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Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Analysis

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Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon

As it narrates a journey through hell, Dante's Inferno is essentially a tour of all kinds of different punishments for different sins. It is filled with spectacular, unbelievable, and grotesque punishments, but these punishments are not meant merely to deter others from sinning. Dante's poem aims to show that such punishment is a complement to sin, completing or "perfecting" it. Thus, all of the punishments in Dante's vision of hell are always fitting, corresponding in some way to the specific sin a person committed. The wrathful, for example, spend eternity fighting each other angrily, while sowers of discord, who split communities with social strife are, in hell, physically split open by a devil wielding a sword. Many of the punishments might seem to modern readers like arbitrary, cruel acts of violence, but from the perspective of Dante's God they are fitting completions for the sufferers' sins. As the inscription above the entrance to hell says, God was moved by justice to create hell, and all of the suffering within—meticulously organized and meted out in different areas of the underworld— is part of his divine plan of cosmic justice.

Nonetheless, even though Dante's poem presents the punishments of hell as deserved, Dante himself cannot help but feel great pity for many of the souls trapped there. After talking to Francesca in the second circle of hell, he faints from being overcome by pity. And he is continually moved to pity by the suffering souls who tell Dante their stories, such as Cavalcante or Pier delle Vigne. In the eighth circle of hell, Dante cries after seeing the bodily disfigurement of various sorcerers and seers. This irritates Virgil, who asks him, "Who's wickeder than one / That's agonized by God's high equity?" (20.30) Dante gradually learns from his master Virgil and over the course of the poem tends to feel less and less pity for the sinners he meets. When Count Ugolino tells him his story, for example, the count tells Dante that he must be cruel not to shed any tears, but Dante does not pity him. (He does, however, pity Ugolino's children who died innocently with him.) In some cases, Dante even expresses righteous anger at sinners, as when he threatens to tear Bocca degli Abati's hair from his scalp or when he tells Friar Alberigo that he will wipe the frozen tears from his face but then refuses to. To modern readers, these scenes might make Dante seem cruel, but this is part of Dante's progression toward heaven, as he gradually learns to see the punishments of hell as deserved and part of a divine plan of justice. From this perspective, shedding piteous tears over guilty sinners is an affront to God. As Virgil tells Dante in Canto 20, in this context one must choose between pity and piety. By the end of the Inferno, Dante makes his choice clear.

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Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Quotes in Inferno

Below you will find the important quotes in Inferno related to the theme of Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety.
Canto 1 Quotes

Midway this way of life we're bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Journey, Light and Dark
Page Number: 1.1-3
Explanation and Analysis:

These are the opening lines of the Inferno. They describe how the speaker, Dante, is personally and spiritually lost—and in need of aid to right himself again.

This beginning is a classic example of a story “in medias res,” or that which commences mid-action without any preface. Instead of outlining the scene or his personal history, Dante places his reader immediately in the moment. Indeed, the phrasing highlights suddenness with the opening word “Midway” and the opening image “I woke”—both of which point to a rapid shift. Thus the text stumbles into its own first events without any orientation—much as the speaker Dante has lost “the right road” and has no clear route forward. The Inferno places reader and speaker in analogous situations of being lost.

It is worth digging into the specific way in which the speaker Dante has become lost. He casts it, first, as a crisis that has hit at a specific moment—“midway” in his life, which implies that his experience in the Inferno will seek to address this personal plight. The image of the “dark wood” takes the idea of being internally lost and makes it an external experience, while the “right road” can indicate both a geographical disorientation and also an ethical or spiritual uncertainty. Thus the opening lines of the Inferno establish a key theme in this work: an external geography and journey will be used as an allegory for an internal one. As Dante travels through the different circles of hell, he will address these corresponding moral and personal uncertainties.


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Canto 3 Quotes

Justice moved my great maker; God eternal
Wrought me: the power, and the unsearchably
High wisdom, and the primal love supernal.

Related Characters: Guido Guerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, and Jacopo Rusticucci (speaker)
Page Number: 4-6
Explanation and Analysis:

These words are the inscription on the gates of hell. They glorify God for the wise and just way he crafted the doorway.

Throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante continually reasserts God’s omnipresence—constantly showing how he has positively affected each component of the mystical universe. The gates proclaim first how he was moved by “justice,” indicating that the division of hell, purgatory, and heaven stems from firm moral systems that give each person his or her correct end. Next, they allude to the “power” and “high wisdom,” thus combining the values of strength and intelligence that would allow God to have an idea and will it into existence.

Although these are expected qualities to attribute to God, the gates also significantly append the phrase “primal love.” This focus on love recalls how Beatrice is motivated to aid Dante, just as Dante is primarily inspired by his love for her in return. That the doors speak first of justice but then transition into love speaks to how this quality undergirds much of the spiritual and narrative meaning in the Inferno. Dante has crafted a unique worldview and religious schema in which love for and from God is placed at the center of the text—despite the seeming disconnect between love and the often cruel, excessive punishments of Hell.

Canto 4 Quotes

They sinned not; yet their merit lacked its chiefest
Fulfillment, lacking baptism, which is
The gateway to the faith which thou believest;

Or, living before Christendom, their knees
Paid not aright those tributes that belong
To God; and I myself am one of these.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker), Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan
Page Number: 4.34-39
Explanation and Analysis:

Dante has now entered the first circle of Hell: Limbo. Virgil explains to him that those present in Limbo have not actually sinned, but since they were never baptized, they cannot ascend to heaven.

This passage develops the complex theme of how to contend with classical artists and philosophers whose works and lives are admirable. For being technically pagan, they cannot be sanctified in a dogmatic religious work like Dante’s. Virgil affirms “their merit”—which refers to their various artistic accomplishments—yet saying that their merit “lacked its chiefest fulfillment, lacking baptism” implies that their works would never reach their complete potential due to their spiritual flaws. Dante thus subtly canonizes these figures, while also leaving them sufficiently defective to appeal to a Christian audience.

Virgil clarifies, too, that this fate befalls both those who live during Christianity but were never baptized, as well as those who predated “Christendom.” Thus Limbo becomes a place for people who could not have reasonably ever been baptized or believed in the “proper” religion—who failed to do so through no personal fault of their own, but rather because their era did not allow them to do so (whether because they lived before Christ, or died as babies, or, presumably, lived in countries where Christianity did not yet exist). In acknowledging that he himself fits into this category, Virgil further clarifies why he may play Dante’s guide here but can ultimately never enter heaven. That the text’s guide is himself morally implicated here serves to generate sympathy for those who reside in Limbo—a technique that will be used in many of the ensuing circles.

Canto 11 Quotes

Of all malicious wrong that earns Heaven's hate
The end is injury; all such ends are won
Either by force or fraud. Both perpetrate

Evil to others; but since man alone
Is capable of fraud, God hates that worst;
The fraudulent lie lowest, then, and groan

Deepest. Of these three circles, all the first
Holds violent men; but as threefold may be
Their victims, in three rings they are dispersed.

[...] the second circle opens to receive

Hypocrites, flatterers, dealers in sorcery,
Panders and cheats, and all such filthy stuff,
With theft, and simony and barratry.

[...] in the smallest circle, that dark spot,
Core of the universe and throne of Dis,
The traitors lie.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker)
Page Number: 11.22-66
Explanation and Analysis:

While Dante and Virgil are becoming accustomed to the smell of the lower circles of Hell, Virgil explains its geography. He delineates the different regions inhabited by traitors, liars, and perpetrators of violence.

This passage portrays how minutely structured Hell is in the Divine Comedy. In other religious representations, it is often presented as a undifferentiated space in which sinners of all types mingle. Yet here Hell is rigorously categorized: each person is slotted into the area appropriate for their sin, and each punishment is meted our accordingly. Though Virgil outlines some universal features—“the end is injury” in all cases—he explains that God finds some sins more despicable than others. That he “hates that worst” of fraud shows, again, how hate and love underlie God’s various judgments. The rigid structure of hell thus derives not from any artificial plan but rather from the emotional associations formed by God.

The specific order that Virgil outlines here is worth considering: though some contemporary readers might find violence to be the most disreputable and thus most punishable act, Dante locates “traitors” at the deepest level of hell. Those who are fraudulent or have lied in various ways are also deemed worse than those who have committed violent acts. Thus the text establishes a moral framework that does not emphasize the external horror of an act, but rather finds more fault with internal actions of treachery and deceit: these do not simply deny love, but actually pervert it to horrifying ends.

