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Justice as Prevailing Theme in Dante’s “Inferno”

The history of the world’s culture has seen a colossal number of seminal works of art and literature. However, even the list of the most renowned cultural achievements demonstrates certain works that hold special significance, and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is one such piece. This 14th-century poem has become fundamental in the domain of literature and global culture, in general. Its main theme revolves around the theological concepts of the afterlife adopted by the Christian Church. Throughout its three parts, Dante describes a journey through three realms of the Catholic afterlife, which are Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory. However, the popularity and the seminal status of the poem are mainly conditioned by its first volume, titled Inferno, in which the narrator follows the Roman poet Virgil through the nine circles of Hell. Despite the poem’s tight connection to the Christian worldview, its interpretations differ from some of the church’s dogmas. As such, Inferno’s content suggests that Dante relies on the concept of justice, and not mercy or forgiveness, as the key theme and message of the poem because of the nature of presented punishments.

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The central work of this paper dates back to the medieval European period, serving as one of the most prominent examples of early literature. As far as the genre is concerned, Divine Comedy is an epic narrative poem, the completion of which took twelve years, from 1308 to 1320 (Took 16). It serves as an eminent example of early Italian literature, has become one of the first written books in the Italian language, and contributed to the development of the Tuscan dialect as the dominant variant of the language. The poem deals with such sophisticated spiritual concepts as the existence of the human soul and the idea of an afterlife. According to Took, it is representative of the Western Catholic perception of the world beyond death and attempts to explain its peculiarities to the audience.

The historical and cultural importance of Divine Comedy is conditioned by several factors. First of all, as discussed above, the poem became one of the first works of its kind that was published in a written form, which contributed to its survival potential across centuries. Second, Dante became the pioneer of the use of vernaculars in literature. As Took explains, Latin was the most common form of literary presentation of the time, especially in the case of works closely related to divine dogmas. However, Dante’s work opened the domain of sophisticated literature to the general public, as the poem’s language made it available to a wider audience. Through the poetic narration, the author discussed important philosophical ideas and eternal spiritual concepts embedded in the Christian faith and humanity itself.

In Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri serves as the narrator and the main character. However, despite this status, the author’s role is limited to observations and reactions to the afterlife. In the first part of the poem, Dante is lost in the woods, both physically and spiritually (Canto 1, lines 1-3). At some point, the narrator meets the soul of Virgil, a great Roman poet, who becomes his guide in the afterlife. Next, Dante embarks on a long journey through Hell or Inferno. It is important to note that the narrator is not physically dead, but his conscience is allowed to venture beyond the veil of the afterlife to see how it is structured. The narrative of the poem is exclusively descriptive in nature, as the plot is limited to Dante’s guided exploration of Hell. Virgil takes him from the Limbo, where non-Christian souls are bound to wander all the way through the nine circles of Inferno. Along the path, Dante and his guide discuss the reasons for being assigned to a specific layer of Hell, as well as the tortures used in each respective tier.

The measures, which are taken against prisoners of Inferno vary greatly depending on why someone is sent to the circle. Interestingly, aside from the description of sins and tortures, Dante often mentions specific personalities, which represent a corresponding layer. For example, Hell’s borderland contains prominent pagan characters, such as Caesar and Homer (Canto 4, line 57). These people were sent to Hell regardless of their paths of life or achievements, being condemned to such a destiny simply because they were never introduced to Christianity. Moreover, some of them could not physically have chosen to believe in the Lord, as Christianity was non-existent at their time. Nevertheless, they experienced no mercy and were sent to the first layer of Inferno by God’s principles of justice. One may argue that the lack of torture may be a symbol of mercy, but, in fact, the very fact of being placed in Hell contradicts this idea.

At the same time, as Virgil and Dante continue their journey toward the bottom layer of Hell, the sins and the tortures become progressively worse. Dante’s narration suggests that the nature of the torment is eternal in Inferno, as its prisoners continue to experience the suffering across centuries and millennia. The poem repeatedly describes the deeds of the sinners’ past and their punishments, but there are no hints of a chance for redemption. As such, Virgil says that “all those that perish in the wrath of God from every country come together here <…> because Justice Divine so spurs them on” (Canto 3, lines 29-32). Later in the poem, the author himself refers to God as “justice infallible” (Canto 29, line 338). In other words, Dante openly admits that God’s understanding of justice and retribution are critical in Inferno. The concept of mercy is inherently related to forgiveness and the possibility to atone for one’s sins. However, as is continuously emphasized in Inferno, God’s justice becomes the only decisive factor, condemning souls to eternal torture in the nine circles of Hell.

Ultimately, the analysis of the first volume of Dante’s Divine Comedy reveals the dominant character of the concept of justice. The principles of the modern Christian church rely heavily on the ideas of mercy and atonement, but Dante’s representation of the afterlife points toward a different concept. Sinners are placed in Hell and tortured in the same manner for eternity, as no possibility of redemption is implied within the poem. Moreover, the prevalence of justice over mercy is sufficiently highlighted by the very description of Dante’s Limbo. Prominent personalities of the pre-Christian era are condemned to eternal wandering around the first circle of Hell. Even though there is no torture in this tier, these people are still denied the benefits of paradise by the principles of the Lord’s justice. Evidently, Dante’s interpretation of the afterlife does not attempt to become the universal Christian dogma, as it remains a work of fiction. Therefore, the dominance of justice over mercy exhibited within Inferno can barely be extrapolated to the Christian church in its entirety and especially in its modern state.

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Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Volume 1: Inferno. Oxford University Press: 1961.

Took, John. Dante. Princeton University Press, 2020.

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