- the first circle of Dante’s Hell is devoted to Limbo, traditionally devised to house souls whom circumstances (such as lack of baptism) prevented from being saved
- we must historicize the idea of Limbo, to remember that it is an idea that changes over time
- we need to distinguish Limbo as conceived by medieval theologians from Limbo as conceived by Dante (and, going forward in history, to further distinguish Limbo as conceived by the contemporary Catholic church, which has moved to discard it)
- Limbo for Dante is a space that he uses to honor virtuous pagans: hence the multicultural lists of names—lists of Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and Muslims, all serving to record and preserve the “honor of their names”
- Limbo as Dante conceives it houses virtuous pagans who lived before Christianity but “did not sin” (“ch’ei non peccaro” [Inf. 4.34]): these pagans include great poets (e.g. Homer, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Lucan) and philosophers (e.g. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato) and other figures of classical antiquity
- the issue of virtuous pagans who “did not sin” as introduced here will ultimately 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
- Limbo as Dante conceives it also houses some contemporary virtuous pagans: a Muslim general, Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn), and two Muslim philosophers, Avicenna (Ibn-Sīnā) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd)
- Limbo as Dante conceives it highlights the injustice of condemning the virtuous cultural other, those who could not know Christ through no fault of their own
- those who are excluded from the Christian dispensation fall into two categories: a) those who are excluded temporally (being born before the birth of Christ); b) those who are excluded geographically (being born after the birth of Christ but in non-Christian lands); in his Limbo Dante makes the attempt to include souls from both categories, showing that he had thought about the category of exclusion carefully
- from the concept of exclusion with its enormous consequences follows Dante’s concern for the issue of cultural transmission, textual and oral transmission that carries ideas across cultural boundaries: Stazio in Purgatorio 22 will claim to have learned of Christ and thereby achieved salvation through the transmitted texts of Vergil, whose message was then supported by the words of the “nuovi predicanti” (new preachers [Purg. 22.80) of the Christian gospel; conversely, the man born on the banks of the Indus in Paradiso 19 is damned, despite his virtue, because of the lack of access to Christ’s message, in written or oral form
- the importance of the work of transmission is distilled by Dante in his descriptor of the last soul named in Inferno 4: “Averoìs, che ’l gran comento feo” (Averroes, who made the great Commentary [Inf. 4.144]). Dante thus concludes his roll-call of the-great-who-are-excluded-though-virtuous with the Muslim philosopher and commentator of Aristotle, responsible not for the transmission of Christ to the East but for the transmission of Aristotle to the Latin West — a form of cultural transmission of enormous value to Dante personally
This canto is devoted to the first circle of Hell, which in Dante’s Hell contains the space that theologians call “Limbo”. Literally 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 of Hell where the only punishment is being deprived of God and of heaven. It is a place of no physical torment. This space was devised to house souls who did not sin, but whose historical circumstances prevent them from being saved.
Because there is no physical torment in Limbo, and because Dante goes out of his way to emphasize the special status of these souls, some commentators and readers over the years have resisted the idea that Inferno 4 features the first circle of Dante’s Hell. Dante exploits the tension between the special status of the souls of Limbo and the reality that this is the first circle of 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)
Traditionally, theologians placed two groups of souls in Limbo:
- the Biblical righteous, Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs. These souls from the Old Testament died long before the life of Christ. According to Christian theology, they resided in Limbo after their deaths until Christ rescued them by descending into Hell and liberating them. Christ’s “Harrowing of Hell”, which will be a plot-point in Inferno 4, occurred after the Crucifixion and before the Resurrection (see Latin Descensus Christi ad Inferos; English Harrowing of Hell). The Biblical worthies are the only souls excluded from the Christian dispensation for temporal reasons (because they were born before the birth of Christ) to be included in an orthodox conception of Limbo. And, of course, they were not included in Limbo for very long, since the Biblical righteous are destined for glory—Christ exports them to Paradise.
- unbaptized infants. Infants who died before receiving the sacrament of baptism, which washes away original sin. The unbaptized infants—not of great interest to Dante but still of great interest to theologians today (see the discussion at the end of this commentary)—are the only contemporary souls included in an orthodox conception of Limbo.
