In my last semester of college, I took a Humanities class on Dante’s The Divine Comedy*, which was instructed by Dr. Diana Glyer (author of The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community). She has studied Dante extensively, and most of the ideas of this blog are credited to her. She took us through hell, purgatory, and finally heaven, and taught my class much along the way, including the thing that everyone in Dante’s Inferno had in common. Whatever your beliefs for after death, this book has much to say about how to live your life now.
No one in hell takes responsibility for why they are there. In fact, most of them blame others for being stuck where they are. There are many examples of this throughout the Inferno. The story that stands out to me the most, and is also one of the longest anecdotes told throughout the Comedy, takes place in Canto 33 (cantos are chapters).
There are nine circles of hell, and most circles have sub sections. Canto 33 takes place in circle nine. The sinners here are all traitors in some way or form, and they are stuck in a pit of ice with only their heads showing (some are fully submerged). It is here where Dante meets Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino is gnawing at Ruggieri’s head, and gives a full account as to why. In life, they had plotted together to overthrow another political group, but after their success, Ruggieri betrayed Ugolino and trapped him in prison with his sons and grandsons. Ruggieri starved to death after watching his sons all die of starvation first.
The interesting thing about this story is that it is all about why Ruggieri chews on Ugolino’s head, but he completely ignores why he is in hell for treason. All of his blame falls to Ugolino, but they both took part in treason together before Ugolino betrayed him.
In hell, everyone else’s sin is worse than their own. In Canto 32, there is someone who says he waits for another “beside whose guilt my sins will shine like virtue.” Placing blame on others, and even accusing other sinners of having worse sins is comforting to those in hell. It eases them somewhat to believe these things, but also, these souls are incapable of accepting the responsibility for why they are there. But isn’t that how life is? Isn’t this something we all do?
The difference between the souls in hell as opposed to those in purgatory and heaven, is that all other souls accept their fate. My favorite part of the Comedy is purgatory, because everyone is doing some kind of labor to cleanse themselves of a sin, but everyone does so willingly. They are not forced to. The first ledge of the mountain of purgatory is pride, and everyone must carry a boulder on their backs as big as their pride and walk with it around the mountain. When they feel they are freed from this burden, they choose to move on to the next ledge to cleanse themselves of a new labor. No one in purgatory complains, which amazes me really.
In heaven is where I was really astounded, because of the nun Piccarda who was in the lowest sphere of heaven for breaking a vow. She broke her vow to be celibate because her brother forced her to get married against her will. This is a situation that was actually not her fault. She lived in a time and place where she had no choice but to obey her brother, yet her attitude about the whole situation amazes me. When Dante speaks to her, she places no blame on her brother, but instead takes full responsibility. She does not even envy anyone who is in a higher sphere of heaven than here. She is completely happy with her place in heaven despite her situation. I definitely don’t think I could have the same attitude.
It is very easy to put blame on other people and very hard to own up to our own responsibility in any given situation. When we feel accused of doing something wrong, the natural tendency is to get defensive and point fingers. It’s especially difficult to even see what we did wrong. The reality is that, yeah, you most definitely made a mistake, did something wrong, messed up in some way. That doesn’t make you a bad person. And yeah, that other person who you’re pointing your finger at right now probably definitely did something too.
But the key to fixing a problem, whether it’s within yourself or in relationship, is to listen to the part you played. Really ask yourself, what did you do? How did you make the situation worse? How did you mess up? I’m not saying to let people put you down and criticize you with bad intent. I’m saying to not be like those people in hell who can’t own up to what they did, and who are forever stuck and miserable because of it. Be like those in purgatory who carry their sin until they are freed from it and move on. Then maybe you can reach the peace and happiness that is in paradise.
In Canto 34 of the Inferno, Virgil and Dante climb Satan to get out of hell. It’s interesting that their whole descent was toward Satan, the root of hell, the one who in Dante’s opinion literally created hell. Then when they reach him, they must literally climb him in order to reach purgatory. My own idea about this is that perhaps the symbol is to grabble with one’s own sin and most inner evil and to climb out of that before you can begin to receive redemption.
*For anyone unfamiliar with Dante’s Inferno, Dante (the pilgrim) is traveling through hell alive in order to reach Beatrice who is in heaven. Virgil, who is dead and a permanent resident of hell, guides Dante all the way through hell and to the top of purgatory.
Just for fun, here are some extra thoughts on responsibility and blame:
“Attack the evil that is within yourself, rather than attacking the evil that is in others.”
“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn't sit for a month.”
― Theodore Roosevelt
“Every excuse I ever heard made perfect sense to the person who made it.”
― Dr. Daniel T. Drubin
Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy translated by John Ciardi
Diana Glyer's lectures