Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Cantos 2-3 – Building Character for Eternity


First, I loved Dante’s description of his journey as “the double war.” Not only is he going to be struggling with the journey itself, but with pity. This seems odd, as pity should characterize the Christian, no? Not here. This is hell – and Dante will alter be chastised for his pity over these shades! Dante’s hell is a place where one’s character, formed by actions in life, receives its full expression. Thus, these are not souls being tortured for the amusement of some insane deity. Instead, they are receiving what they desired above all others in life. Stump points out that even in hell God’s mercy is found, as these souls would have probably continued into even deeper levels of depravity had God not arrested their fall and “frozen” them in hell’s inferno. This amazing irony is. I think, something that manifests in many issues surrounding God’s actions (the problem of evil being chief among them). Whether one experiences goodness or evil, evil or goodness may ultimately result depending on one’s reactions (note the use of one Greek word in James ch. 1 that is usually translated as two words in English: trial / temptation. The difference seems to be in the subject, not the object). Dante’s fight with pity is one that we all face, and the problem of hell is difficult to answer without Dante’s [thomistic] perspective.

Dante continues to mix pagan and religious motifs here. In 2:15-30 he ascribes God’s predestination to both the pagan stories of Aeneas and of Peter! God controls the formation of both the pagan and Holy Roman Empires!

I also noticed the vice of cowardice being front and center here. Beatrice’s response is so dramatic: “I have come through Hell’s pit without fear.” Wow! So Dante, too, is given protection from hell’s harm. Yet, this would hardly count for courage were the war not “double.”


The words of the gate literally give me chills. “Sacred justice moved my architect.” Yikes. Now, I have read somewhere that hell was formed when Satan fell into the earth – pushing the dirt out and up (to form Mt. Purgatory! Dante is amazing!!!). I am guessing that if this is correct that the gate’s words here must therefore refer to an efficient and not instrumental cause. Or perhaps God used the pit created by Satan to build the “furniture” of hell? The final line is the most terrifying – but I think the line preceding it in my translation should be included:

“Beyond time I stand – abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Hell beyond time – this is, I think, what makes hell the most unbearable. No amount of endurance will help now.

Dante’s first glance confirms such a horror. These shades “have no hope of death.” At the highest level of hell it is already an unthinkably bad situation. (Some have said that the levels of hell do not necessarily correspond to levels of punishment. In other words, the sins grow worse, but not necessarily the punishment. This will be an interesting idea to consider as we move on.) These are those who refuse to take a moral stance. Heaven does not want them and neither does hell, so they forever remain in chaos “denied even a name.” I am reminded of the opening scene to one of my favorite movies The Boondock Saints. A priest is delivering a sermon about a woman who was attacked in broad daylight in front of spectators who did nothing. He finishes with this amazing quote “We must all fear evil men, but what we must fear most . . . is the indifference of good men.” Rev. 3:15 comes to mind even though it is being taken out of context.  🙂

I think Charon’s reaction to Dante is important theologically. Many Protestants confuse Purgatory with some level of Hell when it might be more appropriate to call it a level of heaven. Purgation is only for the saved, and so none found in grace are to pass through hell. It is interesting and terrifying that the damned blaspheme God, parents, life itself. This scenario reminds me of another great movie quote. This one is from a conversation between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Tombstone – a surprisingly accurate portrayal of the most famous days of Wyatt Earp:

What makes a man like Ringo, Doc?
What makes him do the things he does?

A man like Ringo’s got a great
Empty hole right through the
Middle of him and no matter what
He does he can’t ever fill it.  He
Can’t kill enough or steal enough
Or inflict enough pain to ever
Fill it.  And it drives him mad.

So what does he want?

What does he want?  He wants revenge.

Revenge?  For what?

Being born.

Further, there seems to be no repentance in Dante’s hell. As far as I can recall, no one ever calls out for mercy in this journey. Again, the virtue ethical understanding comes in handy here – these souls have been formed and now (in the “fire of hell”) they will be solidified. God is not making them sinners, but solidifying their choices (like Pharaoh?). For those who have lost their fear of God (“the good of the intellect”), “their dread turns wish: they yearn for what they fear.” This is so much more terrifying than simple punishment for breaking the rules!

Before Dante can be taken into hell proper he again swoons. He is not yet ready to face his double war. But that will soon change.

Also – the “fire and ice” line reminded me of something. Loreena McKennit has an amazing song from one of my all-time favorite CD’s (The Book of Secrets) called Dante’s Prayer. The price of the whole CD is worth just this one song.