“Midway through the journey of our life, I found/myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed/from the straight pathway to this tangled ground.” These famous lines from Dante’s Inferno signify the themes of religion and personal salvation in the poem. Often when one embarks on a journey of self-discovery, they travel to places which astound one by their strangeness. Expecting to see what is straightforward and acceptable, one is suddenly presented with exceptions. Just as such self-examiners might encounter their inner demons, so does Dante, both as a character and a writer, as he sets out to walk through his Inferno.
The image of being lost in “dark woods” sets up a clear dichotomy between the supposed unenlightened ignorance that one endures due to a lack of faith in God and the clear radiance provided by God’s love.
Dante uses contrasting symbols to indicate the character’s challenge. The “dark woods” embodies Dante’s fear, yet the “right road” symbolizes his confidence in God, ultimately revealing that Dante’s journey is to find the presence of God in a sinful world.
However, the journey upon which Dante is embarking is not solely his, but rather that of every human being. Consistent with the views of his time, Dante believes that this journey is one that every individual must undertake, so as to understand their sins and find peace with God.
This is an element with which modern readers can identify, as present society is conscious of an individual’s right to find peace within themselves and the universe.
While there are many different religions and divine beings which are worshipped today, the medieval view of personal salvation and spiritual peace is still applicable to any of these variations. Dante’s journey throughout the Inferno also gives readers a glimpse into his own perception of what constitutes sin. It may be harder, however, for modern readers to agree with the punishment for certain sins, in light of liberal advances in society’s views and the constantly changing nature of moral and societal norms.
The torments that sinners are subjected to in Dante’s Inferno may seem extreme to modern readers, however, throughout the poem it becomes clear that there is balance in God’s justice and each sinner suffers to a degree befitting the gravity of their sins. Dante’s journey to save his soul reveals a correspondence between a soul’s sin on Earth and the punishment received in Hell. A few examples are the Sullen, who choke on mud; the Wrathful, who attack one another; and the Gluttonous, who are forced to eat excrement. This brings into light one of Dante’s main themes, the perfection of God’s justice, which is relevant throughout time. “THROUGH ME THE WAY TO SOULS IN ABOMINATION./JUSTICE MOVED MY GREAT MAKER IN MY DESIGN.” The inscription over the gates of Hell in Canto III explicitly states that God created Hell and its punishments through the motivation of justice. Hell exists to punish sin and the specific punishments awarded are suitable, as they testify to the divine perfection, which all sin violates. To modern readers, however, the torments that Dante and Virgil behold, on their journey through the circles of Hell, may seem harsh.
For example, homosexuals must endure an eternity of walking on hot sand and those who charge interest on loans must sit beneath a rainy storm of fire. These, like many of the sins that Dante punishes in the Inferno, are socially acceptable and common in the present world. While many cultures do not accept homosexual relations, intolerance for this style of life has decreased dramatically in the past generation and by many, is no longer viewed as a sin against nature. Likewise, charging interest on loans is common in the commercialized business economies of the modern world. A modern reader would not deem the punishments received by these sinners as appropriate. However, it is important to realize that Dante is writing during a period of great religious influence and obedience to theological ideals. In addition, when the poem is viewed in its entirety, it becomes clear that the guiding principle behind these punishments is one of justice and balance.
The poem progresses from minor sins to major ones, as the duo proceeds deeper into the fires of Hell and closer to Lucifer himself. While some readers may object to the placements of some sins, the damned souls that reside in the deepest part of Hell, the 9th Circle, are neither a medieval nor modern view, but in fact, timeless. Dante reserves the harshest punishments for those who have committed sins against those whom the sinner has special ties to, like family or friends. Despite the act, modern readers can agree that a traitor of this nature must be deservedly punished. Early on in Inferno, Dante presents tension between the objective impersonality of God’s justice and the human sympathy that the character of Dante feels for the souls that he sees around him. However, Dante is demonstrating that sinners receive punishment in divine proportion to their sin and to pity their suffering is to demonstrate a lack of understanding.
The reader must be wary of succumbing to the sympathy that Dante first shows towards some of the damned souls, as messengers from heaven show their lack of concern for the damned and eventually, Dante also becomes less inclined to pity the sinners, trusting the infinite wisdom of divine justice. It is assumed in Christian theology that God is divine and just and therefore, it is futile to question His judgments. Subsequently, it should be realized that Dante’s sympathy towards some of the characters in Hell is incorrect. Everything about God is just; it is only in the mortal world of sin and death that one finds injustice, which is the mark of Cain on humanity. Yet Dante’s treatment of some characters asks the reader to put aside their sins and admire their human traits.
