The Role of Punishment in “The Divine Comedy” by Dante
The Role of Punishment in “The Divine Comedy” by Dante
In this essay, we shall answer a set of questions regarding the role of punishment in both Purgatorio and Inferno. In that way, we shall comment on the purposes of punishment in both Paradiso, and Purgatorio. Also, we shall expand on all the theory around what happens with the souls in the purgatory, according The Divine Comedy. However, before expanding on the subjects in the poem, it is important to speak about the concepts of purgatory, and hell, according to the Christian doctrine followed by Dante.
The Purgatory according to the Christian Doctrine. To start, it is important to determine, what we mean by purgatory. Those who die in god’s grace, but are not completely purified, are assured salvation. However, after being able to attain it, they have to undergo a certain kind of purification to achieve the holiness, and purification necessary to enter in heaven (Staples 1). Although Purgatory is not explicitly in the Bible, it says that nothing unclean shall enter heaven. In that light, since many people has not been sanctified before their death, nor have lived a saint-like life, they need the purgatory to be able to present themselves clean before the eyes of the Lord. To many Catholics, purgatory is one of the most important dogmas of the Christian faith, but for many Protestants, purgatory is an uncomfortable subject, since it denies the importance of the sacrifice that Christ did and represented a medieval teaching that is not based on the bible’s teachings.
Hell according to Christian Doctrine. Concerning hell, the Christian doctrine affirms the existence of hell, and its eternity. To the Catholic Church, all those souls who die in mortal sin, shall descend to hell, where they will suffer the eternal punishments of the eternal fire. The main punishment of hell is the separation from God, without whom is impossible to live happily (Catholic.com 1). Many Christian denominations that stemmed from the Protestant church have gone further, and some even consider that hell is not a real punishment, instead is a figure of speech, and even in the Catholic church, many priests does not preach of hell as a reality. However, in Dante’s time, hell was a reality, and sinners expected nothing but eternal
Punishment in the Purgatorio. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the purposes of the punishment are different. Punishment in Purgatorio is meant to test, and to cleanse, whereas, in Inferno, the purpose is to punish, as a way to show that those who oppose to church, and go against the Christian dogma, will receive eternal punishment. In Purgatorio, there are seven cornices, each for each cardinal vice. However, souls in Purgatorio know that their punishment is for their best, and instead of being selfish, and keep their sinful attitudes, souls in the Purgatory are patient, as they know that heaven awaits for them.
Also, the souls in the Purgatorio can see the sun, thus know how many time has passed In the Inferno that is not possible. As we can see, Purgatorio is what prepares Dante to be able to advance in his journey, and after being cleansed of all his sins he is capable of continue. The role of Purgatorio might seem odd, for those not used to the idea, but it serves as a preparation, as a sort of “laundry” of souls, where the soul is reforged in order to be fit for heaven.
Punishment in the Inferno. Inferno, as proposed by Dante is a place where each sinner is subjected to a punishment that goes with the sin committed. It is comprised by nine circles: The limbo; lust; gluttony; greed; anger; heresy; violence; fraud, and treachery. Each circle is depicted with a specific set of punishments according to the nature of the sin. For instance, for the misers, or those who hoarded money, the punishment was to bombard each other with stones that symbolized the excessive hoarding and squandering. To thieves, their punishment was to see their hands being cut off, and their bodies covered in snakes.
In some circles we can see some parallelisms with pieces of the classical mythology, which means that either Dante took some pieces of classical myths to spice his poem or there is a relation between some parts of the Catholic dogma and classic mythology. For instance, the limbo, or the place where those non-baptized or pious pagans go, closely resembles the Asphodel Meadows, a place where nothing is good, nor evil, where ordinary souls come to pass their eternity in oblivion. Although in limbo the souls know their identities, they are forced to spend the eternity in some deficient heaven that is not bad per se, but it is not good either.
As we can see, most of the times, in Dante’s Inferno, the punishments were opposites to the sins, or in other cases, the losing of faculties of the mind, or the body. To Dante, the Inferno serves as an allegory of the many pitfalls, and failings a man must avoid to be able to attain ultimate salvation, to be united with God. Those who have failed, are seen in hell, and serve as a warning of all those things the author needs to avoid in order to achieve salvation.
How does a Soul Know When it is Ready to Leave Purgatory? Upon entering the Purgatorio, the soul must demonstrate their desire for heaven. To do so, they are required to walk the three steps of penitence, according to Catholic doctrine: Confession; contrition, and satisfaction. Afterwards, an angel inscribes in the forehead of the soul a P for every single capital sin. Those p’s vanish as the soul ascends each cornice, and if the soul has incurred specially in one of them, it must stay longer until they purge their sin. It is only after those p’s vanish from the soul’s forehead that it is allowed to step outside the Purgatorio, and start his journey to heaven.
Is There a Relation between Punishment and the way in which a soul finds out it is time to leave Purgatory? As we stated before, an angel inscribes a p for each of the cardinal vices: pride; envy; anger; sloth; greed; gluttony and lust. After purging the sin, and be thoroughly cleansed, the soul can resume its journey to heaven. The vices depicted by Dante and the punishments received are a way the author uses to balance the sin with the punishment received as a way to show that even for sinners there is justice in God. In the Divine Comedy, Inferno is a place to suffer while Purgatorio is a place to reflect on what you have done. Although the souls are also subject to suffering, they suffer happily as they know their time will come. In that way, hell could be every place where you do something, and have no means to change it.
Staples, T. “Is Purgatory in the Bible?” Is Purgatory in the Bible? Catholic.org, 17 Jan. 2014. Web.
“Tracts.” The Hell There Is! Catholic.org. Web.