The second circle of hell, described by Dante in the Divine Comedy, is lust and describes the sinners who fell from it. Traitor spouses and libertines personify what the Middle Ages literature represents as a bright germ. Still, in the New Age, it will become the key to European culture after the Middle Ages. It is a problem of the mind and how people, deprived of its light, rush to indulge their weaknesses, exchanging high values and the future for momentary pleasures.
Even though Dante’s lust has a bright erotic coloring, it needs to be perceived as much more profound and, at the same time, more comprehensive. Dante writes:
“Seems as the latter way
Broke but the bond of love which Nature makes.
Whence in the second circle have their nest
Dissimulation, witchcraft, flatteries,
Theft, falsehood, simony, all who seduce
To just, or set their honesty at pawn,
With such vile scum as these.” (Inferno, 11:58-64).
That is, the sinners seen in hell are not only traitors, traitors, and people, in general, who indulged their vices during their lifetime and succumbed to temptation. Money, things, or jewelry may tempt envious people and thieves. Dante, thus, expands the concept of lust, placing on the second circle hell, in general, undisciplined people who could not restrain their impulses. It is no coincidence that the culture of the Middle Ages draws the image of a succubus: a seductive devil who comes to people as a woman. Erotic feelings and passion can be the personification of a person’s weakness. This weakness, however, does not end with eros but passes into other spheres of life until it ultimately affects a person’s thinking. God and the Devil act in Dante as the primary regulating forces of punishment and encouragement for temptation. Still, later this role will go to science and rational thinking and a different type of culture that will come to Europe.
Consumption and Lack of Discipline
Modern consumption reached its peak a long time ago, and now people are in the stage of relaxed enjoyment of goods. It would be naive to believe that consumption is now reduced only to purchasing unnecessary things. The information society allows people to enjoy the production of ideas and the absolute absence of the discipline of thinking. Irrationality is presented as a new form of rationality, and indulgence of weakness is recognized as productive behavior in contact with people. Human deficiency, however, and the lack of discipline in desires not only lead to social degradation but also pose a physical danger to humanity. The manufacture of weapons, threats of military interventions, and direct military actions worldwide in civilized countries result from overgrown lust and endless desire. People get into a situation where they do not want anything specific but want in general. They do not need certain things, but they need the manifestation of themselves as subjects. Homo sapiens, who were the age-old pride of the entire planet, became a man of desire.
Looking at advertising and products for mass consumption, one gets the impression that people are tired of constant desire. They already do it without pleasure, out of habit, but continue to do it. What is more terrible and dangerous for people is the lack of discipline in the lust for power. In situations of ownership of resources, wealth, and human lives (which depend on higher ranks), the physical danger of such emotional immaturity and totality is shown. Possibly, from a political point of view, it was people who were especially spoiled by power who became dictators because they felt their impunity.
Lust is an Example of Indulging Human Weakness
Initially, Dante would be genuinely surprised at the consumption in today’s American society and how differently the mores of different people can be read. People, however, do not change over the centuries, and their vices remain the same as in the Middle Ages. Most people crave power, glory, riches, and other joys of earthly life. It would be understandable to Dante; however, he would probably be surprised at how easy it is to get now. Many defend undisciplined thinking and believe emotional well-being is more important than pursuing ideals and moral deeds.
Dante’s historical and cultural context is very far from modern people, even if they are busy with verbal creativity. At the moment, invention, religion, and power views have been transformed so that even for such an educated person as Dante, it took a long time to understand the context. After understanding the context and grasping the cultural codes of contemporary American society, Dante would agree that most people are weak. These people indulge their vices and do not strive to become better. Most people do not have high goals but desire to justify themselves for evil deeds. The modern society welcomes such excuses and indulges weakness with renewed vigor. Young people are assumably particularly susceptible to this since they have already grown up in a community of developed consumption and have not often come into contact with the concepts of discipline, especially in the sense that Dante puts into this word. In the last century, there was a triumph of irrationality, eroticism, and sexuality. It forever changed society and created a massive gap between the religious and mythological Middle Ages, full of mysteries and the modern world.
Alighieri, Dante, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. Independently published, 2021.