The Reading Room

Justice in Hell and Liberal Rationales of Punishment

Dante plumbs the depths of the human condition by recounting his existential journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise; a journey punctuated by poignant encounters with myriad souls. His journey is impelled by a midlife crisis and exile:
When halfway through the journey of our lifeI found that I was in a gloomy wood,because the path which led aright was lost. (I, 1-3)
The poem may have special interest for OLL readers because it reckons with individual responsibility and social order. Let me set aside theology, briefly explore this civic dimension of the poem, and compare modern, liberal rationales of punishment. I will focus mainly on hell, and then come full circle to Dante’s midlife crisis.
Formal organization, legitimacy, and dictatorship
Hell, purgatory, and paradise are selective formal organizations, in the sense that they have admissions criteria, membership, missions, internal hierarchies, and even officers.  I outline each organization’s admission criterion and mission in the table below: 
Hell’s members are set in their ways—avowedly so in the case of the blasphemer Capaneus. Witness his terse cry, “As I was alive, such am I dead!” (XIV, 51)

In Hell, a striking aspect of hierarchy is the placement of perpetrators of fraud at the bottom, lower than perpetrators of violent crimes. Modern penal codes tend to punish force much more strictly than fraud. Dante’s insight, here, is that trust is the glue of society. Dante knew firsthand that city-states in central Italy were deeply vulnerable to treacherous factional strife.

In Paradise, an essential aspect of hierarchy is legitimacy. Every blessed soul embraces her station and relative status. Paradise uniquely reconciles hierarchy and community. 

By contrast, souls in Hell reject the social order. Despite the imperative inscribed on hell’s gate, “ALL HOPE ABANDON, YE THAT ENTER HERE” (III, 9), a regime of blanket despair proves impossible. Dante reports pockets of local resistance to punishment. Souls guilty of violent crimes seek to escape the river of boiling blood. Centaurs must assiduously police them: 
They go by thousands round about the moat,shooting each soul that from the blood emergesfurther than its own sin allotted it. (XII, 73-75)
The elusive grafter Ciampolo tries to outwit the demons who police the boiling tar-pit (XXII). There is determined, protracted resistance to Dante’s passage at the gates of the City of Dis (lower hell). Fires signal a war footing at the fortress, where a thousand fallen angels band together to exclude Dante. Virgil (Dante’s guide) parleys unsuccessfully with the enemy. Disconsolate, he hastens to shield Dante from the literally petrifying gaze of Medusa who helps to guard the gates. At last, an angel arrives from heaven, parts the miasma, and scatters the throng of rebels (VIII, 82-130 and IX, 1-106).

Hell is a vast dictatorship. Governance lacks legitimacy among its subjects, who harbor recalcitrant hopes. Wildfires of evasion and escape might spark a conflagration of guerrilla warfare and insurrection.

Forms and rationales of punishment

Compare infernal dictatorship and liberal rationales of criminal justice, which I list below, in order of importance in Dante’s vision of hell:
  • Incapacitation (to prevent the wrongdoer from harming innocent persons again).
  • Social communication (to express the wrongness of the crime).
  • Retribution (to restore a balance) and strictures against cruel and unusual punishment.
  • General deterrence (to caution observers that it would be imprudent to engage in such crime).
  • Individual deterrence against recidivism (to convince the wrongdoer that it would be imprudent to offend again).
  • Rehabilitation (to improve the wrongdoer’s character).
Incapacitation takes the form of permanent confinement in Hell and plays a crucial role in justice. An ‘inmate’ cannot move up to Purgatory or Paradise. Closed borders prevent the impenitent from harming the contrite and the blessed. Dictatorship over the impenitent is necessary to thwart rebellion.

Social communication, too, is crucial in Hell. In one sense, Dante and modern criminal justice differ in how they express how wrong the crime is. Modern criminal sentences are a scalar, cardinal expression: A sentence of ten years of incarceration for rape, and a sentence of five years for armed robbery, communicate that the former crime is in some sense twice as heinous as the latter. By contrast, every punishment in Hell is eternal. There the measure of a crime’s wrongness is not cardinal, but ordinal, as expressed by the rank hierarchy of circles of hell. It would be meaningless to say, for example, that the punishments of hoarders and spendthrifts in Hell’s fourth circle are twice as strict as the punishment of lustful souls in Hell’s second circle. However, a specific kind of punishment in Hell may have individual gradation, i.e., scalar intensity. For example, ‘the violent’ are partially submersed in a river of boiling blood—but each to a depth commensurate with individual guilt (XII, 75).

