Dante’s three-part epic poem the Divine Comedy, or Commedia, is one of the most influential and dense works of poetic literature in the Western tradition. Building off Homer and Virgil, and influencing the likes of Chaucer, Milton, Blake, and Tennyson, as well as bringing to popular consciousness and form the modern Italian language, Dante’s epic delves into the meaning of allegory, poetry, love, truth, and philosophy. Dante’s poetry rests on the classical presumptions of the human being: earthly love does have Divine, or transcendent, character and quality. Moreover, following from the Christian tradition which Dante is part of and extols, it is first the love of things temporal when finally, and properly ordered, allows one to enjoy earthly loves while proceeding to move toward the permanent things: the good, true, and beautiful.
The Divine Comedy is a rich and dense text. It expects a command of the classics which would have been commonplace in the early Renaissance period when Dante was writing: the stories of Homer and Virgil, of the Greek philosophical tradition, and, of course, of the Christian philosophical and theological traditions as well. It also delves into the heart of Christian (Catholic) philosophy in how hell is constructed, the role of love in salvation, and how miserableness (a life overwhelmed in sin) is transcended to a life of happiness (which is what salvation is all about in Christianity). Admittedly, the poem is exceedingly dense and is ripe with all types of layers of allegory, philosophy, and theology. For a basic understanding of the intellectual content of the poem, I cannot go too deep into the themes for risk of losing you, the reader. As such, I will explore a few of the major themes in the various books – starting with Inferno – and give explanation and context to these.
Understanding the Inferno: The Construction of Hell
To understand Dante’s construction of Hell we must first understand some basic things about Christian theology. In Christian theology, God is understood as Love and Truth. This is important to know when exploring the nine circles of Hell, and especially the separation between the first four five circles with the final four circles. Furthermore, Christian anthropology asserts that man has a telos and that this telos is to live a life in union with truth, wisdom, and love. Without knowing Truth, which is impossible with reason or wisdom, then one cannot properly love. Without this one cannot live a truly fulfilled and happy life which is what all humans seek.
As Dante and Virgil approach the gates of Hell, they see the now infamous words: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE. The reason why there is no hope in Hell is because Hell is timeless. Just like Heaven is timeless. (Do ignore the usage of rising and setting suns in the poem, it is not Dante making a mistake; he uses the time of day and night in his narrative as a device to communicate a message to the reader. Time also exists for Dante because he is not actually dead.) When they enter Hell, they meet the first group of people known as the neutrals. The neutrals are people who did not side with good or evil in their lives or times of crisis (which demand action). As such, neither Heaven nor Hell can take them because they didn’t choose the good, true, or beautiful (Heaven) nor the privation of the good, true, or beautiful (Hell). Here they are stung by bees and other insects that causes them to run and scatter about. Get it? Movement. They are forced to move into action which they failed to do in life. As such, their movement comes together behind a banner, symbolizing a leader or lead, something which they never did in life.
Although there are nine circles to Hell, there are, in practicality, only eight circles. The first circle of hell is Limbo, which Dante and Virgil reach after crossing the river Acheron, the mythical Greek river that led one to the underworld (Hell), but no one is being punished here. Limbo is where all the righteous pagans are located. These souls, including some notable Islamic philosophers, are those people who, though not Christian (e.g. having been baptized), had achieved the cardinal virtues. At the same time, they did know God which is to say that they did not live by the full standard of Truth (who is God). They are neither punished nor rewarded. Limbo is denied the Beatific Vision and true joy, but the light of Limbo is the light of the human intellect from the many noble and intelligent souls that find themselves in this circle. Furthermore, as Virgil describes, when Jesus descended into Hell (known as the Harrowing of Hell in Christian tradition) he brought out of Hell the Jewish patriarchs and other Old Testament saints, prophets, and heroes and ushered them as the first fruit of Heaven.
