The opening two cantos of The Inferno set the scene for the entire Divine Comedy: we learn that this is the story of a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and we also find there the signs that this journey has allegorical significance. We are expected to identify with Dante the pilgrim, and to share his journey.
He begins lost, in a dark and savage wood – alone, desperate, and afraid. But he has only just become aware that he is lost. This is that moment of spiritual awareness when we realize that we are not self-sufficient, that we cannot do what we ought to do or even what we want to do – that we need a Savior. This is a moment of maturity, of growing up, of coming to see ourselves as we really are: of seeing that in and of ourselves we are utterly desolate and helpless. It is the recognition of sin that lifts us up to the possibility of Divine Grace.
And so a savior comes to Dante. Virgil, the Roman poet, appears and offers Dante an alternate way to get to his desired end – to the sunlit mountaintop that represents all that is good and true and beautiful – the end of all human desire. But we learn in Canto II, that Virgil himself has been sent to Dante by the Heaven itself. Three heavenly ladies act as vehicles of God’s grace. St. Mary, who loves all human beings as she loves her own Son, sees that Dante is in trouble, and sends St. Lucy to Beatrice, with the request to help him. Beatrice is a woman whom Dante loved in life, and loving him in the fullness of the Divine caritas, Beatrice descends from celestial bliss down to Limbo in order to send Virgil to help her beloved friend. The story reads like a medieval courtly romance, with a Lady sending a Knight on a quest to rescue a captured victim. Beatrice is the Lady, Virgil is the Knight, and Dante is the victim ensnared by sin.
The Inferno is the story of Dante’s descent into Hell, guided by Virgil. Allegorically it is the soul’s self-awareness of itself apart from God. What Dante as poet wants to convey to us is what unrepentant sinfulness “looks” like. He uses image to depict a condition (habitus) of soul. The sufferings of hell in the poem are not to be understood as externally imposed punishments, but as an image of the soul itself trapped in that state of sin.
One of the most eye-opening and thought-provoking messages of the Inferno, is the idea that we get exactly what we want. Our characters – our souls – are formed by what we choose. Every choice we make shapes us, and hell is the state of human beings who have chosen self against God. As we pass through the circles of Hell with Dante and Virgil, we are invited to examine ourselves honestly, to be aware of our own choices and the direction our own desires lead us.
Hell is gruesome, loathsome, and irrevocable. The souls of Hell are frozen in the state that is a consequence of what they have loved and willed. In serving themselves alone, they have lost themselves; in willing what is evil, they have lost the power to will anything else; in loving what is unlovable, they can no longer love. The final image, in the utter darkness of the bottom of hell, of the frozen, powerless Satan, full of anger and hatred, is the image of what we do to ourselves when we turn away from the Divine Omnipotence, the Supreme Wisdom and the Primal Love.
Dante’s Inferno, is not a warning about what life after death looks like for the damned. It is a warning about we do to ourselves every day with every sinful thought, word, and deed.