Non-Christians in the Christian Afterlife

  • Dante’s personal and anomalous conception of Limbo: a radical idea, different from all others in history (see in Coordinated Reading my essay “Dante’s Limbo and Equity of Access,” from which I excerpt the historiographic Appendix below)
  • In the Commedia Dante creates two categories, focusing more attention on the first: 1) those who are excluded from the Christian dispensation temporally (being born before the birth of Christ); 2) those who are excluded geographically (being born after the birth of Christ, but in non-Christian lands)
  • Limbo came about as a way to accommodate the feelings of the laity regarding the injustice of exclusion from salvation, especially with respect to unbaptized infants
  • Limbo as Dante conceives it houses virtuous pagans of classical antiquity who lived before Christianity: these pagans include great poets (e.g. Homer, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Lucan) and philosophers (e.g. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato)
  • Dante’s Limbo also houses a few contemporary virtuous non-Christians, notably three Muslims: a general and Sultan of Egypt, Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn), and two philosophers, Avicenna (Ibn-Sīnā) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd)
  • the issue of virtuous pagans involves Dante’s guide Virgilio and will be complicated by the presence in the Commedia of saved pagans, starting with Cato of Utica in Purgatorio 1 and culminating with Ripheus the Trojan in Paradiso 20
  • from the concept of exclusion with its enormous consequences follows Dante’s concern for the issue of cultural transmission: textual and oral transmission carries ideas across cultural boundaries and allows access to Christian teachings

[1] Inferno 4 treats the first circle of Dante’s Hell, dedicated to the space that theologians call “Limbo”. As I will explain in this commentary, Dante’s treatment of Limbo is anomalous within the history of this idea. Dante’s way of conceiving Limbo is personal and original: it is a radical conceptualization, different from all others in the history of the idea of Limbo. On this issue, see Giorgio Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” and my essay, “Dante’s Limbo and Equity of Access: Non-Christians, Children, and Criteria of Inclusion and Exclusion, from Inferno 4 to Paradiso 32” (full citations are in Coordinated Reading).

[2] The word Limbo means “edge” or “hem”, as in the hem of an article of clothing. Limbo was imagined by theologians to be a privileged zone on the very margin of Hell where the only punishment is deprivation. These souls are deprived of God and of heaven. But this is a place of no physical torment: “di duol senza martìri” (of sorrow without torment [Inf. 4.28]).

[3] Limbo was imagined as palliative and consolatory; within the Catholic imaginary, to be placed in Limbo is to be granted favored status. Only by understanding the logic of Limbo can the reader of the Commedia grasp the stunning nature of Dante’s radical revision of the traditional idea of Limbo. Essentially, the idea of Limbo reveals the cultural punctum dolens that requires consolation: for most Catholics throughout history that point of suffering has been the idea of unmitigated damnation for unbaptized babies. Dante pushes the concept of Limbo forward to propose mitigation of pain for another group, not imagined by theologians: virtuous non-Christians.

[4] Dante stands alone in the history of the idea of Limbo in opening this palliative space to virtuous non-Christians: adults of non-Christian faiths. We cannot overstate what this move tells us about the boldness of his cultural and moral imagination.

[5] Because there is never any physical torment in Limbo, as traditionally conceived, and because Dante in particular emphasizes the special status of the souls whom he places in his non-traditional Limbo, some commentators and readers of Inferno 4 over the years have resisted the idea that Limbo is the first circle of Dante’s Hell. However, Dante is explicit on this score, telling us that we have entered “nel primo cerchio che l’abisso cigne” (in the first circle girding the abyss [Inf. 4.24]).

[6] Dante in fact exploits the tension between the special status that he accords the souls of his Limbo and the reality that this is the first circle of his Hell. As I write in The Undivine Comedy:

Locating it with numerical precision, Dante has distinguished Limbo in a way that seems straightforward, clear, and not susceptible to confusion: it is the first circle of Hell. And yet, master of the manipulation of narrative — i.e., textual time — to create dialectical perspectives, Dante will dedicate the rest of canto 4 to making us disbelieve this simple fact, and indeed, how many readers “forget” that Limbo is Hell’s first circle! (The Undivine Comedy, p. 37)

[7] The Catholic religion posited a limbus patrum (“Limbo of the fathers”), the temporary condition of Old Testament saints as they awaited their liberation by Christ, and the limbus infantum or limbus puerorum (“Limbo of infants” or “Limbo of children”), the permanent condition of infants and children who died prior to baptism, hence not washed of original sin. Traditionally, therefore, theologians placed two groups of souls in Limbo, the Biblical righteous of the Old Testament and infants who die unbaptized:

  1.  the Biblical righteous, Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament. These souls from the Old Testament died long before the life and death of Christ; they died, therefore, before Christ opened the way to salvation. According to Catholic theology, they resided in Limbo from the time of death until Christ rescued them by descending into Hell and liberating them. Christ’s “Harrowing of Hell” (Latin Descensus Christi ad Inferos), which will be a plot-point in Inferno 4 and throughout Inferno, occurred after His Crucifixion and before His Resurrection. The Biblical righteous are destined for glory; indeed, Christ transports them from Limbo to Paradise. Of souls who belong to this group, in Inferno 4 Dante lists the following: Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Jacob with his father Isaac, his twelve sons, and his wife Rachel. In Paradiso 9, Dante adds another character to this list, the biblical prostitute Rahab, defined as the first soul to be received by the heaven of Venus: “Da questo cielo . . . pria ch’altr’ alma / del trïunfo di Cristo fu assunta” (By this heaven, she was received before any other soul of Christ’s triumph [Par. 9.118–20]). And in Paradiso 32, Dante will round out the roster of biblical righteous, adding other notables like John the Baptist.
  2.  unbaptized infants: infants who died before receiving the sacrament of baptism, which washes away original sin, and who therefore are denied salvation. These are the “pargoli innocenti” whom Virgilio describes in Purgatorio 7: “Quivi sto io coi pargoli innocenti / dai denti morsi de la morte avante / che fosser da l’umana colpa essenti” (There I am with the infant innocents, / those whom the teeth of death had seized before / they were set free from human sinfulness [Purg. 7.31-33]). This group is still of great interest to theologians today (see, at the end of this commentary, the discussion of the recent Vatican document that reforms Limbo).

[8] The Biblical righteous were liberated from Limbo by Christ when he harrowed Hell, according to Dante in 34 CE (this is the date for the Harrowing of Hell that Dante supplies in Inferno 21). Therefore, by the time of Dante’s journey in 1300 CE, the Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs were long removed from Hell and lodged in Paradise. In 1300, a theologically orthodox Limbo should house only unbaptized infants. After the removal of the Biblical righteous, there should be no adults whatsoever.

[9] Dante’s divergence from orthodoxy is signaled in the description of the crowds of souls gathered here, composed “of infants and of women and of men”: “d’infanti e di femmine e di viri” (Inf. 4.30). Of the three groups of souls here specified, only infants belong in a theologically correct Limbo. The presence of adults here indicates that Dante has gone in a different and idiosyncratic direction.

[10] Who are these adults in Dante’s Limbo? They are the souls of great non-Christians who lived lives of extreme moral virtue and intellectual accomplishment. Dante’s idiosyncratic handling of Limbo, his deviation from theological orthodoxy, thus becomes an index: with it we can measure his passionate reverence for towering humanistic achievement, irrespective of the faith from which such achievement springs.

[11] In Virgilio’s explanation, these are the souls of those who committed no personal sin of their own but who were not baptized, hence not released from original sin, the “umana colpa” or “human sin” of Purgatorio 7.33. Virgilio is very clear that the souls in Limbo did not sin: “ch’ei non peccaro; e s’elli hanno mercedi, / non basta, perché non ebber battesmo” (they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits, / that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism [Inf. 4.34-5]). According to this account, the failure of these souls to worship Christ is due simply and only to their having lived prior to Christ’s birth: “dinanzi al cristianesmo” (before Christianity [Inf. 4.37]).

[12] Virgilio tells Dante that he himself belongs to this group of pagans who lived “dinanzi al cristianesmo” — “e di questi cotai son io medesmo” (and of such spirits I myself am one [Inf. 4.39]) — and restates categorically that the only “defects” of the souls of Limbo are the ones named above: “Per tai difetti, non per altro rio, / semo perduti” (For these defects, and for no other evil, / we now are lost [Inf. 4.40-1]). Their “defects” are thus that they were not baptized and failed to worship Christ. Their failure, according to this narrative, occurred through no fault of their own, but because of the unfortunate timing of their birth.

