Canto 6: The Weight of Sin


gluttony_1126By Fr. Ryan Erlenbush

Numbering only 113 lines, the sixth canto of the Inferno is the shortest in the entire Comedy. Dante, having witnessed the torments of the lustful flying to and fro, descends now to third circle of hell and sees those condemned on account of lust’s sister-vice—namely gluttony. St. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes five types of gluttony: too costly, too much, too picky, too quickly, or at an inappropriate time (Summa Theologica II-II, q.148, a.4). The sin of gluttony becomes mortal and deserving of hell when the glutton turns his whole will to the food he eats, making it to be his goal in life. We are reminded of the words of the Apostle, that numbered among the “enemies of the cross” are those “whose god is their belly.” (Philippians 3:18-19)

The punishments of each person condemned to hell are suited to his crime, and so those who abused food which is meant to nourish the body and keep it warm are condemned to suffer the freezing rain of hailstones and snow which torments their bodies now deprived of all strength. The sons of Israel went out with Moses abandoning the flesh-pots of Egypt and were nourished with manna from heaven, but these suffering souls who gorged themselves in life find punishment raining upon them in this desert of hell. Yet these latter, unlike our ancestors in the faith, make no journey through this wilderness of pain but lie almost motionless and exhausted by their eternal unrest. The gluttons are the most inactive characters we will meet in the entire Comedy,their torment coming through their own fullness. God, in his justice, allows the punishment to be the natural consequences of the sin.

Dante encounters the mythical guard dog, Cerberus, borrowed from his Guide’s Aeneid (6.414-23), the three-headed hound of hell with a snake’s tail. As an image of the gluttonous, Cerberus shows these sinners to have been like dogs in life caring for nothing but the next meal, slaves of their bellies. However, Dante makes an interesting revision of Virgil’s Cerberus. Whereas before the beast was satisfied by a honey cake, he is now satiated on stinking mud [line 26] – for the glutton sins more by touch than by taste, desiring most of all the feeling of food moving down his gullet. This incident shows how easily the creature is now distracted. Where once he could only be bested by the greatest heroes, now he lunges after anything that will fill his belly, no matter how base. We are left with an unsettling question: how often are we chasing after that which we think will fill us, allowing ourselves to be distracted from the One who really satisfies?

This Canto raises an interesting question: The damned (as well as those in purgatory and in heaven) are without bodies being “separated souls,” How then can these ones suffer so from physical exertion or from the pelting rain? Dante hints at this conundrum as he walks over the “bodies,” writing, “We made our way across the sodden mess/ of souls the rain beat down, and when our steps/ fell on a body, they sank through emptiness.” (Canto 3, lines 34-36, Ciardi translation) This question, however, will remain unanswered until Purgatorio, Canto 25. For now, suffice it to say that separated souls are “quasisubstantial bodies” insofar as some air and other matter is condensed and the soul is subjected to that “body” as it endures its punishment. In this, Dante borrows from the traditional explanation of how angels can often appear in a “bodily” manner while they yet remain pure spirits.

At the conclusion of our Canto (verses 91-108), Virgil explains to Dante that, at the end of time when the Lord shall return to judge, these separated souls will be reunited with their bodies. At the general resurrection of all flesh, the joy of the blessed in heaven will greatly increase, while the pains of the damned will likewise be augmented. Although the soul can suffer much pain or enjoy much delight when separated from the body, still more pain or more joy will it feel when returned to its proper state as united to that body in which either heaven or hell had been merited.

We turn from the general fate of the gluttons to the suffering of one particular man, a native of Dante’s own city of Florence, Ciacco “the Hog.” While little, or nothing, is known of who this historical figure was, he is presented as having been in his last years of life when Dante was born, and as belonging to the party which was a political rival to Dante’s own. As the political division between the Guelphs and the Ghibbelines (as well as the further division between the “Whites” and “Blacks”) is essential to understanding Dante’s discussion of Florence and therefore is also central to the Comedy, we must take a moment to set forth the political stage of Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Guelphs and the Ghibbelines were two rival parties, with the Guelphs generally supporting the political power of the Popes while the Ghibbelines supported the political independence of the Emperor. Before Dante’s time, the Guelphs had gained Florence. However, the division of these parties was highly volatile and unpredictable, it could happen that a particular city would label itself as “Guelph” simply because a rival city claimed to be “Ghibbeline.” Furthermore, the original platforms of the two parties could become blurred by the heated debate of particular issues of the day. In this respect, we see a parallel with our own nation in which the Democrats originally stood for the independence of the local State Governments from the Federal Government, while the Republicans had emphasized the supremacy of the Federal interests over those of the individual States. However, the platforms have very nearly reversed in the past sixty years.

When the Guelphs had clear control of Florence, a division within the pro-Papal party itself developed over what had begun as a dispute in one of the leading Florentine families, the Cancellieri’s. As this dispute grew, two factions came forward: the “Whites” and the “Blacks”. The “Whites” took their name from a certain woman of that party, Bianca Cancellieri. The name “Bianca” is related to “Bianci” which means “Whites” in Italian. Hence, the rivals were called the opposite, “Neri” or “Blacks”. Dante fell into the party of the “Whites.”

Largely because the Papal representatives supported the “Black” Guelphs, the “White” Guelphs (though originally pro-Papal contrary to the pro-Imperial Ghibbelines) became increasingly anti-Papal. The “Whites” had won a victory against the “Blacks” in 1300 and exiled them from the city. However, the anti-Papal tendencies of the “Whites” was aggravated all the more when Pope Boniface VIII aided the “Blacks” in 1302, resulting in their return to power and to the exile of the “Whites,” including Dante, from the city of Florence. Thus, the “White” Guelphs adopted many of the anti-Papal tendencies of the Ghibbelines, which sometimes leads to the common error of labeling Dante as a Ghibbeline when he was in fact one of the new anti-Papal “White” Guelphs.

We have already seen that Dante has set his poem in the year 1300, although in fact he is writing in the years 1308-1320. Thus, in his journey through the Inferno, Dante has left Florence just before the “Whites” will gain a great victory over the “Blacks” (cf. vss. 61-63). However, as he learns from Ciacco the Hog, the “Blacks” will return to power within two years’ time, and Dante will be driven from his beloved city (cf. vss. 64-69). Perhaps it is this exile, the loss of his earthly homeland, which inspired Dante to hope for the true heavenly paradise and write his immortal Comedy

Fr. Ryan Erlenbush is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, MT, where he is pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Great Falls and also serves on the Diocesan Priests’ Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council. Fr. Erlenbush is also the diocesan facilitator for the Extraordinary Form in Eastern Montana.

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