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In the Inferno, Virgil is a guide and the voice of reason in the poem. He serves the purpose of reinforcing Dante’s Christian responsibilities in his pilgrimage. If it were not for his contribution, the journey may have overwhelmed Dante.
Virgil is highly knowledgeable about many aspects of hell. Without him, Dante would not have understood the historical, spiritual or geographical significance of the things he was seeing (Bergin 55). In Canto 14, Circle 7, Round 3, Dante asks Virgil about the river that they can both see. Virgil replies by affirming that:
“In the middle of the sea, and gone to waste,
there lies a country known as Crete,
under whose king the ancient world was chaste.
Once Rhea chose it as the secret crypt
and cradle of her son; and better to hide him,
her Corybantes raised a din when he wept.” (Dante XIV.7.3)
Virgil, therefore, contributed towards a better understanding of the journey because he tells Dante about the history behind the events and features that they are witnessing. As such, he is a guide to Dante.
Sometimes Dante was uncertain about the next step. These were all unfamiliar things that were potentially dangerous. Dante needed someone to assure him that he was going in the right direction. The journey would have been extraordinarily scary without Virgil.
In fact, it is likely that Dante would have turned back at the entrance to hell if it had not been for Virgil. Dante’s own assertions emphasize these sentiments: “Thy words have moved my heart to its first purpose. My Guide! My Master! Now lead on.” (Dante II.133). Virgil reminded the main character about the importance of his mission and thus propelled him to achieve it.
In certain scenarios, Dante even consider Virgil as a father because of the things he did for him. For instance, when they got to Dis, some furies threatened to turn both Dante and Virgil into stone. Virgil quickly urged Dante to cover his eyes and turn around.
When Dante took too much time to respond, Virgil himself turned Dante around and covered his eyes for him. In such an instance, Virgil acted in a similar manner to a father. He cared about Dante and would not allow harm to come to him.
Many Christians may ponder about the fate of non Christians who lived before Christ’s coming. Some contend that the non believers do not merit their place in hell because nobody gave them a choice. This controversial subject also troubled Dante, and as he travels inside hell, he gets answers to this troubling question. Through Virgil, Dante learns that Christians must make no apologies for their faith. Furthermore, there is no room for exceptions.
Virgil helps Dante to realize that all pagans’ lives are condemned regardless of whether they existed before or after Jesus’ coming. In fact, famous thinkers and ethicists such as Aristotle, Socrates and Homer were all condemned to hell even when they all lived honorable lives. “Their honor wins them ease in Hell out of God’s favor. “ (Dante IV. 76-78). Consequently, he settles a moral dilemma that Dante, and many Christians struggle with frequently.
Virgil’s pagan status emphasizes his role as a guide and the voice of reason. He was an ethicist and a writer that lived before the rise of the Christian church (between 70 and 19 BC). He wrote a world-renowned poem called Aeneid in which he talked about morality and evil, honor and the underworld. At the time, there was no reference to Dante’s faith. Dante chose Virgil – a pagan – as a guide in his journey in the afterlife in order to bring out the relative objectivity of his arguments.
If Virgil had been another famous Christian mentor, then one would analyze his arguments on the basis of his faith. The logic behind them would have been irrelevant. However, because he was a pagan, everything he said must have come from a place of reason, and that was why he played that role in the poem.
A guide has the responsibility of ensuring that his pilgrims are safe. People assume that such an individual knows the ins and outs of the chosen site. In this case, Virgil was familiar with the twists and turns of Hell since he had been there before. As a result, heaven entrusted him with the responsibility of ensuring that Dante passed through those territories safely.
In fact, he protected Dante in a number of scenarios in the poem. In some cases, he looked for mechanisms of penetrating the various barriers in their way. For instance in Canto III, he told Charon, whose main duty was to prevent living persons from entering that territory, that Dante must pass through the place since it is God’s purpose for him to do so.
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Virgil uttered the same statement when they met Minos. He silenced protests against Dante by explaining their mission in the place. He lets everyone know that the divine power mandated their purpose.
One must realize that although Virgil was an authority in hell and purgatory, he still had a number of weaknesses. These flaws meant that Virgil was not fit enough to guide Dante through heaven. Someone else who was worthy of that responsibility took it up. In fact, Virgil’s weaknesses are highlighted in various instances in the narration. In one instance, Dante and Virgil encounter the demon Malacoda.
The creature convinces Virgil that he will do Dante no harm by dropping his weapon (Dante XX1.106-111). However, he never gave them truthful information concerning the next bridge. Virgil was naive enough to believe a flimsy character like Malacoda. In another situation, Friar Catalano tells him that evil agents are creatures that cannot be trusted because they are so proficient at hiding their real intentions.
Virgil is not all-knowing as one may be tempted to think (Hollander 99). The poet probably chose to portray him in this manner in order to demonstrate the limits of reason. He wanted to prove that, in spiritual matters, it took more than just logic to enjoy the most supreme rewards that heaven could offer. Virgil’s role as a guide and a voice of reason could only go so far; it needed to be completed with another force, which was faith.
Perhaps, one of the most vital things, to remember about the character of Virgil in the poem is that logic and reason play a vital role in one’s spiritual journey. It allows one to understand one’s supreme power better. In this poem, Virgil’s point of view was not adversarial to Beatrice’s point of view.
These two schools of thought played complementary roles in the process of completing Dante’s spiritual journey. Therefore, while Virgil was an crucial piece of the puzzle, he still did not signify the ultimate message in the poem. Dante himself represented the main theme. He had completed a journey towards getting to know God.
Virgil is a guide to Dante because he offers a context or explanation to the events in the journey. He is a mentor and protector in several instances and ensures that Dante sticks to the mission. Nonetheless, his inclination to reason over faith limits his influence in the narrative.
Bergin, Thomas. Dante. NY: The Orion Press, 1965. Print.
Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. 2009. Web. ‹http://www.everypoet.com/archive/poetry/dante/dante_contents.htm›
Hollander, Robert. Dante’s Virgil: A light that failed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. Print.