January 14, 2021 | Brian Chappell


In our selection from The Odyssey, Achilles asserts that he “would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” We examined this statement in our blog, but there is another item to add. Namely, Achilles suggests that there might be some kind of hierarchy of souls in Hades. In the underworld scenes of The Odyssey and The Aeneid, however, the souls of the departed are mingling and wandering as a collective. This device serves the plots of each poem, but in fact the Greek and Roman underworlds consisted of a series of zones, from darkness and punishment, to the dwellings of monsters, to the Elysium fields, to the Isles of the Blessed, each reserved for souls who lived certain kinds of lives. In fact a summary glance at the structure of the classical underworlds may prompt us to ponder the extent to which Dante draws his Judeo-Christian vision of Hell from the Hellenic and Roman ones. 

I leave that work to scholars. For now, we should note that the key feature of Dante’s cosmos is the gradations of its hierarchical structure. Everyone has found a punishment that corresponds to his or her sins. I ask my students to conduct a similar thought experiment, whereby they “condemn” certain public figures to certain punishments according to certain sins. The result is not to point out how “bad” these figures are, but in fact to point out how merciless we can be in our judgment. In Inferno, Dante is exacting poetic revenge upon his rivals, who, by the time he was writing this poem, had banished him from Florence. That he can sustain such a dark vision, dwell in such an aggrieved mentality, is itself a feat. 

For Dante, the vast majority of us will end up in Hell. But stepping back from the rigidly Medieval morality, we can see that those who experience torment in Inferno have manufactured their own misery before their arrival in Hell. This is the real definition of sin and perdition: the separation from divine love by the unconscious repetition of our dark patterns. It is not God who ultimately punishes us, but rather we ourselves. Here we can connect to our second main consideration of this series. While Dante imagines Hell as a world, a separate ontological space, he is always also writing about the Hell within, Hell as a state of being. The poet himself is the primary case-in-point throughout the Divine Comedy. His grief for Beatrice, presumably, has led him to wander and become lost in the dark wood, and to arrive at the infernal gates. But his longing for Beatrice will initiate the greater journey toward final and everlasting love. That Beatrice herself will greet him there is the gesture that binds the worlds of the living and the dead. One need not die in order to enter Hell, but one can experience Heaven in this life too.