[13] However, this narrative has its shortcomings. Virgilio’s clear, straightforward, and consoling explanation for his damnation will become less clear and far less consoling when we arrive in Purgatory and discover, in Purgatorio 1, that the realm of Christian purgation is governed by a saved pagan: Cato of Utica, the Roman statesman for whom Dante had expressed great reverence already in his philosophical treatise, Convivio (circa 1304-1307).

[14] In Purgatorio 1 we learn explicitly that Dante believes that virtuous pagans can be saved and also that, as poet, he has committed to saving them: there will be more saved pagans in Dante’s poem after Cato. Indeed the last saved pagans of the Commedia, the Emperor Trajan and Ripheus the Trojan, will be introduced in the heaven of justice, in Paradiso 20. We will deal with the specific issues raised by each of the saved pagans as we encounter them.

[15] It is important to remember that the total exclusion of pagans from Paradise would not have been problematic for Dante’s original readers. According to Kenelm Foster, while the doctrine of fides implicita existed, contemporary theologians tended to ignore it: “Catholic theology by and large did not much concern itself with the ultimate destiny, in God’s sight, of the pagan world whether before or since the coming of Christ. . . . The concept itself of fides implicita was not lacking . . . but it was hardly a central preoccupation of theologians, nor, in particular, do its implications for an assessment of the spiritual state of the world outside Christendom seem to have been taken very seriously” (Kenelm Foster, ”The Two Dantes,” pp. 171-172, cited in Coordinated Reading).

[16] By committing to save pagans in the Commedia, Dante also enormously complicates his Virgilio-narrative. As a resident of Limbo, Virgilio personally witnessed the Harrowing, the arrival of the “powerful one” who was able to liberate many of his fellows: “Io era nuovo in questo stato, / quando ci vidi venire un possente” (I was new-entered on this state / when I beheld a Great Lord enter here [Inf. 4.52–53]). Dante here cleverly connects the dates of Vergil’s and Christ’s deaths: Vergil died in 19 BCE and Christ died and harrowed Hell in 34 CE. There was thus an interval of fifty-three years between Virgilio’s arrival in Limbo and Christ’s arrival in Limbo. By reminding us that Virgilio arrived in the first circle in 19 BCE, Dante lets us know that Virgilio knows that it is possible to be liberated from Hell, that such salvation can happen, but also that it did not happen for him.

[17] How were Ripheus and Cato liberated from Limbo? Although Dante never specifies, the Commedia’s saved pagans who lived before Christ were necessarily liberated from Limbo by Christ, along with Adam and Moses and the others. The Harrowing interrupts the eternity of Hell, and is preceded by an earthquake that leaves infernal ruins in its wake. By suturing his fictive Virgilio to the Harrowing of Hell, as he does throughout Inferno in the episodes of the ruine, Dante finds a structural way to emphasize the limitations of his beloved guide.

[18] Although Dante doesn’t tell us about the existence of saved pagans in Inferno 4, he has the pilgrim pose the question that leads Virgilio to tell of the Harrowing of Hell. Has any soul ever departed Limbo for blessedness: “uscicci mai alcuno, o per suo merto /o per altrui, che poi fosse beato?” (did any ever go — by his own merit / or others’ — from this place toward blessedness? [Inf. 4.49-50]). In retrospect we realize that this question also anticipates the later discovery of saved pagans.

[19] In sum, Dante deviates from orthodoxy in investing so much in the issue of virtuous pagans that: 1) he designates Limbo as their dwelling-place, and 2) he decides to save some of them. He does this in a cultural context in which both decisions are utterly anomalous.

* * *

[20] Having reconfigured Limbo as a space that houses virtuous non-Christians, Dante now alters the landscape of Hell as a further means of indicating the special status of these souls. He had already stipulated the darkness of the abyss: “Oscura e profonda era e nebulosa” (dark and deep and filled with mist [Inf. 4.10]). Now he designates for the first circle of Hell a light that conquers the darkness: “io vidi un foco / ch’emisperio di tenebre vincia” (I beheld a fire / that carved out a hemisphere from the shadows [Inf. 4.68-9]). This fire is the only light in Hell. Moving towards this light, he finds a “nobile castello” (noble castle [Inf. 4.106]), surrounded by a “bel fiumicello” (beautiful little river [Inf. 4.108]), and a “prato di fresca verdura“ (fresh green meadow [Inf. 4.111]). Here the honorable souls — the poets, philosophers, and heroes — are assembled: “in loco aperto, luminoso e alto, / sì che veder si potien tutti quanti” (an open place both high and filled with light, / so we could see all those who were assembled [Inf. 4.116-17]).

[21] The pilgrim poses a query based on his perception that these souls are treated differently from other souls: ‘‘questi chi son c’hanno cotanta onranza, / che dal modo de li altri li diparte’’ (who are these souls whose dignity has kept / their way of being, separate from the rest? [Inf. 4.74-5]). The remarkable answer is that the honor these souls accrued while alive was such as to win them grace from heaven:

E quelli a me: “L’onrata nominanza, 
che di lor suona sù ne la tua vita,
grazia acquista in ciel che sì li avanza”.   
(Inf. 4.76-8)
And he to me: “The honor of their name
which echoes up above within your life,
gains Heaven’s grace, and that advances them”.

[22] We note the word “nominanza”, derived from “nome” (name). While the names of the cowardly souls in the previous canto are erased from memory, the names of the virtuous pagans live on, winning them glory on earth and even, says Dante — displaying his humanistic values — a special status in Hell. Their names live on, because texts record them. Therefore, if the lists of names in Inferno 4 seem somewhat tedious to read, we can literally “enliven” them. We need only consider that these names are the talismans of well-lived lives that are also well recorded in books: each name summons much cultural history and cultural memory, for which the name stands as a synecdoche.

[23] We remember that the “catalogue of ships” is an epic trope from the Iliad (a trope that Dante knew  from the Aeneid’s catalogues, modeled on Homer’s), and that for Homer, as for Vergil and for Dante, the lists of names testify to the responsibility of the epic poet to preserve a society and a culture. Names thwart time and defy oblivion. Dante himself, who will be embraced by the great poets of antiquity as one of their group, “the sixth among such intellects” — “sesto tra cotanto senno” (Inf. 4.102) — will carry out this epic mission through the Florentine and Italian names recorded in the Commedia, most explicitly in “the Florentine phonebook” of Paradiso 16.

[24] The word “nominanza” is important in the Commedia, as we will see in Purgatorio 11. It hearkens back always to its first use here in Inferno 4, and thus to the deserved fame and special worth of the virtuous non-Christians whose names are recorded here. Moreover, the lists of names in Inferno 4 are fascinating in their multiculturalism. There are names of Hebrews, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Muslims. The Hebrew names are: Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Jacob, Isaac, Jacob’s sons, Rachel. The Greek names are: Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Democritus, Diogenes, Anaxagoras, Thales, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Zeno, Dioscorides, Euclid, Hippocrates, Galen. The Roman names are: Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Aeneas, Caesar, Latinus, Lavinia, Brutus, Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, Cornelia, Cicero, Seneca. The Egyptian names are: Ptolemy, Saladin. The Muslim names are: Avicenna, Averroes, Saladin.

[25] Not only does Dante reverence what the men and women of Inferno 4 accomplished while alive, he believes them to be perfectly good, sinful only in their culturally-induced failure to believe. Dante’s extreme awareness of the cultural barriers to belief in Christ is articulated in the heaven of justice, where the pilgrim asks how it can be just to exclude from heaven a perfectly just man who happens to be born on the banks of the river Indus:

ché tu dicevi: “Un uom nasce a la riva
de l’Indo, e quivi non è chi ragioni
di Cristo né chi legga né chi scriva;
  e tutti suoi voleri e atti buoni
sono, quanto ragione umana vede,
sanza peccato in vita o in sermoni.
  Muore non battezzato e sanza fede:
ov’è questa giustizia che ’l condanna?
ov’è la colpa sua, se ei non crede?” 
(Par. 19.70-78)
For you would say: “A man is born along
the shoreline of the Indus River; none
is there to speak or teach or write of Christ.
  And he, as far as human reason sees,
in all he seeks and all he does is good:
there is no sin within his life or speech.
  And that man dies unbaptized, without faith.
Where is this justice then that would condemn him?
Where is his sin if he does not believe?”

