Dante’s Divine Comedy – part treatise on death, life and religion, part self-insert fanfiction – ostensibly argues that, of the different paths through life, the most important is the straight path toward God and toward Paradise. My argument is that despite this surface-level reading, what Dante actually shows us is that the sameness of becoming one with God in heaven is boring, and that the best place to land oneself in the afterlife is in Limbo. I argue that Limbo is fundamentally different from the other levels of Hell, and through Dante the Poet’s description of the afterlife, we can extrapolate that despite concluding that he will go to Paradise, Dante the Poet’s description of Dante the Pilgrim’s experiences advocates for Limbo.
The Inferno begins with Dante the Pilgrim straying from the path of God: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray/from the straight road and woke to find myself/alone in a dark wood.” (Dante, The Inferno, trans. Ciardi, Canto I, lines 1-3). By starting Dante the Pilgrim’s journey here, Dante the Poet is aligning Dante the Pilgrim not with Heaven and Paradise, but with the hopelessness of Hell. Dante the Pilgrim’s lack of agency is exacerbated by the need for literal divine intervention by Beatrice, who tasks Virgil with the responsibility of bringing Dante the Pilgrim through Hell, and later Purgatory, before she and St. Bernard can lead him through Paradise. Dante the Poet is harsh with Dante the Pilgrim, and, along with Virgil, consistently criticizes Dante the Pilgrim’s sympathy for those in Hell. The exception to this conflict between sympathy and adherence to the path of God is the reaction that both Dantes have to the first circle of Hell, Limbo.
Dante’s Hell is divided into nine circles, each assigned to the punishment of one category of sin, and throughout the poem he journeys through all of them, making observations and learning about the consequences of each sin from Virgil. While all of the circles are unique in their own way, the focus of this essay is on the first circle, Limbo, the home of the virtuous pagans, including Virgil himself. Since these persons were born before Christ and did not worship the true God, they are not able to enter paradise. Limbo is past the gates of Hell, which famously bear the message “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.” (Dante, The Inferno, trans. Ciardi, Canto III, line 9). One topic that has been stressed in our class is the meaning behind the three theological values of hope, faith and charity (or love). Without hope there can be no faith and thus no charity/love.
Limbo is unique in Hell because the residents suffer no torment other than their lack of hope. This absence is important because, as previously stated, without hope there can be no faith or charity/love. Nevertheless, whether or not this lack of hope is a universally bad thing is up for debate. I argue that hope is not necessary for a happy existence. For example, when one is satisfied with their existence in the present, there is no need to hope for a better future. In the case of the inhabitants of Limbo, the lack of faith, charity and love is irrelevant, because they had none of those things (as seen through the lens of Christianity) in their lives on earth.
The virtuous pagans lived in a time before the hope of the Christian God, but have a noble countenance, and though they were not baptized, they do not suffer. They are not tormented, and they retain their sense of individuality. The virtuous pagans are a source of light in Hell, and Virgil himself notes that the people who are in Limbo are those for whom “[t]he signature of honor/they left on earth is recognized in Heaven/and wins them ease in Hell out of God’s favor.” (Dante, The Inferno, trans. Ciardi, Canto IV, lines 76-78). This leads me to believe that existence in Limbo is not so much a punishment as a place in which the souls of these virtuous pagans continue to exist as they were in life, celebrating in the individuality of their existence.
While in Limbo, Dante the Pilgrim is overwhelmed by the encounters that he has with the great figures of the past, particularly the poets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. These four, in addition to Virgil, are the heroes of Dante the Pilgrim, and because he so admires their works, he remains in awe of the five poets. Dante the Poet expresses this same awe, and counts himself among the poets as a sixth member of their group.
Dante the Pilgrim’s admiration for and identification with those in Limbo is markedly different from the sympathy that he shows for persons in the lower layers of Hell. Aside from Limbo, there is one major case where Dante the Pilgrim aligns himself with a sinner, which is shown in his encounter between Dante the Pilgrim and the shade of Ser Brunetto Latino in Canto XV. The reverence that Dante the Pilgrim and Dante the Poet continue to hold for Ser Brunetto is similar to Dante the Pilgrim’s interactions with those in Limbo, with the exception of the fact that neither Dante aligns himself with Ser Brunetto. He does not dare to descend to Ser Brunetto’s level, but nevertheless Dante the Pilgrim “kept [his] head inclined, as one who walks/in reverence mediating good and evil.” (Dante, The Inferno, trans. Ciardi, Canto XV, lines 43-44).
Despite the fact that Ser Brunetto is destined to burn in Hell, Dante the Pilgrim continues to show great affection for him, telling Ser Brunetto that “had I all my wish […] you would not yet be banished from the world/in which you were a radiance among men” (Dante, The Inferno, trans. Ciardi, Canto XV, lines 79-80). From Dante the Pilgrim’s treatment of Ser Brunetto, and Dante the Poet’s portrayal of their interactions, we can see that they do not hold all of the opinions of God, namely in that they see Ser Brunetto’s actions as punishable, but not something that stops them from enjoying Brunetto’s company and learning from the older man.
