Wordsdays – Objectivity and Subjectivity in The Inferno

(I went down, down, down, in a burning ring of fire…)

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is a fourteenth-Century poem that details the journey of one man, the pilgrim Dante, who has ‘wandered off from the straight path’, presumably that leading through life to God in Heaven, and his subsequent journey of redemption through the nine circles of Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory, and finally into Heaven. The work is divided into three sections: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven); I’ve only read the first, and these next posts will focus on that work.

One of the most striking themes to emerge from The Inferno is the difference between the indecisiveness of the pilgrim Dante, who represents all men, and the harshness of God, and the fact that punishment is dealt out in Hell based on God’s personal whim, as opposed to the set of doctrines invented by man to rationalise and control belief in God.

The weakness of man’s rationalisation of religion is clear in the numerous religious leaders who are punished in Hell: Pope Anastasius, head of the Church from 496 to 498, is punished in the sixth circle of Hell with the heretics; the fact that he was condemned for allowing the heretic Photinus to take communion reinforces the idea that it is human interpretations of religion, either the papacy or the process of communion, that are flawed.

Throughout the work, the Pilgrim is guided by the poet Virgil, who is representative of reason. Virgil’s choice of words in explaining Anastasuis’ fate is interesting, as ‘Photinus lured [him] away form the straight path’; Virgil does not blame the Pope for his actions, but blames the corruptive influence of one outside of the Church. Here, reason tried to defend the human construct of the infallibility of the Pope, even though he is, literally, burning in Hell’s ‘flaming city’ of Dis.

The objective reasoning of man is further undermined in the selection of historic figures who populate the first circle of Hell, Limbo, where those who have ‘not sinned’, but ‘did not know Baptism’ exist; the violent lives of military leaders  Caesar and Saladin kinda fly in the fact of the Sixth Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill’.

However, religious texts make reference to the idea of ‘lawful killing’, that justified in warfare, for instance; the inflexibility of the Commandments in making this generalised statement suggests that true power of judgement and religious control is derived from another power: God himself.

God’s power is shown to be highly subjective in the poem, with a prominent example being the shade of Vanni Fucci, who, having ‘shaped his fists into figs and raised them high’, an obscene gesture, is attacked by snakes; the fact that Vanni is targeted specifically for his gesture suggests there is almost an element of pride in God’s anger, as He only destroys those who offend Him personally. Furthermore, God’s judgement can be seen to be more brutal than other kinds of punishment; while other sinners in his circle are transformed into snakes, Vanni himself is twisted into ‘so tight a knot … he could not move a muscle’, depriving the shade of freedom and control over himself; at least the hybrid snake-shades could slither wherever they wanted.

Dante goes so far as to call the snakes the Pilgrim’s ‘friends’, suggesting that the personal whims of God are powerful enough to turn the monsters ‘of this dark inferno’ into friends. Also, the division between the friendly snakes and their enemy, Vanni, who must therefore be called unfriendly, suggests a strange objectivity to the divisions within Hell: essentially, God uses subjective judgement to provide objective divisions between people.

This objective division is seen in the structure of Hell, and the poem itself: Hell is divided into nine distinct circles of ever-worsening pain, and The Inferno is split into 34 individual poem, ‘Cantos’, of three-line stanzas. The remaining two works have 33 Cantos each, meaning that The Divine Comedy has, in total, a hundred Cantos of identically-structured stanzas. Perhaps it is merely the work of humanity and reason, the Pilgrim and Virgil, that the infinite pain of Hell and infinite joy of Paradise are rationalised in this way.

The objectivity of mankind is shown specifically in Virgil, who ‘took hold of [the Pilgrim] with both his arms’ and ‘affectionately’, according to translator Mark Musa, carried him on their journey, all for denouncing Pope Nicholas III – ‘You have built yourselves a God of gold and silver!’. Virgil’s loving acceptance of the Pilgrim here is a stark contrast to his dismissiveness towards his pupil, all for conforming to and echoing Virgil’s opinion; while God judges sinners individually in a subjective manner, men will judge each other objectively, based against each individual’s manner of behaviour.

Of course, these differing means of judgement are largely irrelevant; God kinda makes the rules when it comes to the afterlife; Virgil even acknowledges this at the start of the work, telling the Pilgrim that he is unworthy to lead him though Paradise, ruining a potentially, and literally, faith-shattering plot twist.

The Pilgrim’s indecisiveness also contrast to the brutality and harshness of God; in the opening Canto of the work, the Pilgrim says ‘How I entered there I cannot say’, immediately showing his indecision. The fact that he is only comforted with the arrival of Virgil – ‘Have pity on my soul’ – would suggest that humanity is only strong if its is combined with reason; perhaps this results in an objectification of humanity, as our subjective desires and judgements are replaced with more objective ones.

This could link back to God’s initial dismissal of Adam and Eve from Heaven, distancing them God, the ultimate source of subjective power, and forcing them to take up reason as a means to reach judgements. Mankind’s reliance on reason is shown throughout the poem, as the Pilgrim referring to Virgil as ‘master’ and ‘guide’, almost with the same respect one would pay a deity; perhaps mankind has forsaken the subjectivity and cruelness of God for the logic and rationale of reason, a decisions shown to be flawed in Hell itself, where it is God’s whim that weilds true power.

The desire to reach judgements is clear throughout The Inferno, and while mankind falls back on reason and logic, God’s, literally, almighty power in making subjective judgements would suggest that this is the most powerful means of reaching a conclusion. The strength of God and His objectivity is shown further through the contrast between his decisiveness and the weakness and apprehension of the Pilgrim, who even with Virgil, is shown to possess fear and indecision.

‘Wordsdays’ is a weekly series on the Jamespatrickcasey blog, with a terrible name and an unnecessary message in the footer. Every Wednesday, I will attempt to balance the sophistication and complexity of the ideas of some of the world’s most popular pieces of literature, with the bluntness and daft metaphors of my own writing style, while trying to make it vaguely informative and halfway amusing. No prior knowledge of the texts discussed will be needed to read these posts, although a vague knowledge of the word being discusses won’t exactly hurt.


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