A Journey through Hell
The Inferno, the first part of the Divina Commedia, written around 1307 to 1314, is the masterpiece of Dante Alighieri. The story tells of a pilgrim Dante, not to be confused with the writer Dante, and his journey through hell to the base of the mountain of purgatory. Along the way, Dante accompanied by Virgil (human reason), meet many of Dante?s political rivals and many mythological creatures and sinners from throughout history. In the end, the travelers climb down Satan?s back, through the center of the earth and find themselves inside mount Purgatory. Dante develops many themes throughout the adventures of these travelers. The Inferno is a work that Dante used to express his ideas on God?s divine justice. Because of this, Dante was one of the most popular poets in the world when he died in 1321. Dante develops this theme with skill unparalleled even today. In an essay by Friedrich Von Schelling, the Inferno is described as, ?the most objectively terrible [part] in its subject matter, so it is the strongest in expression and the strictest in diction, sombre and full of dread in its very choice of words? (21). He even invented a new rhyme scheme, terza rima, to use throughout his epic work. Dante develops the theme of God?s divine justice through the punishments the sinners receive, his own personal journey through hell and the power God has given the characters that help Dante along the way.
The characters that help Dante through hell exemplify God?s divine justice because God knows it is right that Dante be showed the way to enlightenment. The first help Dante receives from God is that of Virgil. In Moss and Wilson?s Literature and it?s Times, the point is made that, ?By associating himself with Virgil, Dante is perhaps making a claim for the comparable importance of his own work as a celebration of a Christian empire?(178). Little did Dante know that his works have been compared with Virgil?s and that irony is stunning. God?s divine justice is shown through Virgil because he has great power in the upper circles of hell and becomes less confident in himself as the pilgrims descend (Moss, Wilson 178). Virgil easily overcomes many obstacles in the first circles of hell, such as getting across the river Styx. As the two descend he needs more help from God, like when the encounter the heretics, and God must decide, using divine justice, to help the pilgrims by sending help (Moss, Wilson 178).
Then there is Beatrice. In the Inferno she is made reference to many times. She represents divine revelation. It is because of her request that God grants Dante this journey into the depths of hell. This represents God?s divine justice in that God, being omnipotent, knows that it is right for Dante to make this journey and be shown the way of light. After all, the whole reason Dante has undertaken this journey is, ??to learn all there is to know about sin as a necessary preparation for the ascent to God?(Musa 426). As a result, it is revealed that God?s divine justice is also made clear by the fact that Dante is even on this journey.
Every thing God does is just. So when He allows Dante to pass through hell He cannot be wrong. It is the fact that justice is being done, through Dante, that illustrates this point. When the Inferno begins, Dante finds himself in a dark wood (worldliness) and wants to attain paradise by climbing a mountain silhouetted by the sun (God). The three beasts of sin stop him, and divine justice leads him to find Virgil and begin the descent into hell. By relating the idea that his experience was predestined and thus part of God?s will, Dante has let himself become God?s justice embodied. He is doing God?s work. His actions throughout the Inferno show his belief that he is doing God?s bidding. When he first enters hell, he feels sorrow for the sinners he encounters. After a few cantos though, he realizes that these people are not part of God?s plan and he begins to actually enjoy tormenting the sinners. In this he is an extension of God, for these people were placed here by Him to be punished and Dante is fulfilling this aspect of God?s divine justice. Beside just the fact that Dante helps in the torment of the sinners, the way in which the sinners are punished shows God’s divine justice. The torments are a reflection of the sins they committed and this irony is part of God?s divine justice.