[26] The souls whom Dante places in Limbo pose a challenge to justice similar to that of the “man born on the banks of the Indus” of Paradiso 19. How can it be just, the poet wonders in Paradiso 19, to condemn a person who lived with perfect virtue, just because the circumstances of his birth denied him the knowledge of Christianity? The language that describes the man born on the banks of the Indus — “there is no sin within his life or speech” — can be transposed to Virgilio, and the language that describes the virtuous non-Christians of Inferno 4 can be transposed to the man born on the banks of the Indus. As I explain in “Dante’s Limbo and Equity of Access”, Dante creates two categories of exclusion, focusing more on the first: 1) those who are excluded from the Christian dispensation temporally (being born before the birth of Christ); 2) those who are excluded geographically (being born after the birth of Christ, but in non-Christian lands).

[27] Here we encounter Dante’s great sensitivity to the issue of cultural and textual transmission. The virtuous man of Paradiso 19 lives in a place where there is “no one to speak or teach or write of Christ” (Par. 19.71-2). He requires knowledge of Christ, orally or textually transmitted, in order to be saved, but such knowledge is not available, adding to the injustice of his damnation. In the same vein, in Purgatorio 22 Statius explains that he was saved because of the knowledge of Christ that he received from the texts of the Gospels and (with terrible irony) from the texts of his revered Vergil.

[28] As the testimony of Statius in Purgatorio 22 and the case of the man born on the banks of the Indus of Paradiso 19 testify, knowledge is necessary for salvation. Dante had poignantly analyzed the importance of one’s place of birth already in the Convivio, where he considers the disadvantages that accrue to someone who has no access to a University or educated people: “L’altra è lo difetto del luogo dove la persona è nata e nutrita, che tal ora sarà da ogni studio non solamente privato, ma da gente studiosa lontano” (The other is the handicap that derives from the place where a person is born and bred, which at times will not only lack a university but be far removed from the company of educated persons [Conv. 1.1.4]). He had the advantage of being born in Florence.

[29] Dante’s keen awareness of the structural importance of equity of access to knowledge conditions all his thinking on virtuous non-Christians and their exclusion from the Christian dispensation.

* * *

[30] As we have seen, Dante’s Limbo houses principally virtuous pagans, nonbelievers of classical antiquity, who lived before Christianity. However, Dante also includes in his Limbo three virtuous Muslims, born many centuries after the start of Christianity. The following analysis, which also rotates around the issue of access, is taken from my essay “Dante’s Limbo and Equity of Access” (cited in Coordinated Reading).

[31] How to parse the category of those virtuous souls who lived “before” Christ? Boccaccio in his Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante worries about the legitimacy of including in Limbo, along with adult non-Christians who lived entirely before the birth of Christ, some adult non-Christians who lived after the birth of Christ: “E di questi cotali pone l’autore alquanti, come è Ovidio, Lucano, Seneca, Tolomeo, Avicenna, Galieno e Averoìs” (Among them are Ovid, Lucan, Seneca, Ptolemy, Avicenna, Galen, and Averroes). (See Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, ed. Giorgio Padoan [Verona: Mondadori, 1965], Inferno 4, Esposizione allegorica, §49. The translation is by Michael Papio, Boccaccio’s Expositions on Dante’s “Comedy” [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009], p. 248.)

[32] The non-Christians in Dante’s Limbo who lived in the Christian era prompt Boccaccio to formulate the distinction between ignorantia facti and ignorantia iuris. The first kind of ignorance, ignorance of a fact, is excusable: there can be no guilt if knowledge is impossible to obtain. In the case of ignorantia facti, therefore, the mitigation of the punishment of Hell is warranted for those who otherwise lived virtuously: “e perciò, se per altro ben vissero, non aver altra pena meritata che quella che semplicemente per lo peccato originale è data a coloro” (Hence, if they otherwise lived virtuously, they deserved no punishment other than simply what was meted out for original sin) (Esposizioni, Inf. 4, all., §46; Papio trans., p. 248).

[33] But, continues Boccaccio, the same cannot be said of ignorantia iuris. Once the law has been disseminated, and “the teaching of the Gospels has been preached everywhere,” ignorance is not a legitimate excuse:

E però se, dopo la dottrina evangelica predicata per tutto, è alcuno che quella seguita non   abbia, quantunque per altro virtuosamente vivuto sia, sì come degno di maggior supplicio   per la sua ignoranza, non dee a simil pena esser punito con gli innocenti, ma a molto più    agra. (Esposizioni, Inf. 4., all., §48)

Therefore, once the teaching of the Gospels has been preached everywhere, anyone who did not learn it, no matter how virtuously he lived, must not be given the same punishment that the innocents receive. Rather, he deserves a greater penalty, and one that is far worse, on account of his ignorance. (Papio trans., p. 248)

[34] Boccaccio’s point is that inclusion in Dante’s Limbo under the banner of being a pagan who is guilty only of not knowing Christ becomes more difficult to justify the more deeply we progress into the Christian era, when access to the teaching of the Gospels was available. Returning to Boccaccio’s list of non-Christians in Limbo who lived in the Christian era — “E di questi cotali pone l’autore alquanti, come è Ovidio, Lucano, Seneca, Tolomeo, Avicenna, Galieno e Averoìs” — let us rearrange these souls by year of birth, from earliest to latest. First are those who were born before the Christian era but whose lives extended into the Christian era: Ovid lived 43 BCE to 17 CE, Seneca lived 4 BCE to 65 CE. The next are those who lived in the first two centuries of the Christian era: Lucan lived 39–65 CE, Ptolemy lived ca. 100–ca. 170 CE, Galen lived 129–ca. 200/ca. 216 CE.

[35] But the pressing issue with respect to those souls of Inferno 4 who live after the birth of Christ is constituted not by the threshold pagans like Ovid and Seneca, nor by those living in the early centuries of the Christian era, but by the almost contemporary non-Christians whom Dante nonetheless deems so compellingly virtuous as to put into his Limbo. They are three virtuous Muslims: a Muslim general, Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn, 1138–1193), and two Muslim philosophers, Avicenna (Ibn-Sīnā, 980–1037) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126–1198).

[36] Here is a timeline, made by Laura DiNardo, of the ten souls in Dante’s Limbo who live after the birth of  Christ. This group comprises the seven non-Christians on Boccaccio’s list plus Saladin, Juvenal, and Persius (the latter two are added to Limbo in Purgatorio 22):

[37] Boccaccio himself does not seem to be more worried about the Muslims whom Dante places in Limbo than he is about the pagans of late antiquity, Ptolemy and Galen, whom he intertwines with Avicenna and Averroes in the above list from the Esposizioni. And yet the Muslims necessarily pose a more serious problem, given the very terms of Boccaccio’s analysis, which is based on the degree of dissemination of the Christian gospel. The many centuries that separate Avicenna and Averroes from Ptolemy and Galen guarantee the greater spreading of Christian teaching, and Muslims, who consider Christ a holy prophet, cannot be called ignorant of Christianity.

[38] Because many Muslims lived in non-Christian lands, the question arose for me as to whether Dante viewed them as geographically rather than temporally distanced from Christianity. But, as we saw above in the case of the man born on the banks of the Indus, the very premise of Dante’s category of geographical exclusion is lack of access to Christian teaching, which is not the case for Muslims. In this instance I decided it was best to follow Dante’s contemporary Boccaccio, who accepts without any sign of disturbance that Dante’s analysis places the virtuous Muslims of the Christian era alongside the virtuous pagans of classical antiquity.

[39] However, I do feel the need to register the stunning inconsistency: Dante violates his own rubric “dinanzi al cristianesmo” in order to include virtuous Muslims in his Limbo. His desire to include them must be considered commensurate with his willingness to violate his own rules to do so. Why, indeed, does their knowledge of Christianity not make them more unpalatable to Boccaccio, who is so worried about Ovid having died 17 years after the birth of Christ? Why does Dante feel justified in including Saladin, Avicenna, and Averroes in his Limbo? What makes them so virtuous? These are questions raised by this analysis that will, I hope, be studied by others in the future.

