Meaning of Hope in Dante's Inferno

Categories: Dante

A common topic among numerous schools of thought is notion of hope. Because of this, hope can be defined in several ways, including psychologically, philosophically, and religiously. However, in his novel, Inferno, Dante almost exclusively takes a religious, namely Christian, standpoint on hope and despair. Dante’s work brings forth an important discussion on the subject of meaning and how it relates to hope.

One way to define hope is psychologically. According to W.W. Meissner on page 17 of his 1973 article titled “Notes on the Psychology of Hope,” “The first and most important characteristic of hope is that it is realistic: it seeks, directs itself to, strives for, imagines, and finds the real.

” This definition dismisses the thought of hope as a metaphysical property; rather, it points to hope as an attainable reality. In addition, Meissner discusses a strong association between hope and desire (18). Despite this relationship, hope does not stop once desires are acknowledged. Hope drives action and fulfillment of the desires.

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Thus, in a psychological sense, hope strives toward the reality yet to come (Meissner 18).

Another way to define hope is philosophically. According to J.P. Day on page 89 of his 1969 article titled “Hope,” hope is an important concept that has been investigated by some of the great historical philosophers, such as Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill. Hume’s traditional philosophical definition of hope significantly varies from the aforementioned psychological definition in that it classifies hope as an emotion. This definition is shared among most philosophers, including Aristotle, Aquinas, and René Descartes.

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In contrast, Day’s personal view aligns more with the aforementioned psychological definition; he acknowledges the importance of desire and reality in the conversation of hope. Day also states why he does not consider hope an emotion. Specifically, he explains that hope involves two parts: desire and probability. Day argues that these constituents are not emotions, for it is obvious that probability is not an emotion and that desire lacks two defining characteristics of an emotion: sensation and a physical attribute. Although a philosopher, Day’s view on hope aligns more with the psychological view, so it will be discussed as so.

The last way to define hope is religiously. As previously mentioned, Dante primarily discusses hope from a Christian standpoint. Consequently, although not explicitly stated in his work, one can infer that Dante associates hope with something like the forgiveness and deliverance of one from his or her sins by God’s grace. Hope is an important concept in the Bible and is mentioned numerous times. One of the more well known passages pertaining to hope comes from Jeremiah 29:11 and it reads, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (New International Version). This passage tells of God’s vision for all of his children. However, it also lends to question the hope, or lack thereof, one possesses when he or she rejects God.

When discussing hope, it is right to also examine hope’s opposite, despair. Like hope, despair can be defined psychologically, philosophically, and religiously. According to Meissner on page 13, “Confrontation with inexorable and immutable events over which man has no control provides the basis for despair.” In other words, the psychological definition of despair

encompasses situations in which one cannot change the outcome of certain events, regardless of what preventative measures are attempted. This brings to mind the philosophical idea of determinism which describes that if pre-existing conditions are met, events are determined. By this psychological definition of despair, if determinism governs the world, every person is technically in a state of despair. However, one could argue that this statement is not necessarily accurate if one does not believe in determinism. If determinism holds true, one that is ignorant to this fact would not despair, for he or she would not know of the vanity of their actions. In addition, another interesting aspect of this definition is that Meissner does not specify whether or not the determined events exclusively deny the fulfilment of desires. Perhaps, Meissner deems these events worthy of despair for just that reason.

Since the outcomes of future situations are unknown and, according to this definition, one is not capable of altering them, he or she must despair, for if an undesirable outcome is possible and if it is determined to take place, it will. Thus, this definition renders one defenseless against his or her own indisputable future. Another way to define despair is philosophically. According to Day via Aquinas, hope and despair are incompatible in a philosophical sense (94). Thus, it is not possible for the two to exist within a person simultaneously. However, Day explains that despair only differs from hope in the sense that with despair, the object of one’s desire is unattainable, whereas with hope, there is some probability that the object can be obtained. As aforementioned, according Meissner’s psychological view, this probability is what drives action and the fulfillment of desires (18).

