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Dante And Melville: Flawed Virtue, Truth And Justice

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In Dante's Inferno and Herman Melville's Billy Budd, the views of justice, virtue, and truth are each addressed through the travels of Dante the character and Billy Budd. These two men make journeys that exemplify Dante and Herman Melville's philosophies. However distinct their views are, Melville's and Dante's books are used only to catch the attention of their readers and to influence the public to their own self-interested beliefs. Although Dante's Inferno and Herman Melville's Billy Budd both pose as books that reveal the secrets of justice, virtue and truth, both novels are only used to address the authors' own purposes and beliefs. The writing of these authors is tainted by their own beliefs and their opinions on truth, justice, and virtue are not pure.

In Dante's Inferno, Dante the character embarks on a journey through hell where he encounters the thorough and perfect justice of God through all nine levels of hell. The first passage in this book says, "Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself in the dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true." (Dante, 3) In the beginning of this book, Dante the character has fallen off the path of righteousness. God gives him a second chance to regain the path. His guide, Virgil, was sent to fetch Dante by his love Beatrice to get her. After walking through as a witness through hell, Dante then moves on to Purgatory to continue the journey documented in the next book of the Divine Comedy.

The beliefs of virtue and truth of Dante's culture are influenced very much by the time and place that he lived in. Dante lived in Italy from the late twelfth century to the early thirteenth century. His culture was extremely influenced by religion, which was closely ruled by the pope. He lived in Florence, so he was very close to the center of Christianity, the Pope. His truth is centered around God and God was his truth. The view of God during that time was not of grace, like it is today, but the people were very God-fearing and they believed Him to be rigid. Dante used the Christian belief to get his political statements across. Family was also very important. One soul asks Dante, "Who were your family?" Family was what made you important. Politics has always gotten in the way of virtue and it always will. Dante's politics are shown through his views of truth and virtue.

Concerning man's justice and God's justice, Dante sets the scene as having a very pious and God-fearing view. The beliefs that Dante put on are that man is insufficient. For this reason, his justice is also insufficient. Man is tainted by sin and the Devil and he will use his own justice to work to his benefit. A counterfeiter, always dieing of thirst in the tenth ditch of Malebolge says, "The rigid justice sifting me like wheat has drawn a cause from where my sins took place to set my thirsty sighs to faster flight."(Dante, 311) According to Dante, God created hell so that all those who did not repent could be sentenced by the perfect means of punishment for their sin. He wants to make sure that his readers believe the punishments given in the Inferno are earned. He wants to give the illusion that the punishments given to his enemies were well earned. Dante believes that Divine Justice is the only sufficient way. Because God knows everything, he knows exactly how to punish every single sinner. Divine Justice is set and rigid. God himself is perfect, so one punishment in hell that he made is perfect for every sinner.

Through two events, however, it is obvious that Dante has made a mistake because of his contradicting opinions in each instance. At one time, it seems that he believes in it, but in other situations Dante changes his mind to accommodate the opposite belief. The first event that shows a positive or negative belief in predestination is in the beginning of the Inferno. In one of the first lines he says that he "had wandered from the straight and true." Miraculously, he is given a second chance. On the path he was walking, he was heading straight for hell. According to Dante, it is his love of Beatrice that interfered and set him on the right path again. In another instance, he leans toward predestination and the manipulation of humans by a higher power. In the tenth and final circle of hell, he meets a man whose mortal body is still on Earth, but at the same time his soul is living in hell. This man, Brother Albergo, was such an avid sinner, that he was forcibly taken early from life on Earth as a demon took over his body when he went to hell. This man of the Church did not choose this path, but instead it was chosen for him. His soul was taken because of his sinful actions. This man was taken from his life by force and given no choice but to succumb. Dante's outlook toward justice is very muddled because of his contradictory sources.

Billy Budd, by Herman Melville, is a short story about a young man aboard a ship who is destined to die. Billy is a cheerful man in almost any situation and spreads joy to everyone else. He is a Christ-like character in Billy Budd and in the end he is killed out of others' faulty actions, not his own. Billy was impressed onto a British ship before the War of 1812. Everyone on the ship loved him except for one person. John Claggart's duty as the master at arms is to keep order on the ship and to make sure that there is no mutiny. John Claggart is a naturally evil person, so his opposite is Billy Budd. It is his nature to get rid of Billy Budd. He accuses Billy of murder and Billy can't handle it and ends up killing him. According to naval law, this means that Billy must be hung. Claggart took Billy down, but he fell with him.

Unlike Dante, Melville used modern culture, politics and topics of interest to attract the attention of his readers to his views, not the other way around. Melville's views of virtue and truth are much different that the one shown in the Inferno. In the same time of Darwin, science was becoming a prominent part of culture. Melville was still focused some on God, but man's truth is more prominent than God's in this story. Melville's ideal virtuous man is the "handsome sailor." The handsome sailor is the sailor that possesses strength, humor, beauty, uniqueness, and honesty. They are physically matched to their physical beauty and they are the perfect model for how everyone should be. Billy Budd is the handsome sailor whom everyone loves. He is happy and good all the time and expects the best from everyone. Virtue is fully portrayed in the character of Billy Budd. Because of his childlike innocents,



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