A Map of Dante's Inferno in Three Touchstones

Introduction and a Map of the Inferno

“It is now customary to speak of Dante as the Catholic poet, even as Milton is called the Protestant poet,” lamented Harold Bloom nearly four decades ago; in consequence, readers “seem to have learned to read Dante precisely as they would read theology.”[1] Rightly resistant to the reduction of Dante’s poetry to a theological gloss, Bloom characterizes the poet as “a sect of one, not as pilgrim, but prophetic poet.”[2] He enlisted on his side the great scholar of the Latin Middle Ages, Ernst Robert Curtius, and through him the authority of the great neo-Thomist, Etienne Gilson, to “rid us of the mistaken idea that Dante was a Thomist.”[3]

To claim Dante as a Catholic poet, as the greatest poet of Christendom, is a very different thing, however, from reducing his work to theology or claiming that what he set down in verse is a mere expression of what Aquinas dictated in prose. Bloom was fond of speaking of “strong poets,” those who overcame the domination of their influences to speak with an original “prophetic” voice. I would go further and say (though it would not be my first choice of words) that aesthetic form in general is “strong” enough to bear multiple, irreconcilable levels of significance within itself. That is the chief reason works of art cannot be reduced to one or any of the forms of meaning they contain.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is certainly a sufficiently strong poem to absorb and contain in itself multiple possible interpretations: the visionary poem, the national poem, the Catholic poem; but also the secular poem or, as we find in several contemporary Italian critics of the poet, the cobbled-together, incoherent poem expressive of the ever-shifting state of Dante’s fortunes in medieval Italian politics.[4] All these accounts of the poem have something to say for them, but some will inevitably prove more satisfactory than others.

When we try to form a vision of something so vast in scope as Dante’s epic, where seeing the whole in a single glance is impossible, we necessarily fall back upon choosing a selection of images that stand in for and are expressive of that whole.[5] We look, in Matthew Arnold’s language, for “touchstones” that allow us a comprehensive vision that could never find complete definition in words.[6] When we choose among possible interpretations of a work of art, we are often choosing between distinct sets of touchstones and trying to determine which such set best conveys an impression of the meaning of the whole.

It has always seemed to me that Dante’s epic is best understood as the great poem of the Catholic religion. Such an interpretation does not exclude all others, but it does surpass them. In order to explain this account of the poem as against that of Bloom’s Dante, the poetic visionary, or the recent Italian critical effort to dissolve Dante into the bric-a-brac of historical events, I want to provide a map of Dante. By this, I mean a series of touchstones that serve as coordinates to a vision of the whole.

I allowed myself three touchstones for each of the three canticles; I chose them based on the modest criterion that resulted from asking myself, which moments in the poem have shaped my vision of the whole such that I view Dante as the greatest of Catholic poets? And which moments express the meaning of his Catholic vision? The test of the validity of this map will be, I presume, whether the individual reader finds the sum collection of these individual touchstones helpful for better understanding the poem, that is, as in some sense informing by their significance the view we take of the whole. They are, in brief, nine points on a map of Dante that cast his epic in the light of a great Catholic poem. In the first part of this essay, I shall offer just the first three coordinates, which give us a map of the Inferno.

Inferno I: The Sins of the Three Beasts

In the first Canto of the Inferno, Dante comes to himself, lost in a dark wood. Anxious to escape his circumstances by ascending in the direction of the sun, he finds his path blocked by the appearance of three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Interpreting this first scene allegorically does not prove difficult. Dante is lost in sin and wishes to escape from sin to virtue, but three sins specifically beset him: lust, in the form of the “very quick and lithe” leopard; pride in the form of the lion with “His head held high”; and avarice as figured in the she-wolf who “seemed / to carry every craving in her leanness.”[7]

That the verses cry out for allegorical or spiritual interpretation is itself remarkable and something we shall consider further as part of the second touchtone in the Purgatorio, but even more striking at this early moment in the poem are the specific sins Dante chooses to allegorize. In Saint Augustine’s Confessions, the three categories of sin that the author explores and from which he seeks redemption in Christ are those of pride, lust, and curiosity.

