The historical importance of Dante’s Inferno

The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri is unutterably crucial to the development of literature and theological thinking. Dante was greatly influenced in his writing by Medieval metaphysics and political events. Even so, Inferno continues to be a very relevant piece of religious literature.

The Inferno describes Dante’s journey into and through hell, with Virgil his guide. The entire Divine Comedy, the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradisio, is about the metaphoric journey through hell, through purgatory and into heaven. It models the spiritual journey throught acknowledgment of sin, repentance and penance for sin, and salvation. Examine the first canto of the Inferno and you find that this symbolism and allegory is intentional.

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

Dante discovers that he has wandered after the narrow and long road to heaven into a life of sin. He once was lost, and now must be found. So the purpose of Inferno is to show Dante the error of his own sin. This is obvious because as he enters the realm of hell, while he looks and asks about the denizens of those first circles of hell, he feels pity for them, and his questions are always framed in a sense of trying to understand what seems cruel. That’s because at the beginning, Dante does not wish to see the own devastating nature of his own sin, his own guilt. He excuses his sin, just as the intemperate lovers did theirs. He has yet to experience the real loathsomeness of his sinfulness. By the ninth circle, Dante is adding as much as he can to the torment of the lost souls, for he has come to understand the vile nature of sin and its horrors. He is ready for the next step: repentance.

Dante’s Inferno has influenced the mind of the medieval, the renaissance and even the modern thinker. Who has not been privy to the statement on the gate into hell: “abandon all hope, you who enter here.” In truth, our vision of hell is much more influenced by Dante than Scripture. Scripture says quite little about gehenna, or hell. Instead, we people our imaginations with the visions from Dante’s work.

In the Robin Williams spectacular, What Dreams May Come, the vision of hell seems very connected to Dante. The plain with heads sticking out of the ground is quite familiar to those who have read of Dante’s punishment for the egoist, or the constant battle of the hateful is recognizable in Dante’s depiction of the punishment of the violent. Dante was the first one to use his imagination to devise a hell in which the punishments suited the crime, unless we see Homer doing something like that with his visions of Tartarus.

The idea of “levels” of hell, and demons who act as some kind of civil servants for torture, comes straight from Dante. Even Milton felt the influence of Dante, as he populates hell with devils and tortures. Modern writers like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce have all gone back to Dante for imagery. Countless artists have gone to these pages for their inspiration.

Dante’s work fell into disrepute during the Enlightenment, only to be discovered by Blake and the metaphysical poets. Today, we can see that even our theological understanding of heaven and hell owes to this man’s work.

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