David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 27: Guido da Montefeltro”

“Canto 27: Guido da Montefeltro”

  • Virgil dismisses Ulysses with the words “you may move on, I won’t ask more of you” (Musa, Inferno27.21). Ulysses obeys and moves on. Does Virgil have any special powers over the damned?

In the Middle Ages, Virgil had a reputation as a magician. Of course, Dante would have regarded Virgil’s magic as white rather than black; otherwise, Virgil would not be in Limbo but in a deeper Circle of the Inferno. In the Inferno, any special powers that Virgil has over the damned would come from God. Virgil is a symbol of Human Reason, and according to the thought of the Middle Ages, Human Reason is supposed to be the handmaiden of Divine Love. (Of course, Human Reason may be misused by evil people.) Medieval philosophers use their reason to study God; thus, reason is the handmaiden of theology. Of course, Virgil is undertaking this journey as guide to Dante at the request of Beatrice, who is one of the three heavenly ladies who are concerned about the state of the soul of Dante the Pilgrim. Therefore, Virgil is Human Reason serving the wishes of Divine Love. Virgil is on a mission from God, and that apparently gives him some authority over the sinners in the Inferno.

  • After the meeting with Ulysses, Virgil and Dante hear a roaring that is compared to the cries of the Sicilian bull. What is the story of the Sicilian bull and why is it relevant here?

Phalaris was a cruel ruler of the city Agrigentum in Sicily. He commissioned Perillus to construct a hollow bull of metal to be used as an instrument of torture. The victim would be placed inside the bull, and then the bull would be heated. As the victim roasted, the victim screamed. Phalaris ordered that the bull be constructed in such a way that the screams of the victims would sound like the bellowing of a bull.

After Perillus used his great abilities to construct the bull — something that he ought not to have done — Phalaris made him the first victim to be placed in the bull and roasted. This is poetic justice, and contrapassois very much concerned with poetic justice. Additional poetic justice occurred when Phalaris was overthrown and also became a victim of the bull.

In this myth, we see a person being punished for theMisuse of Great Abilities, and of course, the sinners in this bolgia are being punished for that sin.

Guido da Montefeltro is like Perillus. He sins at the request of another person, and he pays for that sin.

  • Dante talks with Guido da Montefeltro, an older contemporary of his. Who was Guido da Montefeltro?

Guido da Montefeltro was recently dead in 1300, so he has not been in the Inferno very long. He was a Ghibelline, and he was very involved in politics and in advising Pope Boniface VIII. However, near the end of his life he became a Franciscan monk.

  • Guido da Montefeltro recognizes Virgil’s dialect. What does he ask Virgil about? (Virgil requests that Dante answer Guido’s question.)

Guido da Montefeltro asks about military matters: “tell me, are the Romagnols at war or peace?” (Musa, Inferno27.28). Of course, sinners in the Inferno have no knowledge of the present, although they can gain knowledge of current events from sinners newly arrived in the Inferno.

The important point here is that Guido’s request reveals his interests. He is interested in warfare and in politics. A Benedictine monk should be interested in peace and in religion.

  • How is Guido da Montefeltro’s story directly relevant to Dante? (And how is Ulysses’ story directly relevant to Dante?)

We may wonder which sin is punished in this bolgia, and perhaps we can find out by seeing what Ulysses’ story and Guido da Montefeltro’s story have in common.

Guido da Montefeltro’s story is directly relevant to Dante because Guido was involved in shenanigans with Pope Boniface VIII, who is responsible for helping the Black Guelfs to exile Dante and the other White Guelfs.

However, we know that when Dante speaks to sinners in the afterlife he does so because they have something important to teach him. Of course, since the sinners are in the Inferno they teach him what not to do.

We can wonder what it is that Ulysses and Guido are teaching Dante not to do. In Ulysses’ case, we have a man of great ability who misuses his ability. He uses his considerable rhetorical ability to advise old men to set sail with him. He uses his considerable abilities to seek forbidden knowledge and forbidden experience.

