Study Guide

Inferno Compassion and Forgiveness

By Dante Alighieri

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Compassion and Forgiveness

Inferno Canto II

As little flowers, which the chill of night
has bent and huddled, when the white sun strikes,
grow straight and open fully on their stems,
so did I, too, with my exhausted force;
and such warm daring rushed into my heart
that I – as one who has been freed – began:
"O she, compassionate, who has helped me!
And you who, courteous, obeyed so quickly
the true words that she had addressed to you!
You, with your words, have so disposed my heart
to longing for this journey – I return
to what I was at first prepared to do." (Inf. II, 127-138)

Dante’s response to Beatrice’s pity spurs him to bloom "as little flowers…grow straight and open fully on their stems" when "the white sun strikes." Thus, Beatrice’s compassion is related to the light of God. And because he can ‘see’ again with her illumination, Dante feels "warm daring rush into [his] heart" to offset the "exhausted force" of doubts that were plaguing him before. Thus, compassion seems to have a life-giving force that Dante will later use to enliven sinners to recount their stories to him.


[Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "‘In Heaven there’s a gentle lady – one
who weeps for the distress toward which I send you,
so that stern judgment up above is shattered.
And it was she who called upon Lucia,
requesting of her: "Now your faithful one
has need of you, and I commend him to you."
Lucia, enemy of every cruelty,
arose and made her way to where I was,
sitting beside the venerable Rachel.
She said: "You, Beatrice, true praise of God,
why have you not helped him who loves you so
that – for your sake – he’s left the vulgar crowd?
Do you not hear the anguish in his cry?
Do you not see the death he wars against
upon that river ruthless as the sea?"
No one within this world has ever been
so quick to seek his good or flee his harm
as I…’" (Inf. II, 94-111)

Virgil’s story of how he has come to guide Dante directly discusses Dante’s status as a chosen one in having the opportunity to experience Hell while still alive. His special status comes purely from the compassion of three divine ladies: the Virgin Mary herself, Saint Lucia, and Beatrice (the mortal love of Dante’s life). Indeed, this reinforces the stereotype of women as gentle emotional creatures, contrasted with the male stereotype of being too rational. These women show the physical manifestation of compassion: tears. Unlike gentle Mary, Lucia chastises Beatrice for ignoring Dante’s straying from God’s path. And, in an interesting paradox, Beatrice, by linking the "persuasive word" to Virgil, herself uses it to convince the Roman poet to help Dante.

Inferno Canto IV (the first Circle: Limbo)

But I, who’d seen the change in his [Virgil’s] 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." (Inf. IV, 16-22)

Unbeknownst to Dante, he and Virgil are about to meet a group of Classical poets and Virgil’s dear companions. This foreknowledge causes Virgil to pale dramatically with sympathy for their plight. Interestingly, Dante mistakes his physical reaction for one stemming from fear. Indeed, this concept will later be played on as Dante cries and faints – some typical reactions to intense fear or pain – when moved to pity for the sinners. This reinforces the very root of the word "compassion," which means literally "to feel with." So, one could read Virgil’s and later Dante’s sympathy for the sinners as literally feeling and participating in the pain that the sinners experience.

"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.


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.

Inferno Canto V (the Second Circle: the Lustful)

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.

Inferno Canto VI (the Third Circle: the Gluttonous)

I answered him: "Ciacco, your suffering
so weights on me that I am forced to weep;
but tell me, if you know, what end awaits
the citizens of that divided city;
is any just man there? Tell me the reason
why it has been assailed by so much schism." (Inf. VI, 58-63)

Even though Ciacco does not tell a pathetic story or even attempt to gain Dante’s mercy, our poet is "forced to weep" for Ciacco’s horrible punishment. Ciacco – because of his terseness – is not considered a likeable character, so it is strange that Dante feels so deeply for him. On second thought, perhaps Dante does not. Instead of asking Ciacco to tell his story, to elicit greater sympathy, Dante does not ask any personal questions, but instead focuses on the fate of their shared city, Florence.

Inferno Canto VIII (the river Styx, the gates of Dis)

And I to him [Filippo Argenti]: "I’ve come, but I don’t stay;
but who are you, who have become so ugly?"
He answered: "You can see – I’m one who weeps. "
And I to him: "In weeping and in grieving,
accursed spirit, may you long remain;
though you’re disguised by filth, I know your name."
Then he stretched both his hands out toward the boat,
at which my master quickly shoved him back,
saying: "Be off there with the other dogs!"
That done, he threw his arms around my neck
and kissed my face and said: "Indignant soul,
blessed is she who bore you in her womb!" (Inf. VIII, 34-42)

Finally, in the fifth circle of the wrathful, Dante comes to condemn a sinner, taking pleasure in his pain. However, Dante’s reasoning still does not ring true. Instead of condemning Argenti for his rage, Dante makes it personal by raging at Argenti for refusing to identify himself. However, Virgil sees the slow development of Dante’s judgment and rejoices at his harsh words to the sinner. Dante is learning.

