The Spirits who Dwell in Suspense

by Aron Wall

Although the purpose of the punishments in Dante's Inferno may be unclear, their overall methodology and structure seems straightforward. There are many concentric rings, each with a sin or set of sins associated with them, and a punishment for each sin. When sinners die they are consigned to the place which is designated to appropriately punish the particular kinds of sin that they committed during their lifetime. As Dante descends to lower circles, we see that the punishments get worse and worse, so that more severe punishments are made to correspond to more morally despicable sins. In all cases, it is the sins of a person that place that person at each level of Hell.

Each particular punishment is then chosen to reflect the nature of the sin which it punishes, being similar to it in form. For instance, the gilded leaden coats of the Hypocrites corresponds to the nature of the sin itself, for the sin is to appear good on the outside in order to conceal the intolerable inner reality (XXII). The same kind of correspondence between the action and the sin can be seen in the other circles as well. This could be viewed as being poetic justice, or, in a more sophisticated view, indicating that the punishment of the sinner is to be identified with their sin, as unforgiven sin will always in the long run be a torment to the sinner. But either way, the punishment is to be read as telling us what the sin associated with the circle is like.

While the above conception seems reasonable and obvious, it is too simple to explain what happens in the Inferno. Dante uses the punishments and events of the various circles to indicate not the nature of the sins committed by the kind of person he tells us belongs in the circle, but to indicate something else: the intrinsic reason for the damnation of each individual in Hell, which goes beyond and is deeper than the nominal sin committed. By the phrase "nominal sin", I mean the sin which we are told the circle punishes. For instance Gluttony is the nominal sin of the Third Circle. This understanding of the nature of Hell sheds light on the significance of Dante's spiritual journey through Hell, showing him to be not merely an observer but an active participant in many of the levels, and helps to reveal the significance of perhaps the most puzzling circle of the Inferno, that of the Virtuous Pagans.

I will begin with a puzzling observation about the placement of sinners in the Inferno. Under the naive view about the nature of Hell, since the circles get progressively worse as they get lower, one would expect that each soul would end up at the lowest circle which their actions merit. But this is not the case. Most notably, in the Second Circle there are a number of individuals who committed suicide, such as Cleopatra and Dido. But we later learn that suicide is to be punished in the woods of the Seventh Circle far below. Under the naive view there is no reason why they should not be lower. Surely it is not possible to escape a greater punishment by committing a lesser sin as well so as to end up with a lighter punishment! Certainly it is dramatically appropriate that those famous for being lovers should end up in the Second Circle rather than some other place, but there must be some doctrinal justification available for the maneuver.

Furthermore, many sins are essentially matters of degree. Everyone sins to some extent in different areas. Christian doctrine certainly does not allow for the possibility that people live their lives with no sins whatsoever, or even no sins save one. Thus when Virgil says that the individuals in Limbo "sinned not" (IV.34), on the literal face of it what he is saying cannot possibly be the belief of Dante, the author, as a Christian. That would be to ascribe to the souls in this circle an unbelievable life of perfection. Even if their fault does deny them Paradise, still to say these people never behaved lustfully or gluttonously or were never wrongfully angry defies credulity. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Therefore that cannot be the sense in which we interpret Virgil's words. Even treachery admits of matters of degree. Who has not committed some act that was somewhat disloyal to their family or to someone rightfully in charge of them? Virgil himself tells us that Fraud, the sin of the Eighth and Ninth circles, "gnaws every conscience" (XI.52). It thus must be admitted that the question of placement in Hell is based not on a checklist of sins committed, but rather is based on which sin defines ones essential character. But this hints at something else going on besides the mere act or passion of sin itself. Suicide is not a matter of degree. If the suicides represented in the circle of Lust are such that their lives were not really about that act of suicide, but something else, then we appear to be admitting the existence of a deeper level in which the diverse sins of an individual can be seen as stemming from a common source.

The means by which sinners are placed in Hell is, according to Dante's narrative, the judgment before Minos, the "connoisseur" (V.9) of sin. The use of this word suggests that Minos does not so much judge by a set of specific guidelines, as much as feel out the exact nature of the sin, to determine its true motives and context, so as to decide in what circle the sinner is best classified. By this description of the judge, Dante leaves open the idea that there may be more to the judgment and classification of sinners than first meets the eye.

