David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 8: The Boatman Phlegyas and Filippo Argenti”

“Canto 8: The Boatman Phlegyas and Filippo Argenti”

  • Who is Phlegyas, and why is it appropriate that he appears here?

The guard of the Wrathful and Sullen (or Slothful) is Phlegyas, who also ferries Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil across the River Styx, in which souls of the Wrathful — such as Filippo Argenti — swim. Phlegyas is an appropriate guard of the Wrathful because of the great wrath he felt while he was alive. After the god Apollo raped his daughter, Phlegyas set fire to a temple of Apollo. The Greek gods are not always benevolent, and Apollo killed Phlegyas because of his action. In the Inferno, Phlegyas is still “seething in his anger” (Fagles 8.24).

  • How does Dante the Pilgrim treat Filippo Argenti?

While crossing the River Styx, Dante is accosted by Filippo Argenti, a name that can be translated as Phil Silvers. (Phil Silvers is the name of a famous comedian and star of the TV series The Phil Silvers Show, on which he played the character Sergeant Bilko. By the way, The Phil Silvers Showhad black actors at a time when that was rare because of racial prejudice. A black man once started to rob Mr. Silvers, but recognized him, said, “You’re OK,” and left him alone.(Source: John Javna, The Best of TV Sitcoms, p. 24.)

Interestingly, it is possible that Filippo Argenti recognizes that a living person is in the boat because Dante’s weight makes the boat sit lower in the water. The souls have no weight, so when Virgil gets on the boat, it does not sit lower in the water. Filippo Argenti is a soul being punished for wrath, so apparently he wishes to do violence to Dante.

Dante treats Filippo Argenti harshly — he wishes that Filippo would receive a harsher punishment than he already has.

Dante tells Virgil:

And I: “My Master, much should I be pleased,

If I could see him soused into this broth,

Before we issue forth out of the lake.”

(Longfellow 8.52-54)

  • Is Dante’s anger at Filippo Argenti a good thing? Does Virgil approve of Dante the Pilgrim’s lack of pity?

Virgil approves of what Dante says. As a symbol of Human Reason, Virgil cannot understand why anyone, such as Filippo Argenti, would knowingly and deliberately do evil. Virgil tells Dante:

And he to me: “Ere unto thee the shore

Reveal itself, thou shalt be satisfied;

Such a desire ’tis meet thou shouldst enjoy.”

(Longfellow 8.55-57)

Dante is different from the way he was when he talked to Francesca da Rimini. He is beginning to realize that these souls deserve to be punished.

Apparently, Dante is acting correctly when he wishes that Filippo Argenti be punished. After all, God put Filippo Argenti in the Inferno, and God does not make mistakes. Since Filippo Argenti is here in the Inferno, he deserves to be here, and he deserves to be punished severely.

Dante is becoming capable of righteous indignation; righteous indignation (anger exercised the right way against the right object) is a good thing. John Ciardi regards righteous indignation as being the golden mean between extremes: wrath is excessive anger, sullenness is bottled-up anger, and righteous indignation is anger exercised the right way against the right object. John Ciardi uses Jesus Christ chasing the moneychangers out of the temple as an example of righteous indignation.

  • How are the Wrathful punished?

The wrathful are punished by being allowed to exercise their wrath. Filippo Argenti becomes so angry that he bites himself. We also read that the other wrathful souls shout, “Get Filippo Argenti!” (Musa, Inferno8.61); in addition, Dante writes that “I saw the wretch so mangled / by a gang of muddy souls that, to this day, / I thank my Lord and praise Him for that sight” (Musa, Inferno8.58-60).

  • The first section of Hell is devoted to the sins of incontinence. What does “incontinence” mean when it is applied to the Wrathful and the Sullen (or Slothful)?

Some people are unable to control their emotions. They become angry or sullen. Instead of using reason to control their emotions, they allow their emotions to overcome their reason.

Again, the Slothful allow their laziness to overcome their reason. Reason would say that we ought to accomplish something, but laziness can make us accomplish nothing.

We should note that anger is used as a transition to the next part of the Inferno. We will see Heresy next, but beyond that are the sins of Violence. Anger is related to Violence. Of course, Heresy is a Christian sin and does not fit into the classical classification of sins that Virgil knows.

  • Do you know of any famous Wrathful and the Sullen (or Slothful), either in fact or fiction?

For these sins, we may be able to look at ourselves. All of us have probably done these things. If you go out for a beer when you know that you ought to be reading Dante, you are Slothful. If you are not taking notes in class, you are Slothful.

Let me point out that C.S. Lewis said that we have to do some things (such as making a living), we ought to do some things (such as taking care of our health and acting morally), and we want to do some things (C.S. Lewis liked reading fairy tales). As long as what we want to do does not conflict with what we have to do and with what we ought to do, then it’s OK to do what we want to do. So after you have read your Dante (I assume that that is a goal of yours, since you are reading this book), and drinking a beer is what you want to do, and drinking a beer does not conflict with what you have to do and with what you ought to do (such as obeying just laws), then by all means drink a beer.

Achilles was famously angry at Agamemnon after Agamemnon took away Briseis, Achilles’ spear-bride. In fact, the first word of Homer’s Iliadis Wrath or Rage (in ancient Greek, the word for Wrath or Rage is Menis).

In Purgatory, we will meet a Florentine who was famous for his laziness.

  • When Dante and Virgil arrive at a city, how do the fallen angels treat them?

The fallen angels talk to Virgil alone, and then they run back to the Gates of the City and slam them shut. Obviously, these angels are angry.

However, the fallen angels were unable to keep Christ out of Hell during the Harrowing of Hell, and they will be unable to keep Dante and Virgil from continuing their journey. Help from Heaven is already on the way.

One theme of the Infernois that good is more powerful than evil. Evil can attempt to thwart good, but good wins in the end. Over and over in the Inferno, evil is forced to bend to the will of good. Charon and Phlegyas do not want to ferry Dante, but they have to. Filippo Argenti wishes, apparently, to harm Dante, but Virgil, who is doing the will of good souls (the three Heavenly ladies), stops him. The evil angels wish to prevent Dante and Virgil from entering and passing through the City of Dis, but a good and powerful angel will arrive soon to force open the city gates.

Virgil represents Human Reason, and Human Reason needs divine help at this point. Human Reason can take us only so far. To go beyond that, we need divine help.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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