The Cultural Other

  • the first circle of Dante’s Hell is reserved for Limbo, traditionally devised by Catholic theologians to house souls whom lack of baptism (and consequent removal of original sin) prevented from being saved
  • we must historicize the idea of Limbo, in order to see the radical nature of Dante’s Limbo
  • 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; Dante has given serious thought to the issue of exclusion and its categories
  • 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

[1] This canto is reserved for the first circle of Hell, which in Dante’s Hell contains the space that theologians call “Limbo”. As I will explain here, Dante’s treatment of Limbo is anomalous in the history of the idea of Limbo. Dante’s treatment of Limbo is in fact radical.

[2] 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 deprivation: these souls are deprived of God and of heaven. Importantly, this is a place of no physical torment.

[3] In traditional Catholic thought the space of Limbo was imagined to  house souls who did not sin, but whose historical circumstances prevented from being saved. In practice, for much of its history Limbo was conceptualized as a residence for non-baptized infants. In what follows we shall see how radically Dante deviates from this practice.

[4] Before entering into the details of the traditional conceptualization of Limbo and Dante’s radical deviations from it, let me sum up some preliminary considerations that undergird my analysis of Inferno 4. In effect, Limbo existed in the Catholic imaginary in order to accommodate the concerns of the laity regarding the fates of the virtuous non-baptized. It is a space that is imagined as palliative and that has served through history primarily to offer consolation to the parents of children who died before baptism. This issue is in fact the very one — still pressing for parents who have more and more resisted the Church doctrine that condemned their unbaptized babies to Hell — that has led ultimately to the demise of the idea of Limbo. I shall  discuss the recent remarkable change in the position of the Church — and what it tells us about Dante — at the end of this Introduction.

[5] It takes a few analytic steps to recognize that placement in Limbo is, relatively speaking, a good thing. Indeed, within the Catholic imaginary, to be placed in Limbo is a compliment! I stress that Limbo was imagined as palliative and consolatory because only by understanding the logic of Limbo within the Catholic imaginary can the reader of the Commedia grasp the stunning nature of Dante’s radical revision of the traditional idea of Limbo.

[6] 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. We learn from Inferno 4 that the punctum dolens for Dante is not the unbaptized baby but the virtuous cultural other.

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

* * *

[8] 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 Inferno 4 features 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]).

[9] Indeed, we have now entered the first circle of Dante’s Hell. The poet goes out of his way to exploit 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)

[10] 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. According to Catholic 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 righteous are destined for glory: Christ exports them to Paradise.
  2.  unbaptized infants: Infants who died before receiving the sacrament of baptism, which washes away original sin. The unbaptized infants are not of great interest to Dante but are traditionally the only souls included in an orthodox conception of Limbo. This group is still of interest to theologians today (see the discussion at the end of this commentary).

[11] Given that the Biblical righteous were liberated from Limbo by Christ, according to Dante 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.

[12] As Dante is well aware, a theologically-orthodox Limbo in 1300 should house only unbaptized infants. There should be no adults whatsoever.

[13] As we can see, Dante’s conception of Limbo diverges fundamentally from a theologically orthodox conception of Limbo. At the textual level, this divergence is signalled swiftly. 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 correct Limbo. No adults are to be expected, since the Hebrew worthies departed with Christ in 34 CE, long before 1300.

[14] The presence of adults here — femmine and viri — already indicates that Dante is going in a different and idiosyncratic direction. While theologians were and remain concerned about the fate of unbaptized infants, this is a group whom Dante, in sharp contrast, will not name again until Virgilio’s description of Limbo in Purgatorio 7.25-36. In the passage of Purgatorio 7 Virgilio dedicates a terzina to evoking the unbaptized infants: “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]).

[15] As noted, the pain of Limbo is a “duol sanza martìri” (suffering without torments [Inf. 4.28]). Virgilio further clarifies that the souls in Limbo know that they are deprived and hopelessly desire that which they will never have: Paradise, unity with the divine. Therefore, 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]).

[16] While the poet’s characterization of Limbo as a place without physical torment is theologically accurate, his decision to place adult inhabitants in his Limbo is far from orthodox, indeed it is exceptionally personal and idiosyncratic. Who are these adults — femmine and viri, women and men — in Dante’s Limbo?

[17] Dante places in his Limbo the souls of great pagans — non-believers — 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 by which we can measure his passionate reverence for towering humanistic achievement, irrespective of the faith from which such achievement springs.

[18] 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]).

[19] 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 re-purposes the category for virtuous pagans: for non-believers who, as noted above, he deems to have lived lives of extreme virtue and accomplishment.

[20] 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.

[21] 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 expressed great reverence already in his philosophical treatise, Convivio (circa 1304-1307).

[22] In Purgatorio 1 we learn explicitly that Dante believes that virtuous pagans can be saved and also that, as poet, he goes out of his way to save them. By doing so, he enormously complicates and enriches the Commedia’s Virgilio-narrative.

[23] 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 original readers. 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).

[24] There will be yet more saved pagans in Dante’s poem after Cato. Indeed the last saved pagan of the Commedia, Ripheus the Trojan, will be introduced in the heaven of justice, in Paradiso 20. In Dante’s Poets I noted that “the presence of Ripheus is not a salutary one for Vergil” (p. 254), and indeed the choice to save a pagan of whose “existence” we know only through the testimony of the Aeneid while damning the auctor of the Aeneid is a shocking one. The shock value helps us to focus on Dante’s message: God’s grace can reach anywhere, even piercing the paganism of ancient Troy, and His grace and its apportionment is beyond our understanding. We will deal with the specific issues raised by each of the saved pagans as we encounter them.

