With Usura: Dante (Pt. 2)

The exact year in which Dante started the Inferno is unclear. What is certain is that by the time of Dante’s birth, Florence was a burgeoning city-state, prospering from trade and commerce. The lending of money to and from private individuals for profit was regarded by the papacy as immoral, leading Pope Clement V to decree belief in the right to usury heretical in 1311. Nevertheless the loaning of money to businesses, with interest relative to the risk of the transaction, was the basis for growing mercantilism in the age.

Dante, for his part, seems unmoved by the distinction implicit between the two practices and condemns them equally, albeit for different reasons, for the Comedy is not only theological but a tract concerning political governance, echoing a changing focus of his work after exile. Of the two, Dante’s political reasoning is much the weakest; a reaction against the nouveau riche and petit bourgeoisie springing up in Florence and the growing political influence that new money brought. Like many a fundamentalist (and a fundamentalist he undoubtedly was), his religious zeal translated into a nostalgic desire for prelapsarian innocence, and he was by no means a progressive. That he held extreme religious contempt for the usurious is indicated most clearly in their place within the topography of the Inferno, which should now be elaborated.

The Inferno is subdivided into nine descending circles, each one corresponding to a worse offence and a greater punishment: the ‘virtuous heathen’ occupies the first circle, the ‘treacherous’ the ninth, closest to Lucifer and furthest from God. These nine circles and their populace are grouped by family resemblance regarding the type of sin committed, these being: the ‘virtuous heathen’ (1), the incontinent (2-5), heretics (6), the violent (7) and the fraudulent (8-9). Within circles 7 to 9 there are still a further 13 subdivisions, but these need not concern us here; what is of note is that the usurer is placed in the third section of the seventh circle; closest to the fraudulent; below the murderers and the suicides; and on a par with the blasphemer and the sodomite, in a group labelled ‘violent against God, nature and art’.

The relationship between usury and art will become apparent again in the later discussion of Pound’s Cantos, though in a slightly different interpretation. Regardless, the basis of Pound’s treatment of usury would seem to be influenced greatly by that found in the Inferno. What, then, is ‘art’ in this sense? Virgil, Dante’s guide through the nine circles of hell lays out a genealogy of ‘art’ towards the end of Canto XI, noting that ‘nature takes her course from the divine mind and its art,’ and that furthermore, ‘[man’s] art, as far as it can, follows nature as the pupil the master, so that your art is to God, as it were, a grandchild.’ (Inferno, Canto XI l. 25-30) In this sense therefore it would seem that ‘art’ becomes synonymous with ‘labour’ or man’s cultivation of nature before, (Genesis 1:28 ‘And God said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it”’, and after expulsion from Eden, (Genesis 3:22 ‘Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken’).

Acquiring money through the needs and misfortunes of others directly contravenes the Biblical precept of industry and hard work; ‘it behoves mankind to gain their livelihood and their advancement, and because the usurer takes another way he despises nature both in herself and in her followers, setting his hope elsewhere.’ (Inferno, Canto XI l. 32-35) That the usurer is also closest to the fraudulent is no coincidence.

But there is a further tension within the Divine Comedy which informs the place of usury in Dante’s cosmology. As already noted, this religious epic is also deeply political and quasi-Platonic in nature: echoing the Republic in its inferences on the shape and form of just political life and governance. To this end, much of Dante’s later works would take up the theme of human reason in much the same way as his earlier ones were preoccupied with his beloved Beatrice; it represents a shift from the donna gentile of his love poetry to the lady philosophy of his exilliteratur, which, in this case, is a distinct brand of Aristotelianism. The tension then, becomes quite clear: to reconcile ‘reason and Revelation’ in one work, which, as anyone with an eye on the political situation today will know, is quite an undertaking.

Much of the bizarre (to modern eyes) structure of the Inferno is predicated on this interplay between reason and faith which Dante’s sees as a divine gift. This explains, for example, why fraudulence is placed below murder and those treacherous to their lords are the lowest of all. If reason is the greatest of divine gifts, then the perversion of that reason to immoral ends is the ultimate betrayal, especially when turned against the divine order incarnate in the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. In this way then, the act of usury is not only in direct contradiction of biblical doctrine, but also an affront to the goodness of God and the faculties He bestowed on man.

Tellingly, Dante does not need instruction from Virgil as to the nature of the usurer’s crime, nor as to the reasons why it is a crime. For an abstract, socially (more or less) acceptable concept it would seem its severity is self evident to the author. No doubt this position is in no small part due to Dante’s extraordinary political situation and was not shared by those for whom the lending of money provided the basis for greater social mobility. But Dante’s social conservatism is neither particularly novel, nor confined to him alone. His aversion to predatory loan-sharking, is morally commendable, but the lack of distinction between this and commercial lending is troubling and reductive in the extreme. On balance it would seem that the repulsion he felt towards the masses got the better of his moralism and in the end his moralism fed into it. This though will be a recurring motif of the artistic treatment of usury.


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