It has often been observed that hell is different for each person. Although the central concept of the underworld may have a basic template based upon one’s cultural background or religious belief, the actual view and purpose of a site of everlasting damnation tends to vary. For the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, hell was simply other people. For the writers of numerous fictions, hell is a place where irony determines suffering; a place where a donut-loving Homer Simpson would be forced to endure donut after donut after donut. In both Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s Aeneid vision of hell, punishment clearly has a political aspect to it, but within this larger overview each author has varying views. Dante’s Inferno stands as a much more satisfying work of literature precisely because it was written with a definite political motivation behind it that eluded Virgil when he was writing the Aeneid.
Both Virgil and Dante present a vision of the underworld that contains a definite structure of separation, but Virgil’s conception of sin and punishment is a clearly pre-Christian one. Although there is definitely a certain codified punishment that is at play that is somewhat at odds with the traditional randomness typically displayed by Greek or Roman gods, nonetheless Virgil’s structure remains less strictly defined than Dante’s. The price of hell in Virgil is based more on a general view of wrongdoing, whereas Dante creates specific circles marked by boundaries. It is this lack of a strong determining political agenda that marks the Aeneid as a less powerful piece of literature.
For instance, Virgil’s vision of a limbo does not contain the powerful message of authority that is on display in the Inferno. For Dante, limbo is a necessity brought on by the strict enforcement that it is belief in Jesus Christ that is the ultimate separator between heaven and hell. Virgil’s limbo might be said to contain no such prejudice regarding a human being’s particular belief system. Limbo for Virgil may be compared more to a way station for all, while for Dante limbo is restricted to pre-Christian. Heaven and hell is reserved for believers and sinners.
The distinction between a pre-Christian and a Christian underworld permeates the differences in the strengths of the two works. Although one might well be tempted to view a hell that is based solely upon the deeds committed in life as preferable, Dante proves that an authoritarian religious aspect increases significantly the value of a work that examines such a state. Consider this view of punishment in Virgil’s underworld: “Then are they happy, when by length of time/The scurf is worn away of each committed crime/No speck is left of their habitual stains” (Book VI) The indication is of the possibility of redemption even in hell. This is not so in Dante’s hell, which draws its formation from a church doctrine specifically designed to scare people into acting in a virtuous way. Dante’s hell offers none of the kind of hope that it is be found in Virgil’s. In fact, it is of primary importance that readers know there is no possibility whatever of escaping perpetual torment.
Virgil gives hope to his readers in the form of a cleansing possibility in his hell. “But, when a thousand rolling years are past/So long their punishments and penance last,)/Whole droves of minds are, by the driving god/Compell’d to drink the deep Lethaean flood” (VI) In other words, Virgil offers a compelling vision of hell that many of us would probably prefer. Who wouldn’t like to think that there is always the possibility for redemption for sins, ever after the torment of the afterlife. But it is exactly that possibility that makes Virgil’s hell much less satisfying from a literary perspective than Dante’s. After all, what could be more powerful than the simple statement: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here” (Canto III). It is part of the political aspect of Dante’s Inferno that the possibility for redemption in hell cannot exist. The poem was written to describe a Christian conception of sin and punishment. The central political force behind the authority of the Church was not guidance, of course, but control. The ability to control the masses not with a whip, but with a book is pure genius. But in order for that book to have authority, it must also inspire fear. The fear of afterlasting damnation was and is a powerful force for motivation and Dante throughout the Inferno makes excellent use of it, even calling into question that very power.
Which sets up another important difference between Dante and Virgil, which is the structure of hell according to sins. For Virgil, everyone sins equally and therefore punishment is equal. It is extremely important for Dante that there be levels of hell and levels of sin, and furthermore that the punishment for those sins be equitable. Judgment in Dante’s underworld is being meted out by God, the God of Abraham, the Christian God and it is vital that readers understand that punishment is balanced while also being quite rigid. Since for the Romans of Virgil’s time there was no belief in the kind of judging God who Dante’s readers believed it, this balance was not important to establish. So integral to Dante’s vision is it, however, that he invents not just levels to separate the sinners, but also the law of contrapasso in order to make sure that each sin receives its just punishment.
Why is this contrapasso and leveling of sins of such importance and why does its existence make Dante’s hell a much more passionate piece of literature than Virgil’s? The hell shown to Aeneas contains not only the promise of redemption afterward, but redemption that is meant to be symbolic of the secular glory of Rome: “thy race, in times to come/Shall spread the conquests of imperial Rome-/Rome, whose ascending tow’rs shall heav’n invade/Involving earth and ocean in her shade” (VI). Virgil was writing a political treatise as well, true, but the politics was of the kind of simple patriotic promises of a greater glory. On the other hand, Dante’s specific punishment of specific sins is political because it doesn’t contain the seeds of redemption; even those who have committed good in the name of Christ are doomed to punishment. Dante’s hell offers no escape for those who profess to love Christ and then reject His teachings. The key moment comes when it is inquired: “They who so well deserv’d, of Giacopo/Arrigo, Mosca, and the rest, who bent/Their minds on working good. Oh! tell me where/They bide, and to their knowledge let me come./For I am press’d with keen desire to hear” (Canto VI). The answer, of course, is that those who good intention do pave the road to a much deeper part of hell; certainly a frightening thought to many Christians.
Dante’s Inferno stands as a testament to the power of propaganda; the poem clearly has an ideological point of view that is lacking in Virgil. It is this slight different in perspective, however, that elevates Dante’s hell to a far grander literary creation than Virgil’s.