When is a Virtue Not a Virtue? Dante Shows Us

I soon began: “Poet–dear guide– ’twere wise

Surely, to test my powers and weigh their worth

Ere trusting me to this great enterprise.

Canto II, Lines 10-12

Dante Alighieri

G. K. Chesterton once remarked that the modern world is full of all the old Christian virtues but that they had assumed a more horrible form. Judging from the amount of pandering that goes on in the modern world in the name of being virtuous, he wasn’t wrong.

But he also wasn’t quite correct. The old Christian virtues have always had their dark side. All virtues do. It’s not because of the virtues themselves either, but because of the people who practice them. As we go through Inferno, the way the circles are set up isn’t about what was done, but about the person who did them. All the sins punished in Inferno are evil, but some are more evil than others.

What makes one thing more evil than another? Dante gives us a prime demonstration in Canto II.

Dante shows us that what’s worse than a vice is hiding the vice behind a virtue.

Canto II officially begins the events of Inferno.

We have the normal invocation of the muses at the beginning of Canto II, but Dante also needs to explain how Virgil came to guide him. Before they officially set off, Dante asks Virgil what seems to be a perfectly normal, if not humble, question. He asks his guide if he’s worthy enough to take the trip. Virtuous, right?


Virgil calls Dante a coward. This is not what you want your hero to call you to your face. Although, there might be a bit of humor in this, considering that the leopard, lion, and wolf from Canto 1 literally chased Dante through the woods in the previous canto. Dante, a coward? We would have never guessed.

“If I have grasped what thou dost seem to say,”

The shade of greatness answered, “these doubts breed

From sheer black cowardice, which day by day

Lays ambushes for men, checking the speed

Of honorable purpose in mid-flight,

As shapes half-seen startle a shying steed.

Canto II, lines 43-48

Dante Alighieri

Seems our “hero” isn’t as heroic as we thought him. But then, he tells us himself that he isn’t a hero and he uses twisted reasoning to do it.

Dante claims he’s neither Aeneas nor Paul, but is this really humility?

But how should I go there? Who says so? Why?

I’m not Aeneas, and I am not Paul!

Who thinks me fit? Not others. And not I.

Canto II, lines 31-33

Dante Alighieri

This is personally one of my favorite quotes in the whole of Inferno. It’s so beautifully twisted because it shows just how far astray Dante has gone on many levels. If you take the quote out of context, you can see Dante’s failing regarding himself. He doesn’t consider his own worthiness to be anything.

And this is a failing, because Dante has evidence to the contrary.

He’s a celebrated and accomplished poet and statesman in Florence. He mastered Virgil’s poetic form and wrote an entire treatise on the Italian language, De Vulgari Eloquentia, that is still considered an important development in Latin, losing its supremacy as a literary language.

It’s a work that would eventually enable Chaucer to write The Canterbury Tales in English instead of French or Latin. Dante was no small fry, and he knew it. So why does he say he’s not worthy?

Well, that’s where the other side of this quote comes in. “I’m not Aeneas” he says. This comes after he has the cheek to recount Virgil’s own work to him, like its historical fact. It’s not. The Aeneid was a poetic creation to give Rome a national epic to fuse their culture with Greek culture.

So, Dante is asking about his worthiness in comparison to a fictional character!

HIs second statement “I am not Paul” is also fairly ridiculous. This is Paul, the Apostle he’s talking about. The same who wrote the bulk of the New Testament. There’s also the small detail that Paul’s original name was Saul. And he was notorious for hunting down Christians and handing them over to be brutally tortured and executed.

So, Dante isn’t a fictional character, and he’s not an apostle. But he’s also not a persecutor. That’s fairly obvious, don’t you think? His comparison sets his worthiness at unfair standards by remembering both Aeneas’s and Paul’s good aspects without considering their realities.Aeneas is a great hero and leader. But he’s fictional. St. Paul was indeed an accomplished writer and speaker. But he started out as a murderer and traitor.

