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Dante’s Ethical System in His Divine Comedy Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 1st, 2021


Dante was a world-renowned poet from Italy who had most of his works published in the middle Ages. His greatest work was Commedia, and it is still considered one of the author’s greatest works (Kirkpatrick 1). Most of his works are, however, considered mastery of the Italian language and great pieces of World literature. Most of Dante’s works were based on the theme of love because of his personal experiences with a girl (Beatrice) he fell in love with.

His works were written when Italian literature was evolving, and his contributions prompted some of the country’s writers to explore the theme of love, which had not been properly explored in the past. Beatrice is especially depicted as some form of divine being in most of Dante’s works, with her role depicting a form of guardian angel over his life.

Love is, therefore, the greatest inspiration of Dante’s works and for living, although his interest in politics also beckoned him to write literary pieces of the same (Campbell 196). However, when the love of his life Beatrice, passed on, Dante retracted from Italian literature and confided in Latin literature. Partially, he sought refuge in religious schools in the wider Latin American continent. He, therefore, embarked on a series of literary pieces thereafter like the Divine Comedy, Inferno, Vita Nuova, and Convivio (Davenport 1). Other literary pieces involved works to do with paintings and music.

This study, therefore, seeks to establish the historical sources for Dante’s virtues and vices and how he was able to change the ethical system of his time to reflect his personal opinion of punishment. Comprehensively, the study observes that Dante bases his virtues and vices on the Christian faith and uses God as the ultimate judge in according punishments to sinners; such that he reflects his personal views on punishment, uncompromisingly. He also uses the ancient storytelling technique, political experiences, and roman virtues as the bedrock to his views on his works.

The Perfection of God’s Justice

Through the literary piece, Inferno, Dante uses his imagination to depict the theme of punishment by trying to relate the sinful nature of mankind on earth and the consequential punishments in hell. The punishments he exposes are like eating one’s own excretion, choking on filth, unwarranted fighting among individuals, and the likes. These levels of punishment represent Dante’s imagination regarding symbolism and imaginative imagery, but at the same time, it represents Dante’s perception of punishment through a modification of the present day’s perception of justice.

According to Canto III, it is expressly written that God created hell as a part of the justice system (Bookteacher 4). The existence of hell is therefore meant to be a punishment of sin, and it also portrays the contravention sin has on righteousness. Dante uses the perception of God on sin to depict his personal perception of punishment and the structures he envisions hell to have. For many readers, the kind of punishment the author and Virgil go through is not fair when compared to the modern perception of violence.

For example, gay people are forced to walk over hot sand (an occurrence that cannot be subjected to the gay community of today), and those who expected interest payments on loans were metaphorically sitting under a rain of fire (an occurrence that could be equated to the banking system of today which has a norm of charging interest on loans). Nonetheless, when we evaluate the general principles of punishment in Dante’s poems, it evidently comes out that a balance is stroked of all the moral wrongs depicted in the poem.

The moral offenders in the poem are depicted as serving punishments that befit the offenses they committed and in a way that reflects the nature of their sin. For example, Dante equates the mortal sin of homosexuality to walking on the hot sand. This is the author’s way of equating his personal perception of judgment.

Inferno affirms that moral offenders ought to be punished according to the extent of their sins because, as the poem progresses, it transits from small sins to big sins, denoting that punishment varies with the degree of sin. Additionally, the degree of sin corresponds to the geographical structure of hell, representing the various degrees of sins (Bookteacher 7). The element of balance also encompasses the various levels of punishment God has for offenders.

Essentially, Dante tries to portray his view of punishment from God’s representation of punishment as objective, mechanical, and impersonal, representing the fact that the chances of extenuating circumstances existing in Dante’s perception of punishment are almost nonexistent. Dante, therefore, represents the awarding of punishments as almost entirely based on a scientific formula, but he tries to manifest this through the structure of hell.

In the early stages of Inferno’s plot, Dante shows a conflict of the perception of punishment because he tries to strike a balance between God’s impersonality of punishment and his own humane form of punishment. As the plot advances, he becomes more pitiful to moral offenders, and this can be shown through the continuous comments Virgil makes (Ruud 52). However, overall, the text tries to portray the opinion that offenders get the same level of punishment, which is reflective of the nature of the mortal sin committed. Dante further goes on to portray that pitying moral offender is showing a lack of understanding of the type of offenses sinners make.

