The Allegory and Symbolism of Dante’s “Inferno”

In our exploration of Dante’s Inferno I wish to highlight, in some greater detail, what has already been referenced to in our previous posts, but also bring additional emphasis upon Catholic teaching and how it impacts the construction of Hell from Dante’s pen.

Why is hell cold and dark? Color and Image Symbolism

Dante’s hell is cold and dark, unlike the images of a burning fire and a vengeful Satan as ruler over a dark and fiery kingdom (which comes the pen of John Milton of Paradise Lost fame).  The reason has to do with the Catholic theological understanding of love and beauty, and how love and beauty are the greatest things in the world and that they are contingently related to each other.  Love between humans make humans more beautiful—this is the process of divinization through love.  As God loved humans as to send his only son to die for humanity, so as humans love one another they participate in the love of the Trinity.  Likewise, the world is beautiful precisely because it is made in love by a loving God.

The misdirection of love is what dominates Levels 2-5.  There is some light as we descend through these circles, but it progressively gets dimmer and dimmer ultimately expiring in frozen darkness by the final level where Satan resides with the frozen bodies of Brutus, Cassius, and Judas in Satan’s three mouths (Satan has three heads in Dante as Satan is a corrupt parody of the Trinity).  The lighting and temperature of Hell is an allegorical reference to Catholic theology concerning love and beauty.

The lack of love and beauty in hell is also reflected in the changing facial complexions of not merely the residents of hell, but also our two protagonists.  Dante’s face grows paler and paler, indicative of his losing life as he journeys closer to the lifeless pit that is the center of hell.  Here, “hell as the second death” means a place without love and beauty—whereby man’s soul is forever lost, untouched, and unable to live up to his nature which is called to beauty and love.  Despite Dante’s paler complexion as he gets closer to the ninth circle of hell the love between Dante and Virgil grows which allows them to proceed further and further.  As I previously mentioned, the only warmth, love, and beauty, that is in hell is shown through the growing relationship of Dante and Virgil where Virgil takes on a fatherly and protective role and Dante comes to depend on Virgil (which also erases Dante’s pride too).

For future reference, when observing the great paintings, or understanding the use of colors in Catholic liturgy, color has specific symbolic meanings attached to them:

Red is the color of sacrifice or spiritual enlightenment; green is the color representing life (or new life); orange is the color of authority; blue is the color of faith or divinity (i.e. heaven sent); brown is the color for commonality and universal nature; white is the color of purity and chastity; purple is the color of royalty; black is the color of sin and death. The intermixing of colors show vitality. In other words, life. In Hell being an empty sameness of darkness and coldness, Dante is symbolically communicating through colors and imagery that Hell is a place without life because it is a place without love.

Why is Hell a (Disordered) City?

As we proceed through Hell, we also meet people who are always at war with each other, shut off from one another, can’t find each other or running away from others—there is no harmony in hell.  Why is this?

Hell is exceedingly atomized, that is, individualized.  We meet many characters by name, though their faces increasingly become harder to distinguish as we journey further into hell.  Why is this?

Catholicism teaches that man is, by nature, social and relational.  That is, man is filial, relational, and not a cut-off individual.  Moreover, Catholicism teaches that the more “individualistic” a society becomes (that is, the more self-centered it becomes) the more homogenous the people become: everyone becomes a cookie-cutter copy of whatever idol they chase after.  Individualization results in sameness, oh the irony!  Therefore, faces become blurred as Dante and Virgil journey closer to the center of hell and only know their hell-bound captives when they announce their names to the duo.

There are two circles in hell that reflect the anti-relational and anti-social attitude most explicitly: The sixth circle (the entry into the city of Dis) where the heretics (namely the Epicureans) are walled off from each other in tombs unable to see or discuss with each other (made more funny by the fact that polite company and discussion was the highest virtue to live for according to the Epicureans) and the ninth circle where all those who betrayed their friends and families reside (the ultimate expression of anti-relationship attitudes).  Hell is disordered because it is not ordered to anything; it is not ordered to family, friendships, or the common good, hence why hell is a chaotic place (circles 2-5) and an increasingly isolated “hell hole” (circles 6-9).  Hell reflects the rejection of man’s rejection of his social, relational, and filial nature!  This is why man is increasingly isolated and atomized in hell, and also why no fulfillment can be had in hell.

Hell as the Rebellious City (or World): A Theological and Political Allegory

The fact that hell is a city, the city of Dis, is also a reflection of Catholicism’s social and relational understanding of man and the world.  Hell, as the disordered, anti-relational, and anti-filial (ugly and unloving—cold and dark—city) polis is contrasted with Heaven, the ordered, relational, and filial (beautiful and loving—warm and illuminated—city) polis.  Throughout the journey through hell and its construction, especially when contrasted with heaven in Book III: Paradiso, Dante is setting up the allegorical of the two cities that goes all the way back to Augustine and, from Augustine’s reading of Scripture, the Bible (as a tale of two cities: the disordered and vengeful city of man and the ordered and loving city of God).

