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The Background and Interpretation of Dante s Inferno

The growth of Western Civilization has taken many turns and gone through many phases that have all had an impact on where we are and what we have become today. One of the longer periods that lasted one thousand years was the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were a time of ignorance and fear, where no one was safe on their own and had to depend on a higher institution for survival. The most powerful institution in the Middle Ages was by far the Roman Catholic Church. Following the Middle Ages, Europe begins another age, known as the Renaissance, a period of enlightenment in which the veil that covered the eyes of man during the Middle Ages was lifted and Europe began to see the world in a new light. During the transition between these two periods, Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy was born and died. In the most famous book from this trilogy Inferno, he merged the Christian doctrines of the Middle Ages and the philosophy, mythology and metaphysics of the Ancient Greeks, thus creating a testament to his time.

Dante was born in Florence, Italy in 1265. He was born into a family of lesser nobility and death claimed his mother when he was very young and his father at the age of eighteen. When he was about twenty years old he began to write poetry, most of it dedicated to Beatrice, the love of his life who guides him through Paradiso. Dante was never married to Beatrice, however. Instead she married a wealthy banker and died at the age of twenty-four. Her death encouraged Dante to write his first major work, entitled La Vita Nuova, and dedicated to the memory of his beloved Beatrice.

As Dante got older he became active in the political life of Florence and joined the guild of physicians and apothecaries. The political situation in Florence at the time was not very stable as the city was embarking on its first democracy. There was a huge conflict between the White and Black parties, and Dante sided with the Whites. The Whites at first seized power from the Blacks, but this was not to last. The Blacks ran to Pope Boniface VIII and with his assistance had Dante and six hundred or so of others like him exiled from the city.

When Dante was first exiled he began to study philosophy, theology and poetry in depth. At this time he began to write poetry exalting philosophy. He also wrote treatises on the usage of Italian as a literary language to replace Latin which was the standard up to that point. Dante among the first European authors to use vernacular language to write their works.

Inferno begins with the hero, conveniently named Dante, lost in a dark wood where no light enters. When he tries to get onto the right path a leopard, then a lion, and last a she-wolf get in his path. He manages to get away from the first two, but cannot shake the she-wolf. St. Lucy sees this all from Heaven and begs St. Mary to save Dante. St. Lucy sends Virgil to guide Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven because that was the only path by which they could avoid the she-wolf. Inferno deals only with his journey through hell.

Dante creates a very orderly and straightforward Hell. His views of Hell were strictly based on the ethics and doctrines of the Church at the time. Had they not been based on this, he would have been executed as a heretic and his books banned and subsequently burned. Since there was no literature prior to Inferno that dealt with Hell, there was ample room for interpretation, which he used to the fullest. This is where the mythology and metaphysics of the Ancient Greeks comes into play. Dante fills his Hell with a large number of physical features found in the Ancient Greek version of Hell. For example, Dante describes a river system running through Hell, named Acheron, Styx, Phethlegthon and Cocytus. These are all found in the hells described by Plato, Virgil and Homer.

There is much more to Dante s Hell than a mere tour. He goes into more depth by working it out in accordance of the Divine plan. A book cannot be written in the Middle Ages without fitting it into the divine scheme of things. To get this divine plan across, Dante uses an allegorical approach. Dante uses characters to try and get across moral and ethical views. As he travels through the circles of Hell he stops for a bit and talks to some of the damned souls. Through their speech he attempts to show what not to do in life, so that you may avoid the punishment that befell the damned characters. The characters he choose to profess his moral views were not fictional, far from it in fact. Dante used this opportunity to unleash his bitterness upon those that he believed had done him wrong in life. It seems that the one person that he particularly liked to bring up was Pope Boniface VIII. He was partly responsible for Dante s exile from Florence, and underwent some of the harshest torment in all of Hell. He shows this in the eighth circle of Hell. This is where corrupt clergymen lie. His punishment is to be stuck head first into a flaming hole in the ground which he shares with other indecent and corrupt popes. Dante stops here and speaks to pope Nicholas III. Nicholas mistakes Dante for Boniface, who is to take his place and push him further into the hole. He then says to Dante that Boniface is soon to be damned and rotting away in Hell for his sinfulness.