Augustine depicts human beings as creatures finding themselves already existing in the world and already extending themselves out into the world by way of their desires, but as not yet knowledgeable as to what it means to exist or desire. Thus, he discovers, the desire of the heart that is love, which is restless until it rests in the God who is Love Itself, often becomes wayward, seeking after the sensuous satisfactions of lesser goods. This is the sin of lust. The mind’s proper and virtuous desire of studiositas, the desire to know the truth that is Christ the Logos and source of all things, often miscarries and falls into the sin of curiositas, a kind of lustfulness of the intellect (the eyes of the soul). And, third, our desire to know and love ourselves properly, which we can do only faith, in first knowing and loving God as our Creator and thereby coming to know ourselves as creatures, often becomes deformed. We deceive ourselves into believing that we ourselves are the source of our own existence and the end or fulfillment of our own desires. This is the sin of pride.

Augustine arrived at this brilliant, Trinitarian vision of virtue and sin through reflection on Saint John’s admonition: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.”[8] We see that Dante observes this trinity of sins but makes a crucial alteration to it as well. Saints John and Augustine give the sins as lust, pride, and curiosity. Dante opens his poem with representations of lust, pride, and avarice.

This tells us a great deal about Dante’s perception of his times. At many points over the course of the poem, Dante turns to look upon those times and condemn them because of the regnant corruption of Church and state alike, all of which is driven by avarice, a lust to acquire temporal goods, even though it violate the Church’s spiritual role and exacerbate the disintegration of the political order. Dante desires the world to be well ordered under the authority of the spiritual empire of the Church of Rome and the temporal regime of the Empire of Rome, but both these orders have been shattered by greed. Curiosity therefore gives place to avarice as the third besetting sin of the age.

Dante had only to look about him to see avarice as a sin wreaking havoc in the world. But he may also have had a positive reason for dropping curiosity from the three besetting sins. The poem does, to be sure, have at its center the proper and misdirected use of the mind, which correspond to Augustine’s studiositas and curiositas. Indeed, on Dante’s first vision of the damned, Virgil describes them as “those who have lost the good of the intellect.”[9] Further, as we shall see in the Purgatorio, Dante comes to recognize that the use of reason in philosophy must be disciplined, transcended, and corrected by faith and theology, and so the sin of curiosity clearly figures and importantly so in the poem. But from the Vita Nuova forward, Dante esteemed philosophy and humane learning more generally.

The poem itself promiscuously gathers together the learning of classical Greece and Rome along with that of Christendom. He shows, as we shall see in a moment, admiration for it all. In this the poem expresses one of the virtues of his age, the age of the great medieval universities and the beginnings of modern humanism, where a renewal of the life of the mind was taking place. Rightly directing the intellect therefore was central to Dante’s vision of the world, but he may have seen his age as flourishing intellectually even as it was falling apart politically. Curiosity seemed less of a danger, avarice the greater.

Inferno II: Liberal Arts and Elysian Fields

Dante’s appreciation for the great treasury of medieval learning (and even of that classical learning it did not possess!) appears more directly in his depiction of Limbo. There, following closely Virgil’s description of the underworld in Aeneid VI, Dante and Virgil visit the Elysian Fields, where Dante sees the seven doors to wisdom, representing the seven liberal arts.[10] He encounters Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan who, with Virgil, constitute a “splendid school.”[11] Dante, as a poet, tells us just how great his poem is destined to be judged, when he observes that he “was sixth among such intellects.”[12]

Within the seven portals, he sees the “philosophic family” that includes Aristotle preeminent among them: “the master of the men who know.”[13] Dante stands among the great poets but also among the great philosophers, and rightly so, for, from the beginning of his career, his ambition was to be the great philosophical poet of love, and in becoming this, the Comedy shows us, he would also become the greatest of Christian poets.

