canto 10: Coffers of Stone

Pier Kooistra

Canto X—“Here Epicurus lies / With all his followers” (ll. 11-12).

As in Canto IX, Dante is in the sixth circle of hell, but now with an emphasis on the fact that in this place Epicurean heretics—those who in life declared disbelief in an afterlife, asserting that the soul dies with the body—“are shut / Ensepulchered within…coffers of stone / Making…sounds of anguish from inside” (ll. 111-3, Canto IX). According to Dante’s cosmography, clearly, there IS an afterlife, and for these souls—surprise!—their earlier wayward belief has resulted in a present lot that is especially—vengefully—cruel and grim.

I’m going to bypass most of the details from Dante’s exchanges with Farinata and Cavalcante—about Guido, about the war between the Ghibelines and Guelphs—to join Gordon in addressing heresy.

In the circle of the world that our little crew of bloggers inhabits, the word heresy doesn’t get used much. It’s essentially a shibboleth that, when uttered seriously, signals an incursion by an outsider, someone who hasn’t learned, or hasn’t accepted, that when we (hmmm, how to categorize us?) New York Times readers / NPR listeners hear the word heresy, we pretty much automatically think, “Oh oh, here’s a moron of the burning-infidels-at-the-stake type.” So I very much appreciate Gordon’s post on Canto IX, not only for its willingness to take on heretical stupidities (such as the idea of natural disasters being wrathful acts of God) but also for Gordon’s insistence that we consider heresy, nonetheless, as a real danger for all of us—in other words, not just as the muck of gross oversimplification in which the patently ridiculous Pat Robertsons get stuck. Who would challenge Gordon’s assertion that “wrong or distorted beliefs can and do still lead to various kinds of human wreckage”? Who would dismiss his contention that “right belief and the actions that follow from it can mean the difference for us between (spiritual) life and death”?

I make innumerable mistakes every day, often resulting in regrettable costs. I would like to avoid such mistakes.

I have no interest in, nor cause for, arguing against Gordon. What I’d like to do, instead, is argue WITH his commentary on heresy—in a both/and, rather than either/or, way. I see the tremendous importance of laboring to avoid heresy, if what we mean by the term, as Gordon proposes, is “wrong or distorted beliefs.” But I also believe fervently in the necessity of practicing heresy, on purpose, in order to overturn harmful orthodoxy.

Last week, in response to Canto IV, I quoted Martin King’s famous line about how injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. One might say, similarly, that misunderstanding anywhere is a threat to everyone’s capacity to live lives built on truth.

In Canto X, as Dante makes his way among the heretics imprisoned in infernal sarcophagi, the doomed Cavalcante says to him at one point, “’Preserve in memory what you have heard / Against yourself…And I pray / You, listen’” (ll. 119-21). Remember what you have heard against yourself. And listen! What a striking command. It’s not easy to hold onto critical feedback, especially if it doesn’t square with the narratives and conceptions that we receive and construct about ourselves. The same is true, of course, regarding the narratives and conceptions we receive and construct about the cosmos in and from which we draw life. We’re not free perceivers and thinkers. At least, it’s not easy for us to be. We have predilections of personality and ideology that that thwart and pervert our autonomy, that predispose us to certain perceptions and ideas. I find (as indeed I’m inclined to do, in that I’m working now in a certain mindframe) this basic fact of human behavior exemplified in what Dante says to Virgil at the very beginning of this canto: “Speak to me with the answers that I crave” (l. 5). Dante doesn’t say just, Give me the answers. He says, in effect, Tell me what I want to hear. (At least, that’s one way of reading the line.)

Cavalcante’s injunction—again, “’Preserve in memory what you have heard / Against yourself…And I pray / You, listen’” (ll. 119-21)—is an important antidote to the strong human inclination to believe what we want to believe and to avoid what we don’t want to know. Clearly, ‘tis nobler in (and for) the mind (and, moreover, the whole self and, by extension, the whole society, the whole body politic) to suffer the slings and arrows of unwelcome revelation than to take arms (and at their ends the hands with which we can block our ears) against a sea (or hearing) of troubling discoveries and by ignoring end them. When such revelations pertain to the larger world of which we’re a part, when they are unwelcome but true, or at least not yet proved untrue, we must publish them in order to consider them. Thus, we must practice heresy. When such revelations pertain to us, when they challenge our ways of (mis)understanding ourselves, again, we must consider them. We must be willing to engage in apostasy—must be willing to walk away from prior belief systems in order to construct new ones that better equip us for living as rightly as possible instead of ensepulchering ourselves in bad ideas or habits.

