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Friday, February 13, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 4, Virtuous Pagans)

After leaving the Vestibule of Hell where all the agnostics live Dante finds himself in another after worldly chamber.  It’s not exactly Hell, not exactly Heaven.  It’s a sort of twilight world where “there were no wails but just the sounds of sighs rising and trembling through the timeless air.”  What sort of place is this, Dante wonders?  And what sort of people are these?  This is the place called Limbo.  Virgil describes the situation of Limbo’s inhabitants to Dante: “…they have not sinned.  But their great worth alone was not enough, for they did not know Baptism, which is the gateway to the faith you follow…”  There are several key points in this speech.  First of all, Virgil is using a Christian concept (sin) even though he himself is not Christian.  He’s also relaying another concept: effort alone will not get someone into Heaven.  He uses a third Christian concept when he talks about Baptism.  Dante had already gone through the gateway to Hell. Baptism is a similar gateway to Heaven; only instead of abandoning hope (as the gateway to Hell says) Heaven is the fulfillment of Christian hope.

Putting these concepts together Virgil (through Dante as author) has given a very short catechism of the Christian faith.  Sin is the universal disease of humanity.  Good works are not enough to cure that disease.  Baptism is necessary to wash away the stain of sin.  But Virgil lived before Jesus.  So why is he (and the others) in Limbo?  Virgil explains it this way: “if they came before the birth of Christ, they did not worship God the way one should; I myself am a member of this group.  For this defect, and for no other guilt, we here are lost.”  This is a harsh verdict for modern readers.  It was hard for Dante too.  He says “the words I heard weighed heavy on my heart; to think that souls as virtuous as these were suspended in that Limbo, and forever!”  Virgil is his hero and Dante has to report that his hero will not make it to Heaven.  Dante is sentimental but he’s also a devout Catholic and a firm believer in “the teachings of unerring Christian doctrine.” 

Virgil is a pagan.  He hasn’t been baptized and he hasn’t worshipped God the way he should.  Dante has no choice but to leave him in Limbo.  That doesn’t mean nobody ever got out of Limbo.  Virgil goes on to say that “a mighty lord” once came down and “took from us the shade of our first parent.”  That was Adam.  This mighty Lord (Jesus Christ) also took Abel, Noah, Moses, Abram, David, Israel, and Rachel, among others.  However this was a one-time deal.  Virgil says “before these souls were taken, no human soul had ever reached salvation.”  That means great non-Christian poets (Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan) won’t go to Heaven.  Neither will great classical heroes: Electra, Hector, Aeneas, Caesar.  Neither will great philosophers: Aristotle, Socrates, Plato; nor great mathematicians and scientists like Euclid and Ptolemy or physicians such as Hippocrates. 

This doesn’t seem fair.  But that’s not Dante’s point.  We might argue that many so-called “Christians” have been baptized and live bad lives.  Dante would say, yes, there are many bad Christians but they will still go to Heaven if that is God’s will.  Not fair.  Look at those other guys who got out.  Adam disobeyed God; Noah got drunk; David was an adulterer; Israel (Jacob) cheated in business deals.  Dante would argue that we (in the modern world) have a sort of moral/therapeutic do-it-yourself theology.  We think if we’re nice we should get to go to Heaven free; if there is a Heaven.  Dante thinks that’s the kind of delusion that lands souls in either the Vestibule of Hell or in Limbo.     


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