By: Ben Sapet
It might seem like a stretch to call Hell, the realm of eternal torment, a “perfect place” but, in his epic poem Inferno, Dante (the 13th-century Italian poet) writes it as just that. Dante writes of taking a highly allegorical journey through Hell in order to meet his courtly love in heaven. The Roman poet Virgil serves as his guide through the nine circles of Hell, each circle with its own set of sinners and corresponding punishments. In his trek through the fiery underworld, Dante meets important figures from history and myth, contemporary people in power, and even people from his own life—all suffering grotesque punishments for the sins that defined their lives.
As the author, Dante takes great pains to give Hell its nightmarish geography. Located at the center of the earth, Hell is comprised of nine concentric circles—each with crimes and punishments more horrible (in Dante’s opinion) than the last. These range from a fairly pleasant eternal limbo for Homer, Socrates, Caesar, and everyone else who never knew Christ (because they lived before his birth) to the center of hell where those who betrayed their God-appointed leaders spend eternity in a frozen wasteland being chewed up by one of Satan’s three mouths. In between those circles are other bits of nastiness such as gluttons facing eternity lying in filth with excrement raining down on them, heretics in burning coffins, and murderers submerged in rivers of boiling blood. It is an altogether unpleasant place to call a utopia, a perfect place; however, Dante’s hell certainly fits the criteria.
Utopian thought is often a result of an author diagnosing the ills they observe in the world. Dante uses this imagined world to diagnose the unpunished sins he observed in his own 13th-century Italy (as well as in history and myth) and, in turn, to imagine the divine punishment God might dispense.
Utopias tend to mirror the cultures from which they arise, even as the utopia tries to negate that culture. Dante’s hell takes a decidedly Italian/Roman-centric view of history. Dante keeps the Roman poet Virgil in tow, condemns Odysseus for deceiving and murdering Rome’s Trojan ancestors, and equates the betrayal of Caesar to that of Jesus. Dante is nothing if not thorough. Historical and contemporary enemies of Rome, such as Alexander the Great and Guy de Montfort, burn right alongside one another.
Utopias are inherently grounded in the perspectives and biases of their creators. Dante came from a Florence divided by the power struggle between the Vatican and the Holy Roman Empire. Dante was a Guelph, who supported the papacy and opposed the Ghibellines—those who supported the Holy Roman Emperor. The division went even further with a rift between Black Guelphs, the ardent supporters of the papacy, and the White Guelphs, who had reservations about the scope of papal power. As a White Guelph, Dante found himself in exile, but gets the last laugh by placing Popes, emperors, Black Guelphs, and Ghibellines in Hell. Dante’s personal experience informs his depiction of Hell to the extent that he makes God seem very concerned about the minutiae of Florentine politics and almost always in favor of Dante’s White Guelphs.
Dante’s hell is the ultimate cathartic utopia; as an author and architect of Hell, he gets to assume the role of God’s mouthpiece, classifying and judging wrongs by his own compass, then imagining what nasty ironic punishment God might dole out. It is not a perfect world because nothing bad happens; it is a perfect world precisely because God has brought bad things to those who Dante sees as sinners. Prior to Dante’s viscerally realized Hell, Judeo-Christian Hell was pretty vague; it was menacingly characterized as a terrifying land of fire where the wicked are punished. Upon introducing a utopian framework to Hell, Dante radically changed the Christian mythos. Hell became a part of God’s domain with its own kind of perfection, perfection in which grisly justice is meted according to a divine plan.