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Augustine’s Confessions and Dante’s Inferno are both classic works of literature concerned with Christian salvation. Both offer frameworks for how to be righteous—how to lead a life that is free from transgression and sin. Knowledge of classical figures—essential to a formal education in the eras of both authors—feature prominently in both works. However, each author has a very different opinion on how to reconcile the ideals and achievements of their pagan heroes with their own Christian beliefs.
Augustine comes to believe that all forms of worldly pursuit are unfaithful and degrading, and eventually relinquishes his former admiration for certain classical figures, but Dante’s relationship to antiquity is more complex.
His guide, Virgil, as well as his other artistic heroes like Homer and Ovid, have not been spared from punishment, finding themselves all in Hell, however throughout the poem he is consistent in expressing forms of admiration for these classical heroes (both historical and mythological). This tension between admiration for and reproach of classical figures is particularly prominent in Canto XXVI, in which Ulysses delivers a powerful monologue explaining the transgression that occasioned his punishment.
It is in this Canto that we most vividly see this tension between Dante’s instinct to admonish the heroes of the past and in fact his urge to admire them, and we see it through Ulysses’ attempts to re-assert his humanity through speech.
Ulysses’ defining characteristic in life was his deftness and skill at storytelling. He is, in Emily Wilson’s translation, a “complicated man.
” His grand narratives often ventures into lies or fraudulent territory, which in the world of the Inferno is an absolute sin, and in fact one of the worst sins possible for a person to commit, as the fraudulent are relegated to the eighth circle of Hell. However, in the Greek society in which Ulysses (Odysseus) found fame, oratory was a treasure, and the ability to tell beautiful or wondrous stories (regardless of their truth value) was prized almost as much as glory in battle.
It is the aspect of his humanity for which he was most revered in his life, and despite the fact that it is downfall in Dante’s Christian imagination, it is also the way he is remembered and characterized in the Inferno, through his monologue. Purely the fact that Dante gives Ulysses the space to speak for 53 lines, more than any other inhabitant of Hell, is proof that his talents are still captivating and singular even in a context in which they are condemned. His oratory, the quality which defined Ulysses’ life, continues to serve him in Hell despite any Christian attempts to strip him of his humanity.
Ulysses is so insistent in his refusal to lose his speech and therefore his humanity, despite the fact that it’s difficult for him to physically speak as a soul inside a flame, without his physical body. He tries to remain as human as possible, even though the Christian value system is intent on demonizing him. He surmounts the physical obstacles as Dante describes: “the greater horn within that ancient flame began to sway and tremble, murmuring just like a fire that struggles in the wind; and then he waved his flame-tip back and forth as if it were a tongue that tried to speak, and flung toward us a voice” (XXVI:85-90).
In his speech he asserts his humanity more subtly, but equally powerfully, through his depictions and descriptions of the natural world and its earthly beauty. He speaks consistently of the ocean, describing its “shores”, its “narrows”, and the distant islands that he encounters through sailing the “open sea” (XXVI:104,107,100). This imagery of the boundless, all-consuming ocean, almost makes the reader forget that Ulysses is speaking from Hell, the inferno, as a flame. He rejects his position, choosing not to characterize himself in his current state, bathed in fire, but in his living state, surrounded by water, symbolizing life, renewal, and earthly bounty.
Ulysses’ assertion of his place in the natural world is most vivid in describing the events that lead to his death, which offers a setting that becomes quite familiar to the reader throughout their reading of the Divine Comedy. He sails through the Strait of Gibraltar, essentially venturing past the boundaries of the world as it was known at the time, is able to see “the other pole and all its stars” and he sails on, only to find that “before [him] rose a mountain, dark because of its distance, and it seemed to [him] the highest mountain [he] had ever seen” (XXVI: 127-128, 133-135). Ulysses mentions stars being one of the last things he sees on Earth, in addition to the fact that “stars” is the last word of each of the books in the Divine Comedy. He crosses the Earth to reach its other pole, just as Dante goes through the Earth, but himself going through Hell, to resurface at its other pole, and Ulysses comes upon the tallest mountain that he has ever seen before the sea swallows him up, which evokes the mountain that houses purgatory in the second book of the Comedy—where Dante appears after having gone through Hell.
Ulysses’ descriptions of the natural world, which ground him and root him in his earthly life, also draw conspicuous comparisons between him and Dante, between his journey across the Mediterranean and Dante’s journey through Hell. The difference, however, between the two men and their respective journeys, is that Ulysses’ is an earthly one, while Dantes is divine, undertaken in the pursuit of righteousness. Worldliness is condemned, just as it is in the world of Augustine, and that is why Ulysses’ endeavors, while structurally similar to Dantes, land him in Hell, while Dante earns divine favor. Even though both journeys are quests to learn about “the vices and the worth of men,” Ulysses’ is also a quest to “gain experience of the world” (XXVI: 99,98).
Ulysses, in the eyes of a Christian God, is worshipping a false idol, and unknowingly transgresses by exceeding the limits of the natural world which has been set forth for humans by God, putting himself in a godlike position. Dante, despite also exceeding the limits of the natural world, does so with divine approval, and does so to learn of his own transgressions so that he may not commit them again. This is where the tension between Dantes admiration for and reproach of Ulysses becomes most clear: they are so similar that he sees so much of his own disposition in Ulysses, but because his intention was worldly, he is not able to openly endorse his actions.
Knowledge of Hellenistic tradition and classical figures would have been central to a formal education in medieval Italy, so it isn’t unusual that Dante wrote a novel centered around Christian ideals, but littered it with references to heroes of classical art and myth. His inability to reconcile his love for the heroes that he was taught to admire in his education with how their actions would be interpreted in his immediate Catholic context, most likely was a common issue for his contemporaries to grapple with as well. He has clearly modeled himself after certain figures by accepting certain aspects of their systems of value, such as the importance of knowledge of the actions of men, but he must figure out how to translate it into the context of his daily life, which is dominated by Catholicism.
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