Major Themes: Virgil

In this section we will examine:

  • the significance of Virgil’s status as Dante’s guide
  • the relationship between Dante-personaggio and the character Virgil
  • Virgil and Limbo.

Virgil as Dante’s guide

In many ways it might seem surprising that Dante should choose Virgil as guide for Dante-personaggio’s journey. Given the overall theme of the poem, for instance, one might expect Dante to have chosen a religious, or at least a Christian figure. If not a Christian, then perhaps a more obvious choice would have been Aristotle – ‘maestro di color che sanno’ [the master of all those who think and know’ (Inferno IV, 131).  

The figure of Virgil in the Commedia may be associated with three crucial aspects of Dante’s thought: his idea of reason, his idea of Empire, and his idea of poetry. It is in his relation to these three aspects that Virgil’s status in the Commedia as Dante’s guide ought to be assessed.

Recall the passage from the Monarchia quoted in the previous section on politics. In it Dante states that the ‘philosophical virtues’ are what ought to lead human beings to earthly happiness. The figure of Virgil in the Commedia is, in one of its aspects, representative of these ‘philosophical virtues’ – i.e. of what human reason may achieve without the aid of faith and revelation. Indeed, in Inferno I, 89 it is on account of Virgil’s wisdom that Dante asks Virgil to rescue him from the she-wolf.

It is the Empire which, on the basis of the philosophical virtues, ought for Dante to govern the political side of human existence and create the conditions necessary for earthly happiness. Another aspect of the figure of Virgil is that it also represents Dante’s idea of Empire. It is no coincidence that one of the first things that Virgil says to Dante-personaggio in introducing himself in the dark wood is that he lived ‘a Roma sotto ’l buon Augusto’ (71) – it was only during the reign of Augustus that Dante thought universal peace had been achieved. But, as the character Virgil’s own words in Inferno I, 73–75 suggest, Virgil is not only representative of Empire because he lived at a time of universal peace. He is also representative of Empire because his Aeneid – written for the Emperor Augustus himself – was composed with the intent of giving a poetic account of the foundation of Rome, the imperial city, at the hands of Aeneas and his Trojan companions. This aspect of the significance of the figure of Virgil is emphasised further in Inferno II, 13–27.  

This leads us to a third aspect of the significance of the figure of Virgil in the Commedia: his poetic authority. The study of Classical literature was an important part of medieval learning. A fundamental aspect of the medieval study of much Classical literature was that texts were not only studied in terms of their literary value, but also in terms of the Christian interpretations that could be given of the stories the texts told. This meant that Classical stories, which would seem to have no explicit relationship to Christian belief, were interpreted in terms of the lessons that Christians could derive from them. Virgil’s work was held in great esteem in the Middle Ages, not only because of its literary value, but also because of the interpretations that could be given of it from a Christian viewpoint. Some of his texts were even thought to be prophetic in character (It was widely thought, for example, that Virgil’s Eclogue IV prophesied the birth of Christ.) And there were legends circulating in the Middle Ages according to which Virgil had been miraculously granted salvation by God even though he had died before the birth of Christ. Dante did not believe these legends (we will return to the question of Virgil’s salvation below), yet he too held Virgil in great esteem; in greater esteem, in fact, than he held any other poet.

As Dante-personaggio says in Inferno I, 82–87, Virgil is an inspiration to all other poets. More importantly, he is an inspiration to Dante himself. It is from Virgil’s work, we are told, that Dante derived his own poetic skill. Moreover, it is on account of the beauty and moral worth of his eloquence that we are told Virgil is called upon by Beatrice to go and rescue Dante, as we learn in Inferno II, 67 and 113.

So, it is on account of his intellectual, moral and poetic authority that Virgil is chosen as Dante-personaggio’s guide. In all these different aspects, the figure of Virgil in the Commedia represents the excellence human nature may achieve without the aid of faith and revelation. As such Virgil is able to lead Dante up to the Earthly Paradise on the summit of the mountain of Purgatory.

Dante-personaggio and the character Virgil

The relationship between Dante-personaggio and the character Virgil is one of the most important aspects of the narrative of the Inferno. Throughout your study of the Inferno you should always consider the significance this relationship might have for your understanding of the text.

