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4. Virtuous Pagans, Hopeless Desire and Unjust Justice1

© John Marenbon, CC BY 4.0

John Marenbon

Canto iv of Inferno contains probably the most famous passage in all medieval writing about the virtuous pagans and their fate in the afterlife. Perhaps because of its very celebrity, many readers do not realize just how unusual is Dante’s approach – unusual not because of his extreme respect and admiration for these heroes and heroines, poets and philosophers, but because of the severity with which they are treated. In the first part of this chapter, I shall explain and justify this judgement – with which few Dante scholars will agree – by comparing Dante’s theological stance on the issue with the positions more common in his time. Outside the context of vertical readings, it is unlikely that anyone would associate either canto iv of Purgatorio, concerned principally with the sluggish Belacqua, nor canto iv of Paradiso, responding to the questions raised by Piccarda and her speech, with this theme. It turns out, however, that the vertical method yields unexpected results. Both cantos contain passages drawing them into the discourse on hopeless desire and unjust justice, which runs through the Commedia in counterpoint to the optimistic theology it offers its Christian readers. The second and third parts of this chapter will concentrate on these points, which link together the three cantos, leaving aside many other important themes and passages in Purgatorio iv and Paradiso iv.2

Inferno iv

In a passage close to the beginning of Inferno iv, Virgil explains about the Limbo of Hell, which he and Dante have now reached, and the souls who are consigned to it:

Quivi, secondo che per ascoltare,
non avea pianto mai che di sospiri
che l’aura etterna facevan tremare;

ciò avvenia di duol sanza martìri,
ch’avean le turbe, ch’eran molte e grandi,
d’infanti e di femmine e di viri.

Lo buon maestro a me: ‘Tu non dimandi
che spiriti son questi che tu vedi?
Or vo’ che sappi, innanzi che più andi,

ch’ei non peccaro; e s’elli hanno mercedi,
non basta, perché non ebber battesmo,
ch’è porta de la fede che tu credi;

e s’ e’ furon dinanzi al cristianesmo,
non adorâr debitamente a Dio:
e di questi cotai son io medesmo.

Per tai difetti, non per altro rio,
semo perduti, e sol di tanto offesi
che sanza speme vivemo in disio’. (Inf., iv. 25-42)

[Here, as I could hear, the only lamentation was of sighs, with which the air forever trembled. It came from the grief without tortures of the large, numerous crowd, of babies, women and men. The good master said to me: ‘Do you not ask what spirits are these which you see. I want you to know, before you go further, that they did not sin, and if they did good works,3 it is not enough, because they did not have baptism, which is the gate of the faith which you believe. And if they were before the time of Christianity, they did not worship God duly. And of these I am one myself. For such deficiencies and for no other fault we are lost, and we are punished in just this way: that we live in desire without hope’.]4

Although they are not the only inhabitants of Limbo, Virgil concentrates in this canto on the souls of those who, like himself, had lived as virtuous pagans, such as his fellow great poets of antiquity, Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan (ll. 88–90); heroes and heroines from ancient history (ll. 121-28); the ancient philosophers, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and others (ll. 130-43), and also two philosophers and one military leader from the world of Islam (Avicenna, Averroes and Saladin) (ll. 143-44, 129). In the passage quoted, Virgil explains why these souls are damned and what punishment they receive (ll. 34-38). They have not committed sins (‘ei non peccaro’ (l. 34); ‘per tai difetti, non per altro rio’ (l. 40)) – that is to say, mortal sins – and indeed they have done good works (l. 34). But that is not enough to save them, because either they lived after the coming of Christianity and were not baptized (ll. 35-36), or they lived before the coming of Christianity, but they failed to ‘adorar debitamente a Dio’ (ll. 37-38). The reason given for why the post-Christians, though virtuous, are not saved is straightforward. With the coming of Christianity, baptism was imposed as a universal sacrament necessary to cleanse humans of original sin, and the virtuous pagans who lived in Christian times lack it. But most of the virtuous pagans listed by Dante, including Virgil himself, lived before Christ, when there was no requirement for baptism. The pre-Christians, we are told, failed to worship God duly. What Virgil means becomes clearer from the extra detail he adds in Purgatorio vii about why he and those like him were damned. There he explains that he is in Limbo and

quivi sto io con quei che le tre sante
virtù non si vestiro, e sanza vizio
conobber l’altre e seguîr tutte quante. (Purg., vii. 34-36)

[Here I stand with those whom the three holy virtues [faith, hope and charity] did not clothe, and without vice knew the other virtues and followed all of them.]

Not worshipping God duly, it seems, means lacking faith, and so also the other two theological virtues of hope and charity, which require faith. Faith would be understood to be faith in Christ – something which was indeed possible before Christ, since the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs were considered to have had faith in Christ, as expressed in various passages in the Old Testament that were taken as prophecies of the New.5

Virgil and his fellows are therefore damned, but Limbo (literally ‘the margin’) seems not to be like Hell proper. At the beginning of the passage quoted, Virgil makes the point which he will repeat almost word for word in Purgatorio vii: he and the others do not suffer quasi-physical punishments (martìri (l. 28)); the air is not filled with the groans (‘guai’ (l. 30)), but merely the sighs of those who must desire without hope (Inf., iv. 42). And the setting in which the great poets, philosophers and heroes themselves are presented – a fresh green meadow modelled on Virgil’s Elysian fields – appears anything but infernal.6

Most readers today are surprised that Dante has to exclude from Heaven the guide he so reveres and portrays as so virtuous. But they will probably put down his decision, and perhaps the other features of his account, to the demands of medieval Christian doctrine. Yet, from the wider perspective of how other medieval thinkers, theologians especially, deal with virtuous pagans and their fate after death, everything in Dante’s description appears very strange. There are three ways, in particular, in which Dante departs from the usual ways of thinking: (1) by placing the virtuous pagans in Limbo; (2) by ignoring a common line of thought which would have allowed him, had he wished, to put Virgil and his fellows into Heaven; (3) by insisting both that Virgil and the other pagans he discusses are completely virtuous and yet that they are damned. I shall explain each of these points in turn.

