Study Guide

Inferno Justice

By Dante Alighieri


Inferno Canto III

These words – their aspect was obscure – I read
inscribed above a gateway… (Inf. III, 1-11)

Here, Hell’s makers are listed as Justice, Divine Authority, Wisdom, and Love. This means that despite the cruel and unusual nature of the sinners’ punishments, they are just and even spring from love.

Inferno Canto V (the Second Circle: the Lustful)

I reached a place where every light is muted,
which bellows like the sea beneath a tempest,
when it is battered by opposing winds.
The hellish hurricane, which never rests,
drives on the spirits with its violence:
wheeling and pounding, it harasses them.
When they come up against the ruined slope,
then there are cries and wailing and lament,
and there they curse the force of the divine.
I learned that those who undergo this torment
are damned because they sinned within the flesh,
subjecting reason to the rule of lust. (Inf. V, 28-39)

In life, the lustful lacked the willpower to restrain their sexual desires, and "subject[ed their human] reason to the rule of lust," Like animals. Thus, in the afterlife, they are similarly subjected to a powerful force, the winds of a "hellish hurricane." And again, they cannot focus their human will and reason enough to gain control of their movements.

Inferno Canto VI (the Third Circle: the Gluttonous)

At which I said: "And after the great sentence –
o master – will these torments grow, or else
be less, or will they be just as intense?"
And he to me: "Remember now your science,
which says that when a thing has more perfection,
so much the greater is its pain or pleasure.
Though these accursed sinners never shall
attain the true perfection, yet they can
expect to be more perfect then than now." (Inf. VI, 103-111)

This is a strange case of Christian logic. The more perfect (or godly) a being is, "so much the greater is its pain of pleasure." According to medieval beliefs, when the Judgment Day comes, sinners’ souls will be reunited with their bodies, rendering them more whole or perfect. Thus, as more perfect beings subjected to Hell’s torment, their pain will only intensify. In Dante’s eyes, this is because the sinners ignored their souls (or minds) and fulfilled their physical desires, just as animals instinctively do, at the price of corrupting their spirits.

Inferno Canto VII (the Fourth Circle: the Avaricious and Prodigal; the Fifth Circle: the Wrathful and Sullen)

Here, more than elsewhere, I saw multitudes
to every side of me; their howls were loud
while, wheeling weights, they used their chests to push.
They struck against each other; at that point,
each turned around and, wheeling back those weights,
cried out, ‘Why do you hoard?" "Why do you squander?"
So did they move around the sorry circle
from left and right to the opposing point;
again, again they cried their chant of scorn;
and so, when each of them had changed positions,
he circled halfway back to his next joust. (Inf. VII, 25-36)

Because avarice (or greed) and prodigality (or stinginess) are simply extremes on the same spectrum, both types of sinners are punished in the same circle. Since they had faulty relations with the material world, either hoarding or squandering their money, they are abused in Hell by the weights which they must physically haul around. Apparently, they have not learned their lesson, either because the avaricious cannot understand the prodigal or vice versa.


[Virgil]: "Wedged in the slime, they say: ‘We had been sullen
in the sweet air that’s gladdened by the sun;
we bore the mist of sluggishness in us:
now we are bitter in the blackened mud.’
This hymn they have to gurgle in their gullets,
because they cannot speak it in full words." (Inf. VII, 121-126)

In life, the sullen refused to engage in life’s joys, appreciating neither the "sweet air" nor the light of the sun. Dante also plays on the idea of the sullen resentfully refusing to speak. As punishment, then, they are immersed in "blackened mud" – away from the "sweet air that’s gladdened by the sun" – which inhibits their ability to speak and forces them to gurgle out their words.

