Dante’s use of allegory in the Inferno greatly varies from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in purpose, symbolism, characters and mentors, and in attitude toward the world. An analysis of each of these elements in both allegories will provide an interesting comparison. Dante uses allegory to relate the sinner’s punishment to his sin, while Plato uses allegory to discuss ignorance and knowledge. Dante’s Inferno describes the descent through Hell from the upper level of the opportunists to the most evil, the treacherous, on the lowest level.
His allegorical poem describes a hierarchy of evil. Conversely, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” describes the ascent from ignorance to knowledge, as one prisoner is freed to make his way up towards the opening of the cave and experiences sunlight, the unavoidable truth. Symbolism is an essential element of both works. In Plato’s allegory symbols are used to represent truth, ignorance, society and the fear of change. Truth is represented by the sun, while ignorance is represented by the cave, its limited vision and darkness within.
The prisoners represent ignorant members of society who are content to believe that what they see is all that exists. Fear of change is represented by the prisoners angry reaction towards the freed, enlightened prisoner. Dante’s Inferno is a detailed description of sin and its relationship to degrees of punishment. As stated in the text, “…for the face was reversed on the neck, and they came on backwards, staring backwards at their loins for to look before them was forbidden.” This quote describes the punishment for fortunetellers. In life the fortunetellers foresaw the future. In death they are doomed to exist with their heads on backwards and their eyes overflowing with tears so that not only could they not see what was happening in front of them, but they could not see at all due to these copious amounts of tears. Similarly, each sin had its own logical punishment, and each group of sinners received the same punishment, with only a few exceptions. Such an exception can be found in Canto XXlll when Caiaphas lies crucified on the floor while the other hypocrites walk around him in circles. He is set apart because he counseled Roman to crucify Jesus. While the sinners represent man’s imperfections, Virgil symbolizes human reason. Throughout the poem, Virgil uses logic and reason to convince the monsters to allow him to gain passage to the various circles of Hell. The use of characters and mentors is distinct in each piece. “The Allegory of the Cave” presents few characters, and except for the one prisoner who ascends from the cave, none are distinguished from the others. The one freed prisoner attempts to become a mentor to the others but fails. As he tries to enlighten the remaining prisoners he is received with anger and threats. Nothing is learned about the characters as individuals. They remain nameless, faceless images. In contrast, there are numerous characters in the Inferno. The sinners are arranged in a hierarchy. In each group of sinners, Dante distinguishes a few characters. Virgil acts as Dante’s mentor and guide, leading him through the intricate levels of Hell. Although Virgil is Dante’s mentor, Dante, himself, acts as a mentor for some of the souls in Hell. He informs them as to what is happening in the land of the living. The sinners also function as mentors by telling Dante about themselves, their sins and about Hell. In the following passage Dante asks Farinata to tell him about Tegghiacio: “… still let me urge you on to speak a little further and instruct me: Farinata and Tegghiacio, men of good blood….” While the cave dwellers in the “Allegory of the Cave” have no interest beyond what they see, the sinners have experienced life outside of Hell, and are curious about it. Plato and Dante criticize the world from different perspectives. Plato criticizes the world from a sociological point of view, while Dante criticizes it from a religious perspective. Plato implies that members of society are myopic in their views. They do not want what they have come to know and believe, to be proven false. They believe that what they see is all that there is to reality. They hold on to their beliefs, as if with chains, and react with anger if their belief system is threatened. This concept is demonstrated in the “Allegory of the Cave” where it states: “What do you think he would say if someone told him that what he had formerly seen was meaningless illusion”. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante specifically criticizes believers of Judaism and Islam. Dante criticizes these religions because of his loyalty to Christianity. An example of his contempt towards Islam is when Dante meets Mohammed and gruesomely describes him: “Between his legs all of his red guts hung with the heart, the lungs, the liver, the gall bladder, and the shriveled sac that passes shit to the bung. In essence, while each author uses allegory to deliver his message, the elements of purpose, descent/ascent, characters and mentors, and views of the world are separate and distinct in each piece. Plato’s purpose is to discuss human ignorance, while Dante is exploring human sins. Plato’s characters are nameless and faceless, while Dante’s are individually described. Finally, Plato perspective is sociological, while Dante’s is religious.
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