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Sin and Punishment in Dante’s Poem “Inferno”


Notably, Dante discusses how souls are tormented, implying a symbolic link between sin and punishment. He intended to illustrate the concept of damnation and present examples of individuals suffering damnation as a result of the way they lived and the choices they made; ways and choices that were violent, immoral, and criminal (Foster 47). The message of Dante’s Inferno appears remote because it stresses sin rather than crime; according to a thinker of Dante’s day, an act constituted illegal partially because it was a deliberate breach of the law (Chevigny 790). The Inferno is noteworthy as a medieval reflection on criminal guilt; medieval philosophers rarely displayed such a genuine interest in crime and punishment (Chevigny 789). Therefore, Dante provides a religious-philosophical basis for the law of crimes as he perceives them as if it was a fourteenth-century jurisprudence. The poem essentially refers to a comprehensive notion of crime and retribution.

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As a result, the punishment resembles the form of a stringent process that refers to the corresponding crime. The condemned individuals are tortured by unavoidable psychological manifestations of their own (Steinberg 80). The concept of punishment is profoundly ingrained in Christian theology, albeit frequently opaque and implied (Stearns 119). Retribution is an element of the epic divine drama of redemption, in which sin leads to guilt, and guilt leads to salvation. Therefore, the concept is always theoretically related to some wrongdoing. If individuals do not recognize that they have committed unlawful conduct, their detentions for supposedly breaching the law will be regarded as unfairly inflicted pain rather than punishment (Stearns 121). As a result, the idea of punishment may be understood at several levels, most notably civil and moral (Stearns 122). As a result, it is founded on some sort of breach of a law, regulation, or norm of behavior.

The contrapasso symbolizes the fallen rigorous justice, a judicial dystopian devoid of mercy. According to Dante’s studies, the contrapasso is the ‘equilibrium’ of punishment and sin (Steinberg 80). The dilemma for Dante is not that the contrapasso is too cruel, but that it is not severe enough for the most horrific crimes. Readers should be skeptical of referring to Dante’s art of justice as the contrapasso critically for the following reasons. To begin, Steinberg contends that the contrapasso always reflects a constrained, unduly restrictive view of justice (81). Secondly, it is the flawed righteousness of the Other, specifically the justice of the Pythagoreans for Aristotle and the justice of the Jews for Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas (Steinberg 81). Finally, the constraints of justice based on simple reciprocation are rooted in its private nature; the contrapasso excludes public offenses, crimes against the sovereignty, and political establishment.

Dante uses the contrapasso to delve into the enigmatic nature of the fittingness inherent in his poetics of retribution. Inferno XXVIII essentially covers the sufferings of the eighth sub-circle or bolgia of Malebolge, the eighth circle of hell, where the crimes of deception are punished (Steinberg 82). Thus, the circles of hell can be regarded as grading crimes in the same manner that a criminal code does, with punishments proportional to relative seriousness (Chevigny 788). Although how Dante evaluates the crimes is meaningful because he explains his reasoning for grading.

The Most Severe Crimes for Dante

Moreover, the seriousness of crimes is socially manufactured in Dante’s Inferno. It should come as no surprise that the grading of damages is socially driven. The problem is that politicians and philosophers believe that grading is ethically obligatory; there is a strong belief that violence against people is just worse than other injustices (Chevigny 815). Consequently, the element of societal injury, which has generally been understood to be the reason that the state pursues crimes rather than being confined to private remedy and hence to be of the essence of the crime, has become ambiguous.

The most terrible crimes, according to Dante, are those involving betrayal of trust. Dante considered such acts the most intentional and damaging to the human community (Chevigny 787). In canto 11 of The Inferno, Dante stops with his guide, the poet Virgil, in the sixth circle of hell to reflect on the previous circles and where they could be headed (Chevigny 788). As a result, the sins or crimes they have previously faced are primarily those of passion or helplessness; for example, in the second circle, they met the adulterers, Paolo and Francesca, who had been overwhelmed by desire. The adulterous Paolo and Francesca were swept away by the tempest of their uncontrollable desires in life (Steinberg 80). In hell, a violent storm is now blowing them around in rounds without end. Virgil warns Dante that the violent criminals will be located just below them, and the traitors will be found far down. As a result, Dante’s classification contrasts sharply with a typical modern criminal code, in which violent crimes such as significant assault and robbery are considered more severe than fraud.

