The Good of Intellect
Dante’s voyage into hell formally begins in Canto III as his guide, Virgil, reach the entry gate. Above the gate, carved in stone, is the foreboding inscription:
“I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE.
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE.
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW.
SACRED JUSTICE MOVED MY ARCHITECT.
I WAS RAISED HERE BY DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE,
PRIMORDIAL LOVE AND ULTIMATE INTELLECT.
ONLY THOSE ELEMENTS TIME CANNOT WEAR
WERE MADE BEFORE ME, AND BEYOND TIME I STAND.
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.” (Canto III.1-9)
The last line of the inscription, in particular, sets the stage for all that Dante (and the reader) will encounter in Hell – the loss of hope. It is the loss of hope that, more than any specific “external” torment, characterizes the Inferno. The “harsh inscription” troubles Dante and brings about firm and honest counsel from Virgil:
“Here you must put by all division of spirit
and gather your soul against all cowardice.
This is the place I told you to expect.
Here you shall pass among the fallen people,
souls who have lost the good of intellect.” (Canto III.14-18)
Dante is encouraged to fortify himself against the scenes to come – something he fails to do in early encounters, particularly in Canto III and V where he passes out. The fallen souls are described as those who have “lost the good of intellect.” They are out of their minds and, as Virgil describes later, some of “their souls have dimmed past recognition” (Canto VII.54).
Idiocy, Selfishness, & Community
What does Virgil mean in saying that these fallen souls have “lost the good of intellect”? “Intellect” clearly does not mean the modern concept of the mind, somehow isolated from the soul. After all, Virgil speaks of those in hell as souls who have lost the good of intellect, indicating that there is no dichotomy between the two.
Overwhelmed and condemned by their sins, these souls are now without hope, separated from relationship to both God and man. They have become, in the original sense of the word, “idiots” – from the Greek term “ἰδιώτης” (idiotes), later adapted into Latin idiota. The term literally means “private person,” one who isolated himself from cultural, civic, and religious life; isolated from the polis. What he willfully separated himself from in life, he is eternally separated from in death.
To put it another way, Hell is a place for the selfish.
I can’t help but believe that this motivated the geography of Dante’s Inferno, holding the shape of an inverted, increasingly restrictive cone. As you descend, the circles tighten; a real punishment for those who devoted themselves to the selfishness of sin.
C.S. Lewis captures this idea quite differently in The Great Divorce, portraying Hell as a place in which you get whatever you want (a truly horrifying thought, once pondered a while). It is a place of utter, unfettered selfishness. No one can or has to get along with anyone else, resulting in houses stretching for millions of miles because no one can stand his neighbor – a vivid rejection of the two greatest commandments. Everyone gets what they want, but the result is that their minds become so entrapped in themselves that they behave like “idiots” and are driven further from both God and man.
Dante’s Hell is a horrifying place, not simply because of the gruesomeness of punishment found there, but because it is a hopeless place, a place in which fallen souls are separated from the very things they were created to enjoy – God and one another.