[40] For now, I offer some historical context. Dante never writes harshly about Averroes, in stark comparison to his contemporary, the philosopher Cecco d’Ascoli, whose philosophical poem Acerba is strewn with rabid denunciations of the heretic, “il falso Averoisse” (Acerba 1.2.120). Far from lashing out against Averroes in the Commedia, Dante places him in Limbo and refers to Averroes as more wise than himself (“più savio di te”) in Statius’s phrase in Purgatorio 25.63. And I offer the testimony of Boccaccio, who values Averroes so highly as a transmitter of Aristotle that all other considerations seem to vanish. For Boccaccio, Averroes is a champion of cultural transmission, and hence a champion of equity in access to knowledge. Aristotle may be the “maestro di color che sanno” (master of those who know [Inf. 4.131]), but, as Boccaccio notes, Aristotle is only known to the West because of the towering achievement of his commentator, “Averoìs, che ’l gran comento feo” (Averroes, who made the great Commentary [Inf. 4.144]).

* * *

[41] Because we have recently seen attitudes toward Limbo shift, we have been granted insight into Limbo’s historical function within the Catholic imaginary. The traditional idea of Limbo as a place to mitigate the pain of innocent babies who died before baptism has become increasingly less acceptable in today’s world. We live in a world in which baptism occurs later in an infant’s life than it did traditionally. For instance, my father was born in Vicenza in 1910, and his baptismal clothes are suitable for an infant whose age is measured in weeks, not in months, as per the mothers seeking information on this site. Changes in the attitudes of believers have placed greater pressure on the Church to explain how innocent infants — the “pargoli innocenti” of Purgtorio 7.31 — can be sent to Hell for eternity.

[42] As a result the Catholic Church has recently moved to reform the idea of Limbo. In the document “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized”, the International Theological Commission published its finding, in January 2007, that (according to the opening description): “without minimizing the importance of Baptism in any way, there is nonetheless hope of salvation for infants who die without benefit of that sacrament”. In the document’s stunning conclusion we find the following:

What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament. Rather, as we want to reaffirm in conclusion, they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the church” (§103).

For the full document, see here and for the change in the Church, see this page.

[43] The Commission’s finding is effectivly the Harrowing of Hell of 2007. In this context, Dante’s Limbo may not seem so radical. But Dante’s Limbo remains as radical as ever, for Dante’s attention is captured not by the unbaptized infants of Christian parents who have always interested theologians but by a completely different group. Dante’s wholly original project is to imagine a Limbo that mitigates the suffering of non-Christian adults. Dante uses the concept of Limbo to engage in passionate promotion of great and virtuous souls who belong to cultures and religions different from his own. His revisionary ideas thus stand out in his own time — and still in ours.

 

Appendix

Giorgio Padoan (1969) and Chiara Franceschini (2017) on Limbo

Excerpt from: Teodolinda Barolini, “Dante’s Limbo and Equity of Access: Non-Christians, Children, and Criteria of Inclusion and Exclusion, from Inferno 4 to Paradiso 32”

[44] In 1969, Giorgio Padoan published “Il Limbo dantesco,” a groundbreaking essay that affirms and documents the radical tenor of Dante’s Limbo. Padoan points to Dante’s inclusion of adults in his Limbo, the virtuous pagans of antiquity and even some contemporary Muslims, as a massive deviation from the contemporary theology of Limbo. He points also to the failure of Dante scholarship to evaluate the significance of Dante’s deviation, although Dante’s deviation amounts to an unparalleled intervention into the history of this particular theological idea. Padoan is explicit about the remarkable anomaly of including adults in Limbo, claiming, correctly, that Dante “si oppone drasticamente a tutta la tradizione teologica del suo tempo (ed anche successiva) dichiarando che nel Limbo si trovano non solo bimbi morti in tenerissima età ma anche adulti” (Dante drastically opposes the entire theological tradition of his time, and the successive tradition as well, when he declares that Limbo holds not only babies who died as infants but also adults).[i] Very important here, and prophetic with respect to recent changes in church doctrine on Limbo, is Padoan’s note that only in the twentieth century were adults added to Limbo, referring explicitly to those who are intellectually or culturally disabled: “Solo agli inizi del nostro secolo la teologia cattolica ha ammesso che nel Limbo accanto ai bimbi possano essere anche degli adulti: ma in tal caso si tratterebbe di persone intellettualmente ritardate, o dell’età preistorica o di tribù primitive, e simili” (Only at the beginning of our century did Catholic theology admit that next to the infants there could also be adults: but in this case they were people who were intellectually retarded, or from prehistoric times or primitive tribes, or the like).[ii]

[45] With respect to the state of Dante scholarship on Limbo, Padoan notes that, instead of historicizing and thereby measuring Dante’s deviations from the theology of Limbo, “modern commentaries” (by which he means commentaries written before the time of his writing, in the late 1960s) minimize the differences between the poet and the theological tradition:

I commenti moderni hanno sottolineato, giustamente, soprattutto la viva ammirazione che Dante qui esterna con ogni evidenza per il mondo antico, anzi per le virtù intellettuali, civili e morali dell’uomo; ma, tranne qualche rapido cenno, peraltro non posto risolutamente al centro del discorso e quindi non sviluppato conseguentemente, non hanno affrontato il problema sul versante strettamente teologico; e quelli che più, per i loro interessi ideologici, avrebbero dovuto sentirsi impegnati a misurare precisamente il divario che distacca qui l’Alighieri dalle concezioni teologiche correnti nel suo tempo si sono invece sentiti in dovere, cedendo forse a sollecitazioni agiografiche, di minimizzare le diversità tentando di ricondurre il poeta entro i binari bonaventuriani e tomisti: come se tacere o minimizzare o addirittura falsare i termini di un problema, qual che esso sia, serva a qualcosa.  [iii]

[Modern commentaries have underlined, correctly, the strong admiration for antiquity that Dante here makes manifest, especially for its intellectual, civic, and moral virtues. However, but for an occasional remark, not central or developed, these critics did not confront the issue from a strictly theological perspective; and those critics who could best have engaged in measuring with precision the distance that here separates Dante from contemporary theological belief instead felt obligated, perhaps yielding to the solicitations of hagiography, to minimize those differences. They tried to situate Dante within Bonaventurian and Thomistic paradigms, as though it could be useful to silence, minimize, or indeed to falsify the terms of the debate.]

[46] Padoan’s 1969 essay does the work of measuring the distance that separates Dante from theological orthodoxy with respect to Limbo. His rigorous and creative scholarship offered me, as a graduate student in the 1970s, my first insight into the immense gains of historicizing in the field of Dante studies: in this case, the gains of historicizing the idea of Limbo. By historicizing Limbo, Padoan opens our eyes to the radical nature of Dante’s thought; he was the first critic to show me that Dante is capable of — even sometimes inclined to — radical thought. Padoan does not exaggerate when he writes, in the conclusion of “Il Limbo dantesco,” that Dante’s treatment of Limbo constitutes a conscious violation of theological thought: “è una violazione consapevole e risoluta di quanto al proposito aveva elaborato l’investigazione teologica” (it is a conscious and resolute violation of what had been proposed by theological investigation).[iv]

[47] However, scholarly commentaries that accumulate over many centuries are slow to progress, and Padoan’s masterful historical contextualization of Dante’s Limbo has still to be fully integrated into the reception of Inferno 4. Most unfortunately, the recent Storia del limbo of 2017 by Chiara Franceschini does not register the existence of Padoan’s essay.[v] A comprehensive study of this sort, more than two-thirds of it devoted to the post-medieval period, cannot of course be expected to master every individual bibliography. But Dante’s Limbo is, literally, an exceptional case, and therefore a better understanding of the historiography with respect to Dante is essential. The author’s treatment of the ancient commentators is more useful and balanced than her treatment of contemporary historiography, although with respect to the ancients too we would profit from a greater ability to contextualize a given commentator: for instance, Boccaccio is consistently more squeamish about any sign of heterodoxy than, say, Benvenuto da Imola. In fact, Boccaccio’s sensitivity to church doctrine leads him to be particularly acute on Inferno 4 and therefore to figure prominently in this essay.[vi] Franceschini’s treatment of modern scholarship on Dante’s Limbo is scattershot. She both dignifies hypotheses that have not achieved any critical traction — for instance, Montanelli’s hypothesis that Dante moves away from the radical nature of his Limbo over the course of the three cantiche — and ignores fundamental contributions like Padoan’s. And, at the end of her analysis, Franceschini arrives at perplexity: a perplexity based on an unwillingness to countenance Dante’s exceptionalism.