Inferno Canto IX (the gate of Dis)

…the sepulchers make all the plain uneven,
so they did here on every side, except
that here the sepulchers were much more harsh;
for flames were scattered through the tombs, and these
had kindled all of them to glowing heat;
no artisan could ask for hotter iron.
The lid of every tomb was lifted up,
and from each tomb such sorry cries arose
as could come only from the sad and hurt.
And I: "Master, who can these people be
who, buried in great chests of stone like these,
must speak by way of sighs in agony?"
And he to me: "Here are arch-heretics
and those who followed them, from every sect;
those tombs are much more crowded than you think." (Inf. IX, 115-129)

Heresy, which Dante defines as the simple denial of man’s immortal soul, is ironically punished with the obvious presupposition that, yes, the soul is immortal because it writhes in pain for all of eternity. Those who deny that Hell even exists are appropriately punished with burning, the most familiar image in Hell. As a metaphor for life and warmth, fire ironically torments those who reject the idea of life after death. Locked into their tombs, the burning heretics are an ironic reminder that the dead do indeed lead an afterlife.

Inferno Canto X (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)

[Farinata]: "We see, even as men who are farsighted,
those things," he said, "that are remote from us;
the Highest Lord allots us that much light.
But when events draw near or are, our minds
are useless; were we not informed by others,
we should know nothing of your human state." (Inf. X, 100-105)

Following the philosophy of the Epicureans, who deny the existence of an afterlife and thus live with a "seize the day" mentality, the heretics make their decisions based purely on the whims of the present, with no regard for the future. In Hell, then, such heretics cannot see the present state of affairs in the mortal world. They can only see into the future, a time period that they ignored while alive.

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

[Pier della Vigna]: … "When the savage spirit quits
the body from which it has torn itself,
then Minos sends it to the seventh maw.
It falls into the wood, and there’s no place
to which it is allotted, but wherever
fortune has flung that soul, that is the space
where, even as a grain of spelt, it sprouts.
It rises as a sapling, a wild plant;
and then the Harpies, feeing on its leaves,
cause pain and for that pain provide a vent.
Like other souls, we shall seek out the flesh
that we have left, but none of us shall wear it;
it is not right for any man to have
what he himself has cast aside. We’ll drag
our bodies here, they’ll hang in this sad wood,
each on the stump of its vindictive shade." (Inf. XIII, 93-108)

Suicides (those who have committed violence against themselves), by rejecting the gift of human life, renounce their right to the human body. For such souls, "there’s no place / to which it is allotted, but wherever fortune has flung [it]," because suicides make the presumption of changing God’s plan for them by taking their own lives, thus forfeiting their rightful place in God’s schema. Entrapped in the forms of trees, rooted forever in a single spot, the suicides basically endure a living death, in which they are helpless against their attackers, the Harpies. Even when Judgment Day comes, they will not be allowed to reunite with their human bodies, but must watch as they hang just out of reach.

Inferno Canto XIV (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)

Above that plain of sand, distended flakes
of fire showered down; their fall was slow –
as snow descends on alps when no wind blows.
Just like the flames that Alexander saw
in India’s hot zones, when fires fell,
intact and to the ground, on his battalions,
for which – wisely – he had his soldiers tramp
the soil to see that every fire was spent
before new flames were added to the old;
so did the never-ending heat descend;
with this, the sand was kindled just as tinder
on meeting flint will flame – doubling the pain. (Inf. XIV, 28-39)

Those violent against God and nature (the blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers) receive not the nourishing and life-giving rain from Heaven, but the opposite – a killing cascade of fire-flakes. The falling flames are not extinguished on contact with the ground, but their heat is absorbed and radiated by the hot sand, "doubling the pain" of those who would offend God.

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

We heard the people whine in the next pouch
and heard them as they snorted with their snouts;
we heard them use their palms to beat themselves.
And exhalations, rising from below,
stuck to the banks, encrusting them with mold,
and so waged war against both eyes and nose…
This was the place we reached; the ditch beneath
held people plunged in excrement that seemed
as if it had been poured from human privies. (Inf. XVIII, 103-114)

In life, the flatterers wheedled others with false praise to achieve their own filthy ends. Their words, spoken insincerely, amount spiritually to rubbish. Thus, they wallow in their own excrement, which is so squalid that their very "exhalations, rising from below….encrust them with mold."