Perhaps Ulysses is teaching Dante to not misuse his own considerable abilities. Perhaps the sin punished in this bolgia is the misuse of great abilities — that is, using great abilities to harm others. Perhaps Dante must be careful to use his own great abilities to help other people and not to harm them.

One way to test this supposition is to look at the story of Guido da Montefeltro. If he is a man of great abilities who misused his great abilities to harm other people, then that is good evidence that the Misuse of Great Abilitiesis the sin being punished here. This is the sin of Great But Misdirected Abilities.

  • Does Guido da Montefeltro want to be remembered on Earth?

No, he does not. He says that if he thought that Dante could ever return to the living world, he would not identify himself and tell him his story. However, since he believes that no one ever escapes from the Inferno, he does tell Dante his story.

  • How does Guido da Montefeltro tell his story? (Which story does he tell?)

Guido says:

“I was a man of arms, then Cordelier,

Believing thus begirt to make amends;

And truly my belief had been fulfilled

But for the High Priest, whom may ill betide,

Who put me back into my former sins;

And how and wherefore I will have thee hear.

While I was still the form of bone and pulp

My mother gave to me, the deeds I did

Were not those of a lion, but a fox.

The machinations and the covert ways

I knew them all, and practised so their craft,

That to the ends of earth the sound went forth.”

(Longfellow 27.67-78)

The “High Priest” whom Guido refers to is Pope Boniface VIII.

We see a few things in Guido’s story:

  • Guido had two careers: First he was a soldier and then he was a priest.
  • Guido blames Pope Boniface VIII for his being in Hell.
  • Like Ulysses, he was wily like a fox. Both men were shrewd and had great abilities. They were warriors, but they were also known for trickery. Ulysses, of course, came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. We will see Guido’s trick later.
  • Guido is overestimating his fame. He was important regionally, but he was hardly famous throughout the world.
  • What does Guido da Montefeltro do when he reaches old age?

Guido continues:

“When I saw that the time of life had come

for me, as it must come for every man

to lower the sails and gather in the lines,

things I once found pleasure in then grieved me;

repentant and confessed, I took the vows

a monk takes. And, oh, to think it could have worked!”

(Musa 27.79-84)

When he got old, he started thinking that it was time to think about his soul. He became a Franciscan monk.

  • After talking about retiring to become a religious man, Guido da Montefeltro says, “And, oh, to think it could have worked!” (Musa, Inferno27.84). How can we interpret that line?

Guido is tricky, as we will see, and I think in this line we see him attempting to be tricky. Guido tried to scam God by becoming a monk. He was wily like a fox throughout his career, and he tried to be wily like a fox and scam God into letting him into Paradise.

  • How does Pope Boniface VIII convince the Franciscan monk Guido da Montefeltro to give him military advice?

Guido da Montefeltro is now Brother Guido, but Pope Boniface VIII runs into a problem. He is fighting the Colonna family, and the Colonna family is barricaded inside Palestrina, a fortified city at the top of a mountain in Italy. Because of the location of the fortified city, it is going to be very, very difficult to take.

Knowing that Guido is a sly fox, Pope Boniface VIII comes to him to ask for advice. This is what happens:

“But even as Constantine sought out Sylvester

To cure his leprosy, within Soracte,

So this one sought me out as an adept

To cure him of the fever of his pride.

Counsel he asked of me, and I was silent,

Because his words appeared inebriate.”         (Longfellow 27.94-99)

This Constantine is the Constantine of the Donation of Constantine, and he is in Paradise. Pope Sylvester I used baptismal water to cure the leprosy of Constantine.

Basically, Pope Boniface VIII is asking for advice from Brother Guido about how to kill Christians. After all, the Colonna family is Christian, and here we have a fight among Christians: the Pope’s forces versus the Colonna family. Pope Boniface VIII became Pope when Celestine V resigned, but the Colonna family did not believe that the resignation of Pope Celestine V was valid; therefore, the Colonna family opposed Pope Boniface VIII.

  • What argument does Pope Boniface VIII use to convince Guido da Montefeltro to give him military advice?