Many of the souls in Limbo include famous Greek and Roman poets and philosophers and literary and historical figures: Julius Caesar, Aeneas, Ovid, Lucan, Electra, Homer, Hesiod, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and also includes Muslim figures: Averroes, Avicenna, and Saladin. These are people who were either intellectually brilliant and sought to live a life in accord with Truth, but not knowing the full Truth (e.g. God) they were only able to master the cardinal virtues in life. The cardinal virtues are not enough to bring about eternal joy. Which is why these souls are denied eternal joy. But not having directed their loves to wrong things, or denied any basic truths, they are also left unpunished. Life is Limbo is social. It has vegetation and light. It is like life on earth. It is good but not perfect. There are moments of happiness, but happiness is not enduring. Limbo is envisioned like Elysium from Roman mythology.
I also want to draw our attention to the nature of Limbo. It has light, and vegetation. The souls here are conversing with each other in peace without violence. Dante describes Limbo as a great city, with shining light and high walls, a splendid castle and sweetly flowing waters. As he ends Canto IV he remarks, “I come into a place where no light is.” The transformation of light to darkness is an allegory of knowledge (light = knowledge and darkness = lack of knowledge), and it is also a major allegorical motif in the Bible. Lastly, as Dante is entering Hell is face changes complexion (color) to symbolize his movement from light and life to darkness and death (his face grows paler as he descends through the circles of hell). The relating of the circles of Hell to differing environments, and city (political) descriptions is another one of the levels of allegory that runs throughout Divine Comedy. Dante is also exploring the same question Plato explored in The Republic. What kind of city do we live in? Dante relates the type of city that we live in based on what kind of loves and truths we hold and reject in life.
Circles 2-5: Misdirected Love, Falling Away from Truth
Moving beyond Limbo we enter the second circle of hell where people are finally being punished for their sins and the place where there is no more light. It is important to know that in Christian tradition – and by Christian I am referring to Catholic – sin is misdirected love which corresponds with having lived by standards of falseness. It is not so much that they are being “punished” per se, but it follows from the Christian anthropological insight of becoming what you love. By living a life of falsity humans will be miserable and not live contented and happy lives. That is, by living by the standards of falseness (e.g. man becoming the measure of right and wrong – “woe unto those who call good evil and evil good”) man can fulfill his desires.
That is what all the circles of hell entail, and as it relates specifically to the second through fifth circles, the sinners in these circles directed their loves to things that could not ultimately satisfy the human heart and intellect. These souls do not suffer the worst punishments which reside inside the walls of the City of Dis, for at least they loved something. They ultimately loved things, however, that could never be satiated because they misidentified the objects of their love as the summit of love itself.
2 Circle: Lust
3 Circle: Gluttony
4 Circle: Mammon (money)
5 Circle: Conflict and Wrath
The second circle contains all the lustful souls who lusted after over persons. Dante is very much the Augustinian. Those who are familiar with Augustine will see Augustinian themes and tropes employed all throughout Dante’s poem. The lustful souls were “in love with the idea of love” to quote Augustine from Confessions. That is, they chased after love but never knew love (e.g. did not know or love God) and therefore the love they expressed was misdirected. Rather than loving another human through God, which is the proper order of love according to Christianity, these souls caused great ill to themselves and others through their lustful pursuits of others. They were, in effect, otherizing and objectifying other images of God instead of seeing them as images of God and loving the image by loving God.
The second circle where these souls are whipped around in an uncontrollable whirlwind, also represents how lustful desires takes control of a soul and the soul (rational intellect) cannot have any tranquility (peace). Just as human love, which is not the same as divine love, cannot satisfy the desire of souls, the souls being whipped about in the wind storms are controlled by their desires (represented by the wind) which they have no ability to control. The message is simple: your soul has been taken captive by desire and you are now enslaved to your lustful passions. Rather than the soul ordering desire to the proper objects of love your desire enslaved your soul and desire ran amok.
The third circle contains the gluttonous souls who deformed their natures through their gluttony. In this circle Dante is unable to make out the souls because of their deformed natures. Furthermore, gluttonous souls cannot enjoy their true nature or the true nature of the world (beauty, light, and tranquility) which is represented by how there is constant darkness, rain, and lack of light which distorts them and makes them unrecognizable.
