After the fall of Rome, Christianity no longer dictated the structure of theological philosophy in Western Europe. Before Rome’s power dissipated, divine philosophy was dictated by Augustine, whose thoughts never challenged the church and tended to further its gain.1 During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Western Europe attitude towards Christianity became more secular2 and theological philosophy started to branch out into more logic-based thinking.3 Aristotelian philosophy became influential among secular-Christian philosophers due to its more secular theories.
4 An example being that Aristotle held the thought that humans are born with potential, not given it by a divine power or that no one person can possibly be more important than the physical universe. These theories clashed with Christian belief and in result, formed conflict between Aristotelian philosophers and the church.5 St.
Thomas Aquinas remedied this conflict by forming a new type of theological thought which incorporated both Aristotelian philosophy and Christian doctrine.6 Although Aristotle had an influence on Aquinas, Augustine had the biggest impact on his philosophical views. Aristotle’s impact on Aquinas is not far from his impact on Dante. Aquinas’ impact on Dante’s inferno has always been recognized by historians, but the staggering prominence of Aristotelian themes are not as commonly identified.
In the Nicomachean, a collection of Aristotle’s work on ethics, Aristotle explains that men are free to choose to be moral. Men are rational beings who are responsible for their own actions and thoughts. If a man chooses to be immoral despite knowing that there will be consequences, then it is no one’s fault but his own.7 The inferno heavily relies on this theme and this reliance is proved by a letter he sent to his friend before writing the Comedia. In this letter, Dante explains that the Inferno was going to demonstrate the ramifications of immorality.8 Each of the nine circles of hell, gives a punishment that directly reflects the greatest sin of each soul who inhabits them.
These nine circles are also divided into four main sections. The first section contains circles that punish those guilty of incontinence e.g.
lust, glutton, wrath. The second section is punishes the violent e.g. murderer, suicide, heretics. The third and fourth both punish fraud. The third focuses on ordinary fraud, and the fourth on treacherous fraud. (picture from class) Aristotle believed that everything had a cause and a desire.
Men’s desire is to be happy and fulfilled and if they are not, then they must constantly make decisions and actions until they either become fulfilled and happy, or they die unsuccessful. Aristotle specified that this happiness must come from a want to be moral. Any other happiness is superficial and fleeting.
9 Aristotle also claimed that men have every single opportunity to reach this goal. In order to obtain contentment, one must develop their skills and talents. If he chooses not to better himself than he is wasting those talents. Man is morally obligated to reach fulfillment.
10 Dante reflects this by punishing incontinence (a lack of self-control and moderation), which prevents humans from growing due to their temporary “highs” they get from their obsessions. When King Minos decides which circle of hell someone will reside in for all of eternity, he looks at how they tried to reach fulfillment and if it was done morally.11 Dante also makes an allusion to Aristotle’s belief that people are morally obligated to act by describing the neutral section. Although these people never actively sinned, they never did anything good either. Again, the punishment fits the crime in the sense that they never sinned so they cannot be punished too horribly, but they never achieved anything worthy of going to heaven for.12 As a result, they will forever be stung by insects, never having the luxury to be inactive ever again.
13 As Dante and Virgil way their way through hell, we realize that with each new level of hell they enter is worse than the last. The sins go from involuntary (those who have were born before Christ and therefore could not have worshipped him),14 to voluntary but out of impulsion (lust, glutton greed), to voluntary with contemplation (suicide), to voluntary with contemplation with full knowledge that their behavior is sinful (heresy, fraud). In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle elaborates on how an action should be considered based off of whether it was being voluntary or involuntary. He says “on voluntary passions and actions praise and blame are bestowed, on those that are involuntary pardon, and sometimes also pity, to distinguish the voluntary and the involuntary is presumably necessary for those who are studying the nature of virtue, and useful also for legislators with a view to the assigning both of honours and of punishments.”15 Dante incorporates this concept well throughout the Inferno especially when he writes that his character felt pity for Virgil and those like him.16 Virgil’s sin was not one of reason or decision making, it was the sin of being born too soon.
17 His sin is meant to be pitied. The next few levels of hell, contains sinners who acted out of impulse and animalistic instincts, such as adulterers, gluttons, and greed. According to Aristotle, those who act impulsively are still acting voluntarily because they have a goal they wish to meet through these actions.
18 In Dante’s inferno, these sinners are punished based on the fact that their actions were voluntary and based on animal instinct, but the next section of hell, which holds those guilty of violence, has even greater punishments because violent sins are premediated.19 Both Aristotle and Dante believe that the greatest sins come out of abusing man’s gift of reason. Aristotle voices this opinion by asserting that “It is a far greater sin to abuse the human powers of reason and deliberate in order to attain a vicious end than it is to be overcome by irrationality and be defeated by passion.”20 Dante also communicates this concept when he addresses Hell by stating “We to the place have come, where I have told thee Thou shalt behold the people dolorous Who have foregone the good of intellect.”21 Those who are self-indulgent do not plan out their sins, they just act with no immediate thought of consequence.
22 Violent sinners plan their violence. They waste their human gifts of reasoning and choice, on committing atrocities. The next two sections are based on ordinary fraud and treacherous fraud.
The sinners who commit ordinary fraud did it despite knowing it was sinful. Those who committed treacherous fraud did it with the intention of being sinful. According to both Dante and Aristotle, these sins deserve the most punishment which is why Dante placed these sinners at the bottom of Hell.23 The Inferno is in many ways a synthesis of the traditional “deadly sins” of Christian theology, with reference to Aristotle’s notions of choice.
knowledge. reason. and responsibility (Boyde 294). Still, Aristotle has a strong presence in the Inferno and the thoroughness of Aristotle’s logic in asserting the fact that man is a responsible agent complements very well Dame’s view of Hell as a place of eternal damnation that sinners have brought upon themselves due to their immoral actions on earth.