'How does the Body Depart?': A Neoplatonic Reading of Dante's Suicides

Dante Studies 132:175-200 (2014)
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Abstract

This paper examines Dante’s treatment of the suicides in Canto 13 of Inferno in light of certain Platonic arguments against suicide. I argue that Dante’s presentation of the suicides in many ways illustrates a similar philosophical understanding of the body-soul relation and the subsequent concerns about the effect of suicide on the human being. Dante’s Christian position emphasizes the importance of the body and shows how it is necessary for the human body-soul composite. I focus on two of Dante’s problems with suicide. First, his association of the suicides with the harpies of the Aeneid demonstrates that suicide is an act of pride whereby the human being overestimates his capacity to foresee future events and fails to trust in Divine Providence. Second, Dante presents the suicides as being still tied to, and concerned for their reputation in, the world of the living, despite their own violent severing of their bodily connection to it—a connection required for human activity. By focusing on these Neoplatonic arguments against suicide, I shed light on Dante’s Christian understanding of the body-soul relation and how this understanding contributes to the condemnation of suicide. Human nature requires the body and bodily activity in the world of finite affairs. In Dante’s depiction, suicide is violence. Although there were pagans who defended suicide for certain escapist or intellectual reasons, both they and Dante’s suicides share a common error: they fail to accept the essential nature of the human essence as having a bodily as well as a spiritual end. Returning directly to the Neoplatonic texts that influenced and resonate throughout the tradition that Dante inherits allows us to elucidate and highlight certain features of Dante’s thought and interpret his contrapasso in ways that might otherwise remain unnoticed.

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Seamus O'Neill
Memorial University of Newfoundland

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