Plutus (in ancient mythology the god of wealth) is a demonic “cruel beast” serving Satan, and he must be a horrible sight, since Virgil has to reassure a fearful Dante that Plutus cannot stop them from descending to the next circle. As he has before, Virgil tells Plutus that Dantes descent into Hell is willed in Heaven, and Plutus collapses. They descend to the Fourth Circle, and Dante sees two groups of souls endlessly rolling great stones at each other and taunting each other, one group yelling, “Why do you hoard?” and the other, “Why do you squander?” Both have given their whole attention to wealth, whether keeping it for themselves or spending it recklessly. Many of the hoarders are former popes and cardinals, Virgil tells Dante, and Dante says he ought to be able to recognize some of them. No, says Virgil, in life they couldnt distinguish what really matters, and now no one can distinguish who they are. Fortune rules who is wealthy and who is poor, but human beings waste their lives in their concern for wealth; not even the greatest wealth could bring them any rest now.
Dante wants to know who Fortune is, and Virgil pictures her as an angelic intelligence ordained by God to regulate which nations have power and wealth, and for how long. Human beings curse her, but she does not hear them-she blissfully turns her wheel.
At the edge of this circle they find a gloomy river, which flows into a marsh called Styx. There Dante sees people in rage attacking each other, hitting each other with their hands and bodies and tearing each other with their teeth. Virgil explains that these souls were completely taken over by anger against others while alive. If their anger was directed against themselves, that is, if they were sullen, they are trapped under water, where they say forever, “We were sullen in the sweet air that rejoices in the sun, carrying within ourselves a sluggish smoke; now we are sullen in the black mire” (lines 121-124). Virgil and Dante then go around the circle, beside the marsh, to the foot of a tower.
The Fourth Circle is one of just three in all the circles of Hell in which Dante recognizes no one, so deeply did he feel that a life of concern with getting and spending destroys the soul. What he does recognize is how many leaders of the Church are in this circle; no wonder the world goes wrong, he says later in Purgatory, if those who are supposed to guide us all to the bliss of union with God are themselves obsessed with material things.
One allegorical meaning that can be seen in the descending levels so far is a kind of psychological analysis of how one problem leads to another. Those who are set on gaining happiness by self-indulgence may begin by having some kind of concern for others, as in the Second Circle, but they are apt to sink into solitary self-indulgence, like the gluttonous in the Third Circle, and then to join together only in hostility, as the hoarders and spenders join to attack each other here in the Fourth Circle. Finally, like the wrathful and sullen in the Stygian marsh, which is also the Fifth Circle, they feel nothing but resentment and rage, whether directed at others or themselves.
One of the touches that lightens the darkness of the Inferno is the reminder here of the beauty that the angry and sullen have turned their backs on: the beauty of “the sweet air that rejoices in the sun.”
Another such touch is the description given here of Fortune. Traditionally, she was pictured as a blind woman turning a wheel-random luck running, often ruining, human lives. Dante had thought that way himself, his life having been, as he felt, so unjustly ruined. But here Fortune is not blind, but a serene and blessed angelic intelligence carrying out Gods will on earth.