Thus, since despair eliminates all probability of fulfillment, one with despair still desires an object equally to one with hope, but knows action is futile and remains hopeless, or in a state of despair. The last way to define despair is religiously. On page 36 of his article titled “Love Deny’d”, Douglas L. Patey relates theological despair to Judas and the moral sin of sloth. He defines despair as a lack of will to repent and, consequently, receive God’s grace (36). As a result of being slow to repent, the sloth believe that they have missed their chance to absolve their worldly sins. Thus, like Judas, who chose to take his own life rather than repent, the sloth doubt God’s power and endless mercy, and, as a result, they do not receive it (Patey 38). Thus, according to the Christian definition, the sloth are damned to eternal despair in hell.

As aforementioned, in Inferno, Dante almost exclusively takes a Christian standpoint on hope and despair. The first three lines of his work reads, “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself in a dark wilderness, / For I had wandered from the straight and true” (Esolen 3). This passage can be translated in three different ways: allegorically, anagogically, and morally The allegorical interpretation could be that Dante felt himself awaken from a feeling of lostness, while the moral interpretation could be that his soul was awakened, and the anagogical interpretation could be that Dante became aware of a sense of spiritual lostness and that he felt he had strayed off the straight and narrow Christian path. If the latter interpretation is valid, it could be acknowledged as the key difference between Dante and the slothful.

Because Beatrice, Dante’s muse, appealed to Saint Lucia who then appealed to Saint Mary, Dante was awakened and called to action by his guide, Virgil. Dante is allowed to hope of gaining admittance into Paradise to exist alongside his beloved Beatrice because her act of love enabled him to make an effort to exonerate his sins. To do so, Dante follows Virgil through the entirety of hell and observes the damned souls there. Above the entrance of Hell, Dante and Virgil encounter the following inscription: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter! From a literary standpoint, this inscription literally means that damned have no hope of ever escaping Hell’s physical boundaries or the endless torments it possesses. This explains the damned’s astonished reactions upon realizing Dante is alive.

In addition, from the previously discussed philosophical standpoint, hope and despair differ in that hope grants desires the possibility of becoming a reality, whereas despair does not. Thus, if the damned must abandon hope, they must conform to despair in its absence. This despair is exemplified countless times throughout the work and is evident in numerous historical figures’ anguish. In fact, it is asked whether or not the souls will ever be granted a period of respite. This question is met with the answer that the punishments will never cease and will only be perfected with the Second Coming of Christ. Despite this, some souls are stoic in their punishments. These souls are classified as Sisyphean characters from The Myth of Sisyphus, which will be discussed later on.

Dante’s work brings forth an important discussion on the subject of meaning and how it relates to hope. Like hope and despair, meaning also possesses a philosophical and religious definition. However, meaning does not possess a psychological definition. Nevertheless, it seems as though the philosophical definition of meaning intertwines with the psychological definition of hope and despair. According to E.M. Adams on page 73 of his article titled “The Meaning of Life,” philosophical naturalists claim that meaning is external, but only attribute this external meaning to mechanisms of physical form, such as believing, perceiving, and thinking.

However, Adams’s personal opinion differs from that of the naturalists. He believes that meaning gives existence to some “...acts such as thinking, believing, perceiving, remembering, and the like and their objective counterparts, namely, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, and memories, or any mental state or act, for that matter”(Adams 74). Adams also supplies a philosophical meaning of life which entails that one has his or her own self-identity and an appropriate life based on that identity. In contrast, the religious definition of life is centered around God.

According to Thaddeus Metz on page 293 of his September 2000 article titled “Could God's Purpose Be the Source of Life's Meaning?,” purpose theory could possibly provide the meaning of life. Purpose theory states that one achieves meaning when he or she fulfils God’s purpose. In addition, a prominent work of literature exemplifies and gives a definition to meaning in a way dissimilar to those previously discussed. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus is condemned to endlessly rolling a rock up a mountain that comes down by itself. Sisyphus realized that there is no alternative to his punishment, so to spite the gods, he made it his duty to roll the rock and found meaning in it. Thus, although punished, Sisyphus was content.

From a philosophical standpoint, it seems possible for one to find meaning if he or she has hope. If Day’s somewhat psychological definition holds true, it appears as though one could find meaning in the possibility of satiating his or her desires, which is the previously discussed psychological definition of hope. This would align with Adam’s meaning of life because one would be aware of his or her’s innermost desires and would live in a way to fulfill these desires.

