Canto IV begins as Dante awakens in the first of nine circles of hell.
There are no levels of hell mentioned in the Bible, which generally assumes hell to be a miserable place, if not a place of actual, eternal torment. The Greek word most commonly translated as hell in the New Testament is hades, which is more or less equivalent to the Hebrew sheol used in the Old Testament. The term refers to a more or less universal destination for the dead; good, bad or indifferent, everyone ends up here.
Whether Alighieri based his detailed soteriography of hell on ideas he inherited, or created it from scratch, I have no idea. The hell of “Inferno” is an inverted cone of nine concentric circles, gouged into the earth by the impact of Satan when he was cast out of heaven. Overseen by devils who see that the damned are appropriately tormented for their sins, each circle is marked by the type of sin that defined the character of those imprisoned there, with the sin worsening the deeper into hell you go.
Damnation in the First Circle isn't that bad, all things considered; actually, eternal separation from God is easier for those imprisoned here than for the undecideds whom Dante saw chasing the banner in Canto III.
That's because the First Circle is home to the righteous pagans and unbaptized infants, people who would have believed in God if they had been given the chance. In their commentary novel “Inferno,” Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle remark that this is the saddest circle of all because the absence of torment allows those imprisoned here to maintain an illusion of contentment.
It's here that we see the first actual example of any sort of biblical teaching about hell. Dante, hearing the woe-begotten sighs of those confined to the First Circle, asks his guide if any have ever left this circle. Those whom Virgil names are a brief Who's Who of personalities of the Tanakh, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham and David.
Church teaching is that the Old Testament saints, some of whom Virgil names, waited in Limbo until the coming of Christ, whom the Apostle Paul wrote descended into hell (Greek hades) and freed those imprisoned there.
But it wouldn't be much fun to have Limbo empty save for the souls of unbaptized infants, so Alighieri fills the First Circle of hell, many unnamed souls packed so thick that he compares them to a wood, until he comes to a castle that houses a laundry list of exalted ancients. On the way there, he is greeted by a group of ancient poets who (naturally) hail Virgil as their chief.
The castle is an interesting thing. Dante notes that it has seven walls circling it, each with a gate that leads inward, and at the center is a meadow filled with the somber, quiet shades of the most righteous. This probably is the Elysian Fields, where Virgil claimed in “The Aeneid” is where the virtuous dead reside, which makes his pre-eminence among the dead here ironically appropriate.
The dead whom Dante names here are an interesting mix. He begins with heroes, mixing mythological figures like Hector and Aeneas, with historical figures like Caesar and Brutus -- not the Brutus who killed Julius Caesar, but the Brutus who liberated Rome from the Tarquins.
Surprisingly, at least to me, he also includes here Saladin, a Muslim leader who fought the Crusaders during the Middle Ages, and who was so well known for his compassion and dignity that there were legends that he actually was a secret Christian. (According to one story, when Richard Lionheart became ill, Saladin not only refused to press an advantage against him, he sent supplies and medical help to his ailing foe.)
Following the warlike souls, Dante notes the philosophers: Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and others who are noted for laying the foundations of mathematic and scientific disciplines, like Euclid and Ptolemy, and Galen the physician, and a few other classic names like Cicero and Seneca and the mythical singer Orpheus.
We are told that these people are in Limbo because they were great thinkers whose name and fame remained until Dante's time. As a consequence for this, God was inclined to be merciful and spared them any punishment beyond the oblique sadness that permeates the First Circle. And that is telling about Alighieri.
While a lot of the sins depicted in his hell get a poetic comeuppance in their punishment, it seems he's only too willing to make exceptions for those he likes and approves of, since, like the rest of us, he supposes that God must feel the same way that he does. Thus the damned souls are damned for the actions that he believes are worthy of damnation, and those who are granted respite or a commuted sentence get it because he believes they should.
If that's revealing about Dante, it's revealing about all of us who are quick to pronounce God's judgment on others. Too often, it's not God's judgment that we are pronouncing, but our own, and the presumption we have in ascribing to God our own petty biases and hatred should chill us to the bone.
After he beholds all those magnificent souls in the castle of the First Circle, Dante takes his leave of the First Circle and, with Virgil as his guide, follows the path to a region where nothing shines.
Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.