[25] The circumstances of the individual saved pagans of the Commedia are less important for now than the all-important fact of saved pagans in the Commedia. Moreover, to indicate that pagans can be saved through the doctrine of fides implicita without ever naming one is very different from the act of explicitly naming individual saved pagans. Dante’s boldness is to go out on a limb and put historical names onto the abstract doctrine of fides implicita: through names Dante’s position is reified and its boldness made visible.

[26] In sum, Dante deviates from orthodoxy in caring so much for virtuous pagans that: 1) he creates a very special and unique Limbo that he designates as their dwelling-place in Hell, and 2) he goes even further, conceptually, and decides to save some of them. He does this in a cultural context in which his treatment is utterly anomalous. No one would have complained had virtuous pagans not received such unusual treatment in the first circle of Hell and no one would have noticed had Dante excluded saved pagans from Paradise altogether.

[27] Let me also make a more narratological point: Dante uses the character of Virgilio, who is a virtuous pagan and who is not saved, to keep the tragedy of the virtuous pagans (as he sees it) alive for his readers long beyond Inferno 4, and even beyond Virgilio’s return to Limbo in Purgatorio 30. Embedded in the figure of Virgilio, the tragedy of the virtuous pagan is present throughout the Commedia. Virgilio, moreover, will be called upon to meet his saved counterparts in Purgatory, and will be placed in the awkward and defensive position of having to account for his own damnation. Each of these narrative moments is an opportunity for Dante to keep front and center an issue of pressing importance to him.

[28] Dante thus succeeds in making his readers care about his pet issue, by embedding it in the beloved character of Virgilio. 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 enormously 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, or Horace! Unlike Dante, but because of the marvel of his narrative art, we care only for the virtuous pagan whom we come to know and love: Virgilio. (On this topic, see my essay “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, pp. 151-57.)

* * *

[29] The possible presence of saved pagans in Dante’s afterworld is subtly anticipated 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]).

[30] 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 Limbo to become blessed. In retrospect, we will see that the two suggested methods  for achieving such liberation — through one’s own merit or that of someone else — are applicable also to the saved pagans we will meet later in the poem.

[31] 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.

[32] 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.

[33] 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 his own self [Purg. 22.67-8]).

[34] Christ’s Harrowing of Hell is the crucial punctuation in the eternity of Limbo, and Dante sutures his fictive Virgilio to this event.

[35] 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]).

[36] 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”.

[37] 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.

[38] 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.

[39] 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 Florentine and Italian names recorded in the Commedia, most explicitly in “the Florentine phonebook” of Paradiso 16.

[40] The word “nominanza” is an important one in the Commedia, as we will see in Purgatorio 11. It harkens back always to its first use here in Inferno 4, and thus to the deserved fame and special worth of the virtuous pagans of antiquity.

[41] 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.

[42] 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.

[43] 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.

[44] 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?”

[45] 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 his geographical circumstances denied him the knowledge of Christianity?

[46] 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.

[47] 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.

[48] In this respect I disagree with Edward Said, whose characterization of Dante in Orientalism does not distinguish between Dante’s treatment of Saladin, Avicenna, and Averroes on the one hand and his treatment of Mohammed on the other. For Said, they are all equally damned Muslims: “Mohammed, Saladin, Averroës, and Avicenna” (Edward Said, Orientalism [New York: Vintage Books, 1994), pp. 69-70). While they are indeed all damned, Said here displays a non-historicized view of Dante’s Limbo, in that he does not recognize that Dante has completely redesigned the theological Limbo of his day and that he has done so precisely in order to be able to honor figures like Aristotle and Averroes.

[49] 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. In the same vein, 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 the texts of his revered Vergil.

[50] In Inferno 4 Aristotle is the “maestro di color che sanno” (master of those who know [Inf. 4.131]), a title in line with what Dante — a convinced Aristotelian, as this Commentary will underscore — was calling the Stagirite philosopher already in the Convivio: in the treatise Dante calls Aristotle “dignissimo di fede e d’obedienza” (most worthy of faith and obedience [Conv. 4.6.5]), refers to “la divina sentenza d’Aristotile” (the divine opinion of Aristotle [Conv. 4.17.3]), and names him “maestro de la nostra vita Aristotile” (Aristotle, the master of our life [Conv. 4.23.8]). Dante also states clearly 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 to the European West only because the original Greek had been translated first into Arabic and then from Arabic into Latin. Hence, a reference to Averroes’ commentary is really a reminder that Aristotle is known to the West only because he was translated and transmitted by the erudition and wisdom of the Arab philosopher.

[51] 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. Dante had analyzed the importance of one’s place of birth in the Convivio, where he considers the handicap of 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]).

[52] 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.

[53] 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.

[54] 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.

[55] 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.

[56] 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 (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 conclusion: “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.

[57] In the context of the Commission’s finding that there are ”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”, 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 always 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.

[58] 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.

Coordinated Reading

The Undivine Comedy, 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, 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.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 4: The Cultural Other.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-4/

About the Commento

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.

Reading by Francesco Bausi: Inferno 4

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