02 February, 2008
"Abandon every hope, who enter here"
The quotation in the title is probably one of the most famous phrases of Dante's "Inferno". I had a specific point I was intending to make before writing that, but the simply act of recording it has made me perform something of a double-take. (Dante's intricate layering of meaning upon meaning - of metaphorical sense on top of theological sense on top of literal sense - makes reading the Divine Comedy, not to mention discussing it, a daunting venture, dontcha think?)
That single line, inscribed above the gates of hell serves so many fascinating purposes. The most obvious reference, of course, is to the sinners who enter choosing to abandon hope of ever fulfilling the role for which God created each of them; to reject the one route to true happiness that lies in that role. Ironically enough, however, "Dante the pilgrim", having strayed from the path - that is, the "Way" which will lead him to heaven, can only get back onto the right track by first descending through hell. Still lost, he sees a mountain crowned with the sun - he wants to move towards the light, but is prevented by three beasts, the sight of which " so weighted me with fearfulness that I abandoned hope."
I hardly think it a coincedence that Dante's phrasing here directly echoes (or rather, foreshadows) the inscription over hell. But why? How could one who has abandoned hope ever be able to regain it by entering into the one place where hope most utterly dead?
First, Dante-pilgrim has a guide - Virgil, the embodiment of reason. Moreover, his journey is sanctioned, even commanded, by heaven. Beatrice, explaining to Virgil why she does not fear hell, gives us some idea of how it is that Dante may be kept safe. "One ought to be afraid of nothing other than things possessed of power to do us harm...God, in His graciousness, has made me so that this, your misery, cannot touch me." God offers Dante an opportunity to pass through the worst dangers in safety, providing him with the guide of reason to guide Dante's own choices, and with divine protection when reason fails (as we see happen in moments when Virgil's vulnerability in certain circumstances becomes pronounced. All of this seems to be getting off my original point, but I'll try to tie it in, I promise.
The sentence that sheds the greatest light on all of this for me comes directly after the inscription. Explaining the words carved above the gates, Virgil tells Dante that those in hell are souls who have "lost the good of the intellect". And what is the good of the intellect? Reason, perfected by faith in God. (I'm presupposing pretty much the entire substance of Fides et Ratio here, I admit...) As Dante descends further and further into the Inferno, the sins he encounters are offenses against reason - beginning with the virtuous pagans whose only fault was their lack of faith which made their reason imperfect, and ending with those who used their intellects to break faith. Hell is essentially "the great divorce" (to plagiarize the title of CS Lewis' book) between reason and faith.
Dante could abandon reason, his guide, and be lost in hell forever. He could lose faith in God's will, as he nearly does, for example, at the gates of Dis (lower hell) when even Virgil is unable to defeat the demons without divine aid. Either way, he would then be among those who have "lost the good of the intellect". However, hell is "innocuous", as Beatrice describes it, to those who accept the protection God offers. In the dark forest of the first Canto, Dante has only himself to rely upon, having lost the way to God. His hope is crushed when he is so alone, and his intellect is weakened. But once he accepts God's offer of aid, Dante can hope even as he crawls down Satan's hairy body in deepest chasm of hell.