Yet couldn't it just be the case that the reason why the suicides in the Second Circle are counted as being most properly in that circle is simply that their suicide was motivated by lust rather than by a lack of love for life? This explanation will not do, as it only excuses the greater sin because the motive for that sin was some lesser sin. But simply having a motive for sin that comes from an earlier circle cannot excuse the sinner for the greater sin. Nearly all murders are motivated by some kind of Wrath, but that does not allow the murderers to escape the Seventh Circle by means of the Fifth Circle. The fact that there exists an underlying motive for a sin therefore does not permit a worse sin to be subsumed and punished under the head of a lesser sin. Only if the act of suicide actually typifies whatever it is that the Second Circle is most deeply about, could it be appropriate for such sinners to be punished in the Second Circle. But this indicates that there is more to what each circle is about than the nominal sin being punished there.

So what is the significance of the punishments in Hell? In order to see what general ideas Dante is presenting about Hell, it is necessary to argue from circles in which his purpose is more clear to those that are less clear. At the very end of the Inferno, Dante gives us the last scene of Hell, the lake of sinners frozen in ice, and Satan himself stuck helplessly at the center of the universe. As the last stunning image of Hell, it is plausible that this image represents not only this particular circle of Traitors, but is also an image of what Hell is in general. The Ninth circle is the most vivid picture of something true of all the circles, which is that the sinners are stuck in place, frozen and unable to move because of their sin. All the sinners are stuck wherever they are located in Hell. This is what damnation means. It is not committing sin as such, but being stuck or trapped in sin. In the less severe circles, there is more motion within the confines of their punishment (and thus less damnation or "stuckness"), but all of the damned are stuck in their rut or pattern of behavior that characterized their sin in life. This then shows us that the Inferno is not exactly about sin, but about why individuals remain in sin. Dante does tell us about sin in a more general way--in a different part of the Divine Comedy. In the Purgatorio, Dante uses the model of the seven deadly sins as the root causes of misbehavior to figure out the nature of different sins and how to repent of them. Thus it is the Purgatorio that is about the sin itself. The Inferno is not doubling up on the theme of sin. It is about something different.

Why then are the various sinners stuck? The most straightforward explanation for why a sinner in the Inferno is damned is that given for Guido da Montefeltro. After receiving absolution in advance from the Pope for his sin of counseling deceit, Guido dies, and although St. Francis comes for him, a demon takes him as his lawful capture. The demon tells Guido that this is because he could not have willed to repent at the same time that he was committing the sin (XXVII.103-120). This tells us the reason why Guido is is Hell: failure to repent of his sin. But there are many different ways to fail to repent. I claim that the different circles correspond to the different reasons why people do not repent of their sin. These different ways are merely most strongly typified by the sins which are nominally punished in those circles. In the case of Guido the reason for not repenting is, corresponding to the Eighth circle theme of Deceit, that he fooled himself into thinking that he was repentant when actually he was not.

Dante uses the nature of the punishments to reveal to us the nature of what a given circle is really about, i.e. the particular way in which the individuals in that circle have given up their ability to repent. This explains some of the odd punishments, which are not easily explicable by the idea of poetic justice or similarity to the sin in question. Let us revisit the Second Circle. Lust is the nominal sin, but with the wind Dante is showing us the root cause of Lust, which can cause other sins as well. As Jesus says, "The evil man brings out evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart" (Luke 6:45). The wind represents being tossed around by circumstances, and therefore being in the wind represents being the kind of person who relinquishes their will, choosing to let their choice be determined by what is happening around them. Since Heaven requires an inner purity and devotion to God, such people cannot possibly enter Heaven, for they could only be heavenly because of outside circumstance, never because Heaven was inside them.

It might appear that Francesca bewails the fault which leads her to be in Hell (V). But there is a distinction between regret and repentance. Nobody in Hell repents their sin, or there would be no reason why they could not leave Hell. Francesca regrets being in Hell. She regrets elaborately, and with great show of mourning, the circumstance of reading the book together with Paolo that led to their nominal sin of lust (V.124-138). In no place, however, does she regret doing the act given those circumstances, but only regrets that those circumstances "forced" her into the act. The flaw of allowing oneself to be defined by ones circumstances, is most aptly symbolized by the wind that tosses these souls around, who have become slaves to their passions. This shows it is quite in the nature of the Second Circle to include individuals who committed suicide "for love". The classic tragedy of lovers ends with both committing suicide for each other, one under the misapprehension that the other is dead already. Now it is clear that in such a case the essential nature of the lover's sin has nothing to do with suicide. They did both commit it, but would naturally regret and repent having stupidly done so, preferring living for one another to dying for one another. The underlying sin is not suicide, since it does not end that way in most circumstances. But it ends in suicide in some cases because the nature of the sin is to surrender action and will to passion and circumstance. The placement of individuals in the Second Circle is therefore explained better with reference to the underlying "sin behind the sin" of the circle than by the nominal sin alone.

