illustration of a human covered in a starry sky walking from the sky and plains toward a fiery opening to hell

The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri

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What is the relationship between gods and man in Dante's Inferno?

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The relationships that Dante describes between gods and humans can be divided into two broad categories. First, he considers above all the relationship between humans and the Christian God. In addition, he addresses the ways that humans and gods related in classical times, in accordance with his interpretation of Roman beliefs. Because Dante envisions Hell as a location where many non-Christians have been placed, the characters he meets in Hell include ancient Greeks and Romans and, if appropriate, some of their gods; Plutus, as appropriate for the god of the underworld, guards the Fourth Circle.

God as understood by Christians, however, is responsible for assigning the souls of the dead to Hell but does not manifest a physical presence there, for his domain is Heaven (Paradise). To Dante, as a medieval Catholic, human beings—both while living and after death—need guidance and mediation in their encounters with God. Saints and other figures may be these mediators.

Dante, in particular, needs a guide on his voyage through Hell because he does not belong there. Furthermore, he is trying very hard to understand Hell as a Christian who wants to know what becomes of souls after death and as a modern man coming to terms with the fate of those who lived before Christ. Dante, who is not yet dead, has no place in any area of the afterlife. Virgil plays a key role in escorting him through Hell, although his way is blocked as well because his place is Limbo (Canto IV). The complex relationship of pre-Christian people whose souls could have been saved had they known Christ is one of the most complex aspects of Dante’s theology.

Virgil can shed considerable light on his own era, and he can help Dante connect with Christians who will lead him further forward because their virtues enable them to connect with God. The primary representative in this category is Beatrice, who is virtuous in her own regard but derives further goodness from her association with the Virgin Mary. Another intermediary who aids Dante in his journey is the Angel who arrives to open the gates of Dis. While we associate angels with Heaven, Dante suggests that St. Paul looked favorably on his efforts and sent the angel to aid him.

In addition, Christians have the duty to behave in accordance with God’s law; to do otherwise is a sin. Dante’s meticulous elaboration of the just punishment for those who commit each type of sin shows his careful consideration of human responsibility in shaping their own fate. He contrasts eternal damnation with the possibility of salvation for those who succeed in, or make sincere efforts toward, living without sin. He also reviews his own actual and potential sins. Ultimately, each human’s connection to God is a matter of individual choice that will play a considerable part in the fate of their soul.

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