Through these torments a vision of the sins they committed is drawn by Dante. He eloquently describes the sinners and their hell in vivid and imaginative language. Von Schelling again comments, ?The diversity and variety of the punishments in the Inferno have been thought out with an almost unparalleled inventiveness? (21). These torments though, are what Dante believes God would impart on the lost souls, His divine justice coming to fruition. Every sin that can be committed on earth has its counterpart in hell as a punishment. These punishments are not only a reflection of the sins themselves, but more than that. They were also, ??revealed truth of the hereafter,?. To deny this would be to make the poet?a materialist of the nineteenth century? (Scartazzini 22). A materialist, Dante was not. His view on hell was one of continuation. He believed that the afterlife was a reflection of what people prepare in this life, thus the torments in hell reflect their sins and exemplify God?s divine justice (Scartazzini 24). The spiritualization of the torments received in hell, give the Inferno powerful moral bearing (Hugo 24). Dante shows that God?s justice is most supreme in the fact that the sinners caught in hell have no hope of ever attaining paradise. These sinners were called by God but refused to answer that call and as a result God has denied them what they long for, to be closer to Him. Dante though, has to take God?s divine justice and make it material. For true death is inconceivable (Knight 26). So Dante has to describe an immaterial thing in terms of the world. He does this quite well and this makes the Inferno the easiest of the three parts to understand, on the surface. Dante lays many ideas underneath the literal context of his writing. One of these ideas being that of God?s divine justice. Dante also used God?s divine justice on his enemies. As he progresses through hell Dante continually encounters people he knew from Florence and people from antiquity. Whether these people were deserving of the punishment they received from God is debatable, but Dante believed they got what they deserved. Salvatore Quasimodo reflects this by saying, ?We already know the disgust felt by the poet when he sees the third infernal river run where the ?horrible art of justice? is at work?? (32). This horrible art of justice is just that, God?s divine justice. Throughout the entire work, Dante never falters in relating this idea through every thing that happens in the Inferno. In the final canto, Dante and Virgil climb down Lucifer?s back and into the base of the mountain of purgatory. This is metaphorically when Dante has finally seen and rejected all sinful acts and now is ready to experience God?s divine justice himself, and the ascent to heaven through purgatory and cleanse himself of sin to fulfill God?s judgment.
The purpose of Dante?s Inferno was to show the people of his own time the eternal issues of life and death, present his own views on sin, and the redemption of those infractions (Ralphs 34). He also used this story as a way to discuss and show God?s divine justice. Dante?s use of the character of Virgil as a representative of God sent to lead him through hell and into salvation is a prime example of this. Along with his use of the idea that the mere fact of his being allowed to see what Virgil is showing him is another manifestation of the divine, all knowing power of God. Again Dante skillfully develops the punishment of the sinners to reflect the divine justice that God shows his followers. Above anything else, though, Dante tried to convey the fact that anyone who is willing to be led on the same path can and will be shown the way. This is the true nature of God?s divine justice. The people Dante encounters in hell are those souls who were offered the way but chose to turn their backs on God and only fulfill those hungers of the world system. They never stopped and looked around them to see what was being offered. As a result, they now can never realize the true potential of the human spirit and what it really means to have eternal life. This is the true meaning of God?s divine justice; people will reap what they sow.
Quasimodo, Salvatore. ?Ancient Poets,? in The Poet and the Politician and Other Essays, translated by Thomas Bergin and Sergio Pacifici, Southern Illinios University Press, 1964, p 46-108. Rpt in World Literature Criticism Supplement 1, ed. Polly Vedder, Gale press, New York, 1997.
Ralphs, Sheila. Dante?s Journey to the Centre: Some Patterns in his Allegory, Manchester University Press, 1972, p 63. Rpt in World Literature Criticism Supplement 1, ed. Polly Vedder, Gale press, New York, 1997.
Scartazzini, G. A. ?On the Congruence of Sins and Punishments in Dante?s Inferno,? translated by Thelka in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. XXII, Nos. 1&2, January & April, 1888, p 21-83. . Rpt in World Literature Criticism Supplement 1, ed. Polly Vedder, Gale press, New York, 1997.
Schelling, Friedrich. ?On Dante in Relation to Philosophy,? in German Aesthetic and Literary Critacism: Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Hegel, ed. David Simpson, translated by Elizabeth Rubenstien and David Simpson, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p 140-148. Rpt in World Literature Criticism Supplement 1, ed. Polly Vedder, Gale press, New York, 1997.