Thus the Inferno is not, like the Purgatorio, about dealing with sin. It is about not dealing with sin. Of course, refusing to repent of sin is itself a sin, justifying the use of the phrase "the sin behind the sin". But it cannot be thought of in the same way that we normally think of sins. It is not an action committed on any single occasion, but rather is the choice of persisting in sin and refusing to come out of it.

This notion of the sin behind the sin must be distinguished from another idea which might be confused with it. It is not the same as the difference between a legalistic rule and the underlying moral behavior of the heart. Often the nominal sin, as in the case of Lust, refers to the act of the heart rather than the external action. The underlying sin is of a different nature entirely. Its relation to the nominal sin is that the nominal sin is the most typical or most illustrative manifestation of the underlying refusal to repent in the form of a specific concrete action, behavior, or thought.

If I have done my job properly the reader should be hankering to know what the underlying reasons for damnation are for each of the other circles. I shall now progress through each circle to indicate what the nature of the deeper sin is for all of the other circles, holding off on the First Circle until the end.

The Third circle's punishment is in certain respects similar to that of the Second Circle. Both of the punishments involve the idea of weather, wind and rain, indicating that the sinner takes a passive role in their acceptance of evil; they do not fail by actively choosing that which is evil, but rather by failing to be the good person that they could have been. However, the ways in which the sinners are passive is very different. In the Second Circle the Lustful are only passive in the sense that they are controlled by their passions (the wind), relinquishing their will. What their desires drive them to do is filled with energy and activity. In stark contrast, the Gluttons lie indolently allowing icy rain to fall on them. Ciacco, we are informed, will not stir until "the last loud trumpet's sounding" (VI.95). This tells us that the Third Circle has as much to do with the notion of Sloth as it does with Gluttony. Rain is a symbol of God's blessing. "He...sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matt. 6:45). But the Gluttons cannot stir themselves to take any goods except those which God gives them directly, and ultimately even this passive goodness becomes painful to them without the other gifts that God could give them if they would only let him. Thus the underlying sin is the refusal of effort. This is represented well by Gluttony, for the Glutton is a person who takes the obvious good that comes to them, food, at the expense of seeking a more subtle meaning for their life. Rather than looking up towards heaven to where the good things they receive come from, they wallow in the mud which is the mixture of God's blessings with their own sinful desires.

But at least the Gluttons are content to receive blessings from God, even if they cannot muster the will to be truly blessed. The Greedy, on the other hand, have as their underlying sin the rejection of God's providence. In the Fourth Circle Virgil tells Dante that God established Luck to guide earthly affairs, and that mortals are foolish to curse her for the portion that she (and thus God) gives (VII). The Greedy cannot enter into the kingdom of God humbly because they cannot accept the place that God has given them, but want something better. Jesus advises us not to worry about food or drink or clothing, for God knows that we need them (Matt. 6:25-34). But the Greedy think that whatever God has given them is not enough, and reject their place in God's providence for their own efforts. The punishment in Circle Four is to be fighting a meaningless war for all eternity. Thus the Fourth Circle is as much about Envy as it is about Greed (note that no Circles are devoted to Sloth or Envy because Dante deals with these concepts in this and the previous circle). The real passion underlying greedy people is not just the desire to have, but the desire to have more than other people have. Thus the desire is essentially competitive. They reject what God gives them, because they want to have a better status than anyone else. But the result is that they can outdo one another only based on a meaningless standard of accumulation that has nothing to do with true riches.

The reason why Fifth Circle sinners cannot repent is that they refuse to forgive. "If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matt. 6:15). The Wrathful and Sullen are submerged in a swamp, indicating that they are stuck in their resentment for the past. This is equivalent to a refusal to be happy, as the song of the Sullen tells us: "We took no joy of the pleasant air, no joy of the good sun" (VII.21). The underlying reason why these people cannot be in heaven is thus that they prefer being unhappy about things than happy.