Virgil and Limbo

As we have said, Virgil may be seen to represent in the Commedia the excellence that human nature can achieve without the help of faith and revelation. It is because of the intellectual, moral and poetic excellence attributed to him by Dante that Virgil is chosen as the guide to lead Dante-personaggio to the Earthly Paradise. We also know, however, that in Dante’s scheme Virgil is one of the inhabitants of Limbo (IV, 31–39). Despite all the excellent qualities attributed to him, he is confined to Hell. This raises one of the most difficult and hotly debated questions surrounding the Commedia: what exactly is the fault for which the inhabitants of Limbo are confined to Hell?

In lines 31–39 of Canto IV, Virgil says that the inhabitants of Limbo are confined to Hell not because they sinned but either because they did not receive baptism or, in the case of those (like Virgil) who lived before Christ, because they did not adequately worship God. The idea that someone is confined to Hell even without having committed any sin might indeed appear at first sight to be a very odd one. To make things even stranger, the inhabitants of Limbo are not only confined to Hell despite not having sinned (one could also say this about the ignavi of Canto III), but also despite their moral and intellectual excellence.

In Purgatorio VII, Virgil gives further indication of the condition of the inhabitants of Limbo:

Non per far, ma per non fare ho perduto 
a veder l’alto Sol che tu disiri 
e che fu tardi per me conosciuto. 
Luogo è la giù non tristo di martiri, 
ma di tenebre solo, ove i lamenti 
non suonan come guai, ma sono sospiri. 
Quivi sto io coi pargoli innocenti 
dai denti morsi de la morte avante 
che fosser da l’umana colpa essenti; 
quivi sto io con quei che le tre sante 
virtù non si vestiro, e sanza vizio 
conobber l’altre e seguir tutte quante.

  (Purgatorio VII, 25–36)

Through nothing I had done but what I’d not, 
my sight lost that great Sun that you desire, 
known too belatedly in time for me. 
There is a place down there not grim with pain 
but only with sad shades whose deep laments 
sound not as screams but melancholy sighs. 
I take my place with children- innocents 
in whom the bite of death set lethal teeth 
before they’d been made free of human sin. 
And there I stay with all those who were not clothed 
in those three holy virtues – though I knew, 
and, guiltless, followed all the other four.   

In considering the nature of the failing of the inhabitants of Limbo, you should bear in mind Dante’s idea of sin. Remember, first of all, that the scheme of Dante’s Hell derives primarily from Aristotelian ethics, not from Christian doctrine.

To sin, for Dante, is to misuse one’s reason and judgment, thus going against the very essence of human nature. So, for Dante, even those like Virgil who lived in times and places with no contact with Christian doctrine or revelation could be guilty of sin (and we see many examples of this in the Inferno). But the inhabitants of Limbo did not sin; moreover, the adults amongst them were actively able to use their reason and judgment in accordance with all the philosophical virtues that Dante believed could lead man to earthly happiness. They are confined to Hell, we are told, because they did not relate to God in the correct way. But what exactly might this mean? And, in any case, can this really be considered a fault on the part of the adult inhabitants of Limbo, given that they lived in times and places with no contact with Christian doctrine or revelation?

A clue about how to begin answering these questions might be found in the passage from Purgatorio VII quoted above. Virgil says that the inhabitants of Limbo are confined to Hell not because of something they did but because of something they did not do: they failed to act according to the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) (34–35). We also know from the Purgatorio (Canto I) and the Paradiso (Cantos XVIII–XX) that some pagans have in fact achieved salvation. This suggests that, for Dante, acting according to the theological virtues is not something lying totally beyond the grasp of those like Virgil who lived in times and places with no contact with Christian doctrine or revelation. The question of the philosophical and theological terms according to which, for Dante, this might be possible is an extremely complex one, and one that may properly be addressed only after having studied the other two cantiche.

See also: Virgil in the Purgatorio

Further listening: you can download a lecture, by Claire Honess (University of Leeds) on the ways in which Virgil was discussed in the Middle Ages, by clicking here: Virgil in the Middle Ages

© 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