(1) It was an innovation of thirteenth-century theology, generally accepted by Dante’s time, to identify a limbus or margin of Hell.7 But its two usual sorts of inhabitants were certainly not virtuous pagans. One of these groups is that alluded to, very briefly, by Virgil where he mentions ‘infanti’ (Inf., iv. 30). It was to the limbo infantium that unbaptized babies, who died before they could commit any sins, were usually consigned. Dante comments on them a little more fully in Purgatorio, when Virgil says that he is there (in Limbo) ‘coi pargoli innocenti / dai denti morsi de la morte avante / che fosser da l’umana colpa essenti’ [with the innocent young children bitten by death’s teeth before they were absolved from human sin] (Purg., vii. 31-33). Augustine had argued that such children, stained as they are by Original Sin, cannot escape eternal torment, although he conceded that their punishment would be ‘very mild’ (Enchiridion xxiii. 93). From Abelard onwards, theologians abandoned the idea that the infants received any sort of physical punishment: they were merely deprived of the beatific vision.8 From the time of Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), these souls were usually placed in Limbo. Limbo’s other customary set of inhabitants in scholastic theology is mentioned a little later in this canto (Inf., iv. 49-63) when Dante asks Virgil whether anyone has ever left Limbo and gone to blessedness in Heaven. Virgil tells the story of the Harrowing of Hell which, although never completely established as Church doctrine, was accepted by most medieval thinkers. After his crucifixion, when Christ went down to Hell, he freed and raised to Heaven the souls of the Old Testament patriarchs, prophets and those of many of their people, which had been waiting in Limbo without punishment for the salvation they deserved but which could not take place until after Christ’s sacrifice.

Dante’s decision to add a third class of souls, those of the virtuous pagans, to the inhabitants of Limbo was not just entirely unprecedented but so much against theological orthodoxy that it drew protests, even from some of the early commentators on the Commedia, such as Guido da Pisa (1327-28) and Francesco da Buti (1385-95).9 Indeed, no less an authority than Augustine had explicitly ruled out the idea of ‘some place between damnation and the Kingdom of Heaven’ for ‘the Reguluses and Fabiuses, the Scipios and Camilluses and their like’ – the (supposedly) most virtuous of Romans.10 Moreover – perhaps not surprisingly – Dante’s position seems to have had no independent followers, although in his commentary Boccaccio did try to defend it (not without modifications).11 And, while Dante certainly took the idea of damnation without tortures from the accepted doctrine about the state of the souls of the unbaptized babies in Limbo, he added an extra element, the idea of desire without hope. Exactly what this involves will be discussed below, but it certainly differentiates the state of Virgil and the others from that traditionally accorded to souls in Limbo.

(2) It would be easy to understand why, against all authority, Dante invented a place in Hell where his admired ancient poets, philosophers and heroes could live in dignity without pain, with, as described later in the canto, their slow, serious mien, full of authority and their sweet voices (Inf., iv. 112-14), if the theology of his time had given him no alternative otherwise but to put them into Hell proper. But there were three strategies, followed by theologians in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which Dante could have used, any of which would have allowed him to put at least the pre-Christian virtuous pagans – most of those he mentions, including Virgil himself – into Heaven.12

The doctrinal barrier to the salvation of just pagans was that they lacked faith: as St Paul says (Hebrews xi, 6), ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God’. Faith was taken to be faith in Christ. But how could those before the coming of Christ have had such faith? Each of the three strategies answered this question in a different way.

The first available strategy was provided by the idea of implicit faith. It was Hugh of St Victor in the mid-twelfth century who first formulated clearly the idea of implicit faith (though he did not use the term). Hugh was thinking especially about the ordinary Jewish people in Old Testament times. It was widely accepted that their prophets and some of their leaders had prophetic knowledge of the coming of Christ. It was enough, Hugh argued, for the ordinary people to accept the beliefs of their leaders, without knowing about them, for them too to count as having the faith needed for salvation.13 In his Sentences (c. 1155), which became the standard theology textbook in the medieval universities, Peter the Lombard adopted Hugh’s idea (Sentences, III, d. 25) and its broad lines were followed by most of the later theologians in their Sentence commentaries. In itself, this theory did not offer a way of saving the virtuous pagans of the Greco-Roman world, such as the philosophers, since they could not be said to have followed or believed in the Old Testament prophets, and indeed some of those who followed the theory of implicit faith – Bonaventure (Commentary on Sentences III, d. 25, a. 1, q. 2), for instance, and Matthew of Aquasparta (Quaestiones disputatae 3, 14 and ad 14) – made a point of saying that the ancient philosophers had been damned.