Moving onto the fourth circle we meet the souls who loved greed. Mammon has long been considered the root of all evil for it represents the debasement of the soul away from transcendent things to only material things (since money is a material good). Dante describes Plutus (the mythical god of wealth in the Greek tradition) as “mankind’s arch-enemy.”
When we enter the fourth circle the canto opens with gibberish speech. This will become a growing theme as Dante and Virgil descend deeper into hell where truth does not exist, and speech becomes slurred and harder to understand as a result of this lack of truth. The souls are condemned to carry heavy stones in this circle, representing how one’s great prize in earthly life (the power of wealth) becomes a burden in the afterlife. What was thought of as one’s great possession and instrument of liberation and advancement enslaves the soul hence why the souls here are enslaved by their love of wealth and weighed by stones that correspond with their relative wealth, they enslaved themselves to during their earthly lives.
Rather than use their wealth for good (charity and collective improvement) these souls hoarded their wealth for themselves and were entirely self-absorbed. The meaning of this circle is straightforward: wealth cannot provide meaning in your life. This can be abstracted further to argue that material goods can never satisfy one’s desires. You always chase after more things just as these souls sought after more and more goods. The pursuit of wealth for the sake of wealth destroys the world, communities, and ultimately man himself.
As Dante and Virgil sail over the River Styx to the city of Dis, they sail upon the fifth circle of hell where all the souls who loved wrath and conflict are found. The souls are locked in eternal struggle with other souls as reflective of what they loved. Again, what you loved in life corresponds with what your soul will be doing in Hell. Because these souls thrived and lusted after conflict and wrath in life on earth, they receive their reward in Hell.
“Phlegyas, Phlegyas, this time you shout in vain!” Throughout the journey Dante includes Greek and Roman heroes and gods. For those who don’t know, Phlegyas was a god of wrath and war who, in rage, destroyed Apollo’s Temple. Hence why he is present as the guardian in this circle of Hell. The notable soul that Dante meets here is a fellow Florentine and wrathful partisan named Filippo Argenti who lived a life of conflict and vengeance while alive and is forever cast down into hell to live out an eternal life of conflict and wrath.
Whereas the lustful loved objects for sexual gratification, and the gluttonous loved objects that ultimately deformed their nature, and the money-chasers sought after material goods to try and satisfy them, these souls sought strife to find meaning in their lives hence why they are cast into the River Styx where perpetual conflict and wrath is found. In Catholic tradition, God does not condemn anyone to Hell who has not already chosen it for themselves (on account of free will). A soul becomes what it loves, as already mentioned, so Hell simply corresponds with what one loved in life and since the soul becomes that in life, and since the soul is immortal, it must go to the state of what it loved in the afterlife. By loving the things-themselves, rather than being able to see God through the things these sinners loved, they slowly drifted from Truth and became controlled by desire alone.
Something to take note of, in Dante’s journey, is that in his conversations, the people he converse with never take responsibility for their actions. They always blame someone else for the choices they made. Francesca da Polenta, perhaps the most famous of Dante’s early encounters, defends her carnal lust by expressing it in the language of love—an obvious corruption of love to be sure, but nevertheless we see in Francesca the reality of misdirected love and the excitement of the passions to external things which characterize the second through fifth circles of Hell.
Circles 6-9: Rejection of Truth
Entering the latter half of Hell, we transition from sins which were marred by misdirected love to sin that outright rejected truth. Heresy is the first layer within the walls of the City of Dis, and heresy is not simply Christian heresy, but heresy to Truth itself (which would be an affront to God since God is Truth in Christianity). The circles of hell to be found within the walls of Dis are:
6 Circle: Heresy (willful rejection of Truth)
7 Circle: Violence done to others, self, and God (including creation)
8: Fraud and non-malevolent betrayal
9: Intentional Betrayal and Treachery
The most notable figure that is found in the sixth circle of Hell is Epicurus. Whereas the other great Greek luminaries were in Limbo: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thales, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus, Zeno, and Roman philosophers like Cicero and Seneca, the inclusion of Epicurus in this circle of Hell is because Epicurus rejected two basic truths that his fellow Greek philosophers knew and tried to live by: truth and the immortality of the soul. Epicurus was one of the first epistemological relativists, or perhaps nihilists, in charging that there was no standard of Truth to seek to live by. Instead, one should just live a life of hedonistic pleasure because humans are just bodies. Thus, he also denied the immortality of the soul.