When they first arrive upon this scene, something painful happens, however. Virgil’s face darkens and he confesses that all those dwelling here, himself included, “lacked baptism, / the portal of the faith” and “For these defects, and for no other evil” are punished to “have no hope and yet we live in longing.”[14] Natural reason, philosophic knowledge, is not sufficient for salvation, Dante learns, and is seized by sorrow to think that “estimable men” should forever be left outside the portal of salvation.[15] But there is an instructive irony here.

Dante’s guide to this portion of hell is, again, Virgil’s Aeneid VI. When, in that book, Aeneas journeys to the underworld and meets his father Anchises in the Elysian Fields, he is struck with the perfection of the place and so much so that he queries his father why any soul, once having entered the Fields, would ever depart from it. Anchises’s answer is simple: no perfect soul would choose to leave, but imperfect souls must return to the world above to free themselves of their material imperfections.[16]

Virgil and all the great figures of antiquity thus “have their reward.”[17] Virgil dwells for eternity in the greatest paradise that his poetic imagination could conceive. He has gotten what he asked for; he will never have to leave the place that seemed so good to Aeneas. It is genuinely a place of honor. But Virgil’s poetic knowledge did not penetrate all the way to the truth. Elysium is not the heaven of heavens, as he now knows, and to know this is sufficient to turn paradise into punishment. Dante thus reconciles his pious love of humane learning and a classical vision of justice with the Christian conviction that natural knowledge is not enough. Divine revelation is a form of knowledge, and the possession of it is essential to the salvation of the soul. Reason is not replaced by faith in that revelation, but rather transformed and made efficacious by it. In the process, however, natural reason’s idea of paradise comes to appear as an outlying district of hell.

Inferno III: The Nonexistence of Evil

In the Confessions, we find that one of the chief questions that pestered the young Augustine was the presence of good and evil in the world. He gradually overcomes his Manichean, dualistic vision of the world as composed of darkness and light as he comes to understand the classical Platonist and Christian metaphysics of goodness.[18] Being, he comes to see, is good and all that is good is being. Sin and evil must therefore “not exist,” that is, they have a purely negative reality. Like a hole torn through a cloth or the absence of sight in the eye that we call blindness, evil can only be understood as an ontological subtraction discerned in the goodness of being.

Dante captures sin as the negation of being most vividly in his depiction of Satan, in Canto 34. At the furthermost depth of hell, buried in its icy center, Satan appears as a giant swarthy beast with three faces, a hideous negation (implicitly) of the glory of the Holy Trinity that is God. His jaws eternally masticate the souls of Judas, betrayer of the spiritual Lord of the Universe, and Brutus and Cassias, traitors to the temporal Roman emperor, Julius Caesar.

Modern readers have the benefit of comparing Dante’s Satan with that of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. While Milton’s Satan is dramatic and captivating, moody and compelling, a bit like Prince Hamlet, Dante’s Satan is a crude and static machine. And rightly so. Despite his disfigured and massive material form, he who was once the most beautiful of angels has been as stripped of spiritual attributes, and as minimized in being, as it is possible for something to be and still retain some degree of existence. Milton aptly captures the deceptive appeal of evil, something Dante will later contemplate in the figure of a Siren. Dante’s achievement is to reveal that the surprising and exciting features of his hell—the anguished, well-imagined characters, the violent punishments—lead finally to ontological impoverishment, boredom in terror, and a mere absence of being.

Immediately prior to his depiction of the empty beast, Dante writes, “I did not die, and I was not alive . . . deprived of life and death.”[19] As Augustine had also contemplated, dramatic depictions of evil thrill us, they seem to fill up and hold our attentions; but what we are really seeing is the goodness of being under the condition of violation and negation. So, here, Dante initially gives us a potent depiction of this encounter: Dante himself suffers a negation of his own being.

