Canto 9: Going Past the Superficial and the Partial

learnedBy Bill Cook

The 9th canto of the Inferno is a difficult one, and people who teach the Commedia, including myself, usually pass quickly from Inferno 8 to Inferno 10 without much comment other than the obvious: here Dante is threatened and Virgil is not of much help, but their journey’s continuation is assured by an angel, reminding them and us that what God wills cannot be stopped.

Obviously, we are bombarded by many classical images from what are to most people today obscure ancient texts.  We get the sense of things, but we are dependent on footnotes for help. And even if we read them, our response of “so what” to the details seems appropriate.  After all, we get the gist, and we want to get on to meeting more souls.

One tercet that gets my attention is Inferno 9:61-63, where we readers are ordered to understand some deep meaning in these verses of Dante. Dante does address readers from time to time, and when he does we should pay attention. Here I think back to Inferno 5 and the mis-reading reading by Paolo and Francesca. She is reading a romance with Paolo, and they swoon and then fall into bed, captured by the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. But their reading is all surface meaning and no substance. After all, the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere doomed Camelot. It is not a happy story. But for Francesca and Paolo, who read at a literal, surface level, it’s all about sex.

As we leave the fifth circle and the first of the three major divisions of Inferno, the area where sins of incontinence are punished, Dante is in a sense asking us here if we have learned anything. All the sins of incontinence are ultimately surface sins. There are the food and drink folks, the hoarders and wasters, and the wrathful. All see the surface of things and essentially ignore the God-given gift of intellect. Dante is telling the readers in Inferno 9 that reading his poem requires that we use our intellects rather than simply emote. We will need intellect because the rest of the sinners that we will meet did make use of their intellects but wrongly. We will soon see that it is not enough to recognize and use our intellect, but we must use it for the purpose God gave it to us. The counterfeiters we will meet in Circle 8 use their intellects quite cleverly and brilliantly, but only for their personal good. Counterfeiters want to be wealthy and do not care one bit about the damage they do to trust in the community and thus to the community itself. In the transitional canto of canto 9, Dante is reminding us that we have an intellect, that we must use it, and that we must use it properly.

As we pass through the gate of the city of Dis, we are in Circle 6. In Dante’s scheme of hell, we have three major subdivisions—sins of incontinence (circles 2-5), violence (circle 7) and fraud (circles 8-9). Something is wrong because circles 1 and 6 do not fit into this scheme. The three categories of sin, we learn in Canto 11, are in fact defined by classical authors. However, Dante the Poet believes that there are specifically Christian sins that do not fit into this 3-fold scheme that he adapted from Aristotle and Cicero. They are the sins of non-belief (Circle 1, limbo) and wrong belief (Circle 6, heresy). Dante the Pilgrim will not really understand the basic layout of hell until Virgil sketches it out for him in canto 11. Even there, however, since Virgil is a pagan, the scheme presented does not include these specifically Christian sins, both of which he will already have witnessed.

We see that the heretics are in fiery tombs. In Inferno 10 we will meet the two inhabitants of one of these tombs. What exactly does Dante mean by heresy? We might expect to find either theologians who have been condemned by the Church or leaders of popular religious movements, perhaps Peter Waldo. But the fact that we have two Florentine laymen, neither of whom fits either of those types of heresy, make us pause and think as we prepare to meet one of the most interesting of Dante’s pairs of people in hell, Farinata and Cavalcante, ranking in importance with Paolo and Francecsa in Inferno 5.

In the Paradiso, a famous pair of traditional heretics is mentioned, Arius and Sabellius, who had been dead almost 1000 years by the year 1300 (Par 13:127). These two early Christian thinkers made Trinitarian errors. Sabellius saw no difference between the members of the Trinity while Arius saw too much difference. Sabellius suggested that everything you can say about the Father you can also say about the Son and vice versa while Arius stressed a radical difference between the Father and the Son, namely that the Son was the first of God’s creations rather than being uncreated.

But in the Inferno Dante is perhaps suggesting that heresy is a concept not only in the realm of theology but in human behavior generally. Heresy seems to be something like the error of having partial truth and assuming that it is all the truth. Thus, Sabellius understood the unity of the Trinity but rejected the distinction of persons while Arius understood the distinction of persons but not their essential unity. 

Thus, Inferno 9 is, among other things, a place where we can prepare for a part of hell which, like Limbo, is not part of the threefold division of incontinence, violence, and fraud. And Dante is going to expose us there to an expansive definition of heresy, in part because he was himself not a heretic in terms of what he believed; in fact, despite popes in hell, Dante’s Commedia was never put on the Index of prohibited books during the Counter-Reformation. In Inferno 10, Dante did something similar to how he treated gluttony in Inferno 6. In Purgatorio we learn that Dante was not tempted by gluttony. Thus in order for Dante the Pilgrim to learn something from Circle 3 and Ciacco, Dante the Poet needs to go beyond unreasonable desire for food and drink and talk about what we might today call “political junkies.” We await to find out what Dante the Pilgrim, a good Catholic fellow, can learn not just about religious heresy but about himself from the two tomb-mates he will meet in the next canto.

Dr. William Cook taught history for 42 years, retiring in 2012 with the rank of Distinguished Teaching Professor of History. A specialist in medieval history, he has taught a course on Dante’s Commedia alone and with his colleague Ron Herzman. Bill has written several books and about 50 articles as well as more than 900 columns for the Livingston County News. He has established the Bill Cook Foundation (, which provides educational opportunities for some of the world’s poorest children.

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