Dante’s Souls Justly Damned Essay

Dante’s Souls Justly Damned

The “inferno” (read hell) and “purgatorio” (read purgatory) are part of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, a three part epic poem written between 1308 and 1321; as the foremost work of Italian Literature, Dante’s comedy is well-known throughout the world. The poem basically presents a creative vision of the afterlife, which is illustrative of the western church’s 14th century’s medieval world-view (Franke 2009, p.252); at the superficial level, the poem narrates Dante’s experiences as he journeys through Abyss, Purgatory and Paradise. However, at a much deeper level, the poem is actually a metaphorical representation of the journey of a soul towards God; Dante’s views in the poem are largely inspired by medieval Christian theology and philosophy (Corbett 2014, p.266). Dante’s journey through the three realms of the dead lasts from the eve of Good Friday through to the Wednesday after Easter; Virgil, a Roman poet takes Dante through the inferno and purgatory.  While Dante’s imaginative classification of human evil is both structurally and logically balanced, there are some cases in which it would appear that some souls are damned while others are saved, even if they seem to have sinned in similar ways. Significantly, these cases inevitably cast doubt over the wisdom of heavenly justice, leading audiences to question the basis or the primary organizing principle of hell’s punishment. This paper will explore Dante’s logic of divine justice in the ‘inferno’ and ‘purgatorio’ while explaining why some souls are damned and others redeemed, even if they seem to have sinned in similar ways; this paper will also endeavor to explain the essential difference between the souls’ sins and the manner in which they are expressed.

Dante embarks on his journey at 35 years old, half the age of the biblical life expectancy of 70 years spoken of in Psalms 89:10; swallowed in a dark wood (read sin) and beset by beasts he cannot elude, Dante fails to locate the “straight path” (read right way) to redemption (Dante, 2003, p.5; Torrens 1999, p.18). The sun beyond the mountain, in contrast to the low place where the sun is silent, represents salvation; Dante becomes particularly afraid at the realization that collapsing into the low place is tantamount to total damnation (Szajnberg 2010, p.184). Eventually, Dante is rescued by Virgil, who then guides him on the journey to the underworld; the inferno symbolizes the Christian’s view of sin while the three beasts (lion, leopard, and she-wolf) allegorically represent the three types of sin namely self-indulgence, violence and malice. This categorization of sin forms the basis for the subdivision of Dante’s inferno into the “Upper Hell”, Circle 7 as well as Circles 8 and 9; sins of indulgence including lust, gluttony, avarice and anger are punished in the “Upper Hell” while the violent are punished in Circle 7. The malicious (sins of fraud and deceitfulness) are punished in Circles 8 and 9; there is also an additional of two spiritual categories including Limbo (Circle 1) of the virtuous pagans and Circle 6 of the heretics. In comparison, the heretics challenged the dogma and confused Christ’s spirit, the virtuous pagans did not heed to Christ’s teachings (Dante 2003, p.30).

Dante and Virgil ascend to the mountain of Purgatory, which rests on an island that was formed through the dislocation of a rock following Satan’s big fall from glory (Hede 2008, p.107), after successfully enduring all the depths of the inferno, leaving despondency behind. The mountain’s seven terraces allegorically represent the seven dangerous sins whose grouping is more psychological (based on reasons as opposed to actions). Moreover, classification of sin in the purgatory is greatly inspired by Christian theology rather than classical sources. Love, which could potentially become corrupted as it flows though humanity from God in its purest form, is a critical device for framing sin on the Purgatory Mountain; humans can sin using love both towards improper ends and towards proper ends. For instance, humans sin when they use love towards malicious reasons such as anger, jealousy and vanity or still, when they use either too little or too much of it towards proper ends. The Ante-Purgatory and the Late repentant, which are found below the soul’s seven purges, consists of the souls that were excommunicated from the church and those of individual that passed away (often violently), before receiving the necessary rites (Jones 2005); the Garden of Eden sits at the summit of the mountain. The Purgatorio is a metaphor that represents the Christian life, climaxing with the transformation of the soul from grief and iniquity to grace, in that respect, it is very significant that Dante and Virgil arrive on the Easter Sunday.

Dante establishes a thoroughly imaginative view of sins committed by souls on earth and the punishment they attract in hell such as the wrathful souls’ attack on one another or the sullen souls’ choking on mud. Throughout the inferno and the purgatorio, Dante demonstrates the precision of God’s ways of executing justice for the sins committed by souls on earth (Montemaggi, Treherne & Rowson n.d); Dante highlights that Hell was created by God for the purposes of executing justice. In that respect, it is clear that all sins violate the heavenly or divinely perfection intended by the creator of heaven and earth (God). Significantly, the appropriateness of each of the punishments in hell attests to the existence of that perfection. Dante’s notion of the appropriateness of Hell’s punishments features prominently in both the “inferno” and “Purgatorio”, and resonates well with his broader moral themes while providing the structure for his hell.