But then, in Satan we see that negation almost totally unveiled; we come as close as we can to naked nonexistence. The negation of evil is so complete that the drama of the scene, with its initial ecstasy of pathos, directly fades to nothing. After Virgil names the victims on whom Satan gnaws, he says, “it is time / for us to leave; we have seen everything.”[20] Hell is of necessity anti-climactic: instead of reveling in the horror of sin’s emptiness, they view it and move on.

The idea of evil as a negation of the goodness of being is classical in origin and was adopted by Christians to help explain the goodness of being as God’s creation. It is not a specifically “Thomist” or even a specifically Christian idea, and yet it is central to Christian doctrine and informs the whole architectonic of Dante’s Inferno. Sharing as they do in such a fundamental insight, is it any wonder, then, that, for so many readers, the form of the poem and the form of Catholic theology seem to be one?


My argument is that the three touchstones discussed are of sufficient importance that, taken together, they shape our understanding of the Inferno as a whole; they impress on us the Catholic character of the poem and define what that character means. They could do this even as three isolated moments in the poem, but it is worth considering how the three combine and attain a unity of meaning that goes beyond a general impression of the poem’s character.

These three moments have much to tell us independently, but taken together they lead to certain conclusions. Dante’s account of sin is informed by his involvement in medieval political life and his understanding as his age’s chief misfortune to be riven by corruption in the Church and the moral and political failure of the temporal empire. But even this political and national dimension to the poem is best understood in the context of Augustine’s moral theology. Dante’s admiration for pagan antiquity testifies to a humanistic sensibility that holds classical learning in high esteem, and yet it is clear that the classical world has also been surpassed and transformed by divine revelation. What was heaven to Virgil would be hell to us.

Finally, Dante’s account of evil as a negation of being, though derived most directly from Augustine and other Christian theologians, testifies to one contribution classical thought made to Christianity as a whole: those classical metaphysical resources helped Christians explain the perfect goodness of God and the relative goodness of created being to themselves. Medieval history and classical thought shape Dante’s vision of the world, but they are absorbed into that vision along the way, and his is a thoroughly Catholic vision.

[1] Harold Bloom, Ruin the Sacred Truths (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 45-46.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (Willard R. Trask, trans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 372.

[4] Exemplary of this last interpretation is Marco Santagata, Dante: The Story of His Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[5] This is akin to what Socrates proposes in the Phaedrus, where his poem (his palinode) seeks to express a whole vision of the soul and its place in the cosmos by way of a handful of iconic poetic images (Plato, Phaedrus (Stephen Scully, trans, Newburyport, MA: Focus Philosophical Library, 2003), 246a). Cf. James Matthew Wilson, The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking (Newburg, OR: Wiseblood Books, 2015), 215-216.

[6] Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism (London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1964), 242. Cf. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings Stefan Collini, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 142.

[7] Dante, The Divine Comedy (Allen Mandelbaum, trans. New York. Everyman’s Library, 1995) Inferno I.32, 46, 49-50.

[8] 1 John 2:15-16.

[9] Dante, The Divine Comedy Inferno 3.18.

[10] Ibid., 4.110.

[11] Ibid., 4.94.

[12] Ibid., 4.102.

[13] Ibid., 4.131-133.

[14] Ibid., 4.35-36, 40, 42.

[15] Ibid., 4.44.

[16] Virgil, The Aeneid (Allen Mandelbaum, trans. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 6.948 ff.

[17] Matthew 6:5.

[18] Augustine, Confessions (Maria Bolding trans. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2006), 3.7.12.

[19] Dante, The Divine Comedy Inferno 34.25, 27.

[20] Ibid., 34.68-69.

Featured Image: Taken by Sailko, Joseph Anton Koch, Dante waking from slumber and encountering three beasts, 1825; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.


James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair of English and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. He has published eleven books, including The Strangeness of the Good and Praying the Nicene Creed: I believe in One God.

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