I want to point out of the great moments of literary irony in Inferno. The Epicureans, in denying the immortality of the soul, and believing everything to be matter, see the telos of human life as self-centered bodily pleasure before entering the grave. Where are the Epicureans and where do they all rest? Their immortal souls are entombed forever in graves! What a fitting punishment that is deliciously ironic all things considered. Furthermore, Dante sees what kind of city an Epicurean ethic results in. The city is transformed into a bunch of individual bodies seeking their own self-pleasure but can never attain it. It is within the city of Dis that we meet the Epicurean city. They are all separated from one another in their tombs unable to satisfy their desires. Where the other circles of hell were, in a way, social, the Epicureans are separated from each other. Atomized and self-centered. In denying the soul they could never satiate their desires because they linked it to the body rather than the intellectual soul. The result is a soulless city, separated and a-social. It is moments like this that make the Divine Comedy so great for philosophers because Dante wasn’t just a poet, he was also a philosopher who wrote philosophical works and was steeped in the philosophical tradition.
Here, Dante allows Virgil to admonish him by bringing up Aristotle. Aristotle had always been foundational to Christianity. Aristotle argued that when the soul imitated nature it was perfected. The Epicureans, in denying the soul, and arguing that humans should act opposite of nature (be a-social and hedonistic rather than social and seeking after transcendent wisdom), become a corrupt shell of humanity. The Christian, who imitates nature, is perfected. This is at the heart of Catholic natural theology which Dante also studied and strongly promoted in his life. (Dante joined the Franciscan Order in his lifetime.) Because the Epicureans denied two basic truths, the result of the Epicurean philosophy – Dante warns us – is that it will lead to destruction and death because that is what Epicurean philosophy sees as the ultimate end of the human endeavor. This is also prefiguring what the journey through the seventh, eighth, and ninth circles of Hell will entail. Only those who a full knowledge of the philosophical and political and theological traditions up to Dante can fully appreciate the poem’s depth and intricacy.
The seventh circle is divided into three subdivisions (violence done to others, self, and God). The journey of Dante and Virgil through the seventh circle contains some vividly bloody and memorable scenes, like when the bush that Giacomo de Sant’ Andrea hid in was torn about by demons pursuing him or when a poor thorn bush had a branch snapped off by Dante and started bleeding and he wept.
The imagery of the seventh circle is bloody and haunting and intends to move the reader to weep with the souls trapped in this circle. The message being communicated in the seventh circle is that the suicide of man has consequences for the rest of creation. As man leaps to his own death he brings about the destruction of creation at the same time. Hence why most of the suicides and violent perpetrators in the seventh circle take the form of a creaturely object of creation and their misery and destruction doubles as the destruction of nature. Man is not separate from creation. Man is part of creation. The Fall and violence of men will have consequences to the created world.
This is premised from the Christian reading of the Fall of Man. Part of the Fall of Man in Christian tradition is man’s estrangement from creation. Hence man takes a domineering and destructive attitude toward the natural world which is something beautiful and, when rightly understood, should direct man to God in its beauty and majesty. Here we find nature decrepit, destroyed, and dying. St. Paul wrote in Romans that creation groans for its restoration when the sons of men are glorified (Rom. 8:19), implying that creation will become majestic and glorified through man’s sanctification because man will have restored his stewarding relationship to nature. Until that day, however, man brings about his own demise which has the unintended consequence of destroying the natural world too. Thus, violence against self is also violence done against God because God created you (you are made in the image of God) and God created the cosmos and natural world which we now destroy because we have rejected God (who is Truth).
