Although it's heresy to say it, I never cease to be amazed at the enthusiasm with which students read The Inferno. And our teleclass students are no exception. Every time I teach it, I think that you will be turned off by the "medieval-ness" of Dante and every time you prove me wrong. Dante's vibrant and extraordinary tale of a journey both literal, autobiographical, allegorical, political and moral transcends its time, place and ideology and so speaks to us today just as it did to its original audience. Indeed, this may prove to be a good entry for you into the work: think about what is timeless about The Inferno.

I'd suggest paying attention to several things as you read The Inferno.

First, notice how Dante uses the two traditions, classical and Judeo-Christian, in his epic.
Second, try to read his poem as a medieval Catholic might to understand and "feel" the urgency and absolute quality of his message.
Third, see Dante's descent as a symbolic one, each step taking him farther from God, each circle containing sinners whose sin (and, therefore, whose punishment) is more serious than the last. To understand why this is so, see the schema of the soul according to St. Thomas Aquinas. (This is outlined for you at the end of this section.)
Fourth pay careful attention to Dante the pilgrim's emotional response to the sinners, especially how he must learn to harden his heart during his journey. Do you share Dante's emotional response? Do you feel sympathy, for example, for Paolo and Francesca? Would you feel sympathy for those whose only "sin" was their homosexuality?
A Schema of the Powers of the Soul According to St. Thomas Aquinas
I. The Concupiscible: this is the vegetative level which people share with all living creatures (i.e., plants and animals).
a) the generative power: concerned with reproduction and the preservation of the race. (CIRCLE 2)
b) the nutritive power: concerned with food and the preservation of the individual. (CIRCLE 3)
c) the augmentative power: desires individual growth and expansion. (CIRCLE 4)
II. The Irascible: the sensitive level which people possess as an animal whose knowledge comes through the senses.
a) the irascible passive: suffers the frustration of not satisfying the concupiscible powers.
1) may result in anger at not achieving earthly good (CIRCLE 5)
2) may result in anger at not achieving heavenly good (CIRCLE 6)
b) the irascible active: reacts against the frustration and lashes out in anger and violence at others (CIRCLE 7)
III. The Rational or Intellectual: by which people are distinguished from material creation and through which they participate in higher creation, i.e., perceive God.
a) the intellectual passive: envy that plots the ruin of others (CIRCLE 8)
b) the intellectual active: pride with its excessive desire for glory and willful defiance of others (CIRCLE 9)


The discussion in this lesson centers on the nature of allegory, the law of symbolic retribution, and the structure of Dante's Hell as it reflects the Thomistic nature of the soul. How should one read Inferno for the first time? To what extent is Dante a new epic hero and his journey a new epic 66 action?" What is Inferno about? What is Dante's purpose in writing it? The episode of Paolo and Francesca is singled out for particular attention.

Video interview with: Professor Zygmunt Baranski, University of Reading, England


I suggest you read this section before you watch the videotape. You will find that it will help you organize your thoughts in a more useful way than if you just watch the tape "cold." When you have finished viewing the tape you may want to read this section again.

A. Initial class discussion

The thirteen hundred years intervening between Virgil's Aeneid and Dante's Inferno is a period during which the advent of Christianity entirely changed civilization in almost every aspect. Dante acknowledged Virgil as the master and himself as the student, but he did not suffer from false humility. He was one of the most prominent political and intellectual figures of his time, and definitely the best poet. The journey that he undertakes is not unlike the one undertaken by Aeneas in that it is a vicarious descent into his own conscience. Valeria points out that it is perhaps no accident that the journey starts on Good Friday. The three day journey of Jesus is replicated here by humans, making the religious experience of Christianity closer to life. It relates to our facing all of our sins, which are in all of us (at least as potential sins), regardless of our acting upon them or not.

The discussion next turns to the medieval Italian view of women, which was very complex. Dante was separated from his wife and children; he lived in exile for twenty years. He was a man of passion and talent and can not be assumed to have lived all this time in utter loneliness. Thus he understands Paolo and Francesca very well. Beatrice comes to represent heavenly love. She is one of the images of woman people held at that time, the idealized, divine object before which man bows.

Dante in his journey through the underworld is going through a learning process, just as Aeneas was put through one. One of the important things to watch is Dante, the pilgrim's, emotional response to what he sees the sinners go through, for instance with Paolo and Francesca. Paolo and Francesca's sin was adultery. Francesca was married to Paolo's brother, who was old and physically deformed. Paolo and Francesca's punishment in hell is that they are spirits unable for eternity to be completely united. Dante's emotional reaction is one of sympathy, he swoons in response to God's punishment of sin. However, the farther along he goes through the underworld, the less sympathetic he gets, until he gets downright abusive to the sinners. He hardens his heart as he moves downward through the circles.