The Heretics are those who reject the gift of truth, which is the sin behind the sin of the Sixth Circle. They are not dishonest per se, like those in the Eighth circle, but they reject God's revelation of truth to them, preferring to find the truth on their own efforts only. It is to indicate that this is what he means by the Sixth Circle that Dante reserves until here the explanation of the nature of the prophetic ability of the damned (although it is presumably true in the literal sense of all the damned, not just those here). "We see," says Farinata, "like men who are dim of sight, things that are distant from us; just so far we still have gleams of the All-Guider's light. But when these things draw near, or when they are, our intellect is void" (X.100). Some light from God remains until Judgment Day, at which time the coffins of their confining philosophies close and only the knowledge of sin remains. Thus the Sixth Circle is about those who cannot repent because to do so they would have to accept guidance from God, which they reject.

The Seventh circle is the first to be subdivided into multiple areas, but in such cases the underlying sin is the same throughout the circle and not to be reckoned differently in each region. So all seven kinds of sinners found in the circle must be different illustrations of the same reason for not repenting. At first sight the three rings seem very different from one another, but there is a unifying theme to them all. Each of them represents the idea of barrenness, of life that fails to reach fruition. According to the Law of Moses, "The life of a creature is in the blood" (Lev. 17:11). Thus the river of blood which the tyrants and robbers are steeped in is made of life, but a barren life that does not produce any activity or result (XII). In the second ring, the souls of the suicides fall down to become trees. Trees are normally fruitful, but these are barren. "No green here, but discolored leaves and dark, no tender shoots, but writhen and gnarled and tough, no fruit, but poison-galls on the withered bark" (XIII.6). In both these two rings, some symbol of life is shown as existing in an infertile and useless state. The third ring shows us the image of barrenness directly, being imaged by a wasted desert. Here the rain which should have moisten the burning sands to produce life is made of fire rather than water (XIV). The reason why these people cannot repent is because they do not wish to produce fruit. This is the purpose of human life, to create something meaningful and new. These people refused to be the image of God in this respect, for they preferred destruction and impotence to production.

While those in higher circles also chose in a certain sense to be barren and fruitless, they only ended up that way because they were unwilling to do what it takes to be fruitful. But in the Seventh Circle are the people who fail to repent because they do not wish to be fruitful. In order to illustrate the difference between those in the circles of incontinence (the Second through Fifth) and those in the Seventh Circle of Violence, Dante makes various aspects of the seventh circle mirror those below, to contrast those who inappropriately and insufficiently sought to produce goodness, and those who do not want to produce goodness at all.

The Robbers in the river of blood are people who took the property that belonged to others. Thus they are those who were unfruitful and lived by taking the fruit of others, for they had none of their own. Similarly the Tyrants shed life rather than producing life of their own, oppressed their country and exacted tribute rather than ruling in such a way as to create prosperity. They are both submerged in a river of blood, just as the Wrathful were submerged in a swamp in Circle Five. Yet in a marsh there is life and growing things. The Tyrants are in blood to show that they desecrated lives and left them barren in a different way. The Suicides wasted their lives rather than allowing them to grow through adversity to produce good things. The Profligates had property that could have been used to service humanity, or at least their own enjoyment, but they could not bear to see even their own possessions fulfilled, and so destroyed them. The Profligates are similar to the Wasters in the Fourth Circle, but the Wasters did not have contempt for the possessions they squandered.

In the desert are three apparently unrelated kinds of vice. It seems rather contrived to put Blasphemy, Sodomy, and Usury together as being fundamentally the same. But when the underlying image of infertility is compared, each of them fits in. The Blasphemers lie on the ground, receiving what comes from heaven, as do the Gluttons in the Third Circle. But at least the Gluttons called the blessings that came down from heaven good. The Blasphemers are those who choose to rage against heaven, defying the goodness of the universe and of God. Thus they choose to view the whole of creation as being purposeless and meaningless, and can only experience what comes from above as a fiery torment. The Sodomites are forced to move endlessly, like the Lustful. The difference is that the Sodomites had as their passion something incapable of fertility--in the literal sense of the word. Finally, the Usurers supported themselves by parasitically extracting money from money, using a system to accumulate wealth for themselves in a way that did not actually increase the real wealth of the world, since they did not grow or make anything. This view of the underlying principle of the Seventh Circle thus explains why these three different nominal sins are grouped together.