Along its [Malebolge’s] bottom, naked sinners moved,
to our side of the middle, facing us;
beyond that, they moved with us, but more quickly –
as, in the year of Jubilee, the Romans,
confronted by great crowds, contrived a plan
that let the people pass across the bridge,
for to one side went all who had their eyes
upon the Castle, heading toward St. Peter’s,
and to the other, those who faced the Mount.
Both left and right, along the somber rock,
I saw horned demons with enormous whips,
who lashed those spirits cruelly from behind.
Ah, how their first strokes made those sinners lift
their heels! Indeed no sinner waited for
a second stroke to fall – or for a third. (Inf. XVIII, 25-39)

In the first pouch of the Eighth Circle, the panderers (or pimps) and seducers march in ranks, hustled along by demons whipping their backs. In life, these sinners manipulated others into sinful acts with their words. So in Hell, they are themselves manipulated and moved by fierce demons.

Inferno Canto XIX (the Eighth Circle, Third Pouch: Simonists)

Along the sides and down along the bottom,
I saw that livid rock was perforated:
the openings were all one width and round.
They did not seem to me less broad or more
than those that in my handsome San Giovanni
were made to serve as basins for baptizing…
Out from the mouth of each hole there emerged
a sinner’s feet and so much of his legs
up to the thigh; the rest remained within.
Both soles of every sinner were on fire;
their joints were writhing with such violence,
they would have severed withes and ropes of grass. (Inf. XIX, 13-27)

The image of the dishonest clergymen buried upside-down in the rock with their protruding feet seared by flames is recognizable to the devout Christian as an inversion of the Pentecost. In this feast of salvation, the Apostles descended with flaming haloes around their heads. That the simonists are physically inverted, with flames at their feet, demonstrates metaphorically that their practices oppose those of the Pentecost. When the Apostles descended, all their followers were filled with the spirit of the Holy Ghost and began speaking and prophesying in other tongues – basically affirming the truth of the Word. (Some scholars have read the Pentecost as a reversal of the Tower of Babel, a reunification of all the different human languages.) Simonists, on the other hand, sell the Word for profit, as absolution from sin, thus putting a price on the Word and denying its sanctity.

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

As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;
they had their faces twisted towards their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them. (Inf. XX, 10-15)

Dante’s issue with diviners, astrologers, and magicians is based more on the idea that they are charlatans – unable to do what they claim – than on the actual concept of seeing into the future. Either way, their punishment fits their crime. Instead of being blessed with the ability to see and move forward in time, they have their heads turned backwards on their shoulders so that they can only see behind them and must therefore walk and look backward, both literally and metaphorically, into the past. This is the punishment for claiming to divine the future.

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

…so, not by fire but by the art of God,
below there boiled a thick and tarry mass
that covered all the banks with clamminess.
I saw it, but I could not see within it;
no thing was visible but boiling bubbles,
the swelling of the pitch; and then it settled…
And then in back of us I saw a black
demon as he came racing up the crags.
Ah, he was surely barbarous to see!
And how relentless seemed to me his acts!
His wings were open and his feet were lithe;
he had slung a sinner, upward from the thighs;
in front, the demon gripped him by the ankles…
He threw the sinner down, then wheeled along
the stony cliff: no mastiff’s ever been
unleashed with so much haste to chase a thief.
The sinner plunged, then surfaced, black with pitch;
but now the demons, from beneath the bridge,
shouted: "The Sacred Face has no place here;
here we swim differently than in the Serchio;
if you don’t want to feel our grappling hooks,
don’t try to lift yourself above that ditch." (Inf. XXI, 16-51)

This passage represents contrapasso on a number of levels. As barrators, these corrupt politicians carried on their crimes in secret; thus, the pitch in which they are immersed is so dark that Dante "[can]not see within it." Tar, as a sticky substance, here represents another link that binds individual human beings to one another (like language, love, and money). By dishonestly buying and selling political offices, the barrators compromise the cohesion of the political system. Also, the barrators’ plight – unlike many other sinners’ – is not depicted in sympathetic terms, but in a comedic, almost slapstick, manner. The demons’ verbal taunting of the sinners illustrates this. The irreverent tone here suggests a personal vendetta against barrators on Dante’s part, which is plausible given his alleged history with grafters.

