In canto IV of Dante's Inferno, who are the virtuous pagans, and why are they in hell?

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In canto IV of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil encounter Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan in the first circle of Hell. Virgil is at home in this company, having based the Aeneid on the Homeric epics and having been a personal friend of Horace. Later, they see a group...

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In canto IV of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil encounter Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan in the first circle of Hell. Virgil is at home in this company, having based the Aeneid on the Homeric epics and having been a personal friend of Horace. Later, they see a group of philosophers including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca.

The first circle of Hell, sometimes called Limbo, is a solution to one of the most obvious problems in Christian theology. If Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for mankind, and in order to be saved, you must accept his sacrifice, what happens to those who have had no opportunity to do so? This problem is often stated using the example of children who die in infancy, but it is equally applicable to those who lived before Christ or who never heard of him for other reasons. These Virtuous Pagans could not go to heaven, but since they generally lived good lives (and, in the case of those Dante names, great lives) it seems unreasonable that they should be punished in hell. The first circle of Hell represents a compromise. The Virtuous Pagans are not punished and seem to have achieved the sort of afterlife they wanted: discussing philosophy and poetry with other great souls. Dante refers to them with great respect, but uses them to illustrate the indispensability of the Christian faith for those who would enter Paradise, or even Purgatory.

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