Tag Archives: Dante

Christopher Hitchens misrepresents Dante

From God Is Not Great, pp. 167-68:

[O]ne of the great difficulties of revealed religion . . . is the problem of what to do about those who were born before the exclusive “revelation,” or who died without ever having the opportunity to share in its wonders. Christians used to resolve this problem by saying that Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion, where it is thought that he saved or converted the dead. There is indeed a fine passage in Dante’s Inferno where he comes to rescue the spirits of great men like Aristotle, who had presumably been boiling away for centuries until he got around to them.

This is wrong on two counts.

First, despite Dante’s obvious admiration for the person he refers to as “the Philosopher” and “the master of those who know,” Aristotle is never saved. Neither is Virgil, nor any of the other virtuous pagans of pre-Christian times. Dante meets them in hell. He writes that he “still glories in having witnessed” such “great souls” — but nevertheless insists that they are damned. When Jesus descends to hell after his crucifixion, he saves only those who explicitly worshiped Yahweh while they were alive — i.e., the Hebrews of Old Testament times, plus one Trojan warrior who (according to Dante) had received a private revelation and become a secret Yahwist. Everyone else is permanently damned — unless, like the Roman emperor Trajan, they have the good fortune to be miraculously raised from the dead and converted on earth; in hell, conversion is to no avail.

Second, Aristotle and the others are not and never were “boiling away.” They are consigned to Limbo — which, while technically a part of hell, involves no torture, fiery or otherwise. Aristotle and company live, for all intents and purposes, in the very Elysian Fields for which they had perhaps hoped. Their only “punishment” is that they long for paradise but have no hope of ever attaining it. As for the virtuous Hebrews saved in Christ’s “harrowing of hell” (as his post-crucifixion visit is called), they did have a hope of eventually reaching paradise, and so for them Limbo involved no punishment whatsoever. They were never in “hell” at all in any meaningful sense.

So Dante’s God is both more and less merciful than Hitchens portrays him to be. More merciful, because he doesn’t actually torture or “boil” anyone for the “sin” of having been born at the wrong time; less merciful, because he does bar such people from paradise permanently.

For more details, see my post “The fates of non-Christians in Dante’s Comedy.”


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The fates of non-Christians in Dante’s Comedy

Pagans who were wicked by pagan standards are punished in the circle of Hell appropriate to their particular crimes. For example, Paris is punished in the second circle for crimes of lust, while Brutus is consigned to the jaws of Satan himself for treachery against his lord and benefactor. Pagans guilty of such sins as suicide and sodomy — sinful by Christian standards but not necessarily by pagan ones — are not specifically punished for them.

Pagans who lived lives of virtue (reckoning, again, by their own pagan standards), but who never had the opportunity to receive Christianity and baptism, are consigned to Limbo — which, though it is technically the first circle of Hell, is not a place of punishment. In fact, it seems to be pretty much what virtuous pagans expected after death. Their only punishment is that they now know that there is something higher — the true Paradise — but have no hope of ever attaining it.

Virtuous Hebrews who lived before Christ could be considered Christians avant la lettre (because they worshiped Jehovah, who is Christ), but they lacked explicitly Christian faith, hope, and baptism. They were consigned to Limbo with the pagans until after the Crucifixion, when Christ came to hell and liberated them. They are now in Paradise.

Note, then, that prior to the Crucifixion everyone (barring perhaps a few exceptions like Enoch and Elijah) went to Hell — either to Hades (Limbo) or Tartarus (the lower circles). This is consistent with most pre-Christian beliefs about the afterlife; certainly no Greek expected to ascend to Olympus after death.

Muslims are considered Christian heretics (a view which is not historically unreasonable), and Muhammad himself is punished as such in the sixth circle of Hell. Other Muslims, though, seem more often to be judged as if they were pagans. Averroes, Avicenna, and Saladin are found in Limbo with the pagan worthies. This despite the fact that, like all Muslims, they lived during the Christian era and could in theory have become Christians had they wished. (Saladin, in particular, had certainly been exposed to Christianity and rejected it; he spent his career fighting against the Crusaders.) I am not aware of any post-biblical Jews who appear in the Comedy, but Dante would perhaps have treated them similarly.

Virgil’s permanent home is in Limbo with the other virtuous pagans, but he is allowed to visit Purgatory in his capacity as Dante’s guide. Paradise, however, is closed to him.

Cato the Younger works as the gatekeeper and guardian of Purgatory. It is not evident what his ultimate fate will be, but it seems reasonable to assume that his situation is similar to that of Virgil: He is visiting Purgatory “on business,” as it were, but in the end — when Purgatory is done away with — will have to return to Limbo. (Note that he is not condemned for his famous suicide — a sin normally punished in the seventh circle of Hell — because it was not forbidden by the Stoic morality under which he lived.)

Trajan, the Roman emperor, is in Paradise, though originally he had been consigned to Limbo like any other righteous pagan. Legend has it that Pope Gregory the Great, saddened at the damnation of so great a man, prayed for his soul and was granted this miracle: Trajan, after all those centuries, was raised from the dead. Back in his body, he was once again free to choose Christianity and baptism, and he did so. When he died for the second time, he went to Paradise as a Christian.