Aquinas, however, extended the doctrine of implicit faith so as to provide a way of showing that Gentiles wise in worldly wisdom – that is to say, the philosophers – might have been saved:

The Gentiles were not placed as instructors of the divine faith, and so, however wise they may have been in worldly wisdom, they should be counted among the minores, and so it was enough for them to have faith about the Redeemer implicitly, either in the faith of the prophets, or in divine providence itself. (De veritate, q. 14, a. 11, ad 5).

Although the first of these suggestions, that the philosophers might have accepted on trust the faith of the (Jewish) prophets sounds fantastical, Aquinas’s longer explanation in his commentary on the Sentences (III, d. 25, q. 2, a. 2, qc. 2, 3 and ad 3) makes his meaning clear: the philosophers simply put their faith in whoever knows the ways of God better than they, and these people were in fact the Jewish prophets. In the fourteenth century, implicit faith tended to be regarded less as faith in another and more as simply indistinct faith – a change which would make it easier to think of the ancient philosophers and poets, who were often considered to have been monotheists, as having implicit faith.14

Aquinas continues the quotation above by adding that ‘it is however probable that the mystery of our redemption was revealed many generations before the coming of Christ to the Gentiles, as the Sibylline prophecies show’. The idea, popular in the sixteenth century (when it was called the ‘Ancient Theology’), that before the Incarnation Christian prophecies were well known to peoples other than the Jews, has patristic roots and was taken up particularly by Abelard, Roger Bacon, and, in the generation after Dante, Robert Holcot and Thomas Bradwardine. The Ancient Theology provided a second possible strategy, because it could be used as a way of arguing that some of the virtuous pagans might not have been pagans at all, but really had faith.15

The third possible strategy was the notion of special inspiration, which provided a way for even pagans who lived after Christ to be saved. The idea, which goes back to Abelard and appears in Aquinas and most of the major thirteenth-century theologians, is that if a pagan were to follow natural law as well as possible, God would not let him or her die without the faith needed for salvation, which would be provided either by a special messenger (the case of Paul sent to Cornelius was often cited) or by internal inspiration.16 No one thought that special inspiration was widespread, but the authors of the Summa Fratris Alexandri in the mid-thirteenth century did indeed use this strategy (III, inq. 3, q. 2, tit. 3, pars 2) to explain how the good pagan philosophers were saved: ‘a revelation was made to them, either through Scripture, which the Jews had, or through prophecy or through internal inspiration, as was the case for Job and his friends’.

(3) Dante follows none of these strategies, and his third main departure from usual ways of thinking involves the rejection of the very principle which underlies salvation through special inspiration. Theologians resorted to this rather unlikely idea because they were convinced that, were it ever the case that someone invincibly ignorant of Christianity had acted entirely well in terms of natural law, God would not let him be damned. Dante picks exactly the sort of example his contemporaries used to argue this point when, in Paradiso xix, he talks of a man ‘on the banks of the Indus, and there is nobody there who speaks or teaches or writes about Christ; and all his volitions and acts are good, so far as human reason sees – he is without sin in his life or speech’ (ll. 70-75). Dante-character puts the question usually asked by the theologians: ‘He dies unbaptized and without faith: where is this justice that condemns him? Where is his guilt if he does not believe?’ (ll. 76-78). But, instead of the expected explanation of how God will save the faultless Indian, the authoritative reply is a rebuke against presumption in attempting to judge such things. Dante willingly embraces, in the figure of Virgil himself, the contradiction which the theologians of his time sought to resolve: that a person can be entirely good (in natural terms) and yet be damned.

The strangeness of Dante’s position is not that he consigns the great pagan poets and philosophers to damnation. In the two centuries before him, opinion seems to have been evenly divided about whether these figures were in Heaven or not. But those who held that they were in Hell took their inspiration from Augustine, who consigned most ancient pagans to eternal damnation, arguing that although they might appear virtuous, they were not really virtuous at all. Augustine did not merely say that they lacked the infused theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. He contended that the moral virtues – wisdom, justice, temperance and courage – require charity. Without charity, which presupposes faith, these qualities will not be directed to the right end and so will be false virtues, not true ones. Dante, however, insists that pagans like Virgil, who are damned, are none the less truly virtuous. The only virtues they lack are the theological ones, which they could not acquire from their own efforts, since they are infused directly by God.17 Whereas Augustine’s position may seem harsh, extreme and even inhuman, it is consistent; Dante’s seems, by contrast, senseless.

These puzzles about the virtuous but damned pagans in the Commedia can, however, be explained, on the hypothesis, borne out by many other passages in the Commedia, that Dante was very strongly influenced by that group of medieval thinkers, usually arts masters, who drew very tight boundaries round the sphere of reason, on the hand, and the sphere of faith on the other. The position is sometimes known as ‘(Latin) Averroism’ and I shall use this term here for convenience (noting that the views it labels stand in a very indirect and oblique relationship to those of Averroes himself).18 The Averroists believe, as Dante sets out so starkly at the end of the Monarchia (III. xvi. 7-9), that humans have two different ends, earthly happiness and heavenly happiness, and that we

must reach these two kinds of happiness through different means, just as different conclusions must be reached through different middle terms. For we come to the first through the teachings of philosophy, so long as we follow them acting in accord with the moral and intellectual virtues; whereas we attain the second through spiritual teachings which transcend human reason, so long as we follow them acting in accord with the theological virtues, i.e. faith, hope and charity. These ends and the means to attain them have been shown to us on the one hand by human reason, which has been entirely made known to us by the philosophers, and on the other hand by the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets and sacred writers, through Jesus Christ the son of God, coeternal with him, and through his disciples, has revealed to us the supernatural truth which is necessary for us …

