The Notion Of Justice In Boccaccio’s The Decameron

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Boccaccio presents an earthly system of justice to show how messy human life is. This tells us that the divine system of justice (one that Dante adheres to) does not fit with the complications that life presents us. Dante’s use of his moral system, which is strict and perfect, enables the use of contrapasso to further distill the idea of what is right and what is wrong. Boccaccio flawed system shows how virtues and vices go rewarded and punished in life, thus showing the messiness that does not fit with Dante’s system. These systems also allow each author to inhabit their own personal beliefs throughout the texts. This further results in the adherence of the principals in the texts, specifically how a living human should or can act. The Inferno instructs us to live in accordance to the divine system of justice (telling us that we should not act in vices, in which we would be punished for). The Decameron shows how life on earth leaves room for the vices in the Inferno, along with specific traits (that are mutable with virtues), to be rewarded, and how sometimes, life punishes us even if we live a virtuous life.

In The Decameron, a story is told about a friar who promises to some peasants to show a feather from Angel Gabriel, but finds charcoal in its place. He tells them that these were the ones to roast Saint Lorenzo. In this scenario it better to provide faith to people while lying to them, or to tell the truth (that the feather was gone) and have peasants loose religious faith (even faith in priests)? Boccaccio’s story tells us it is better to provide faith and lie than to tell the truth. We can see how Cipolla (the friar) was rewarded handsomely. His ability to create a story about the charcoals blatantly slaps us in the face with his intelligence. “…God wished me to show you the charcoal in order to rekindle in your hearts the devotion that you owe Saint Lorenzo,” (477). Cipolla is placing his act of lying, onto God. By removing himself from the vice he commited, he enables a buffer that allows religious beliefs to blossom in the peasants. “… Brother Cipolla turned the entire population… into crusaders, and by means of his quick wit, tricked those who thought they had tricked him by stealing a feather.” (478). In a sense, justice had acted by confronting a trick with a trick. Justice lies within two injustices. This story brings up the question “is lying for the greater good ethical?” According to Dante’s divine system in the Inferno, it is always morally wrong. Cipolla would probably be sent to hell in Dante’s system (for abusing his power – lying and gaining wealth from it). It’s difficult to put Cipolla into a specific trench. In Canto Nineteen, the third trench holds Simonists who bought and sold sacred artifacts. While the artifact that Cipolla showed to the peasants was fake and brought him wealth, he did bring faith in the Christian God, which is praiseworthy in Dante’s system. In Plato’s The Republic Plato identifies political justice as harmony in a structured political body. Justice requires that each person fulfill the societal role to which nature fitted them. Based on this definition of justice, the friar from The Decameron did indeed fulfill his role by providing faith to the peasants.

The use of contrapasso in the Inferno does convey a system of morals. Based on the inferno, the sins you commit on earth will have direct consequences in the afterlife. Contrapasso enables Dante to express what he felt were the worst sins and even more specifically whom he found to be the most egregious sinners from the past. In the inferno, justice is served by restoring balance. It possesses an “eye for an eye” mentality. In Canto Five of the Inferno, those who have sinned with lust swirl in a never ending storm. Lovers are separated by the harsh winds slashing them apart. “[The Pilgrim] learned that to this place of punishment / all those who sin in lust have been condemned, / those who make reason slave to appetite;” (ll. 37-39, p. 110, Inferno). The sinners have used reason as a justification to their lustful actions. Dante clearly presents that the rationalization of sin is as sinful as the sin itself. He also means that the lustful sinners make their rationalization literally slaves to their appetite. In Dante’s system, justice has been served by reminding the sinners about their sin for eternity. A notable couple to point out in this Canto is Franseca and Paolo. When the Pilgrim comes to face Francesca, she tells him her story to win over his sympathies. This shows that others should feel pity to those who commit frivolous vices. The lovers in the Inferno are indeed punished, yet in Boccacio’s The Decameron, it’s a bit more complicated. The Fifth Day, Ninth Story, a nobleman named Frederigo loves, but is not loved in return. He spends all his wealth courting a woman. Years pass and all he has left to give is his falcon to eat, in doing so, the woman changed her mind, took him as a husband and made him rich. Though Fregerigo lusts, he is rewarded for his consistency. “‘…How can you want him? He hasn’t a penny in his name.’… ‘I would much rather have a man who lacks money than money that lacks a man.” (p. 431). A dialogue between the noblewoman and her brothers show why he was rewarded. One would be confused if the noble woman and Frederigo landed in Dante’s hell. Lusting over a person is not necessarily a terrible thing, much less something that would send you to hell, it is rather the actions following the perceived emotion that deems a person good or bad. Let’s say the woman left her dying husband for Frederigo (and ignored her son through the affair), or Frederigo courted every woman he put his eyes on. We would have a very different outcome for both situations. Both presumably ending not well.

Boccaccio’s system of justice seems to be more humane and understanding than Dante’s divine system. It’s more natural in the sense that it provides rewards based on a person’s characteristics. Dante’s system involves a more black and white process, where everyone who did one bad thing from the list of vices, who have not repented, is sent to hell. Boccaccio also insists through his stories that intelligence is rewarded no matter the circumstance. One cannot judge an action based on the action itself, but rather the underlying reasons for said action. Let’s say a person steals bread from a bakery. Yes the action of stealing is morally wrong, but what if it was to feed their children? Would it be right to let the children starve and potentially die, than to steal? If this person was caught, Boccaccio would probably write them in a way that they get out of retribution by covering them with wit. This example shows how Dante’s system only works on a divine level, hell who knows if it even works. Dante uses broad vices to show how one should live in the living world. If one does not take his work literally, and supplements his system with Boccacio’s, one could possibly go about life being rewarded for their vices and virtues.


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