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Dante: Punishment for Not Renouncing One's Will

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The proper relation of individual states (cities or kingdoms) to the empire and the separate and distinct functions of ecclesiastical and secular authority discussed in chapters one and two provide the political framework for the Comedy. Within that framework, each cantica presents a different but related model for human society. Paradise is the ideal society in all its essential elements working harmoniously; Purgatory is a society in transition, moving from self-centeredness to concern for and commitment to others, but not yet organized within an effective structure. Hell reveals what society is when all its members act for themselves and against the common good. The souls here are condemned not just for their selfish motivations but also for the effects of their actions on others.

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Dante’s Inferno is an undeniably Christian text, as it catalogs various types of earthly sinners and describes the torments they experience in hell. The poem is the first part of Dante’s three-part religious project, the Divine Comedy, which goes on to illustrate Christian purgatory and heaven. The Inferno, however, is much more than a mere dramatization of the Christian afterlife. In fact, while Dante exalts Christianity, he uses the Inferno to criticize the Church and its leaders, drawing a clear distinction between the faith and the institution—the former being holy and inviolate, the latter being fallible and corruptible. Throughout the Inferno, Dante expresses his strict belief that Christianity is the one true religion. Admission to heaven, purgatory, and usually even hell is predicated on one’s belief in Jesus’ divinity. Ignorance of Jesus’ existence, Dante asserts, is no excuse for non-belief. Good people born before the coming of Christ, such as Aristotle, Plato, and even Virgil himself, are condemned to an eternal state of limbo in the first circle of hell. Not even Moses or Noah, faithful men of the Old Testament, could leave limbo for heaven until Jesus had given them permission to do so. Dante’s belief that nonbelievers exist in a transient state of incompletion in the afterlife suggests that he believes their lives were also deficient in the mortal world; otherwise, they would have ascended to heaven or even purgatory after death. To Dante, Christianity is therefore not only the key to salvation, but also integral to his understanding of what it means to be a good, whole person. Despite his commitment to Christianity as the only true faith, however, Dante consigns a high number of church officials to hell. With few exceptions, every sinner Dante meets after leaving limbo had believed in Christ while alive, or at least been baptized. And yet, as Dante stresses throughout the Inferno, not even extreme faith or a clergy position can protect a true sinner from damnation

As Dante descends deeper into hell, Virgil repeatedly points out high-ranking church officials, including the traitorous Pope Anastasius in the seventh circle and the Archbishop Ruggieri in the second ring of the ninth circle. In the fourth circle, where the prodigal and avaricious must spend eternity pulling stone weights, Virgil and Dante encounter a throng of corrupt priests, cardinals, and popes too numerous to count or even recognize. By placing church officials in hell, Dante draws a distinction between the Christian faith and the institution of the Christian church, asserting that participation in the latter does not necessarily imply possession of the former.

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Once settled in the land of Corinth and two children later in their relationship, Jason grows tired of Medea. The king of Corinth has a daughter whom Jason seeks to possess (never mind his ties to Medea). "He thought of ambition only, never of love or gratitude" (Hamilton p.128). Medea is furious with Jason's actions and her anger reigns upon him. Medea confronts Jason with his betrayal of her and their children. "And you forsook me, took another bride to bed,/Though you had children" (Euripides p.16). She recounts their story and her help with his retrieval of the Golden Fleece along with her part in the conspiracy and death of Pelias. She reminds Jason of her betrayal of her family and country for his sake and how "[she] killed, and so gave [Jason] the safety of the light" (Euripides p.16). Jason's response is one of denial and self empowerment. After all, it was not Medea who helped him. She was only the tool in Cypris' hands. "Cypris was alone responsible/Of men and gods for the preserving of my life/...You have certainly got from me more than you gave" (Euripides p.17). Even if Medea's intervention is the result of the gods, it is of little relevance considering Jason's pledge to her. If his words were simply lies to further himself, at the minimum he is a flatterer (circle eight, Bolgia two); "he said, 'because her loveliness must surely mean that she excelled in gentle courtesy'" (Hamilton p.125). But, if his promise is sincere, then he betrays his benefactor, the woman to whom he owes his life. In this case, the only proper place for Jason's soul is in circle nine, round four: Judecca. Jason also, fleetingly, admits Medea was somewhat helpful to him, "In so far as you" (he does not mention Cypris) "helped me, you did well enough" (Euripides p.17). Juxtapose this event with the exile of not only Medea but also his sons. Jason does not offer to take custody of his sons and bring them into the royal household. Not only does he betray Medea but also his children, his kin. He attempts to buy them off by offering Medea money prior to the start of her exile. It is Medea who persuades Jason to take their children and not banish them (though she has no intention of following through with permitting him to take them). In his pursuit of the Golden Fleece, Jason arrives with his fellow Argonauts at the land of Colchis. There, after they travel to the palace, they are met by guards who "[lead] them courteously within and [send] word to the king of their arrival" (Hamilton p.123). The king in turn, "came at once and bade them welcome" (Hamilton p.123). As is proper protocol for the time, King AEtes offers them a place to bathe and provides them with food and drink. He makes them comfortable in every manner possible

King AEtes opens his palace to Jason. It is not until after Jason and the others have refreshed themselves that King AEtes asks who they are and the nature of their visit. It is only then, when he discovers the reason for their visit, to return the Golden Fleece to Greece, that King AEtes becomes angry. He expresses his dissatisfaction to Jason and concocts a "trial of courage" (Hamilton p.124) for Jason to attempt. If Jason is successful, the Fleece is his. Failure is death. Although to Jason, the challenge may appear insurmountable (which is the king's intent), it is, however, the command of the lord of the land and meant to be obeyed. King AEtes is initially courteous and welcoming to Jason. He provides him with physical comfort and allows his ship a place to dock. Yet, Jason scorns the king and chooses to circumvent the king's challenge and ensure his own success. He enlists the help of the king's own daughter, Medea. She provides him with magic herbs that allow him eventually to destroy the army he faces and to subdue the dragon that guards the Golden Fleece. Jason is free to carry it away. Although he satisfies the king's premise, he disobeys his instructions and in essence betrays his host. This deed alone throws Jason into Dante's third round of circle nine: Ptolomea.

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Ultimately, although most people of the time probably knew the Bible fairly well, study of the Bible was still a luxury afforded to the few who could afford the time. In addition, the current practices (such as speaking mass entirely in Latin) further distanced the common citizen from a deep understanding of the Bible

Therefore, Dante explains hell in the vernacular, attempting to expound upon the traditional notions, but inevitably adding his own flare to his creation. Toward this purpose, Dante has crafted a series of contrapassos so complex that they will slightly change based on the reader, who will interpret the punishment as it is clearest to him or her. In this sense, Dante does not want to redefine justice, but only to make his religion tangible to the average person, to be to the reader as Virgil is to the Pilgrim: a “sun that heals every clouded sight”.

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Dante. The Inferno. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Penguin, 1954.

Euripides. Medea. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: Dover, 1993.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: Penguin, 1969.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. A.D. Melville. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

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