Great Books 101: Ancient to Medieval

“Dante, Inferno


According to T.S. Eliot, only Shakespeare is the equal of the Italian poet and statesman Dante, whose most famous work is the Divine Comedy. Dante’s Inferno, the first of the Divine Comedy’s three parts, occurs just before a great crisis in Dante’s life, a crisis which would lead to his exile from Florence. Dante prods the reader to take a journey of necessity through hell for the sake of gaining self-knowledge. During this journey, Dante is struck with the realization that both love and freedom can prove to be one’s undoing.

Escaping from the inferno, Dante proceeds to Mount Purgatorio, and in so doing takes the reader to a place of beauty and virtue. He reveals a concept of God much different from the one found in the dark tragedy of the Inferno. In Purgatorio, Dante dispels the idea of God’s apathy or even hostility toward man, and God’s desire is united with human love. The kind of desire described in the Inferno is transformed—through education and experience—from an uncontrolled passion into a well-ordered love.


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Recommended Readings

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the significance of the image of dead poetry rising to life at the beginning of the Purgatorio?
  2. How is the description of desire in the Inferno different from that found in the Purgatorio?
  3. What role does Virgil play throughout the Divine Comedy?

Q & A Session

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Stephen Smith is the Temple Family Chair in English Literature and a professor of English at Hillsdale College.