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.
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety ThemeTracker
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Quotes in Inferno
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.
Justice moved my great maker; God eternal
Wrought me: the power, and the unsearchably
High wisdom, and the primal love supernal.
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.
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.
Because he tried to see too far ahead,
He now looks backward and goes retrograde.
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.
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.