Canto 16: The Corrupting Influence of Easy Wealth

NarcissusBy Fr. Royce Gregerson

In the 16th Canto, we continue to spend time with the same sinners we were with in the 15th Canto—the sodomites. Remember, for their punishment the sodomites are forced into continual motion. Thus the three Florentine noblemen with whom Dante converses need to run in a circle so as not to stop moving. To both run in a circle and yet get an eye-full of Dante and Virgil, these men have to be constantly positioning their heads contrary to the direction of their feet—an awkward and unnatural activity that eerily betokens their sin. In any event, Virgil tells Dante that these men are to be treated with respect, and indeed they come from distinguished families, as their spokesman, Jacopo Rusticucci, explains.

As in the previous canto, Dante is not explicit about the nature of these men’s sin. It is impolite to speak openly about sodomy. The reader is left with only a hint as Jacopo blames his shrewish wife for his damnation. If the sin examined is the same, though, it is exposed under a different light. The sin of sodomy is here examined as the sin of self-absorption which, for example, can be seen in the last thing they say to Dante: “Yet if you do escape this murky lair / and turn to see the lovely stars again…Please, speak about us to the living” [lines 82-85]. Even in the depths of Hell these noblemen are still preoccupied with their worldly reputation.

The Italian Dante scholar Silvio Pasquazi notes the connection between self-absorption and sodomy:

“For these souls the fundamental deformation consists in a pretense of self-sufficiency of man specifically in the area of knowing and of public life. … Civil self-sufficiency and sodomy would have appeared to Dante as different and coordinated aspects of the same reality: … It was necessary that that fallacious mode of civil virtue, of moral self-sufficiency and cultural perfection be brought to the form of its most profound squalor, of its most telling deformity. Pride would have been pleasing to them, but the reduction of pride to sodomy ought to have healed them of that pride.”

The people of Dante’s time had no notion of sexual orientation as we know the concept today. Sodomy was a vice that was well known, but it was connected to an overly sensual lifestyle that, lacking ascetic discipline, tends to upset and misdirect the passions, leading men to the unnatural vice. Dante here connects the sin of sodomy to the vice of moral self-sufficiency and self-absorption because sexuality detached from nature can tend only towards the gratification of self. In the language of St. John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body’, we would say that, for these sorts of sinners, sexuality has lost the ability to be “self-gift”.

At the same time, in what could appear at first to be unconnected, Dante denounces the rise of Florence’s nouveau riche: “Outsiders and their sudden wash of wealth / beget in you such arrogance and excess, / Florence, you feel already your ill health” [lines 73-75]. This is the only time that the city of Florence, which looms so large over the whole of the Commedia, appears explicitly in the text. Dante is here tapping into a long Roman tradition that disdains wealth as leading to vice. Esolen observes that Dante is referencing Lucan, a Roman poet of the early Empire, who wrote about the late Roman Republic, “poverty fled, she who gives birth to virile men.” During his pronouncement, Dante throws his head back in a pose meant to invoke the Old Testament prophets in their denunciations of the wickedness of the Israelites. In the moral decadence of the late Roman Republic, as the once noble and virtuous families left the City to tend to their fish ponds, a similar flowering of effeminacy occurred, to which Dante is undoubtedly making reference.

In the case of Rome this neglect of civic duty leads to both the end of the virtuous institution of the Republic and the rise of an Empire whose leadership was quickly given over to madmen similarly inclined to the unnatural vice. In the case of the rapid transformation of Florence into a rich city, Fallani and Zennaro comment, “Those whose conditions in life have been elevated without effort to a high level of comfort are lead to vices of pride and excess by their easy and sudden riches, which do not derive from a proportionate labor and are excessive with respect to their needs.” (My interpretive translation from the Italian.)

The criticism of the Florentine nouveau riche could just as easily be aimed at many of us Americans today. We are privileged citizens of a land that became wealthy almost overnight, at least in terms of the timescale of world history. Sudden wealth with all its attendant comforts can often habituate us to seeking our own ease and pleasure, even in ways that are contrary to our own nature. This is why Christ in the Gospel tells us, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). Notice, though, that Dante does not object to wealth as such. Wealth that comes as the result of hard work and virtuous enterprise is to be praised, but even then, the Church teaches, it must be purified by almsgiving and a life of penance and sacrifice, which are essential to sanctification.

Fr. Royce Gregerson is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, IN. He is a candidate for the License in Sacred Theology in moral theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Before beginning studies for the priesthood, he studied literature at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

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