Awakened from his first swoon by a “monstrous clap of thunder,” Dante finds that they have crossed Acheron and are now positioned “on the very brink of the valley called the Dolorous Abyss, the desolate chasm where rolls the thunder of Hell’s eternal cry” (Canto IV.7-9).
Yet, as they descend into the first circle, Dante reports…
“No tortured wailing rose to greet us here
but sounds of sighing rose from every side,
sending a tremor through the timeless air,
a grief breathed out of untormented sadness,
the passive state of those who dwelled apart,
men, women, children – a dim and endless congress.” (Canto IV.25-30)
Virgil identifies them as the unbaptized and those who were virtuous pagans, born before the time of Christ:
“…these were sinless. And still their merits fail,
for they lacked baptism’s grace, which is the door
of the true faith you were born to. Their birth fell
before the age of the Christian mysteries,
and so they did not worship God’s Trinity
in fullest duty. I am one of these.” (Canto IV.34-39)
Delving further into this first circle, Dante encounters the greatest poets of antiquity – Homer (“their captain and champion”), Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. The band is made six for a time, Dante writes, “for they included me in their own number, making me sixth in that high company.”
Some would swiftly charge him with pride here – perhaps rightly – but he at least acknowledges that it is an honorary degree. Ironically, most of us would confess that while we may not applaud his self-inclusion in the band of six, we would now likely place him in the top three!
The Seven Liberal Arts
The first circle stands out oddly. It is a place of light, there is much room to move, a “sweet brook” flows nearby, and there is a “green meadow blooming round.” Rather than encountering gruesome punishment that threatens to make Dante swoon again, he finds the most brilliant minds of antiquity.
“And there directly before me on the green
the master souls of time were shown to me.
I glory in the glory I have seen!” (Canto IV.118-120)
In addition to the band of poets, there is Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Diogenes, Thales, Seneca, and many more.
In the last lines of Canto IV, Dante says that when they leave this circle, they “pass from light into the kingdom of eternal night.”
What is it that made the first circle so strangely different? Why was their light here? Why were the great minds of old gathered here? The answer most likely resides in lines 103-111:
“So we moved toward the light, and as we passed
we spoke of things as well omitted here
as it was sweet to touch on there. At last
we reached the base of a great Citadel
circled by seven towering battlements
and by a sweet brook flowing round them all.
This we passed over as if it were firm ground.
Through seven gates I entered with those sages,
and came to a green meadow blooming round.”
Dante describes an area of light, pocketed within a citadel of seven battlements with seven gates. Within those seven gated battlements we find the “master souls of time” – the great minds of the ages before Christ. Those seven battlements and seven gates, as well as the light within them, are pictures of the seven liberal arts. They bring with them the “light” of human reason, but in Dante’s portrayal, it is a light that is limited, a light within the darkness. It cannot permeate hell, and it is true that hope must be abandoned here, but things are certainly seem better within that circle (particularly when compared to those encountered later).
The seven liberal arts without the Light of Christ is a very limited light. But, how bright can that light be when human reason is ablaze with the Light of Christ?
This causes me to venture back to a question posed by Virgil earlier in Canto IV, upon entering the first circle – “You do not question what souls these are that suffer here before you?” Virgil apparently wished Dante was more curious about the souls in this circle, perhaps because it is Virgil’s own circle. But, given that Dante is writing allegorically, allow me to stretch into further questions.
Perhaps Virgil is encouraging Dante to ask why this circle is different from what he saw in the vestibule. Why the lack of physical torment? Why the light and room to move? Why the seven battlements and gates? Why the green meadow and flowing brook? Why are these souls gathered here?
What’s more, given that Virgil is a picture of Human Reason throughout the Comedia: What is the place of human reason? What are its limits and blessings? What does this give us to contemplate, we who labor in the seven liberal arts? What pictures, warnings, and lessons reside here for us?