Given that the Biblical righteous were liberated from Limbo by Christ, in 34 CE (this is the date that Dante supplies in Inferno 21), by the time of Dante’s journey in 1300 CE they were long removed from Hell and lodged in Paradise.
In a theologically-attuned treatment of Limbo, therefore, in 1300 we can expect to find only unbaptized babes. There should be no adults whatsoever.
As we shall see, Dante’s conception of Limbo diverges fundamentally from a theologically orthodox conception of Limbo. Indeed, this divergence is signalled immediately. Verse 28 stipulates that this is a space of “duol senza martìri” (sorrow without torments); up to this point Dante is accurate and aligned with theological consensus regarding the condition of Limbo.
The next two verses characterize the crowds of souls whom Dante sees and stipulates that they are composed “of infants and of women and of men”: “d’infanti e di femmine e di viri” (Inf. 4.30). Of the three categories of souls here specified—infants, women, men—only infants belong in a theologically-attuned Limbo. No adults are to be expected, since the Hebrew worthies departed with Christ long before 1300.
The presence of adults here—femmine and viri—already indicates that Dante is going in a different and idiosyncratic direction. If there was a category for whom theologians showed concern, it was the infants, a group whom Dante, in sharp contrast, will never name again.
As noted, the pain of Limbo is a “duol sanza martìri” (suffering without torments [Inf. 4.28]). Going further, the poet clarifies that the souls in Limbo know that they are deprived and desire that which they will never have, so that eternally thwarted desire is the true source of their suffering: “e sol di tanto offesi, / che sanza speme vivemo in disio” (we are punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing [Inf. 4.41-42]).
While the poet’s characterization of Limbo as a place without physical torment is theologically accurate, his choice of the inhabitants of his Limbo is far from orthodox, indeed it is exceptionally personal and idiosyncratic.
Who are these adults in Dante’s Limbo? Dante places in his Limbo the souls of great pagans who lived lives of extreme virtue and accomplishment.
Dante’s idiosyncratic handling of Limbo, his deviation from theological orthodoxy, thus becomes an index by which we can measure his passionate reverence for humanistic achievement.
In Virgilio’s explanation, these are the souls of those who committed no sin but who were not baptized. 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]).
Thus, Dante borrows the orthodox category of temporal exclusion from the Christian dispensation, a category devised for the (temporary) exclusion of the Biblical worthies, and he repurposes the category for virtuous pagans: for pagans who, as noted above, he deems to have lived lives of extreme virtue and accomplishment.
Virgilio, who tells Dante that he himself belongs to this group—“e di questi cotai son io medesmo” (and of such spirits I myself am one [Inf. 4.39])—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.
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 whom Dante had revered as early as his philosophical work, Convivio.
In Purgatorio 1 we learn explicitly that Dante believes that virtuous pagans can be saved and also that he goes out of his way to save them.
Before returning to the text of Inferno 4, I should point out that the total exclusion of pagans from Paradise would not have been problematic for Dante’s readership. According to Kenelm Foster, while the doctrine of fides implicita or implicit grace 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”. (See Kenelm Foster, ”The Two Dantes,” in The Two Dantes and Other Studies [Berkeley and Los Angeles: U. of California Press, 1977], pp. 171-172).
There will be yet more saved pagans in Dante’s poem after Cato. Indeed the last saved pagan of the Commedia will be introduced only in the heaven of justice, in Paradiso 20. We will deal with the specific issues raised by each of these souls as we encounter them.
For the moment I want to focus on the general point: Dante deviates from orthodoxy in caring so much for virtuous pagans that 1) he creates a very special and anomalous Limbo that he designates as their dwelling-place in Hell, and 2) he goes even further, conceptually, and decides to save some of them. No one would have complained had virtuous pagans not received such unusual treatment in the first circle of Hell; no one would have noticed had Dante excluded saved pagans from Paradise altogether.
