To some, reading Dante’s Divine Comedy seems a hopeless task. Written in the 1300s, it conjures up all the (incorrect) stereotypes readers have about the Middle Ages as a time of oppression where no one thought for themselves and everyone blindly accepted the teachings of the Catholic Church. Of course, in reality lively debate thrived and plenty of non-religious material, including romances that might even celebrate adultery, circulated. Like today, people were capable of independent thought and the members of a given audience were not likely all to respond in the exact same way. There’s no such thing as “people in the Middle Ages thought.” They all thought different things!
However, other readers worry that the text is dry and dull, a religious tract that harps about sin and guilt and individual responsibility–stuff contemporary individuals aren’t supposed to worry about. How on earth is someone who doesn’t believe lust is wrong or that gluttony or theft could potentially be worthy of damnation approach such an uncomfortable text? The answer is the same as with any text–we have to begin by reading generously.
To read the Divine Comedy, we have to understand Dante’s internal logic. This does not mean we have to agree with his logic or that we have to like everything it says. It simply means we have to understand why he says what he says before we begin to criticize it. Here are a few of the issues that trouble contemporary readers in the first part of the Comedy, the Inferno.
Why does Dante put people in hell? That’s mean!
From Dante’s perspective, he didn’t place these individuals in hell and neither did God. The people had free will so they deliberately chose to separate themselves from God eternally. To do this, they had to commit a mortal sin, which is distinct from a venial sin. To commit a mortal sin, there must be grave matter (ex. murdering someone, not stealing an extra cookie from the cookie jar), the individual must understand the matter is grave (younger children or people with mental illnesses are less culpable), and the person must commit the act freely (not under coercion or because of a mental illness). So these aren’t just any people in hell. They are people who knew they were doing something seriously wrong and separating themselves from God, but they did it anyway. There are people who committed similar sins in purgatory and heaven, but these individuals repented and asked for forgiveness for hurting God and others. In other words, by Dante’s logic, the sinners in hell are there because they wanted to be.
Why does Dante put the classical poets and other non-Christians in Limbo? That’s mean!
First, we have to clarify that Limbo is not hell. It’s a place distinct from hell and it was suggested as a way to deal with the problem of individuals who may not have committed personal sins or who lead upright lives, but who were not baptized. The Catholic Church teaches that each soul inherits original sin from the fall of Adam and Eve, and this original sin needs to be removed through baptism for one to be able to enter heaven. This original sin is different from personal sin, which an individual commits. However, people were troubled that there might be an infant who died without baptism. The infant would not have sinned personally, but would still have original sin on their soul. Is it fair that the infant cannot enter heaven? And what about individuals who lived before Christ and could not be baptized, through no fault of their own, but might have lead good lives regardless? Enter the concept of Limbo.
Limbo has never been official Catholic Church teaching. However, it seemed a clever way to deal with the dilemma of good, but unbaptized, individuals. So Dante places classical figures he admires in Limbo because he does not want to place them in hell to suffer eternal punishment. The souls in Dante’s Limbo do suffer because they know they will never be in God with heaven. However, otherwise they are allowed to roam freely, to have intellectual conversations, etc. Dante’s placing these souls in Limbo is, for him, a sign of respect and a sort of kindness. He knows he can’t put them in heaven, but he’s not going to put them in hell, either.
Why does Dante condemn Paolo and Francesca for loving each other? That’s mean!
Dante would not have understood Paolo and Francesca, the famous lovers from Canto V of the Inferno, as having loved each other. Love works for the good of the other person, but what Paolo and Francesca did was not to seek the good of each other. Rather, they fell prey to their passions. Francesca, though married to Paolo’s brother, slept with Paolo–they committed adultery. They are in hell, not for love, but for lust, meaning they used each other to satisfy their physical desires.
Francesca and Paolo come across to readers as very sympathetic because Francesca tells her own story. She is a noble woman, courteous, well-spoken. But she’s also a damned soul and her account of her sin isn’t supposed to be taken at face value by readers. Dante-Pilgrim, the character in the poem, may feel sympathy for her, too, but he’s also just started his journey through hell and he’s been assigned to take this journey specifically because he’s in a bad spiritual state and not too great at recognizing the true nature of sin. Dante-Poet, the man writing the Comedy, puts the lovers in hell because he’s already finished the journey and has come to understand the nature of sin. Dante-Poet does not sympathize as much with Francesca and Paolo’s lust.
A closer look at the text can help us decipher Dante’s stance on this matter. Take note who is speaking while you reading Canto V. It is Francesca who keeps repeating the word “amor” or “love” in her account of her sin. Dante, however, refers to the “disio” or “desire” that lead Francesca and Paolo into hell (Inf V.113). We have to make a distinction between what Francesca would like her auditors to believe and what Dante-Poet thinks of the matter. The character does not necessarily speak for the author.
For Dante, it all comes back to free will. Individuals are able to choose right or wrong, charity or a lack of charity, and then they must bear the consequences. This does not mean Dante condemns anyone who commits a sin. If you read on, you’ll see previously lustful souls purging themselves in purgatory or rejoicing in heaven. You’ll see men who committed heinous crimes on their way to heaven, too. While people are living, they always have the option to repent. But Dante doesn’t want to sugar coat sin for his readers. He wants them to come on his journey and recognize the nature of sin and its consequences, too, so they can reorient themselves towards God.
Readers don’t need to believe in God, to be Catholic, or to believe in sin to pick up the Divine Comedy or to engage with the questions it raises. But we do need to know why Dante does what he does and to understand his logic before criticizing it.