Inferno Canto XXIII (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators; Sixth Pouch: the Hypocrites)

Below that point we found a painted people,
who moved about with lagging steps, in circles,
weeping, with features tired and defeated.
And they were dressed in cloaks with cowls so low
they fell before their eyes, of that same cut
that’s used to make the clothes for Cluny’s monks
Outside, these cloaks were gilded and they dazzled;
but inside they were all of lead, so heavy
that Frederick’s capes were straw compared to them.
A tiring mantle for eternity! (Inf. XXIII, 58-67)

The hypocrites or Jovial Friars are emblems of deception. Their hellish attire accurately reveals their two-timing natures: their gilded cloaks flash attractively on the outside, but their inner linings are crafted from lead, the heaviest and most worthless metal and the symbolic opposite of gold. Such garb demonstrates that while hypocrites seem noble and worthy at first glance, their true characters prove woefully dissolute, not meriting all the praise they reap.

Inferno Canto XXV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)

Attacking one of them, it pierced right through
the part where we first take our nourishment;
and then it fell before him at full length…
The serpent stared at him, he at the serpent;
one through his wound, the other through his mouth
were smoking violently; their smoke met…
Let Ovid now be silent…
I do not envy him; he never did
transmute two natures, face to face, so that
both forms were ready to exchange their matter.
These were the ways they answered to each other:
the serpent split its tail into a fork;
the wounded sinner drew his steps together.
The legs and then the thighs along with them
so fastened to each other that the juncture
soon left no sign that was discernible.
Meanwhile the cleft tail took upon itself
the form the other gradually lost
its skin grew soft, the other’s skin grew hard…
And while the smoke veils each with a new color,
and now breeds hair upon the skin of one,
just as it strips the hair from off the other,
the one rose up, the other fell; and yet
they never turned aside their impious eyelamps,
beneath which each of them transformed his snout:…
his tongue, which had before been whole and fit
for speech, now cleaves; the other’s tongue, which had
been forked, now closes up; and the smoke stops.
The soul that had become an animal,
now hissing, hurried off along the valley;
the other one, behind him, speaks and spits. (Inf. XXV, 85-138)

Thieves fail to recognize the boundaries between their own property and that of others. To Dante, this indicates a basic flaw in their humanity; they lack the human reason to distinguish between what is theirs and what belongs to others. This blatant misuse of their intellects renders them more animal than human. Thus, in the Eighth Circle, they mutate into hideous pseudo-serpentine creatures. And because they did not honor the boundaries of property in life, they "exchange their matter" with each other, merging and morphing into the bodies of other thieves. In this way, they can hardly retain their own identities and have thus come to embody their sin.

Inferno Canto XXVI (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)

[Virgil]: "You two who move as one within the flame,
if I deserved of you while I still lived,
if I deserved of you much or a little
when in the world I wrote my noble lines,
do not move on; let one of you retell
where, having gone astray, he found his death."
The greater horn within that ancient flame
began to sway and tremble, murmuring
just like a fire that struggles in the wind;
and then he waved his flame-tip back and forth
as if it were a tongue that tried to speak…(Inf. XXVI, 79-89)

For giving false or malicious advice, the Fraudulent Counselors must struggle torturously to speak even a single word in Hell. The pain they no doubt feel in their shrouds of flame not only indicates their guilty spirits, but makes it difficult for them to speak. Also, because the sinners are ‘twinned’ here – a single flame containing two sinners -- Dante suggests that fraud affects not only the individual who practices it, but also others; it is a rebounding sin.

Inferno Canto XXVIII (the Eighth Circle, Ninth Pouch: the Sowers of Scandal and Schism)

[Bertran de Born]: "Because I severed those so joined, I carry –
alas – my brain dissevered from its source,
which is within my trunk. And thus, in me
one sees the law of counter-penalty." (Inf. XXVIII, 139-142)

Dante’s only explicit mention of contrapasso, or "the law of counter-penalty," occurs late in the poem. Perhaps because this canto best illustrates the concept of contrapasso, Dante mentions it here. Indeed, Bertran de Born’s grotesque punishment – having his head separated from his body for pitting a king and his son, the prince, against each other – neatly depicts the way in which contrapasso functions.

