Dorothy L. Sayers on the first few Circles of Hell

I’ve been making my way through Dante’s Comedy for my third time — this time in Dorothy L. Sayers’s version. The translation, which pulls off the incredible feat of reproducing the original terza rima rhyme scheme in English, certainly has its charms, but in many places it strikes me more as an interpretation of Dante than a faithful rendering, and I would recommend it only to those who have already read a more literal version. However, Sayers’s introduction to each cantica and brief commentary at the end of each canto are often very insightful.

The following is from Sayers’s commentary on Canto IV of the Inferno, which deals with the First Circle of Hell, or Limbo, to which Virgil and the other virtuous pagans are consigned.

After those who refused choice [described in Canto III] come those without opportunity of choice. They could not, that is, choose Christ; they could, and did, choose human virtue, and for that they have their reward. . . . Here again, the souls “have what they chose”; they enjoy that kind of after-life which they themselves imagined for the virtuous dead; their failure lay in not imagining better. They are lost . . . because they “had not faith” — primarily the Christian Faith, but also, more generally, faith in the nature of things.

The First Circle is uniquely troubling because its inmates seem to be there through no fault of their own. It is true that they are not actively tortured as those in the lower circles are — their only punishment is that “we have no hope and yet we live in longing” — but they seem not to have deserved even that. Virgil’s explanation in Canto IV is that these souls are damned for no other “fault” than that, living before Christ, they lacked baptism and did not profess the Christian religion. To damn them for failing to do what they could not possibly have done seems manifestly unjust.

However, that is not the whole story. Even in Canto IV we learn of how Christ descended to Limbo and rescued the unbaptized souls of Adam, Abraham, David, and other pre-Christian biblical figures. And once one has read the entire Comedy and found Cato in purgatory and Trajan in paradise, the situation appears even more complicated. It is not true that all non-Christians are summarily damned. It is not even true that all non-Hebrew non-Christians are summarily damned. Therefore, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, and the other denizens of the First Circle must be there for some actual moral failing — a comparatively minor failing, but still one which precludes all possibility of salvation — a failing which, without the benefit of the Christian revelation, is almost (but not quite) inevitable. Sayers’s interpretation of that failing seems a plausible one.

“Dream other dreams, and better!” — the admonition of the angel at the end of Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger. This, in Sayers’s interpretation, is what Virgil and the others failed to do. It is characteristic of Dante’s logic that each punishment in hell simply is the sin being punished, seen for what it truly is. If Virgil’s only punishment is that he has no hope, it stands to reason that that was also his only sin. (As a great admirer of Virgil and a somewhat obsessive re-reader of the Aeneid, I would have to say I agree with that assessment.) Where there is no vision, the people perish. By way of contrast, consider Goethe’s Faust — whose only virtue is that he lacks Virgil’s only vice. And Faust is saved.


In her commentary on Canto VII of the Inferno, Sayers comments on Dante’s passage through the first few Circles of Hell. Dante blacks out at the gate of Hell and enters the First Circle (Limbo) unconsciously. The passage from the First to the Second (where lust is punished) is made consciously but is not described in any detail. Dante then again loses consciousness and awakes in the Third Circle (where the gluttons are). The passage to the Fourth Circle (misers and spendthrifts) is described in a little more detail, and thereafter the passage from each Circle to the next is very clearly described. Sayers writes:

From Limbo to the Second Circle — from the lack of imagination that inhibits the will to the false imagination that saps it — the passage is easy and, as it were, unnoticed. From the Second Circle to the Third — from mutuality to separateness — the soul is carried as though in a dream. From the Third to the Fourth  Circle the way is a little plainer — for as one continues in sin one becomes uneasily aware of inner antagonisms and resentments, though without any clear notion how they arise. But as antagonism turns to hatred, the steps of the downward path begin to be fearfully apparent. From this point on the descent is mapped out with inexorable clarity.

For Sayers, what distinguishes the sins of the Second, Third, and Fourth Circles is not so much their differing objects (sex, food, and money, respectively) as the differing attitudes towards other people which they represent. Lust involves love and mutuality and is “not wholly selfish”; gluttony, in contrast represents “solitary self-indulgence,” indifferent to others. In the Fourth Circle, “indifference becomes mutual antagonism, imaged here by the antagonism of hoarding and squandering.”

