On Dante’s INFERNO–The Questionable Joys of Passing Judgment

George Anastaplo


            I have, upon returning recently to Dante’s Inferno, been struck by the ferocity of various punishments depicted there. And I have been moved to wonder why I had not been thus repelled before (unless I have simply forgotten). It is not because I have not had occasion to study this poet from time to time.

Thus, one of my 1956 qualifying doctoral essays for the Committee on Social Thought (at the University of Chicago) had been on Dante’s Purgatorio (an essay entitled, “The Great Marshal of the World”). One is hardly likely to study the Purgatorio properly without a lively awareness of what goes on in the Inferno. Should there not be, upon studying the Purgatorio, at least a recollection of how the sins purged there appear in their unrepented forms apparent in the Inferno?

Then there was my 1983 University of Chicago Works of the Mind talk, “Dante as Traveler and as Artist,” about the Inferno itself. I suggested on that occasion (at page 36 in my Christian Heritage version of that talk),

Nothing essential “happens” to any of the dead; there is no unanticipated change – just as, it might be said, no essential change takes place in the movement from the caterpillar to the butterfly. Thus, the punishment of the condemned seems to be forever and unchanging, except perhaps for its perfection, and hence intensification, when souls are reunited with their bodies on the Day of Judgment. Death leads, therefore, to a recognition of what it is that the sinners have “always” suffered because of their sins and of what it is that the virtuous forever merit because of their virtues.

Further on I suggested on that 1983 occasion (recalled at pages 36-37 of my Christian Heritage volume),

Rewards and punishments, it is evident, are related to what the soul has decided to do or to be at the time when it could decide. The soul, it seems, needs to be in a body for it to be able to decide anything that matters…. If nothing truly changes among the dead, what then does Dante observe and report on? Primarily, it can be said, he sees what each sin means… Thus, the Inferno shows us what each sin does to us; the Purgatorio shows us what must be done to each sin to rid ourselves of it…. The Inferno and the Purgatorio, then, both describe – that is, spell out the implications of – various sins, what follows from them if one does not repent and what follows from them (by way of purgation) if one does repent. Thus, the accounts of punishments and purgations are graphic versions of what routinely happens to the sinner, whether he is aware of it or not (and whether or not he “gets away with it”). Those who understand do not need this account. Something like Plato’s Republic, on the consequences to the soul of injustice and other vices, should suffice for them. Those who do not understand need the help of art to set them (or to keep them) straight.


I have, upon recently rereading the Inferno, found it simply appalling. Particularly noteworthy (as I have indicated) is the sustained, even steadily intensified, ferocity of the punishments inflicted. And all this, it is insisted, goes on forever.

For some, one suspects, that all this “goes on forever” may even be reassuring. That is, some can be thus assured that one does not really “get away with” one’s wickedness. Of course, it can be wondered whether the typical reader truly grasps what such a “forever” can mean.

The grim illustration on the front cover of the Robert Pinsky (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) translation of the Inferno is indicative of the ferocity exhibited repeatedly in these thirty-four cantos. A devastated figure is shown impaled on a three-pronged spear. Under him may be seen a head protruding from the ground – that is still another soul also very much in perpetual torment, reflecting one way after another the implications of what G.A. Borgese could, in 1938, regret as “The Wrath of Dante” (with Borgese himself later serving, as an exuberant [and anything but vengeful] “personality”, on the faculty of the University of Chicago where I was privileged to see him in action).


            My return to the Inferno has included a piece of music recently performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A March 1, 2013 program included Tchaikovsky’s setting to music of Dante’s story of Francesca and Paolo.  The Symphony program guide on that occasion (part of which is appended to these remarks) included this reminder of the story drawn on:

In his poem, Dante encounters the hapless Francesca, daughter of Guido I da Polenta, and her lover Paolo, who are together caught up in a whirlwind of souls. Francesca tells Dante the reason for their eternal punishment is that she was actually betrothed to Paolo’s deformed brother, but found herself falling in love with Paolo, both of them being slaughtered by her husband after he discovered them kissing.

Is it  not evident here, as in the Inferno source drawn on, that this illicit love affair is what we could well call “understandable” (something reflected perhaps in Dante’s “swooning” because of this encounter). Is it not also evident that the killer of these not-unattractive lovers is hardly admirable? And yet he is, in effect, an instrument of Divine justice.

