Study Guide

Inferno Respect and Reputation

By Dante Alighieri

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Respect and Reputation

Inferno Canto II

[Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "‘O spirit of the courteous Mantuan,
whose fame is still a presence in the world
and shall endure as long as the world lasts,
my friend who has not been the friend of fortune,
is hindered in his path along that lonely
hillside; he has been turned aside by terror.
From all that I have heard of him in Heaven,
he is, I fear, already so astray
that I have come to help him much too late.
Go now; with your persuasive word, with all
that is required to see that he escapes,
bring help to him, that I may be consoled.’" (Inf. II, 58-69)

Virgil’s renown as the consummate poet gifted with the "persuasive word" makes him the prime candidate to appeal to for Dante’s sake. It is to Virgil’s "courteous spirit," which has endured countless ages with an unblemished name, that Beatrice entrusts her beloved Dante, not to any real knowledge or experience with the poet.

Inferno Canto III

[Virgil]: "Those who are here can place no hope in death,
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.
The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass." (Inf. III, 46-51)

Because cowardice has kept the neutrals from making any indelible mark on the world, they have no claim to fame. Thus, "the world will let no fame of theirs endure," and even Virgil has no patience to spend time identifying any of these sinners. They simply have no reputation to speak of.

Inferno Canto VI (the Third Circle: the Gluttonous)

[Ciacco]: "But when you have returned to the sweet world,
I pray, recall me to men’s memory:
I say no more to you, answer no more." (Inf. VI, 88-90)

Ciacco is the first of many sinners who crave fame and a good name in the world above. Relegated to an existence which can hardly be called a life (suffering eternally in Hell), the only life these sinners can pretend to have is in men’s memory. Should they be forgotten, they would truly die, having been lost in body, soul, and memory to the living. Since these sinners have lost everything in their damnation, their only chance at being remembered in any good light is in the mortal world, where the living have no knowledge of Hell’s inhabitants.

Inferno Canto VIII (the river Styx, the gates of Dis)

[Virgil]: "How many up above now count themselves
great kings, who’ll wallow here like pigs in slime,
leaving behind foul memories of their crimes!" (Inf. VIII, 49-51)

In the mud of the Fifth Circle, Virgil points out how different the standards of fame are in the afterlife. His message seems to be that those who garner the most fame and prestige in the mortal world do so by wicked means and thus will have no such stature in Hell, but will be reduced to a position of low bestiality, like "pigs in slime."

Inferno Canto XIII (the Seventh Circle, Second Ring: The Violent against Themselves)

[Pier della Vigna]: "I swear to you by the peculiar roots
of this thornbush, I never broke my faith
with him who was so worthy – with my lord.
If one of you returns into the world,
then let him help my memory, which still
lies prone beneath the battering of envy." (Inf. XIII, 73-78)

With his florid style of speech, Pier della Vigna’s bid for a commemoration comes across as desperate and petty.

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

[Brunetto Latini]: "Let my Tesoro, in which I still live,
be precious to you; and I ask no more." (Inf. XV, 119-120)

In alignment with his denial of the immortal soul, Latini desires immortality in the only way he knows how, through the survival of his literary works. Thus, he asks Dante to value his poem and to bring it to the attention of the living.

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

[Three sodomites]: "Stop, you who by your clothing seem to be
someone who comes from our indecent country!" (Inf. XVI, 8-9)

Florence leaves its stamp so indelibly on its natives that Dante is recognized by his garb alone. One finds that Dante is not alone in his denunciation of Florence. Even sinners call it that "indecent country!"

Inferno Canto XX (the Eighth Circle, Fourth Pouch: Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians)

[Virgil]: Therefore, I charge you, if you ever hear
a different tale of my town’s origin,
do not let any falsehood gull the truth."
And I: "Oh master, that which you have spoken
convinces me and so compels my trust
that others’ words would only be spent coals." (Inf. XX, 97-102)

In relating the story of Mantua’s true origins, Virgil attempts to cast off his reputation as a deceitful magician and stake his reputation on the truth of his words.

Inferno Canto XXIV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)

[Virgil]: "Now you must cast aside your laziness,"
my master said, "for he who rests on down
or under covers cannot come to fame;
and he who spends his life without renown
leaves such a vestige of himself on earth
as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water." (Inf. XXIV, 46-51)

Virgil implies that fame must be won through hard labor. Only through honest work can one leave his mark on the world. Those afflicted with laziness may never gain fame and thus take the risk of being forgotten by the mortal world, just as "smoke on air" or "foam [on] water" remain visible for but a few moments before fading away.

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

[Guido da Montefeltro]: "If I thought my reply were meant for one
who ever could return into the world,
this flame would stir no more; and yet, since none –
if what I hear is true – ever returned
alive from this abyss, then without fear
of facing infamy, I answer you." (Inf. XXVII, 61-66)

Guido da Montefeltro values his good name; indeed, as a military-man-turned-monk, he seems to have a solid reputation, but he hides a dark secret that only Dante is privy to. Trusting that Dante is a fellow sinning soul condemned eternally to the Inferno, Guido does not hesitate in revealing his damning sin. In actuality, Dante has the power to force Guido to "fac[e] infamy," if he so desires.

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

[Dante to alchemists]: "So that your memory may never fade
within the first world from the minds of men,
but still live on – and under many suns –
do tell me who you are and from what city,
and do not let your vile and filthy torment
make you afraid to let me know your names." (Inf. XXIX, 103-108)

Deep within the circles of fraud, Dante learns to manipulate the sinners’ desire for fame to his advantage. Here, he lures men into telling their stories by promising to bring word of them back to the living world. Whether or not he is sincere in his promises is another matter.

Inferno Canto XXXII (the Ninth Circle, First Ring Caina: Traitors to their Kin, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to their Homeland or Party)

[Dante to Bocca degli Abati]: "I am alive, and can be precious to you
if you want fame," was my reply, "for I
can set your name among my other notes."
And he to me: "I want the contrary;
so go away and do not harass me –
your flattery is useless in this valley."
At that I grabbed him by the scruff and said:
"You’ll have to name yourself to me
or else you won’t have even one hair left up here."
And he to me: "Though you should strip me bald,
I shall not tell you who I am or show it,
not if you pound my head a thousand times."
His hairs were wound around my hand already,
and I had plucked from him more than one tuft
while he was barking and his eyes stared down,
when someone else cried out: "What is it, Bocca?
Isn’t the music of your jaws enough
for you without your bark? What devil’s at you?"
"And now," I said, "you traitor bent on evil,
I do not need your talk, for I shall carry
true news of you, and that will bring you shame."
"Be off," he answered; "tell them what you like…" (Inf. XXXII, 91-112)

Bocca is the only sinner unimpressed by Dante’s offer to keep his memory alive in the mortal world. Here is a sinner so corrupt that he cares little what happens to his good name simply because he has none; it has already been irreparably besmirched by his well-known betrayal to his country. However, his indifference brings out a different and frightening side of Dante, proving – to some extent – that our poet has never had any intention of bringing glory to the sinners. Indeed, when provoked by Bocca, Dante threatens to do quite the opposite: to "carry / true news of you, and…bring you shame."

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