Ryan Henson

Mind 180

Essay #2

What is the significance of Virgilís relationship with Dante?

The Inferno is an epic poem by Dante Alighieri, one of the greatest poets in the history of western literature. In it, he uses his mastery of language to blend elements of classical literature with a more contemporary Catholic viewpoint. Virgil, the Roman poet, is Danteís guide on this journey through the underworld. He helps to represent the classical elements of the poem. His relationship with the character of Dante in the poem is wide-ranging in importance and symbolism. He is a figure of reason and protection.

Dante borrows liberally from Virgil in writing The Inferno. Much of the work resembles the underworld created in Virgilís Aeneid. Thus, Virgil is an obvious choice for a guide in the underworld. Having traversed the territory before, Virgil serves as a figure of knowledge and safety to Dante, who is at times uncertain and timid about traversing such a treacherous terrain. For example, in Canto II Dante hesitates at the Vestibule that marks the entrance to hell. It is only through the reassurance of Virgilís words that he finds fortitude. "Thy words have moved my heart to its first purpose. My guide! My Lord! My Master! Now lead on".


At numerous other points also, Virgil shows his authority by dealing with deterrences that occur during their journey. As in Canto III, when the ferryman, Charon, refuses Dante passage since he is a living man. Virgil forces Charon to grant them passage. "Charon, bite back your spleen:/This has been willed where what is willed must be/and is not yours to ask what it may mean."

Virgilís influence, however, is limited. His power is associated with the power of reason, and this power is limited in Danteís hell. At the very beginning, Virgil warns Dante of this. He says that at the end of the journey through hell, "a worthier spirit shall be sent to guide you." Virgil cannot accompany Dante on into heaven because his virtues included only reason and not faith.

Even at the points when Virgil is functional in clearing the path for the poets, it is only through voicing the fact that their journey is a mandate of heaven.

For example, when he and Dante are confronted by Minos, Virgil again silences protests, and again by stating their divine purpose. "It is his fate to enter every door/This has been willed where what is willed must be,/and is not yours to question. Say no more."

In these examples, Virgil is used as a sort of mediator of reason between Dante and God. Dante seems to be suggesting that though reason is limited in where it can get you, it can be an important tool in interpreting and understanding

oneís relationship with the higher power. In this poem, reason and logic are not polar opposites of faith. They can be used together.

This point is exemplified by the treatment of the honorable pagans. Though they are condemned to hell by a technicality (they were born before the time of Catholicism), they reign in a glorious part of heaven, in a green meadow surrounded by a citadel. Among these people are Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, and numerous other Greek thinkers and poets. "The signature of honor they left on earth is recognized in Heaven," explains Virgil, "and wins them ease in Hell out of Godís favor."

Still, however, they are sentenced eternally to Hell, showing the ultimate authority of religion over even the most honorable pagans. This Catholic viewpoint is incorporated thoroughly into Danteís hell. While it still is largely similar to Virgilís underworld in the Aeneid, and it incorporates many pagan themes, Godís word supercedes all else.

Virgilís limitation of influence is shown at the gate of Dis, which blocks the way to the inner circles of Hell. This gate is guarded by fallen angels. Though they are fallen and are sentenced to an existence in Hell, these souls are of a Heavenly nature. Accordingly, Virgilís influence, being a symbol of reason, falls short with these souls. They must wait for a Heavenly messenger to come before they can proceed to the lower circles of Hell.


In addition to being the symbol of reason, Virgil is also a fatherly figure to Dante. Dante frequently describes him as such in the poem. Describing in ways
such as "the