B. Interview with Professor Zygmunt Baranski, University of Reading, England

Professor Baranski discusses the women in Dante. Beatrice he sees as essentially based upon a literary construct, upon an idealization of woman, which is very much a part of the romance vemacular tradition. What makes Dante's treatment of Beatrice new is that through the figure of Beatrice he brings secular and religious ideas of love together. In Divina Comedia Beatrice is the word of God, divinely illuminated, divinely inspired knowledge, that part of the divinity which continues to exist in the world, and helps it to achieve its salvation in a variety of ways.

Francesca and Beatrice are each other's antithesis. Both of them are involved with love, but Francesca sins because of love and Beatrice saves because of love. Francesca is from a psychological point of view a much more complex character than Beatrice is.

What Dante does according to Professor Baranski in that canto is instruct us on some ideological points. First, we can't ever quite understand God's justice; and secondly, no matter how insignificant the sins may seem to us, if the sinners are unrepentant they will go to hell. Francesca and Paolo never admit guilt. Francesca blames her predicament on "extenuating circumstances," which from the point of view of divine justice are really irrelevant. What matters are the marriage vows, and the fact that they were broken. This work encompasses a major discussion about sin, about personal attitude toward sin, and about responsibility.

C. Final class discussion

I begin this section by asking Chad the leading question, what is this old Italian epic about? Chad's response is that "it's about this guy called Dante who got stiffed by his contemporaries, and decided to get back at them by writing a little story- " And on one level he is right. Agnes suggests that it's about the sins of the church, about the granting of benedictions for money, and general licentious

ness. Peter offers the view that Dante means to show that not all sins are equal, that this is Dante's explanation of hell for the mortals, "a practical guide to hell."

I then talk briefly about the Ptolemaic cosmology which puts the earth in the ninth circle away from God, and Satan in the center of the earth. Dante places Satan in his ninth circle of hell, at the farthest distance from God. God is light and warmth. Satan is dark and cold. The sins get more offensive as you move further down through the circles of hell. The medieval metaphor of the "great chain of being" postulates orders of creation: one starts with God, and below God are the angels, then people, animals, plants, minerals and so on. We should aspire to move upward, but we are pulled down by what is below us. The sins of the intellect are punished most severely, and the carnal sins are dealt with more lightly.

A discussion followed of what one has to be to follow this story. Do you have to be a medieval catholic, a poet, or a modem psychoanalyst to understand it? My answer is, you have to be any or all of the above.

We then turn to the allegorical dark wood. Neither grace nor reason alone is sufficient to rescue one from them. It is Virgil and Beatrice that rescue Dante. Ada makes an important point: she asserts that belief and mental commitment to an idea are not sufficient for salvation, that you must perform actual deeds in real life which will ultimately lead to salvation. On one level we can read Dante as a modem discovery of the redeeming qualities of love, how one should live. The message transcends sects, religions.

Notice how the move from classical epic to medieval Christian epic is bringing a different kind of hero. This brings up a discussion of how easy or hard Dante was to read. How did you find it? One of the problems is that Dante's works are full of allegory and allegory is hard to read. Professor Baranski suggests that the best way to read The Inferno for the first time is to read it as an adventure story, not on a moral or allegorical level. It makes so many appeals to your senses that this approach is easily justified. This is the great masterpiece of the middle ages as it summarizes the middle ages. It also provides an inkling of what follows in the Renaissance, which is a celebration of humanism. Two traditions come together in the middle ages that appear to be incompatible: the Classical World (Greek and Roman writers), and the Judeo Christian tradition. The Inferno is a seamless combination of these two traditions. Barbara M. remarks that placing adultery in the second circle may have been convenient for Dante, but it remains one of the great sins, and she didn't particularly appreciate his ordering them in this way. However, I point out that this is not Dante's personal hierarchy of sins, but was the medieval way of assessing sin, which is certainly different from the modem one.

The discussion ends in answering Charles's question about how The Inferno was received in Dante's time. It was in fact received very well by the people, although not necessarily so by the church. Within fifty years of his death Dante was enormously famous, and Boccaccio was delivering lectures on him. His work was intelligible in that time at that place within the given adopted framework. Today, however, we have a more complex accumulation of ethics and morality that have arrived at a very sophisticated level, which makes this a more difficult time to read Dante in. We will continue this discussion in the next lesson.