Study Guide

Inferno Wisdom and Knowledge

By Dante Alighieri

Wisdom and Knowledge

Inferno Canto II

O Muses, o high genius, help me now;
o memory that set down what I saw,
here shall your excellence reveal itself! (Inf. II, 7-9)

Dante’s invocation of the muses suggests that he considers his poem a serious intellectual pursuit, much like Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. Like these ancient poets, he entrusts his memory and resulting words to a higher, divine power – much as his prayers to the Christian God will do later.

Inferno Canto III

[Virgil]: "For we have reached the place of which I spoke
where you will see the miserable people,
those who have lost the good of the intellect." (Inf. III, 16-18)

Dante considers the mind and reason as purely human faculties and singular gifts from God. Man, then, has a responsibility to use these intellectual gifts for good. Sinners who use their intellects for evil or simply deny that reason is a human tool have "lost the good of the intellect" and have therefore been condemned to Hell.

Inferno Canto IV (the first Circle: Limbo)

[Virgil]: "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 the 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. (Inf. IV, 86-102)

In medieval times, more so than today, poets represented the consummate academics. Dante demonstrates this by referring to the most famous Classical poets as a "splendid school." The character Dante, as an aspiring poet, is flattered when Virgil’s peers invite him to converse with them and he finds himself "sixth among such intellects." If one approaches this statement from the perspective of Dante the author, this rank of "sixth among such intellects" could be read as a bit cocky.

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

[Dante to Virgil]: "Master," I asked of him, "now tell me too:
this Fortune whom you’ve touched upon just now –
what’s she, who clutches so all the world’s goods?"
And he to me: "O unenlightened creatures,
how deep – the ignorance that hampers you!
I want you to digest my word on this.
Who made the heavens and who gave them guides
was He whose wisdom transcends everything;
that every part may shine unto the other,
He had the light apportioned equally;
similarly, for worldly splendors, He
ordained a general minister and guide
to shift, from time to time, those empty goods
from nation unto nation, clan to clan,
in ways that human reason can’t prevent;
just so, one people rules, one languishes,
obeying the decision she has given,
which, like a serpent in the grass, is hidden.
Your knowledge cannot stand against her force;
for she foresees and judges and maintains
her kingdom as the other gods do theirs.
The changes that she brings are without respite:
it is necessity that makes her swift;
and for this reason, men change state so often." (Inf. VII, 67-90)

For the first time since the Hellgate, Virgil insists that Divine proceedings can exceed the grasp of human intellect. Fortune, or the seemingly random shift of wealth and fame from one nation to another, can "stand against [the] force" of man’s reason because she is God’s minister. His "wisdom," of course, "transcends everything" – even human intellect. Thus, the fact that man cannot understand or predict Fortune’s vicissitudes is natural.

And I to him: "Master, among this kind
I certainly might hope to recognize
some who have been bespattered by these crimes."
And he to me: "That thought of yours is empty:
the undiscerning life that made them filthy
now renders them unrecognizable." (Inf. VII. 49-54)

Having denied "the good of the intellect" by abusing their relationship to money, the avaricious and prodigal have not only forfeited their places in Heaven, but have also lost their identities, since their faces have been "render[ed]…unrecognizable." An intellectual sin can thus lead to compromising one’s identity, appropriate since – in Dante’s eyes – one’s mind and the way one uses it are the only things that distinguish man from animals.

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

[Dante]: "Within my memory is fixed – and now
moves me – your dear, your kind paternal image
when, in the world above, from time to time
you taught me how man makes himself eternal;
and while I live, my gratitude for that
must always be apparent in my words.
What you have told me of my course, I write;
I keep it with another text, for comment
by one who’ll understand, if I may reach her." (Inf. XV, 82-90)

Here, Dante shows one of his naïve intellectual fallacies. Brunetto Latini, as Dante’s tutor, "taught [him] how man makes himself eternal"; namely, that man’s name can continue into eternity only through the quality of the works he creates during his lifetime. Thus, as the only way man can gain mortality, this philosophy denies the existence of the immortal soul. It seems that this sin – not sodomy – is the sole reason Latini resides in Hell. Dante, too, by adoring and even continuing to record Latini’s words, runs the peril of falling into the same trap as Latini.

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

Let Lucan now be silent, where he sings
of sad Sabellus and Nasidius,
and wait to hear what flies off from my bow.
Let Ovid now be silent, where he tells
of Cadmus, Arethusa; if his verse
has made of one a serpent, one a fountain,
I do not envy him; he never did
transmute two natures, face to face, so that
both forms were ready to exchange their matter. (Inf. XXV, 94-102)

For the second time, Dante asserts himself as a brilliant poet. In telling Lucan and Ovid – both of whom superbly described attacks by serpents and transformations (like Dante is doing here) – to "be silent," Dante obviously considers himself superior to them. His reasoning is based on the fact that neither Roman poet ever wrote of an instance in which "two natures….were ready to exchange their matter." And nobody, up to Dante’s time, had done it as well as he does…or so he asserts.

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

[Ulysses to his men]: "‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘o you, who having crossed
a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west,
to this brief waking-time that still is left
unto your senses, you must not deny
experience of that which lies beyond
the sun, and of the world that is unpeopled.
Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’" (Inf. XXVI, 112-120)

It is no coincidence that within the same canto that Dante "curb[s his] talent" to "not abuse [his intellect]," Ulysses urges his men to "be followers of worth and knowledge." In doing this, he sins, though his ideals seem noble. However, his assertion spurs his followers to cross the known geographical boundaries of human knowledge as well as to impinge on the godly body of knowledge. Thus, in his worthy attempt to make his men "not live [their] lives as brute," Ulysses transgresses the boundaries of what God deems proper for men to know. A similar fable in the Christian tradition would be God’s exile of Adam and Eve from Eden after they eat from the Tree of Knowledge.


It grieved me then and now grieves me again
when I direct my mind to what I saw;
and more than usual, I curb my talent,
that it not run where virtue does not guide;
so that, if my kind star or something better
has given me that gift, I not abuse it. (Inf. XXVI, 19-24)

After witnessing the thieves’ punishment, Dante warns his readers not to misuse their intellect as the thieves have. His assertion, "I curb my talent," in describing the thieves’ painful transformations, Dante indirectly points out his superiority to other poets (described in the previous canto). But by "curb[ing his] talent," Dante claims he is adhering to virtue and not trying to surpass his human limits, nor to "run where virtue does not guide." This hails back to Virgil’s description in the third canto of "the good of the intellect."

Inferno Canto XXXI (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers)

Surely when she gave up the art of making
such creatures, Nature acted well indeed,
depriving Mars of instruments like these.
And if she still produces elephants
and whales, whoever sees with subtlety
holds her – for this – to be more just and prudent;
for where the mind’s acutest reasoning
is joined to evil will and evil power,
there human beings can’t defend themselves. (Inf. XXXI, 49-57)

By implying that "Nature acted well indeed" in refusing to give further birth to giants, Dante implies that the giants are sinners. They fall into the category between the eighth and ninth circles, between the realms of ordinary and treacherous fraud, both considered purely an intellectual sin and a denial of "the good of the intellect." Like Lucifer, the giants challenge God’s supremacy by connecting "the mind’s acutest reasoning" to "evil will and evil power." Thus, it comes as no surprise that their punishment – being immobilized deep in Hell – echoes and anticipates Lucifer’s penalty.