Man’s Relationship with God

Dante obviously depicts God as the creator and the judge who determines the moral punishment offenders have to undergo for their sins. However, he does not depict God as omnipresent in all human undertakings. In other words, he does not represent God as entirely all-loving and benevolent because God’s role only emerges when there is a punishment to be made (Bookteacher 9). In other times, God is interestingly absent.

This, therefore, represents a scenario where the poem deals exclusively with moral offenders and hell. Likewise, God comes in as merciless because he is represented as one of no absolution, or one who interferes with mankind’s activity except during punishments. In fact, the author shows Beatrice as the one who is concerned with his soul instead of God as the moral judge (Bookteacher 12). In this manner, the author tries to represent the fact that mankind is at liberty to make moral choices without the interference of the judge (God) and only when wrong mistakes are made in the presence of judgment felt.

Evil as the Contradiction of God’s Will

Though Dante’s poems, we can deduce the fact that he tries to break down the taxonomy of the evil nature of mankind, especially in the way he isolates and explores different facets of human will. Sometimes, the author comes out as a very perplexed individual, especially in the way he quantifies the degree of punishment. For example, it is unclear why the mortal sin of bribery should be considered graver than the sin of murder as represented in the eight and sixth chronicles of hell.

However, for readers to properly comprehend such inconsistencies in Dante’s works, it should be understood that Dante’s values and virtues stem from the Christian faith. In this manner, the author considers acts of violence and murder as graver than acts of fraud. In other words, Dante tries to exemplify the will of God as opposed to the happiness mankind derives from living on earth (Sedgwick 87). In this context, the greatest moral sin that contravenes God’s will is a fraud, which goes against God’s principles of mankind living in harmony. On the other hand, murder is in contravention of the love, but fraud manifests as the biggest deprivation of it (love).

This can especially be related to the modern perception of fraud and mismanagement of funds because it destabilized the balance of care and love in the world while at the same time, perpetuating moral sin against it. These sentiments are especially vivid in Inferno, but despite the poem deducing these facts, it provides a brief discussion of them. Nonetheless, the author makes the readers understand that evil as a mortal sin is regarded as that (sin); because it is in contravention of the will of God, and in the same regard, it is not possible to judge the will of God.

This analogy of moral judgment, however, does not represent the author’s psychology of evil or its consequence. In the same manner, it does not describe the worldly consequences attributed to various moral sins. From the literary works of Inferno, it can be openly understood that the poem was not written as a philosophical work but to enforce religious doctrines. Also, contrary to popular readers’ opinion, the work was never meant to stimulate thinking.

Storytelling as a Way to Achieve Immortality

Through the narration of Dante’s literary works, the element of immortality clearly manifests when he emphasizes the virtue of the eternal life of his subjects. Different shades of sinners are observed to pester Dante to recall their stories on earth when he returns; in the hope that their stories will remain in the minds of people throughout eternity. However, the author fails to oblige. For instance, he declines to do so in the 9th pouch of the 8th circle when the Italians begged him to inform the people on earth about specific warnings (Bookteacher 15).

However, with the progress of the poem, it becomes interestingly clear that Dante partially heeds to their request by posting their stories in his literary works (writing poems). This shows Dante’s perception of justice because he affirms their position or judgment for the wrongs they did on earth; even though he lets, their stories live above ground from his literary works.

However, even when retells the stories of the sinners; he does so in a selfish manner because he stresses his own immortality as opposed to those of the sinners. Also, from the poem, he glorifies himself too much, as can be seen from his position that he has outdone both Ovid and Lucan in Canto XXIV when he tries to narrate the sins and punishment of the thieves. He does so by purporting that he has surpassed the two classical poets (Ovid and Lucas) by writing works that are better than theirs. In this manner, he emphasizes his own immortality.

Although the story is a living memory of the protagonists, Dante’s works are a glorification of his own self (Bookteacher 17). Despite most of the sinners being eaten up, torn, burnt, and all forms of punishment depicted in the story, their story lives through generations because of the art of storytelling. Storytelling, therefore, gives both Dante’s subjects and himself a true sense of life that will always live through generations.


