DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.


Final Paper, brings together all aspects of a research paper. Aimed to be well organized, clear, and persuasive.



Emily Kammerer


Self Deceit In Inferno?


“The traditional nine-tiered system had grown insufficient accommodating the the exponentially rising numbers of Hellbound,” says an article by online satirical news commentary The Onion (1).The reporter continues, “We’re really on the grow down here. This is an exciting time to be in Hell” (The Onion 2). Ten years later, another author will pursue the idea for the need of an additional circle in Hell, introducing another sin that Dante supposedly left out of his famous Inferno.


Dante Alighieri wrote about all the sins and all the punishments in Inferno. However, while he makes clear that violence against anyone else, or oneself is a sin, and deceit and treachery are the worst sins of all, he makes no explicit mention of self deception. Is self deception in Inferno at all, and if so, where is it and why is there no specific circle and punishment for it? One modern interpretation that addresses this question is the novel by Jodi Picoult, The Tenth Circle. While it is a very good adaptation, both conducive to a modern audience, as well as entertaining and thought provoking for someone who has already read Inferno, a bigger question besides the quality of her adaptation is the one huge liberty she took that is evident in the title. Written almost ten years after the Onion’s article, this modern adaptation has also added an extra circle to Dante’s meticulously structured hell. It explores a sin that Dante apparently left out; self deception. This is interesting, because the main reason most of these sinners are in hell, as opposed to heaven or purgatory, is that they refused to admit to themselves or to God that what they did was wrong, and repent. Therefore this sin would likely be present in every part of Dante’s hell anyway. Why would this modern version need a tenth circle? 


Picoult’s creation of an extra circle of hell is a daring one. What sin could Dante not have covered? Daniel Stone, the pilgrim of Picoult’s adaptation, finds out at the end of his journey through hell. “The tenth circle of hell is for those who lie to themselves. Here you must face who you truly are.” (Picoult 366) If the journeyer can face up to who he really is, according to Picoult, he can go through hell and out the other side, but if he continues to lie to himself he will be trapped there forever. Here she alludes to her character Daniel, modeled after the original pilgrim Dante. Dante was a man in the midst of a midlife crisis, who was questioning his life, his actions and his beliefs. Through his journey he feels a gamut of emotions, from pity to rage, towards the sinners of hell. While the pity is scolded and the rage is praised by his guide Virgil, Dante is going through an other world experience and can not be quite clear on what is right and wrong. Every time Daniel feels this rage, he is transformed into a monster and part of his humanity is lost forever. Obviously Picoult’s feelings on the pilgrim’s anger is that it is “Ira Mala,” and inappropriate for the pilgrim. However, Dante the poet writes the character of Virgil to praise his actions. Perhaps Picoult is alluding to the fact that the poet Dante himself may be guilty of self deceit, by creating this authority figure, sent by God, to condone his wrongful actions. This self deceit, however, according to both Dante and Picoult’s standards, is not a direct one way ticket to Hell. In Picoult’s adaptation, the pilgrim is allowed to go back to his regular life and try to correct his sins, as potentially is Dante the pilgrim after his journey.


This fits well with Dante’s concept of hell, because his sinners need only have a moment of true remorse and regret for their sin, even in their last moments on earth, and they would be sent to Purgatory with Heaven as the ultimate destination. Therefore, all of  the sinner’s in hell must not have admitted their sin, meaning they must be deceiving themselves. Not quite though, according to Dante scholar Wallace Fowlie. “From this point on [Canto 8], there is no trace of self deception, no trace of the easily moving leopard. Evil will be as clear as the walls made red by the fire that burns within them” (Fowlie 65). These sinners apparently realized what they were doing, and did it anyway. However, before Canto 9, self deceit is found everywhere. 


First in Canto 5, Virgil tells Dante of Semiramis. She is a prime example of self deceit, as “…in her laws she made licit whatever pleased, to lift from herself the blame she had incurred” (Inferno 5.55). She refused to admit that her actions were wrong, and instead made her actions “legal” on earth, so that neither she nor any who behaved like her could be chastised or punished. Therefore, she is punished in hell both for her sin of lust, and most likely for deceiving herself and everyone around her. There doesn’t need to be a separate circle in Dante’s hell, then, since the people who are deceiving themselves are already committing other sins anyway.


Self deceit could also be another term, in Picoult’s eyes and Dante’s, as an excuse for the sin. For Dante this would clearly make the sin even worse, that after sinning the sinner would create a reason to excuse it to themselves, their peers, and God. Two such figures are Francesca da Rimini and Guido da Montefeltro.


