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The Paradox of Dante’s Limbo in Dante’s Inferno

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The story of Paolo and Francesca, star-crossed lovers doomed to the second circle of hell, raises interesting questions. However, there is an argument to be made on behalf of the validity in Francesca’s actions. Although infidelity is regarded as a condemnable act, the two are said to have deserved their harsh placement despite the issues in Francesca’s marriage and her inability to receive vindication. Throughout Dante’s rendition, the assessment of where individuals are placed based on the actions committed in their lifetimes seems unequivocally harsh, however, an interesting element to his narration is if these placements are well-deserved.

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The first circle of hell in Dante’s account has certain rules in place for who is subjected to an afterlife in limbo. In the narrator’s depiction, the souls who arrive are those who did not receive Christ or live a pious Christian life; Individuals who were never granted the opportunity to become baptized or had lived absent of Christian principles were placed in this circle because, at the time, it was not seen as the right way of living. Dante meets significant historical figures like Horace, Virgil, Socrates, and Plato who, despite their triumphs, are placed in limbo because they were alive before the time of Christ. The paradoxical regulations of the inferno condemn individuals, like the ones Dante encounters, to limbo regardless of their successes because of a choice they were unable to possibly make. This system can cause discourse within readers who deem it unfair that certain individuals, who could have been granted paradise, were not allowed an honest assessment of their merit because of a nonexistent chance of redemption. The only instance of this redemption is when Jesus comes to limbo after his crucifixion to bring his ancestors of the Old Testament with him to heaven. A common theme throughout Dante’s Inferno is the emphasis placed on the importance of piety and morality, however, the very souls who lived righteous lives were robbed of their chance in the afterlife because of a variable they could not control. The strong focus on morality in Dante’s Inferno is questionable when considering the standards souls have to meet to attain paradise.

When Dante and Virgil make it to the second circle of Hell, Lust, they find Minos who examines all souls entering. Dante comes to realize that some of the individuals here, such as Cleopatra and Dido from Virgil’s The Aeneid, committed suicide, but are not residing in the deeper circle of hell reserved for suicides because the punishment served was based on the standards of the soul. This placement is due to the time eras these individuals lived in; If suicide was not a sin in that individual’s lifetime, but infidelity was, they ended up in the circle of lust. The instance raises question of why Cleopatra and Dido are saved from a harsher punishment, with the logic that their lifetime had no negative standard of suicide, but other souls of different lifetimes are subjected to an eternity of limbo.

How individuals are subjected to limbo based on what actions were deemed unlawful during their time or absent from Christianity is important in understanding the mystery behind who is placed in different circles. Dante and Virgil’s information on the inferno convinces readers that certain actions are deemed worthy of an eternity in limbo, however, there are many trivial elements to the assessment that brings forth this type of punishment.   

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