Is Dante the “Poet of Hell” or is He something more?

Almost everyone knows Dante only for Inferno. Even Dan Brown’s novel of the same name only focuses on the first part of Dante’s trilogy. In fact, it’s a testament to how few people get past Dante’s version of hell that he’s often called the “poet of hell.” 

Often accompanying the “poet of hell” is the misguided notion The Divine Comedy is a kind of personal revenge poem so that Dante can play at punishing the people he doesn’t like and reward the people he does. 

If we were to take a moment to explore beyond what we think we now, there might be something very different to the reality we’ve been taught. Dante isn’t the “poet of hell” we’ve been led to believe. He’s the poet of freedom from our greatest enemy–ourselves. 

The difference between hell and purgatory is the key to understanding Dante. 

It’s only when we read Purgatorio that we understand the full nature of Inferno, and we understand some of Dante’s own sentiments on morality and human behavior.

Hell is a huge funnel where sins are both judged and punished because the people there chose to be there. The frauds, for instance, continued practicing fraud above and beyond anything else. They chose their fraud over choosing any other course of action. Almost alike a bad habit. 

They were free to choose, and they chose unwisely. Now, they suffer the consequences of their choices. 

Purgatory is slightly different. Like hell, there are nine levels, but these spiral upward and the “punishments” are only there to remove the stain the sin left behind. NOt the actual sin itself. Think of it as breaking a bad habit, like smoking and then getting all the nicotine out of your clothes. The smell and the stain stays on you and your clothing long after the cigarettes are a thing of the past. 

This is purgation. Not punishment. Granted, the two look the same to our eyes. Even to Dante’s at first. But there are vast differences between the prideful in purgatory and the frauds in hell. The prideful in purgatory spend their time unlearning their pride so that they may learn humility. 

The frauds in Hell only relive their fraud repeatedly. 

Unlearning the fault in purgatory looks like modern-day “doing the work.” 

They teach correct behavior in purgatory through prayer, good examples, music, and rest. Translate this into a non-religious context and you have what nearly every good psychologist or self-help guru will tell you to do: meditation, learning the correct behavior, therapy, and sleep. 

Sleep cures a lot of ills. So does therapy either in the form of doing something (hence the so-called “punishments”) or listening to or making music. Meditation and/or prayer also cures a lot of ills. Even Virgil’s presence is a kind of bookworm’s wet dream version of bibliotherapy. 

How many of us bookworms would give our right arm to have Dante’s form of bibliotherapy? Hang out with my favorite writer, even if he cusses me out for my faults? Sign me up yesterday! I’ll gladly listen to Shakespeare, Austen, or Dante himself tell me all the ways I’m mucking everything up and what I need to do to be better. 

Essentially, Dante has given us the same blueprint as “doing the work” does in the modern age. It’s the most difficult aspect of self-care, as most who do it will tell you. And Dante isn’t alone or isolated from others in Purgatory. The other souls there hasten him along, joyful that he’s able to proceed. 

Now, if that doesn’t show you the advantage of having people who rejoice in your triumphs, even if they’re still struggling, I don’t know what is. That’s true friendship. 

Purgatory is the gift of change while hell is total changelessness. 

None breaks for us the dateless law decreed

Virgil to Cato

Purgatorio, Canto I, line 76

Dante Alighieri

When Virgil arrives at Purgatory, Dante in tow, the keeper of the mountain rebukes him. Virgil, even though he’s only in Limbo and not in Hell proper, cannot ascend the mountain on his own. Why? He’s no longer capable of change. 

Now, how appropriate is this? In Hell, you are stuck with all the bad habits, toxic traits, and yes, even the bad intentions you have forever. You can never change. That means you never learn, you never improve, and you never get better. It’s literally being stuck. 

If you’ve suffered depression or any other mental illness and are fully cognizant of the fact, then you know already exactly what this feels like. 

Purgatory, however, lets you change. And, as Virgil tells Cato when he explains why he’s there, Dante wishes for freedom. He wants the freedom that change brings with it. Think about that for a minute.. 

When was the last time you overcame a bad habit? Didn’t it feel freeing? When you break a cycle of bad thinking, let go that old habit that is holding you back, or even implement a new routine that allows you to do more and accomplish more, the freedom that comes with it is indescribable. 

It’s a bit like getting to work from home and discover that you can do that final load of laundry you never get to do because you don’t have enough time to go around. Or that you can have that 10 minutes before the big presentation to center yourself because you don’t have the usual office noise distracting you. 

Getting to change what’s keeping you broken is a gift immeasurable. It’s exactly as Dante describes it, freedom. 

And that is why he’s not the “poet of hell.” 

Freedom is going to be a theme throughout Purgatorio

‘Tis liberty he seeks–how dear a thing

That is, they know who give their lives for it;

Purgatorio, Canto 1, lines 71-72

Dante Alighieri

Freedom and love are two themes that intertwine in Purgatorio. Virgil even gives us discourses on love and free will during the nights when the mountain is at rest. This is because the two are supposed to be intertwined. 

If you look at it from the classical Christian point of view freedom is exactly why Jesus Christ came to die. He came to die to make us free. Not good. Not even holy. But free.

Goodness that is compulsory isn’t goodness anymore than humility that hides pride is true humility. Holiness isn’t holiness unless we’re actively choosing it over whatever keeps us from being holy.

Being full of faults and mistakes is slavery. Anyone who’s ever suffered depression or morbid self-loathing can tell you that all too easily, if they’re aware of it. So can anyone who’s just kicked a bad habit or tried to raise themselves out of a miry situation. 

Our faults, if we continue choosing them, enslave us more surely than anything in the world can. Physical slavery is one thing, but mental or emotional slavery is harder to escape. And more deadly. Ex-cult members are proof enough of that. But so are those who are recovering from spiritual abuse. 

But with freedom comes responsibility. Those who end up in hell didn’t use their freedom responsibly. They used their freedom to stay enslaved. It’s a bit like living in a nation that allows freedom only for you to use that freedom to make excuses as to why you can’t change, or why you can’t take responsibility for anything in your life. 

Purgatorio shows us that the tools of freedom are not what we think they are. They start from within, with practicing true virtue and not merely using virtue as a mask. There are no excuses here, but there is learning how to be truly free. 

It’s difficult to understand or to do, but it’s the road to freedom. As any good therapist, psychologist, or, dare I say it, priest can tell you. 

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