Political and Religious Ambitions: Dante’s Justification of Punishments in the Inferno

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In The Inferno, Dante descends through the nine circles of Hell, encountering increasingly serious sins, most of which are crimes. The levels of Hell can be interpreted as a gradation of crimes, with penalties in proportion to their relative gravity of sin. While crimes are transgressions against human law, Dante’s Christian orthodox ambitions translate the treatment of these seemingly earthly crimes as sins, transgressions against divine law. For the purposes of this paper, the two terms can be used interchangeably because Dante’s perception of crimes on Earth is in parallel to the punishment of those crimes as sins in Hell. For Dante, the most punishable sins are those of betrayal. With a lucid examination of Dante’s political involvement, it becomes evident that Dante’s political motivations strongly influenced his placement of sinners in Hell. Specifically, Dante’s political motivation is illuminated in the final canto, in which we find the three greatest sinners suffering in Lucifer’s mouth. Brutus and Cassius, political figures who betrayed and murdered Julius Caesar, are placed in the same realm of Hell as Judas, who betrayed Jesus. While some critics view Caesar as a divine figure, others argue that he was purely a human figure of authority and thus, not divine at all. In this paper, I will show that Dante’s treatment of Brutus, Cassius, and Judas demonstrates his equal attention to both religious and political virtues.

To arrive at this conclusion, I will first establish the historical context from which The Inferno was written. After clarifying Dante’s political ambitions in its context, I will present the diverging arguments over Dante’s denunciation for betrayal. Finally, I will dissect the final canto in which Brutus, Cassius, and Judas are simultaneously punished by Lucifer to illustrate Dante’s motivation for his judgment of sin.

Dante stresses justice, as shown by his punishment of sinners on relative levels of Hell for their respective sins. His activity in Florentine politics contributed to his views on justice from a social standpoint. Having served briefly as a magistrate in Florence, Dante’s opinions about sins are highly influenced by the violent uproars that were the driving forces of politics during his time. It is important to note that Florence was undergoing “strife arising out of…such a coexistence, in the same city, between a ‘commune,’ a Guelf Party, a Ghibelline Party and a popolo, all four with their own rectors and their own councils and armed formations… all capable of varying degrees of political activity” (Carter, 343). There was no central government that could unite the separate forces. Opposing parties held contrary views, and the lack of a strong government led to escalated conflicts.

Accordingly, violence became an integral part of the political life: “’violence was the only vehicle for getting the redress of just and urgent grievances…violence had the potential for being a constructive force in politics’” (Carter, 339). For men in Dante’s time, violence gave life its value. In fact, violence was viewed as a universal feature of those in authority. In the divided state of Florence, this meant most figures in politics used violence to make his voice heard. What was rare, then, was steady support of loyal allies who could protect the state against such brutality. Thus, we arrive at Dante’s motivation for his judgment on the sinners: “the most serious crime for Dante was the betrayal of that loyalty” (Carter, 347). Dante, having experienced many political divisions through a first-hand account, aspired for unity under a stable authority. As Dante and Virgil travel through each circle of Hell, they meet several Italian political figures who have displayed less than virtuous political behaviors. These examples demonstrate that Dante’s political background in Florence is responsible for his condemnation of sinners who disrupt his ideal political unity.

Thus, many scholars have...
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