Brother Guido hesitates because giving advice about how to kill Christians is not what a Franciscan monk should do. Therefore, Pope Boniface VIII begins to make arguments to persuade him:

“And then he said: ‘Be not thy heart afraid;

Henceforth I thee absolve; and thou instruct me

How to raze Palestrina to the ground.

Heaven have I power to lock and to unlock,

As thou dost know; therefore the keys are two,

The which my predecessor held not dear.’”   (Longfellow 27.100-105)

  • What will happen to Pope Boniface VIII when he dies?

We know what will happen to Pope Boniface VIII when he dies, although he is still alive in 1300, the time thatThe Divine Comedyis set. Pope Boniface VIII will be in the 3rdbolgia of Circle 8 of the Inferno; this part of the Inferno is dedicated to punishing the Simonists. Pope Boniface VIII says that he has the keys “to lock and unlock Heaven” (Musa, Inferno27.104), but he was unable to keep himself out of the Inferno.

In fact, Pope Boniface VIII does not have those keys. We will see those keys on the Mountain of Purgatory. An angel has those two keys, and the angel unlocks a gate when a sinner is ready to begin climbing the Mountain of Purgatory and purge his or her sins.

  • Is Pope Boniface VIII scamming Guido da Montefeltro?

Yes, he is. Pope Boniface VIII is not able to forgive a sin committed against another person or family. You can forgive a sin committed against yourself, but you can’t forgive a sin committed against someone else. Only God can forgive a sin committed against someone else.

In addition, Pope Boniface VIII does not decide who gets into Heaven or Hell. If he did, he would not end up being punished eternally with the other Simonists when he dies.

  • Is Brother Guido’s repentance sincere?

This is what Brother Guido says next:

“Then urged me on his weighty arguments

There, where my silence was the worst advice;

And said I: ‘Father, since thou washest me

Of that sin into which I now must fall,

The promise long with the fulfilment short

Will make thee triumph in thy lofty seat.’”

(Longfellow 27.106-111)

Brother Guido falls for the scam. He fails to recognize the fallacy in what Pope Boniface VIII promises him.

Think about this. Brother Guido wants to be forgiven for a sin before he commits it. However, that is not the way that repentance works. With repentance, you sin, then you regret having committed the sin and you do your best not to repeat the sin. You will be forgiven the sin if your repentance is honest. Of course, Brother Guido’s repentance is not honest. He goes ahead and sins, knowing that he is sinning. Brother Guido’s repentance was not honest when he became a monk, and his repentance is not honest when he asks for his sin to be forgiven before he commits it.

Imagine that you want to murder someone. You go to confession, confess to murder, and perform your repentance. Then you commit murder. While committing the murder, you are mortally wounded and die. You tell God, “You have to let me into Heaven. After all, I repented my sin of murder.” What is God going to say to you? I think we all know that God is going to say: “YOU GO TO HELL!”

Brother Guido is a scammer, but he falls for Pope Boniface VIII’s scam. Brother Guido is smart, but not smart enough.

Guido da Montefeltro did not truly repent when he became a monk. He was trying to scam God into letting him into Heaven. We see that in these lines he speaks: “I took the vows / a monk takes. And, oh, to think it could have worked!” (Musa, Inferno27.83-84).

  • Which advice does Guido da Montefeltro give Pope Boniface VIII regarding his military problem?

The advice is this, along with the acknowledgement by Guido that he is committing a sin:

 “I said, ‘Father, since you grant me absolution

for this sin that I find I must fall into now:

ample promise with a scant fulfillment

will bring you triumph on your lofty throne.’”

(Musa 27.108-111)

Notice that Brother Guido recognizes that he is sinning by offering this advice. The advice is to make promises, then not keep your promises. Tell the Colonna family that you want to be friends and that you will give them what they want, and then when they come out of the fortified city, destroy the city so that the Colonna family no longer has this stronghold. In other words, arrange a truce, and then break the truce as soon as it is advantageous for you.

The Pope followed this advice. When the Colonna family left Palestrina, a fortified city at the top of a mountain in Italy, the Pope had it destroyed.

  • Is the advice of Guido da Montefeltro the kind of advice that a Franciscan ought to give?

