In Dante's Inferno, how are the lustful being punished in the second circle of hell? Why is that punishment appropriate for this sin? Some critics believe that Francesca and Paolo have triumphed, because they are in love and are together for all eternity. Is this interpretation correct? Why or why not?

In Dante's Inferno, the lustful are punished, in the second level of hell, by being cast into a perpetual storm that is emblematic of the nature of lust itself: always raging, never satisfied. The fate of Paolo and Francesca, specifically, could be seen as both a punishment and a reward, depending on the types of arguments one chooses to focus on.

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Dante's Second Circle of Hell (the first after Purgatory) marks the first of the Sins of Incontinence. This refers to sins that are committed by virtue of one not being able to control their sinful impulses. It should immediately strike us that Dante chooses lust as the first (and therefore...

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Dante's Second Circle of Hell (the first after Purgatory) marks the first of the Sins of Incontinence. This refers to sins that are committed by virtue of one not being able to control their sinful impulses. It should immediately strike us that Dante chooses lust as the first (and therefore the least severe) of the major sins, and this is because of the duality inherent to lust: on the one hand, love is required for lust, which is thematically oppositional to Satan's will. But on the other hand, lust occurs when feelings of love cause people to break the commandments of God (i.e., in adultery) due to an inability to control their more base (carnal) desires. Those who choose the fulfillment of their lustful desires above the fulfillment of God's will are therefore punished.

In this way, it could be difficult to argue that love is actually the primary motivating factor in the sin of lust. Instead, the selfish fulfillment of one's own desire (against that of God's) could be supposed to be the primary motivating factor for the act, and this is why lust constitutes a Cardinal Sin. This fundamental duality, however, is important for an understanding of the poetic punishment that Dante illustrates for the sin of lust.

Put simply, Dante envisions this Second Circle of Hell as violent storm, raging back and forth, in perpetuity. This storm serves two poetic purposes. First, the storm represents the act of lust itself, as a force which sweeps the sinner away into an increasingly grave circumstance. We can, in this way, imagine lust as akin to raging winds and churning seas, as these things capture the unsuspecting and take them ever deeper into the heart of the storm. Second, the storm represents the duality of lust in the context of its incommensurate and oppositional parts in constant battle. Love, affection, and connection exist on one end, struggling for eternity against selfishness, desire, and immediate pleasure on the other. Similarly, the nature of lust is itself tumultuous, with passions rising and swelling, under a constant threat of change.

As such, Dante envisions this level of hell as one in a (paradoxical) state of permanent change. Those passionate elements of lust—simultaneously the very best and the very worst parts—are the only things that exist in this level of hell, and the sinners are therefore doomed to churn ceaselessly with all the most intense elements of their passions for all of eternity.

When it comes to the particular case of Francesca and Paolo, one could go in either direction. It is a clever criticism to note that the punishment inherent in this second level of hell might actually work to the advantage of these two lovers, as they are now together for eternity. However, there are some replies to consider as well.

First and foremost, perhaps the most obvious reply is that while it's true that Francesca and Paolo are together for eternity, they are not eternally in love, per se, but are instead eternally in lust. As described above, lust is a state of affairs that never sees resolution, so they would never find satisfaction for their passions. Lust, we must recall, is an impermanent state of affairs that always settles either into incompatibility (the couple breaks up) or compatibility (the couple remains in love). The former is not relevant in this case, and the latter would bring them into grace with God, but there is the rub. Paolo and Francesca cannot come into grace with God (as they have acted against His will) and they cannot settle into love with one another as long as they are in this place where the impermanence and passion of lust are endlessly raging.

On the other hand, it is also arguable that while this may not be ideal within a traditional framework of love, the swells of passion—agony and ecstasy—inherent to lust are themselves among the best parts of our human experience. Their unreasonable passion for one another was the characteristic for which both Paolo and Francesca died, and in this way, we could imagine this second level of hell as something of a reward: a place where what they wanted most in life is theirs for eternity.

There is some thematic support for this notion, because lust's placement as first of the Sins of Incontinence suggests a relatively minor severity for the sin in the eyes of God. It isn't clear, therefore, the extent to which God's will is truly to punish lust to the same extent as other, greater sins; and in this way we can imagine a certain leeway in cases like Paolo and Francesca's. Indeed, the nature of the punishment allows, on a fundamental level, for a certain degree of pleasure. So it is not necessarily against the spirit of the punishment to consider the two lovers being, at least in a sense, content with the result.

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