And I say that as a certain stripe of Epicurean heretic. One might say a Feuerbachean heretic, too. Nothing in my experience, my heart, my spirit or conscience has suggested the existence of life after death. I’m one of those people for whom praying that God’s “will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” means that we must do all in our power to realize in the material world what with our spirits we perceive as the way things should be. That means doing all we can to emancipate ourselves from coffers of stone, both physical and metaphysical.

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5 responses to “canto 10: Coffers of Stone

  • jeffvamos

    Just a heads up – some very interesting insights on heresy by Bob. They are in response to Gordon and my comments on the last Canto, but directly applicable here too. Want to be sure you don’t miss it:

    https://dantedaily.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/canto-9-heretics/#comment-27

  • Bob Sinner

    A couple of thoughts, Pier:

    1. Since the root of the English word “heresy” can be traced back through Middle English (heresie), old French, late Latin (haeresis) & late Greek hairesis, from the original Greek (haireisthai) which meant “a choosing” and/or “to choose” there is definitely firm support for your argument about continuous challenges being made [and needed?] to established doctrine. This viewpoint, of course is based in our modern Western view of rational thought and the existence & desirability of Progress.

    2. Here are a couple of quotations which are, respectively, from the Early modern and modern periods support this viewpoint:
    a. “”They that approve a private opinion, call it opinion; but they that mislike it, heresy;
    and yet heresy signifies no more than private opinion”
    – Thomas Hobbes, “The Leviathan”

    b. “The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next” – Helen Keller, “Optimism”

    • pkooistra

      Great to have your response, Bob. Love seeing not only what Hobbes says on the matter but how–so deliciously, caustically terse. Keller’s comment so perfectly conveys the cyclicality with which ideas take and lose hold, at least as prevailing ideologies. Hadn’t realized while reading your email that you’d responded in this way, too. A pleasure. Looking forward to a face-to-face meeting one of these days. -Pier

      “comment-reply@wo rdpress.com” pkooistra@lawrenceville.org cc 03/07/2010 12:13 AM Subject [Daily Dante] Comment: “canto 10: Coffers of Stone” Please respond to comment+4bkc5ztr2 gnzf1b@comment.wo rdpress.com

  • Bob Sinner

    Dear Pier:

    Thank you for your thoughtful discourse on Canto X.
    Here are a few of my thoughts:

    1. Since the root of the English word “heresy” can be traced back through Middle English (heresie), old French, late Latin (haeresis) & late Greek hairesis, from the original Greek (haireisthai) which meant “a choosing” and/or “to choose” there is definitely firm support for your argument about continuous challenges being made [and needed?] to established doctrine. This viewpoint, of course is based in our modern Western view of rational thought and the existence & desirability of “Progress.”

    2. Here are a couple of quotations, which are, respectively; from the Early modern and modern
    periods support this viewpoint:
    a. “”They that approve a private opinion, call it opinion; but they that mislike it, heresy;
    and yet heresy signifies no more than private opinion”
    – Thomas Hobbes, “The Leviathan”

    b. “The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next” – Helen Keller, “Optimism”

    3. We can turn the common idea of heresy on its head, to show that it was in fact, orthodoxy
    and the limits of toleration that were defined by heresies, not heresies that defined the
    limits of orthodoxy. Historian Deborah Kepple-Mamros suggested as much when she wrote: “In
    modern religious understanding, some authority claims to hold the keys to the truth and
    defines the extent of accepted belief by figuratively drawing a circle in the sand. All
    belief and behavior inside the circle is orthodox—and, presumably, the closer to the
    center, the closer to the truth one is—while outside the circle lies a minefield of
    heresies. Truth exists and shelters the believer in a safe place away from all the
    dangers heresies encompass. At first glance, this figuration seems to hold some
    historical truth too. Through the centuries, heresies seemed to have been named and
    regulated by … established authority with claims to the truth.”

    A different way to look at it all, don’t you think? In such a case, heresies are necessary to define orthodoxy. Of, course all of this requires ‘finite man,’ rather than omnipotent God determining what is orthodox and what is heretical. An interesting conundrum.