Inferno Canto XII (the Seventh Circle, First Ring: the Violent against their Neighbors)

[Virgil]: "Now I would have you know: the other time
that I descended into lower Hell,
this mass of boulders had not yet collapsed;
but if I reason rightly, it was just
before the coming of the One who took
from Dis the highest circle’s splendid spoils
that, on all sides, the steep and filthy valley
had trembled so, I thought the universe
felt love (by which, as some believe, the world
has often been converted into chaos);
and at that moment, here as well as elsewhere,
these ancient boulders toppled, in this way." (Inf. XII, 34-45)

Virgil brings the etymology of the word "compassion" to new heights with his description of Christ’s love literally moving mountains. If "compassion" means "to move/feel with," Christ’s love for his followers during the Harrowing of Hell proves so intense that it moves not only the worthy members of the Old Testament with him to Heaven, but shakes the very earth itself, causing part of the valley of violence (appropriately) to topple.

Inferno Canto XIII (the Seventh Circle, Second Ring: The Violent against Themselves)

The poet waited briefly, then said
to me: "Since he is silent, do not lose
this chance, but speak and ask what you would know."
And I: "Do you continue; ask of him
whatever you believe I should request;
I cannot, so much pity takes my heart." (Inf. XIII, 79-84)

In hearing Pier della Vigna’s story, Dante is so moved by pity (indeed, suicide is always pitiable) that he cannot speak. Instead, he requests that Virgil speak for him to the sinner. Instead of channeling his sympathy into words, Dante falls into silence – just as he did by passing out when talking to Francesca. Here is one place where language fails to capture the depth of human experience; Dante’s grief is simply too deep for words.

Inferno Canto XVIII (the Eighth Circle, First Pouch: Panderers and Seducers; the Second Pouch: Flatterers)

That scourged soul thought that he could hide himself
by lowering his face; it helped him little,
for I said: "You, who cast your eyes upon
the ground, if these your features are not false,
must be Venedico Caccianemico;
but what brings you to sauces so piquant?" (Inf. XVIII, 46-51)

For one of the only times in the Inferno, a sinner shows shame for his behavior. Venedico Caccianemico feels so mortified by his sin (pandering) that he tries to hide his face from Dante, to keep from being recognized. However, Dante – now more mature in his judgment – not only identifies Caccianemico, but mocks him for being submerged in "sauces so piquant," or a pool of excrement. His words demonstrate no sympathy for the sinner.

Inferno Canto XX (the Eighth Circle, Fourth Pouch: Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians)

[Virgil]: … "Are you as foolish as the rest?
Here pity only lives when it is dead;
for who can be more impious than he
who links God’s judgment to passivity?" (Inf. XX, 27-30)

Ironically, the emotion Dante is trying to evoke in readers – pity for the magicians – is rebuked by Virgil. His denunciation of the magicians’ practice as advocating "God’s…passivity" means that the magicians, in prophesying, believe they have power over the future, necessarily rendering God’s will passive. Such an assumption is so mistaken that it should kill the pity of any reasonable person. This is why "pity only lives [here] when it is dead." In other words, there should be no sympathy for these sinners.


May God so let you, reader, gather fruit
from what you read; and now think for yourself
how I could ever keep my own face dry
when I beheld our image so nearby
and so awry that tears, down from the eyes,
bathed the buttocks, running down the cleft.
Of course I wept… (Inf. XX, 19-25)

Upon witnessing the grotesque punishment of the magicians, Dante is again moved to tears. He clearly values compassion for fellow human beings, but his apparently piteous tone reveals hints of scorn. His description of the sinners’ tears – initially designed to elicit pity – becomes ridiculous when he mentions them "running down the cleft" of the sinners’ buttocks.

