Imagine a place where tyrants stand up to their ears in boiling blood, the gluttonous experience monsoons of human filth, and those who commit sins of the flesh are blown about like pieces of paper in a never-ending wind storm. Welcome to Dante’s Inferno, his perspective on the appropriate punishments for those who are destined to hell for all eternity. Dante attempts to make the punishments fit the crimes, but because it is Dante dealing out the tortures and not God, the punishments will never be perfect because by nature, man is an imperfect creature. Only God is capable of being above reproach and of metering out a just punishment. While Dante’s treatment towards the tyrants is fitting, his views on the inhabitants of the Ante Inferno and Limbo seem to be backwards and these poor people are doomed to suffer misguided punishments. Therefore, despite Dante’s best attempts to justly punish each sinner, he makes a few mistakes because he is not God and Dante is unable to unbiasedly judge each sinner.
If you were to attempt a journey through Hell, the first unlucky hellions you would encounter are the inhabitants of the Ante Inferno. The residents of this “not quite heaven, not quite hell” domain were placed here because while living, they chose to neither side with God nor with the Devil. By choosing neither good nor evil, these people sinned because they never chose to live by a set of Christian ideals. The punishment for these sinners is to constantly chase a white flag. The color of the flag symbolizes the blank and empty life the sinners led because they did not choose to follow God. The sinners are also bitten by wasps because in real life, they were never forced into any type of moral decision, so in the Ante Inferno, the wasps sting them and force them to chase the white flag. While the ordeal these sinners face seems entirely appropriate, their physical location in hell, or lack there of, is what makes their punishment wrong. This becomes very obvious when the punishment for those in Limbo is considered.
Limbo is the First Circle of Hell and it is the final resting place for the people who died before the birth of Christianity or who were never baptized. Notable figures like Moses and Noah are former residents of Limbo, until Christ granted them a pardon. Virgil resides in Limbo and has been given a temporary leave of absence to guide Dante through Hell because Beatrice, Dante’s former love who holds a high place in heaven, is worried that he is headed on the path towards Hell. Dante shows pity for those who are stuck in Limbo because as Virgil describes,
“Some lived before the Christian faith, so that
They did not worship God aright – and I
Am one of these. Through this, no other fault,
We are lost, afflicted only this one way:
That having no hope, we live in longing”(Canto IV 28-32).
Dante is said to be seized with “heartfelt grief” (Canto IV 33) after hearing this, but no pity is supposed to be felt towards sinners who are receiving just punishments. But how just is it that people who never knew the word of Christ and had no knowledge of Heaven or Hell are sentenced to Hell? It is not a fair punishment to doom those unlucky enough to be born before Christianity to Hell when they were not given a fair chance to learn how to gain entrance to Heaven, especially when you consider that those living in the Ante Inferno were perfectly aware of God and knew the consequences of not living a Christian life. Knowing about God and simply ignoring him seems to be a worse crime than being born before Christ. Perhaps some of the residents of Limbo may have ended up in Hell had they know about Christianity, but some may not have. The people in Limbo were never given the choice to live a life with God, so their punishment and placement in Hell should be less severe than the people who ignored their chance to gain entrance to Heaven.
If Limbo and the Ante Inferno could geographically switch positions, Dante’s reasonsing and punishments for the two groups would make more sense. The sinners in the Ante Inferno experience what seems to be a greater punishment than what one would face in Limbo. Being constantly stung by wasps and forced to chase a white flag would be mentally and physically exhausting and seems to be a torture straight out of hell… yet they aren’t even technically in hell. On the other hand, in Limbo one merely walks around and talks to other luckless souls, which does not seem to be a punishment constant with what other sinners face in hell. Dante correctly assigned the right punishments to each group of sinners, but he misplaced both groups. Limbo should be outside of Hell because they did not have the knowledge of either Heaven or Hell. The Ante Inferno should be the first level of Hell, reserved for those who knew about Heaven and Hell, choose neither side, and now must face the fact that by their indecision, are bound to suffer in Hell.
