In the first five cantos of Dante Alighieri’s Commedia, we are presented with several different interwoven demonstrations of love, all of which can only be understood after comprehending the underlying structures that surround concepts such as punishment, hope, mercy, compassion and pity. For in Dante’s world, every single manifestation of love, whether it be divine, earthly, compassionate, pitiful or just, has its roots deeply buried in a grander theme: God’s Divine Love. In the infinitely complex universe that Dante creates, God’s love is like a light that emanates through every crack, omniscient and ever-lasting. It is possible to say, therefore, that every single manifestation of love that we are able to distinguish and some instances that do not even look like love, do not differ at their very core; as they are just merely different representations of Divine Love.
Throughout Dante’s journey, some instances of love will be more easily identifiable as direct representations of God’s Divine Love than others. For example, in the first two cantos, we start accompanying Dante as he (very humanely) struggles to find courage and hope to start his adventure. No sooner than he exclaims to Virgil; “Poet, you who are my guide, see if the force in me is strong enough before you let me face that rugged pass, (II- 15)” we start hearing the account of how Virgil has come to help Dante, through the calling of Beatrice, and she that of Mary. This instance is perhaps the most important one introducing us to the concept of compassion. As Virgil asserts “I’ll tell you why I came and what I heard when I first felt compassion for your pain, (II- 15)” he also begins to recount the holy chain of events that has led him to assist Dante. It is revealed, the one who truly feels compassion and pity for Dante is Mary; “In Heaven there is a gentle lady,” it is told, “–one who weeps for the distress toward which I send you (II-94).” Mary’s infinite and inexhaustible capacity to feel compassion and pity is passed down upon Beatrice and then consequently to Virgil. This is, of course, a mere and weak shadow of the incredible amount of compassion that God feels for humanity.
After the story is told, Virgil encourages Dante to go forward, claiming that he has not the smallest reason to fall into despair “as long as there are three such blessed women concerned for (him) within the court of Heaven (II- 124).” Dante finally feels light and encouraged to go forward; he is filled with hope. Here is another important introduction of a concept that we will continue to see throughout the text; being without hope is depicted as being as far away from God as possible, and being hopeful is yet another way of feeling a different dimension of His Love. Therefore, at the end of the second canto, we already begin to see how the concepts of hope, compassion and pity, although they do not appear to be so at first glance, are all direct representations God’s Love. The cantos that follow, on the other hand, will challenge us in identifying instances as different manifestations of love; as we are now at the precipice of Hell and will soon be acquainted with the overwhelming concept of punishment. In doing so, however, they will also provide an extraordinary insight into how the medieval mind perceived the ever-changing representations of Love.
As Virgil starts to lead Dante to the gates of Hell, we see the famous lines written on the entrance; “My maker was Divine Authority, Highest Wisdom and the Primal Love, (…) Abandon all hope who enter here (III- 4).” These lines lead us to believe that Hell is constructed most carefully by God; who possesses an insurmountable amount of knowledge about good deeds and bad, who knows that punishing the sinners and rewarding the innocent would certainly be a reassurance for mankind’s inner need for justice; and who has the capability, authority and power to execute this unique vision of punishment –and to a certain extent, love. Furthermore, we see that another connection is again established between hopelessness and being away from God; an argument that will be further supported when Charon, who leads damned souls to their final destination, will utter to them, “Forget your hope of ever seeing Heaven (III-85).”
Dante and Virgil soon arrive at Ante-Hell, where they are faced with souls who “lived without disgrace and without praise (III-34),” these are the souls neither sided with God, nor with his enemies. Accordingly, they are denied of a proper place in the in Dante’s universe; it is as if their lack of involvement while they were alive is keeping them from being involved in the affairs of the after-life as well. They are strangely not in Purgatory or in Heaven, but they are not completely accepted to Hell either. The miserable existences of these souls are important because they remind us of Dante’s famous line “that which I was in life, I am in death (XIV- 51),” which envisions that the punishment that is seen fit for the soul in the after-life is always in accordance with how they behaved on earth; everything moves within a perfect balance.
The description of Hell (and how it came to be), along with this idea of this eternal balance, prepares the reader for what comes next as Dante and Virgil witness Charon transporting willing souls to Hell. “They are eager for the river crossing because celestial justice spurs them on (III-124),” exclaims Virgil; they long for punishment, they desire it. Even though they are going to Hell, to go through perhaps the most unthinkable sufferings, the inclination towards Divine Justice is so strong in them (and consequently in every one), that the punishment they are about to get transforms into an act of love. This, in turn, leads us to believe that the very existence of Hell, is again, a manifestation of God’s Love; as the sinners long to meet their punishment, and the innocent are reassured and validated about their good choices.
