Dante and the Construction of Hell

Dante and the Construction of Hell

Sarah Jenkins

In 1215, following the meeting of the Fourth Lateran Council, it was mandated that European Christians observe the sacrament of confession yearly, and a result, there grew a need to order and organize sin into categories and frameworks that could be used by confessors (Dubois 435). According to Dr. Gian Luca Potestà of the Catholic University of Milano, the “dominant moral system in theology and pastoral practice had been that of the seven capital sins,” which originated in monastic tradition and became prominent under Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century. The seven capital sins include pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. During the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas expanded on the capital sins, while the Franciscan theological school argued that they ought to be replaced with the Decalogue, known popularly as the Ten Commandments. With this conflict over how sin was to best be understood, it is unsurprising that, in the years that followed, systems like that of the seven capital sins were found to have weaknesses. Dante Alighieri found the seven capital sins inadequate as a means of understanding sin, and in The Inferno, he amends and expands upon them, drawing from Aquinas’ tradition, the Franciscan tradition, and the legal system in order to name those sins which he found to be the most serious and condemnable.

Dante did not reject the seven capital sins model of understanding sin in its entirety. He includes four of the seven as circles in his Hell: Lust, Gluttony, Avarice, and Wrath. These four are a part of the earliest and least punishing section of Hell that Dante traverses, the Circles of Incontinence. Of the list of capital sins established by Pope Gregory, Pride, Envy, and Sloth are excluded, perhaps because, unlike the four Dante includes, they are not sins of spontaneous passion. Indeed, this would align with Thomas Aquinas’s notion of an incontinent person being one who “often struggles with vehement, disordered passions” (Butera 135). Dante includes all seven of the capital sins in Purgatorio, but only these four in Inferno, suggesting that those who committed these four sins were uniquely deserving of condemnation, though not to the degree that other residents of Hell are, as Lust, Gluttony, Avarice, and Wrath are the circles where sinners are subjected to the least severe punishments in Dante’s Hell. 

Aquinas, who wrote at length on the capital sins and on sins of incontinence, both contributes to and is challenged by Dante’s Hell. Aquinas refers to spontaneous passions as “antecedent passions,” or passions which precede reason, as opposed to passions which are consequential to reason. According to Giuseppe Butera, the text of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae “very strongly suggests that Aquinas thought no harmony between antecedent passion and reason possible” (139). The antecedent passions of an incontinent person are those over which the person has limited control. Aquinas discusses in Summa Theologiae the idea that sin could be mitigated on account of such a passion, arriving at the conclusion that antecedent passions “cloud a moral agent’s judgement and diminish his freedom” (Butera 145). In Inferno, Dante both supports and questions this conclusion, as incontinent sinners are judged least of those who suffer in Hell, suggesting that Dante believes their passions to be mitigating factors. Francesca’s claim, in the Circle of the Lustful, that she and her extramarital lover “suspected nothing” and were “defeated” by passions aroused while reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, goes unchallenged by Dante (the narrator) and seems to imply a degree of innocence on the part of the lovers (Alighieri 43). Dante himself is overwhelmed by pity upon hearing the story, so much that he faints. However, while Dante might agree that the passions of incontinent sinners lessen the severity of their sin, or that the situation of incontinent sinners provokes empathy, it should not be forgotten that incontinent sinners are still in Hell. Not all those guilty of Lust, Gluttony, Avarice or Wrath are assigned to Hell, as Dante provides circles in Purgatory for them as well, but there are some sinners who sinned on account of antecedent passions who nevertheless have earned eternal places in Hell. The presence of such sins in both Hell and Purgatory suggests a grey area, wherein individuals can commit these sins to different degrees. Other factors, such as the degree to which a sinner regrets their actions or repents, may also determine placement in Dante’s afterlife, as Francesca, for example, does not seem to regret her affair and still considers it a product of “love,” suggesting a lack of repentance on her part. While passion is taken into account, considering the position of the sins of incontinence in Dante’s Hell, it can only shield one so much.

Also of note is the nature of Aquinas’s organization of sin and its relationship to Dante’s Hell. Aquinas’s explanation for what distinguishes a “capital” sin from any other sin is “its tendency to induce other sins” (Sweeney 94). Aquinas manipulates Pope Gregory’s original model of seven capital sins in order to address the sins that it neglects, and in doing so, designates a number of “daughter” sins, or sins that would result from capital sins. Interestingly, many daughter sins are among those in the later circles of Dante’s Hell. Blasphemy, for example, is among the daughter sins of Anger, while fraud, perjury, violence, and treachery are daughter sins of Covetousness, a word which was often substituted for Greed and which is rendered as “the passion of avarice” (Alighieri 55) in The Inferno.