Thus, one would have his or her own self-identity and would live his or her life according to that identity, which is Adam’s definition of the meaning of life. Furthermore, according to Day’s definition, if the probability of fulfilling one’s desires is not present, he or she would only have despair. Unlike the definition of hope, this definition might differ from Adam’s because, technically, the souls in Hell would be identified by others as damned and would have no other choice but to carry on existing in that state. Although, what may save these two definitions from contrasting could be whether or not the souls identify themselves as damned or not.

Since Adam’s meaning requires self-identity for meaning, it is possible that the souls could identify themselves for who they were in life instead of their present situation. By this way, the souls could identify differently and exist as the same person they were in life. Another way around this conundrum, although seemingly unlikely, could be the possibility of damned souls embracing their damnation and making that their meaning. In addition, if other literary examples are considered, it seems as though one could find meaning in a situation without hope. Like the Myth of Sisyphus, countless people find meaning in their current situation, even though it is not what they originally desired. This could be exemplified in one whose ultimate desire was to become a veterinarian.

However, after numerous attempts, he or she did not score high enough on the standardized test to be accepted into veterinary school. Despite this, he or she went through the training to become a veterinary assistant and dedicated his or her life to helping the veterinarian. In this example, even though one did not fulfill his or her’s ultimate desire, he or she found meaning in the current situation. Thus, by this definition, hope and meaning are connected but do not exhibit an obligate relationship. Furthermore, this definition of meaning is interesting because it seems as though one exchanges his or her deep desires for more superficial ones. It could more than likely be assumed that Sisyphus would rather not spend eternity constantly pushing the rock, but he found a superficial meaning in the action because he had no hope of any other fate.

Thus, it appears as though Sisyphus adjusted his desires to avoid living in endless despair, which is the philosophically defined as the impossibility of obtaining one’s desires. In a religious context, however, meaning is derived from one’s attempt to please God and gain deliverance from his or her sins, which is the previously discussed religious definition of hope. By this deliverance and repentance of sins, one is that much closer to gaining admittance into eternal glory. Thus, many Christians devote their life to God and spreading his Word to secure their future. This image is a stark contrast to the damned souls in Hell. As explained in the discussion pertaining to despair, these souls have denied God and His grace. Therefore, they must live in eternal agony with no reprieve.

By the aforementioned religious definition, these souls have no meaning, for they did not fulfill God’s purpose or accept him in any facet. Although there is no hope that these souls will ever be removed from their situation or receive divine mercy, it is possible that they could possess the psychological definition of meaning. Again, like Sisyphus, some of the damned souls in Inferno made it their duty to let their punishments affect them as little as possible. This type of existence satisfies the requirements of philosophical meaning because despite the lack of an ultimate end goal, these damned souls found superficial meaning and identity in their torment. Thus, it appears as though the damned souls will never have religious meaning, but can have a type of meaning, nevertheless.

Although overarching definitions for hope and despair have not yet been established, these terms can be defined psychologically, philosophically, and religiously. As a result, the definition of meaning and its association with hope can also be described in more than one way, such as religiously and a mix of philosophically and psychologically. From a mix of philosophical and psychological definitions, it is a possibility that the damned souls in Hell could have a meaning, as by this definition, meaningfulness and hope are connected, but they do not exhibit an obligate relationship. However, from a religious standpoint, these souls have no meaning, for they did not fulfill God’s purpose or accept him in any facet. Thus, the answer to the definition of hope, despair, and to the meaning of life depends on one’s personal views.

Works Cited

  1. Adams, E. M. “The Meaning of Life.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol. 51, no. 2, 2002, pp. 71–81. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  2. Day, J. P. “Hope.” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 2, 1969, pp. 89–102. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  3. Esolen, Anthony, translator. Dante Inferno. Random House, Inc., 2002.
  4. Meissner, W. W. “Notes on the Psychology of Hope.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 12, no. 1,1973, pp. 7–29. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  5. Metz, Thaddeus. “Could God's Purpose Be the Source of Life's Meaning?” Religious Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, 2000, pp. 293–313. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  6. The Holy Bible, New International Version. Colorado Springs: Biblica, 2011. Print.
  7. Patey, Douglas Lane. “‘Love Deny'd’: Pope and the Allegory of Despair.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, 1986, pp. 34–55. JSTOR, JSTOR,
Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Meaning of Hope in Dante's Inferno. (2021, Apr 26). Retrieved from

Meaning of Hope in Dante's Inferno essay
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