Many Dante scholars will allow that Dante followed this Averroist line of thought to some extent, but not in the Commedia. They have noticed something important, but misunderstood it. Averroism separates the spheres of reason and faith, of – in practice – the arts masters in the universities with their Aristotelian curriculum and the university theologians. As arts masters, the concern of the Averroists was with safeguarding the independence of that sphere. Dante, though, neither a master of Arts nor of theology, moved between both spheres. In the Commedia, he is very much an Averroist, but one working within the sphere of theology. From this point of view, it is only to be expected that, within the sphere guided by human reason towards natural happiness, some pagan philosophers should have been entirely virtuous and wise, and yet that they certainly should not have been saved, since they do not have the supernatural end in their sights at all. The two ends, though complementary, are – as Dante affirms so explicitly – distinct.

Purgatorio iv

Purgatorio iv seems, at first sight, to have nothing to do with the problems raised in Inferno iv. It is set around Dante’s encounter with Belacqua, a Florentine lute-maker who, according to an early commentary (Anonimo Fiorentino, c. 1400), ‘was the laziest man there ever was – it was said that he came into his workshop in the morning and sat himself there and never got up except to eat and sleep’.19 Belacqua’s laziness extended to his spiritual life too: only at the last moment of his life did he repent for his sins. As a result, he must wait a lifetime even before he can enter Purgatory (ll. 130-32). None the less, Belacqua is on the path to salvation. Although much of Christian moral thinking concerns the development of virtuous habits of action through a lifetime, Church doctrine now and in the Middle Ages insists that what determines whether someone is damned or saved is his or her state at the moment of death. A person who dies in a state of charity will be saved, however badly he or she has lived. Dante remarkably combines the outward figure of physical laziness with what it inwardly represents, the spiritual laziness of late repentance, in the life-story of a single character, Belacqua, whose hyper-sedentary life ends with late repentance. The previous canto also deals with late repentance, through the very different example of Manfred, a more admirable figure than Belacqua, but stained by ‘horrible sins’ and excommunicated by the Church, who at the moment of death turned ‘lamenting, to him who willingly gives pardon’ (Purg., iii. 120). These two examples emphasize the sheer undeservedness of salvation: a moment of repentance cancels a lifetime of inaction or rebelliousness. In this way, Belacqua’s fate does link with that of Virgil and his fellows, who will never reach Heaven despite their lives of virtue. And Dante strengthens the link through a verbal echo between these two Fours. Belacqua explains his late repentance by saying that he ‘delayed good sighs until the end’ [io indugiai al fine i buon sospiri] (l. 132). These ‘buon sospiri’, the sighs of regret for sins committed, recall and contrast ironically with the ‘sospiri’ which make the air of Limbo tremble, the sighs of despair from those who are for ever excluded from the beatific vision. The question of salvation and desert will be taken up again in Paradiso iv.

The closest link between Purgatorio iv and the virtuous pagans is to be found, however, outside the main subject of the canto, in an incidental passage near the beginning, which, as will become clear, acts as a sort of hook, catching various other lines. Dante and Virgil have to squeeze through a tiny opening and then ascend by an impossibly steep path:

Vassi in Sanleo e discendesi in Noli,
montasi sù in Bismantova e ’n Cacume
con esso i pie’; ma qui convien ch’om voli;

dico con l’ale snelle e con le piume
del gran disio, di retro a quel condotto
che speranza mi dava e facea lume.
(Purg., iv. 25-30)

[One can go up to San Leo or down to Noli, climb up to Bismantova and Cacume with feet alone, but here a person needs to fly – I mean with the speedy wings and feathers of great desire, behind and led on by he who gave me hope and gave me light.]

The collocation of ‘disio’ and ‘speranza’ echoes the phrase used to describe the punishment for those in Limbo. The souls are free from torture, but they must live ‘sanza speme in disio’, in desire but with no hope of fulfilling it. The reference back to Inferno iv is therefore an ironic one. Virgil is condemned to live in desire without hope, yet it is he who gives hope to Dante, whose ‘gran disio’ will be satisfied. The irony is underlined by the following lines, where Virgil is at his most fatherly and tender, and is further strengthened by the description of Virgil as a giver of light, leading someone who, unlike him, can hope and will find fulfilment, since that description looks forward to the image which Statius will use in Purgatorio xxii to describe Virgil and the way in which, through reading his fourth Eclogue, he was brought towards Christendom:

Facesti come quei che va di notte,
che porta il lume dietro e sé non giova,
ma dopo sé fa le persone dotte. (
Purg., xxii. 67-68)

[You did as one who goes by night and carries the light behind him and does not benefit from it himself, but shows the way to those who come after him.]

The hook passage is itself the continuation of a passage from the previous canto, which is interrupted by the encounter with Manfred. There Virgil is searching for a place ‘where someone can climb who has no wings’ (possa salir chi va sanz’ala) (Purg., iii. 54), whilst in the hook passage, not finding any such ascent, he and Dante go up a path so steep that it requires wings, albeit metaphorical ones. The preceding lines, spoken by Virgil to him, are Dante’s fullest explanation of what he means by desire without hope and why it is the virtuous pagans’ condition.