[48] Perhaps because of a methodology founded on demonstrating iron-clad transmission, Franceschini finds it difficult to accept that Dante invented the idea of putting adult virtuous pagans in Limbo. Her chapter 3, “Dante e il limbo dei pagani,” thus devotes itself to searching for the missing precursor. While she critiques Dante scholars for referring to “una supposta ‘norma,’ una cosiddetta ‘dottrina tradizionale’” (a supposed “norm,” a so-called “traditional doctrine”), Franceschini herself confirms the existence of just such a doctrine and such a norm and is stymied by Dante’s anomalous deviation from it.[vii] Murky as the traditional doctrine may be, it is in fact very clear in not admitting adults to Limbo.

[49] Franceschini’s account of Inferno 4, “Dante e il limbo dei pagani,” although titled in such a way as to indicate precise awareness of the newness of Dante’s conception, nonetheless focuses on an unsatisfactory search for a theological precursor, which she attempts to locate in Augustine’s Contra Iulianum.[viii] Padoan had discussed the same text, pointing out that Dante takes as his the position that Augustine discredits.Iulianum.[ix] Emblematic of Franceschini’s resistance to the reality of Dante’s exceptionalism is the conclusion that follows:

Ma è difficile stabilire fino a che punto il limbo descritto nel canto IV, e in particolare l’associazione tra un nutrito gruppo di pagani virtuosi e il limbo, sia sostanzialmente un’invenzione letteraria di Dante o se sia basato su qualche       precedente testuale che può essere individuato con certezza (e che sarebbe importante per noi, in quanto attesterebbe una circolazione più ampia dell’idea del limbo dei pagani). (Franceschini, Storia del limbo, p. 87)[x]

[But it is difficult to establish up to what point the Limbo described in canto 4, and in particular the association of a sizable group of virtuous pagans with Limbo, is substantially a literary invention of Dante’s or whether it is based on a textual precedent that we can identify with certainty (and which would be important for us, in as much as it would testify to a more ample circulation of the idea of the Limbo of pagans).]

[50] Franceschini’s clinging to the hope of a textual precedent that has not yet been identified is a feature of Dantean historiography over the centuries: I think, for instance, of the scholars who have expressed the hope that we will find incontrovertible archival “proof” of Brunetto Latini’s homosexuality. Always misplaced as a way of dealing with Dante (who is willing to transform his precursors even when he does have them), in the case of Limbo the hope for a precedent is further belied by Franceschini’s own investigative zeal and precision. Failing to turn up any precedent to Dante’s “invenzione letteraria,” Franceschini’s concluding statement testifies to an unwillingness to credit the role of outsized imagination in the history of ideas.

[i] Giorgio Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” orig. 1969, repr. in Il pio Enea, l’empio Ulisse (Ravenna: Longo, 1977), pp. 101-24, citation p. 105. Translations mine.

[ii] Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” p. 105, note 9.

[iii] Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” pp. 103–4.

[iv] Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” p. 124.

[v] Chiara Franceschini, Storia del limbo (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2017), pp. 76-94.

[vi] In “Contemporaries Who Found Heterodoxy in Dante: Cecco d’Ascoli, Boccaccio, and Benvenuto da Imola on Fortuna and Inferno 7.89,” I analyze the accusation of determinism that Cecco d’Ascoli lodges against Dante vis-à-vis Fortuna, comparing Benvenuto’s robust defense of Dante to Boccaccio’s timid response, in which he deferentially leaves the matter to be decided by the Church.

[vii] “È abbastanza curioso come, di fronte del compito di interpretare le parti della Commedia dedicate al limbo, molti dei lettori, sia antichi sia moderni, abbiano fatto riferimento a una supposta ‘norma,’ una cosiddetta ‘dottrina tradizionale’ che in realtà, come abbiamo visto, era di per sé molto problematica”  (Franceschini, Storia del limbo, 78).

[viii] Franceschini, Storia del limbo, p. 87.

[ix] Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” pp. 106-7.

[x] Franceschini, Storia del limbo, p. 87.

Coordinated Reading

“Dante’s Limbo and Equity of Access: Non-Christians, Children, and Criteria of Inclusion and Exclusion, from Inferno 4 to Paradiso 32," Italian Quarterly (2022); The Undivine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), Chapter 2, “Infernal Incipits: The Poetics of the New,” pp. 38-40; "Q: Does Dante Hope for Vergil’s Salvation? A: Why Do We Care? For the Very Reason We Should Not Ask the Question”, orig. 1990, rpt. Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture (New York: Fordham U. Press, 2006), pp. 151-57; “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other, or the Non-Stereotyping Imagination: Sexual and Racialized Others in the Commedia,” Critica del testo 14 (2011): 177-204; Giorgio Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” orig. 1969, repr. in Il pio Enea, l’empio Ulisse (Ravenna: Longo, 1977), pp. 101-24; Kenelm Foster, "The Two Dantes", in The Two Dantes and Other Studies (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977); Chiara Franceschini, Storia del limbo (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2017), ch. 3, "Dante e il limbo dei pagani," pp. 76-94.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 4: Non-Christians in the Christian Afterlife.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-4/
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Commento Table of Contents

1 Ruppemi l’alto sonno ne la testa
2 un greve truono, sì ch’io mi riscossi
3 come persona ch’è per forza desta;

4 e l’occhio riposato intorno mossi,
5 dritto levato, e fiso riguardai
6 per conoscer lo loco dov’ io fossi.

7 Vero è che ’n su la proda mi trovai
8 de la valle d’abisso dolorosa
9 che ’ntrono accoglie d’infiniti guai.

10 Oscura e profonda era e nebulosa
11 tanto che, per ficcar lo viso a fondo,
12 io non vi discernea alcuna cosa.

13 «Or discendiam qua giù nel cieco mondo»,
14 cominciò il poeta tutto smorto.
15 «Io sarò primo, e tu sarai secondo».

16 E io, che del color mi fui accorto,
17 dissi: «Come verrò, se tu paventi
18 che suoli al mio dubbiare esser conforto?».

19 Ed elli a me: «L’angoscia de le genti
20 che son qua giù, nel viso mi dipigne
21 quella pietà che tu per tema senti.

22 Andiam, ché la via lunga ne sospigne».
23 Così si mise e così mi fé intrare
24 nel primo cerchio che l’abisso cigne.

25 Quivi, secondo che per ascoltare,
26 non avea pianto mai che di sospiri,
27 che l’aura etterna facevan tremare;

28 ciò avvenia di duol senza martìri,
29 ch’avean le turbe, ch’eran molte e grandi,
30 d’infanti e di femmine e di viri.

31 Lo buon maestro a me: «Tu non dimandi
32 che spiriti son questi che tu vedi?
33 Or vo’ che sappi, innanzi che più andi,

34 ch’ei non peccaro; e s’elli hanno mercedi,
35 non basta, perché non ebber battesmo,
36 ch’è porta de la fede che tu credi;

37 e s’e’ furon dinanzi al cristianesmo,
38 non adorar debitamente a Dio:
39 e di questi cotai son io medesmo.

40 Per tai difetti, non per altro rio,
41 semo perduti, e sol di tanto offesi,
42 che sanza speme vivemo in disio».

43 Gran duol mi prese al cor quando lo ’ntesi,
44 però che gente di molto valore
45 conobbi che ’n quel limbo eran sospesi.

46 «Dimmi, maestro mio, dimmi, segnore»,
47 comincia’ io per voler esser certo
48 di quella fede che vince ogne errore:

49 «uscicci mai alcuno, o per suo merto
50 o per altrui, che poi fosse beato?».
51 E quei che ’ntese il mio parlar coverto,

52 rispuose: «Io era nuovo in questo stato,
53 quando ci vidi venire un possente,
54 con segno di vittoria coronato.

55 Trasseci l’ombra del primo parente,
56 d’Abèl suo figlio e quella di Noè,
57 di Moïsè legista e ubidente;

58 Abraàm patrïarca e Davìd re,
59 Israèl con lo padre e co’ suoi nati
60 e con Rachele, per cui tanto fé;

61 e altri molti, e feceli beati.
62 E vo’ che sappi che, dinanzi ad essi,
63 spiriti umani non eran salvati».

64 Non lasciavam l’andar perch’ ei dicessi,
65 ma passavam la selva tuttavia,
66 la selva, dico, di spiriti spessi.

67 Non era lunga ancor la nostra via
68 di qua dal sonno, quand’ io vidi un foco
69 ch’emisperio di tenebre vincia.

70 Di lungi n’eravamo ancora un poco,
71 ma non sì ch’io non discernessi in parte
72 ch’orrevol gente possedea quel loco.

73 «O tu ch’onori scïenzïa e arte,
74 questi chi son c’hanno cotanta onranza,
75 che dal modo de li altri li diparte?».

