Compassion, Fear and Pity in the Inferno
In the Inferno, Dante responds to the sinners’ torments with fear and compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin root meaning “to suffer with” and Dante often engages in the sinners’ suffering. He cries for the magicians in Canto XX, lamenting that, “tears, down from the [sinner’s] eyes, / bathed the buttocks, running down the cleft. / Of course I wept” (XX, 23-25). His pity for the suicidal renders him speechless as he says, “I cannot [speak], so much pity takes my heart” (XIII, 84). Dante deeply empathizes with Francesca and Paolo’s love story writing, “while one spirit [Francesca] said these words to me, / the other [Paolo] wept, so that – because of pity – / I fainted, as if I had met my death” (V, 139-41). In Dante’s reactions to the sinners’ plights, we observe him literally feel and participate in their pain. By pitying the suffering, Dante forgets that the sinner’s punishment is self-procured. His compassion seems to question the morality of God’s judgment.
Canto II opens with Dante remembering, “I myself / alone prepared to undergo the battle / both of the journey and of the pity” (II, 3-5). This introduction isolates pity as a complex emotion that Dante will unpack on his pilgrimage through hell. In fact, pity is the reason Dante is able to experience hell while still alive. When Virgil loses the true path and finds himself lost in the dark woods, Beatrice (Dante’s former love) pities him and asks Virgil to guide him through the underworld. Virgil recalls that after requesting his service, “she [Beatrice] turned aside her gleaming, tearful eyes” (II, 116). Just as Beatrice’s pity elicits an emotional response, Dante begins the Inferno allowing compassion to confuse his emotions.
Dante’s compassion becomes especially problematic in Canto XV when he recognizes Brunetto Latino, a fellow Florentine. Eager to converse with the sinner, Dante writes “I walked with head bent low / as does a man who goes in reverence” (XV, 43-44). This gesture of respect signals a shift in Dante’s moral compass. Contrary to religious doctrine, he seems to admire or revere a sodomite. Dante proceeds to challenge God’s punishment for Brunetto declaring, “If my desire were answered totally, / you’d still be / among, not banished from, humanity” (XV, 79-81). Dante is quick to express pity without acknowledging the nature of Brunetto’s sin.
Conversely, Virgil displays restrained pity when Dante worries that his face is flushed with fear. Virgil explains his pale complexion by justifying that, “The anguish of the people / whose place is here below, has touched my face / with the compassion you mistake for fear” (IV, 19-21). Virgil pities the classical poets and scholars condemned to an eternity of Limbo. However, Virgil’s speech goes on to reveal that, unlike Dante, his compassion is measured. He acknowledges that pity is inferior to faith saying, “They [the poets] did not worship God in fitting ways” (IV, 38). Virgil represents human reason and endorses God’s justice. Later in the poem, Dante’s tears for the Eighth Circle sinners are met with admonishment. Virgil reprimands him saying, “Are you as foolish as the rest? / Here pity only lives when it is dead: / for who can be more impious than he / who links God’s judgment to passivity?”(XX, 27-30) Virgil is encouraging Dante to abhor sin and not pity the justice meted out to sinners.
The deeper Dante proceeds into hell, the less the agonies of the damned affect him. In Canto XXXII a sinner refuses to identify himself and Dante threatens him warning, “You’ll have to name yourself to me or else / you won’t have even one hair left up there” (XXXII, 98-99). The sinner remains obstinate and Dante carries through with the threat remembering that “I had plucked from him more than one tuft / while he was barking and his eyes stared down” (XXXII, 104-105). This is a dramatic contrast to the Dante of earlier Cantos. We see him inflicting pain rather than responding to a sinner’s suffering. In this scenario Dante exerts a God-like authority, recognizing the sinner as a Florentine traitor and punishing his malicious deeds. This encounter marks a moral transformation within Dante’s character. He is seen not only condoning, but exercising the harsh retribution practices consistent with God’s justice.
Dante’s responses seem to conjoin fear and compassion with personal sin. His experiences in hell use God’s judgment as a basis for his own salvation. There is an association between those suffering and Dante’s moral conduct. In Canto V he reacts to Francesca and Paolo’s tragedy saying, “because of pity – / I fainted as if I had met my death” (V, 140-141). Equating his faint with death implies that Dante pities the lovers because he fears a common fate. He is tormented by the possibility of committing sin and burning in hell for eternity. As a result of this trepidation, Dante initially expresses forgiveness toward sinners. He remarks, “Pity / seized me, and I was like a man astray” (V, 71-72). In this phrase, Dante recognizes pity has obscured his judgment, yet it is not until the end of the poem that he learns to reconcile his sympathies with the harsh violence of God’s justice.
Dante’s spiritual journey is underscored by an innate desire for redemption and religious understanding. Overall, he journeys through hell to understand God’s moral judgment and develop a stronger moral compass of his own. His transformation from pitiful observer to punitive authoritarian, is important because he must achieve a stringent moral standard before journeying to heaven. The Inferno is only the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Purgatoria and Paradiso, he continues the journey, developing a stronger sense of sin and redemption; pity and compassion.
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In the Inferno, Dante responds to the sinners’ torments with fear and compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin root meaning “to suffer with” and Dante often engages in the sinners’ […]