Dante’s Inferno, III: Hell as an Allegorical Contrast to Catholic Teaching

In our exploration of Dante’s Inferno, I have already explored the general construction of Hell in its two tiers in the first part of this essay series, and I then explored the relationship between Dante and Virgil in the second part of this series.  This final part will highlight in some greater detail what has already been referenced to in those posts, but also bring additional emphasis upon Catholic teaching and how it impacts the construction of Hell from Dante’s pen.

I.3 Catholic Allegory and Imagery in Dante’s Hell

1.3.1 – Why is hell cold and dark?

Dante’s hell is cold and dark, unlike the images of a burning fire and a vengeful Satan as ruler over a dark and fiery kingdom (which comes the pen of John Milton of Paradise Lost fame).  The reason has to do with the Catholic theological understanding of love and beauty, and how love and beauty are the greatest things in the world and that they are contingently related to each other.  Love between humans make humans more beautiful—this is the process of divinization through love.  As God loved humans as to send his only son to die for humanity, so as humans love one another they participate in the love of the Trinity.  Likewise, the world is beautiful precisely because it is made in love by a loving God.

The misdirection of love is what dominates Levels 2-5.  There is some light as we descend through these circles but it progressively gets dimmer and dimmer ultimately expiring in frozen darkness by the final level where Satan resides with the frozen bodies of Brutus, Cassius, and Judas in Satan’s three mouths (Satan has three heads in Dante as Satan is a corrupt parody of the Trinity).  The lighting and temperature of Hell is an allegorical reference to Catholic theology concerning love and beauty.

The lack of love and beauty in hell is also reflected in the changing facial complexions of not merely the residents of hell, but also our two protagonists.  Dante’s face grows paler and paler, indicative of his losing life as he journeys closer to the lifeless pit that is the center of hell.  Here, “hell as the second death” means a place without love and beauty—whereby man’s soul is forever lost, untouched, and unable to live up to his nature which is called to beauty and love.  Despite Dante’s paler complexion as he gets closer to the ninth circle of hell the love between Dante and Virgil grows which allows them to proceed further and further.  As I discussed in part II, the only warmth, love, and beauty, that is in hell is shown through the growing relationship of Dante and Virgil where Virgil takes on a fatherly and protective role and Dante comes to depend on Virgil (which also erases Dante’s pride too).

1.3.2  – Why is Hell a (Disordered) City?

As we proceed through hell we also meet people who are always at war with each other, shut off from one another, can’t find each other or running away from others—there is no harmony in hell.  Why is this?

Hell is exceedingly atomized, that is, individualized.  We meet many characters by name, though their faces increasingly become harder to distinguish as we journey further into hell.  Why is this?

Catholicism teaches that man is, by nature, social and relational.  That is, man is filial, relational, and not a cut-off individual.  Moreover, Catholicism teaches that the more “individualistic” a society becomes (that is, the more self-centered it becomes) the more homogenous the people become: everyone becomes a cookie-cutter copy of whatever idol they chase after.  Individualization results in sameness, oh the irony!  This is why faces become more blurred as Dante and Virgil journey closer to the center of hell and only know their hell-bound captives when they announce their names to the duo.

There are two circles in hell that reflect the anti-relational and anti-social attitude most explicitly: The sixth circle (the entry into the city of Dis) where the heretics (namely the Epicureans) are walled off from each other in tombs unable to see or discuss with each other (made more funny by the fact that polite company and discussion was the highest virtue to live for according to the Epicureans) and the ninth circle where all those who betrayed their friends and families reside (the ultimate expression of anti-relationship attitudes).  Hell is disordered because it is not ordered to anything; it is not ordered to family, friendships, or the common good, hence why hell is a chaotic place (circles 2-5) and an increasingly isolated “hell hole” (circles 6-9).  Hell is a reflection of the rejection of man’s rejection of his social, relational, and filial nature.  This is why man is increasingly isolated and atomized in hell, and also why no fulfillment can be had in hell.

1.3.3 – Hell as the Rebellious City

The fact that hell is a city, the city of Dis, is also a reflection of Catholicism’s social and relational understanding of man and the world.  Hell, as the disordered, anti-relational, and anti-filial (ugly and unloving—cold and dark—city) polis is contrasted with Heaven, the ordered, relational, and filial (beautiful and loving—warm and illuminated—city) polis.  Throughout the journey through hell and its construction, especially when contrasted with heaven in Book III: Paradiso, Dante is setting up the allegorical of the two cities that goes all the way back to Augustine and, from Augustine’s reading of Scripture, the Bible (as a tale of two cities: the disordered and vengeful city of man and the ordered and loving city of God).