The seventh circle embodies the rejection of man being in the image of God, the rejection that all life (human and animal or plant) is sacred and should not be willfully destroyed writ large, and the rejection of God himself through blasphemy (the final of the three layers within the seventh circle). I should note that it is here that Dante is playing creative games with numerology. As we are approaching the darkest and deepest level of hell, thus getting closest to pure rejection of the good, true, and beautiful, we see a corrupt parody of the Trinity in the seventh circle with the three layers within this circle which all relate to some sort of rejection of God who is Truth.
The transformation of humans into plants and other natural objects of the world also reflects the fall of the soul from being a rational and intellectually seeking force which transforms man to being like God, to a vegetable. In rejecting the Truth and goodness of life, man becomes a beast and vegetable in the process. It is man who was formed in the image of God. By becoming vegetables and beasts, men reject their created state of being an image of God and private their rationality and love to pure id and self-centeredness.
The eighth circle of hell has within it the city of Malebolge, and bolgias total 10 ditches, an imperfect number that does not match up with the nine circles of Hell because there can be no symmetry or proportion (or order) in Hell since Hell is imperfect. Within the eight circle are all the souls who caused division, strife, discord, were interested only in themselves and didn’t live to care for others, betrayed the love and trust of others because they were only interested in their self-promotion (thus avoiding intentional and malevolent betrayal which is reserved for the ninth circle), hypocrites, politicians, sorcerers, and all the other people who can broadly characterized as frauds.
The sin of fraudulence represents the continuation of the decline of truth. In this circle the truth of trust of others or false presentation (not being truthful in presenting yourself) is what is rejected. But these truths are not rejected with the intent to harm others per se, as much as they are representative of one’s self-interest and want for self-power. Jason is the most famous representative of this in Greek mythology. Jason, interested in his elevation to kingship, betrayed the love and trust of Hypsipyle. This is self-centered fraud, a reflection of the incurvatus in se (inward curve to the self) that foreshadows and prefigures the more extreme version of self-centered fraud that is contained in the ninth circle. Jason never intentionally or malevolently sought to harm Hypsipyle but being so absorbed with himself he rejected the power of love and her trust and abandoned her.
This is important to recognize when reading the descent into Hell. We started with misdirected love. Now we have the rejection of love. With the rejection of love comes the loss of Truth. Hell is becoming a loveless place as Dante and Virgil proceed further through it. No more misdirected love as was in the second through fifth circles. Only the love of self is found here, which leads humanity (and the world) onto the path of destruction. Narcissus, the quintessential embodiment of self-love, is also found in the eighth circle. The love and want of glory for only oneself also betrays humanity’s social and relational (e.g. affectionate) nature.
Additional figures in the eighth circle include prominent church figures, including popes, all of whom are guilty of having betrayed the trust of their public offices for self-gain. In Catholic theology God entrusts stewardship to the clergy. But Catholic theology also maintains that the church is a mixed body of saints and sinners which includes the clergy. In fact, early Christian traditions asserted that Hell was paved with the skulls of clergy, meaning that most of the wicked sinners within the church were clergymen. Nevertheless, God does not abandon his church which is the body of believers as per Psalm 88 (89 for Protestants).
Other famous figures in the eighth circle who betray the public trust and through their works and actions brought about strife and schism as a result of their separation include Caiaphus (the Jewish High Priest who had Jesus brought to trial) and Mohammad. A note as to why Mohammad is in the eighth circle is because Catholicism has always regarded Islam as a sort of heretical form of Christianity. For those proficient in Islamic theology, Jesus is the ultimate Prophet, born of the Virgin Mary, who will come again and defeat the forces of evil, preside over the Final Judgement, and bring the good into the kingdom of heaven. Sounds pretty close to Christianity, right? And you’d be correct. However, Islam denies that Christ is the Logos. Instead, the Law (Sharia) is what brings about human happiness through submission to the Law rather than to Love and Wisdom and Truth (the Trinity, which Islam also denies). Because of the closeness of the religions, early Christian contact with Islam regarded Islam as a heretical sect with teachings like Christianity but as it expanded it destroyed the old centers of Christian education and learning (Alexandria, Cairo, Carthage, and Damascus, etc.), thus sowing discord within Christian lands as Christians converted to Islam. Also, because Islam rejects certain tenets within Christianity it also rejects Truth though retaining some other truths (hence why Muslims like Saladin, Averroes, and Avicenna were in Limbo).
