Over at the Circe website, Brian Phillips is trying to spark a discussion about teaching Dante’s Inferno (presumably to high schoolers). This comes at a good time, because a friend and reader of this blog wrote me this week to ask what things I would recommend that she focus on when she teaches Dante to her high school classes in the future. Here’s one of Phillips’s must-ask questions:

2.What does Virgil mean when he says that the fallen souls in hell have “lost the good of intellect” (Canto III)?  How does that loss manifest itself in later cantos?

This line, early in Canto III, reveals something about Dante’s perception of “intellect” that differs from the modern limitation of intellect to the world of mere thought or academic consideration.  The idea seems to be that the fallen souls have “lost their minds”, so how does that show itself in the various circles of hell?  For example, see Canto V, line 39, where Dante speaks of those who “betrayed reason to their appetite.”

All five of his questions are good, but this one, I think, is the most important of the lot. As he points out, “intellect” to Dante is not what it is to us, and if contemporary students don’t get this straight from the beginning, they’re not going to understand the Inferno (or the other two books) properly.

Let me ask you readers who know the Inferno: which questions are important for teachers to pose to students encountering the poem for the first time? In my response to my teacher friend, I suggested emphasizing how much Dante’s adventure has to do with the lives her students, and the choices they face. One question I would pose to them would be this:

At least three of the damned the pilgrim meets in Hell symbolize things considered virtuous in today’s world. Francesca followed the passions of her heart, yet she is damned. Brunetto Latini advises Dante to set his course through life by his own stars, and he will succeed. Ulysses exercised boundless curiosity and a craving for discovery — yet is punished for it. Follow your heart, believe in yourself, chase your dreams — these are all things our popular culture tells us are goods. Why does Dante condemn them?

Which questions do you think it’s especially important for Dante students to explore on their first reading of Inferno?

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