Canto 7: Grasping at Futility

Giovanni Stradano, Inferno, Canto VII. Quarto cerchio: avari e prodighi. 1584, Firenze, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana.

Giovanni Stradano, Inferno, Canto VII. Quarto cerchio: avari e prodighi. 1584, Firenze, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana.

By Deacon Tony Amato

As Dante and Virgil continue down into the fourth circle of that place “that crams all the evil of the universe” [line 18], they meet the souls of the damned who excessively loved riches. In keeping with Aristotelian ethics, Dante shows that the excessive love of riches takes two different forms—the hoarding of money or possessions and the profligate spending of them. For all eternity, both the greedy and the wasteful roll large stones around in a circle—the greedy moving in one direction on the circle, the wasteful moving in the opposite direction. They eventually clash and shout insults at each other. The wasteful shout at the greedy: Perché tieni?! (“Why do you hoard?!”). The greedy shout back at the wasteful, Perché burli?! (“Why do you squander?!”). At this, they turn around and roll their stones in the opposite direction, eventually clashing again on the opposite side of the circle, repeating the same ridiculous shouting match. This absurd farce repeats itself ad infinitum. Indeed there is a sort of comic—or tragic—stupidity that accompanies the inordinate love of money.

Indeed, through the brilliant imagery of the poetry of Canto VII, the foolishness and the futility of the love of money is made apparent. This Canto easily invites discussion about two things: the proper use of material goods and the role of Fortune. First, let’s address the role of Fortune.

Fortune is not some blind force governing the universe. Dante describes her in terms of God’s Divine Providence “who shifts those worthless goods, from time to time, from race to race, from one blood to another beyond the intervention of human wit” [lines 79-81]. She is one of the heavenly agents, ordering our existence. While men are busy “blaming and defaming her unjustly” [line 93], they should be praising her for her activity since it is the very will of God. Dante presents us with a certain serenity about Fortune’s ordering of the universe which requires an act of faith on our part: faith that God’s loving and merciful Providence will ultimately work for our good and draw us to him. This is by no means an easy thing to understand and accept, especially in life’s most difficult moments of pain, confusion, and doubt. I believe Dante’s point here on Fortune’s (Divine Providence’s) ordering of the universe is that temporal affairs are not ultimately ours to control, even though we sometimes think they are. They are in God’s control. Yet God has ordered the affairs of the world in such a way as to bring us to the goal of our lives: heaven, the Beatific Vision.

What about the proper use of material goods? In this Canto, Dante’s poetry teaches us that we need to use material wealth to attain our supreme purpose in life—entrance into heaven. St. Augustine gives us a helpful distinction between things to use (uti) and things to enjoy (frui). To “enjoy” something, in Augustine’s terms, is to love that thing as an end in itself. To “use” something is to regard and treat it as a means ordered towards our ultimate end—the love of God. Thus, the virtuous man uses his money and possessions as a means to the attainment of this ultimate goal, while the vicious man treats wealth as an end in itself. He’ll either hoard it—and this is avarice—or he’ll spend it on things that bring only temporary pleasure. This is the vice of prodigality. Both avarice and prodigality work against our salvation.

It is important to point out that “using” temporal goods for the attainment of heaven is not equivalent to “buying” our way to heaven. Rather, like all virtue, it is about rightly ordering our desires and possessions towards the purpose for which God made them. All material things will pass away. Only God is eternal. The simple fact about our human nature is that our first impulse to fulfill a particular desire is usually not the right one. Our desires and passions seek immediate fulfillment and this can lead to vice if they are not properly ordered by our reason. Dante shows that in his era, much like as in ours, excessive love (“enjoyment”) of material wealth has consumed the hearts of many and has led to their downfall.

The solution to the problem of these two opposing vices is the virtue of liberality which, as with all virtue, allows us “to use well the things that we can use ill” (see ST, II-II, q. 117, a. 1; here he references St. Augustine). The virtue of liberality is not about forcing ourselves to live a destitute life because we gave all of our money away to others. It is true that some are called to profess the evangelical counsels and live that beautiful and radical life of renunciation. However, most people are called to marriage and family life which comes with the responsibility to provide for one’s family and to give to one’s parish. In this case, giving everything one has away would not be virtuous because the good of providing for one’s family will not be fulfilled.

Living a virtuous life in regards to how we use our material wealth is more about an attitude of our hearts than about any particular quantifiable amount. Our Lord has told us: “No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt. 6:24). We can only have one ultimate goal in life and only one true love. If we try to put two things in that place that properly belongs only to God, there will inevitably be conflict because temporal things can never live up to the promise given us by the things that are eternal.

Dante makes it clear by his treatment of Fortune’s ways that, since all things are governed by God’s loving Providence, even material wealth does not truly belong to us, it is out of our control, and so it must be used for the purposes for which God would have us use it. Again, Our Lord gives us an example of the kind of love we must have in ordering the use of wealth:

“When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, nor thy kinsmen, nor thy neighbors who are rich; lest perhaps they also invite thee again, and a recompense be made to thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind; and thou shalt be blessed, because they have not wherewith to make thee recompense: for recompense shall be made thee at the resurrection of the just” (Lk. 14:12-14).

Parents should understand this concept well. They give their time, money, and effort raising their children without the expectation of repayment. Using the concept of a banquet, Our Lord shows us precisely the generosity that is required of us who call ourselves his disciples. We are to give (and forgive: Mt. 18:21-35) in imitation of the Divine Mercy that we have all experienced through the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, and which is continuously poured out upon us through God’s Holy Church. We do not live for ourselves alone, but we are to spend our lives loving our fellow man out of love for God, with whom we hope to be forever, at the resurrection of the just.

Deacon Tony Amato is a seminarian and transitional deacon with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY. He is in formation at Theological College at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

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