Dante’s Vision of God

Just finished reading Paradise with my students. As a final project, I had them try to draw Dante’s final vision. Here’s the passage from the end of Paradise and a couple examples of what the students came up with.

Within that brilliant and profoundest Being

of the deep light three rings appeared to me,

three color and one measure in their gleaming:

As rainbow begets rainbow in the sky,

so were the first two, and the third, a flame

that from both rainbows breathed forth equally.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

That circle which appeared–in my poor style–

like a reflected radiance in Thee,

after my eyes had studied it awhile,

Within, and in its own hue,

seemed to be tinted with the figure of a Man,

and so I gazed on it absorbedly.

As a geometer struggles all he can

to measure the circle by the square,

but all his cogitation cannot gain

The principle he lacks: so did I stare

at this strange sight, to make the image fit

the aureole, and see it enter there:

But mine were not the feathers for that flight… (Esolen trans., Paradise 33.115-139)

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Thinking Through Hell: Hate to Die

I’m finally doing something I’ve wanted to do for a while: catalogue scenes in the Inferno where Dante exhibits a physical and/or emotional reaction to the damned. I’m sure someone has already done this somewhere, but I wanted to comb through the text myself. In every instance, either Virgil explicitly comments on the appropriateness of Dante’s reaction, or the narrative description invites reflection on Dante’s view of sin in that particular moment.

Below, I’ve listed the scenes with a brief summary of what happens. At the bottom of the post, I’ll remark briefly on my own conclusions about what I think is going when these scenes are taken together.

Note on the Translation: I used the online text available through the World of Dante website.

I. Canto 5: Paolo and Francesca, circle 2, Lustful

  • Dante: swoons and faints when he hears Francesca tell her story, “so that-because of pity- / I fainted, as if I had met my death. / And then I fell as a dead body falls” (5.140-42).
  • Virgil: No reaction.

II. Canto 6: Ciacco, circle 3, Gluttonous

  • Dante: “Ciacco, your suffering so weights on me that I am forced to weep” (6.58)
  • Virgil: No reaction. Tells Dante that the damned will receive their body again on the day of doom which will perfect their punishment.

III. Canto 7: N/A, circle 4, Avarice

  • Dante: Desires to meet some of the souls in this circle.
  • Virgil: Does not allow Dante to talk with anyone because… “That thought of yours is empty: / the undiscerning life that made them filthy / now renders them unrecognizable” (6.52-54).

IV. Canto 8: Filippo Argenti, circle 5, Wrathful

  • Dante: Insults Filippo (8.37) and then tells Virgil “I am very eager / to see that spirit soused within this broth / before we’ve made our way across the lake” (8.52-54).
  • Virgil: “you shall be satisfied; / to gratify so fine a wish is right” (8.56-57).

V. Canto 10: Farinata, circle 6, Heretics

  • Dante: initially afraid to speak to Farinata; lost in thought after his conversation with Farinata who has told him about the political future of Florence and the nature of a damned soul’s knowledge.
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for cowering at the sound of Farinata’s voice and forces him to speak with him; encourages Dante to remember the words spoken against him by Farinata.

VI. Canto 13: Piero della Vigna, circle 7, Suicides

  • Dante: breaks a twig of a tree that happesn to be Piero; cannot find the words to ask questions of Piero because “so much pity takes my heart” (13.84);
  • Virgil: tells Dante to break one of the branches though it “grieves me deeply” (13.51); encourages Piero to tell Dante his story so that he can refresh his fame (13.53); also takes Dante to the tree ravaged by the souls and hounds racing through the forest.

VII. Canto 14: Capaneus, circle 7, Blasphemers

  • Dante: —
  • Virgil: Rebukes Capaneus and tells Dante that in hell, Capaneus’ true nature is revealed (14.70).

VIII. Canto 15: Brunetto Latini, circle 7, Sodomites

  • Dante: Strongly desires to sit with Brunetto (15.34); remains fond of and grateful for Brunetto (15.82); narration end on a positive description of Brunetto.
  • Virgil: allows Dante to speak at length with Brunetto.

IX. Canto 16: Three Noble Florentines, circle 7, Violent Against God

  • Dante: speaks with them at length and then says, “Your present state had fixed / not scorn but sorrow in me-and so deeply / that it will only disappear slowly…” (16.52-54).
  • Virgil: Tells Dante that these three souls deserve his respect.