Ripheus is hardly a household name, but he makes a brief (two-line) appearance in the Aeneid, where he is described as “first among the Teucrians for justice and observing right.” Virgil, ever the pessimist, dryly adds that “the gods thought otherwise” — apparently unimpressed by his outstanding virtue, they allow him to be cut down like any common soldier in the sack of Troy. But according to Dante (who apparently invented the story himself), one particular God was impressed with Ripheus’s virtue and chose to reward it by granting him, centuries before the birth of Christ, a private revelation of the Christian gospel. Thus, unknown to his contemporaries, Ripheus died in the true Faith. He lived before baptism was available, but faith, hope, and charity took the place of that sacrament for him. In this he is similar to the pre-Christian Hebrews, who are also saved without baptism — and we may presume that, like them, he went first to Limbo and only later, after Christ’s harrowing of Hell, to Purgatory and Paradise.

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Whence “towering infernos”?

The most common sense of inferno in English, when used as a common noun rather than with reference to Dante’s poem, is “large conflagration.” But why? Because of the traditional (and biblical) image of hell-fire, of course — but why is the Italian word inferno, which entered English through Dante, used this way when hell so rarely is? Those who have read Dante’s Inferno know that fire hardly figures in it at all; and of course etymologically inferno simply means “underworld” (related to inferior and infra-). No one would dream of calling a conflagration a “towering underworld.”

Nevertheless, the word inferno is inextricably linked with the idea of a conflagration — so much so that some publishers simply must have a fire on the cover of Dante and aren’t too picky about what kind of fire it is. Here’s the Collins Classics edition:


Notice anything strange about that picture? Why is a horse burning in hell? Because this wasn’t originally meant to be a picture of hell at all. It’s Johann Georg Trautmann’s painting View of the Burning Troy. You will search Dante in vain for anything resembling this scene. But it shows “an inferno” — a conflagration — and was thus deemed appropriate.


My theory is that English-speakers are subconsciously influenced by the phonetic resemblance of inferno to furnace, with perhaps echoes of fire, burn, and incinerate as well.


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Seamless verse: terza rima and a close equivalent

Dante’s Comedy is written in terza rima — that is, a rhyme scheme of aba bcb cdc ded efe … yzy z. One very appealing feature of terza rima is that each tercet is linked by rhyme to both the tercet before and the one after, making it possible to write an entire canto — arbitrarily long — which is one seamless whole, impossible to break into smaller units which can stand alone in terms of rhyme.

Unfortunately, terza rima just isn’t workable in English, at least not for long poems. It requires that every line of the poem rhyme with two other lines, and in a rhyme-poor language like English that is just too stringent a requirement (though of course it works fine in Italian). Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s terza rima translation of Dante has made me even more sure of this. Too many forced and awkward rhymes, too many near-rhyme compromises. Many of the “rhymes” (like rhyming — no joke — here, singular, and far!) don’t even register as rhymes at all unless the reader is actively paying attention to the rhyme scheme, and in the end the effect is simply not that of reading rhymed verse. I know Sayers is operating under the additional constraint of having to write English terza rima which is a translation of Italian terza rima, but I think even writing original verse using this rhyme scheme would be unworkable in English, unless it were very short.

Structurally, terza rima is like a chain, every link of which has the shape of a figure-eight. The easiest way of adapting it to a rhyme-poor language like English, then, is to simplify it to a chain with ordinary circular links, eliminating the need for triple rhymes. I experimented a bit with this scheme when I was a teenager, before I knew anything about Dante, and I called it “snake rhyme” because it could be used to produce an arbitrarily long, indivisible poem.

terza rima

As an experiment, I tried rendering the beginning of the Inferno in “snake rhyme.” The main disadvantage of snake rhyme, as opposed to terza rima, is that every line is separated from its rhyme by two intervening lines, making the rhymes less obvious. I tried to ameliorate this by shortening the lines to four feet each — that makes for 32 syllables per quatrain, very close to Dante’s 33 per tercet. I’m not sure how successful the result is.

I have no intention of finishing this “translation” (if one can even use that word for a version which takes so many liberties, and whose author is ignorant of Italian); it was just an experiment. But I thought I’d share it for what it’s worth.


My life’s long journey halfway through,
I found myself within a wood
So dark my path was lost to view.

How hard it is to speak of how
that forest was — so dark! — and should
I call it back to mind, I know
fresh fear would kindle even now.

Such bitter fear — like death it stings! —
Yet good I found there, too, and so,
That you may understand that good,
I’ll shy not from the darker things.

How came I to be lost so deep
Within that dense and savage wood?
When lost I the true path? Who knows?
I was so very full of sleep.

But, stumbling through that murky maze,
I came to where a mountain rose
Up from that valley thick with vines
and tangled brush. I dared to raise

My eyes and saw its slopes aglow,
Lit by that Planet bright which shines
On all men’s paths and with its light
Directs them in the way to go.

With this my heart began to take
Fresh courage — for throughout the night,
A squirming terror vile and black
Had lurked within my bosom’s lake.