Sinners in Dante’s Hell are assigned to the circle of the most severe sin they committed in life. For example, in killing his wife and brother, Francesca’s husband falls under the criteria for the Circles of Wrath, Violence, and Betrayal. According to Francesca, he is in the Circle of Betrayal. Each of these sins may have caused the next: Francesca’s husband may have been violent due to his anger, and may have committed betrayal in his acts of violence. However, it is the daughter sin, or the sin caused by other sins, that is considered the most serious in Dante’s Hell. Moreover, daughter sins are given more specific emphasis in Dante’s organization of Hell, as they have their own circles, their circles appear in the later, more punishing parts of Hell, and they themselves are broken down into other, smaller circles that expand on the nature of sins like Violence, Fraud, and Betrayal.  Only some of Pope Gregory’s capital sins are even included, suggesting that to Dante, the criteria for a “capital” or noteworthy sin is the severity of the sin, and not its capacity to encourage other sins, as is the case for Aquinas.

Aquinas’s adaptation of Pope Gregory’s seven capital sins exposes areas of inadequacy in the model itself. It seems that Aquinas recognized the sins which Dante emphasized as important: heresy, violence, fraud, and betrayal all appear in Aquinas’s organization as daughter sins. These sins were not addressed specifically among the seven capital sins, but Aquinas does not entirely overlook them. Dante elevates the severity of these sins by noting them in their own right rather than trying to remain within Pope Gregory’s framework, perhaps drawing on other sources and traditions to do so. 

One such tradition on which Dante might have drawn is the Franciscan tradition, the Franciscans being another influential theological school in the late Middle Ages. It has been suggested that Dante joined the Franciscan Order shortly after the death of Beatrice. Paget Toynbee, a Dante scholar, has said that the “hank of cord wrapped around” Dante in Canto XVI, which Dante had brought with him into Hell in order to “take the leopard with the painted flank,” is seen by some as confirmation of Dante’s induction into the Franciscan Order, with “the cord being one of the distinctive marks of the Franciscans” (Toynbee 72). The potential Franciscan influence in Dante’s work is of importance because it was the Franciscans who “began the slow work of replacing [the seven capital sins] with the Ten Commandments” (Potestá 165), indicating their dissatisfaction with this understanding of sin. The Franciscan theological school started re-evaluating the Ten Commandments in the early thirteenth century, but it was in the fourteenth century, when Dante wrote the Inferno, that the Decalogue would be “fully accepted theologically and pastorally” (Potestá 166).

While some of the Ten Commandments are in line with the seven capital sins, others are neglected. For example, “You shalt not covet your neighbor’s house” (New International Version, Ex. 20.17) is addressed in the capital sin of Avarice, but it is difficult to attribute any of the capital sins to “You shall have no other gods before me” (NIV, Ex. 20.3). The latter, along with commandments against the creation or worship of idols and against the misuse of the Lord’s name, is deeply concerned with respect and appropriate behavior towards God. Violations of these commandments earn sinners a position in Lower Hell, past the Gates of Dis and separate from sinners of incontinence, suggesting that Dante views such sins as more serious than those within his Hell that originate among the seven capital sins. The Circle of the Heretics is the sixth circle of Dante’s Hell, and within the seventh, the Circle of the Violent, the lowest tier is reserved for those who committed acts of violence against God, including those guilty of blasphemy.

While Dante is moved to fainting by his empathy for the plight of Paolo and Francesca, he extends no such pity to sinners in the Circle of the Heretics. Rather, his tone in this circle is mocking, and his exchange with the condemned dead comical. Dante encounters Farinata, who was condemned as a heretic for seeking to interfere with the church’s influence during a conflict that pitted him against Dante’s ancestors. While he was the victor in their feud, Dante informs him that Dante’s family “returned to claim their place from every quarter: yours have not learned that art of return so well” (Alighieri 79). That Dante derides the family of a man who is doomed to spend eternity in an open grave is callous, and distinctly different from how he mourned the plight of the Lustful, and though he goes on to say that he wishes Farinata’s family no further ill, hoping that they will “find peace again,” the contrast between the calm, sober manner with which he informs Farinata of his family’s losses and his tormented, swooning performance in the Circle of the Lustful demonstrates Dante’s feeling about the condemnation of sinners in Lower Hell, which is apathetic at best and vindicated at worst.