One other also general but more narratological point: Dante uses the character of Virgilio, who is a virtuous pagan and who is not saved, to keep the drama of the virtuous pagans alive for his readers beyond Inferno 4. This drama is embedded in the figure of Virgilio, who will be called upon to meet his counterparts in Purgatory, and who will offer further explanations of his own lack of sinfulness. Each of these narrative moments is an opportunity for Dante to keep front and center an issue of pressing importance to him.
Dante thus succeeds in making readers care about his pet issue. But, in an example of how the sheer effectiveness of Dante’s narrative art can sometimes cause misfires, readers of the Commedia care less about the class of virtuous pagans, which is what Dante cared about, than they do about the fate of one virtuous pagan, Virgilio. Hence the existence of a sub-genre of Dante scholarship that asks whether Virgilio is in fact saved. No one ever asks whether Aristotle is in fact saved, or Averroes!
* * *
The possible presence of saved pagans in Dante’s afterworld is alluded to by the pilgrim’s question to his guide in Inferno 4: has any soul ever departed Limbo for blessedness? And, in particular, has any soul ever done so by his own merit or by the merit of someone else: “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]).
Within the immediate story-line, this question will allow Virgilio to tell of the Harrowing of Hell and the liberation of the Hebrew matriarchs and patriarchs, who leave to become blessed. In retrospect, we will see that the two possibilities for achieving such salvation—through one’s own merit or that of someone else—are applicable also to the saved pagans we will meet later in the poem.
With respect to the Harrowing of Hell, the Roman poet is able to offer the testimony of his own personal experience, for he personally witnessed Christ’s arrival and victory. Virgilio saw the arrival of Christ, the “possente” or “powerful one” who was able to liberate his fellow inmates: “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. 4.52-3]). 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 53 years between Virgilio’s arrival in Limbo and Christ’s arrival in Limbo: 53 years are indeed but the blink of an eye from the perspective of eternity, thus accounting for Virgilio’s self-description as “nuovo in questo stato” (Inf. 4.52)—new in this state—at the time of the Harrowing of Hell.
By reminding us that Virgilio, as a resident of Limbo, would have arrived in the first circle in 19 BCE, Dante has given himself the opportunity to imagine Virgilio as a eye-witness of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell 53 years later, in 34 CE. This passage therefore offers as well some perspective on Virgilio’s melancholy and the pallor of his visage upon returning to Limbo.
Virgilio witnessed the arrival of the possente who liberated others in 34 CE, but he himself was not saved by that power. He knows that it is possible to be saved, that salvation can happen, but also that it did not happen for him. Already latent in this passage, therefore, is the kernel of the melancholy Vergilian story as it will unfold throughout the Commedia. We think, for instance, of the famous passage of Purgatorio 22, in which Virgilio is likened to one who goes by night and carries a lamp for those who come behind him, illuminating the way for those who follow but not for himself: “Facesti come quei che va di notte, / che porta il lume dietro e sé non giova” (You did as he who goes by night and carries the lamp behind him, of no help to himself [Purg. 22.67-8]).
Christ’s Harrowing of Hell is the crucial punctuation in the eternity of Limbo, and Dante sutures his fictive Virgilio to this event.
Having reconfigured Limbo as a space that houses virtuous pagans, 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]). Moving towards this light, he finds a “noble castle” (Inf. 4.106), within which is a beautiful meadow where the honorable souls are assembled: a “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]).
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”.
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.
We remember too 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 names recorded in the Commedia, most explicitly in “the Florentine phonebook” of Paradiso 16.
The word “nominanza” is an important one in the Commedia, as we see in Purgatorio 11. It harkens back always to its first use here in Inferno 4, and thus to the fame and worth of the virtuous pagans of antiquity.
Moreover, the lists of names in Inferno 4 are fascinating in their multiculturalism. There are the Hebrew names of the Biblical worthies rescued by Christ, the Roman names, the Greek names, and the Muslim names.
By reconfiguring Limbo as a space for his cultural heroes of all stripes, Dante shows his passionate commitment to humanism, to the great achievements of human intellect and reason. And he shows his commitment to justice: he is troubled by the idea that people of such virtue and intellect are denied salvation because of the circumstances of their birth.
