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Cantos III–IV

Summary Cantos III–IV

The fourth line of the inscription raises another thematic issue, also highly visible throughout Inferno: the notion that God created Hell out of a concern for justice, a desire to see sin punished and virtue rewarded. One immediately notes that the punishments in Dante’s Hell invariably fit the crime, in accordance with a grand sense of ultimate justice. In the Ante-Inferno, the sort of hellish suburb portrayed in Canto III, we receive our first taste of this justice. The souls of those who would not commit to either good or evil in life now must remain at the outermost limit of Hell—closest to Heaven geographically yet undeniably still a part of Hell. Dante’s punishments very often have allegorical significance: the blank banner that the uncommitted souls chase symbolizes the meaninglessness of their activity on Earth (for moral choice is what gives action meaning); because these souls could not be made to act one way or another on Earth, hornets now sting them into action. Throughout the poem, this retributive justice reigns: like the souls of the uncommitted, many of the other souls in Hell are made to act out a grotesque parody of their failures on Earth.

While the punishments suffered by the damned may be “just,” the text nevertheless emphasizes the pity and fear felt by the character Dante (as opposed to the poet himself) when witnessing them. Indeed, this tension is quite deliberate on the part of Dante the poet, who notes the frequent incompatibility of the human tendency to feel sorrow or pity with the relentlessly impersonal objectivity of divine justice. This tension begins to dissipate as the story progresses and the sins presented grow more heinous, for Dante gradually loses his sympathy for these increasingly evil sinners, firmly condemning their crimes as an inexcusable impediment to the fulfillment of God’s will. But many of the most moving and powerful moments in Inferno come when Dante portrays the damned with human sympathy rather than divine impartiality, illustrating the extremity of the moral demands that Christianity makes on human beings, who are invariably fallible.

Through Canto III, the geography and organization of Dante’s Hell generally conforms with medieval Catholic theology, particularly the views voiced by the thirteenth-century religious scholar Thomas Aquinas. As the characters descend into Limbo in Canto IV, however, Dante departs somewhat from these notions. Aquinas held that pagans who lived before Christ and led virtuous lives could have a place in Heaven. As the architect of his own imaginary Hell, however, Dante shows less sympathy, automatically damning those who failed to worship the Christian God, regardless of their virtue. The punishment that Dante creates for them is to know finally about the God of whom they were ignorant while they were alive. Dante seems to insist on administering justice to these figures despite his personal esteem for the great authors of antiquity, especially Virgil. With this display of unbiased judgment, he again emphasizes the immitigable, mechanical objectivity of morality and divine justice.