76 E quelli a me: «L’onrata nominanza
77 che di lor suona sù ne la tua vita,
78 grazïa acquista in ciel che sì li avanza».

79 Intanto voce fu per me udita:
80 «Onorate l’altissimo poeta;
81 l’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartita».

82 Poi che la voce fu restata e queta,
83 vidi quattro grand’ ombre a noi venire:
84 sembianz’ avevan né trista né lieta.

85 Lo buon maestro cominciò a dire:
86 «Mira colui con quella spada in mano,
87 che vien dinanzi ai tre sì come sire:

88 quelli è Omero poeta sovrano;
89 l’altro è Orazio satiro che vene;
90 Ovidio è ’l terzo, e l’ultimo Lucano.

91 Però che ciascun meco si convene
92 nel nome che sonò la voce sola,
93 fannomi onore, e di ciò fanno bene».

94 Così vid’ i’ adunar la bella scola
95 di quel segnor de l’altissimo canto
96 che sovra li altri com’ aquila vola.

97 Da ch’ebber ragionato insieme alquanto,
98 volsersi a me con salutevol cenno,
99 e ’l mio maestro sorrise di tanto;

100 e più d’onore ancora assai mi fenno,
101 ch’e’ sì mi fecer de la loro schiera,
102 sì ch’io fui sesto tra cotanto senno.

103 Così andammo infino a la lumera,
104 parlando cose che ’l tacere è bello,
105 sì com’ era ’l parlar colà dov’ era.

106 Venimmo al piè d’un nobile castello,
107 sette volte cerchiato d’alte mura,
108 difeso intorno d’un bel fiumicello.

109 Questo passammo come terra dura;
110 per sette porte intrai con questi savi:
111 giugnemmo in prato di fresca verdura.

112 Genti v’eran con occhi tardi e gravi,
113 di grande autorità ne’ lor sembianti:
114 parlavan rado, con voci soavi.

115 Traemmoci così da l’un de’ canti,
116 in loco aperto, luminoso e alto,
117 sì che veder si potien tutti quanti.

118 Colà diritto, sovra ’l verde smalto,
119 mi fuor mostrati li spiriti magni,
120 che del vedere in me stesso m’essalto.

121 I’ vidi Eletra con molti compagni,
122 tra ’ quai conobbi Ettòr ed Enea,
123 Cesare armato con li occhi grifagni.

124 Vidi Cammilla e la Pantasilea;
125 da l’altra parte vidi ’l re Latino
126 che con Lavina sua figlia sedea.

127 Vidi quel Bruto che cacciò Tarquino,
128 Lucrezia, Iulia, Marzïa e Corniglia;
129 e solo, in parte, vidi ’l Saladino.

130 Poi ch’innalzai un poco più le ciglia,
131 vidi ’l maestro di color che sanno
132 seder tra filosofica famiglia.

133 Tutti lo miran, tutti onor li fanno:
134 quivi vid’ ïo Socrate e Platone,
135 che ’nnanzi a li altri più presso li stanno;

136 Democrito, che ’l mondo a caso pone,
137 Dïogenès, Anassagora e Tale,
138 Empedoclès, Eraclito e Zenone;

139 e vidi il buono accoglitor del quale,
140 Dïascoride dico; e vidi Orfeo,
141 Tulïo e Lino e Seneca morale;

142 Euclide geomètra e Tolomeo,
143 Ipocràte, Avicenna e Galïeno,
144 Averoìs, che ’l gran comento feo.

145 Io non posso ritrar di tutti a pieno,
146 però che sì mi caccia il lungo tema,
147 che molte volte al fatto il dir vien meno.

148 La sesta compagnia in due si scema:
149 per altra via mi mena il savio duca,
150 fuor de la queta, ne l’ aura che trema.

151 E vegno in parte ove non è che luca.

The heavy sleep within my head was smashed
by an enormous thunderclap, so that
I started up as one whom force awakens;

I stood erect and turned my rested eyes
from side to side, and I stared steadily
to learn what place it was surrounding me.

In truth I found myself upon the brink
of an abyss, the melancholy valley
containing thundering, unending wailings.

That valley, dark and deep and filled with mist,
is such that, though I gazed into its pit,
I was unable to discern a thing.

“Let us descend into the blind world now,”
the poet, who was deathly pale, began;
“I shall go first and you will follow me.”

But I, who’d seen the change in his complexion,
said: “How shall I go on if you are frightened,
you who have always helped dispel my doubts?”

And he to me: “The anguish of the people
whose place is here below, has touched my face
with the compassion you mistake for fear.

Let us go on, the way that waits is long.”
So he set out, and so he had me enter
on that first circle girdling the abyss.

Here, for as much as hearing could discover,
there was no outcry louder than the sighs
that caused the everlasting air to tremble.

The sighs arose from sorrow without torments,
out of the crowds—the many multitudes—
of infants and of women and of men.

The kindly master said: “Do you not ask
who are these spirits whom you see before you?
I’d have you know, before you go ahead,

they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,
that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,
the portal of the faith that you embrace.

And if they lived before Christianity,
they did not worship God in fitting ways;
and of such spirits I myself am one.

For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished just with this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing.”

Great sorrow seized my heart on hearing him,
for I had seen some estimable men
among the souls suspended in that limbo.

“Tell me, my master, tell me, lord.” I then
began because I wanted to be certain
of that belief which vanquishes all errors,

“did any ever go—by his own merit
or others’—from this place toward blessedness?”
And he, who understood my covert speech,

replied: “I was new—entered on this state
when I beheld a Great Lord enter here;
the crown he wore, a sign of victory.

He carried off the shade of our first father,
of his son Abel, and the shade of Noah,
of Moses, the obedient legislator,

of father Abraham, David the king,
of Israel, his father, and his sons,
and Rachel, she for whom he worked so long,

and many others—and He made them blessed;
and I should have you know that, before them,
there were no human souls that had been saved.”

We did not stay our steps although he spoke;
we still continued onward through the wood—
the wood, I say, where many spirits thronged.

Our path had not gone far beyond the point
where I had slept, when I beheld a fire
win out against a hemisphere of shadows.

We still were at a little distance from it,
but not so far I could not see in part
that honorable men possessed that place.

“O you who honor art and science both,
who are these souls whose dignity has kept
their way of being, separate from the rest?”

And he to me: “The honor of their name,
which echoes up above within your life,
gains Heaven’s grace, and that advances them.”

Meanwhile there was a voice that I could hear:
“Pay honor to the estimable poet;
his shadow, which had left us, now returns.”

After that voice was done, when there was silence,
I saw four giant shades approaching us;
in aspect, they were neither sad nor joyous.

My kindly master then began by saying:
“Look well at him who holds that sword in hand
who moves before the other three as lord.

That shade is Homer, the consummate poet;
the other one is Horace, satirist;
the third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.

Because each of these spirits shares with me
the name called out before by the lone voice,
they welcome me—and, doing that, do well.”

And so I saw that splendid school assembled
led by the lord of song incomparable,
who like an eagle soars above the rest.

Soon after they had talked a while together,
they turned to me, saluting cordially;
and having witnessed this, my master smiled;

and even greater honor then was mine,
for they invited me to join their ranks—
I was the sixth among such intellects.

So did we move along and toward the light,
talking of things about which silence here
is just as seemly as our speech was there.

We reached the base of an exalted castle,
encircled seven times by towering walls,
defended all around by a fair stream.

We forded this as if upon hard ground;
I entered seven portals with these sages;
we reached a meadow of green flowering plants.

The people here had eyes both grave and slow;
their features carried great authority;
they spoke infrequently, with gentle voices.

We drew aside to one part of the meadow,
an open place both high and filled with light,
and we could see all those who were assembled.

Facing me there, on the enameled green,
great—hearted souls were shown to me and I
still glory in my having witnessed them.

I saw Electra with her many comrades,
among whom I knew Hector and Aeneas,
and Caesar, in his armor, falcon-eyed.

I saw Camilla and Penthesilea
and, on the other side, saw King Latinus,
who sat beside Lavinia, his daughter.

I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin out,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia,
and, solitary, set apart, Saladin.

When I had raised my eyes a little higher,
I saw the master of the men who know
seated in philosophic family.