Francesca has an interesting story, one even Dante the pilgrim weeps at in Inferno. She was married, and yet lusted after her brother in law, and was then caught kissing him by her husband. She is in the second circle of hell for her sin of lust. However, Dante makes it quite clear that she is also quite self deceptive of her actions. She agrees to speak to Dante and Virgil, “since [they] have pity on our twisted pain” (Inferno 5.92). This is already a sign that she considers herself to be worthy of pity, and has led herself and even the puilgrim to believe that she is a victim, instead of a sinner condemned to Hell. Francesca laments, “love led us on to one death,” and it is clear that she does not view her actions as sinful, but is insistent that she was put in this situation through no action of her own (Inferno 5.106). Even Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez note in their comments about Inferno that in this canto “it is the personified god of love that is made the agent, rather than the human actors” (pg. 97). Her speech does not make any excuses, it simply always finds a way to lay the blame on someone or something else, an obvious sign of self deception. Guido da Montefeltro takes a slightly different approach to his situation.


Historically, according to what we know from Inferno, is that Guido had been a military strategist, an expert at deceit from the start and continuously sinning. However, he eventually realized his wrongdoing and began to lead a sinless life.Then, Pope Boniface asked him to help him deceive some political opponents, and promised absolution in advance for Guido’s sins. Dante clearly felt that Guido knew that this was not at all appropriate or respectful to God, to plan a sin with the goal and promise of absolution. If Guido knew absolution was involved, he shouldn’t be committing the action in the first place. 


Some scholars, like Antonieta Bufano, believe that Dante’s lesson in Guido’s punishment is that “L'ignoranza non può essere addotta come giustificazione, essendo di per sè una colpa,” or ignorance does not excuse sinful behavior (15). This is a valid opinion, because one would think that a man following the instructions and desires of the Pope, such as Guido, would not be held responsible for being led astray by such a high authority. Dante’s opinion of Guido’s sentencing is partly personal belief and partly history. 


Dante illustrates his feelings on Guido’s self deception by saying in Inferno “without fear of Infamy I answer you” (27.65). Dante is showing with these words that other peoples perception of him was very important to him in life and even in death, whereas Dante felt God’s perception should always be most important. Therefore, Guido was deceiving himself and others by masking his sins. Guido further says “and surely my belief would have been fulfilled had it not been for the high priest, may evil take him! who put me back into my first sins” (Inferno 27.69). This shows in Dante’s eyes that Guido is blaming the Pope for his actions, even though he knew that they were wrong and just assumed he wouldn’t be punished for them in Hell thanks to the Popes favor. However, in Bufano’s eyes, Guido just didn’t realize that the popes pre-absolution was frowned upon by God. Dante and Bufano both agree that the sins Guido committed were wrong, they just differ on the source. Bufano feels Guido was ignorant of God’s will, whereas Dante feels Guido willfully disobeyed God’s laws, expecting no punishment. So even though Guido tells the truth that the pope did absolve him, he knew it was wrongful absolution for a wrongful sin, so even giving such an excuse is deceit to others and himself. In other words, “Truth defended by deceit becomes deceit” (Horton 190). 


The film adaptation of The Tenth Circle opens with one of the minor characters outlining the sins and circles of the lower circles of hell. “They have no sting of conscience, no guilt” (Tenth Circle Film 2 minutes). This is a perfect way of saying that they have deceived themselves so well that the severity of what they have done doesn‘t even bother them. Unlike Wallace Fowlie#, Dante didn’t believe that the lower circles were so evil that they enjoyed what they did and didn’t need to find a way to justify it to themselves. I am in agreement with Dante on this point. Humanity cannot be simply evil and live with themselves. God’s number one angel was able to betray and revolt against his master not because he was pure evil, but because he was able to justify to himself and others that his opinion was right, and that he had the right to revolt against God. The movie ends with a thought on the sinners of the final circle of hell, the ones “who lie to ourselves by pretending we aren’t hurting the ones we love” (Tenth Circle Film, 92 minutes). Picoult’s book and movie explain that the only way anyone can betray people so close to them, their family or closest allies, is if they are deceiving themselves the whole time and telling themselves they have the right to do it, and that they are most important.


This view of self deceit molds exactly with Dante’s final circle of hell, those who have betrayed their kin, guests, or benefactors. While Picoult may have believed there should be a circle specifically for those who lie to themselves about their sins, Dante knew that those sinners would be punished, and most of the time punished worst of all the other sinners in the frozen pit of hell along with Satan. Satan committed the worst crime, by going against God. In Dante’s mind, this meant he put himself before God, therefore deceiving himself that he was more important then his master. Satan’s self deceit is also evident in the fact that he shows no remorse, or acceptance of his fate, as he continuously beats his wings to try to escape and free himself. 