However, if the reader begins to feel sympathy for Francesca, it must be noted that she is a woman with the habit of blaming others for her own difficulties; Pier delle Vigne has totally abandoned his loyalty for God in favour of his powerful emperor; Ulysses is a character of great ego; and even Ugolino’s paternal feelings have a central concern for his own well-being. These characteristics may, however, elude the reader and thus, two figures from heaven descend into hell to remind Dante of his mission, indicating how the reader should perceive these sinners. Virgil tells Dante of Beatrice’s visit to Limbo, where she admits no compassion for the tribulations of the damned, she only wishes to return to Paradise as soon as possible. When an angel arrives to open the gates of Dis, which had been slammed in the face of Virgil, he makes it clear that he has no interest in the damned nor in Dante’s situation, he only wants to complete his task quickly and leave Hell. Despite these reminders, both the character of Dante and the reader fall victim to their human sympathy for many of the sinners in the earlier cantos.
Throughout Canto III, Dante displays a great deal of sympathy for the souls he encounters; his depiction of Hell as a walled city conforms to medieval Catholic theology and exemplifies the religious awareness of the period. Upon passing through the gates of Hell, Dante hears innumerable cries of torment and suffering. Virgil explains that these cries emanate from the souls of those who lived their lives without making conscious moral choices and thus, did not commit their lives to good or evil. Subsequently, the indifference of these souls have caused both Heaven and Hell to deny them entry. These souls now reside in the Ante-Inferno, within Hell yet not truly part of it, where they must chase constantly after a blank banner.
The empty banner symbolizes their meaningless existence on earth. Flies and wasps continually bite them, and writhing worms consume the blood and tears that flow from them. The souls of the uncommitted are joined in this torment by the neutral angels — those who sided with neither God nor Satan in the war in Heaven. “That death had undone so many, I had not dreamed.” Like Dante, modern readers will also find it hard to accept the fate of these indecisive souls. It seems unfair that by not succumbing to either good or evil, they must still endure punishment in the afterlife.
In this canto, Dante also describes Hell as being formed out of justice and also as a city: “THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE CITY OF DESOLATION.” Historically, large cities had begun to play an increasingly important role in the social and economic life of Europe during Dante’s time. Particularly in Italy, where city-states such as Dante’s native Florence had become important bases of social organization. Dante portrays Hell as a city in large part because, to a thinker in the early fourteenth century, any substantial human population would have suggested a city. In religious terms, there are only two great “cities”: Heaven or Hell. While Heaven is a city of God, Hell is a city of Man; as the damned souls have succumbed to temptation and sin, preoccupied only with self-preservation and gain.
This may be a more medieval idea, as cities were viewed as a source of evil and were enjoying a relatively new period of prosperity. However, crime in modern times is more prevalent in cities and thus, more citizens prefer to live in the suburbs. Even the structure of Hell represents a city. The outer limits are like the countryside, containing the indecisive souls. As Dante and Virgil progress through the outer circles, which can be seen as the suburbs, they encounter lesser sins. However, as they continue further into the depths of Hell and towards the city’s heart, the sins increase in gravity. Dante’s opinion of the sinners also begins to progress and become less sympathetic at this point.
In Cantos XII and XIII, Dante continues to exhibit sympathy for some sinners, however appears to be becoming more cynical as he encounters many damned souls from Florence; the punishments in these cantos also reflect a rationale for appropriate degrees of anguish. In these cantos, Dante encounters souls who were violent towards others and themselves. The first group must stand in a pool of boiling blood. Going along with the theme of appropriate punishment as part of God’s justice, each of these souls is subjected to a different level of agony. The souls who only killed one person stand only with their legs in the boiling blood. However, the souls of tyrants, like Alexander, have even their heads submerged. Why must these souls stand in boiling blood and not water? It is because it was blood which they lusted after during life, causing them to be violent. In this portion of his journey, Dante does not display sympathy for the torment of these souls. “O senseless rage and blind cupidity/that in the short life stimulate us so/and in eternal one drench us wretchedly.”
As opposed to the earlier cantos, Dante recognizes that the greed and anger of these souls during life are responsible for their punishment in Hell. In the next canto, Dante encounters those souls who were violent towards themselves by committing suicide. Their fate in afterlife is to suffer as trees; having discarded their bodies while on earth, these souls have been rendered unable to assume human form for the rest of eternity. To some modern readers, the punishment of souls who commit suicide may seem unnecessary, as these people must have already endured great suffering during life to commit such a sin. The punishment of violence, however, seems appropriate.
