Farmers, Foragers, and Inferno, Canto V, Over Time

One of Robin Hanson’s more intriguing ideas is that many “culture war” conflicts are really the result of two different perspectives: farmers (i.e., people in agricultural societies) and foragers (the perspective of hunter gatherers.)  Hanson argues that as we’ve become wealthier and Malthus no longer walks among us, cutting us down with his scythe, the harsh sexual morality and predisposition towards self-control that characterize farmer societies have faded in appeal, and we are moving gradually (back) towards a more free-wheeling, sexually and socially permissive forager morality and social organization.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that our ongoing transformation in morality and social organization is the result of grand demographiceconomic and technological forces rather than purely “cultural” shifts. It’s not all Hollywood’s fault.

That said, those grand forces don’t keep going in the same direction forever.

For example, I finally read Dante’s Inferno this summer. Dante himself is a paradigmatic expositor of a harsh “farmer” morality- the book is about getting punished for your sins after all. Dante died in 1321, when Italy (and Europe)’s population was near a several-century peak.

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His younger contemporary (and biographer) Boccaccio on the other hand, who wrote his famous Decameron after the 1348-1349 Black Plague wiped out 80% of the population of Florence, lived the second half of his life in a much more free-wheeling “forager” time. The Decameron is full of stories of loves and lusts that get rewarded (with fun if nothing else) instead of punished. Did Boccaccio and his contemporaries who had survived the plague realize they were no longer up against the Malthusian limit and it was time to get busy?

Even when it comes to Dante, it’s fascinating to see how his interpreters have shifted in emphasis and mores over time, and not all in one direction. So, below I pasted a bunch of illustrations made of his Canto V (“Lust: the Circle!”) from 1400 to 1900, roughly at the point of the poem they’re meant to portray.  I think (even if you TLDR all the way down to the bottom) you’ll agree there’s an interesting variety in how the same story is seen over time.

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Thus I descended out of the first circle
Down to the second, that less space begirds,
And so much greater dole, that goads to wailing.
There standeth Minos horribly, and snarls;

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Examines the transgressions at the entrance;
Judges, and sends according as he girds him.

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I say, that when the spirit evil-born
Cometh before him, wholly it confesses;

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And this discriminator of transgressions
Seeth what place in Hell is meet for it;
Girds himself with his tail as many times
As grades he wishes it should be thrust down.
Always before him many of them stand;
They go by turns each one unto the judgment;

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They speak, and hear, and then are downward hurled.
“O thou, that to this dolorous hostelry
Comest,” said Minos to me, when he saw me,
Leaving the practice of so great an office,
“Look how thou enterest, and in whom thou trustest;
Let not the portal’s amplitude deceive thee.”

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And unto him my Guide: “Why criest thou too?
Do not impede his journey fate-ordained;
It is so willed there where is power to do
That which is willed; and ask no further question.”
And now begin the dolesome notes to grow
Audible unto me; now am I come
There where much lamentation strikes upon me.
I came into a place mute of all light,
Which bellows as the sea does in a tempest,
If by opposing winds ‘t is combated.
The infernal hurricane that never rests
Hurtles the spirits onward in its rapine;
Whirling them round, and smiting, it molests them.

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When they arrive before the precipice,
There are the shrieks, the plaints, and the laments,
There they blaspheme the puissance divine.
I understood that unto such a torment
The carnal malefactors were condemned,
Who reason subjugate to appetite.

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And as the wings of starlings bear them on
In the cold season in large band and full,
So doth that blast the spirits maledict;
It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them;
No hope doth comfort them for evermore,
Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.
And as the cranes go chanting forth their lays,
Making in air a long line of themselves,
So saw I coming, uttering lamentations,
Shadows borne onward by the aforesaid stress.

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Whereupon said I: “Master, who are those
People, whom the black air so castigates?”
“The first of those, of whom intelligence
Thou fain wouldst have,” then said he unto me,
“The empress was of many languages.
To sensual vices she was so abandoned,
That lustful she made licit in her law,
To remove the blame to which she had been led.

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She is Semiramis, of whom we read
That she succeeded Ninus, and was his spouse;
She held the land which now the Sultan rules.
The next is she who killed herself for love,
And broke faith with the ashes of Sichaeus;
Then Cleopatra the voluptuous.”

05
Helen I saw, for whom so many ruthless
Seasons revolved; and saw the great Achilles,
Who at the last hour combated with Love.
Paris I saw, Tristan; and more than a thousand
Shades did he name and point out with his finger,
Whom Love had separated from our life.

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After that I had listened to my Teacher,
Naming the dames of eld and cavaliers,
Pity prevailed, and I was nigh bewildered.
And I began: “O Poet, willingly
Speak would I to those two, who go together,
And seem upon the wind to be so light.”

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And, he to me: “Thou’lt mark, when they shall be
Nearer to us; and then do thou implore them
By love which leadeth them, and they will come.”
Soon as the wind in our direction sways them,
My voice uplift I: “O ye weary souls!
Come speak to us, if no one interdicts it.”

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As turtle-doves, called onward by desire,
With open and steady wings to the sweet nest
Fly through the air by their volition borne,

05
So came they from the band where Dido is,
Approaching us athwart the air malign,
So strong was the affectionate appeal.

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“O living creature gracious and benignant,
Who visiting goest through the purple air
Us, who have stained the world incarnadine,
If were the King of the Universe our friend,
We would pray unto him to give thee peace,
Since thou hast pity on our woe perverse.
Of what it pleases thee to hear and speak,
That will we hear, and we will speak to you,
While silent is the wind, as it is now.

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Sitteth the city, wherein I was born,
Upon the sea-shore where the Po descends
To rest in peace with all his retinue.
Love, that on gentle heart doth swiftly seize,
Seized this man for the person beautiful
That was ta’en from me, and still the mode offends me.
Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving,
Seized me with pleasure of this man so strongly,
That, as thou seest, it doth not yet desert me;
Love has conducted us unto one death;
Caina waiteth him who quenched our life!”

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These words were borne along from them to us.
As soon as I had heard those souls tormented,
I bowed my face, and so long held it down
Until the Poet said to me: “What thinkest?”
When I made answer, I began: “Alas!
How many pleasant thoughts, how much desire,
Conducted these unto the dolorous pass!”
Then unto them I turned me, and I spake,

Paolo and Francesca da Rimini 1855 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
And I began: “Thine agonies, Francesca,
Sad and compassionate to weeping make me.
But tell me, at the time of those sweet sighs,
By what and in what manner Love conceded,
That you should know your dubious desires?”

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And she to me: “There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery, and that thy Teacher knows.
But, if to recognise the earliest root
Of love in us thou hast so great desire,
I will do even as he who weeps and speaks.

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One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.

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Alone we were and without any fear.
Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;
But one point only was it that o’ercame us.

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When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,

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This one, who ne’er from me shall be divided,
Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.

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Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it.
That day no farther did we read therein.”

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And all the while one spirit uttered this,
The other one did weep so, that, for pity,

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I swooned away as if I had been dying,
And fell, even as a dead body falls.

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