Farinata’s neighbor, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, then inquires of Dante regarding his son, a friend of Dante’s who is still alive. Dante’s reply refers to Cavalcanti’s son, Guido, in the past tense, with the intention of suggesting that Guido had, at some time in the past, “scorned” someone toward whom Dante and Virgil are travelling (Alighieri 79). Cavalcanti misinterprets this to mean that Guido is dead, falling back into his tomb before Dante can correct him. That Dante as a poet renders this exchange as a somewhat farcical misunderstanding, and that Dante the character is caused no great distress by a father’s anguish, as he was by the emotions of those in the circles of incontinence, is telling in regards to Dante’s attitude toward sinners in Lower Hell.

While other violations of the Ten Commandments do not have circles dedicated to them, Dante does reserve specific punishments for murderers and thieves. Murderers in the Circle of the Violent are punished by centaurs in a boiling river of blood, and thieves in the Circle of Fraud are bitten by snakes and disintegrated. That the punishments in these circles are not uniform, and that specific punishments are designated for these sinners in keeping with their actions in life, suggests that sins which fell within circles designated for broader sins were still of note to Dante, not unlike Aquinas’s daughter sins. The punishments for these sins are in keeping with Dante’s use of contrapasso, as the murderers have violence committed against them by a monster while wading through the blood they have shed, and as thieves have their corporeal form taken from them as they took that which was not theirs. It may be that these sins and their punishments were specified by Dante because of their violation of the Ten Commandments, though it is also possible that Dante saw their significance as criminal acts, the sort of which he would have encountered as a magistrate. Dante subdivides these circles into more specific sins, expanding on them rather than the sins in the early circles, demonstrating that what Aquinas saw as derivatives of the capital sins are in fact categories of sin on their own, complicated and multi-faceted in their own right. 

While Aquinas’s description of the sins that appear in the early circles of Dante’s Hell suggest that some sinners are the victims of uncontrollable passion, the Franciscans who advocated the use of the Decalogue to understand sin were not as compassionate. Duns Scotus, a thirteenth-century Franciscan scholar, wrote of God’s judgment that “God cannot wish to condemn someone unless is it just” and that if someone was condemned by God, it was because that person was “presented to Him as a sinner” (Scotus 155). Scotus wrote extensively of the divine love which God showed to the faithful, and he did not understand God to be cruel. Rather, he believed that if a loving God found a person worthy of condemnation, then that person must truly deserve judgement. While Dante is compassionate to incontinent sinners in agreement with Aquinas’s interpretation, showing them empathy and locating them in the earliest circles of Hell, Dante’s attitude toward sinners whose sins warrant the more severe punishment is more similar to Scotus’s. They receive harsh condemnation and little pity because it is what they, as violators of God’s law, deserve.

Another source which may have influenced which sins Dante felt were worthy of punishment in Hell was his knowledge of and experiences with the legal system. Dante was, for a short time, a magistrate in Florence, and therefore charged with making legal decisions. While God does instruct the faithful in Romans 13 to “be subject to the governing authorities” because “there is no authority except that which God has established” (NIV, Rom. 13.1), crime is not necessarily a sin in its own right. Christians are still to obey God over earthly authority, meaning that sometimes, in order to avoid sin, it is necessary to commit a crime. However, according to Paul Chevigny, who wrote “From Betrayal to Violence: Dante’s Inferno and the Social Construction of Crime,” in the time and place that Dante lived, it was possible for an act to be “criminal partly because it was a sin” (Chevigny 790). The political power wielded by the church and the dominance of Christianity as a religion meant that often, God’s law was the law, and thus “an intentional violation the law of God” (Chevigny 790) was a criminal act. Biblical law and civic law were deeply intertwined, so it should not be surprising that many of the sins mentioned in the Inferno are also criminal acts. What is of interest are the many sins in Dante’s Hell that relate to abuses of political systems—not just those that defy them, but those that manipulate them for their own ends. Flatterers, counterfeiters, grafters, and simonists each have their own ring in the Circle of the Fraudulent. Those who were in power and were able to manipulate political and religious offices are included in Dante’s Hell by name, as is the case for the simonist Pope Nicholas III and flatterer Alessio Interminei, suggesting that he not only believed them to be corrupt but felt that their corruption warranted inclusion in the next-to-last circle of Hell. 