Even with all of the affection between Dante the Pilgrim and Ser Brunetto, as Dante the Pilgrim leaves round two of the seventh circle, Dante the Poet does not mark that leaving with any special sentiment other than goodwill toward Brunetto. In contrast, when Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil leave Limbo, Dante the Poet remarks that “The company of six is reduced by four.” (Dante, The Inferno, trans. Ciardi, Canto IV, line 148). Dante the Poet is hereby marking the nexus of his bond with the other five poets as Virgil and himself, and thus the leaving behind of the other four poets as a loss on his part rather than a loss of theirs. In other words, Dante the Poet considers their identities inexorably linked with his own.
These rich interactions that Dante the Pilgrim has with those in Hell can be contrasted with the bland interactions that he has with those in Heaven. Everything that Dante the Pilgrim encounters in Paradiso is perfection, of the sort that is often beyond his understanding.
Like Dante’s Hell, Dante’s Heaven contains a hierarchy, and is organized into spheres. As he progresses through the spheres, he comes closer and closer to those who exist and participate more and more in God’s perfection. Although the spheres of Heaven are organized into a hierarchy, all of the souls in Heaven are in the perfect bliss of paradise, because to wish for a higher place in Heaven goes against the will of God. “[T]he power of love, which is our bliss, / calms all our will. What we desire, we have. / There is in us no other thirst than this.” (Dante, The Paradiso, trans. Ciardi, Canto III, lines 70-72). Therefore, unlike Hell, where the punishment of each sin is in unique accordance with the offense, all of those in Heaven experience the same amount of fulfillment due to the faith, despite their varying levels of goodness. Paradise strips every soul of its uniqueness, and leads the blessed into sameness.
Much of Dante the Pilgrim’s understanding of Heaven is clouded, as the Pilgrim is still only a man and not able to truly comprehend the wonder of God. His descriptions of Heaven lack much of the nuance from his interpretation of Hell, and in Canto XXXI of Paradiso he tells the reader that “Between my stupor and my new-found joy/my bliss was to hear nothing and be dumb.” (Dante, The Paradiso, trans. Ciardi, Canto XXXI, lines 41-42). Dante’s Heaven is full of bliss, but lacks the interaction that life provides, as the inhabitants are lost in God, and are no longer their distinct selves. Dante the Poet does not outright state this as a bad thing, and in fact one can quite rightly argue that he is praising this state of blessed oblivion of self.
Dante the Poet’s skill as a poet relies on the formation of his words. Nevertheless, during the third poem of The Divine Comedy Dante the Poet is constantly and consistently lost for words. There are many examples of this, but two in particular appear in Canto XXXIII of Paradiso. Dante the Poet first reduces himself to an infant: “I have less power to speak than any infant / wetting its tongue yet at its mother’s breast.” (Dante, The Paradiso, trans. Ciardi, Canto XXXIII, lines 107-108). Later, he goes so far as to say that the inadequacy of his words is compounded by his lack of understanding: “But oh how much my words miss my conception, / which is itself so far from what I saw / that to call it feeble would be rank deception!” (Dante, The Paradiso, trans. Ciardi, Canto XXXIII, lines 121-123).
The beauty and goodness of God is such that Dante the Poet cannot describe, and therefore he has lost himself as a poet. Gone is the Dante who was proud to be one of the six, and with him what made Dante, Dante. Dante the Poet rejoices that one day his soul will again be one with God, but when compared to the jubilation that Dante the Pilgrim expressed at meeting the poets in Limbo, it lacks authenticity. Therefore, it is my belief that although Dante the Poet is on the surface advocating for Paradise, his presentation of both Limbo and Heaven indicate that Limbo is a preferable place to be for someone who values their individuality, including Dante (both the Poet and the Pilgrim) himself.
Written for ECS 100B: European Cultural Studies Proseminar: Making of European Modernity, March 28th 2018
Notes:  Note that there is a difference in the text between Dante the Poet and Dante the Pilgrim. Dante the Poet is the narrative voice of the poem, recounting the experiences of Dante the Pilgrim, who is the person experiencing the events of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.  In canto XXXI of Paradiso Beatrice leaves Dante and St. Bernard guides him through the rest of Paradiso.
References: “Critical Essays Dante the Poet and Dante the Pilgrim.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. n.d. https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/d/the-divine-comedy-inferno/critical-essays/dante-the-poet-and-dante-the-pilgrim. (accessed March 18, 2018). Dante Alighieri, and John Ciardi. The Divine Comedy: The Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. New American Library, 2003.