Book Notes: "The First Three Circles of Hell" by Dante Alighieri

The First Three Circles of HellThe First Three Circles of Hell by Dante Alighieri

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have a slew of these abridged Penguin 60s Classics and decided to get over my aversion to abridged books and read them whenever I wanted a quick read. Dante's "Inferno", the first part of the Divine Comedy, is one of those poems one has read excerpts from, knows the key historical and philosophical (and controversial) issues concerned, but never reads the epic in its entirety. So reading the first three circles means I must go on and finish the whole thing. Despite its brevity, I must admit to learning much about philosophy and religion. I was unaware of The Apocalypse of Paul, or that there was also a Coptic Apocalypse of Paul. Dante seems to have plagiarised the ideas from 1,000 years beforehand. Nevertheless, and what I find interesting, is that Dante was a layman, and more or less an autodidact. He was well-versed in the Roman classics (he uses Virgil for his guide), but, surprisingly, also Aristotle. Why was this a surprise? Well, I wasn't sure that, at the time, the works of Aristotle were available in Latin (Plato was not translated until a couple of centuries later). Known as the "Recovery of Aristotle", Islamic scholars had kept the classics alive by translating the Ancient Greek into Arabic, which was subsequently translated into Latin, which meant that Dante had read Aristotle. My historical chronological sense was tripped up. I have spent years trying to memorise key historical events to put various elements of time (history) and space (geography) in context. After a little investigation, it turns out that Dante completed the work in 1320, and Aristotle's work was available in Florence from at least the early thirteenth century, and Thomas Aquinas had enabled Aristotle to be read without necessarily requiring the reader to be burned at the stake (that would come later as humanity supposedly advanced - a bit like what is happening now). Dante was well-read. To top it off, Dante wrote in the Italian vernacular (with the Tuscan dialect), rather than Latin. This created Italian as the dominant literary language in Western Europe for centuries (I wonder if this added to the prevalence of Italian in opera, too?). And all this without even mentioning the plot! I was a little surprised by the rationale for placing certain historical figures in the first three circles. But such an elaborate scheme to eternally torment people for misbehaving wouldn't stand a chance with neoliberalism, so it probably isn't too much to worry about these days. At least in the after-life. Hell on earth is another matter entirely.

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