Canto 20 Quotes

Because he tried to see too far ahead,
He now looks backward and goes retrograde.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker), Amphiaraus, Tiresias, and Manto
Page Number: 20.38-39
Explanation and Analysis:

In the fourth trench of the eighth circle, Virgil and Dante encounter the Greek oracle Amphiaraus. Virgil explains how his punishment was given to correspond to the exact nature of his scene: trying to see too far into the future.

This moment is a classic example of the “contrapasso” logic that undergirds much of the Inferno. “Contrapasso” is a Latin term for “suffer the opposite,” and Dante repeatedly portrays sinners to be experiencing inversions of what they did to spite God on earth. Here, Amphiaraus’ sin was to “see too far ahead,” or to prophesy beyond his appropriate role as a mortal. And therefore, he must suffer the opposite: see “backward” and “retrograde.” Contrapasso often takes, as it does here, a metaphorical sin and makes its inversion literal: for Amphiaraus, the abstract idea of seeing forward is made literal in that he physically looks backward. The importance of these scenes is to show how rigidly structured Hell is—that is to say how minutely and perfectly God has planned it out. In this way, Dante shows its composition to be inherently just, while also insulating himself from critiques that something would be flawed in his conception of the Inferno.

Canto 31 Quotes

That's Nimrod, by whose fault the gracious bands
Of common speech throughout the world were loosed.

We'll waste no words, but leave him where he stands,
For all speech is to him as is to all
That jargon of his which no one understands.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker), Nimrod
Page Number: 31.77-81
Explanation and Analysis:

When Virgil and Dante encounter the figure of Nimrod, Virgil offers this poignant commentary on the nature of communication. He observes that their language will be incomprehensible to Nimrod, just as his language is incomprehensible to them.

To Nimrod, Virgil attributes the origin “of common speech,” which is deemed a perversion compared to the singular language of God. Nimrod was responsible for this because he built the tower of Babel, which fractured the one language of humanity into many (according to the Old Testament story). That, as a result,he  would be unable to understand Dante and Virgil implies that their language is fundamentally different and ordained by God. Furthermore, Virgil sets a high value on the importance of their language, for they should “waste no words” when they need not to. The implication is that Dante’s language—as it appears in the poem itself—is highly valuable and should only be passed to those who deserve to hear it.

The question of common versus holy speech is particularly significant in Dante’s work. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in Italian instead of the traditional Latin, which was otherwise seen as a holy language. Thus when Virgil says that they are indeed speaking a language that evades “jargon” and that comes from God, as opposed to Nimrod, he is inherently saying that Dante’s Italian is on equal footing with Latin.

Canto 34 Quotes

Each mouth devoured a sinner clenched within,
Frayed by the fangs like flax beneath a brake;
Three at a time he tortured them for sin.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker), Judas, Lucifer, Brutus and Cassius
Page Number: 34.55-57
Explanation and Analysis:

Dante here describes the horrifying body of Lucifer himself, as he holds and punishes Judas, Brutus, and Cassius for the worst sin of all: betrayal of one's master.

This final image confirms and centers the moral system that Dante has been recounting thus far, in which traitors are considered to be the most appalling of criminals. Notably, he includes both religious and classical figures: though Judus may suffer the worst fate for having betrayed Jesus, Brutus and Cassius both make an appearance for betraying the secular figure of Julius Caesar. By placing these three characters at the bottom rank of hell, Dante sets the stakes of the most despicable action—from which one can recover the full hierarchy of lesser sins up to Limbo.

That Dante has chosen there to be “three” sinners punished by Lucifer is no coincidence. Recall that the Divine Comedy is structured in three sections and composed of triplet verses—all of which serves to reiterate the importance of the Holy Trinity to his world system. Here, we see a corrupted version, in which the three greatest sinners have been unified into a single body through being consumed by Lucifer. (Just as the Holy Trinity combines three disparate beings into a single identity.) This symbolic association shows how the logic of God pervades every single component of Dante’s world, and how Hell and evil is essentially not its own entity, but only a perversion of what God has made. Even at the furthest depths of Hell, the structure is analogous to that of the height of Heaven.