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Why One Sin is Worse than Another

Most Christians these days see every sin as equally bad. In other words, no one sin is worse or should draw worse punishment than another. In Dante’s The Inferno, however, this is not the case. In The Inferno, the deeper one delves into Hell, the worse the sin that has been committed. The punishments that the souls incur are representative of the sins they committed in their corporeal state of being. Sins that affect others are considered worse then those that only affect ones self by Dante. The Wrathful in Canto 8 are lower down then the Hoarders and Wasters in Canto 7 because according to Dante, The Wrathful commit violent acts, or sins against others, while the Hoarders and wasters only against themselves. This is how one sin is determined to be worse than another in Dante’s ethical system. After looking at circle four and five, I will then go back to circle three to see how the gluttonous compare with the sinners below them. Finally I will go into Purgatory and see how the penance for the sins is different from the punishments.

In Canto 7, Dante describes the Hoarders that reside in circle four. The Hoarders are all of those people that were misers during their life. The reason that this is a sin is because is takes the focus away form God and places their focus on collecting and saving as much money as they can. This is the last circle of Hell where the affects of the sin committed do not have a direct impact on other people. It does however, affect others indirectly by influencing the economy of the place where they lived before being damned to Hell. It is not as severe as the sins of the Wrathful because the Hoarders do not seek to harm another individual. Dante compares the action of the sinners in this circle to the whirlpool Charybdis and its surrounding waters. “Just as the surge Charybdis hurls to sea crashes and breaks upon its countersurge, so these shades dance and crash eternally”(Dante, Canto 7 line 22-24). The useless efforts with which they push the stones represent the futile persistence they practiced in collecting worldly goods. For the Hoarder, the worldly good that they collect is currency. Man-made money gives them some kind of pleasure or joy that they can’t seem to find anywhere else. This may come across as queer to the reader because most people want money in order to purchase other worldly goods, not just for the sake of having the money.

The Wasters are described by Dante in Canto 7 as well. The Wasters are exactly the opposite of the Hoarders. Instead of wanting money just for the sake of having money, the spendthrift’s’ avarice stems from their desire to spend their money in order to acquire as many worldly goods as possible. This is still a sin that has no direct impact on others as the sins of the Wrathful do, therefor it is not as bad, which puts it one circle above them. The reason that the Hoarders and Wasters are placed in the same circle is the simple fact that they were opposites in life. Because they were at polar extremes in their measures to collect money and worldly goods, placing them together will only torment each other’s souls. “?They strained against enormous weights and pushed them at each other, one party shouting, ‘why do you hoard?’, the other ‘why do you waste?’”(Dante, Canto 7 line 25-30). One group cannot understand why the other would want to manage his/her finances in that manner. This question reveals the true reason each of these two groups is guilty of sin. Neither can manage their assets with enough skill in order to prevent their greed from becoming the most important thing in their lives. This is where the sin comes in. The avarice replaces God as the number one thing in their lives so because of this they are damned to Hell. Members of this circle even include “righteous men” such as priest, popes, and cardinals who sinned greatly in avarice or prodigality, the opposite vices in the management of worldly goods.

Now that it is clear why the Wrathful are in a lower circle then the Hoarders and Wasters, I would like to back up to circle three and look at the Gluttons. The reason for this is because the previous question was answered so it automatically brings up the question: Why is hoarding and wasting a more horrible sin than being gluttonous? A glutton is one who has an uncontrollable appetite and deliberately converts food into a sort of god, or at least an object of worship. So now in Hell he is punished by being forced to eat filth and mud, instead of the extravagant food and drink that he/she is used to in life. Here is what Dante saw upon entering the third circle; “Huge hailstones, dirty water, and black snow pour from the dismal air to putrefy the putrid slush that waits for them below”(Dante, Canto 6 line 10-12). The reason that this sin is not as bad as hoarding and wasting is that gluttons misused the natural products of the world, which for Dante, was not as bad as the sinners in the next circle who have no respect for the manmade objects of the world, such as money and property. The reason that it is not as bad as the Wrathful is the same reason that I gave for the Hoarders and Wasters; the sin they commit affects no one but themselves while violent acts affects everyone around the Wrathful.

To atone for these sins one must enter purgatory. To completely understand why one sin is worse then another, a description of reconciliation must be given. Turning first to the Wrathful, Dante and Virgil pass through a cloud that stings the eyes and irritates the skin. This cloud is where the Wrathful suffer their purification. The pain that they inflicted on others during life is now given right back to them in purgatory. In passing through the cloud, Dante experiences a fraction of the same form of penance as the penitent souls, which reveals his disposition to this sin. “Master do I here souls on this path? You do indeed and they are loosening the knot of Wrath”(Dante, Canto16 line 22-24). Upon leaving the cloud, Dante is struck with visions of excessive wrath. These include Procne being changed into a bird, the execution of Haman, and Lavinia finding her mother hung. Take the last one for example. Lavinia finding her mother dead from hanging herself had a definite impact on her. Thus even sins of wrath intended for ones self affects others.

Ascending through Purgatory, the poets arrive at the fifth cornice where they find many spirits lying face down. Dante questions one that attracts his attention:

“?Tell me who you were, why you lie prone, and if there is some way in which I may serve you”(Dante, Canto19 line94-96). The soul identifies himself as Pope Adrian the fifth. He had been drawn into avarice before taking office, when he tried to cover up his past sins. The reason he and the rest of the spirits lie face down is that because in life they loved earthly goods and had refused to look up to heaven, they now are begging face down in the dirt in penance for their sin. The answer that the Pope gives for the last part of Dante’s question is for him to pray for his still living niece, Alagia. As in The Inferno, the sins of greed and prodigality, the extremes of incontinence with respect to worldly goods, are placed in the same cornice. However, the emphasis in The Purgatorio seems to lie solely in avarice. The only logical explanation that I could discern from this is that the person he spoke to in purgatory was guilty of avarice. Perhaps if he had chosen another spirit, he/she would be culpable of prodigality. Then the emphasis would be on wasting rather than hoarding, and we would be asking this question in reverse.

Advancing to the sixth cornice, Dante and Virgil bump right into the souls of a group of gluttons. This is a description of the souls according to Dante. “The sockets of their eyes were caves agape: their faces death-pale, and their skin so wasted that nothing but gnarled bones gave it shape”(Dante, Canto 23 line 22-24). This is the exact opposite of their gluttonous ways during life in which they were likely fat and had the appearance of a pig. A tree ripe with luscious fruit and a stream that waters it are here tormenting the souls who seek to purify themselves and repent by denying their hunger and thirst. The souls circle the terrace, but always return to the tree that increases their pain, but is also their solace.

In conclusion, the reason one sin is worse than another according to Dante’s ethical system, is that some sins affect others (the Wrathful), while others affect the sinners and indirectly affect others (Hoarders and Wasters), and still other sins only affect the one who commits the sins (Gluttons). This is so because sins that affect others can bring down others that still have a chance for salvation. An example of this fact is the two lovers, Francesca and Paolo. They were murdered before they had a chance to repent. This is why the Wrathfuls’ sins place them deeper in Hell than either the Gluttons, or the Hoarders and the Wasters.

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