There all look up to him, all do him honor:
there I beheld both Socrates and Plato,
closest to him, in front of all the rest;

Democritus, who ascribes the world to chance,
Diogenes, Empedocles, and Zeno,
and Thales, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus;

I saw the good collector of medicinals,
I mean Dioscorides; and I saw Orpheus,
and Tully, Linus, moral Seneca;

and Euclid the geometer, and Ptolemy,
Hippocrates and Galen, Avicenna,
Averroes, of the great Commentary.

I cannot here describe them all in full;
my ample theme impels me onward so:
what’s told is often less than the event.

The company of six divides in two;
my knowing guide leads me another way,
beyond the quiet, into trembling air.

And I have reached a part where no thing gleams.

BROKE the deep lethargy within my head
A heavy thunder, so that I upstarted,
Like to a person who by force is wakened;

And round about I moved my rested eyes,
Uprisen erect, and steadfastly I gazed,
To recognise the place wherein I was.

True is it, that upon the verge I found me
Of the abysmal valley dolorous,
That gathers thunder of infinite ululations.

Obscure, profound it was, and nebulous,
So that by fixing on its depths my sight
Nothing whatever I discerned therein.

“Let us descend now into the blind world,”
Began the Poet, pallid utterly;
“I will be first, and thou shalt second be.”

And I, who of his colour was aware,
Said: “How shall I come, if thou art afraid,
Who’rt wont to be a comfort to my fears ?”

And he to me: “The anguish of the people
Who are below here in my face depicts
That pity which for terror thou hast taken.

Let us go on, for the long way impels us.”
Thus he went in, and thus he made me enter
The foremost circle that surrounds the abyss.

There, as it seemed to me from listening,
Were lamentations none, but only sighs,
That tremble made the everlasting air.

And this arose from sorrow without torment,
Which the crowds had, that many were and great
Of infants and of women and of men.

To me the Master good: “Thou dost not ask
What spirits these, which thou beholdest, are ?
Now will I have thee know, ere thou go farther,

That they sinned not; and if they merit had,
‘Tis not enough, because they had not baptism
Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest;

And if they were before Christianity,
In the right manner they adored not God;
And among such as these am I myself

For such defects, and not for other guilt,
Lost are we and are only so far punished,
That without hope we live on in desire.”

Great grief seized on my heart when this I heard,
Because some people of much worthiness
I knew, who in that Limbo were suspended.

“Tell me, my Master, tell me, thou my Lord,”
Began I, with desire of being certain
Of that Faith which o’ercometh every error,

“Came any one by his own merit hence,
Or by another’s, who was blessed thereafter ?”
And he, who understood my covert speech,

Replied: “I was a novice in this state,
When I saw hither come a Mighty One,
With sign of victory incoronate.

Hence he drew forth the shade of the First Parent,
And that of his son Abel, and of Noah,
Of Moses the lawgiver, and the obedient

Abraham, patriarch, and David, king,
Israel with his father and his children,
And Rachel, for whose sake he did so much,

And others many, and he made them blessed;
And thou must know, that earlier than these
Never were any human spirits saved.”

We ceased not to advance because he spake,
But still were passing onward through the forest
The forest, say I, of thick—crowded ghosts.

Not very far as yet our way had gone
This side the summit, when I saw a fire
That overcame a hemisphere of darkness.

We were a little distant from it still,
But not so far that I in part discerned not
That honourable people held that place.

“O thou who honourest every art and science,
Who may these be, which such great honour have,
That from the fashion of the rest it parts them ?”

And he to me: “The honourable name,
That sounds of them above there in thy life,
Wins grace in Heaven, that so advances them.”

In the mean time a voice was heard by me:
“All honour be to the pre—eminent Poet;
His shade returns again, that was departed.”

After the voice had ceased and quiet was,
Four mighty shades I saw approaching us;
Semblance had they nor sorrowful nor glad.

To say to me began my gracious Master:
“Him with that falchion in his hand behold,
Who comes before the three, even as their lord.

That one is Homer, Poet sovereign;
He who comes next is Horace, the satirist;
The third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.

Because to each of these with me applies
The name that solitary voice proclaimed,
They do me honour, and in that do well.”

Thus I beheld assemble the fair school
Of that lord of the song pre—eminent,
Who o’er the others like an eagle soars.

When they together had discoursed somewhat,
They turned to me with signs of salutation,
And on beholding this, my Master smiled;

And more of honour still, much more, they did me,
In that they made me one of their own band
So that the sixth was I, ‘mid so much wit.

Thus we went on as far as to the light,
Things saying ’tis becoming to keep silent,
As was the saying of them where I was.

We came unto a noble castle’s foot,
Seven times encompassed with lofty walls,
Defended round by a fair rivulet;

This we passed over even as firm ground;
Through portals seven I entered with these sages
We came into a meadow of fresh verdure.

People were there with solemn eyes and slow,
Of great authority in their countenance;
They spake but seldom, and with gentle voices.

Thus we withdrew ourselves upon one side
Into an opening luminous and lofty,
So that they all of them were visible.

There opposite, upon the green enamel,
Were pointed out to me the mighty spirits,
Whom to have seen I feel myself exalted.

I saw Electra with companions many,
‘Mongst whom I knew both Hector and Aenas,
Caesar in armour with gerfalcon eyes;

I saw Camilla and Penthesilea
On the other side, and saw the King Latinus,
Who with Lavinia his daughter sat;

I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin forth,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia,
And saw alone, apart, the Saladin.

When I had lifted up my brows a little,
The Master I beheld of those who know,
Sit with his philosophic family.

All gaze upon him, and all do him honour.
There I beheld both Socrates and Plato,
Who nearer him before the others stand;

Democritus, who puts the world on chance,
Diogenes, Anaxagoros, and Thales,
Zeno, Empedocles, and Heraclitus;

Of qualities I saw the good collector,
Hight Dioscorides; and Orpheus saw I,
Tully and Livy, and moral Seneca,

Euclid, geometrician, and Ptolemy,
Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna,
Averroes, who the great Comment made.

I cannot all of them pourtray in full,
Because so drives me onward the long theme,
That many times the word comes short of fact.

The sixfold company in two divides;
Another way my sapient Guide conducts me
Forth from the quiet to the air that trembles;

And to a place I come where nothing shines.

The heavy sleep within my head was smashed
by an enormous thunderclap, so that
I started up as one whom force awakens;

I stood erect and turned my rested eyes
from side to side, and I stared steadily
to learn what place it was surrounding me.

In truth I found myself upon the brink
of an abyss, the melancholy valley
containing thundering, unending wailings.

That valley, dark and deep and filled with mist,
is such that, though I gazed into its pit,
I was unable to discern a thing.

“Let us descend into the blind world now,”
the poet, who was deathly pale, began;
“I shall go first and you will follow me.”

But I, who’d seen the change in his complexion,
said: “How shall I go on if you are frightened,
you who have always helped dispel my doubts?”

And he to me: “The anguish of the people
whose place is here below, has touched my face
with the compassion you mistake for fear.

Let us go on, the way that waits is long.”
So he set out, and so he had me enter
on that first circle girdling the abyss.

Here, for as much as hearing could discover,
there was no outcry louder than the sighs
that caused the everlasting air to tremble.

The sighs arose from sorrow without torments,
out of the crowds—the many multitudes—
of infants and of women and of men.

The kindly master said: “Do you not ask
who are these spirits whom you see before you?
I’d have you know, before you go ahead,

they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,
that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,
the portal of the faith that you embrace.

And if they lived before Christianity,
they did not worship God in fitting ways;
and of such spirits I myself am one.

For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished just with this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing.”

Great sorrow seized my heart on hearing him,
for I had seen some estimable men
among the souls suspended in that limbo.

“Tell me, my master, tell me, lord.” I then
began because I wanted to be certain
of that belief which vanquishes all errors,

“did any ever go—by his own merit
or others’—from this place toward blessedness?”
And he, who understood my covert speech,

replied: “I was new—entered on this state
when I beheld a Great Lord enter here;
the crown he wore, a sign of victory.

He carried off the shade of our first father,
of his son Abel, and the shade of Noah,
of Moses, the obedient legislator,

of father Abraham, David the king,
of Israel, his father, and his sons,
and Rachel, she for whom he worked so long,

and many others—and He made them blessed;
and I should have you know that, before them,
there were no human souls that had been saved.”

We did not stay our steps although he spoke;
we still continued onward through the wood—
the wood, I say, where many spirits thronged.

Our path had not gone far beyond the point
where I had slept, when I beheld a fire
win out against a hemisphere of shadows.

We still were at a little distance from it,
but not so far I could not see in part
that honorable men possessed that place.

