Mercy, Justice, and Suffering in Dante's Inferno
It is perhaps the case that no greater work of poetry has ever been produced than that by Dante Alighieri, the 13th-century writer and philosopher who wrote the incredible epic poem, The Divine Comedy. The comedy itself is comprised of three sections, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso; each one taking the reader on the journey of a pilgrim who is guided through these varying states of the afterlife. Inferno for Hell, Purgatorio for purgatory, and Paradiso for paradise, or heaven. The object, of course, is that the pilgrim recognizes the errors of his ways and understanding, turns to Christ, and obtains the reward of heaven. Along the way, however, our pilgrim—and we as readers—encounter several woeful souls who suffer tremendously in Inferno, and even to some extent in purgatory.
Although Dante spends an incredible amount of time and attention of each of these realms, the goal of this project is to give attention to one very important aspect of these three realities that manifest themselves mostly in Inferno: eternal suffering. More specifically, it is important to understand Dante’s understanding of this suffering, in light of God’s justice, as he proceeds through the series. Thus, we shall explore a bit, the importance of God’s justice and how it permits suffering (and excuses sin).
At the beginning of Inferno, in Canto III, we read the famous line, “abandon every hope, you who enter.” This is the line it seems everyone knows—and how true it is of the inferno! The Catholic Church teaches in paragraph 1035 of the CCC that “immediately after death, the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC 1035). These condemning words carry much weight, and for good reason. Dante Alighieri would have understood the gravity of such a place. But there is an important line, perhaps not nearly as famous, which precedes this famous line. It reads, in part, “Justice moved my high maker…the sum of wisdom and the prime of love.”
The task at hand, then, is to identify God’s justice as it is exercised in our suffering; indeed, this is the question that so many beg to understand. Why the suffering? Why forever? This, Dante proceeds to do over the course of the inferno. Thus we see, as quickly as Canto V, that our pilgrim is moved with pity at the enmeshed lovers who gave up their eternal joy for eternal suffering with each other. He is so moved with pity for the simple fact that love evokes emotion. But the pilgrim’s pity is not altogether unwarranted (which is perhaps why Virgil does not chastise him). For love truly is beautiful, and suffering truly is woeful.
Dante here does not seem to be trying to convey a sense of innocence of these two lovers; he is merely painting a picture that illustrates a sense of great loss. Their love is worthless because it was selfishly chosen. God’s justice is at work here, as it is throughout the inferno: no one can be spared from their own free choice. As Michael Potts states in his work, Aquinas, hell, and the Resurrection of the Damned, “much of the harm the damned suffer is due to their own evil wills.”
This is the element that continues to play out over the course of the inferno: ultimately, the pilgrim will not only come to terms with, but also come to understand, the nature of divine justice; this is precisely because it is a Justice that is perfectly complemented by Divine Mercy. How can it be that it is merciful, or good, to punish one for eternity for something one does in a span of a single lifetime?
Putting it rather frankly, St. Thomas Aquinas states in his Summa Contra Gentiles, in book III, Ch. 144, that “Natural equity would seem to demand that everyone be deprived of that good against which he has acted, since by this he renders himself unworthy of that good” (SCG, III, 144). He continues by using the example of a man who “sins” against the state and is cut off from his community as punishment, and, that depending on the severity of the crime, he is cut off either temporarily, indefinitely, or permanently.
It does not seem altogether unreasonable, then, that at least some offenses might merit a permanent punishment. But we experience some seemingly harsh punishments in Dante’s hell. One might pose the question: why not obliterate the offenders and rid them of their existence entirely?
But we might recognize why this is an untenable solution. For what mercy is there in obliterating one who desires to exist? And what justice is there in preventing one from paying his debt? Potts asks the question differently: “would the damned themselves see hell as merciful? Would not they themselves prefer annihilation to their miserable existence?” Pott’s suggestion is rather astute, and Dante illustrates this rather nicely: that is, those who are in hell choose to be in hell, not because they hate God per se, but because they love themselves more. This is evident throughout the inferno—especially because the damned do not seem to distress their distance from God so much as the mistakes they made in life to land them where they are. Some wretched souls seem oblivious entirely to their situation, a reality that intensifies with the pilgrim’s descent.
It is arguable, then, that it is a mercy in itself that God permits these selfish sufferers to go on with existence. And it is a justice that they pay for their sins against God and his creation.
This, to my mind, is the greatest lesson of the inferno: that God’s justice and mercy necessitate that the inferno exists. The cost of free will involves the risk of sin, but this risk is far outweighed by God’s perfect love and justice. Thus, while our propensity to sin is inherent and unavoidable, we are given the opportunity to accept God’s free gift of love.
It is all the more ideal, then, that Dante nears the end of his Inferno with a much-changed pilgrim. A pilgrim who now recognizes the importance and value of the suffering endured by those in hell. So we read in Canto XXXIII, when the frozen soul begs the pilgrim to wipe his frozen tears away so that he can “vent the sorrow that swells [his] heart a bit, before the tears congeal again” (Canto XXXIII, lines 113-114). But to this request, the pilgrim says, “I did not open them; and courtesy was to be rude to him.” (Canto XXXIII, Lines 149-150). What eyes to see! That one could reject an apparently harmless request, with a sense of wisdom not obtained by knowledge, but by discernment, prudence, and mercy.
 Dante Alighieri, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, trans. Daniel Fitzpatrick, (St. Louis, Mo: En Route Books And Media, Llc, 2020), Canto III, 9.  Michael Potts, “Aquinas, Hell, and the Resurrection of the Damned,” Faith and Philosophy 15, no. 3 (1998): 341–351.  Michael Potts, “Aquinas, Hell, and the Resurrection of the Damned,” Faith and Philosophy 15, no. 3 (1998): 341–351.  Dante Alighieri, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, trans. Daniel Fitzpatrick, (St. Louis, Mo: En Route Books And Media, Llc, 2020), Canto XXXIII, 113-114.  Dante Alighieri, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, trans. Daniel Fitzpatrick, (St. Louis, Mo: En Route Books And Media, Llc, 2020), Canto XXXIII, 149-150.