Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

The Eighth Circle

When I read Dante as an undergraduate, I was upset that in the hierarchy of Hell, theft (8th circle, 7th bolgia) ranks as a more serious crime than murder (7th circle, 1st round); seducers (8th circle, 1st bolgia) greater sinners than suicides (7th circle, 2nd round). I went so far as to write a paper that argued that the structure of the Inferno was more political than moral, and that Dante (still living under the shadow of the Dark Ages, poor man) was more concerned with defending the social order than with exposing evil.

I still think it is true that in Dante's world-view the greatest sins are those that go beyond personal misbehavior and tear at the social fabric. But I can no longer smugly dismiss that view merely propaganda for the divine right of kings. The more I look at the world around me, the more I think of Dante's Malbolge, the abode of the fraudulent. Dante devotes thirteen cantos, more than a third of the Inferno, to the eighth circle and its ten subdivisions. Contained there are a hodgepodge of sinners: flatterers and "sowers of discord," corrupt priests and false counsellors, hypocrites and counterfeiters. In some cases, the crimes may seem petty, but the common thread is that fraud, willful deception for personal advancement or profit, is not merely a personal sin. It eats away at the mutual trust that makes civilization possible. Fraud harms not just the immediate victims; its existence makes us all more suspicious of our neighbors, less generous to the unfortunate, more closed off from our fellow men and women. And when I look around at the frauds being perpetrated right now, at the highest levels, I sometimes wish I could believe in a literal Hell of unending torment awaiting those responsible. There are more than one prominent men and women in the world today, to whom I would like to say, as Dante said to the Simonists:

O Simon mago, o miseri seguaci
che le cose di Dio, che di bontat
deon essere spose, voi rapaci
per oro e per argento avolterate;
or convien che per voi suoni la tromba,
pero che nella terza bolgia state.

(Ah Simon Magus, and you his wretched followers, who, rapacious, prostitute for gold and silver the things of God which should be brides of righteousness, now must the trumpet sound for you, for your place is in the third pouch.)
( Inferno, trans. Sinclair, XIX:1-6. )