Ulysses in Dante’s The Divine Comedy
In Canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno, Dante and Virgil continue their descent into the 8th circle of Hell – the one that hosts all sinners who deceived those who did not trust them. Here, in the 8th bolgia, where to sit counselors of fraud, they meet the famous Greek hero Odysseus – Dante calls him Ulysses, in the Roman style. Just as Odysseus once told, in Homer’s poem, about his wanderings to King Alcinous on the island of peace, so now he tells Dante and Virgil about his wanderings. At first glance, it is easy to understand why Dante put Ulysses so far in Hell and into the specific bolgia of fraudulent advisers. After all, it was Ulysses’ cunning treachery that ultimately let the Greeks conquer the Trojan empire, and he is well-known in myths for his deception skills. The whole of Homer’s Odyssey is a testament to his intelligence and quick thinking that allowed Ulysses to trick and outsmart powerful creatures and people on his way home. Thus, the title of “counsellor of fraud” is well-deserved by him; he has, indeed, committed the sin of deception. However, if one reads further into Ulysses’ words as he speaks to Dante and Virgil, it becomes clear that the reasons behind Dante’s decision to place him there are deeper than that.
Dante’s Ulysses is not just a traveler – he is a person whose main content of life is the desire to comprehend the new, the thirst to discover the unknown. From the words that Dante uses in this Canto, it becomes clear that, in Dante’s opinion, the task of a human is to reflect, discover, and comprehend the new. Dante (2000) directly states that, unlike animals, humans are born – or rather, created – to seek the unknown:
“Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;
Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,
But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.” (p. 175).
The reason is what distinguishes a person, and this reason makes Ulysses go further and further in his travels. Man, precisely as the discoverer of the world, becomes one of the central objects of Dante’s philosophy, and Ulysses there is a symbol of that thirst to discover something new. He is punished for his deceptions, and through his image, Dante reflects on his own place in the system he created. The poet possibly perceives himself as the one who went against God in his attempt to predict His judgment and discover the forbidden knowledge.
Alighieri, D. (2000). The Divine Comedy. (A. Mandelbaum & S. Botticelli, Trans., E. Montale & P. Armour, Eds.). David Campbell Publishers.