Canto XX: What Would Hugh Capet Say?

            This is the perfect Canto to read at this particular political moment, when (we are being told) the most important thing our country can do is to decrease our deficit, cut social programs, and keep taxes low at the same time.

        We’re on the fifth level or niche of Purgatorio. It’s a hard Canto to read if you’re not up on medieval history. And even if you are. Which I’m supposed to be, so I guess I am.

        But what’s a real shock is the Canto’s spokesperson, Hugh Capet, founder of a line of kings that, by Dante’s time, was almost 500 years old. Capet was a Frankish king who ruled unsteadily over a chaotic region of many languages, laws, and economic systems. Despite an often tenuous hold on power, and despite most of the land more or less ignoring he was king, Capet managed to establish Paris as the center of power, get his son Robert crowned, and thus start an authoritative line of succession, and other steps that began modern France. As kings go, he was wealthy but not conspicuously so.

        And yet Capet is the one who looks back on history and tells us it’s driven by avarice. His descendant Philip IV suppressed the Knights Templar, all so he could dissolve a debt hanging over his kingdom. Popes are kidnapped and go mad; kings sell their daughters for money. It’s all driven by greed.

        Capet, portrayed as a good man, sorrowfully surveys what he started, what has been going for half a millennium, and like Koheleth of the Old Testament, he sees it is emptiness, empty striving, sinful striving, whose effects must be “wrung out” in Purgatory or punished forever in Inferno.

        History is driven by avarice.

        As are we all.

        Avarice runs rampant in these fields. Hundreds of millions of us want to hold on to every last cent that comes our way, pay out nothing to anyone else . . . and yet have a golden, socially secure retirement.

        Honestly – our entire culture has been industrialized, mercantilized, and commercialized. You can walk away from it – you easily can – but if you want to be part of it, in even a small way, you find yourself awash instantly, and instantly compromised – I almost wrote contaminated. Popular culture projects all our choices and values as financial, indeed commercial. This begins with the cliché of the “American dream,” which is, sadly, to own our own homes, to be wealthy.

Don’t worry – I’m as greedy as the next person. I want lots more money than I have. I’m right there, with every greedy beat of my miserly heart. But surely few other countries are as emptily, confidently built on the assumption that riches are what count.

Is anyone else tired of the feathery, sweet word wealth, lisped in our ear, ad after ad? Is anyone else afraid of how much our news – what we say matters in the world

 We’re told we must be rich before we die. A thousand retirement commercials seek to strike the fear of indigence into us – but really, even more than that, sinfully more, what they’re saying is: “You don’t want to be old and not be rich! Not be comfortable! Not ‘do the things you’ve always dreamed of doing!’ ”

I particularly love the ones that suggest “starting a small business” as a nice occupation for your elder years. A lot of us would rather be kicked in the front porch by a mule. Hey, yeah – when I turn 80, I want to dive back into the nasty, scrabbling world of having and getting.

Now, if you feel different and like that idea, great. And if you feel you want to be comfortable and wealthy when you get old – well, so would I. But I don’t think about it very much, and I don’t see it as a right. And I wouldn’t see it as a terrible tragedy if, when I retired, I wasn’t really rich.

 Money is important; it helps set up things that really count. The mistake is to think it’s money itself that counts. The mistake is to forget what avarice takes away – humanity, human relationships, love. The tragic error is to deny what avarice can destroy – our closeness to God.

When we balk at taxes, well, it could be avarice speaking. When we balk at having to pay more so we have better health care, or Social Security, or a better environment, it could be avarice speaking. When we fight tooth and nail so that we keep government trapped and cornered, so we can do what we want, oh, I dunno, there’s an ennsy-weensy sliver of a fading light of possibility avarice is involved. When we fight our guts out to make sure billionaires have tax holidays, not only our avarice but also that of the financial idols we adore, oh, I dunno, something vaguely resembling a second cousin, or, say, third cousin to avarice could possibly be involved. What we are told are our rights may be nothing more than the ghosts of avarice. All these threats of big government, taxation, social programs – maybe such demagoguery is avarice in new clothes. I’m not confirming this. I am saying maybe. Possibly.

Hugh Capet says history is driven by avarice. And we’re history. So . . . what would Hugh Capet say?

I’m trying to think of a way to give up avarice for Lent. Actually, given my life and the culture in which I’m sunk, maybe there isn’t a way. Or maybe I’m making an excuse. I’ll think about it later. Have to go pay my taxes. Looking for loopholes . . .

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About jtimpane

Media Editor/Writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer. View all posts by jtimpane

One response to “Canto XX: What Would Hugh Capet Say?

  • bobsinner

    Hello, John: May I join in your lament?

    “Looking for loopholes…” Aren’t we all? I shall turn to find my own very soon, sigh.

    The She-wolf bars the way. Or does she?

    “Is anyone else tired of the feathery, sweet word wealth, lisped in our ear, ad after ad? Is anyone else afraid of how much our news – what we say matters in the world?”

    Oh, we are tired; very tired. And we have been, … for millennia.
    “Render onto Caesar?”

    If I might, I would return once more to “The Sound of Silence” (note the singularity in the title?):
    ” And the people bowed and prayed
    To the neon god they made…”

    Every generation creates its golden calves, its neon gods.
    The Janus of mankind’s spirit seems to show “poverty and generosity by day; avarice at night,”
    – Or is it the other way around?

    It is no coincidence that we find the Frankish King, Hugh Capet, here on this terrace, in this poem, at this place and time.

    We believe Dante wrote The “Comedia” between 1308 and his death in 1321 That means he was writing contemporaneously to early events of “The Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy” (The Avignon Papacy: 1309 to 1378).

    Reading John’s post and reviewing the canto, Burdick & Lederer’s 1958 smash hit, the 1958 political novel, “The Ugly American,” came to mind.
    Perhaps my service in RVN has colored my thinking too much. Or, perhaps not.

    In the novel we read:
    “For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same
    as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come
    over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially.
    They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious.” Has that changed? Hmm.

    Now, put yourself in Dante’s place. He, no less than Machiavelli, two centuries later, bemoaned the chaotic state of his beloved Italy.
    And he detested the “Ugly Americans” of his Day: The French.
    France had just kidnapped the papacy to southern France.
    It repeatedly invaded Tuscany and Lombardy, and seized his beloved (if wayward) Florence.
    To Dante, this is not just “personal avarice,” it is AVARICE on a grand scale.
    So, the founding Capetian tells the tale of sins of his descendants, and he opposes them with three figures symbolic of avarice’s antipode: Poverty (Mary), Honor (Fabricus), and Generosity (St. Nicholas).

    But, is there Hope?

    Indeed, I believe so, since, as the dynamic due move onward, they hear the chorus, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Luke 2:14).

    The manger lies ahead!

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