As many of you may know, I teach Homer, Virgil, Sophocles and Plato to freshmen at a charter high school, and I spent the better part of two years ago recording the topics and questions considered during our seminars. Since that time, a sophomore course has been added to continue pushing forward and building the Great Books curriculum here into a fully-fledged four year program. Featuring prominently in the current sophomore year is Dante Alighieri’s Comedia, or Divine Comedy, as it is commonly referred to as. In this text, we go canto by canto, and sometimes line by line. As we have been afforded the deep pleasure to take Dante as slowly as possible, and to discuss in seminar-style varied and deep topics,certain insights have been awarded our efforts, and in the series here commenced, they will be shared in part. Though these conversations and topics are being shared late, they will be all the more pleasant to read through on account of the acquired erudition the interim between event and written account has allowed. That said, the insights below are fresh.
“Behold the beast who bears the pointed tail,
who crosses mountains, shatters weapons, walls!
Behold the one whose stench fills all the world!
So did my guide speak to me,
and then he signaled him to come ashore
close to the end of those stone passageways.
And he came on, that filthy effigy
of fraud, and landed with his head and torso
but did not draw his tail onto the bank.
The face he wore was that of a just man,
so gracious was his features’ outer semblance;
and all his trunk, the body of a serpent;
he had two paws, with hair up to the armpits;
his back and chest as well as both his flanks
had been adorned with twining knots and circlets.
No Turks or Tartars ever fashioned fabrics
more colorful in background and relief,
nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs.”
(Dante’s Inferno 17.1-18. Mandelbaum tr.)
Geryon, the symbol of fraud, with his just man’s face, covered in whorls and swirls (spirals), descends to the eighth circle of Dante’s Hell where the ten bolgias of the sin Fraud, and its many manifestations, are included. To understand the significance of Geryon’s ponderous, yet quick and easy, spiral descent, one must compare Geryon to the Griffin, which is the dual-natured God, Jesus, at the top of the Mountain of Purgatory (itself created in the same event which created Hell). Just as Geryon, who appears just but is not, represents fraud, so does his flight downward represent the “untrue path” of following “false appearances.” That which seems good, but truly is not. That which appears one way but is not. That which is fraudulent quickly leads one down a dark path, essentially.
“I do not think that there was greater fear
in Phaethon when he let his reins go free—
for which the sky, as one still sees, was scorched—
nor in poor Icarus when he could feel
his sides unwinged because the wax was melting,
his father shouting to him, “That way’s wrong!”
than was in me when, on all sides, I saw
that I was in the air, and everything
had faded from my sight—except the beast.”
(Dante’s Inferno 17.106-114. Mandelbaum tr.)
One must then compare this to the spiral path up the Mountain of Purgatory. To ascend this mountain requires time, patience, suffering, directed will-power, help from the divine (in helpful tips on the location of doors by invisible angels), and a clear and meaningful goal. Also, at the top of this mountain is the Divine (appearing as a Griffin),
which leads you there the whole way as a Final Cause, rather than Geryon, who acts as an efficient cause or even simply an instrumental cause in lowering one into Fraud. This difference is fundamental and illustrative: the path of following false-appearances quickly leads one downwards, into immobility, torture, and blindness. This happens fast and effortlessly, of course. The path towards the divine takes concentrated toil, struggle, faith, hope, and relying on others (or one’s faith in the process) when the way seems hopeless or unending. And it takes a great amount of time. Does this not perfectly illustrate the difference between fraud and truth, appearance and reality? Try this new diet. Here, this workout plan is easy and quick. Become rich fast! Our world is full of “low-hanging” or rotten fruit. The truth requires discipline, courage, patience, faith, and brutal honesty. Ask any Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor, power-lifter, or even the Kung Fu Panda. The secret is that working hard and facing weaknesses is the path of truth. There is no shortcut which results in anything more than backtracking. Choose wisely.