No barrel, even though it’s lost a hoop
or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I
saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart:
his bowels hung between his legs, one saw
his vitals and the miserable sack
that makes of what we swallow excrement.
While I was all intent on watching him,
he looked at me, and with his hands he spread
his chest and said: "See how I split myself!" (Inf. XXVIII, 22-30)

Dante’s idealistic vision of man living in peace and unity informs his depiction of the ninth pouch. Because these sowers of scandal and schism have caused social discord and divided people into warring factions, their bodies are now sliced in half. Mohammed, featured here, suffers disembowelment from a laceration that runs vertically down his entire chest. Others endure slit throats, dismembered hands or ears, and even decapitation. The dissent they’ve triggered in their lifetimes comes back to haunt them in their afterlives.

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

I do not think that there was greater grief
in seeing all Aegina’s people sick
(then, when the air was so infected that
all animals, down to the little worm,
collapsed; and afterward, as poets hold
to be the certain truth, those ancient peoples
received their health again through seed of ants)
than I felt when I saw, in that dark valley,
the spirits languishing in scattered heaps.
Some lay upon their bellies, some upon
the shoulders of another spirit, some
crawled on all fours along that squalid road.
We journeyed step by step without a word,
watching the listening to those sick souls,
who had not strength enough to lift themselves. (Inf. XXIX, 58-72)

Since all the falsifiers suffer a number of diseases which distort their bodies, Dante implies that blatant lying is as serious a condition as an actual malady. If a healthy soul always speaks the truth, these sinners must indeed lie through their teeth since they are so sick they "[have] not the strength enough to lift themselves." Here more than anywhere else, Dante attacks the infectious, social aspect of fraud. Each of the different types of falsifiers corrupts a particular bond that unites individual human beings. Alchemists compromise the material stability of the world, falsifiers of persons degrade men’s relationships with each other, counterfeiters compromise the integrity of currency, and liars debase language. All these falsifiers corrupt the natural fabric of reality, and thus have their naturalness compromised by the scourge of disease.

Inferno Canto XXXII (the Ninth Circle, First Ring Caina: Traitors to their Kin, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to their Homeland or Party)

And as the croaking frog sits with its muzzle
above the water, in the season when
the peasant woman often dreams of gleaning,
so, living in the ice, up to the place
where shame can show itself, were those sad shades,
whose teeth were chattering with notes like storks’.
Each kept his face bent downward steadily;
their mouths bore witness to the cold they felt,
just as their eyes proclaimed their sorry hearts. (Inf. XXXII, 31-39)

Immersion in ice is the perfect punishment for traitors for a number of reasons. The coldness of ice signals the lack of warmth and humanity present in the traitors’ hearts that has allowed them to betray their peers. Also, ice immobilizes the sinners so they cannot move to betray their fellows, as they did in life. The only part of them which can move is their mouths, which they use to bear "witness to the cold they [feel]."

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

If he [Lucifer] was once as handsome as he now
is ugly and, despite that, raised his brows
against his Maker, one can understand
how every sorrow has its source in him!
I marveled when I saw that, on his head,
he had three faces: one – in front – bloodred;
and then another two that, just above
the midpoint of each shoulder, joined the first…
Beneath each face of his, two wings spread out,
as broad as suited so immense a bird:
I’ve never seen a ship with sails so wide.
They had no feathers, but were fashioned like
a bat’s; and he was agitating them,
so that three winds made their way out from him –
and all Cocytus froze before those winds.
He 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, once God’s favorite and the most beautiful angel of them all, "now is ugly" because of the benighted sin he committed against God, betraying the one who created him out of pride. Lucifer is the ultimate traitor and, as such, is trapped in the earth as surely as the lesser traitors; there he creates the freezing winds that trap the Ninth Circle sinners in ice. Lucifer’s immobility is more profound than the others’ because he creates it himself: his "agitating" wings beat to help him escape from his prison, but all in vain. His image too – of three grotesque heads – is a parody of the Holy Trinity. The three vilest traitors suffer their punishment by eternally being chewed by Lucifer’s three heads. This act of eating is sinisterly twisted; it’s not used to gain nourishment and sustain oneself, but instead to deliberately cause pain. Finally, the description of Lucifer’s biting teeth as "a grinder" reinforces – along with the rhythmic beating of his wings – the concept of Lucifer as a massive machine: mechanical, soulless, and essentially anticlimactic.