Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 11 – the last voyage of Ulysses

Ulysses led his men to disaster, according to Dante. Mosaic in the Bardo National Museum from Wikimedia Commons licensed under the CCBY-SA

Ulysses is the greatest of the Inferno’s tragic heroes. Dante’s invented story of his last voyage is about leaders who lie.  

We are among the false councillors, in the eighth ditch of the Malebolge in Circle 8, the first circle of the fraudulent, close to the lowest depths of hell. These gifted people, often politicians or opinion leaders in life, used their intelligence and charm to deceive and mislead, bringing ruin, destruction and death in their wake. Dante places them lower than the thieves, because they deliberately misused their talents in the reckless pursuit of power at all costs. If it all sounds horribly familiar, that’s because it should do: it’s a parable for our times as well as Dante’s.

Standing on the ridge above the ditch, Dante sees a multitude of gleaming, flickering flames moving along it, like fireflies on a summer night. Each flame is a sinner, a tongue – once human, now of fire – that led others astray, each in a unique way. Yet they are now as indistinguishable as they are many, all their fraudulent scheming having come to nought. In contrast with the squalor and din of other circles, there is a curious, hushed beauty and dignity to this scene, suggesting the charisma of these sinners and the fact that many of them were once powerful orators, now for ever silenced. Still atop the ridge, Dante takes hold of a rock to steady himself, so that he does not fall down among them: his council had been sought in the affairs of Florence and he could easily have yielded to the temptation to lie, perhaps even to save himself by lying.

Dante sees a flame with two tips, whom Virgil identifies as Ulysses and his friend and partner in deception, Diomed, both famed for their cunning as strategists and their persuasive public speaking as well as their valour in battle. He begs Virgil to ask if he may speak with them and Virgil invites Ulysses to tell the story of how he set sail and how he met his end. The greater ‘horn’ of the flame begins to toss and murmur, then “flings forth” a voice, sounding out like a mighty force of nature:  

Ulysses recounts their journey from Greece to the western mouth of the Mediterranean – the pillars of Hercules, the frontier of the known world. They sail out and turn left!

Before we accompany Ulysses any further, we need to go back for a moment to Canto 1, the prologue to the whole poem. Remember those sunlit uplands? On emerging from the dark wood Dante tries to climb towards them but is driven down to “where the sun is silent” by three wild animals representing his sins. That sunlit hill prefigured the mountain island of purgatory, which the poet will climb successfully in the second cantica. The missing ingredient, first time round, was divine grace, without which we are nothing and can do nothing (see Note 4). It’s missing second time round too. In the story of Ulysses’ last voyage, Dante presents us with the same fundamental truth – a truth that underpins the entire spiritual movement of the Comedy, from despair, through renewed hope and aspiration, to salvation: that we are dependent on divine grace, in all that we are and can be, and in all that we do and seek to do. 

Now back to Ulysses and his companions. Once they are out of the safe, homely world of the Mediterranean, Ulysses seizes the opportunity to inspire them to go still further, to sail into the unknown. He reveals his plan with this splendid speech:

There is flattery here, ever the tool of the deceiver! “Yours is a nobler calling,” Ulysses says (if I may paraphrase). “You are born risk takers, destined for adventure, for exploration, for the gaining of knowledge. Life is short and we must live it to the full.” He will lead them into the virgin territory of the southern hemisphere – the “unpeopled world that lies behind the sun”. It sounds so exciting, so uplifting! This is the spirit that drove the Iberian discoverers – Vasco da Gama, Henry the Navigator, Christopher Columbus. But it’s not just the geography that will be new on this voyage; what Ulysses exhorts his men to attempt is to reach the mountain island of purgatory by their own efforts, while still in this life, without the aid of divine grace. It’s a madcap idea, against reason, against the divine order, but there is something glorious in its arrogant rebellion. In its escapism it’s essentially Romantic; in its defiance of common sense and its embrace of the impossible, it’s fascist.  The idea that human will alone is enough to make something happen is central to fascist projects and is why they invariably end in catastrophe. (For more on the ‘priority of will over reason’”, see Timothy Snyder’s 2018 book, The Road to Unfreedom.)

Ulysses continues his story. His brilliant oratory has whipped his companions into a fever and he could hardly have held them back, he tells us. They make of their oars ali al folle volo, “wings for the mad flight”, gaining always upon the left (the sinister side, associated with evil), racing southwards for five days and five nights, gazing in wonder at the night sky as the stars of the south pole come into view. Then, on the sixth day:  

The great adventure reaches a sudden and tragic end. As Sinclair notes, the storm comes from the mountain itself, suggesting its rejection of the invaders. These are not true penitents, so purgatory is not for them. The great vision of Ulysses is shown up for what it has been all along: a fantasy. His final words betray the gigantic lie, the fatal self-deception (for he must have talked himself into believing it) that spawned the fantasy. Sinners aren’t permitted to invoke God by name, so they must talk about Him only in circumlocution. The word chosen by Ulysses is altrui, “Another”, implying that he sees himself as separate, as other than God and therefore an equal to Him. That’s the sin of pride that got Satan thrown out of heaven. 

The story of Ulysses’ last voyage is uniquely Dante’s invention: though there are hints, there is no precedent for it in the Greek and Roman classics. So what is the poet trying to tell us in this extraordinary episode?

Just as it is for Ulysses, the love of knowledge was an overriding passion for Dante, an essential part of what it means to be human. This explains the encyclopaedic nature of the Comedy, its attempt to integrate all knowledge, earthly and divine. It also explains the restless, exploring spirit of Ulysses, which Dante, like him an exile, shares. Both foretell the coming Renaissance and the rise of science. But Dante knew something that Ulysses didn’t: that the quest for knowledge, if undertaken for the wrong reasons, is dangerous. Whereas Dante’s quest is spiritual, that of Ulysses is worldly.

Let’s take a closer look at the two descriptions of his quest given by Ulysses. In the speech that inspires his followers, he talks about “experience of the unpeopled world that lies behind the sun”, which sounds like an exciting adventure, a bit of a challenge for the lads (injunctions to turn it down would have been branded as Project Fear). But in the first description, which comes a few tercets earlier, when Ulysses is addressing the poets without the audience of his followers, he reveals a subtly different motivation, referring tothe passion I had to gain experience of the world and of the vices and the worth of men”. In other words, it’s human nature and the ways of the world that Ulysses truly wishes to understand. Why? To get better at manipulating people, to gain power over them.

Caution! Image by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

Ulysses, as Dante paints him, is a majestic figure, a giant among men. He has the makings of a great leader, inspiring his followers to give of their best. But he is also a liar, headlong and reckless in his pursuit of power for its own sake, regardless of the consequences for himself and others. As such, he is one of Dante’s finest and most prophetic creations.

Are you reading me, Mr Johnson, Mr Farage? You are the Ulysses and Diomed of our times. Your lies have ship-wrecked an entire country.