Brother Guido is supposed to be a Franciscan. Franciscans are for peace, not war. A Franciscan ought not to give this kind of advice.

In addition, Franciscans favor the repentance of sins. A Franciscan friar ought to know that the arguments of Pope Boniface VIII are totally and completely bogus.

  • What happens when Guido da Montefeltro dies?

Because he is a Franciscan friar, and because Pope Boniface VIII gave him his word that his sin would be forgiven and that he would enter Heaven (the Pope said that he has the key to Heaven), Brother Guido expects to enter Heaven when he dies. In fact, Saint Francis comes to get his soul.

Unfortunately for Brother Guido, however, one of the black Cherubim also comes for his soul, arguing that Brother Guido has not repented his sin.

Brother Guido says:

 “Saint Francis came to get me when I died,

but one of the black Cherubim cried out:

‘Don’t touch him, don’t cheat me of what is mine!

“‘He must come down to join my other servants

for the false counsel he gave. From then to now

I have been ready at his hair, because

one cannot be absolved unless repentant,

nor can one both repent and will a thing

at once — the one is cancelled out by the other.’”

(Musa 27.112-120)

The black angel says that a sinner cannot “both repent and will a thing / at once — the one is cancelled out by the other” (Inferno27.119-120). Of course, that is exactly what Brother Guido was doing. He wanted his sin to be forgiven, but at the same time he was planning to sin (by giving the Pope the unethical advice that the Pope wanted).

We know what happens to unrepentant sinners. They end up in the Inferno — exactly as does Brother Guido.

  • Who are the black Cherubim?

The Cherubim are the 8thorder of angels. Some of the Cherubim rebelled against God and became fallen angels; they are the black Cherubim. Note that the black Cherubim, who were members of the 8thorder of angels, appear in the 8thpocket of the 8thcircle of the Inferno.

  • Has Guido da Montefeltro lost the “good of intellect”?

Guido spent his life scamming others, yet he does not recognize the scam when Pope Boniface VIII scams him. He has lost the “good of intellect.”

I think we can argue that Dante’s Ulysses has also lost the good of intellect. He should know that it would be a good idea to stay home with his family now that he is old. He should also realize that it is better not to experience and not to know some things. However, as we have seen, he goes on a final voyage and gets himself and his men killed.

  • Why does Dante spend so much time in this bolgia? What does he learn from Ulysses and from Guido da Montefeltro?

We know that both Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro are very intelligent people. Both felt a temptation to misuse their intelligence and their powers of persuasion. Both scammed other people.

As a very intelligent man, Dante likely would have felt the temptation to misuse his intelligence and his powers of persuasion. Here in the Inferno he is learning not to do that.

In addition, both Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro gave false counsel. Dante must tell the truth and not lie in The Divine Comedy.

Ulysses, Diomed, Guido da Montefeltro, and Dante all have great abilities. If Dante misuses his great abilities, he can end up in the Inferno just like Ulysses, Diomed, and Guido da Montefeltro.

  • Do you know of anyone who has misused his or her intelligence and powers of persuasion?

Most criminals are very stupid, thankfully; however, some are intelligent. One person was a very good computer programmer, and he knew that when someone throws something away, that another person can legally take it. He also knew that banks round off their transactions. For example, the figure $12.914 may be rounded off to $12.91, thus throwing away .004.

Therefore, when he was hired to do computer programming for a huge bank that did billions of transactions per day, he wrote code that directed that the money that had been rounded off (or thrown away) be put into his bank account. Because the bank did so many billions of transactions per day, quickly this grew to a sizable amount of money, which he spent. When he was caught, he said that he was merely taking what the bank was throwing away. (No, he did not get away with it.)

Here’s another example. During the gold rush in California, a man worked in a saloon. Prospectors would come in with bags of gold dust instead of money, and this man’s job was to weigh the gold dust and let the prospectors know how much they could spend. This man had long hair, and he frequently ran his fingers through his hair. Each night, he would go home, rinse out his hair, and pick out the gold dust from the bottom of the basin.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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