Justice, Power, Love, Intellect: These are the driving forces behind the creation of eternal torment for crimes committed on Earth, according to Dante’s God in The Inferno. At the beginning of Canto III, Ciardi’s summary of the law in Dante’s Hell is described as “the law of symbolic retribution. As they sinned so are they punished” (pg 17). In other words, let the punishment fit the crime. However, what does this say about Dante’s view of God? Is He a vengeful God, giving out harsh punishments to those who chose to resist Him in life? Or, does He give out eternal justice to individuals who failed on Earth?
Somewhere within Dante’s version of Hell one may find the answer, but first it has to be taken into consideration how Hell is set up, how are the sinners are punished, and if it can be interpreted as a fair and just punishment. Then Dante’s God can be understood. Dante’s The Inferno is his own interpretation of the circles of hell. Each of the nine circles of Hell represents a worse sin, and therefore, has its own unique and fitting punishment for the crime committed. There are three different main types of offenses; incontinence, violence, and fraud. These offenses are divided, starting with crimes of passion and ending with crimes of fraud.
The self-centered crimes are in rings one through five, the violent crimes are held in rings six through eight, and ring nine holds the fraudulent criminals. For the most part, the categorized punishments in Hell that Dante assigns are symbolically fair and representative of the sins committed on Earth, given the time period in which the poem was written. However, there are levels within Hell where the punishment doesn’t exactly fit the crime and the crime doesn’t exactly fit the punishment. For example, Limbo exists within the first circle of Hell and is filled with pagans and unbaptized children.
Those who are in this level were never given the chance to learn about God’s love, and since they don’t have a relationship with Him, they’re lost in this realm, punished with the fact that they have no hope in making it to Heaven. Therefore making Limbo one of God’s confusing punishments. Why would a just God punish those who had no other choice? It was not as if they refused His teachings, or, sinned knowing His laws and disobeyed them anyways. What chance does a new born have of knowing of the existence of God, when they barely even know the existence of their own family?
Dante never answers these questions, but instead seems to just except it as so and to move on through the other layers of Hell. Another example would be when Dante and Virgil come across the Sodomites within the seventh circle. The name alone lets you know of their crime, but yet their punishment is not so clear. All we know about the Sodomites is that they must continue moving at all times across sands of fire while even more fire rains down on them from above. Dante doesn’t express why this is their punishment and it makes no sense. Why should they suffer through fire?
Are their bodies being scorched and disfigured because of the way they used their bodies unnaturally on Earth? Or is the fire used to purge them of their sins and guilt? Unfortunately, it’s left up to the imagination to wonder why God would use this method. Going deeper into the context of the poem, there are other ways of determining what kind of God Dante perceives in the creation of this Hell and what that God values most. The division of sinners sets up a hierarchy within the structure of Hell. I then ask myself, how fairly does God punish sinners throughout this hierarchy?
In modern times we tend to believe that the more worse a crime is, the harsher the punishment will be for those who committed it. Apparently this doesn’t appear to be the way it works within God’s Hell. Granted, some circles follow this line of thinking. For example, in circle four the Hoarders’ and Wasters’ souls are forced to forever carry the weight of the useless items they brought onto themselves in life. Also in the eighth circle, which contained the sinners known as the Flatterers, the sinners were forced to live in feces because of all the bullsh*t that came out their mouths while living.
Although this punishment is repulsive, the irony was appropriate. These punishments seem fair enough and they fit the sin. However, this is not true of all sins. For example, the Sowers of Discord within the eight circle. Their eternal punishment is mutilation. They must stand before the devil that guards over their pit and be sliced with a sword. Then carry their severed body parts around the pit and back to the devil, and in time their wounds will have healed again and like before, they are torn apart. This punishment does not seem out of the ordinary, considering the ones that were before it.
If we look further into the ninth circle, it would appear that even though their sins are the worst, their punishment isn’t. For example, in the fourth round of the final circle we find those who were Treacherous to their masters and their punishment is to be forever encased in ice. Granted, some are at odd and twisted angles but, one would think having committed the worst sin would have a much harsher punishment, at least something harsher than what the Sowers of Discord received. All of this leads back to my question: What kind of God is Dante’s God?
He punishes sinners according to their sins, He sets up Hell in a hierarchy, putting those with the least guilt at the top, and those with the most at the bottom. Then He punishes them in a way that doesn’t always seem stick to the hierarchy He set up. However, if you look further into the Inferno, and focus on the words of the souls themselves, it is not hard to see that Dante’s God is in fact a just God, and justly punishes those who sinned on earth. For example, while traveling through the third circle Dante and Virgil are stopped by a glutton lying in his own filth.
He claims that he knows Dante and states that he is Ciacco, of Florence. Throughout his entire conversation with Dante, not once did he say that his punishment is unjust and undeserving. Instead, he merely asks Dante “speak my name to the memory of men” (VI, L86). This simple act is a sign of acceptance and these men understand that they sinned in life, and that they must now pay for it in death. They do not complain or think it is unjust, instead, they take their punishment and continue on. They don’t ask Dante to ease their pain or take them to a higher circle, with a lesser punishment.
No, they simply ask to be remembered by the living, and leave it at that. It may not be easily understood why Dante’s God has created this kind of Hell. It’s, at times, hard to figure out the reasoning behind this particular layout and why each sin is punished the way it is. Also some punishments will forever remain a mystery but, no matter what the answers turn out to be, it is understood by all that God’s reasoning is just and that everyone is where they are supposed to be, receiving the treatment they deserve.