Nonetheless, modern law has determined that crimes of treachery are often less punishable than crimes of aggression. Transgression of trust crimes is not considered extremely serious nowadays because they are inconsistencies, misrepresentations, or extents of behavior. Betrayal is otherwise perceived as acceptable, even invaluable, in modern life, just as violent crimes in Dante’s time were the extreme forms of tolerable and sometimes indispensable behavior (Chevigny 813). The danger of betrayal is permitted in contemporary society as part of the ethic of individual self-reliance, much as Dante accepted the risk of violence in conjunction with his morality of caring. Because the Inferno stresses the culprit’s guilty thought, it has a fascinating relationship to modern criminal law doctrine. According to Chevigny, medieval theology and philosophy regarding ethics were a major basis for Dante’s grading system; correspondingly, scholarly thought about punishment in the previous generation has depended on later-day ethics (788). The Inferno is a classic example of delivering reasonable deserts or merited penalties.

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The condemned do not need immobility or the prospect of restoration, and there is no purpose for the particular punishment of lost souls. When considering the miseries of the damned, there is undoubtedly some real deterrent running to the living, but no more than is implicit in any mechanism of retribution by just desert. The crucial question is whether the poem can be related to modern criminal law (Chevigny 789). Although composed as poetry, The Inferno is indeed meant as a philosophical investigation of responsibility as expressed in crimes, both past, and present, that were common in Dante’s time.

The modern perspective of betrayal crimes bears a striking resemblance to Dante’s understanding of violent crimes. Chevigny claims that betrayal is not a trait of the impoverished or any other socio-economic status (813). Furthermore, the more severe acts of betrayal may be committed by more powerful people simply because of their ability to compel the faith of others. The danger of betrayal is an unavoidable outcome of trust, which is essential in modern life. The chance of betrayal is increased because trusted individuals appear to be capable, motivated, ready, and competent to manage the concerns of others (Chevigny 813). As a result, the possibility of betrayal is a common feature of modern economic and political life.

Dante’s thoughts on crime are grounded on ethical implications, the social and political atmosphere, and criminal legislation. The same three interconnected concerns, such as philosophical, social, and legal-criminological, will contribute to the current theory on the relative importance of events (Chevigny 789). Crimes of betrayal, for instance, were the most severe for Dante not only because they required the most purposeful exercise of free will but also because they caused the most harm to humanity’s moral net of duties.

Dante leans on Aristotle, as represented in medieval philosophy, to explain the three states of mind. These states underpin significant sins and crimes: malice, bestial, and akrasia – indicating vulnerability of will in the face of what understanding teaches to be fair (Chevigny 791). Significantly, having disobeyed the law via akrasia is far from Dante’s most significant offense. For this reason, crimes of passion, such as Paolo and Francesca’s adultery, are located in the upper levels of hell, even if an act of violence, if performed in a moment of despair, would not constitute a crime of malice (Chevigny 792). On the other hand, malice conveys the entire notion of ill-will, which refers to knowingly choosing evil against others. The most serious, according to Dante, was the most human, the one that most plainly demonstrated the abuse of willpower.

In some ways, all crimes are betrayals of the social system to appreciate others and not harm or exploit them. Chevigny admits that many crimes are not designed maliciously in the manner that Dante defined the term; a violation of trust was evil when compared to other crimes (792). Of fact, a crime of violence might equally be a crime of betrayal. For instance, Judas Iscariot and Brutus and Cassius are in the lowest level of hell, according to canto 34, since they abandoned Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar, who trusted them and was assassinated as a result of the treachery. Dante states in canto 11 the seemingly innocuous concept that the objective of malice that obtains enmity in Heaven is injury (Chevigny 792). Although the interpretation of betrayal is complex, it is critical to remember that Dante recognizes the damage in its generic form of unfairness.

