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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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CANTO IV

Dante awakens from his swoon near the edge of the actual pit
of Hell. Together, he and Virgil enter the First Circle, Limbo.
Dante is somewhat disturbed to hear that all those born before
Christ, including Virgil, are assigned to this place. He
questions Virgil closely on this point and discovers that when
Christ descended into Hell after his crucifixion, He did take
such men as Noah, Moses, David, and Abraham with Him to
Heaven. But since that time, no one has changed position.

In the middle of this conversation, a voice hails the return of
Virgil. Virgil presents to Dante the shades of the classical
writers Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, and Dante is pleased
to be a sixth in the presence of such great minds. Dante also
sees the resting shades of Socrates, Plato, Ptolemy, and many
others.



NOTE: Why are such notable people in Hell? It hardly seems
fair that they should be here simply because they were born
before Christ. We can better understand Limbo if we
remember, again, the many levels of meaning in the Inferno.
On an allegorical level, the sinners cease to be important as
historical figures and instead become representations of
various conditions of the human spirit.

Limbo is not a place of torment. It resembles the Elysian
Fields of Virgil's Aeneid where Aeneas meets his father. The
Virtuous Pagans housed here are certainly not evil. What
failings they have are the failings of human reason alone. In
other words, these shades represent the condition of the spirit
that lacks faith; the failure of such a spirit is the failure to
imagine better.

Another thing we should notice before going on is the mild
rebuke that Virgil gives Dante. Virgil reminds Dante that he
has not asked for an identification of the shades. This will not
be the last time that Dante gets in trouble for such negligence.
Is Virgil just being a nag?

Dante's physical journey through Hell is only part of his
journey; he is also journeying, allegorically, through the
depths of the potential evil within the soul. It will not be
enough for him to see where and how each sin is punished. He
must understand what each sin did to the soul, how it twisted
the spirit away from God. To understand the whole concept of
sin, he must understand each particular along the way. Virgil
must point out each hurdle or lapse in the moral and
allegorical journeys just as he points out the geographical
difficulties of the literal journey. So, like a good teacher, he
nags a bit.

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