‘Matto è chi spera che nostra ragione
possa trascorrer la infinita via
che tiene una sostanza in tre persone.

State contenti, umana gente, al quia ;
ché, se potuto aveste veder tutto,
mestier non era parturir Maria ;

e disïar vedeste sanza frutto
tai che sarebbe lor disio quetato,
ch’etternalmente è dato lor per lutto:

io dico d’Aristotile e di Plato
e di molt’ altri’; e qui chinò la fronte,
e più non disse, e rimase turbato. (Purg., iii. 34-45)

[‘Anyone is a fool who hopes that our reason can traverse the infinite path taken by one substance in three persons. Remain content, human race, with the fact that it is so [as opposed to why it is], for, had you been able to see everything, there would have been no need for Mary to have given birth; and you have seen those desire fruitlessly who would [had it been possible] have fulfilled their desire, which is given to them eternally as a punishment: I mean Aristotle and Plato and many others’, and here he bowed his head, and said no more, and remained disturbed.]

As explained above, Dante took the idea of the punishment given to the virtuous pagans from the condition which theologians usually attributed to the souls of the unbaptized infants with whom, in the Commedia, they share Limbo. But there is an important difference. Most theologians agreed that the infants’ souls are aware of their loss of the beatific vision, but stressed that they do not suffer as a result.20 To the objection that the infants will necessarily be sad, because their natural desire for paradise will be frustrated, Bonaventure replied in his Sentences commentary (III, d. 33, a. 3, q. 2, ad 2) that sadness does not follow unfulfilled desires except for those who consider they have been inadequately repaid. For the infants, ‘their state is sufficient for them, and they do not raise their eyes to the riches that they cannot have’. Aquinas (De malo, q. 5, a. 3) suggests rather that the infants know naturally they are made for happiness, but they do not know what could be known only supernaturally, that this happiness is the beatific vision, and so they do not feel sadness at being deprived of it.21

Dante, by contrast, insists through the very formulation ‘sanza speme … in disio’ that the virtuous pagans, though free from ‘tortures’ (quasi-physical punishment) are made to suffer mentally through despair. In the passage just quoted, he brings out more clearly than earlier that this hope without desire is a contrapasso. The very desire for knowledge which motivated Plato and Aristotle is turned into a punishment. To the reader today, there may seem to be a big jump between desire for knowledge and desire for heavenly bliss, but not for the medieval Christian theologians. For them, beatitude in Heaven was not some sort of great, but unspecified state of bliss: it consisted in the perfection of the intellect through seeing God and knowing all things in him. Plato, Aristotle and the others are doomed to spend eternity spurred on by the very desire for the truth which dominated their mortal lives. Since Dante took the unusual view that the desires of humans on earth are proportioned to what they can achieve naturally, he would have thought that during their lives on earth they could have fulfilled those desires through their success in discovering natural knowledge.22 God punishes them in Limbo by giving them, supernaturally, a desire for what goes beyond their natural powers, the total knowledge provided by the beatific vision which they know they will never be granted. That is the reason for their state of despair, so deep, according to Boccaccio that, if the spirits were mortal, they would kill themselves rather than endure it.23

Paradiso iv

Paradiso iv begins with a philosophical digression which helps to confirm the very intellectual affinities which, I have argued, offer an explanation for the paradox enunciated in wholly virtuous pagans punished eternally:

Intra due cibi, distanti e moventi
d’un modo, prima si morria di fame,
che liber’omo l’un recasse ai denti ... (Par., iv. 1-3)

[A free man will die of hunger before he sinks his teeth into one of two foods, which are equally distant from him and equally attractive to him ...]

Dante’s tone here is, admittedly, light and self-mocking. He is depicting his own irresolution, in not knowing which of two questions to put first, and he goes on to compare himself to a lamb, caught between two wolves about to devour it, and a hound unable to decide which of two deer to chase. None the less, as Bruno Nardi pointed out over seventy years ago, Dante is putting forward here a view about free will, found elsewhere in the Commedia and also in the Monarchia, of a highly distinctive, intellectualist kind.24 For Dante, humans will freely when they will in accord with reason and are not influenced by the passions. That is the point of the reference in this passage to ‘a free man’ [liber’omo]. Someone ruled by his passions would not starve in the situation Dante describes, since on some whim he could choose one of the foods. But suppose the unfortunate man is willing freely – that is to say, reasonably: then, indeed, he cannot act, because the will, acting freely, chooses what to do according to what seems to it best, and in this example there is no reason for preferring to eat the one than the other, and so the will cannot choose either this one, or that.