The issue of the virtuous pagan, introduced with the arrival of Virgilio in Inferno 1, in Inferno 4 receives its contours as a massive theme in the Commedia: the theme of the cultural other.
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 sensitivity to 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?”
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, but because of his geographical circumstances was denied the knowledge of Christianity?
Dante thus treats the issue of the cultural other both temporally and geographically. He treats it as a temporal issue, with respect to virtuous people born before Christianity. He also treats it as a geographical issue, with respect to virtuous people born in Christian times but in non-Christian lands.
The presence of Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn), Avicenna (Ibn-Sīnā), and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) among the “great souls” (“li spiriti magni” [Inf. 4.118]) of Limbo leads directly to Paradiso 19 and to the accusation of injustice for excluding the “man born on the banks of the Indus” (Par. 19.70-1). See the Introduction to Paradiso 19 (“Injustice on the Banks of the Indus”) for more on this topic.
Also important is Dante’s attention to the issue of cultural and textual transmission. In Paradiso 19 he carefully creates the context of a perfectly virtuous man who lives in a place where there is “no one to speak or teach or write of Christ” (Par. 19.71-2). The man on the banks of the Indus 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. Similarly, in Purgatorio 22 Stazio explains that he was saved because of the knowledge of Christ he received from the texts of the Gospels and (with terrible irony) from Vergilian texts.
In Inferno 4 Aristotle is the “maestro di color che sanno” (master of those who know [Inf. 4.131]), but Dante makes it clear that he is able to benefit from Aristotle’s wisdom only because of the towering achievement of his Arabic commentator, Averroes: “Averoìs, che ’l gran comento feo” (Averroes, who made the great Commentary [Inf. 4.144]). In Dante’s time Aristotle was available because the original Greek had been translated first into Arabic and then from Arabic into Latin.
The presence of Averroes and reference to his “great Commentary” in Inferno 4 is another way of stipulating that textual transmission is essential for knowledge. This truth gains in relevance and significance because of the further truth that—as Inferno 4, Purgatorio 22 and Paradiso 19 all testify—knowledge is necessary for salvation.
As noted above, Dante could have ignored the issue of virtuous pagans, not one of great interest to theologians. Instead he confronts it dramatically in his re-imagining of Limbo, and then keeps the issue ever present through the figure of his guide. Virgilio is constantly by Dante’s side from Inferno 1 to Purgatorio 30, and as long as Virgilio is present, so is the problem of his damnation. The more Dante comes to love Virgilio, not just as an iconic poet and sage on whom he models himself (as he says in Inferno 1), but as a father on whom he relies for support and guidance, the more Virgilio’s damnation is a source of pain and internal conflict.
The implicit questions that Dante is asking are: How can it be just for Virgilio and the other virtuous pagans to be damned when they are so good? And how can God be other than just? Rather than put these conflicts aside when he enters Paradise, these questions are posed most frontally in the heaven of justice.
Dante in Inferno 4 conjures a humanistic vision of Limbo, anomalous in the history of this Catholic idea. He imagines Limbo as a place that tries to bring some measure of justice to the great pagans denied baptism and denied knowledge of Christianity.
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 can be sent to Limbo for eternity.
As a result the Catholic Church has recently moved to discard the idea of Limbo altogether. 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 “without minimizing the importance of Baptism in any way, there is nonetheless hope of salvation for infants who die without benefit of that sacrament”. For the full document, see here and for the change in the Church, see this page.
In the context of the finding that “there is nonetheless hope of salvation for infants who die without benefit of that sacrament” Dante’s Limbo may not seem so radical. But in fact Dante’s Limbo remains as radical as ever, for Dante had little interest in the sympathy-inducing infants who have traditionally captured the attention of those concerned about the justice of Limbo. Dante’s attention is captured not by the unbaptized infants of Christian parents but by a completely different group.
Dante’s wholly original project is to imagine a Limbo that mitigates the suffering not of the unbaptized infants of Christian parents but of pagan adults. This passionate interest in those who belong to cultural dispensations different from his own is what makes Dante’s conception of Limbo stand out in his own time and still today.