What Dante’s ‘Inferno’ can teach us about death and sin

"Dante and the Divine Comedy" by Domenico di Michelino, 1465. Photo: Public Domain
“Portrait of Dante Alighieri” by Sandro Botticelli, 1495. Photo: Public Domain

In the northern part of the United States this is the season when mortality is on the mind. Leaves fall, the harvest is gathered, and nature retreats in anticipation of the deathly stillness of winter. With the Church’s annual commemorations of dearly departed fast approaching, I found that there could be no better time to begin a read-through of one of the finest works of Catholic literature to deal with the subject of our lives after this one, Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I naturally began with the first part of the three poems which comprise the work, Inferno. The Divine Comedy is divided into three sections, one for hell, one for purgatory, one for heaven. Each of the three parts comprises 33 cantos save Inferno, which contains an additional, introductory canto. The verse of each canto is divided into stanzas of three lines with a separate, single line to conclude each canto.

Detailing Dante’s allegorical descent into hell, the Inferno is both strikingly timeless as well as a clear product of its time. The punishments which Dante envisions for the myriad sinners who have been confined to the underworld are fitting images which highlight the blight upon our souls which sin incurs.

At the same time, Dante is not reticent to show to his reader various figures from his own time as well as times prior who embody the punishments awaiting those given over to vice. While many of these individuals may be obscured to the modern reader, they nonetheless serve as useful catalysts for exploring why certain vices damn someone to a particular section of Dante’s vision of the underworld.

For example, before even entering the formal divisions of hell, Dante provides a space for the virtuous pagans and those who had died unbaptized, to show God’s mercy to those who, through no fault of their own could not know Christ yet still sought virtue and justice throughout their lives. Here are found the great philosophers of Greece — Plato and Aristotle — and the Islamic scientists — Averroes and Avicenna. While great men all, their ignorance of Christ warrants them neither damnation nor salvation, trapped on the border of hell, neither scorned nor sanctified.

Dante provides a space for the virtuous pagans and those who had died unbaptized, to show God’s mercy.

While the virtuous but ignorant find themselves spared the rigors of damnation, those who gave themselves over to the primitive appetites of lust, gluttony, greed, and wrath suffer at the highest levels of hell, their sins borne not from active attempt to harm others but stemming from weaknesses of character and perversions of natural desires.

Along with tragic lovers of Greek history, Dante relates his conversation with notable names during his own time, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, who engaged in a passionate albeit adulterous love affair while Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother Giovanni before the cuckold brother murdered them both. While an obscure story today, in Dante’s time it would ring as true as any contemporary example of our own.

All those who have actively sought to bring misfortune to others and to rebuke in full the commandments of Christ suffer more severe punishments within the demonic city of Dis. Within this dolorous municipality are the more egregious sinners, those who not only actively conspired to harm their fellow brothers and sisters, but also to do harm against God and his creation. First are the heretics, then the violent and murderous, followed by the fraudulent and scheming.

Gustave Doré’s illustration to Dante’s “Inferno,” Plate IX: Canto III: Arrival of Charon, 1857. Photo: Public Domain

Simon Magus, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, as well as numerous figures from Dante’s contemporary Italy, none are spared from fires which rain from darkened skies above, vipers biting at their heels, or the arrows and swords of monsters and fallen angels alike which strike with glee at any lost soul in sight.

At last, at the very bottom of the Inferno are the traitorous, those who have joined Lucifer in partaking of the first sin of all creation, conspiring against friends and more egregiously, against God. There are found the murderers of Julius Caesar, as well as notable traitors in the tumultuous politics of Dante’s own 13th-century Italy. The worst punishment for all however, is saved for Judas Iscariot, the only man to match Lucifer’s error in betraying God.

As we approach the feast of All Souls on Nov. 2, the Inferno is timely reading not only because it is in the mood of the season when the frightening and morbid are in vogue but also because it is a reminder both of our mortality as well as the eternity of anguish which awaits us should we squander our fleeting mortal days.

While Dante’s construction of hell testifies to the truth that even in sin God has a righteous mercy to bestow upon us all, likewise his justice is severe for those who rebuke his mercy and deny the salvific grace of the Resurrection. The tribulations of hell are reserved for none in particular, because the Lord sees us only by the lives that we lead, be they rich in virtue, tormented by vice, or, in the case of most people, walking an uneasy path between the two.

The Lord sees us only by the lives that we lead.

While not all of us are likely to embark on a spiritual journey so fraught with peril and disturbing sites as Dante beholds in the Inferno, we would do well to heed the timeless message found therein to never forget our inevitable deaths, but likewise to not forget the dead who have gone before us nor the repercussions they brought upon themselves.

For as with God’s grace, the damnations which might await us are not the punishments of a wrathful Divine, but the self-inflicted wounds from which only Christ can save us.

Advent and Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’

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