Politics is a source of Dante’s virtues and vices because he wrote his works while trying to represent the political happenings of the fourteenth century. This period represents Florence as the locality to which he was jailed in the final years before his death. The assertions he makes of this period are done in various ways, like the scattering of his political foes through hell and when he predicts events that preceded the writing of his poems.

Most of the sentiments regarding this period are expressed through the voice of the damned, which are observed as having possession of the powers of prophecy (upon their demise). Dante, therefore, paints the future bleak because of his perception of his home area, Florence, as a zone of corruption and chaos.

Though Dante’s political experience, he affirms his strong belief that the church and the state should be independent of each other, at least regarding their coexistence on earth (Papini 244). His sentiments are therefore expressed as purporting that the church should exist to take care of the spiritual wellbeing of mankind while governments should exist to take care of the physical wellbeing of mankind. This can be evidenced through Dante’s constant reference to Rome on the basis of spiritual and secular significance.

However, Dante also brings to fore the importance of both organs (church and state) through the representation that Satan punished Judas, who acted contrary to the expectations of Jesus as the religious leader and at the same time, punished Brutus, who acted contrary to Caesar’s wishes as to the political leader. This literary piece, therefore, implies that it is important for both the state and church to coexist in society and a violation of any attracts punishment from hell.

Dante, therefore, shows that the two bodies are equal insignificance, but he also never fails to stress the need for their separation. Dante especially defines the punishment of contraventions to this separation as very harsh because he imposes heavy punishment to people who violate this line of separation, like priests and popes who went ahead to accept bribes to elevate themselves into high political positions (Alighieri 212).

Classical Literature and Mythology

Despite a greater part of Dante’s views and virtues being firmly based on Christianity, a greater part of his works can still be traced to the Roman and Greek traditions and virtues. Dante’s manifestation of the structure of hell represents the Christian view of hell, but he does so in a mythological manner, especially as he tries to make reference to ancient creatures in the bible. In addition, he never shies away from making reference to mythological features like rivers.

Dante, therefore, tries to emulate many ancient writers like Homer and Ovid, making him uncomfortable while striving to borrow from the classical writers and, at the same time, trying to exemplify his work from theirs. Dante does not, however, limit his use of classical literature to the borrowing of classical authors’ style alone because he is seen as borrowing the classical style in totality because it bears a lot of dramatic potentials (Jones 925). However, most importantly, Dante uses classical literature because he tries to represent the fact that Christianity, as a religion, has summed most of the classical beliefs. He further tries to unify all existing religions in one cluster as a symbol of his personal struggles, although he also tries to make his readers identify with them (personal struggles) (Rivard 116).

Moral standing

When analyzing one of Dante’s most important works, Inferno, it is very difficult for modern readers to establish the moral standing to which many of Dante’s attributes in the story conform to. This situation is different from other Dante works, like the representation of the priests who were on their way to heaven (and those that were already there) who provided a strong moral foundation for their actions. Even non-religious readers of the Comedy cannot overlook the moral dilemma here, but in the poem Inferno, the moral dilemma has a very small space.


Dante extensively uses religion (Christianity) to form his opinion on morality and punishment. Tactfully, he uses his imagination about God’s opinion to advance his own opinion of morality and punishment. In this manner, it is difficult for anyone to question his personal ethical system. Nonetheless, he bases his virtues and vices on religion and integrates it with his political experiences to present a belief system that also advances his personal thought. He also integrates the ancient virtues and vices associated with the Roman Empire, especially to reflect on his political beliefs. These attributes, therefore, outline Dante’s framework of virtues, vices, and morality in most of his works.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno of Dante Alighieri. London: Forgotten Books, 1962.

Book teacher. Dante. 2010. Web.

Campbell, John. The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics. London: Barnes & Noble Publishing, 2000. Print.

Davenport, John. Dante: Poet, Author, And Proud Florentine. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2005. Print.

Jones, Charles. Medieval Literature in Translation. London: Courier Dover Publications, 2001. Print.

Kirkpatrick, Robin. Dante, the Divine Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Papini, Giovanni. Dante Vivo. NY: Read books, 2007. Print.

Rivard, Eugene. Views of Dante. London: BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009. Print.

Ruud, Jay. Critical Companion to Dante: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008. Print.

Sedgwick, Adams. Dante; an Elementary Book for Those Who Seek in the Great Poet, the Teacher of Spiritual Life. London: BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009. Print.

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