Musings on Dante

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Layout of the Inferno

Layout of the Inferno

In general, Dante’s Inferno is divided between the Upper Hell of six circles (Cantos III-XI) and the Lower Hell of three circles (Cantos XII-XXXIV). Excluding the circle of Limbo for the unbaptized (Canto IV), Upper Hell contains those damned who are punished according to sins of appetite or incontinence. Lower Hell is again generally divided between those who committed violent or bestial acts (Cantos XII-XVII) and those who committed acts of fraudulence or treachery (Cantos XVIII-XXXIV).

As stated before, charity is the mother of all virtues insofar as it is the form of them. St. Thomas spends much time on this point and concludes:

In morals the form of an act is taken chiefly from the end. The reason of this is that the principal of moral acts is the will, whose object and form, so to speak, are the end. Now the form of an act always follows from a form of the agent. Consequently, in morals, that which gives an act its order to the end, must needs give the act its form. Now it is evident, in accordance with what has been said, that it is charity which directs the acts of all other virtues to the last end, and which, consequently, also gives the form to all other acts of virtue: and it is precisely in this sense that charity is called the form of the virtues, for these are called virtues in relation to “informed” acts.i

As charity directs all other virtues to the last end, and as the last end is God who is the Good, Dante’s ordering of Hell becomes clear. The highest levels in which sinners are punished the least (by relative comparison) are for those who least deviated from charity and consequently the last end, while the lower levels of Hell are for those who deviated from charity the most. Let us consider the two extremities of Hell to illustrate this.

In the second circle (Canto V) we have the souls of the carnal who “betrayed reason to their appetite”ii by an excess of sexual passion. This sin is natural, as Ciardi notes, and most akin to love proper, so it is the least punished.iii Yet it still deviates from the the order of charity and one’s final end, hence its punishment. But since, by relative comparison to the likes of Anger/Wrath (Canto VIII) or Heresy (Canto XI), it deviates less from the end than graver sins which divert the soul farther away from charity it is punished with less severity.

Paola and Francesca by Gustav Dore

Paola and Francesca by Gustav Dore

Moving to the extremity of Hell, we come to the ninth level known as Cocytus (Cantos XXXI-XXXIV). Paying particular attention to the last Canto of this part, we find in the center of Cocytus the triple-faced Satan forever chewing on three sinners: Brutus and Cassius (inserted feet-first in the side mouths), and Judas Iscariot (inserted head-first in the central mouth). Brutus and Cassius betrayed Julius Caesar, the father of Imperial Rome if not considered the first Roman emperor himself. Judas Iscariot, of course, betrayed Jesus Christ, the New Adam who is the father of redeemed man and who is the Incarnate God. We have represented here four individuals: Brutus and Cassius betrayed the head of the civil/political order, Judas betrayed the Incarnate Head of the universal order, and Satan rebelled against God by likening himself unto Him. All went against the highest good of their order: Brutus and Cassius against the highest in the material/natural order, Judas and Satan against the Divine order. Further, they did so not with appetite but with the reason, the highest faculty, moving the will. Therefore their deviation from charity was the greatest and farthest removed from the final end particularly since their action went directly against their final end by attacking the Good itself. Hence, they are most severely punished.

Cornelis Galle: Lucifer from the Divine Comedy, c 1596 - c 1605/8

Cornelis Galle: Lucifer from the Divine Comedy, c 1596 - c 1605/8

Using these two instances as examples of the extremities, in between these Cantos (V & XXXIV), Dante orders the levels of Hell by gradation from the highest levels which deviate the least from charity (as given by the example of the carnal) to the greatest deviation from charity (as given by the example of Cocytus) and thus gradated deviation from the final end. Herein Dante illustrates the true nature of sin: a departure from charity, the form of all virtues, by which one is estranged from their final end, God, and thereby damn themselves.

Let us now proceed to Dante’s consideration of virtue through the lens of the the capital sins in the Purgatorio.

iibid. II-IIae, q.23, a.8.

iiDante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inf., V, 39.

iiiibid. Ciardi’s (translator) notes for lines 37-48.


Written by Paleo Thomist

December 6, 2010 at 8:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. thanks for posting these awesome images!


    March 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm

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