Here it is possible to be reminded of Thomas Aquinas’ influential words; “punishment, if deserved, is love” and in Dante’s universe, it indeed is. Even Hell, seemingly the most “ungodly” of places, can only exist by the interference of a truly loving, benevolent, generous and capable God. Because Hell serves as a mechanism of Divine Justice and by extension a blessed act of God; it is possible to see how the medieval individuals were (as we all are) in need of an assurance that the wrongs that go unpunished in the real world will, at the end, be punished indeed. This is perhaps the first hint that sheds light on how the medieval mind perceived the different ways God chose to engulf them with His Love.
This matter will be further clarified, however, as Dante and Virgil will find themselves in the first circle of Hell; here we see the individuals who did not necessarily sin, but were unlucky enough to be born before Christianity. It is possible to see that the punishment they face, to live in constant sorrow without actual torment, is again fitting of their “crime,” or in this case, the lack thereof. “We have no hope and yet we live in longing, (IV- 43)” they assert; as they were unable to reach God in their lifetime, they cannot reunite with Him after their death. This is not, however, an obstacle for them to long for His Love and compassion.
Furthermore, the fourth canto which recounts the fates of such unfortunate souls, echoes all of the different manifestations of Love that we have encountered so far. When Dante and Virgil first face these souls, some of them unbaptized children, and others very important historical figures, both are overcome with compassion and pity; paralleling those of Mary and Beatrice in the first cantos. This is further supported when the story of the Harrowing of Hell is narrated; it is through God’s mercy and compassion that Jesus Christ descends into Hell and carries away the religious figures that came before Christianity. All these instances give us insight about how the medieval mind perceived God to work; it is as if Dante (as a voice from the general consciousness of the time) could not bear to think that figures such as Abel, Noah, Abraham, David and so on, would be destined to dwell in Limbo. There is a narrative choice in Dante’s universe that parallels this story; he speaks of an exalted castle and reveals that the inhabitants are the great intellectuals; Plato, Socrates, Euclid, Avicenna, Empedocles and so many more reside there.
Dante does an extraordinary thing by placing these figures into the blessed castle in Limbo; he revolts –as much as he can- against the timid structure that governs the laws of the after-life. This is not a complete rebellion, however; although he resents the laws that declare where these souls lay, he still feels incredibly obliged to put them there. Dante, in his own way, will continue to renounce the frame of mind that consumed the medieval individual. This is especially apparent in the fifth canto, as Dante and Virgil reach the second layer of Hell (reserved for the lustful souls who committed the sins of the flesh) they encounter famous figures “who departed from (their) lives because of love (V-67).”
This is significant in two fronts; firstly, it shows us, more clearly than anything else has, Dante’s preoccupation with the idea of earthly love. He does not particularly recount the instances as “lustful” events, but presents them in a more compassionate way. This compassion is perhaps most visible when we see that Francesca and Paolo, two lovers, are not separated in the after-life. Unable to give them full happiness, however, Dante still feels obliged to emphasize that even if one is with their loved one, being exempt from God’s love punishment and torture enough. Secondly, when Francesca finishes telling their story to Dante, he is immediately overcome with pity and he faints. This is yet another incident that shows us both Dante’s pity and the restrictedness of the medieval mind; the smallest amount of questioning causes such an alarm in the mind that the body shuts down in order to prevent further damage.
In conclusion, it is possible to say that Dante’s kaleidoscope of a text is filled with different manifestations of love such as; compassion, pity, hope, mercy, punishment and many more. We are able to distinguish some of these instances more easily than others; events that represent compassion, pity and hope, for instance, are scattered through the text and they are more clearly understood as direct representation of the Divine Love that God feels for every living thing. When we are introduced to the concept of punishment, however, we are forced to look at things differently to understand that punishment is only God’s way of reinforcing humanity’s innate need for Divine Justice.
It is at these moments, we begin to see glimpses of how these different instances of love were recognized by the medieval mind. This recognition is further pronounced as Dante keeps moving through the depths of Hell; and we witness how the religious structures that surrounded any individual during the period when the text was written are so internalized that embarking even on the slightest endeavour of examination imprisoned them even more. Dante, however, tries nevertheless –it is through this effort that we are awarded with a text that both defined and surpassed the discourse of its time.
Written for my “Development of Poetry II” class in 23.03.2016.