Inferno, Canto 5
Dante and Virgil descend from the First Circle to the Second (the first of the Circles of Incontinence). On the threshold sits Minos, the judge of Hell, assigning the souls to their appropriate places of torment. His opposition is overcome by Virgil's word of power, and the Poets enter the Circle, where the souls of the Lustful are tossed for ever upon a howling wind. After Virgil has pointed out a number of famous lovers, Dante speaks to the shade of Francesca da Rimini, who tells him her story.
The Prepatory Lecture
Questions for Reflection
Canto 5, © Jan Hearn
The Circles of Incontinence. This and the next three circles are devoted to those who sinned less by deliberate choice of evil than by failure to make resolute choice of the good. Here are the sins of self-indulgence, weakness of will, and easy yielding to appetite - the “Sins of the Leopard.”
The Lustful. The image here is sexual, though we need not confine the allegory to the sin of unchastity. Lust is a type of shared sin; at its best, and so long as it remains a sin of incontinence only, there is mutuality in it and exchange: although, in fact, mutual indulgence only serves to push both parties along the road to Hell, it is not, in intention, wholly selfish. For this reason Dante, with perfect orthodoxy, rates it as the least hateful of the deadly sins. (Sexual sins in which love and mutuality have no part find their place far below.)
Minos, a medievalised version of the classical Judge of the Under- world (see Aen. vi. 432). He may image an accusing conscience. The souls are damned on their own confession, for, Hell being the place of self-knowledge in sin, there can be no more self-deception here. (Similarly, even in the circles of Fraud, all the shades tell Dante the truth about themselves; this is poetically convenient but, given this conception of Hell, it must be so.) The literally damned, having lost “the good of the intellect”, cannot profit by their self-knowledge; allegorically, for the living soul, this vision of the Hell in the self is the preliminary to repentance and restoration.
The Black Wind. As the lovers drifted into self-indulgence and were carried away by their passions, so now they drift for ever. The bright, voluptuous sin is now seen as it is - a howling darkness of helpless discomfort. (The “punishment” for sin is simply the sin itself, experienced without illusion - though Dante does not work this out with mathematical rigidity in every circle.)
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