Inferno Canto XXII (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators)

O you who read, hear now of this new sport…
The Navarrese, in nick of time, had planted
his feet upon the ground; then in an instant
he jumped and freed himself from their commander.
At this each demon felt the prick of guilt,
and most, he who had led his band to blunder;
so he took off and shouted: "You are caught!"
But this could help him little; wing were not
more fast than fear; the sinner plunged right under;
the other, flying up, lifted his chest…
But Calcabrina, raging at the trick,
flew after Alichino; he was keen
to see the sinner free and have a brawl;
and once the Navarrese had disappeared,
he turned his talons on his fellow demon
and tangled with him just above the ditch.
But Alichino clawed him well –
he was indeed a full-grown kestrel; and both fell
into the middle of the boiling pond.
The heat was quick to disentangle them,
but still there was no way they could get out;
their wings were stuck,
enmeshed in glue-like pitch. (Inf. XXII, 118-144)

Although Dante exhibits the same distaste for all the guardians of Hell, none of them is depicted so comedically as the demons. In this passage, the action concentrates completely on the demons and their pursuit of the escaping sinner, not at all on Dante or his emotional reactions. The action here is almost cartoonish in tone, complete with dastardly villains, a cunning escape, and the scoundrels’ useless fighting amongst themselves when finding their quarry gone. Such slapstick comedy requires an emotional distance, especially when dealing with such serious topics as sin and punishment, and this burlesque suggests that Dante feels no pity for either the demons or their victims, the barrators.

Inferno Canto XXIX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers of Metals)

[Dante]: … "In that hollow upon which
just now, I kept my eyes intent, I think
a spirit born of my own blood laments
the guilt which, down below, costs one so much."
At this my master said: "Don’t let your thoughts
about him interrupt you from here on:
attend to other things, let him stay there;
for I saw him below the little bridge,
his finger pointing at you, threatening,
and heard him called by name – Geri del Bello…"
"My guide, it was his death by violence,
for which he still is not avenged," I said,
"by anyone who shares his shame, that made
him so disdainful now; and – I suppose –
for this he left without a word to me,
and this has made me pity him the more." (Inf. XXIX, 18-36)

At the unexpected information that one of his own kin inhabits Hell, Dante predictably reacts with pity. In fact, it’s his relative – Geri del Bello – for whom Dante had wept a few lines ago, not for the sowers of scandal at large. When Virgil tells Dante to ignore del Bello, Dante shows a surprising amount of resolve. Unlike the sycophantically obedient Dante seen in the early cantos, the more mature Dante stands up for his opinions – even against his master. He sides with Geri del Bello, allowing for his obscene gestures and claiming that del Bello wants only a just revenge for his violent death. Although Dante may err against God in showing mercy to his kinsman, he endears himself to readers by defending his family and showing some backbone against his taskmaster Virgil.

Inferno Canto XXXIII (the Ninth Circle, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to the Homeland or Party, Third Ring Ptolomea: Traitors against their Guests)

For if Count Ugolino was reputed
to have betrayed your [Pisa’s] fortresses, there was
no need to have his sons endure such torment.
O Thebes renewed, their years were innocent
and young – Brigata, Uguiccione, and
the other two my song has named above! (Inf. XXXIII, 85-90)

Although Dante condemns Ugolino for his traitorous crime, he shows pity for Ugolino’s sons and considers them "innocent and young" victims. This could be read as an extension of Dante’s steadfast sympathy for Geri del Bello, because here Dante carries on the theme of well-intentioned family members. Here, however, he seems more in the right than he did with del Bello.

[Fra Alberigo to Dante]: "But now reach out your hand; open my eyes."
And yet I did not open them for him;
and it was courtesy to show him rudeness. (Inf. XXXIII, 148-150)

In breaking his promise to Fra Alberigo, Dante not only demonstrates his ruthlessness towards the sinner but also commits a traitorous act almost comparable to the crime Alberigo himself perpetrated. By virtue of Virgil’s silence in response to Dante’s peccadillo, one might conjecture that Virgil condones Dante’s behavior and commends his lack of mercy to so black a sinner. Hell’s punishments, Dante is beginning to understand, are the sinners’ just desserts.

Inferno Canto XXXIV (the Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring Judecca: Traitors against their Benefactors)

He [Lucifer] wept out of six eyes; and down three chins,
tears gushed together with a bloody froth.
Within each mouth – he used it like a grinder –
with gnashing teeth he tore to bits a sinner,
so that he brought much pain to three at once. (Inf. XXXIV, 34-57)

Lucifer, the most severely punished sinner and potentially the greatest pity-inducer, instead elicits little heartfelt emotion in Dante. Unlike the vast majority of the sinners interviewed in the Inferno, Lucifer never gets the opportunity to speak to Dante and tell his side of the story. But Dante’s lack of pity stems from an even deeper source. Lucifer, despite his tears, seems like a giant automaton; his teeth gnash mechanically "like a grinder" and his wings flap rhythmically. Lucifer seems to have lost the ability to feel and emote, leaving readers with the sense that he is simply the engine which powers Hell, an enormous generator, and nothing more. To Dante and his readers alike, Lucifer seems soulless, inhuman, and mechanical. Thus is the nature of evil; it is a lack of heart and will, a void, rather than anything actively degenerate.

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