X. Canto 19: Pope Nicholas III, circle 8, Simonists

  • Dante: delivers a long invective against Pope Nicholas III
  • Virgil: appears happy with Dante’s rant.

XI. Canto 23: Two Friars, circle 8, Hypocrites

  • Dante: speaks with two friars; begins to respond to their story, “O friars, your misdeeds–” (23.109), but then he cuts it short when he sees Caiaphas crucified to the ground.
  • Virgil: Recommends the friars as sinners for Dante to speak to; he stares at Caiaphas in amazement (23.124).

XII. Canto 26: Ulysses & Diomede, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Dante: desires to speak to the “twin flame” that contains Ulysses and Diomede
  • Virgil: says that Dante’s desire is a worthy request, but forbids him from speaking to them directly–Virgil claims that they would shy away if Dante attempted to speak to them in Italian, so he speaks on Dante’s behalf.

XIII. Canto 27: Guido de Montefeltro, circle 8, Evil Counselors

  • Montefeltro’s story is detailed, but as soon as he’s finished speaking, the narrator simply says that Dante and Virgil walked away. Strange that there’s no description of Dante’s reaction to such a detailed–and sad!–story.

XIV. Canto 30: Master Adam & Sinon, circle 8, Falsifiers

  • Dante: “intent on listening” to two sinners insult each other (30.130)
  • Virgil: reprimands Dante for being so captivated by the scene.

XV. Canto 32: Bocca Degli Abati, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: accidentally stubs his toe on Bocca; asks Bocca to identify himself, and when he refuses, Dante first tries to convince him by offering him fame, but eventually must yank his head back and pull out his hair to force him to respond.
  • Virgil: no response

XVI. Canto 33: Count Ugolino, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: listens to Ugolino’s story; instead of a direct response, the narrative complains that the people Ugolino betrayed should not have punished his sons along with him.
  • Virgil: no response

XVII. Canto 33: Brother Alberigo, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: Alberigo cries out to Dante to hear his complaint; promises to wipe the ice from Alberigo’s eyes if he tells the truth; when Alberigo has finished talking, Dante refuses to fulfill his promise to him because “it was courtesy to show him rudeness” (33.150).
  • Virgil: No response

XVIII. Canto 34: Satan, circle 9, Traitors

  • Dante: when he sees Satan, he says, “I did not die, and I was not alive…I became deprived of life and death” (34.25-27).
  • Virgil: No response

(Brief) Concluding Thoughts

The pattern of Virgil’s responses seem relatively straightforward: Virgil only reproves Dante when he fears or is entertained by the sinners. Anger and pity, however, are allowed and often praised.

One question that often comes up in discussions about the Inferno is why Dante must travel through hell before ascending Purgatory into Heaven. The answer, I think, lies in the pattern of Dante’s behavior that Virgil praises and censures. Dante must learn to hate sin. Hate encompasses a spectrum of responses to sin that range from anger to pity.

Dante must also be bold in facing sin. Cowardice cannot hate. Boldness counter-balances the opening scene where Dante “awoke” in a dark wood. He’d become lazy and fell asleep, no longer vigilant in his fight against sin. The way was lost to him because he didn’t keep up his courage.

The goal of Dante’s journey through hell is to hate sin so much he’d willingly die to it. Dante’s transformation ends in a form of death–i.e., a state of being deprived of “life and death.” This death is different than the kind of death the sinners in hell experience. Sin does not kill Dante. Rather, Dante’s perseverance throughout his journey suggests that he’s resolved to die before he allows sin to chain him in hell. Such a death ultimately liberates Dante and allows him to escape.

Thinking through Hell: Guided by my Students

If hell was a museum, my students could be its docents. They just finished reading Dante’s Inferno, and as they read, they had to draw a chart of hell that illustrated the sin, the punishment, and any major characters Dante meets in each circle.

When I assign any kind of project that requires drawing, I set the standards low. After all, on my best days, I can draw stick figures that barely resemble the human form. I’m learning that I’m in the minority, since most of my students have more artistic ability in their pinky finger than I do in my whole body. Needless to say, the finished products were better than I could have hoped for.

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Not pictured: a pop-up book of hell. Easily one of my favorites.

They’ll do a similar project as we read through Purgatory over the next couple weeks. Pictures to come.