Dante: Punishment for Not Renouncing One's Will
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.