This intellectualist understanding of the will was popular among the Averroists, including Siger of Brabant in the 1260s-70s and John of Jandun, a contemporary of Dante’s. By contrast, many theologians, especially the Franciscans, had a very different, voluntarist view, according to which the freedom of the will lies in its power to make whatever choice it pleases. On their view, in exact opposition to Dante’s example, the man’s freedom of will would mean that he could immediately choose either of the foods (and were one of them preferable and in easier reach, he would still be free to choose the other). Nardi argues that Aquinas should be grouped with the voluntarists – a view which fits nicely with his wider scepticism about Dante’s Thomism. When Aquinas considers exactly the same problem case as Dante (Summa Theologiae IaIIe, q, 13, a.6, 3 and ad 3), he argues that there is nothing to stop the man from considering some feature other than the ones through which they are equally attractive and so finding a way in which one of the foods is preferable, so that he chooses to eat it. For Nardi, this response shows Aquinas’s voluntarism, since the will, he claims, is moving the reason to find another consideration.25 Yet the same passage has been used to illustrate Aquinas’s intellectualism, since it follows the central intellectualist principle that the will can only choose what the reason finds most choice-worthy.26 Aquinas’s position on this question resists a neat categorization, and the doctrinal affiliations of the period are more complex than Nardi allowed.27 Still, the point remains that Dante, unlike Aquinas, is so sternly intellectualist that there is no way of saving the man in his example from starvation.

The two equally pressing questions which keep Dante tongue-tied have both been raised by Piccarda in her speech in the previous canto. Piccarda had been a nun who, against her will, was seized from the ‘sweet cloister’ by ‘men more used to evil than good’ (Purg., iii. 106-07) and has been placed among the lowest in Heaven because her vows were neglected (Purg., iii. 55-57). One of her companions is Constance, heiress to the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, who had also, according to legend, been forcibly taken away from her convent. Seeing Piccarda’s soul where he is, in the lowest sphere of Heaven, Dante imagines (ll. 22-24) that saved souls must be allotted to different spheres, which would bear out the view put forward by Plato in the Timaeus, but rejected by all as contrary to Christian doctrine, that souls return to their own stars. Beatrice explains (ll. 28-63) that, in reality, Piccarda’s soul is in the same circle of Heaven as all the souls of the blessed. It was manifested in a lower sphere as a way of showing that it is less exalted, because Dante-character, as a human, needs to grasp intellectual things through his senses. Beatrice compares the way in which Scripture uses corporeal images to make spiritual things more intelligible to its readers. She also allows the possibility that Plato too, in the Timaeus, might not intend his writing to be taken literally, and that he is, rather, making a point about the influence of the stars on people. This idea raises an important aspect of Christian attitudes to pagan philosophers, not otherwise considered in the three Fours. How are their texts to be understood? Purgatorio xxii, which I discussed earlier, brought up the idea that a text written by a pagan, Virgil’s fourth eclogue, could have a Christian meaning which the author himself did not understand. Here, rather, the idea is that a pagan text which, read literally, would have to be rejected, may have been intended to convey a non-literal scientific meaning which is acceptable to Christians – exactly the attitude to problematic passages in Plato found in William of Conches’s commentary to the Timaeus, written in the twelfth century, but copied throughout the Middle Ages.28

The other problem which was puzzling Dante leads back to the question of the will raised in the initial digressions:

… ‘Se’l buon voler dura
la vïolenza altrui per qual ragione
di meritar mi sceme la misura?’
(Par., iv. 19-21)

[‘If good will lasts, how does someone else’s violence diminish the quantity of my merit?’]

Piccarda would, had she not been seized from it, very willingly have spent her life in the convent, and so earned greater merit and a higher place in Heaven: her downgrading because of a turn of events she did nothing to cause or welcome seems unjust. Beatrice comments:

Parere ingiusta la nostra giustizia
ne li occhi d’i mortali, è argomento
di fede e non d’eretica nequizia. (Par., iv. 67-69)

[see below for translation]

From the earliest commentators onwards there has been disagreement about the sense of the second half of this terzina, and especially about the meaning of ‘argomento’.29 The most persuasive interpretation takes ‘argomento’ to mean the outward sign for a truth, and the passage to mean: ‘That our justice (divine justice) appears unjust in the eyes of mortals is a sign which leads people to the faith, not to heretical wickedness’. Beatrice continues immediately, however, by saying that the case in question is not one of these. Here God’s justice can be explained to a mortal like Dante. Beatrice tells Dante (ll. 73-90) that women such as Piccarda and Constanza could have gone back to their convents. It would, of course, have been immensely difficult and dangerous, but this is what they would have done had their will remained ‘entire’. Beatrice goes on (ll. 91-114) to explain how it can be true in such a case that, as Piccarda says, Constanza ‘kept her love for the veil’ (l’affezion del vel Costanza tenne) (l. 98). Constance did, indeed, in one sense will to remain a nun: this is the good which, all things being equal, she willed. But all things were not equal. Fear of a harm greater than the good she desired – perhaps death if she defied her family – made her will choose not to flee back to the nunnery. Completely in line with Dante’s intellectualistic understanding of volition, Beatrice (l. 109-11) sees Costanza reasoning that, although staying in the convent is a choice-worthy good absolutely, under the circumstances returning there would bring more harm than remaining out of it. Of course, her reasoning is mistaken: she should have realized that her greatest good was to try to go back to the convent, whatever she suffered as a result, in which case this is what she would actually have chosen to do.