While Dante may have geographically misplaced these two groups of sinners, he did correctly punish most of the sinners in Hell. For example, “the river of blood – in which boils everyone / Whose violence hurt others” (Canto XII 41-42) describes the perfect punishment for those who were violent while they were alive. The degree of the violence committed also factors into the punishment. Tyrants who slaughtered many people are completely covered in boiling blood, while those who were violent against only a few suffer with blood up to their torsos. This is the perfect punishment because violence is a crime of passion and causes bloodshed. It is appropriate for these sinners to be in boiling blood, which would have been similar to their blood, simmering with rage and passion, while they committed their sin. Being immersed in this disgusting pool of heated blood would be a terrible punishment and it is just that those who commit the crime of violence and murder should suffer this endless torment.
In order to place the sinners in the appropriate levels of Hell, Dante relies on his personal experiences and opinions about the crimes committed. The little bit that we know about Dante and his life, we learn through the opening scenes of the epic and conversations he has with spirits in Hell. The epic opens with Dante, “In dark woods, the right road lost” (Canto I 2). This shows the Dante is neither a devout Christian, nor is he a sinner. At his place in his life, being neither good nor bad, Dante would most likely be sentenced to life in the Ante Inferno. Throughout the epic, Dante likens himself to Virgil, but at the same time appears to know that his work is not quite as good as Virgil’s. Perhaps by placing himself and the Ante Inferno in a level of Hell less severe than Limbo, Dante may still not be as good of a poet, but he is able to represent himself as a better person morally. This may not seem just to me, but to Dante this is a perfectly reasonable punishment. Dante feels the need to be superior to Virgil and since he was not able to accomplish this in life, he supercedes Virgil in the afterlife.
It is also evident that Dante has a personal bias towards those who commit the sin of violence. While venturing through their circle of Hell, Dante says there “in that crowd / Were many I recognized” (Canto XII 114-115). He mentions that Alexander resides there and that “he held Sicily under / For many a sad year” (Canto XII 100-101). Dante may have placed such a harsh, yet still just, punishment on the Violent because he is avenging his country and people for the violent crimes committed against them. Alexander was responsible for an innumerable amount of Italian lives during his occupancy of Sicily and Dante is making sure that he is correctly punished for his sins. In life, Dante was unable to stop Alexander from committing his atrocities, but he is able to condemn him in Hell. Had Dante and his country not experienced the terrors of a tyrant, it is possible that without his need for revenge, Dante may have awarded the Violent a lesser punishment.
Our personal experiences and feelings are what make us human, but yet they also lead us to biases, which prevent us from being as fair and just as God. It is obvious that those in Limbo who were never given a chance to have their soul saved by Christ should not be doomed eternally to a lower level of Hell than those in Ante Inferno who ignored the chance to save their soul. Yet Dante misplaces these two domains of Hell to put himself in a level nearer to Heaven than Dante will ever be able to acheive. While Virgil’s literary abilities will always be remembered as better pieces of work, by making Virgil his guide to salvation, Dante will reach Heaven, the ultimate goal of a Christian, while Virgil never will. The punishment of the Violent is a strong statement against those who have brought bloodshed to Italy and reflects Dante’s hope for peace in Italy.
Dante shows that while these sinners may have dominated the lives of others on Earth, that in hell the Violent are completely overwhelmed by the blood that they created. Despite Dante’s good intentions of creating a Hell where the punishment fits the crime, his opinions cloud his judgement. He uses Hell as a way to punish or degrade those whom he had some sort of a conflict with while alive. It is obvious that I do not agree with all of his ideas about Hell, but then again I am also not a fourteenth century Italian male. A just hell is different for everyone, depending on your own beliefs or lack of beliefs. The only universally just Hell that can be experienced is a Hell of God’s making and hopefully I will never know how his punishments compare to Dante’s.