The pagan hero and the apostle are two extremes.

It’s when you realize Dante is using extremes to protest his unworthiness for the journey ahead that you also understand Virgil is correct in his assessment. Dante is being cowardly here.

On the one hand, you have the fictional Aeneas, who was a warrior, a survivor, and a refugee with a great destiny. These are wonderful things, and I’m sure Dante saw his own plight as a Florentine exile as a reflection of Aeneas’ own experience, to an extent.

At the other extreme, you have an apostle who had the modern-day equivalent of a double doctorate from Oxford or Cambridge. St. Paul was no fool and he is the first theologian the Church ever had. It’s he who’s the best-educated of all the apostles. The irony was that initially; he was the chief persecutor of the early Christian church.

Dante uses two extremes to protest his unworthiness. There is no middle road. It’s like he’s deliberately setting impossible standards for himself. You can’t ever get more heroic than a fictional character in an epic that is also fictional. Nor can you possibly ever hope to come near enough to an Apostle to sneeze on him, let alone match his experience.

When is virtue not a virtue?

Simply put, a virtue is not a virtue when it’s a show the person is putting on. We call it “virtue-signaling” today. It’s basically a massive marketing strategy so that people and businesses alike can appeal to a certain segment of the population.

Just look at all the businesses that will celebrate one thing but ignore others. I’ve often said this before in conversation, but I’ll say it again here. Look at how many businesses and advocate groups will boil down women’s health to abortion. It doesn’t matter whether they identify as pro-life or pro-choice. How many only focus on abortion and not on fertility?

Because if you were pro-life or pro-choice, then logically you’d also demand that if they forced an insurance company to include abortion services in healthcare, that they also provide fertility services. You’d demand better research into hormonal issues and better treatment than “the pill” to fix imbalances?

The admonishment “be kind” is also parroted as a sort of invocation for people to practice virtue. But it’s not wielded with equal fervor. We’re supposed to be kind to activists who insult and degrade others, but are not allowed to stand up for those people who are being insulted.

So, are the virtues of tolerance and kindness really at large? No. They’re just used as shields for continuing to practice their opposites. You must be kind, but if you don’t express the exact same opinion, then you don’t receive any kindness at all.

Dante’s modesty is virtue-signaling to hide his fear. He’s not brave enough to even admit that he’s tired and scared. A bit of the truth comes out towards the end if his tirade–”I’m not Aeneas, and I am not Paul. I am not anything like the people who really are worthy enough for this journey.”

But instead of admitting that he’s scared and exhausted, he feigns modesty. Now, I have no doubt that Dante has some feelings of inferiority underlying everything. Part of the reason for this journey is to show him just how much he is loved, considered, and worthy of the effort. You can read that much just in the vehemence of the words describing what he isn’t.

But it’s cowardice, as Virgil says. Not actual modesty. Dante’s too afraid to take what is rightfully his, even when it’s offered.

Virgil tells tell him as much. The Virgin Mary herself helped set events in motion when Beatrice had apprised her of Dante’s situation. How dare he then be a coward and question his own worth?

So, what are you?

Good question, right? Are you actually being “kind” because you value your fellow human beings on a fundamental level? Or, are you just being “kind” because you’re putting on a show so you seem to play along with the zeitgeist?

That’s the first set of questions you should ask yourself. The second is asking yourself what you will do when you have discovered you are only playing at virtue instead of being virtuous.

Are you going to do what Dante did and heed Virgil’s admonishments? Dante will still falter on the path ahead, but he keeps going ahead. When you fail in practicing whatever virtue it is, you don’t just give up and allow yourself to be abused. You keep going, knowing that you are still going to fail, but that over time, you will get better.

By the time Dante exits Hell in the early hours of tomorrow morning, he doesn’t hesitate or hide his feelings as much. He sees his journey through to the not-so-bitter end.

And he’s rewarded for it, as we’ll see on Wednesday of next week.

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