While a vast majority of contemporary audiences may perceive the torments experienced by Dante and Virgil as unnecessarily horrendous, all punishments in the poem are actually regulated by the principle of balance. This implies that sinners are actually punished in accordance to the gravity of their sin or in a way that matches the nature of their sin (Jones 2005). The same notion of the appropriateness of God’s punishments is also emphasized through the structural design of the poem; for instance, the plot of the poem advances from the minor sins to the deadly ones, thereby alluding to the varying degree of sins. Similarly, the poem suggests a geographical structure through the numerous regions of hell, which also correspond to the different types of sins. Given that hell’s punishments are informed by this notion of balance, God’s justice is represented as being strictly impartial, automatic and detached. Consequently, Dante rules out the existence of any extenuating factors in hell, thereby asserting that hell’s punishment is almost a matter of logical formulation. At the onset of the inferno, the unbiased impersonality of Hell’s justice significantly conflicts with Dante’s mortal compassion for the souls that are being tortured around him. However, Virgil’s frequent comments encourage Dante not to feel pity for the suffering souls. Virgil enables Dante to come to the realization that to pity the suffering souls is to show a dearth of understanding of divinely justice (Stark 2001, p.278), which punishes souls according to their sins. 

Hitherto, it would seem that God’s justice is strictly impartial, automatic and detached, which implies that in the absence of extenuating factors, Hell’s punishment is based on a logical formula. Nevertheless, there are numerous cases in which it would appear that some souls are damned while others are saved, even if they seem to have sinned in similar ways. For instance, a sin such as accepting bribe is punished in Circle 8 because it is considered greater than murder, which is punished in Circle 6. Ordinarily, one would expect murder to attract a harsher punishment than fraud, but that is not the case. Nevertheless, there is a clear logic to Dante’s organization of divine justice; given that Dante’s structure is organized around strict Christian values, the moral system it espouses emphasizes the divine will of God as opposed to the earthly desire of humans for harmony. According to Dante’s logic of heavenly justice, therefore, fraud is worse than violence, while human’s logic of justice regards violence to be worse than fraud. Dante’s reasoning is that sins like fraud, which humans consider petty, greatly undermine God’s will for people to treat each other fairly with the love he freely shares with them as His creation (Jones 2005). God’s love, which he extends to all people regardless of who they are, endures forever and He expects everyone to share this love with others unconditionally like He does; however, that is not so as both fraud and violence oppose that love, though to different degrees.

The differences between souls in paradise and souls in hell seems negligible at best, thereby implying that the damned souls and the redeemed souls have more similarities than the typical stereotypes of perfect saints versus vile sinners. For instance, Francesca the adulterer, Count Ugolino the traitor and Virgil share the same fate in damnation, while they can readily identify with a number of their counterparts in paradise such as Beatrice, St. Peters and Piccarda Donati respectively. Nevertheless, the text justifies Francesca’, Count Ugolino’ and Virgil’s damnation by asserting that it was due to their choices and weaknesses. Unlike their counterparts in paradise, these three have made choices that led to their damnation, especially because sin and damnation are deeply entrenched in choice; the concept of choice is deeply engrained in the Christian’s notion of free will. Francesca is damned because of her choice to engage in an extra-marital affair with her husband’s brother; the two are damned to remain lovers in hell, being tossed about in the winds of the second circle, which symbolize the winds of passion (Dante 2003, p.46). Unlike these two, Beatrice made a choice to lead Dante rightly, not just in life, but also in the afterlife, in spite her deep love for him; compared to Beatrice’s love, Francesca’s love for her husband’s brother is a selfish, pleasure-seeking lust.

On his part, Count Ugolino is damned to spend his afterlife gnawing on the head of his killer in hell and, unlike Francesca who is controlled by false love, Ugolino is controlled by an intense hatred; there are many saints like Ugolino in paradise, yet he was damned and they were not. For instance, St. Peter who attacked the wicked pope differs from Ugolino because he made a choice to leave vengeance to God, unlike the former who is bent on avenging himself. St. Peter’s righteous indignation against the wicked pope is justified, unlike Ugolino’s anger, which is clearly misguided because it was his treachery that led to the deaths of his family and himself in the first place. Virgil’s greatest sin is his dearth of faith in God’s ability to be just; Virgil’s excessive self-righteousness eventually leaves him without a God to pursue, and therefore his damnation. Virgil questioning of God’s judgment is contrasted with Piccada’s desire to conform to God’s will at the base of her redemption; even though she has been given the lowest glory in paradise, Piccarda does not question God’s judgment. 

Ultimately, it would appear that Ugolino’s anger is not so different from St. Peter’s and neither is Francesca’s love so different from Beatrice’s. Similarly, it would also appear that Virgil is not worse than Piccarda, yet he is damned alongside Ugolino and Francesca while Piccarda, St. Peters and Beatrice are redeemed. A closer examination of these six souls reveals that there are in fact greater differences than similarities that account for their different fates; precisely, Ugolino’s anger is presented as ugly and steeped in hypocrisy in view of his own actions while Francesca’s love is more of lust. Concerning Virgil, the text demonstrates that his perceived wisdom is not wisdom at all because he cannot even recognize the infinite wisdom of divine justice. Overall, while some souls may present as having been unjustly punished, Dante clearly demonstrates the appropriateness of God’s judgment that surpasses any human understanding; souls are punished according to their sins and God does not make mistakes in his judgment.

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