Symbolism is another one of Dante s unique writing techniques. To illustrate this, we need to look no further than the fifth paragraph of this report, where the first scene is described. When the scene is stripped down leaving only symbolism, it goes something like this: the hero Dante strayed away from the way of God into a mental state devoid of his light. He realizes that he needs to get on to the right pat, but as he tries to get back, carnal sins get into his way, represented by the leopard. He manages to escape from the power of those sins, only to be stopped by the sins of incontinence represented by the lion. Again he manages to escape, but is then confronted by the sins of fraud. He is unable to break free of them so St. Lucy sends Virgil (who represents reason) to guide Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.

The above example clearly shows Dante s use of symbolism in his writing technique. This type of symbolism is displayed throughout the Divine Comedy. Most commonly the symbols that Dante chooses to use are that of Ancient Greek mythology. An example is Minos, who in Greek Mythology was the judge of human souls in the afterlife. Dante places him in the first circle of Hell to judge where the damned are to be placed.

Dante shows a very ironic view of the punishment of the punishments in Hell. In most of the circles the punishment found there is very symbolic of the crime itself. Through this Dante s concept of divine judgement is shown. The damned are forced to face the true nature of their sin, though a bit exaggerated, and painfully endure this for eternity. For example, the punishment for the lustful is that they are destined to be swept and tormented by a harsh wind that blows them around like dry leaves. This punishment is symbolic of the act of lust because people who engage in it allow themselves to be swept away by their sexual pleasures just as easily as the wind sweeps them away for eternity, and punished to endure this forever. In the case of thieves, they run around in a pit filled with venomous snakes. When the snakes bite them their forms turn to ashes then in time they gain their form only be bitten over and over again. The question is though, how does this relate to the act of stealing? A thief steals from people what is rightfully theirs without their permission. The thieves are now placed in the place of the victim, but instead of losing possessions they loose their physical form over and over again.

Dante also tries to follow the Old Testament view of Hell, succumbing to the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth bit, that basically states equal punishment for the crime. An excellent example of this is in the Malebolge for the diviners. These are people who believed that they could see into the future. Some might say that this is a crime hardly worth going to Hell over, but Dante is not one of these. In his view for them to think that they have this ability is arrogant and proud since only God has that ability. Since they spent their lives attempting to look ahead of time, they are sentenced to do the opposite. Their bodies are twisted backwards at the spine and they are forced to walk backwards for eternity.

Inferno, and The Divine Comedy as a whole, is really a summary of all the knowledge man had built up to that point. It contains Aristotle s theory of the celestial spheres, the ethical and moral views of the Church, a combination of the Catholic and Ancient Greek religions, and the political views of the time. Dante manages to pull these together to create a bleak, scary and very intelligent outlook on the afterlife. We can call Dante a Renaissance man but the question is, is that appropriate? He is still bound by the medieval thought, attitude and doctrines that ruled over him for most of his life. Dante should be seen more as a bridge between two changing worlds. His understanding of poetry and allegory still influences writers of our century like T.S. Elliot, and his thought is examined in universities all over the globe to this day.

Some may look to writers like Dante to fill in the blanks we have about our own faith. One might even go as far to take it literally. It is at this point that we begin to loose the message. We must look at Dante s greater scheme of things to try and decipher the whole picture he was trying to paint, rather than looking at only a stroke here and there. Looking solely at Dante s Inferno we see a wrathful and hateful God, which goes against our Christian teachings of an all loving God. The message of Inferno was not to pinpoint evil souls, but to recognize that they put themselves in that position, and that God was only doing what had to be done, giving the reader the message that he should not try to damn himself as they did, but instead to rise to spiritual grace.

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