“O you who honor art and science both,
who are these souls whose dignity has kept
their way of being, separate from the rest?”

And he to me: “The honor of their name,
which echoes up above within your life,
gains Heaven’s grace, and that advances them.”

Meanwhile there was a voice that I could hear:
“Pay honor to the estimable poet;
his shadow, which had left us, now returns.”

After that voice was done, when there was silence,
I saw four giant shades approaching us;
in aspect, they were neither sad nor joyous.

My kindly master then began by saying:
“Look well at him who holds that sword in hand
who moves before the other three as lord.

That shade is Homer, the consummate poet;
the other one is Horace, satirist;
the third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.

Because each of these spirits shares with me
the name called out before by the lone voice,
they welcome me—and, doing that, do well.”

And so I saw that splendid school assembled
led by the lord of song incomparable,
who like an eagle soars above the rest.

Soon after they had talked a while together,
they turned to me, saluting cordially;
and having witnessed this, my master smiled;

and even greater honor then was mine,
for they invited me to join their ranks—
I was the sixth among such intellects.

So did we move along and toward the light,
talking of things about which silence here
is just as seemly as our speech was there.

We reached the base of an exalted castle,
encircled seven times by towering walls,
defended all around by a fair stream.

We forded this as if upon hard ground;
I entered seven portals with these sages;
we reached a meadow of green flowering plants.

The people here had eyes both grave and slow;
their features carried great authority;
they spoke infrequently, with gentle voices.

We drew aside to one part of the meadow,
an open place both high and filled with light,
and we could see all those who were assembled.

Facing me there, on the enameled green,
great—hearted souls were shown to me and I
still glory in my having witnessed them.

I saw Electra with her many comrades,
among whom I knew Hector and Aeneas,
and Caesar, in his armor, falcon-eyed.

I saw Camilla and Penthesilea
and, on the other side, saw King Latinus,
who sat beside Lavinia, his daughter.

I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin out,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia,
and, solitary, set apart, Saladin.

When I had raised my eyes a little higher,
I saw the master of the men who know
seated in philosophic family.

There all look up to him, all do him honor:
there I beheld both Socrates and Plato,
closest to him, in front of all the rest;

Democritus, who ascribes the world to chance,
Diogenes, Empedocles, and Zeno,
and Thales, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus;

I saw the good collector of medicinals,
I mean Dioscorides; and I saw Orpheus,
and Tully, Linus, moral Seneca;

and Euclid the geometer, and Ptolemy,
Hippocrates and Galen, Avicenna,
Averroes, of the great Commentary.

I cannot here describe them all in full;
my ample theme impels me onward so:
what’s told is often less than the event.

The company of six divides in two;
my knowing guide leads me another way,
beyond the quiet, into trembling air.

And I have reached a part where no thing gleams.

BROKE the deep lethargy within my head
A heavy thunder, so that I upstarted,
Like to a person who by force is wakened;

And round about I moved my rested eyes,
Uprisen erect, and steadfastly I gazed,
To recognise the place wherein I was.

True is it, that upon the verge I found me
Of the abysmal valley dolorous,
That gathers thunder of infinite ululations.

Obscure, profound it was, and nebulous,
So that by fixing on its depths my sight
Nothing whatever I discerned therein.

“Let us descend now into the blind world,”
Began the Poet, pallid utterly;
“I will be first, and thou shalt second be.”

And I, who of his colour was aware,
Said: “How shall I come, if thou art afraid,
Who’rt wont to be a comfort to my fears ?”

And he to me: “The anguish of the people
Who are below here in my face depicts
That pity which for terror thou hast taken.

Let us go on, for the long way impels us.”
Thus he went in, and thus he made me enter
The foremost circle that surrounds the abyss.

There, as it seemed to me from listening,
Were lamentations none, but only sighs,
That tremble made the everlasting air.

And this arose from sorrow without torment,
Which the crowds had, that many were and great
Of infants and of women and of men.

To me the Master good: “Thou dost not ask
What spirits these, which thou beholdest, are ?
Now will I have thee know, ere thou go farther,

That they sinned not; and if they merit had,
‘Tis not enough, because they had not baptism
Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest;

And if they were before Christianity,
In the right manner they adored not God;
And among such as these am I myself

For such defects, and not for other guilt,
Lost are we and are only so far punished,
That without hope we live on in desire.”

Great grief seized on my heart when this I heard,
Because some people of much worthiness
I knew, who in that Limbo were suspended.

“Tell me, my Master, tell me, thou my Lord,”
Began I, with desire of being certain
Of that Faith which o’ercometh every error,

“Came any one by his own merit hence,
Or by another’s, who was blessed thereafter ?”
And he, who understood my covert speech,

Replied: “I was a novice in this state,
When I saw hither come a Mighty One,
With sign of victory incoronate.

Hence he drew forth the shade of the First Parent,
And that of his son Abel, and of Noah,
Of Moses the lawgiver, and the obedient

Abraham, patriarch, and David, king,
Israel with his father and his children,
And Rachel, for whose sake he did so much,

And others many, and he made them blessed;
And thou must know, that earlier than these
Never were any human spirits saved.”

We ceased not to advance because he spake,
But still were passing onward through the forest
The forest, say I, of thick—crowded ghosts.

Not very far as yet our way had gone
This side the summit, when I saw a fire
That overcame a hemisphere of darkness.

We were a little distant from it still,
But not so far that I in part discerned not
That honourable people held that place.

“O thou who honourest every art and science,
Who may these be, which such great honour have,
That from the fashion of the rest it parts them ?”

And he to me: “The honourable name,
That sounds of them above there in thy life,
Wins grace in Heaven, that so advances them.”

In the mean time a voice was heard by me:
“All honour be to the pre—eminent Poet;
His shade returns again, that was departed.”

After the voice had ceased and quiet was,
Four mighty shades I saw approaching us;
Semblance had they nor sorrowful nor glad.

To say to me began my gracious Master:
“Him with that falchion in his hand behold,
Who comes before the three, even as their lord.

That one is Homer, Poet sovereign;
He who comes next is Horace, the satirist;
The third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.

Because to each of these with me applies
The name that solitary voice proclaimed,
They do me honour, and in that do well.”

Thus I beheld assemble the fair school
Of that lord of the song pre—eminent,
Who o’er the others like an eagle soars.

When they together had discoursed somewhat,
They turned to me with signs of salutation,
And on beholding this, my Master smiled;

And more of honour still, much more, they did me,
In that they made me one of their own band
So that the sixth was I, ‘mid so much wit.

Thus we went on as far as to the light,
Things saying ’tis becoming to keep silent,
As was the saying of them where I was.

We came unto a noble castle’s foot,
Seven times encompassed with lofty walls,
Defended round by a fair rivulet;

This we passed over even as firm ground;
Through portals seven I entered with these sages
We came into a meadow of fresh verdure.

People were there with solemn eyes and slow,
Of great authority in their countenance;
They spake but seldom, and with gentle voices.

Thus we withdrew ourselves upon one side
Into an opening luminous and lofty,
So that they all of them were visible.

There opposite, upon the green enamel,
Were pointed out to me the mighty spirits,
Whom to have seen I feel myself exalted.

I saw Electra with companions many,
‘Mongst whom I knew both Hector and Aenas,
Caesar in armour with gerfalcon eyes;

I saw Camilla and Penthesilea
On the other side, and saw the King Latinus,
Who with Lavinia his daughter sat;

I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin forth,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia,
And saw alone, apart, the Saladin.

When I had lifted up my brows a little,
The Master I beheld of those who know,
Sit with his philosophic family.

All gaze upon him, and all do him honour.
There I beheld both Socrates and Plato,
Who nearer him before the others stand;

Democritus, who puts the world on chance,
Diogenes, Anaxagoros, and Thales,
Zeno, Empedocles, and Heraclitus;

Of qualities I saw the good collector,
Hight Dioscorides; and Orpheus saw I,
Tully and Livy, and moral Seneca,

Euclid, geometrician, and Ptolemy,
Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna,
Averroes, who the great Comment made.

I cannot all of them pourtray in full,
Because so drives me onward the long theme,
That many times the word comes short of fact.

The sixfold company in two divides;
Another way my sapient Guide conducts me
Forth from the quiet to the air that trembles;

And to a place I come where nothing shines.

Related video

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Reading by Francesco Bausi: Inferno 4

For more readings by Francesco Bausi, see the Bausi Readings page.