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Literary Review of Dante's Inferno

Updated on March 3, 2018


In Dante’s Inferno, Dante makes use of his poetic skill to develop a depiction of Hell that explains his own beliefs about religion, politics, and the balance between them. Throughout Dante’s journey through hell, he uses his conversations with the souls of the damned to develop a sense of what sin is and why these sins are punishable. These conversations are influenced by things that have happened in Dante’s own life, but also by his own beliefs. Each sin becomes more severely punished as Dante goes increasingly farther into Hell; showing that Dante interprets these sins as greater perversions of God’s will and thus deserving more severe justice. Dante uses his political and spiritual background to develop the increasing severity of punishment that composes the nine circles of Hell using the three dispositions which are counter to Heaven’s will; intemperance, intentional harm, and mad brutality (Dante XI: 79-80).


As Dante starts his journey, entering the border and the first few circles of Hell, he is moving through the area which contains the sinners who have committed intemperance. These early stages of Hell are the least severely punished, simply because the “Ethics”, the Aristolian Ethics, referred to in the eleventh canto claim that intemperance is the lease offensive of sins committed against God (Dante XI: 82-85). The first three circles consist of philosophers and those born before the return of Christ, those who indulged in lust, and gluttons each falling into the category of intemperance. The philosophers could not control their search for knowledge and let that become their purpose, the lustful went outside the bounds of their own marriages or relations to satisfy themselves, and the gluttons could not satisfy their appetites. This idea Dante has comes from his interpretation of the Aristolian mean, of which he must have been a believer. These sins are considered the lesser of the three divisions because they come from a God given correspondence with the course of nature that has been corrupted to serve other things. “…the course that nature runs is drawn directly from the mind and art of God…your art takes, as best it can, the lead Nature gives…But usurers take a different course. They place their hopes in other things, and thus make mock of Nature’s self and her close kin.” (Dante XI: 97-112). The sin of intemperance contained by the first three rings of Hell is ranked the least based on the influence that Aristotle’s philosophy had on his life.

Intentional Harm

The second grouping of rings is more severely punished and is classified as into intentional harm. Dante’s influence from his religious past can be seen in the fourth circle of corrupt church members, the fifth circle of the wrathful and sullen, the sixth circle containing the heretics, and the seventh circle containing the violent. In these circles of malice, which is intentional harm against others, and deceit, which is intentional harm against God, Dante’s religious past plays a key role. “Malice is aimed in all its forms – and thus incurs the hatred of heaven – at gross injustice, and, aiming so, harms others by deceit or force. Deceit, though, is specifically a human wrong, and hence displeases God the more.” (Dante XI: 22-25). In the fourth circle, the inhabitants were guilty of malice, taking bribes and using their own desires and motives to hurt others. In the fifth and sixth circles, the violent and the wrathful display malice through their harm against others through force. This grouping is governed by Dante’s influence from the church, which can be seen from his inclusion of the corrupt clergymen and mainly the heretics who either denied the existence of the soul or did not follow Christianity, and inspired others to follow suit (Dante X:13-16). The violent and wrathful commit harm against themselves or others, and so go against the golden rule of Christianity. The fourth through seventh rings are grouped into intentional malice and deceit and are influenced by Dante’s past involvement and the influence that past religious leaders have had on him.

Cool Graphic on The Different Layers of Hell


Mad Brutality

The eighth and ninth circles are influenced by Dante’s involvement in politics, and are categorized by insane brutality and betrayal. The inhabitants of these circles betrayed others in ways such as through lies, actions, or by lifestyle. The ninth circle, counter to the eighth circle, is home to those who specifically betray their masters. In the very center of Hell, Satan gnaws Judas and the murderers of Julius Caesar (Dante XXXIV: 61-67). This grouping of individuals suggests the political opinion of Dante, in that it shows separation of Church and State. Satan punishes two betrayers of individuals, one betraying religion and one betraying a political leader. Dante’s political party, the White Guelphs, were not totally dedicated to the pope because of their belief in this idea of separation of Church and State and were eventually exiled. Through Dante’s influence from his political background the last two rings of hell are grouped into those who showed brutality through their betrayal of others.


Through influence from his political and religious background, Dante uses the grouping of intemperance, intentional harm, and brutality to define the severity of the sins one can commit. There is no question that Dante’s involvement in politics played a key role in his grouping of the circles of Hell. Though Dante was involved in the Catholic Church as can be seen in his grouping of the earlier circles, he reserves the deepest circles for people who betrayed others. This hints to a large influence from his exile which was a product of his political standing. Dante’s political influence can also be seen in his conversations with the souls he meets, and his conversations with Virgil. The events that occurred in Dante’s life and his standing in the church shaped and developed his influence on the determining the severity of the punishments in each circle of Hell. The ideas and themes that Dante portrayed in inferno are still widely observed and analyzed today as a means of understanding evil.


Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Trans. Robin Kirkpatrick. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. Print.

The Tomb of Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri's tomb in Florence, Italy. I have actually been to the Basilica where this is located!
Dante Alighieri's tomb in Florence, Italy. I have actually been to the Basilica where this is located! | Source

Which is the worst circle of Hell?

Which is the worst circle of Hell mentioned in Dante's Inferno?

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