are brilliantly attractive, drawing the eye with their golden robes, but on the inside the mantles are lined with "lead," "so heavy" that their wearers must walk "tired and defeated." What initially promises to be beautiful suddenly turns out to be ugly and restrictive. This comments on the Friars’ actions in life: they promised to keep the peace in their provinces but instead founded their own orders, bringing strife and violence to the land.

Inferno Canto XXVI (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)

[Guido da Montefeltro]: He [Boniface VIII] asked me to give counsel. I was silent –
his words had seemed to me delirious.
And then he said: ‘Your heart must not mistrust:
I now absolve you in advance – teach me
to batter Penestrino to the ground.
You surely know that I possess the power
to lock and unlock Heaven; for the keys
my predecessor did not prize are two.’
Then his grave arguments compelled me so,
my silence seemed a worse offense than speech,
and I said: ‘Since you cleanse me of the sin
that I must now fall into, Father, know:
long promises and very brief fulfillments
will bring a victory to your high throne." (Inf. XXVII, 97-111)

Dante sees lying as a disease. To illustrate the point, he shows Guido da Montefeltro considering Pope Boniface’s words "delirious" or, as the Italian reads, "feverish." Pope Boniface VIII exchanges a promise he cannot fulfill – absolution – for advice to raze a rival family’s estate to the ground. In a telling statement, Guido reflects the pope’s moral corruption because he advises "long promises and very brief fulfillments." Here, Dante seems to comment that language – for all its eloquence – can just be a sham. Silence here would have been a better response for Guido than saying anything at all.

[Virgil]: … "Within that flame, Ulysses
and Diomedes suffer; they, who went
as one to rage, now share one punishment.
And there, together in their flame, they grieve
over the horse’s fraud that caused a breach –
the gate that let Rome’s noble seed escape.
There they regret the guile that makes the dead
Deidamia still lament Achilles:
and there, for the Palladium, they pay." (Inf. XXVI, 55-63)

In this passage, Dante shows how the fraud practiced by individual men can come to torture a whole community of people. The "horse’s fraud" here is the trickery used to bring the Trojan horse within the walls of Troy so that the Greek soldiers, hidden inside the wooden statue, could emerge to ransack the city from within. This, of course, got many good Trojans killed. In addition, Ulysses persuaded Achilles to leave his lover Deidamia and their unborn son to fight in the Trojan War, leaving the pregnant woman distraught and vulnerable. To compound their guile, Ulysses and Diomedes lied their way into the Palladium (Athena’s sacred temple) and desecrated it, forcing countless Trojans to question their faith in the goddess.

Inferno Canto XXIX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers of Metals)

[Capocchio to Dante]: "…see that I’m the shade of that Capocchio
whose alchemy could counterfeit fine metals
And you, if I correctly take your measure,
recall how apt I was at aping nature." (Inf. XXIX, 136-139)

Capocchio’s "counterfeit[ing of] fine metals" is comparable to Dante’s "aping nature." Here, Capocchio contends that writing is just as false and damnable an enterprise as alchemy. To "ape" implies an imitation or mimicry that is but a distant reflection and degradation of the original. This calls into question the truth of Dante’s words. It plants doubts into readers’ minds about whether or not a mortal pen can accurately and objectively capture the happenings in Hell.

Inferno Canto XXX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Counterfeiters of Persons, Counterfeiters of Coins, Falsifiers of Words)

"If I spoke false, you falsified the coin,"
said Sinon: "I am here for just one crime –
but you’ve committed more than any demon." (Inf. XXX, 115-117)

In attacking Master Adam’s counterfeiting practice, Sinon unwittingly conveys Dante’s lesson to readers. Sinon makes the point that every coin Master Adam counterfeits counts as a sin. To Dante, money is one of the basic links between individuals – much like language. If one cannot trust a coin’s value, doubt falls on the whole economy, thus throwing everyone in a society into hysteria. Again, fraud may start with a dishonest individual but its consequences are widespread.

Inferno Canto XXXI (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers)

I’d only turned my head there briefly when
I seemed to make out many high towers; then
I asked him: "Master, tell me, what’s this city?"
And he to me: "It is because you try
to penetrate from far into these shadows
that you have formed such faulty images.
When you have reached that place, you shall see clearly
how much the distance has deceived your sense;
and, therefore, let this spur you on your way." (Inf. XXXI, 19-27)

On the verge of entering the last and most treacherous circle of Hell, Dante becomes a victim of fraud. He mistakes the unmoving torsos of giants for a city of towers. It is not, as Virgil claims, only the distance that "deceive[s Dante’s] sense," but the sheer amount of deceit surrounding them that darkens their path and warps Dante’s vision so he can see only "faulty images."

Inferno Canto XXXIV (the Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring Judecca: Traitors against their Benefactors)

O reader, do not ask of me how I
grew faint and frozen then – I cannot write it:
all words would fall far short of what it was.
I did not die, and I was not alive;
think for yourself, if you have any wit,
what I became, deprived of life and death.
The emperor of the despondent kingdom
so towered from the ice, up from midchest,
that I match better with a giant’s breadth
than giants match the measure of his arms…(Inf. XXXIV, 22-31)

In Dante’s ostentatious attempt to show humility, he misrepresents his talent and deceives readers. First he claims that he "cannot write it," that he cannot possibly render Hell’s description with justice, but he then proceeds to do exactly what he professes he cannot: he describes Lucifer in great detail.