    Regards, Bob Sinner

  • jeffvamos

    Interesting background, Bob. I think it elucidates what’s going on in this Canto – which seems to me represents Dante at his subtlest. And “choosing” is integral to the irony, seems to me – choosing one’s own authority, or a willingness to follow another.

    This canto, seems to me, functions on a variety of symbolic levels, and we might miss its meaning, and the brilliant irony, if we don’t delve into the allegory he’s carefully constructed. And perhaps such an approach might let us off the hook (for a while) in our attempts to see Dante through our modern lens – perhaps it’s more fruitful, at least initially, to see the poem on its own terms and to understand what Dante’s up to here – and let it speak to us in its strangeness.

    Seems to me we have a clue as to what Dante wants to do with this Canto in the very beginning – which seems to have to do with right speaking / right hearing / right knowing. Is it perhaps significant that the Canto begins with Dante “following my master”: this business of FOLLOWING another seems to be a hint as to what Dante is up to in his meditation on heresy. Heresy has to do with “choosing” your own truth, and a refusal to “follow” another source of authority. (We hear Frank Sinatra in the background, “I did it my way”?) The symbol of the molten graves – is it maybe existing in a perpetual state of flux and possibility never soldifying, an inability to arrive at any “solid” truth on which to base one’s life?

    This same theme is picked up later, when Cavalcante is lamenting the death of his son Guido, Dante’s artistic rival, who “scorned” authority (in his art? in his life? which one is up for debate – cf. line 59), and was unwilling to follow anyone. This is contrasted to Dante’s willingness to “follow” another authority – Virgil, Beatrice, Christ – through hell.

    And then there’s the particular kind of heresy of which Faranata and Calvacante are guilty – a kind of small, garden-variety type: epicureanism, which was a fad in Florence in the 13th C. – the belief that there is no resurrection; THE PRESENT is all there is. I think that’s key to understanding what Dante’s is doing.

    And here’s the irony: Epicurus, who believed the body and everything else dies at death, finds himself eternally dead; when “Jehoshaphat comes” – i.e. the day of judgment – their tombs will be sealed forever, and they will be in a state of deadness forever. Further, we have people “rising” from their graves – but only half-rising. We see only small parts of them; they are fragmented, unwhole. Here is depicted the “anti-resurrection.”

    And perhaps most ironically – their relationship to time itself is inverted. Those who believed that the present is all there is in life have to suffer an existence in hell in which they can see past and future, but where the present has no meaning, cannot be understood. I think this is meant to be contrasted to a what Dante sees as true faith – one in which knowledge of (and faith in) the FUTURE gives meaning to the PRESENT. If our destiny is resurrection – a bodily (yet spiritual) life in the life to come, this future reality gives meaning to THE PRESENT. It means that we don’t have to make immortality happen – through our attaining fame and memory in this life – it is a future that is waiting for us. Ours is to relate to its promise in the present.

    And finally – what really creates suffering for these shades is the fact that their own immortality projects in life above – through political achievement (Farinata – who is so confident in his own reason he “scorns hell”), or through one’s family and progeny (Cavalcante’s son Guido, and his fame) is shown by Dante to be an utter failure. Their attempt was to outflank death through by becoming immortal by their own achievements in life (because “this life is all there is”) is shown by Dante – able to know the present – as having come to naught. Farinata’s noble actions are shown to be a sham; Cavalcante’s son is shown to be just another two-bit poet, utterly forgettable.

    To those who see no meaningful future beyond the present – this is the real suffering. If this life is all there is, then the pressure’s on to “make a name” for ourselves, to base the meaningfulness of our lives on our own achievements – even as laudable as they may be. Farinata is an ironic figure – in that he WAS a noble figure, the embodiment of reason and virtue in many ways; but his side LOST. The tragedy is that he based his hope on a political strategy that did not “last”.

    All this a warning to Dante too – his future is forecast as well. Seems to be a warning not to put too much stock in his political fate, poetic attainments in “this life” either – because these shades, able to see the future, know that Dante himself is headed for political exile. Hmm.

    Whatever we think of the dangers here – of “true belief”; or on the other hand, of living without a true North as a way of discerning truth – I find Dante’s irony and allegory a brilliant one….

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