Not only that, but this vicious man (whatever may be anticipated for him) remained eligible for a timely redemption if he should thereafter repent for anything he should not have done. His victims, on the other hand, died in their sins – and hence are “forever” beyond redemption. This is the kind of “logic” upon which the Inferno depends and what its author can sometimes even seem to relish.


            The Anglo-American student of Dante may be reminded of the centuries-old standards implicit in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It is there provided, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Anyone nurtured on the moral sensibilities drawn on in the Eighth Amendment is likely to wonder about the appropriateness (and particularly the intensity) of many of the punishments meted out in the Inferno.

Indeed, the standards implicit in the Eighth Amendment have even led during the past half-century to an insistence that capital punishment is itself questionable. This is partly because the death penalty can all too often seem to be allocated in an unreliable manner. That it is rarely resorted to in most of the Western World today is not surprising.

Also ruled out these days, of course, is any systematic reliance by governments on torture. This should be so, it is now widely believed, even when “national security” interests seem to be possibly served by the use of torture. Certainly, it is generally understood (at least in the Western World) that torture should not be used either as a form of punishment or routinely as an aid to investigations.


            And yet, it is reported, at the center of the Inferno (in Canto 18), “I saw new torture [novo tormento], new woes” (p. 143). No effort is made to suggest that torture is not relied on for the sake of an enduring justice. Rather, it is insisted, it makes sense that there should be such a rendering of accounts for eternity, the kind of dreadful rendering seen for example in the depiction of the Last Judgment (the century before Dante) in the sculpture of the Cathedral of St. Lazarus at Autun in Burgundy.

And yet, we can notice, the Classical accounts of Hades recalled here and there in the Commedia by Dante depict far tamer systems of retribution. This is evident, for example, in the “world” drawn on by Virgil, Dante’s masterly guide in the Inferno. It is evident as well in the glimpses of Hades provided by poets as diverse as Homer and Aristophanes.

It can seem obvious to us that complete annihilation of unrepentant sinners would be far more humane (at least for them) than the perpetual punishments depicted. For whose sake, it might be wondered, is such unending torture provided? And, it might also be wondered, is it good for any poet himself who should be “commissioned” to inflict, and thereafter to publicize (if not even to celebrate), such punishments?


Should we dare ask what these grim depictions suggest about the character of the Divine? Is it a Divine that “wants” to be associated with a system which can seem fiendish (if not even devilish)? And where in the accepted Revelation of the day, it might be asked, are such systematic tortures anticipated and justified?

Do alternative accounts of the Divine and Retribution make more sense? If such a system of perpetual punishment as that depicted in the Inferno is implied in a System, should that induce, if not even oblige, us to question the soundness of its  underlying Revelation? In short, what is it reasonable to believe about the Workings of the Divine – and, indeed, it can even be wondered, what did Dante mean by all this if he himself was (as some suspect) not an orthodox Believer?

Consider the relative sensibleness of alternative opinions about “life after death,” opinions that may prove attractive to anyone who finds the prospect of perpetual fiendish punishment simply inhumane (or even as somehow indefensible and hence as really impossible). One alternative opinion familiar to us is associated with conventional Judaism, which does seem to rule out any personal life beyond the grave. Another alternative opinion (quite different, of course, in its “reach”) is the doctrine of Reincarnation found in Hindu thought, which includes the obligation to expiate, in a subsequent life on earth, the misdeeds of any particular journey in the flesh.


            At the very bottom of Dante’s Inferno is, of course, the hideous drama associated with Lucifer. That Lucifer is, in “his” fiendishness, in marked contrast with the Lucifer of, say, John Milton’s Paradise Lost (however devilish even that Lucifer may indeed be). Dante’s Lucifer, we are meant to recall ever after, is a three-headed parody of the Trinity, someone who spends eternity chewing vigorously on the perpetually sentient bodies of the master sinners, Judas Iscariot, Marcus Brutus and Cassius (the notorious betrayers of their respective benefactors, Jesus and Julius Caesar).

We have noticed what the Anglo-American tradition says about “cruel and unusual punishments.” We should notice as well what our tradition says about Brutus. The critical  guidance here for us is provided not by the likes of Dante, but rather by what has been done by Shakespeare — so much so that a participant in “our” Constitutional Ratification Campaign of 1787-1789 can identify himself as “Brutus,” an advocate of a proper liberty.

