by Dante Alighieri
Inferno Compassion and Forgiveness Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Canto.Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation.
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. (Inf. IV, 31-45)
Here, Dante’s soul is too naïve to recognize the crime of these sinners. That he sees "some estimable men" in limbo – poets like himself – biases him in their favor and incites his sympathy. Indeed, the crime of being born before the coming of Christ and being punished for it – something over which the "sinners" have no control – seems cruel and unfair. The implication of seeing fellow poets in Hell is that Dante, too, may end up there. By commiserating with these souls in limbo, Dante questions the validity of God’s judgment and His supposedly infinite love.
"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." (Inf. IV, 46-63)
Virgil’s story of the Harrowing of Hell, in which Christ carries off the good men of the Old Testament (born before Christ) to Heaven, shows that God does indeed love the virtuous, making exceptions for the honorable unbaptized, and that the sinners in limbo – like the poets Dante worships – still have an opportunity to enter Heaven. This serves to mitigate, or soften, Dante’s judgment of God’s mercy.
And while one spirit [Francesca] said these words to me,
the other [Paolo] wept, so that – because of pity –
I fainted, as if I had met my death.
And then I fell as a dead body falls. (Inf. V, 139-142)
Dante’s reaction to Francesca’s and Paolo’s pitiable story brings such sympathy to his heart that he has an overwhelming physical reaction: he faints from compassion. Indeed, readers might suspect that his sympathy kills him since Dante is described as a "dead body fall[ing]." Dante has not yet learned to condemn sinners for their crimes, to define exactly what their sin is, or to weigh their seemingly noble qualities against their sins.