But now, like one who, safe ashore,
Still gasping from the swim, looks back
To see the churning waves which he
Survived — against all odds — once more,

So I, though in my heart still fleeing,
Looked back. I was the first to see
The other side of that dread vale:
None else had lived to do the seeing.

Awhile I rested in that sun,
Then stirred again and moved to scale
The lonely slope, and as I went
My firm foot was the lower one.

There on the lower slopes I spied,
Not far from where the hill’s ascent
Began — a leopard! — lithe of limb
And covered with a spotted hide.

Wherever then I turned my face
Or made to move, I spotted him.
All ways he blocked, till back I turned,
Retreating to my starting place.

But it was spring, and early morn,
And in its native Aries burned
The Sun, with those same stars attendant
It rose with when the world was born,

On that first morning when the Love
Divine first moved those things resplendent,
So that the season and the hour —
And, too, that dappled beast above

Me on the path — seemed cause for hope
but hope, alas, had not the power
To steel me for what happened next:
I saw a lion on the slope!

. . .

(If you want to know what happens next, read Dante.)


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For Dante, hope is the one thing needful.

On the lowest terrace of Ante-Purgatory — that is, the lowest possible level for a soul whose ultimate destiny is salvation — Dante and Virgil meet Manfred of Sicily. According to the (perhaps unjust) accounts by which the poet Dante knew him, Manfred had been a moral monster, excommunicated by the Church and denied Christian burial. Among other enormities, he had allegedly murdered his own father, brother, and two nephews, and attempted the murder of a third nephew. In other words, he would ordinarily have been condemned to the very lowest Circle of Hell, to the realm of Caïna, as one guilty of treachery against his own kin.

Manfred, however, repented at the moment of death — or perhaps it was not even repentance in the usual sense of confession and contrition. He says simply “I gave myself back” (io mi rendei) to God.

After my body had been shattered by
two fatal blows, in tears, I then consigned
myself to Him who willingly forgives.

My sins were ghastly, but the Infinite
Goodness has arms so wide that It accepts
who ever would return, imploring It.

. . .

Despite the Church’s curse, there is no one
so lost that the eternal love cannot
return — as long as hope shows something green.

— Purgatorio iii. 118-23, 133-35 (Mandelbaum trans.)

The choice of words is highly significant: not “as long as he repents” or “as long as he dies with the name of Jesus on his lips” or anything like that, but “as long as hope shows something green” (mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde)Manfred died in the hope of salvation, and it was that — rather than repentance per se — which saved him.

(Contrast Dante’s Manfred with Byron’s character of the same name. The abbot implores the dying Manfred to “Give thy prayers to heaven —  / Pray — albeit in thought, — but die not thus,” but Manfred, having spurned the fiends, spurns God as well. His last words, as the abbot begs him again to make “but yet one prayer,” are “Old man! ’tis not so difficult to die.”)

Manfred, the lowest of the saved, makes an interesting contrast with Virgil and the other virtuous pagans, the highest of the damned. The latter are “punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing” — and, as discussed in my previous post, one possible interpretation is that the “sin” for which the virtuous pagans are punished is also a lack of hope. Lacking the Christian revelation, they hoped for nothing higher than the Elysian Fields, and so that is all they receive. “I am Virgil,” the poet says later, in purgatory, “and I am deprived of Heaven for no fault other than my lack of faith.” Dante certainly seems to be portraying hope as the one deciding factor in the soul’s destiny. With it, even Manfred is salvable; without it, even Virgil is damned. That hope is the key distinction between purgatory and hell — between the suffering which saves and the suffering which does not — is reinforced by the inscription over the gates of hell, ending in the famous line “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”

Having noticed this, I now find an emphasis on hope jumping out at me from many different parts of the Comedy. It is mentioned again and again in the first canto of the Inferno, when Dante confronts the three beasts. The leopard “gave me good cause for hopefulness,” but “hope was hardly able to prevent the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.” Then, when the she-wolf appears, “I abandoned hope of ever climbing up that mountain slope.” And of course every cantica ends in the word “stars” — a traditional symbol of hope.


I am not yet ready to comment on Dante’s ideas regarding hope — I want to go through the whole Comedy again and spend some time digesting it — but I just wanted to point out an aspect of Dante that I had never noticed before.


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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.


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Dante asserts his moral right

I picked up the Collins Classics edition of the Inferno at a secondhand bookstore and tried to find out who the translator was — only to find that he was completely uncredited. The colophon duly credits the author of the preface, the dictionary from which the glossary was adapted, and even the company that did the typesetting, but you will scour the volume in vain for the slightest hint that every word of the text was actually written by a certain H. W. Longfellow.

My search did turn up this rather amusing notice, though.

Dante asserts his moral right

That’s right, Dante Alighieri, who died in 1321 but was apparently far ahead of his time when it came to intellectual property law, asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work. If only Longfellow had thought to do the same!

Consulting another Collins Classics volume, I was even more amused to discover that Homer — you know, the semi-legendary poet who may or may not have lived in or around the 8th century B.C. — asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of the Iliad. He ought to sue Giambattista Vico.

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