Given the political—polis—nature of hell, is there a larger commentary (or allegory) in the Divine Comedy?  Yes, the Divine Comedy is equally a work of political philosophy (or political theology) as it is a work of theological allegory.  This is made clearer with the contrasts of Heaven and Hell once you read through Paradiso.

In Book II, Purgatorio, Dante writes:

Rome, which made the good world,
used to have two suns that made visible
the two paths, of the world and of God.
One sun has extinguished the other,
and the sword is joined to the shepherd’s staff,
and it is ill for those two to be violently forced together,
for, joined, neither fears the other (16.106–12).

The hellish city that is Hell, pun intended, is the way it is because of rebellion.  Satan fell because of rebellion.  The ninth circle is filled with traitors and rebels, those who betrayed their king and country, their families, and their god/God.  The message from Dante is not subtle at all: rebellion, the seed of disorder, is the road to hell. Adam’s fall was also because of his rebellion. He tried to seize, for himself, what was not given unto him—namely, the power to choose what was good and what was evil to derive one’s happiness.

This, of course, contrasts yet again with the orderly city that is heaven: Where authority (God’s authority) is obeyed and consented to.  As such, political authorities, who are given their authority by God in his wisdom, are also to be obeyed.  Catholicism has historically, and still doctrinally today, promotes an authority-respecting ethos and a civic patriotism in its doctrinal teachings and affirms citizenship as the highest earthly good (cf. CCC. 2238-2243).

Civil strife in Italy is a major theme in Dante’s many side conversations with various Italians in hell and purgatory.  It is the case that Dante weeps for the strife and disorder in Italy, and Dante was an early Italian nationalist.  Nationalism and Catholicism, historically, went hand in hand, though contemporary Catholicism tempers its nationalistic past with the language of “proper patriotism” rather than the strong nationalism found among the patristic fathers and medieval theologians.

Furthermore, the authority of the church, the temporal representative of God’s laws, is not to be rebelled against.  This is not to say that the church is not without problems or corruption.  Any reader of the Divine Comedy will surely see that there is much corruption throughout the church as corrupt clerics are burning in hell and even faithful clergy in heaven despair of the corruption of the church on earth (especially in the taking of money from Satan as reflected in Dante’s conversation with Folquet de Marseille in Canto 9 of Paradiso).  Dante places the authority of the church on a high pedestal in his work. It stands above the world because the Church, as the Body of Christ, with its rules and laws—which Paul says justifies man in accordance with Christ’s teaching to the young rich man to keep the commandments—mediates fallen man back to God through the headship of Christ.

Thus, the ninth circle is filled with the most abominable of rebels.  The rebellious Lucifer and angels who rebelled against God—the ultimate crime to be punished.  Those who rebelled against their king and country—the temporal authorities over men which men are called to love and serve—an equally horrendous crime that must be punished.  And those who rebelled against their families, the most atrocious of crimes that rejects basic filial piety and relationships which marks one out as “worse than the infidels” (1 Tm. 1:8).  The punishment of rebels in the ninth circle not only corresponds with the rejection of humanity’s basic social, relational, and filial nature, it is also an allegorical warning against rebellion in general.  Rebellion only brings strife and destruction—nothing good can come from it, which is why rebellion and rebels find themselves in the lowest rung of hell.  The implications to political philosophy and theology are also very clear when this is known about Dante’s work. The ordered life is what brings contentment and moves one to the gates of Paradise; which is what the second and third books of the Divine Comedy lead us to.

Conclusion

As we can hopefully see, Dante’s Inferno is a rich poem filled with steep literary, historical, theological, Scriptural, and allegorical references and imagery throughout.  Failure to pick up on many of these deep literary themes depreciates the value of the work and turns it into a dry read.  In particular, the deep allegories of Inferno correspond with basic church teachings, as all three parts of this essay hopefully highlighted.

The basic imagery of hell and the allegories therein can be understood through knowledge of said church teachings.

  • Why is hell cold and dark?

Answer: Hell is a place where love and beauty are absent; lack of love = cold, lack of beauty = darkness.

  • Why is hell a disordered city?

Answer: Man cannot escape his social, “political”, nature.  In rejecting or fighting against his social and relational nature, disorder and chaos is what follows and this is represented by the disordered city of hell.  Man, as such, cannot flourish in a disordered city.  Which is to say man cannot flourish unless he lives up to his nature.

  • Why is rebellion punished so harshly?

Answer: Rebellion is the rejection of order and authority, which subsequently leads to the disordered city and leads to a destruction of all that is good and beautiful.  Rebellion is what leads to a place where chaos reigns supreme and goodness and beauty are destroyed in rebellion.  There are also deep political and theological overtures involved in this assertion.

What should be the loyalties of humans?  Where should they direct their energies and desire?  To family, to country, and to the Truth (e.g. God).  And those who reject family, country, and Truth, spiral downward into death and destruction.

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