More importantly, Dante, unlike the moderns, contrives punishments that express how the crime is wrong. Punishments in Hell are qualitative and figurative. Fantastical punishments are possible in Hell because souls there have ‘aerial bodies’ in place of earthly flesh and bones. A damned soul experiences not physical pain, but emotional distress at being trapped in a metaphor of the crime. Because the damned are forms without bodies, their punishments can riff on earthly constraints of physics and physiology. For example, adulterers Paolo and Francesca whirl in a tempest of lust (V); those who wallowed in rancor welter in the swamp, assault one another, and thereby suffer assault (VIII); the heretic Farinata, who did not believe in the immortality of the soul, is entombed (X); the violent swim in a river of boiling blood (XII); the suicides, who wished to rid themselves of their bodies, are embodied in trees (alien bodies) (XIII); the heads of the diviners are twisted 180 degrees, so they can never look ahead (XX); and the schismatics, who sowed division, are terribly mutilated (XXVIII). Each punishment vividly fits the crime. This is what makes infernal punishments at once awful, sublime, dreadful, and gratifying to readers.

Retribution, too, is intrinsic to punishments in Hell. Does retribution via figurative punishments ‘restore a balance’? Does it respect modern liberal strictures against ‘cruel and unusual punishment’? Consider first the quality of retribution in Hell. A figurative punishment rights a wrong by making the wrongdoer suffer accordingly. Insofar as fates in Hell correspond qualitatively to wrongdoings, retribution is just, not cruel. And insofar as figurative punishments apply without fear or favor in Hell, the various kinds of retribution are not unusual, but standard. Justice in Hell is blind. Consider now the quantity of retribution in Hell. In a sense, infernal retribution necessarily overshoots, insofar as souls in Hell incur infinite punishment because damnation is eternal. Does eternity of infernal retribution—as distinct from mere confinement (incapacitation) necessary to keep in check the impenitent—amount to cruelty? I leave this question to the reader.

More radically, might infernal retribution be ambiguous? On the one hand, wrongdoers plainly suffer. Their woes bespeak punishment. On the other hand, one of the various ways a punishment may fit the crime is metaphorical persistence in the characteristic wrongdoing. For example, Paolo and Francesca are windswept in a tornado, a metaphor of lust. Their woe bespeaks wretched fulfillment of immoral desire. Confinement (incapacitation) creates peculiar spaces for ambiguous syntheses of retribution and tolerance—and even enablement. The lesson (social communication) of these ambiguous punishments is: Be careful what you wish for.

General deterrence might follow from Dante’s emphasis on expressive punishments as social communication, insofar as people still find Inferno captivating—700 years on! But does reading Inferno reduce wrongdoing, actually? I leave this empirical question, too, to the reader.

Individual deterrence against recidivism has no relevance to punishments in Hell. The inmates there lack remorse. Many of them exhibit imprudence and lack of self-control. Hence the necessity of eternal confinement (incapacitation) in Hell.

Rehabilitation has no place in Hell. Absent remorse, there can be no rehabilitation. This is why rehabilitation has a separate sphere: Purgatory.

Criminal justice and individual responsibility

I noted that figurative punishments in Hell fascinate because, unlike mere ‘doing time,’ they vividly evoke each crime, because they fit the crime. Let me conclude with another contrast.

From a liberal perspective, punishments in Hell constitute perfect criminal justice because they do not entangle innocent bystanders. By contrast, in the real world, criminal justice is rife with collateral damage. For example, if an offender who has dependent children is incarcerated, then the children, too, suffer by the punishment. Justice is a harsh virtue.

This brings us full circle to Dante’s midlife crisis. Dante’s innocent family members experienced great hardship—collateral damage of justice—when a Florentine tribunal, amid factional strife, convicted Dante of public corruption, confiscated his assets, and sentenced him to permanent exile on pain of execution by fire at the stake!

Infernal punishment cannot entangle any earthly innocents because it takes place in the wrongdoer’s afterlife—when the wrongdoer no longer has dependents. So it is that justice in hell intrinsically circumscribes the woe of condign punishment to the guilty and thereby respects the liberal principle of individual responsibility for wrongdoing. Dante’s other-worldly masterpiece can help keep us honest about tragic flaws in criminal justice here on earth.

Acknowledgment: I thank Dario Del Puppo for helpful comments on a draft.