Towards the end of Canto XIII, Dante learns from one tree-soul that his home city, Florence, constantly succumbs to conflict due to its abandonment of Mars as it patron saint, in favour of John the Baptist. “…The city that chose the Baptist to replace/ its ancient patron, who for all time to come/will therefore use his art to afflict our race.” Mars was the god of war and thus, Florence is persistently filled with feuding factions. Dante, however, tends to blame the state of Florence’s politics on certain influential leaders of his time.
In Canto XXVII, Dante shows his intolerance for the political corruption in Florence, along with a more cynical and modern view, believing that moral dilemmas should be addressed using logic and not by blindly following a religious figure, as Pope Boniface VII led da Montefeltro to Hell. The political and spiritual leaders in Florence are subjected to harsh punishments and viewed with great contempt by the character of Dante, due to the personal history of the author. Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy, to a family of moderate wealth that had a history of involvement in the complex Florentine political scene. Dante’s personal life and subsequent writing of The Divine Comedy were greatly influenced by the politics of the late 13th Century. The struggle for power in Florence between the church and state for authority was a conflict that existed throughout Europe. In Florence, these two loyalties were represented by the Guelph party, which supported the papacy, and the Ghibelline party, which supported imperial power.
The last truly powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, died in 1250, and by Dante’s time, the Guelphs were in power in Florence. However, the party had divided into two factions: the Whites (Dante’s party), who supported the independence of Florence from strict papal control, and the Blacks, who were willing to work with the pope in order to restore their power. Under the direction of Pope Boniface VIII, the Blacks gained control of Florence in 1301 and Dante, as a visible and influential leader of the Whites, was exiled within a year. In Canto XXVII, Dante encounters the damned soul of Guido da Montefeltro, who had been a member of the Ghibelline party but had undergone a spiritual conversion and entered a Franciscan monastery. However, he was subsequently persuaded to re-enter politics on the opposite side by Pope Boniface VIII. Boniface eventually asked da Montefeltro’s advice on how to capture a Ghibelline fortress and promised him absolution in advance, despite the accuracy of any advice.
However, upon his death, da Montefeltro was pulled into Hell by a devil who exclaimed: “…Because of the fraudulent counsel he presented./I’ve been at his hair since the instant of the wrong,/for no one can be absolved who has not repented…” It is impossible for a man to receive absolution before sinning, as absolution cannot precede repentance and repentance cannot precede the sin. At this point, Dante does not question the spiritual authority of the Christian Church. He does, however, show his contempt for Pope Boniface. Dante’s message from this encounter is that when Christians find themselves faced with moral dilemmas, they must use their reason rather than blindly follow the directions of a church figure. Dante does not believe that the Church’s authority should overrule logic, especially given the Church’s frequent descents to corruption. This is an element of the Inferno which modern readers can greatly relate to. Presently, science and other logical studies dictate man’s knowledge of his world. It is also used more frequently in making decisions tha basic reliance on one’s religion, as was the case in medieval times.
While the modern reader can relate to Dante’s insistence that logic dominate religion in certain matters, there are still many elements of Dante’s Hell which may trouble a modern audience. As aforementioned, many of the punishments may seem harsh and even unwarranted, given present social and moral norms. Another element of disagreement may be found with Dante’s depiction of Limbo. In Canto IV, Virgil and Dante descend into the First Circle of Hell, known as Limbo, which is inhabited by those souls who led virtuous lives but were not baptized or lived before the advent of Christianity. In a world where there are many different religions and belief systems that, for the most part, co-exist relatively harmoniously, the idea of punishing pagans seems unjust.
If these souls were unaware of Christianity or chose not to follow this faith during life, then why should they be subjected to the same judgment as Christians? This is an example of the dominant Christian theme in the Inferno and one of the many reasons why modern readers may find it difficult to identify with Dante’s Hell. Consequently, the greatest challenge that Dante’s Inferno presents to modern readers is its lack of tolerance. This is due to the great influence that the Christian religion enjoyed during this period and the rigid outline of sins that existed in the Bible. The character of Dante is prepared to offer sympathy towards some souls, but is encouraged by heavenly messengers to show no compassion or tolerance for the sins of the damned. French philosopher, Voltaire, later would identify this flaw in the Christian faith: “Of all religions, Christianity is without a doubt the one that should inspire tolerance most, although, up to now, the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”