What is Virgil's advice to Dante as spoken at the gate of Hell?
In Canto III of the Inferno, Virgil leads Dante to the gate of Hell, where they read the infamous inscription sometimes translated as “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” Dante comments that the inscription, which also warns them that they are about to pass into a place where God punishes lost souls with eternal torment, is a bit intimidating. Virgil then advises Dante to leave behind any doubts or fears he has about what he is about to see. If he is to learn from this journey, he must have faith and accept the suffering he observes as divine justice. Virgil offers Dante his hand, which Dante finds reassuring, and the two pass through the gate and into Hell.
In canto III of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil reach the gate of hell. Dante is absolutely terrified. This is for good reason, too. He can hardly see a thing, but he can hear a lot; he hears a hideous cacophony of groans, screams, and cries emanating from the swarm of sinners within. No wonder he starts crying.
The fabled inscription above the gate ends with the infamous words:
ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE.
It is fair to say that Dante needs a bit of moral support at this moment—and what better person to provide it than noble Virgil, wisest of all the pagans. However, Virgil is not there to hold Dante's hand; he will guide him, but ultimately, it must be Dante who digs deep to find the courage within himself to continue on his perilous journey:
Here you must give up all irresolution;
All cowardice must here be put to death.
This is not so much advice as a stern, fatherly imperative. Dante must be big, brave and confront his demons, both internal and external. However, Virgil's softer side soon comes to the fore. He puts his hand on Dante's hand and smiles as they press ahead.
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In Dante's classic, The Divine Comedy, there are three parts to the entire work: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise.
The question at hand is answered in Inferno, Canto 3. As Dante and Virgil, his guide on this fearfully wonderful quest, arrive at Hell they discover a gate on which is written -
"To enter through the lost city, go through me. Through me you go to meet a suffering unceasing and eternal. You will be with people who, through me, lost everything. My maker, moved by justice, lives above. Through Him, The Holy Power, I was made - made by the height of wisdom and of first love, whose laws all those in here once disobeyed. From now on every day feels like your last forever, let that be your greatest fear. Your future now is to forget the past. Forget your hopes, they were what brought you here."
These lines introduce several ideas, such as the fact that this place was not created by the Devil but by God, not for the purposes of evil but because He was "moved by justice" and "the height of wisdom." Regrets and sorrows, which are perhaps our greatest fears in life, are revealed to be what haunts us after death.
As they prepare to enter through the gate so that their quest may continue, Virgil does indeed have advice for his companion:
"Here you must renounce your slightest doubt and kill your every weakness. Leave behind all thoughts of safety first or be shut out..."
In pursuing the journey on which Dante finds himself, he must believe. He must be willing to put first and foremost a trust in God that what he is about to see is right, and he must overcome the natural tendency to put yourself first: a task that few are able to accomplish.
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N.B The below text comes from the 2003 translation by Robert and Jean Hollander.
We know from the first lines of Canto 1 (“Midway through the journey of our life/I came to myself in a dark wood/for the straight way was lost”) that the Poet is in a difficult place in his life, questioning both himself and his faith. So from this perspective such lines as
Through me the way to everlasting pain
Through me the way among the lost.
Would encourage such dark thoughts as; “I'm lost. Does that mean I am eternally damned as well?”
So when the poet turns to Virgil and says “Master, their meaning is hard.” he is not asking Virgil to interpret their meaning, or for advice, but reassurance.
The first few lines of Virgil's reply are
Here you must banish all distrust,
here must all cowardice be slain.
Here I think Virgil is turning the poet's attention to the part of the inscription that says “Justice moved away my maker on high.” In other words, the people that God has sent to hell are the people that didn't follow the laws he had set out. Virgil, however, knows the poet is a good person because, as we know from the first two cantos, divine forces have sent Virgil to guide the poet to safety. In this regard Virgil is merely reminding the poet that he will only fail if he abandons his faith.
Such words are still hard for a living person to comprehend and so Virgil changes tact and continues in a plainer fashion;
We have come to where I said
You would see the miserable sinners
Who have lost the good of the intellect
Firstly, I think, these words serve to reassure the poet that Virgil is trustworthy and has so far done everything he said he would. Secondly, they remind the poet that unlike the sinners his intellect is intact and thus he still has the opportunity to make the decisions that will lead to his salvation.
Virgil doesn't say a lot here, but he doesn't have to. He's is just summarising what he had told the poet in greater detail canto II. For example in canto II he says; “Why are you not more spirited and sure/when three such blessed ladies/care for you in Heaven's court.”
In the end though it is Virgil's actions that have the most impact;
And after he had put his hand on mine
With a reassuring look that gave me comfort
He led me toward things unknown to man.