Summary: Canto X

Still in the Sixth Circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil wander among the fiery tombs of the Heretics. Virgil describes the particular heresy of one of the groups, the Epicureans, who pursued pleasure in life because they believed that the soul died with the body. Suddenly, a voice from one of the tombs interrupts them and addresses Dante as a Tuscan (Tuscany is the region of Italy in which Florence is located). The voice belongs to a soul whom Virgil identifies as Farinata, a political leader of Dante’s era. Virgil encourages Dante to speak with him.

Dante and Farinata have hardly begun their conversation when another soul, that of Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, the father of Dante’s intimate friend Guido, rises up and interrupts them, wondering why his son has not accompanied Dante here. Dante replies that perhaps Guido held Virgil in disdain. (According to some translations of Inferno, Dante says that Guido held God, or Beatrice, in disdain. The point is a matter of considerable debate among scholars.) Frantic, the shade reads too much into Dante’s words and assumes that his son is dead. In despair, he sinks back down in his grave.

Farinata continues discussing Florentine politics. He and Dante clearly represent opposing parties (though these parties are not named), yet they treat each other politely. From Farinata’s words and those of the nearby soul, Dante realizes that the shades in Hell can see future events but not present ones. Farinata can prophesy the future—he predicts Dante’s exile from Florence—but remains ignorant of current events. Farinata confirms that, as part of their punishment, the Heretics can see only distant things.

Virgil calls Dante back, and they proceed through the rest of the Sixth Circle. Farinata’s words have made Dante apprehensive about the length of time remaining for his exile, but Virgil assures him that he will hear a fuller account when they come to a better place.

Summary: Canto XI

At the edge of the Seventh Circle of Hell rises a stench so overpowering that Virgil and Dante must sit down at the tomb of Pope Anastasius in order to adjust to it. Virgil takes the opportunity to explain the last three circles of Hell and their respective subdivisions. The Seventh Circle of Hell, which contains those who are violent, is subdivided into three smaller circles: they punish the sins of violence against one’s neighbor, against oneself, and against God.

Worse than any violence, however, is the sin of fraud, which breaks the trust of a man and therefore most directly opposes the great virtue of love. The last two circles of Hell thus punish the Fraudulent. The Eighth Circle punishes “normal fraud”—sins that violate the natural trust between people. Such fraud includes acts of hypocrisy and underhanded flattery. The Ninth Circle, the seat of Dis, punishes betrayal—sins that violate a relationship of particularly special trust. These are the loyalties to kin, to country and party, to guests, and to benefactors.

Dante asks Virgil why these divisions of Hell exist, wondering why the sinners they have seen previously do not receive this same degree of punishment, as they too have acted contrary to divine will. In response, Virgil reminds Dante of the philosophy set forth in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which posits the existence of “[t]hree dispositions counter to Heaven’s will: / Incontinence, malice, insane brutality” (XI.79–80). The disposition of incontinence offends God least, says Virgil, and thus receives a more lenient punishment, outside of the city of Dis.

Dante then asks for clarification of one more theological issue: why is usury a sin? Virgil explains to Dante that usury goes against God’s will because a usurer makes his money not from industry or skill (“art”)—as Genesis stipulates that human beings should—but rather from money itself (in the form of interest). Thus, usurers also go against God’s “art,” or His design for the world. The two poets now progress toward the First Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell.

Analysis: Cantos X–XI

Of all the cantos, Canto X may narrate the most action at the fastest pace; it also contains a remarkable amount of lyricism. Indeed, Dante’s adroit leaps between topics and moods play an important role in creating the poetic force of the canto. Farinata interrupts Virgil and Dante without a word of prelude from Dante the poet. The sharp, seemingly transitionless movement between one speech and another had almost no precedent in vernacular literature of the time. A second interruption occurs when Cavalcanti, the other soul, breaks in. Yet this intrusion does not faze Farinata, who continues in his slow, dignified manner despite the other’s anxious exclamations; Dante maintains the two distinct tones simultaneously.

This scene possesses a less uniform voice than the rest of the poem; it achieves its force through its contrasts. Dante juxtaposes Farinata’s piercing gaze, for instance, with the darting, anxious eyes of Cavalcanti, and implicitly compares Farinata’s impassioned love for Florence and his people with Cavalcanti’s poignant love for his son Guido. Dante thus brings out the intimately emotional side of political loyalty while showing the nobility in the seemingly humble love between father and son.

The conversation between Farinata and Dante also contributes to Inferno’s exploration of politics and history. Historically, Farinata served as a leader of the Ghibellines, the party that opposed Dante’s Guelphs, and was banished from Florence with the rest of his party, never to return. By the time of Dante’s writing, however, the Guelphs had split into two factions, occasioning a second set of banishments: the Black Guelphs had gained control and exiled the White Guelphs, including Dante. As a result, Dante the poet felt a connection to the Ghibellines; hence his peaceable conversation here with Farinata.

Read more about the Guelphs vs. the Ghibellines.

One of the most impressive aspects of Inferno is the imaginative power with which Dante evokes suffering and torment, the skill with which he creates a fictional Hell out of a pastiche of poetic styles and philosophical and religious ideas. These cantos, for instance, repeatedly conflate biblical and Aristotelian moral arguments. In Dante’s portrayals of Farinata and Cavalcanti, we see the skill with which the poet evokes psychological suffering in particular. Theirs is a brilliant example of psychological torture; it depends entirely on the Christian conception of the man as an essentially indestructible being with an immortal soul that mirrors the personality. Dante takes this conception to a remarkable conclusion—in Hell, one cannot be different from how one was on Earth. This inability to restore oneself to God’s favor is precisely what makes Hell so terrible—one can clearly see one’s mistake but is doomed, even forced, to repeat it endlessly.

Read more about how Inferno is a story designed to convey important spiritual truths.

After the dense Canto X, Canto XI provides a welcome break in the action if not in the philosophical development. Virgil’s explanation of the organization of Hell reveals its accordance with the moral order in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. As we have already seen, Dante is indebted to Aristotle for the majority of his philosophical, if not his theological, ideas (we recall the notion of the mean). With Virgil’s discussion of incontinence, malice, and insane brutality, our picture of Hell nears completion; the remaining geographical subdivisions of the poem’s setting correspond to subtle differences among the sins of violence and among the sins of fraud.

Read an important quote by Virgil discussing incontinence.