Except for the Averroist affiliations of this intellectualism, there might seem to be little in this canto to link with the virtuous pagans of Inferno iv. But, in fact, the theme is here. When Beatrice gives two examples (ll. 83-84) of people who kept their wills ‘entire’ under the most difficult circumstances, to contrast with Piccarda and Costanza, she chooses the Christian saint, Lawrence, martyred on a griddle, and carefully pairs him with a pagan Roman, Mucius Scaevola, who thrust his own right hand into the flames when he failed to kill the enemy king, Porsenna. Pagans, Dante believed, were capable not just of genuine and complete virtue, as in the case of Virgil, but of heroic feats of virtue, such as this. Yet, for all that, they are damned. Whereas the justice of God’s judgement in the cases of Piccarda and Costanza is apparent after a little careful thought, Beatrice’s striking oxymoron of God’s unjust justice wraps up the threads of argument about virtuous pagans and their fate stretching out from the description of Limbo two cantiche previously. God’s justice to a Virgil or a Scaevola will indeed seem unjust. The apparent injustice, however, is a sign which leads to faith, since it shows how there are two separate spheres, of earthly and heavenly values, and that the heavenly ones are not comprehensible from within the other, earthly sphere. Only by faith are they accessible; and as Dante says explicitly in the Monarchia (II.7.5), unless it is aided by faith, the damnation of virtuous and invincibly ignorant pagans is something which ‘human reason through itself cannot see’.

1 The video of this lecture is available at the Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy website,

2 More rounded accounts of these cantos are given, for Purgatorio iv, by Sergio Romagnoli, ‘Il canto IV del Purgatorio’, in Letture dantesche (Florence: Sansoni, 1964), pp. 749-46; Umberto Bosco, Dante vicino. Contributi e letture (Caltanisetta and Rome: Sciascia, 1966), pp. 122-34; Giorgio Petrocchi, ‘Il canto IV del “Purgatorio”’, Nuove letture dantesche 3 (1969), 291-309; Aldo Vallone, ‘Il canto IV del “Purgatorio”’ in Casa di Dante in Roma, Purgatorio. Letture degli anni 1976-’79 (Rome: Bonacci, 1981), pp. 79-99; for Paradiso iv by Giuseppe Albini ‘Il canto IV del Paradiso’, in Letture dantesche (Florence: Sansoni, 1964), pp. 1399-1417; Guido di Pino, ‘Canto IV’ in Lectura Dantis Scaligera. Paradiso (Florence: Le Monnier, 1971), pp. 95-120; Sofia Vanni Rovighi, ‘Il canto IV del Paradiso visto da uno studioso della filosofia medievale’, Studi danteschi 48 (1971), 67-82; Giorgio Varanini, ‘Il canto IV del “Paradiso”’, Nuove letture dantesche 5 (1972), 317-39. I also discuss Dante’s views on the wisdom, virtue and salvation of pagans in Pagans and Philosophers: The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz (Oxford and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), pp. 189-210. There (pp. 194-99) I include a full treatment of the cases, not discussed here, of Trajan, Ripheus, Cato and Statius – exceptional pagans who are not in Hell (or the Limbo of Hell).

3 ‘Mercede’ means ‘reward’, ‘payment’ (from the Latin merces), but is used twice in the Commedia (substituting effect for cause) to mean that for which reward is given: here (in the plural) and at Par., xxi. 52 and xxviii. 112. In this sense, the word is usually translated – following the glosses in the early commentators – as ‘merit’, and this rendering is good, so long as ‘merit’ is not taken here in its strictly theological sense, as what makes for salvation, since these virtuous pagans were not on the path to salvation at all. For that reason, I translate as here, following Boccaccio’s gloss to the phrase: ‘e s’egli hanno mercedi, cioè se essi adoperarono alcun bene il quale meritasse guiderdone’.

4 All translations are my own.

5 See also Par., xxxii. 24, where those in Heaven ‘che credettero in Cristo venturo’ [who believed in Christ who was yet to come] are pointed out.

6 Inf., iv. 111: ‘giugnemmo in prato di fresca verdura’ [we came to a fresh, green meadow]; see also Virgil, Aeneid vi: ‘deuenere locos laetos et amoena uirecta’ [they came to joyful places, green and pleasant].

7 On the development of the idea of Limbo, see Attilio Carpin, Il limbo nella teologia medievale, Sacra Doctrina 51 (Bologna: edizioni studio domenicano, 2006).

8 See also below, p. XX, on punishment (or its lack) in Limbo.

9 Da Buti, in Commento, ed. by Crescentino Giannini (Pisa: Fratelli Nistri, 1858), I, p. 120, writes that ‘the author is in disagreement with the Holy Church, which places no one in this place save the infants. The author can be excused because he is speaking poetically’; see also Giorgio Padoan, ‘Il Limbo dantesco’, in his Il pio Enea, l’empia Ulisse. Tradizione classica e intendimento medievale in Dante (Ravenna: Longo, 1977), pp. 103-24 (pp. 105-15).

10 Contra Iulianum IV.3.26. This passage has been cited by Padoan, Il pio Enea, pp. 106-07 and George Corbett, Dante and Epicurus: A Dualistic Vision of Secular and Spiritual Fulfilment (Oxford: Legenda, 2013), p. 124.

11 In the sixteenth century, a few theologians, such as Baptistus of Mantua and Trithemius, would suggest some intermediate state between heavenly bliss and punishment in Hell for the invincibly ignorant pagans recently discovered in America and other remote places. Claude Seyssel (in his De divina providentia, 1543, Treatise 2, art. 3) advocated this solution to the post-mortem fate of virtuous pagans more generally and explicitly linked it to the state of unbaptized babies: cf. Louis Capéran, Le problème du salut des infidèles. Essai historique, revised edn (Toulouse: Grand séminaire, 1934), pp. 220-25 and Marenbon, Pagans, pp. 286-87. But none of them actually placed the virtuous pagans in Limbo, nor did they refer to Dante.

