Political and Religious Ambitions: Dante’s Justification of Punishments in the Inferno

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In The Inferno, Dante descends through the nine circles of Hell, encountering increasingly serious sins, most of which are crimes. The levels of Hell can be interpreted as a gradation of crimes, with penalties in proportion to their relative gravity of sin. While crimes are transgressions against human law, Dante’s Christian orthodox ambitions translate the treatment of these seemingly earthly crimes as sins, transgressions against divine law. For the purposes of this paper, the two terms can be used interchangeably because Dante’s perception of crimes on Earth is in parallel to the punishment of those crimes as sins in Hell. For Dante, the most punishable sins are those of betrayal. With a lucid examination of Dante’s political…show more content…
The notion that the sinners Virgil and Dante meet are historical figures tempts readers to interpret Dante’s symbolism in a historical sense. Paul G. Chevigny, for example, argues that Dante’s view on betrayal originates from his ethical concerns in a “political milieu” (Chevigny, 790). For Dante, the most severe crime was the most human, the one that most clearly exhibits the misuse of free will: the betrayal of trust. Dante believes that crimes of betrayal were the most serious not only because they required the most deliberate practice of free will, but also because they did the most damage to the ethical net of obligations in society. As previously mentioned, Dante’s political role in Florence established his ideal of a stable society built among the trust of political leaders and their followers. At the same time, however, the religious function of Dante’s poem must not be neglected. In the opening lines of The Inferno, Dante embarks on a journey and finds himself “in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost” (Inferno, I, 2-3). Dante’s description of the dark wood indicates the lack of God’s light, and thus informs readers of the life he lived in the condition of sin. These opening lines establish the religious context for the poem, as Dante has deviated from “the straight way”, the way to God. Furthermore, Lee H. Yearley contributes to this religious perspective by

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