One reason that Dante likely saw such sinners as particularly heinous was because of how different they were from the sinners of incontinence. Chevigny suggests that their crimes were more serious to Dante because “as Dante conceived them, fraud and betrayal were […] the most deliberate, the most calculated” (788). For these sinners, there is no mitigating or redeeming factor in Dante’s mind, and they are thus deserving of the worst punishments. Rather than being exposed to the elements— like the lustful who are battered by wind or the gluttonous who contend with hail, fraudulent sinners are often punished by demons and monsters, as is the case with the seducers, barrators, thieves and sowers of discord. The incontinent also manage to avoid the titular inferno, as punishments involving fire do not appear until after the Gates of Dis. Deliberate sinners, on the other hand, face punishments such as being pelted with fire from above (the violent), bathing in fiery baptismals (simonists), and wearing flames for clothing (fraudulent counselors). For Dante, the most serious and condemnable sins are those which are intentional. By comparison, of the capital sins included by Dante, none are considered to be premeditated or worthy of the harshest punishments.

These severe circles are divided and subdivided into individual criminal acts, each receiving a unique punishment: the Circle of the Violent is divided in three (against others, against self, and against God), the Circle of the Fraudulent is divided in ten (seducers, flatterers, simonists, magicians, barrators, hypocrites, thieves, fraudulent counselors, sowers of discord, and counterfeiters), and the Circle of Betrayal is divided in four (traitors of kin, traitors of country, traitors of guests, and traitors of benefactors). For these circles, Dante is much more specific than in others, and the precision with which each circle is assigned punishment is reminiscent of a judge passing a sentence. He avoids the ambiguity of the seven capital sins by clarifying the various kinds of sin and what the sinners who commit them have earned, addressing each one at a time and acting as judge over the unfortunate inhabitants of his Inferno.

Finally, there is the sin that, to Dante, is most heinous. To him, it is not a “daughter” sin, but rather one which is worthy of both its own circle and the most excruciating punishments in Hell. Chevigny suggests that Dante views betrayal as the most serious sin because it does “the most damage to the ethical net of obligations in society” (Chevigny 790). Justin Steinberg, author of Dante and the Limits of the Law, theorizes that “the animosity and sense of betrayal that suffuses Dante’s writing” (Steinberg 15) is a response to his own mistreatment in the legal system and his resulting exile. Either way, Dante’s placement of betrayal shows his personal conviction that those who abuse people who thought they could be trusted rank among the worst of humanity.

Something of note about the Circle of Betrayal and the sinners that reside within it is that many betrayers are not criminals. In fact, a good number of them were authorities, such as Ruggeri, an archbishop who betrayed his country, and Camiscion de’ Pazzi, a nobleman who betrayed his kin. It is in this circle that Dante challenges the legal and religious authorities that an oversimplified system like that of the seven capital sins neglects. Steinberg notes that Dante’s own guilty verdict, which he contested for the rest of his life, was handed down “in a regular tribunal and through valid procedures” (Steinberg 15). The worst human sinner in the circle, and in all of Hell, Judas Iscariot, was complying with religious officials when he betrayed Jesus. While the church and the government might not have considered all of the inhabitants of this circle criminals or sinners, Dante invokes God’s ultimate judgement, and in doing so gives a name to the sin which he feels has been committed against him, a sin which had no place in Pope Gregory’s hierarchy and appeared as a addendum in Aquinas’s. 

Dante’s meticulously detailed Hell stands in contrast to the uncomplicated seven capital sins and expands upon them by drawing on the traditions and experiences with which the poet was familiar. Dante incorporates the existing amendments and other theological ideas postulated by Thomas Aquinas, including understandings of passion and incontinence, as well as the subdivision of important sins into specific acts. He draws on the Franciscan tradition and the Ten Commandments, including among his priorities respect for the divine that the seven capital sins lacks, and his experiences as both an arbiter and a victim of the legal system, pointing out the abuses of the powerful that are neglected among the capital sins. In doing so, he crafts a depiction of Hell that addresses not only Dante’s own religious beliefs, but also the sins he witnessed and was personally impacted by. It is through The Inferno that Dante is able to articulate the violations committed around and against him, to include them in a more complex, holistic understanding of sin than that of the capital sins, and to assure the reader that the transgressors will receive divine justice.

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