The underlying failure to repent illustrated by the Eighth Circle has already been discussed above using Guido da Montefeltro. This circle contains those who fail to confess their sin, and who are not open about their spiritual condition.

Finally, the Ninth Circle images the ultimate refusal to repent by directly refusing to accept both God and other people. The sin behind the sin of the Ninth circle is that sin which is the root of all other sins according to Christian thought--Pride. Each of the sinners is trapped in the ice, thus isolating them from everything but themselves. Ultimately, those in the circle of Judecca are completely at rest in themselves, contorted into the awkward position that is humanity isolated from all that can make it human (XXXIV). The frozen ice has none of the heat that is Love. This underlying betrayal of God is that which causes each person to do each act of badness that they do. These Traitors found in the Ninth Circle who murdered those who were closest to them are merely the most fitting image of this prideful self-sufficiency. For what act expresses better the desire to live only for oneself than the explicit and extreme rejection of the closest relationships of humanity? Take away the ideas of family, country, hospitality, and obedience and no human relationships are left, but only the self enduring itself forever.

But in the journey through all these circles of Hell, is Dante merely an observer placed to view the various reasons why different humans cannot be saved? Not according to Beatrice, who tells us that "So low [Dante] fell, that every remedy was short of what was needed for his salvation, except that of showing him the damned" (Purg. XXX.136). Dante needed to go through Hell. Why? We must look to see in what way the journey through Hell affected Dante, and in what way the occurrences in Hell were about Dante's sins. Beatrice gives us a hint when she tells us that "God's high dispensation would be thwarted if Lethe were passed, and such a feast tasted without any payment exacted in the way of penitence where tears are shed" (Purg. XXX.142). But if the journey through Hell is to be taken as being penance for Dante, the wickedness in Hell must be associated somehow with Dante's own sins. Dante (the author) shows us this by having Dante (the character) participate in the sins of several of the circles while he is in them. Thus Dante's journey is a realization of his own sin.

The most obvious occurrence of this is in the Ninth Circle when Dante meets Friar Albrigo in Ptolomaea, the place of traitors to Hospitality. Dante promises that he will wipe the ice from the eyes of Alberigo if he will tell him his name. This the Friar does, but Dante does not fulfill his promise, because "churlishness was to him courtesy" (XXXIII.150). In not doing this Dante is betraying a trust. Dante's promise is backed with the oath that, "If I do not set you free, may I be sent to the bottom of the ice" (XXXIII.117). Dante (the character) doubtlessly thought he had managed to cleverly trick the Friar, because he was planning in his journey through Hell to pass through the bottom of the ice anyway. But Dante (the author) could not have been such a moral simpleton as to not realize that this deception does not excuse such behavior. Yet if we view this evil that Dante does in Hell as representing the evil which he needs to repent from, then going to the bottom of the lake of ice is a genuine penitence. When the symbolism is interpreted correctly, Dante is not escaping from his promise by so passing through the ice, but instead atoning for not having kept it.

A more subtle instance is seen in the conversation with Guido da Montefelto from the Eighth circle. Guido tells his name and story to Dante only after saying, "If I thought that I were making answer to one that might return to view the world, this flame would evermore cease shaking. But since from this abyss, if I hear true, none ever came alive, I have no fear of infamy, but give thee answer due" (XXVII.61). Dante knows that he will return to earth to tell the tale, but chooses not to undeceive him, and in so doing participates in deception, the sin of the Eight Circle.

In these cases we are shown Dante participating in the nominal sin of the circle. This does not mean that the deeper sin is not relevant here. The participation in the nominal sin can be read as indicating to us that Dante is in that circle being tempted with a reason for stopping in his spiritual progress, which is the deeper sin. But in order for the reader to be able to catch this involvement with the deeper sin, it is necessary to see Dante's participation in the Circle in a more obvious way. Thus Dante has to show us a couple of obvious examples of his committing acts that are clearly of the same nature of the circle which he is in. That way the reader can see it and understand that each circle represents a trap that Dante himself must pass through in order to be saved.

