Lecture Outline

The Living in Hell:
Sacred Signs / Secular Meanings in Dante's Inferno

Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta

what follows is the outline of a lecture delivered by Dr. Fajardo-Acosta at Creighton University on October 31, 2002


"O you possessed of sturdy intellects,
observe the teaching that is hidden here
beneath the veil of verses so obscure" (Inferno, Canto IX, trans. A. Mandelbaum)




Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy)

Trilogy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso

written in the late Middle Ages, c. 1302 -1321

work written while Dante exiled as a consequence of his involvement with a political party that criticized the corruption of the pope

The Divine Comedy is an account of Dante's own journey through the afterlife (hell, purgatory, and heaven)

guidance of the Roman poet Virgil (1st c. BC)

journey inspired by and directed toward Beatrice, the earthly love of Dante's youth

journey toward salvation



our own world as hell:

widespread poverty and disease; children starving to death; masses living in misery; all wealth and power in few hands; terrorism; hate; racism; rampant violence: school shootings, street snipers, glorification of war, weapons of mass destruction; abuse of the environment; greedy corporations cheating consumers, employees, and stock-holders; lying politicians serving private instead of public interests; hypocritical moralists pursuing agendas of hate disguised as religion; dominance of irrationality, ignorance, and superstition

Dante's world a similar hell:

civil and international warfare; vicious political struggles; corrupt popes seeking power and wealth; sale ecclesiastical offices (simony); sale of salvation (indulgences); world of intolerance and persecution of dissenters (Inquisition founded 1231); wholesale murder and pillaging in the name of Christ (Crusades in 11th-13th centuries); religion misunderstood, abused, and manipulated; greed, pride and violence disguised as holiness; prevalence of ignorance, superstition, and fear



Dante: the first Renaissance Christian Humanist

exposure of the evils of his world

challenging of Church dogmas, exposing superstitions

creation of a new Humanist philosophy radically re-interpreting Christianity

giving Christianity a human and earthly meaning centered around the idea of love

demanding the substance of true Christianity in Christian life: love, peace, humility, forgiveness, giving, caring about others, healing the sick, feeding the hungry



crisis of meaning in the Middle Ages, dysfunctional signs, things not what they seemed, deceptive appearances

corruption of the Church and of spiritual, signs and symbols

Dante turns upside down the medieval religious symbols and signs

revolution in meanings

new symbols reversing the meaning of the old ones

Dante's modification and adaptation of traditional four-fold method of interpretation of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274):

LITERAL -- the everyday meaning

MORAL -- educational lessons

ALLEGORICAL -- abstract, intellectual, conceptual symbols

ANAGOGICAL -- the deepest mysteries of the afterlife

Dante's reversal: the anagogical made the literal, the literal the anagogical

overcoming of superstition by exposing it as the most superficial level of meaning

giving new dignity and sacredness to everyday life

the new deepest meaning: earthly love, Beatrice


hell is a place on earth

most notable: the popes in hell (Nicholas III, Boniface VIII, Clement V); the keys of Saint Peter opening the gates of understanding of the new symbolism created by Dante

representation of hell in earthly, sensory, familiar terms, populated by oneself and those one knows

the presence of the living human being in hell (classical motif reinterpreted)

Dante enters hell while alive: "nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" Canto I.1 "in the middle of the road of our life"

Dante enters hell driven by his own sins (symbolized by the lion, the wolf, and the leopard)

concept of contrapasso (sin = punishment), sinning is hell

hell is the state of sin; harming others creates a world that is literally hellish for the sinner himself and for others, a world that is torn apart by hate and violence, a world of suffering and lamentation, a world that is dying

Dante provides an important hint by portraying sinners whose souls are in hell but whose bodies are still alive on earth (Fra Alberigo, Ninth Circle, Canto 33)

defiance of the dogma that hell is forever; Dante denies the truth of the inscription at the gates of hell: "lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate" (Canto III, "abandon all hope you who enter")

Dante enters and exits hell; while there is life there is hope of transformation, stopping sin and getting out of hell

questioning of the dogma that all non-Christians are necessarily in hell: Virgil moves in and out of hell and guides Dante all the way to the top of the mountain of Purgatory

questioning of a dogmatic and inflexible definition of sin: Dante's love and sympathy for several of the souls in hell acts as a form of redemption for them (e.g. Paolo and Francesca in the circle of the lustful, Canto 5; Brunetto Latino in the circle of the sodomites, Seventh Circle, Canto 15)

Dante re-evaluating each sin and each sinner, in many cases forgiving what the Church could not; humanizing the sinner and showing understanding and tolerance of human passions

Dante imitating Christ and his forgiving and redemption of humanity: allusion to legends of Christ entering hell after his death and rescuing a number of souls (Adam and Eve, the prophets, etc.)

Dante's mission is re-redemption of the world by recalling and imitating the love and mercy of Christ



Dante faces his own challenges in hell

Dante's own journey motivated by hate and anger toward his enemies, desire for vengeance

he is in hell for good reasons, not merely as an observer but also as a participant in evil

sin of Dante is most visible at moments when his behavior imitates not Christ's but that of the sinners in hell

very real danger of his staying there forever if he does not overcome his own anger, hate, and vengefulness

symbol in the danger of Medusa turning him to stone at the gates of Dis (Canto IX): Dante covers his eyes with his hands and Virgil covers Dante's hands with his own

Dante then says:

"O you possessed of sturdy intellects,
observe the teaching that is hidden here
beneath the veil of verses so obscure," (Canto IX)

the most serious danger is the failure to do self-examination; need for introspective self-criticism; danger of failing to see one's own faults

problems of Dante seen in his wrath in the circle of the wrathful (Fifth Circle) when he is enraged at the sight of Filippo Argenti, a personal enemy; Dante feels no sympathy for Filippo's tears and suffering and even desires to see him suffer more (Virgil too is caught up in cruelty and desire for vengeance)

problems of Dante especially visible in the Ninth Circle of hell, the frozen, circular lake of ice at the bottom of hell and the residence of Satan

Ninth Circle is symbolic of the ultimate cold-heartedness, lack of feeling for others

Dante feels half-dead as he experiences the cold blast of Lucifer's beating wings

then Dante kicks heads, pulls hair, and abuses the souls embedded in the ice

Dante promises Fra Alberigo to clear the ice from his eyes if he reveals his identity, then goes back on his promise

gravest danger as he becomes treacherous in circle of treachery; Dante ensnared in his own sins and contradictions

at this point Dante is effectively entrapped in hell, his heart frozen, his actions identical with those of the treacherous at the bottom of hell

the only way for him to get out: recognizing the sin in himself, seeing the absurdity of his self-righteousness, forgiving and accepting what he hates the most

only way out: , to look into the spiritual mirror, to embrace the body of Satan

embrace as symbol of forgiveness of sin, need to sympathize with the suffering (the tears) of the greatest sinner

introspection and self-recognition: need to look into the center of the mirror-like surface of the frozen lake; what Dante sees there is just himself

Dante = Satan

that insight and his capacity to forgive set him free


implication of the impossibility of escaping hell while his soul is tainted with anger, hate, vengefulness, and self-righteousness