Another one of the more memorable scenes through the journey through Hell is how many of the souls in the eighth circle have their nature changed by the snake pit. This is symbolic of fraud. Someone presents themselves in one nature – seemingly good and pure and intelligent. However, they are deceitful liars. Thus, the change in their appearance when bitten by snakes. Dante is laying extensive allegory on his readers – but this would have been well-known to Catholic readers who largely had been reading the Bible allegorically from the beginning and were fond and well-versed in allegorical hermeneutics and would have understood what Dante was communicating in his poem.
Entering the ninth and final circle of Hell we finally meet Lucifer himself who is chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. The other souls in the ninth circle are also traitors. Treachery is considered the worst sin in Catholicism because it is the ultimate betrayal of basic truths that only occurs with malevolent intent on the part of the perpetrator. Whereas Jason betrayed Hypsipyle because he wanted kingship before meeting her, the traitors here deliberately and willingly engaged in intentional betrayal of their friends, family, countrymen, and benefactors.
Those who betray their family are guilty of rejecting filial piety, a truth known to the Greeks and Romans and commended by Catholic teaching. This is also contained in the Ten Commandments: Honor your father and mother. The betrayal of earthly parents is also symbolic of humanity’s betrayal of their heavenly parents!
Those who betray their country are guilty of betraying their parents! Why? In classical political thought, and this would be known to readers of Cicero, your country is like your parent. Patrie, or fatherland, is like your mother or father who nurtured you and raised you – feeding and sustaining you, clothing you, giving you a place to work, call home, and rest. How did you repay this self-giving love of your country? By stabbing it in the back. The soldier who opened the gates of Troy to the Greeks is found here for his sin of treason.
Catholic doctrine promotes patriotism as an extension of the Fourth Commandment to love and honor your parents. Thus, the betrayal of country is not only something consciously conceived and acted upon by people, it represents the further rejection of the importance of family and the love that family (ought to) shows which one’s country also shows. Betrayal of earthy allegiance is also seen as a betrayal of eternal allegiance – for one’s eternal country is heaven but one’s earthly country is the country he or she finds himself as a citizen and subject of. Catholicism never sought to expunge the love of one’s country. In fact, it wanted people to be more loyal to their countries because loyalty to country is loyalty to family. It builds attachment. Attachment leads to proper loving.
Betrayal of earthly parents (literal human parents and your country as parent) is what inevitably leads to the rejection of God as your eternal and transcendent parent. The argument is simple: family is at the center of all life and flourishing. God, in the Bible, is a father figure who is gathering his children to himself in a great family banquet. In rejecting parents, you are rejecting one of the sacraments by which God’s love, truth, and grace is manifested in the world: the family. It is also the worst rejection of love possible. The rejection of the love of family. As Saint Paul wrote to Timothy for his instruction of others, those who do not look after their family members in their time of need are “worse than the infidels” (cf. 1 Tm. 5:4, 8).
Finally, we reach the Frozen Lake where Lucifer is a corrupt parody of the Trinity with his three heads (each representing a different member of the Trinity) and the colors of ignorance (black), impotence (yellow), and hatred (red). Ignorance is the opposite of Wisdom, impotence the opposite of omnipotence, and hatred the opposite of love. Each corresponds with one of the persons of the Trinity: wisdom (Christ), omnipotence (Father), and love (Holy Spirit).
Judas, Brutus, and Cassius are the three souls being chewed on by Lucifer because, for Dante, and Latin Christianity (having sprung from the Roman culture and history), these three souls represented the worst of traitors. They betrayed their benefactor and God, who is benefactor of all. Judas betrayed his benefactor, teacher, and God: Jesus. Brutus and Cassius betrayed their benefactor, friend, and earthly father: Julius Caesar. They consciously chose to do so.
