Dante Alighieri

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In Dante's version of Hell, who is a character there due to Catholic Church's doctrine and who is there because of Dante's personal vendetta?

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In writing The Divine Comedy, Dante wanted to settle a number of scores with his political enemies as well as make wider theological and metaphysical points. A prime example comes in the shape of Pope Boniface VIII, who is presented by Dante as Public Enemy Number One. The fact that Boniface was actually still alive during the period when the Comedy is set gives you some idea as to how much Dante hated him. Dante's absolutely certain that the Pope is going straight to Hell, and not before long.

When Dante comes across another less than saintly Pope, Nicholas III, the stricken pontiff assumes that the great poet is Boniface, sent down to Hell before his time. As with the rest of the damned, Nicholas can see the future, and so this episode reinforces Dante's conviction that Boniface's greed, ambition, and corruption have bought him a one-way ticket to Hell.

As for Nicholas himself, he's been consigned to Hell for the serious sin of simony, the buying and selling of church offices. During the time of the Renaissance papacy, this was a disturbingly common practice, even though it went against the teachings of the Church. The figure of Pope Nicholas allows Dante to make a political as well as a theological point concerning the corrupt state of the Church in general, and the papacy in particular.

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Ironically, Dante’s guide to Hell, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, resides in the first circle, called Limbo. Along with him Dante places other excellent ancient poets, such as Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Dante makes clear that these men lived virtuous lives, but because they lived before the time of Christ, they were unbaptized.  According to Catholic theology of the Middle Ages, the virtuous unbaptized were unable to obtain Heaven, but instead were relegated to Limbo, where there is no actual punishment but only an eternal sadness to be forever separated from God and Heaven.  The idea was that, even though through no fault of their own they were unbaptized and unaware of God and Christ, upon entering Hell they would receive full knowledge of these things, lending to their sorrow. Through Virgil, Dante is demonstrating a common Catholic belief of his time:

           My good master said to me, "You do not ask

                 what spirits these are.  Now,

                 I want you to know before you go farther

           that they did not sin, but having merit

                 was not enough, for they lacked baptism,

                 which is a portal to that faith you hold."

Dante’s response to Virgil’s speech suggests that he may have balked somewhat at this Catholic concept, as he writes, “Great grief gripped my heart when I heard this.”

However, other people that Dante writes into his Inferno seem to be there for reasons more personal to Dante.  A prime example would be Farinata degli Uberti, a soul he and Virgil speak with in the sixth circle, which is reserved for heretics who exclaimed against the immortality of the soul.  Although Farinata died a year before Dante’s birth, his family was a political enemy of Dante’s family.  In 1260 when Farinata’s party captured control of Florence, Dante’s family was driven out. In The Inferno, Dante describes Farinata as still plagued by twisted hatred, taunting Dante.  Farinata argues, feeling self-justified:

                "Tell me why the people are so fierce

                against my kindred in all their laws."

          Then [Dante] to him, "The slaughter and havoc

                which dyed the Arbia red

                cause such prayers to rise in our temple."

Farinata cannot let go of his bitter, eternal anger, which seems to be part of the souls’ punishments in The Inferno. Dante certainly seems to enjoy putting Farinata in his place, committing him and other heretics to spend eternity in flaming, torturous tombs.  Dante could certainly have created a fictitious figure to demonstrate the heretics, or a person well-recognized by the Church for heresy, but he chose to give an example personally meaningful to himself and his family.  A bit vindictive to mar the name of your enemy by immortalizing him in literary Hell? Quite so!

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