The contrapasso does, nevertheless, have several flaws. Aristotle identifies two critical cases where the contrapasso fails (Steinberg 85). It does not, for example, analyze what would happen if one of the parties involved in a dispute was a government employee. Furthermore, it makes no distinction between deliberate and involuntary behaviors. These introductory reflections on retaliatory punishment serve as a bridge between the more detailed explanations of distributive and rectification justice and the part on economic equality that follows. Therefore, when Aristotle criticizes the bounds of counter-suffering, he is discussing human morality rather than divine retribution.

The sowers of discord are punished for precisely the sort of offense that the contrapasso does not cover. They have injured not only private individuals but also the public welfare, notably the sanctified bodies of the church, republic, state, or kingdom (Steinberg 88). Consequently, for such transgression, their penalty surpasses the tit-for-tat justice of the eye for an eye. Sinners pay an additional debt owing to the state in the currency of their bodily parts. In short, the sinners in this canto must lose more than an eye for an eye. Dante seems to have selected the most notable instances available to demonstrate the contrapasso (Steinberg 83). These sinners parade in front of readers’ eyes, pleading for their penalties to be read; the canto’s repeated theme is beheld (Steinberg 83). Furthermore, while readers have long praised Dante’s ability to create realistic, fleshed-out people, the sowers of discord are virtually pure representations and alive symbols.

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Above all, Dante presents an argument for the wise and prudent use of judgment rather than the application of prescriptive law. For Dante and his followers, counter-suffering justice was always restricted justice — a sort of justice that was particularly unprepared to react to the enormous offense of breaching God’s grandeur (Steinberg 90). In this perspective, Dante may invoke the contrapasso to warn against an unduly mechanical reading of this interaction rather than explain it. Critics are correct in identifying Inferno XXVIII as a very self-reflexive point in the poem; nonetheless, it is not one in which Dante declares the order of his envisioned otherworld (Steinberg 90). Besides, one of the societal impacts on present perceptions of wrongdoing is the legacy of crime conceptions, dating back at least to Dante’s lifetime (Chevigny 790). Thus, it is notable how much of the medieval Christian foundation for responsibility persists, even if just in skeletal form, in modern criminal theory and philosophy.


The Inferno’s hierarchical organizational structure matches closely with Dante’s thoughts about the magnitude of crimes. The force of impulses driving sin is poetic in the higher Inferno; retribution reflects justice in the lower. The contrapasso is essentially the balance between punishment and sin. Dante’s concern does not refer to the contrapasso’s cruelty but to the fact that it is insufficiently severe for the most horrific crimes. The contrapasso always indicates a restricted, overly narrow understanding of justice. Counter-suffering justice was always constrained justice for Dante, fairness that was incredibly inadequate to respond to the sin of violating God’s brilliance.

Dante’s Inferno’s circles of hell can be thought of as grading crimes the same way a court system does, with punishments proportionate to their gravity. Dante believed that the most severe crimes were those involving a violation of trust. He considered such acts the most damaging to the community. Betrayal is seen as acceptable and less critical compared to other crimes in modern life, just as violent crimes were the ultimate extremes of bearable and occasionally indispensable conduct in Dante’s day. In contemporary society, the risk of betrayal is accepted as part of the ethic of individual self-reliance the same way Dante tolerated the possibility of violence in connection with his philosophy of compassion. In some ways, all crimes are transgressions of the social contract to treat other people fairly and not harm or exploit them. As a result, Dante considers betrayal the most horrific act; the entire ninth circle of hell is reserved for traitors.

Works Cited

Chevigny, Paul G. “From Betrayal to Violence: Dante’s Inferno and the Social Construction of Crime.” Law & Social Inquiry, vol. 26, no. 4, 2001, pp. 787-818. JSTOR, Web.

Foster, Kenelm O. P. “The Canto of the Damned Popes: Inferno XIX.” Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, no. 87, 1969. pp. 47-68. JSTOR, Web.

Stearns, Brenton J. “Divine Punishment and Reconciliation.” The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 9, no. 1, 1981. pp. 118-130. JSTOR, Web.

Steinberg, Justin. “More than an Eye for an Eye: Dante’s Sovereign Justice.” Ethics, Politics and Justice in Dante, edited by Giulia Gaimari and Catherine Keen, UCL Press, 2019, pp. 80-93. JSTOR, Web.

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