But only a few cases suffice to show the pattern, and so Dante is free to use other circles to indicate Dante being swayed by the deeper motive that underlies the circle. For example, in the Second Circle, Dante tells Francesca that "Thy dreadful fate, Francesca, makes me weep, it so inspires pity" (II.115). Dante too shows himself controlled by passion here. But like Francesca, his passions are wrongly directed, for like her, he pities for the circumstance without considering the choice. To Virgil he says, "Alas! Sweet thoughts how many, and desire how great, brought down these twain unto the dolourous pass!" (II.112). The desire brought them to Hell, but they did not bring themselves? If Dante were to pity these two appropriately he would do so not for the circumstances in which they found themselves, but for the choice that they made in that circumstance. But Dante allows himself to be so controlled by this pity that he swoons "as one dying" (V.141), and in so doing, is swayed by the underlying passion behind the Second Circle. This fuzziness of the intellect with regard to the power of temptation is one that must be overcome in order to be able to effectively choose what is good. Thus this participation in the underlying sin is a trap that could possibly have prevented Dante from escaping the clutches of Hell.

Before even entering Hell, Dante forshadows this danger of failing to escape evil by having himself balk at the thought of entering Hell, the expedient which is necessary for his salvation. "But how should I go there? Who says so? Why? I'm not Aeneas, and I am not Paul! Who thinks me fit? Not others, and not I" (II.31). Overcoming this "cowardice" (II.45) is the first step that Dante needs to take, and had he refused it he would have been unable to repent forever. But Dante knows in his heart that if he does not stop here outside of Hell, he will have to confront his own evil desires, and as a result face many more, far worse, possible places to become stuck and unable to proceed. "Say I submit, and go," he continues, "Suppose I fall into some folly?" (II.34) Virgil reassures him, allowing him to hope of success, by telling him about Beatrice and her request, allowing him to pass this critical moment without becoming stuck.

Another example of Dante's participation in sin is his reaction to Fillipo Argenti in the Fifth Circle. Dante is filled with a livid rage at the sight of this man, who was his enemy in life, and wishes passionately to see him "soused in the swill" before he leaves the circle (VIII.53). The odd thing here is that Virgil approves of Dante's behavior, saying "Indignant soul, blessed is the womb that bare thee!" (VIII.45). How can this be, if Dante is behaving according to the sin of the Fifth Circle? If Dante as an author agrees with Virgil at all times, then my interpretation of the significance of Dante's action here cannot be correct.

But there is reason to believe that Virgil is not always right in his attitudes towards the sinners in Hell. Virgil's allows Dante to pity the souls in the upper regions of Hell, but when Dante weeps at the disfigurement of the Sorcerers in the fourth Bowge of the Eighth Circle, Virgil rebukes him. "Why! And art thou too like all the other fools? Here pity, or here piety, must die if the other lives; who's wickeder than one that's agonized by God's high equity?" (XX.26). But Dante is not convinced by Virgil, and asks the reader to "think if I could be left dry-eyed, when close before me I had seen our image so distorted" (XX.20). Dante is right not to be convinced, because Virgil's rebuke is absurd. All those in Hell, from Virgil to Judas, are there because of "God's high equity", and if that were an argument against pitying them, then none should be pitied. The point in Hell which one is at would have nothing to do with it. From the Christian perspective, all sinners have to be pitied in one sense and no sinners in another. For however much the sinners have made themselves enemies of God, the text remains: "Love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44). On the other hand, no matter how small a sin is, it is a rejection of God, and so no sinners in Hell are to pitied as Francesca pities herself, as victims of circumstance apart from will. But Virgil is not a Christian. He is a Pagan, which is the cause of his being sent to the First Circle. Not having had a religion that emphasizes total potential forgiveness, he naturally sorts evil into the categories of excusable and inexcusable, instead of the categories of forgiven and unforgiven. Virgil is not to be considered as perfect, but as illustrating an aspect of what it means to be trapped in the First Circle.

The nominal sin of the first circle is to be unbaptized, and hence, according to Catholic doctrine, unsaved. This idea horrifies modern readers, but in order for it to have been accepted, there must have been something at least psychologically true about it, some flaw which Christians could look at in the Pagans before them and see as disqualifying them for heaven. And there is such a flaw--the sin behind the sin of the First Circle.

