“I wish you to know before you travel on
that these were sinless. And still their merits fail,
for they lacked Baptism’s grace, which is the door
of the true faith you were born to. Their birth fell
before the age of the Christian mysteries,
and so they did not worship God’s Trinity
in its fullest duty. I am one of these
For such defects are we lost, though spared the fire
and suffering Hell in one affliction only;
that without hope we live on in desire.”
Inferno, Canto IV: pp. 50-51
If I had rhymes as harsh and horrible
as the hard fact of that final dismal hole
which bears the weight of all the steeps of Hell,
I might more fully press the sap and substance
from my conception; by since I must do
without them, I begin with some reluctance.
For it is no easy undertaking, I say,
to describe the bottom of the Universe;
nor is it for tongues that only babble child’s play.
Inferno, Canto XXXII: pp. 267
Dante’s The Inferno details Dante Pilgrim’s and Virgil’s shared voyage through the nine circles of Hell. Although their entrance into the First Circle and their later arrival at the Ninth Circle are similar on a broad level, they differ in important ways. The land of the virtuous pagans contrasts greatly from the pit for treacherous sinners because the punishment in the former is much less severe than in the latter. This difference in the degree of eternal suffering is significant because it illustrates Dante’s belief that not all sins are equal. The damned are assigned to the circles of Hell in accordance to the extent of their wrongdoings—as determined by the poet. As such, The Inferno provides Dante with a medium to interpret God’s views of morality.
While it is true that the residents of both the First and Ninth circle of Hell are destined to spend eternity under less-than-ideal conditions, suffering from utter separation from God, they are castigated for markedly different reasons and to varying degrees. In Canto IV, just before entering the First Circle of Hell, Virgil tells Dante Pilgrim about the Pagans inside: “I wish you to know before you travel on/that these were sinless” (50). Virgil specifically makes a point of stopping their journey into Hell to tell Dante that the damned in the First Circle were not actually horrible people during their lives on Earth. On the contrary, they committed no sins at all. God cast them into Hell merely because “Their birth fell/before the age of the Christian mysteries,/and so they did not worship God’s Trinity/in its fullest duty” (50-51). They did not exactly disobey God; they were born before Christ. But because of that unfortunate fact, they could not worship all three of God’s holy manifestations: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They had no knowledge of Jesus, the Son, and so lost eligibility to go to Heaven even though they were righteous men.
The description of the Pagans as being sinless is the exact opposite of that of the Treacherous in the Ninth Circle: they were so sinful that they dwelled in “the bottom of the Universe” (267). Their placement at the Universe’s deepest pit indicates their status in the eyes of God (or at least of Dante) as the lowest of the low, the furthest literally downcast of all the souls in Hell. Unlike the Pagans, who had lived righteously but had no knowledge of Christ, many of the Treacherous knew of Jesus but committed terrible sins, anyway.
The Pagans, as Virgil says “[suffer] Hell in one affliction only; that without hope [they] live on in desire” (51). Their penalty is easy to describe, and Virgil does so. On the other hand, the Treacherous receive a punishment so mind-bogglingly horrible that Dante must admit the difficulty in writing about it; he has no “rhymes as harsh and horrible/as the hard fact of that final dismal hole” (267). The legions of the Ninth Circle face many different extreme punishments, almost beyond description: some are frozen in place, some must spend eternity gnawing at others’ brains, and still others dangle from the Devil’s mouth as he chews them. Yet the Pagans are “spared the fire” of Hell, and instead are left to desire heavenly bliss (51).
It is crucial to note that the divisions of Hell detailed in The Inferno appear nowhere in the Bible itself, and, therefore, the sin-rankings Dante assigns to the masses of forever-condemned souls are entirely his own. In Dante’s mind, God’s will echoes that of the European justice system, where criminals receive jail time based on the socially conceived wrongness of one’s deeds. Those who behaved worst receive the worst punishment, and those perpetrating the lightest offences receive the lightest punishments. Thus, Dante establishes his subjective hierarchy of the damned, with the un-Baptized Pagans born in too early an era at the top, undergoing the least pain, and the vilest of sinners at the bottom, experiencing the most torment.
He consciously writes The Inferno in a manner such that he gets to cast his own judgment on mankind. The epic poets of Greek and Roman times that he views as sinless live in the outskirts of Hell, a safe distance from tormenting demons. Conversely, the men he admires least—the traitors to country, guests, and benefactors—he subjects to the wrath of the King Demon himself, Satan. That Dante has God punish traitors the most and non-believer poets like Virgil the least sheds some light on Dante’s mindset. It shows that Dante sees ignorance as the least damnable offense against God. He believes that simply not knowing Jesus is just barely bad enough to warrant exclusion from Heaven.
Betrayal against benefactors is the worst possible crime, in Dante’s opinion. He indicates this by grouping Brutus among the three men whom Satan chews forever in his humongous mouth. Brutus is being punished for betraying Julius Caesar, who had helped him rise to fame in the Roman Empire. Dante also ranks Judas Iscariot as another of the three worst sinners for betraying the greatest benefactor of all—God the Son—by selling him to the Romans to be crucified. Jesus had been his mentor and friend, but Judas was willing to part with him for a small sum of money. Yet The Inferno is not in the least a description of Hell that matches word-for-word with the Bible. The Bible never writes specifically that there are nine circles of Hell, with Judas and other notable traitors in the deepest ring and Virgil and other Pagans in the shallowest. It is merely Dante’s speculation of what the Christian God believes, filtered through his own perceptions of right and wrong. As such, readers must remember to read The Inferno not as a holy book with the final say in matters of Heaven and Hell, but as an interesting piece of literature that illustrates morality from Dante’s point of view.
Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno, Trans. John Giardi. New York: Signet Classic, 2001.