Dante Expanded: The Woe of the Cynics

And here my guide and I, with careful steps,
Walked close along the river Styx’s shore,
Avoiding well the mire that entraps.
Quite soon we came upon a sight so sore
My muscles ache to call the scene to mind
And my lungs fill so anxiously with air.
Out from the mud stuck pilings of such kind
That one would see outside the prison’s gate,
Inflicting public death with wood and twine.
Across the posts were beams that bore the weight
Of upstretched arms, suspended by taut ropes,
And from the marsh protrude the filthy pates.
I asked my guide, “What pallid men here grope
To pull themselves above this viscous sludge
Which fallow lies and seems itself to mope?”
And he to me: “These ones, in life, begrudged
Even the truest speaker that they heard,
For these considered self alone best judge.
Just as they dragged their fellows down with word
Quite hurtful as an angry horse’s kick,
So now they are by fellows’ kick interred.
Look, there’s Thersites, churlish man too quick
To spite the Grecian kings for a cheap laugh;
He now, twice beaten, sinks in muck so thick.
But come now, we must gain our fated path.”


Since the effects of a cynic’s crime are not merely personal but corporate, the cynics’ punishment must occur in a communal manner, with each member contributing to the punishment of the others, and each individual’s punishment contributing to the punishment of the group as a whole. Additionally, the punishment must, in some sense, allow the cynics to achieve what they desire, namely self-betterment, and reflect the pessimistic mood in which cynics constantly remain. Finally, the punishment must reflect the oral nature of their sin, since the wound of cynicism is inflicted by speech.

Therefore, their punishment is as follows: the cynics are all suspended over a quicksand-like area of the Stygian marsh by rope tied about their hands. The ropes are tied to a large, wooden gallows overhead which slowly sinks into the mire. At the beginning of the punishment, the ropes are just long enough to keep the cynics’ feet on the surface of the mud, but when one cynic musters the strength to pull himself up by climbing up the rope, all the other cynics try to kick at the one climbing in order to knock him down, their flailing in turn causing the gallows to sink deeper into the marsh. Once the cynics have sunken down to their mouths in the mire, the guardian demons begin to construct a new gallows atop the old ones, and the punishment is repeated for the next round of cynics.


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