12 Padoan (Il pio Enea, pp. 106-11) is aware of the ways in which thirteenth and fourteenth-century theologians could spare virtuous pagans from Hell, but he places (to my mind undue) emphasis on the Augustinian heritage.

13 On the Sacraments 2. 6–7; Patrologia Latina 176, 335A–41A. For a full discussion of the origins and development of the doctrine of implicit faith, see Marenbon, Pagans, pp. 168-72.

14 The change is especially evident in the popular mid-fourteenth-century Biblical commentator, Nicholas of Lyra: see glosses to Hebrews xi, 6 and Acts x, 35 in Bibliorum sacrorum cum glossa ordinaria … cum postilla Nicolai Lyrani … (Venice: Junta, 1603), cols 922, 1105.

15 See D. P., Walker, The Ancient Theology (London: Duckworth, 1972) for a presentation mainly of the theory in the sixteenth century, and Marenbon, Pagans, pp. 76, 130-31, 157, for its medieval versions and pp. 241-43 for its early modern versions.

16 For a more detailed account of the special inspiration theory, see Marenbon, Pagans, pp. 172-76.

17 Many interpreters of Dante have, however, insisted – although the text denies it – that Virgil is guilty of some fault, at least of omission. See e.g. Kenelm Foster, The Two Dantes (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1977), pp. 249-52 and C. O’Connell Baur, Dante’s Hermeneutics of Salvation (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2007), pp. 172-244, where there is also a very full survey of the different approaches which have been taken to Virgil and his damnation.

18 In ‘Latin Averroism’, in Islamic Crosspollinations. Interactions in the Medieval Middle East, ed. by Anna Akasoy, James E. Montgomery and Peter E. Porman (Exeter: Gibb Memorial Trust, 2007), pp. 135-47, I suggest why the label, although rejected by most specialists today, can be useful. In Paganism, however, I prefer to identify a broader group of thinkers who distinguished sharply between the spheres of faith and reason, to which the Averroists themselves belong.

19 Anonimo Fiorentino, gloss to Purg., iv. 123-26. The gloss continues with an anecdote in which Belacqua deliberately misuses Aristotle’s comment that ‘the soul becomes wise by sitting and through being quiet’ to justify his laziness – presenting himself self-consciously, and wittily, as the antitype to a philosopher. I am grateful to George Corbett for alerting me to this point, and cf. his Dante and Epicurus, p. 165.

20 See Carpin, Limbo, pp. 75-157 for a careful presentation and summary of the views of the followers of Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great, Bonaventure and Aquinas. Mazzoni (‘Saggio’ di un nuovo comment alla “Commedia”, Il Canto IV del “Inferno”’, Studi danteschi 42 (1965), 29-206 [pp. 92-93]) tries to link Dante’s presentation of the punishments of Limbo closely to Bonaventure’s, ignoring the very striking difference from his and other theologians’ accounts; see the justified criticisms in Corbett, Dante and Epicurus, p. 143, n. 16.

21 Earlier, Aquinas found a different way of explaining why the infants did not suffer because of the loss: see Commentary on Sentences, III, d. 33, q. 2, a. 2.

22 Conv., III. xv. 8-10. See also Marenbon, Pagans, p. 202.

23 See Espozioni (Inferno IV) II. 13-14 in Boccaccio, Tutte le opera VI: Esposizioni sopra la comedia di Dante, ed. by Giorgio Padoan (Verona: Mondadori, 1965), pp. 266-67.

24 Bruno Nardi, ‘Il libero arbitrio e l’asino di Buridano’, in Nel mondo di Dante (Rome: edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1944), pp. 287-303 (see pp. 301-02 for the passage from Par., iv); cf. Mon., I. xii. 1-5.

25 ‘Il libero arbitrio’, pp. 300-01.

26 See Jeffrey Hause, ‘Aquinas and the Voluntarists’, Medieval Philosophy and Theology 6 (1997), pp. 167-82, at p. 180.

27 There is an excellent, balanced survey in Tobias Hoffmann, ‘Intellectualism and Voluntarism’, in The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy, ed. by Robert Pasnau (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014 revised edn), pp. 414-27; Vanni Rovighi (‘Il canto IV’, pp. 69-71) also considers that Nardi may be exaggerating Dante’s differences from Aquinas here. For an attack on Nardi’s interpretation of Dante on the will, see Christopher Ryan’s unpublished Cambridge PhD dissertation, The Theme of Free Will in Dante’s Minor Works, with Particular Reference to Aspects of the Cultural Background. I am grateful to Open Book Publishers’ anonymous reviewer for this reference.

28 See Marenbon, Pagans, pp. 95-97, for William’s approach to exegesis. It is very possible that Dante knew William of Conches’s commentary to Boethius: see Luca Lombardo, Boezio in Dante. La Consolatio philosophiae nello scrittoio del poeta (Venice: Ca’Foscari, 2013) (Filologie medievali e moderne 4 ; Serie occidentale 3), p. 148. (I owe this reference to my anonymous reviewer.)

29 I have followed the solution proposed in the comment on Par., iv. 67 in G. A. Scartazzini, La Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri riveduta nel testo e commentata da G. A. Scartazzini (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 2nd revised edn 1900). Scartazzini also gives a thorough account of the various other interpretations which have been advanced.