This is not the most obvious interpretation of these three categories of sin, but I think it is a promising one. (If the sins are taken at face value, it is rather difficult to see how indulgence in food could be considered more serious than sexual sin!) Here, then, is Sayers’s interpretation of the first four Circles, with the succeeding five Circles noted as well:

  1. Virtuous living, limited only by a lack of hope or imagination
  2. Mutual and quasi-“loving” pursuit of pleasure together with other people (typified by sexual lust)
  3. The solitary pursuit of pleasure without regard to other people (typified by gluttony)
  4. Antagonism towards others because their chosen pleasures are incompatible with one’s own (typified by the antagonism between misers and spendthrifts)
  5. Wrath
  6. Heresy
  7. Violence
  8. Fraud
  9. Treachery

If this is indeed the primary significance of the first four Circles, Sayers is right that the passage from each to the next is smooth and natural and many be made almost unconsciously.  Certainly the transition from “imagine there’s no heaven” to “imagine all the people living for today” is an easy one — though not, as shown by the virtuous pagans, an inevitable one. And once mere pleasure has been accepted as a goal, the transition to selfishness — first indifferent and then resentful — is equally natural.

A passage from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, showing a very similar progression, comes to mind:

The inevitable corollary of such sexual interest is rebellion against the parental authority that represses it. Selfishness [Circles 2-3: lust and gluttony] thus becomes indignation [Circles 4-5: avarice and wrath] and then transforms itself into morality [Circle 6: heresy]. The sexual revolution must overthrow all the forces of domination, the enemies of nature and happiness [Circle 7: violence]. From love comes hate, masquerading as social reform. A worldview is balanced on the sexual fulcrum. What were once unconscious or half-conscious childish resentments become the new Scripture.

This is, for me, a new way of looking at the Circles of Hell. Instead of seeing each succeeding Circle as simply another sin, “worse” than the ones that preceded it, it can be quite fruitful to try to interpret it as the next logical step in the soul’s downward journey.

I am about to begin Sayers’s translation of the Purgatorio, which is explicitly about the soul’s step-by-step progress from sin to absolution — though, oddly, I have never really kept that sufficiently in mind in past readings. Finding pride near the bottom of the mountain and lust near the top, I have been content with the explanation that pride is “worse” than lust — when in fact the explicit message of the Purgatorio is that one must overcome pride first, then envy, and so on, and lust last of all. (This contrasts strongly with my own feeble efforts at self-improvement, which have always focused first on “obvious” sins of lust and gluttony rather than abstractions like envy and pride.) This time through Purgatory, I intend to focus on the sequential, step-by-step aspect of it and see what kinds of insights reveal themselves.



Filed under Christianity, Ethics, Literature

3 responses to “Dorothy L. Sayers on the first few Circles of Hell

  1. This is not a reading of Dante I had considered. It reminds me of the infamous Puddleglum argument, where on having the Witch tell them that all their beliefs are strictly imaginary, Puddleglum declares that his imagination is better than the Witch’s reality.

    One trouble with ‘impossible’ desires and hopes, I think, is an inability to tell if one’s desires are impossible because they are properly answered in Heaven, or if one’s desires are impossible because they happen to be lusts that do not conform to the structure of reality.

    Another trouble is that it quite thoroughly impeaches the strict views of traditional denominations…. for a contrast, I ingested a sizeable dose of gloomy ascetical advice from St. Ignatius Brianchaninov at one point, and was quite recently linked some fire-and-brimstone Catholic sermons about “the fewness of the saved”; they are all logically constructed on their own terms (presuming the exclusive validity of the Orthodox or the Catholic faiths, respectively) and appear to put their adherents firmly in the First Circle of Hell, according to the classification put forward in this post. As one forum punter summarized things, “I take it for granted that the primary and sole purpose of earthly life is the salvation of one’s own soul.” And then the guillotine drops; any dream or desire whatsoever is an obstacle and distraction relative to this pursuit of salvation. There’s certainly no chance to go about dreaming better or worse dreams.

    This is the same problem that I see whenever people employ CS Lewis’ famous Puddleglum argument in apologetics; which, myself being inclined towards it, and with the churches being what they are, I see very clearly that it tends to lead _out_ of the Church as an institution. If Puddleglum can make a play-world that licks the Witch’s reality hollow, that is well and good. But if George Macdonald can make a play-world that licks, say, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s reality (or, on the Catholic side, let’s pick St. Leonard of Port Maurice) hollow, wouldn’t the same wager induce me to go with Macdonald’s view on Christ and reality, over that of the established Church?

    So, this is merely a statement of my own worries around this topic, but I do wish people (including CS Lewis) did not resort to Puddleglum’s argument so carelessly, unless they are actually George Macdonald-type nondenominationalists.

  2. I would unreservedly agree with one thing that’s expressed by this interpretation, which is that it gets very near the issue of how sin springs from boredom and idleness (which springs out of lack of Hope and imagination). Whatever Heaven is like, the Children of God certainly have no idleness to dwell and agonize on their past sins, and no boredom out of which to invent fresh ones.

  3. Pingback: For Dante, hope is the one thing needful. | Boisterous beholding

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