Is it a matter of chance that the critical Anglo-American characterizations here are obviously far less brutal then their Italian counterparts? Do such differences have political consequences? What is implied, in each of the two systems, about the very nature of the universe?


Of the three parts of the Divine Comedy, far the most “attractive” for most readers is likely to be the Inferno. This can suggest that it is the subject-matter of the Inferno, rather than the poet’s talent, that accounts for its longstanding distinction among the three parts of the Commedia. Did Dante himself anticipate the enduring preeminence of the Inferno?

He seems to assume, here and there in the Paradisio (less so perhaps in the Purgatorio), that what is said by him in the Paradisio would move his audience at least as much as what is said by him in the Inferno. Does this suggest that the typical poet should not be expected truly to know himself? And can he be expected to know what enduring effects his poetry is likely to have?

Is there anywhere in Dante’s work any concern about the effects on the personal character of anyone who “enjoys” the depictions of torments in the Inferno? We can be reminded here of the recognition in Plato’s Republic that even the most gifted poets need steady assessment by rulers who understand what the Common Good calls for. And may not what is called for change from time to time, depending on the circumstances of the day?


Indeed, it may even be wondered whether there are ever times or places that need to be exposed to the kind of accounts of the fiendish punishments provided in the Inferno. A much milder version of appropriate chastisements may be seen in, say, Shakespeare’s Tempest. But all this is done there with a view to decent (or, at least, better behaved) lives by the various characters ever afterwards.

Something of the ferocity depicted in the Inferno may be glimpsed in the revenge longed for by Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But it is evident there that no matter how “understandable” his longing may be, ours is not the kind of world in which such ferocious “fulfillment” is destined to be. Indeed, the kind of world it is (and perhaps should be?) is one in which even the worthy slayer of Macbeth should have so conducted himself that he brought on the slaughter of his own wife and children.

I return, as I prepare to conclude this Essay, to the question with which I opened – the  question of why I had not over decades been repelled as I now am by the ferocity of the punishments repeatedly depicted in the Inferno.  Perhaps what I now find particularly troubling is not simply that there may be such tortures allocated to human beings for eternity. Rather, perhaps, I may be especially disturbed by a recognition of what is revealed in the Inferno not only about the wrathful soul of a gifted poet but also about the character and expectations of those of us who find his and like stories to be somehow appealing, if not even necessary.



Dante, accompanying Virgil’s shade, enters the second circle of hell’s abyss. The air is filled with groans, howls, and cries of despair. Amid the sepulchral darkness, a storm bursts forth and rages. The hellish whirlwind tears along inexhaustible, carrying in its wild swirl the souls of people whose reason was obscured in life by love’s passion. Out of the countless multitudes of whirling human specters, Dante’s attention is especially drawn to the beautiful ghosts of Francesca and Paolo, tossed about in each other’s embrace. Shaken by the vision of the young spirits, which torments his soul, Dante summons them and asks them for what sin they have been subjected to such a terrible punishment.

Francesca’s shade [clarinet solo accompanied by pizzicato strings], flowing with tears, tells her sad story. She loved Paolo, but was married against her will to her beloved’s hateful brother, the hunchbacked, one-eyed, vengeful Rimini. Her forced marriage could not banish Francesca’s tender passion for Paolo. Once, they were reading the tale of Lancelot [English horn over pulsating strings, punctuated with harp flourishes]. “We were alone,” Francesca relates, “and we read, fearing nothing. Often we grew pale and our embarrassed glances met. But one instant destroyed us both [impassioned strings, forte]. When, at last, happy Lancelot takes his first lover’s kiss, he, from whom nothing will separate me, lingering kissed my trembling mouth, and the book, having first revealed to us the secret of love, fell out of our hands!”

At this moment, Francesca’s spouse had unexpectedly entered [horn fanfares] and stabbed her and Paolo. And having told this, Francesca, in the embrace of her Paolo, is again carried off by the ceaseless and wildly disruptive whirlwind. Struck by eternal pity, Dante grows faint, loses consciousness, and falls, as if dead.

These remarks were prepared for a staff meeting of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago, April 6, 2013.They should be included in Volume VIII (Reflections on Crime, Character, and the Constitution) in my projected ten-volume Reflections series (the fifth volume of which was published in 2013).

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