Given the political—polis—nature of hell, is there a larger commentary (or allegory) in the  Divine Comedy?  Yes, the Divine Comedy is equally a work of political philosophy as it is a work of theological allegory.  This is again made clearer with the contrasts of heaven and hell once you read through Paradiso.

In Book II, Purgatorio, Dante writes:

Rome, which made the good world,
used to have two suns that made visible
the two paths, of the world and of God.
One sun has extinguished the other,
and the sword is joined to the shepherd’s staff,
and it is ill for those two to be violently forced together,
for, joined, neither fears the other
(16.106–12).

The hellish city that is hell, pun intended, is the way it is because of rebellion.  Satan fell because of rebellion.  The ninth circle is filled with traitors and rebels, those who betrayed their king and country, their families, and their god/God.  The message from Dante is not subtle at all: rebellion, the seed of disorder, is the road to hell.

This, of course, contrasts yet again with the orderly city that is heaven: Where authority (God’s authority) is obeyed and consented to.  As such, political authorities, who are given their authority by God in his wisdom, are also to be obeyed.  This is why Catholicism has historically, and still doctrinally today, promotes an authority-respecting ethos.

Civil strife in Italy is a major theme in Dante’s many side conversations with various Italians in hell and purgatory.  It is the case that Dante weeps for the strife and disorder in Italy, and Dante was an early Italian nationalist.  Nationalism and Catholicism, historically, went hand in hand, though Catholicism today tempers its nationalistic past with the language of “proper patriotism” rather than the strong nationalism found among the patristic fathers and medieval theologians.

Furthermore, the authority of the church, the temporal representative of God’s laws, is not to be rebelled against.  This is not to say that the church is not without problems or corruption.  Any reader of the Divine Comedy will surely see that there is much corruption throughout the church as corrupt clerics are burning in hell and even faithful clergy in heaven despair of the corruption of the church on earth (especially in the taking of money from Satan as reflected in Dante’s conversation with Folquet de Marseille in Canto 9 of Paradiso).  Dante places the authority of the church on a high pedestal in his work.

Thus, the ninth circle is filled with the most abominable of rebels.  The rebellious Lucifer and angels who rebelled against God—the ultimate crime to be punished.  Those who rebelled against their king and country—the temporal authorities over men which men are called to love and serve—an equally horrendous crime that must be punished.  And those who rebelled against their families, the most atrocious of crimes that rejects basic filial piety and relationships.  The punishment of rebels in the ninth circle not only corresponds with the rejection of humanity’s basic social, relational, and filial nature, it is also an allegorical warning against rebellion in general.  Rebellion only brings strife and destruction—nothing good can come from it, which is why rebellion and rebels find themselves in the lowest rung of hell.  The implications to political philosophy and theology are also very clear when this is known about Dante’s work.

Conclusion

As we can hopefully see, Dante’s Inferno is a rich poem filled with steep literary, historical, theological, Scriptural, and allegorical references and imagery throughout.  Failure to pick up on many of these deep literary themes depreciates the value of the work and turns it into a dry read.  In particular, the deep allegories of Inferno correspond with basic church teachings, as all three parts of this essay hopefully highlighted.

The basic imagery of hell and the allegories therein can be understood through knowledge of said church teachings.

  • Why is hell cold and dark?

Answer: Hell is a place where love and beauty are absent; lack of love = cold, lack of beauty = darkness.

  • Why is hell a disordered city?

Answer: Man cannot escape his social, “political”, nature.  In rejecting or fighting against his social and relational nature, disorder and chaos is what follows and this is represented by the disordered city of hell.  Man, as such, cannot flourish in a disordered city.  Which is to say man cannot flourish unless he lives up to his nature.

  • Why is rebellion punished so harshly?

Answer: Rebellion is the rejection of order and authority, which subsequently leads to the disordered city and leads to a destruction of all that is good and beautiful.  Rebellion is what leads to a place where chaos reigns supreme and goodness and beauty are destroyed in rebellion.  There are also deep political and theological overtures involved in this assertion.

What should be the loyalties of humans?  Where should they direct their energies and desire?  To family, to country, and to the Truth (e.g. God).  And those who reject family, country, and Truth, spiral downward into death and destruction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s