Major Themes: The Body

In a very obvious sense, it is clear that the body is important in Dante’s Inferno. The punishments are, after all, very physical; and Dante-personaggio’s own body is a source of wonderment for the souls in Hell. In this section we will examine the role and importance of the body in the Inferno.

In one brief discussion between Dante and Virgil, we touch upon one of the crucial aspects of medieval Christian thought on the body. This comes in Canto VI, 103–111, when Dante asks Virgil what the effect will be on the souls in Hell of the Last Judgment: will they feel more or less pain? (Dante asks the question because it was a fundamental belief of medieval Christianity that the body and soul would be reunited at this time.) Virgil’s response is brief, but tells us a lot. He asks Dante to remember his philosophy (and by this, he means Aristotelian philosophy). If he does so, Virgil says, he will recall that Aristotle taught that the more perfect a being is, the more it can feel pleasure and pain. After the Last Judgment, the souls will be closer to perfection, Virgil says, and they will therefore experience more pain. What is meant by this is that when the body and the soul are united, the human person is more perfect than when they are separate.

Dante here, like other Christian thinkers of the time, draws a line between his own position and the Neoplatonic tradition, according to which the body was simply a source of mortality, a weight which dragged the soul down and stood in the way of perfection. For Dante the human being is defined as a union of body and soul. This is why, as Dante implies in Inferno VI, the body and soul would be reunited at the end of time, following the Last Judgment.

There are a number of reasons why the idea that the body was essential for human perfection was important to medieval Christian belief. Here are three of the major ones:

  • In Genesis it is clearly stated that God directly created Adam and Eve’s bodies (God formed Adam from the dust of the ground, before breathing life into his nostrils (Genesis 2.7); Eve was formed by God out of Adam’s body (Genesis 2.22)). It wastherefore problematic to consider the body as inherently sinful.

  • Medieval Christianity was dominated by the notion of the body. One of its central notions was that of the Incarnation – the idea that God himself had taken bodily form. And the body of Christ was a central part of the rituals of the Church, in the form of the Eucharist. The faithful would eat and drink the body and blood of Christ in the form of the communion bread and wine.

  • The Church was often presented as being like a body. St Paul, for instance, talks about the Church as being the ‘mystical body’ of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-16, 21, 27.

Given the fundamental importance of the body to medieval Christian theology and culture, then, it is no surprise to find that the body is a central feature of Dante’s Commedia. But the body does not only play a role of fundamental importance in the Commedia because of its relation to theology. Following Aristotle, Dante believed that all human thought and desire was inextricably bound to sensory perception. In other words, everything human beings feel, think and do is determined by their existence as embodied beings. Perhaps the two most important ways in which this is manifested in the Commedia are: a) the fact that, in order to gain the experience and understanding which Dante-personaggio needs so as to leave the sinful state in which he finds himself at the beginning of the poem, he does not leave behind his body; and b) the fact that even between death and the Last Judgment, for Dante, the souls of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise had bodies of sorts which resembled their earthly bodies and were able to feel heat, cold, pain, etc. (It is not until the Purgatorio that this idea is explicitly dealt with by Dante.)

© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame