Punishments According to Sin: The Catalogue of Evil
The Inferno by Dante is not only a catalogue of evil, it also serves as Dante’s outlet for his political frustrations. Dante creates a Hell where the punishments fit the nature and level of evil of the sin. In cataloguing the punishments this way, Dante shows the reader what he feels is the order of sins, by following strict, doctrinal Christian values. The moral system in The Inferno does not prioritize human happiness or harmony on Earth, but God’s will in Heaven. Along the way Dante uses his descent into Hell to show the sins of his political rivals and those who have transgressed against the state in the past.
Dante creates a correlation between a person’s sin on Earth and the soul’s punishment in Hell. The Lustful, blown about by passion in life, are caught by a raging storm and blown about for eternity. The Wrathful attack each other for the hatred and strife they created while alive. The Gluttonous are forced to eat excrement, because of their lack of control. This simple idea is used to illuminate one of Dante’s major themes: God’s wisdom and perfect justice. In Canto III, the gates of Hell bear an inscription that explicitly states God was moved to create Hell by justice. The reason for Hell is to punish sin, and the punishments illustrate the divine perfection that the sinner violates.
In the beginning of The Inferno, Dante creates tension between God’s justice and his fictional self’s sympathy for the tormented souls. Thus, the poem shows God’s infinite wisdom in punishing the sins of the tormented souls. For Dante to pity the suffering of the damned demonstrates his early lack of understanding. As the story unfolds, Virgil’s comments to Dante cause him to become less inclined towards pity for the sinners. The suitability of God’s punishments is significant in Dante’s moral message and in the structure of Hell. Although these punishments may seem harsh, when the poem is viewed in its entirety it becomes clear that the punishments are designed to form a balance with the sin. The sinners’ punishments are constructed to relate allegorically to the sins they committed while alive. Since the notion of balance shapes God’s chosen punishments, his justice is mechanical, strictly objective, and impersonal; there are no extenuating circumstances in Hell.
The structure of Hell serves to reinforce this relation: as Dante travels deeper into Hell the sins become more evil. At times, this structure may be called into question, such as why he views murder (sixth circle) as less evil than fraud (eighth circle). Thus Dante must consider violence less evil than fraud; fraud is the greater opposition of God’s will. God requires that people treat each other with as much love as he extends to all people. Even though violence is a direct act against God’s love, fraud constitutes a perversion of that love. A fraudulent person proclaims love while knowingly committing sin against it.
Throughout The Inferno, Dante asserts a political belief that church and state should be separate but equal powers on Earth. While the church governs a man’s spirit, the state should govern that man’s actions, thus creating a chaste and obedient person. If Christ is the perfect leader of the spirit and Caesar is the perfect leader of the state, then by showing Lucifer masticating Judas, the ultimate spiritual betrayer, and Cassius and Brutus, the ultimate political betrayers, the final image of the poem clearly shows Dante’s belief that treachery against the church and the state are of equal importance and warrant the betrayers’ placement in the final circle of Hell. While Dante emphasizes the equality of church and state, he also asserts the necessity of separating them. Particularly harsh punishments are given to souls guilty of breaking this separation, such as clerics whom accepted bribes or desired political power. Dante intended his work to speak of spiritual matters more than of political ones, so his inclusion of government in his religious allegory is probably a plea for earthly justice that mirrors God’s perfect justice.
While The Inferno implies the moral arguments of sin and punishment, generally there is little discussion of them. Dante simply declares that evil is evil because it is a direct contradiction of God’s will, and God’s will needs no justification. His journey through evil never really addresses the causes or earthly consequences of evil, but instead is a representation of Dante’s personal spiritual and political beliefs. The Inferno is not philosophically motivated and does not critically evaluate evil, but is used to reinforce Dante’s political opinion and Christian doctrine.
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