Just like in the other circles, the punishment of the First Circle hints at the deeper sin of the Virtuous Pagans. They are "only by this grief offended: that without hope, we ever live, and long" (IV.41). Although they have desire for heaven, they have no hope of obtaining it. But this is the same thing they had on earth. Although Pagan mythology was capable of stirring up desire for some other-worldly object, Pagan philosophy offered no hope of obtaining it, and even the mythology usually offered only a vague shadowy half-real existence for an afterlife, such as the Greek Hades. Although there was often a recognition of the existence of some kind of Deity behind the universe, it was usually thought of as far to great to be concerned with finite and mortal things. An Unmoved Mover that thinks only of itself can perhaps be loved and emulated by us, but never could it love us. Although they believed that there was a goodness to things, they did not really believe that they could obtain it. The ancient accumulation of sadness from each generation of humanity finally coming to nothing other than dust weighed down as an intolerable burden of dispair.

There were two effects that this had on their attitude towards life. The first one was that since the divine things were inaccessible, the only excellences that could be sought after were those that were merely human. Poets, philosophers, athletes, rulers, and heros are all possible excellences, but sanctity is not open to mortals. Unlike the rest of Hell, Limbo is not about bad motives. Limbo is about what happens to all merely human motives.

The second effect this had was that nearly all the serious philosophies recognized as fundamental the tragedy of the world, and offered their solutions to the problem. One kind would say that the key is enjoying earthly happiness undisturbed by superstitious fears during your years on earth, and to stifle any desire for an more fundamental kind of significance--those like the Epicureans. Others would say that although the soul had fallen from a greater spiritual realm and become trapped in flesh, there was a way to have an experience of the spiritual realm that would bring meaning to life--like Plotinus, or the Gnostics. But probably the most serious and most plausible thinkers said that since everyone knew that following the "false appearances of good which never kept any promise entirely" (Purg. XXX.131) always just leads to suffering, the key is to cut off desire and live a calm and tranquil existence without desire. The purest and best-known expression of this culmination of Pagan philosophy was probably given to us by Buddha. Though Dante obviously had no knowledge of him, nearly equivalent philosophies of life were found in the West, in Stoicism. This is a very reasonable course of action if life really is hopeless. By stifling desire, one can avoid being dragged down by evil passions to the lower circles of Hell, and can also minimize the suffering caused by the privations of Limbo. But if there really is a God who can fulfill our desires completely, then each of these philosophies of coping with dispair can only make their adherents unable to receive this gift. Thus although it is the nicest place to be in Hell, it is also the place that is the farthest away from Heaven, because you need the theological virtue of Hope to get into Heaven.

And this First Circle trap is the potential damnation that Dante is most caught in. Dante shows himself as participating in the First Circle by even going so far as to assign to himself a specific place within the First Circle--the sixth greatest poet (IV.102). This is not Dante's pride, but Dante's humility, for the place he is assigning to himself is his place in Hell, the place which he would enter if he failed to be saved from it.

Initially Dante had Hope from Beatrice's presence in his life, representing his ability to look for God for spiritual goodness (Purg. XXX.115-127). But then at her death he lowered himself and sought those earthly vanities which never keep their promises (Purg. XXX.130). And because the very sin he was committing was the dispair of divine things, he could not heed the "inspiration" and "dreams" she sent him to call him back (Purg. XXX.113). This is why Dante's spiritual state is desperate before he enters Hell.

But Beatrice saves him from becoming trapped. Since he could only receive truth from within his First Circle outlook, she could only lead him through Hell indirectly by summoning Virgil's aid. The crucial test of the Inferno comes next--will Dante be able to travel through all Hell, the pit of dispair, past the gate that says to abandon all Hope (III.9), and through all the grisly torments, and yet retain the Hope necessary to his salvation? When Dante refuses in the Dark Woods to enter Hell, the failure to repent is that of the First Circle. Pagans avoid Hell, and thus live a satisfactory earthly life, as far as a merely earthly life can be satisfactory. But Christians must proceed through Hell by repenting of the evil that lies inside of themselves, and this requires Hope. Virgil accordingly tells him about how Beatrice sent him, restoring to Dante the vision of divine progress, and thus allowing him to enter Hell so that he can reject all the ways of becoming stuck in sin, and thereby enter into salvation.

Sayers, Dorothy L., The Divine Comedy: Hell, Penguin Books, New York, NY 1949.
Holy Bible, New International Version, Zondervon, Grand Rapids, MN 1973.
Sisson, Charles H., The Divine Comedy, Oxford University Press, New York, NY 1980.

(The title of this essay is a reference to II.52.)

Aron Wall's Homepage
Go to Top
You can email me by using my first name, followed by my last name, followed by (a***w***