In rejecting family, country, and benefactor (God), the ninth circle represents the total and complete collapse of truth as everyone is turned inward only to themselves to the point of deliberately and intentionally betraying others. As such there is no love to be shown in this circle of hell. Love of family is nonexistent. Love of country is nonexistent. Love of others is nonexistent. Love of friends is nonexistent. Love of God is nonexistent. Meaning the love for wisdom is nonexistent as the furthest depth of hell is frozen and dark: there is no light (knowledge) or warmth (love) in the ninth circle. It is a cold, dark, and sterile place. Only ignorance and death reign in Hell.
Beside Lucifer chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, another aspect of the ninth circle is how alone it is. Everyone is frozen in place. Lucifer weeps. All beauty, goodness, and truth that any of these souls may had had at one point in their life is gone. They are sad parodies of their once noble and beautiful selves. This is what the rejection of love and truth exhausts itself to in Christianity: You die alone.
So as Dante and Virgil slip down the body of Satan to enter on the other side of the world (because the medievals knew the world was round contrary to popular misconception since the Greeks had learned the world was round) Dante concludes the Inferno by saying, “We climbed, he first and I behind, until, through a small round opening ahead of us I saw the lovely things the heavens hold, and we came out to see once more the stars.” That Dante ends the journey through Hell with a return to the light (stars) which is wisdom and directs our souls (rational faculties) up to it (transcendence) we leave behind the world of the cold, dark, and dead, and reenter the world of light, warmth, love and knowledge. The stars represent love and knowledge, the two things needed to understand the order of the world, of life, and how to live. Dante, for the record, poetically ends each of the three books with seeing the stars above—an important symbolic image that humans, head erect as Augustine explains in The City of God, are meant to gaze at the wonder of the cosmos and, through the sacramental reality of the cosmos, be awed by its beauty and love which point the soul (located in the mind) back to God.
Hell is understood by Dante as an inverted hierarchy. A parody of the true hierarchy of Truth and Nature. It is not to be understood, literally, that there are nine circles of Hell. This is allegory. The message that Dante is communicating is that the greater the severity of sin, the greater severity of misdirected love, or the greater severity of rejecting Truth (God), will transform souls differently and their corresponding transformation and “punishment” reflects this. For instance, the sin of lust is not as bad as the sin of fratricide. Hell is a place that corresponds with wrongly directed love and rejection of truth. Not everyone is the same! This is basic Catholic anthropological teaching. Everyone is unique. As such, each soul receives a unique transformation in what they loved in life which corresponds with their placement in Heaven or Hell. You become what you love!
The inverted hierarchy of sins, however, does roughly correspond with Catholic thought and teachings as to the severity of sin. It is interesting, then, to note that betrayal, including betrayal to country, is one of the worst sins that a person (Christian or otherwise) can commit. This reflects the traditional Catholic teachings of the order of love in this life and how it can lead one to God: Family, Fatherland, Faith. In journeying through the final circle of Hell we meet those who betrayed their family, which then transitions into those who betrayed their fatherland, which ends with the betrayal of faith, the rejection of our true Father and Fatherland (God and Heaven itself). This invokes classical Catholic teaching about loyalty and love: We need to be more loyal and loving to our families and fatherland, and this is a reflection (knowingly or unknowingly) of love of God and the order of things God has established for human life to have meaning and flourish.
This is why Dante also draws so heavily from the Greeks and Romans. Those who know Homer and Virgil well have this message: love your families and country and this will provide you with the honor, glory, and meaning you seek in life. Christianity applauded this but argued that without love of God love of family and country will fall short. It is through Christianity that the pagan hopes and desires were finally made manifest. Christianity, Dante argues, does not eliminate the old traditions and pagan ways, it fulfills them, and makes one more loyal to family and fatherland, and brings right praise to the desires of the ancient ways.
This essay is adapted from a post originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, May 8, 2018.
I also have published a much shorter essay on the aspect of Virgil’s and Dante’s relationship as they journey through Hell as part of my regular literary column at TIC: Learning to Love Again: Dante’s Descent in the “Inferno” (4 December 2019)