Inferno Canto 25 by Stradano

The Divine Comedy: IX. Theft and Identity

Inferno Canto 25 by Stradano
Inferno Canto 25 by Giovanni Stradano

It is written in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not steal.” “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” I’ve never thought much about the existential significance of these commandments until I read Dante.

Thieves are assigned to the Eighth Circle of Hell, where they are tormented by serpents, transfixed by and transformed into the reptilian creatures. (If the Inferno is adapted into a motion picture, Canto 25 alone would warrant an X rating)

There is perhaps a connection with the story of the Fall. Adam and Eve stole the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Serpent thereby insinuated his own nature into man, as some tradition has it.

From an existential perspective, people who steal are actually suffering from an identity crisis. Those who commit “identity theft” have lost their own and become imposters. As Kierkegaard writes in The Sickness Unto Death, we despair because we don’t want to be ourselves. We are dissatisfied when comparing ourselves with others, therefore we covet, steal, murder and war.

I remember there was a time (when I was fresh out of graduate school, for a time couldn’t find a job and was almost penniless), I desperately wanted to be someone else, anybody else but myself. I can relate when I read that Kierkegaard even compared himself with potatoes, whether his own life was worth more than that of a potato.

To despair is human, to hope is divine.

“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

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