Was Odysseus Sentenced to the Wrong Level of Dante’s Hell?

Head of Odysseus in sculptural group. Open Domain Image
The head of Odysseus is from a larger Greek sculpture representing when Odysseus blinded Polyphemus. Open Domain Photo

Ever notice how great novels and movies rarely feature your average Joe getting up every morning to provide for his family, maybe enjoying a good meal, taking in a game—though even that’s been robbed from him now—and getting scant admiration from his family? Then he gets up and does it all again? If he is the hero, he’s not portrayed as handsome, flinty, and off on his next adventure—you know, the kind of guy women fall for—but as average and unexceptional. No, heroes are molded after brave Odysseus who leaves his young son, his loving wife and aged father, and even his faithful dog, to go fight a 10-year war, followed by a 10-year trek to get back home—in an age where there were no cell phones or rotations home. Meanwhile, his wife is left to fend off a company-sized parade of suitors, his son comes to age without a father’s influence, his mother dies missing him, his father still misses him, and his poor loyal dog is dying, forever on watch for his master’s return. All waiting, waiting, waiting, living their lives as best they can, but certainly in need of the presence of a strong man.

Sounds like a warrior’s life. At least the ones who treat the life as a mistress they couldn’t leave even if they wanted to, a mistress who will turn her back on them as soon as their knees or back give out, or when she’s pushed them beyond their ability to bounce back. Sometimes, she never lets them go. She just pulls them into death with her, all for the sin of wanting to see and do so much, all over the world, accomplishing the mission, never quitting. Good and honorable men, full of the physical and mental fortitude to stop evil in its tracks. It’s love of the game, pure love, which by Dante’s calculations lands you squarely in level two of hell, not eight, for Pete’s sake. Warrior elite belong with the lovers, forever doomed to perpetual longing, not one rung up from Judas Iscariot!

If you haven’t taken advantage of Hillsdale College’s free online courses, you’re missing out. Hillsdale is a Christian college, but it accepts students of any religion. It was founded in 1844 with the mission to “perpetuate the blessings of civil and religious liberty.” Ten years ago it began offering free online courses in history, literature, and politics mostly with some economics and natural sciences subjects covered, too. They are well produced with learned professors who always come across as throwbacks to an era where classical education and civility were the norm and not the exception. The college works within the four pillars of a what it considers a well-rounded education to members of a free and moral society: 1.) to pursue knowledge of the highest things; 2.) to provide insight to the nature of God and man; 3.) to form character, 4.) and to defend constitutional government.

Hillsdale’s latest release is on Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” As an American-focused liberal-arts educated student, I found all these types of classics drudgery. I’m lazy. The language was hard, harder than needing endless notes in your Bible. I barely got through Shakespeare’s plays, “The Canterbury Tales,” “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey,” but these courses can reignite an interest in such classics, and now that I’m older with deeper life experiences, I can appreciate them more. In a world in which online searches lends itself to shallow, cursory knowledge, taking the time to delve into an old-world classic can elevate our American culture.

So the pilgrim Dante meets up with his mentor, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, in of all places, the first layer of hell, where good people who didn’t accept Christ spend their afterlife. In comparison to the other places in hell, it’s not so bad, but it’s all relative. The second level is where those who didn’t repent from lustful liaisons spend eternity in longing, which sounds similar to life here on earth. Dante meets an old lover at this layer of hell and he feels pity for her. Interestingly, when Francesca tells her story about reading with her lover and exchanging glances, one thing leads to another and they don’t read anymore. In the throes of passion, time for expansive knowledge is consumed, learning falls to the wayside. Francesca blames love, and as an Italian, Dante, who’s in love with love, can only feel empathy for her soul.

It seems to me that we should find Odysseus here, too. After all, it was only love of the adventure, the bond of brotherhood, the challenge of the next mission, that caused him to abandon his family—for two decades. While, we’re on the topic, where on earth was Adam when the serpent seduced Eve? When strong, Godly men abdicate their rightful position as leaders of their families, bad things happen and society takes another step toward decay. But, Odysseus is not here.

Odysseus is sentenced to a much deeper level of hell, down in the intricacies of fraud. Fraud? There’s nothing purer than a good man donning full kit for God to hunt down evil men preying on the innocent or forcing misery and enslavement on unsuspecting populations. In “The Odyssey,” there are barriers as to how far out to sea men may venture. It’s like God’s guardrails for life, or His instructions to Adam and Eve: You can go here, but not there. But like all of us in our own ways, Odysseus wants to go beyond the known and into the unknown. How is he to convince his men this is a good idea? He rallies the troops. Literally, gives them a motivational speech, and at the end, they’d follow him anywhere.

You’ll often here Odysseus’ words used out of context at graduations, but he tells his men they are more than animals fenced-in to a limited world, and that they were meant for more, to see the world and to know all the good and evil of mankind. He was a fraudulent counselor, doomed to live in a throat surrounded by tongues of fire. God smashed his ship, and all Odysseus’ men drowned. Even though Odysseus made it home, and righted things when he got there, one can only imagine he spent the remainder of his life trying to be worthy of the lives of the men lost. Those men did not get home to their long-suffering families.

Dante and Virgil reach the depths of hell where Satan is half encased in ice. His once beautiful face deformed, his wings perpetually striving to lift him, his nether regions frozen, he is the most frustrated soul in hell, forever stuck in the exact opposite place of where Christ died to save mankind. Needless to say, our pilgrim and his tour guide book out of there, tout de suite.

The other two books of the poem are more uplifting, but true to human nature, we remember the bad more than the good, and “The Inferno” is seared into every lit major’s brain, however faintly. One imagines that the pilgrim is scared straight, as it were, so that he changes course and never return to The Enemy’s camp.

On Memorial Day it is only fitting to remember the fallen, and to remember them most fittingly by never leaving the living behind. Make time to be with your people, your brethren and your family. People die from the cold, the coldness in us that shuts the door on our connections to each other.

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