“The peculiar horror of deceit is that it always begins with self-deceit, in what Plato called ‘the lie of the soul’ ’ (Horton 187).  “Men deceive others because they have first deceived themselves” argues Horton, therefore implying that self deceit is always both a consequence of and a cause of the deceit and betrayal of others (187). It is a vicious circle, or as he calls it, “suicide” (187). Satan must have first rationalized to himself that he had the power and privilege to go against God, or else how could he have done it to his own master? An even greater example, is “the soul up there who has the greatest punishment,” which is Judas, the betrayer of Jesus Christ (Inferno 34.61). Interestingly enough, all four main characters at the bottom of Hell must have deceived themselves in life to commit the acts they did. The reason we know that it is not simply as Wallace Fowlie stated “evil as clear as the walls made red by the fire,” is because evil people are not God’s right hand men or the best friend and disciple of Jesus (65). Therefore, pure evil cannot be used as an excuse for their actions, so the only way they could have betrayed their closest friends was by lying to themselves to hide the guilt and knowledge of wrongdoing. 


Brutus and Cassius were pardoned by Julius Caesar and later plotted to assassinate him together (Durling 546). This was a man that helped them and forgave them, and they were able to cause his death. Maybe the argument could be made that they were just pure evil, but they still plotted to kill their best friend. Cassius later commits suicide, maybe because of guilt over his part in Julius Caesar’s death, or maybe just because of a loss of another battle for rule of the empire (Durling 546). Either way, in order to conspire, he obviously had to make himself believe that it was the right thing to do. Brutus is the same story, and same punishment, but he appears a little more resilient than Cassius. First off, he did not kill himself due to any shame or regret. More importantly, he refuses to show any pain or agony in Hell, either to deceive others that he is suffering so immensely, or maybe to continue to deceive himself, so strong must be his power of self deceit. However, while it could be argued that these two were just two evil people who could kill in cold blood without even needing to justify it to themselves, no one can argue solely that the final two sufferers, Judas and Satan, were simply evil and heartless.


Judas was the disciple and close friend of Jesus Christ. It is highly doubtful that Jesus, the son of God, would have a one layered, purely evil disciple. Therefore, Judas must have been good at one time, and he must have admired and looked up to Jesus and been every bit the loyal follower. Eventually, when pride, greed, or envy (three other sins not explicity punished in Inferno) kicked in, self deceit must have been a factor as well. There is no way Jesus’ friend could betray him, unless he was able to justify it to himself, to lie to himself and ignore the consequences of his actions, especially eternal damnation. That is key as well. All of these sinners knew the bible, knew the commandments of God, and would have been aware of the dire consequences that befell people who commit such crimes. Yet they committed them anyway? They must have blocked out the little angel on their shoulder telling them the right thing to do, and lied to their conscience while committing these atrocious acts. Robert Horton phrases it best when he states: “And as with the greater crimes of fraud…which poison our human life: they come from those who have practiced deceit on themselves until they are unaware that they are sinning” (189).


Finally, Satan was God’s archangel and most privileged ally, a heavenly figure wo could not have been ignorant or evil. Clearly, he was able to deceive himself so much that he could rebel against his master and supporter. For this act of self deceit, which subsequently leads to his defiance of God, results in his eternal imprisonment in the frozen depths of Hell. He is unable to even relay his story or experience, or have any autonomy whatsoever, as he is completely unable to do anything. However, he continues to deceive himself by continuously beating his wings to try and escape hell, although he knows that he is forever imprisoned for his atrocious sins.


Everyone in hell must be guilty of self deceit, because the one true reason they are in hell, besides and above the sins they committed, is that they were never regretful of their sins, and never admitted to themselves that they were wrong. Modern writers and readers seem to have a need to fit self deceit into its own circle, maybe because we can not see clearly how self deceit actually is present and can lead to all of the other sins in Inferno. Dante knew that those who deceive themselves are the ones who would make up Hell, essentially, because they refuse to accept blame and admit guilt of their sins. Hell is made up completely of self deceivers.


One last thought on the presence of a specific circle of self deceit, such as in The Tenth Circle, is that it helps readers see the self deceit in the original Inferno. It helps them to think about and notice where self deceit is in the original, and sparks new conversations about whether self deceit deserves a new circle. To the arguments that it is wrong to try to rewrite a classic, Picoult responds “All the good stories have already been written, and fiction is just a matter of recycling something” (Podcast 30 secs). So even though our generation can add and subtract components of Inferno to fit our society, the story will always be Dante’s, and the inspiration and platform is solid and unchangeable. Few would argue that Dante encompassed every facet of human existence in his poem, and authors like Picoult simply focus on certain parts, or emphasize less obvious parts of Inferno. After all, Dante had to leave something for us to think and philosophize about for the next 500 years.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.