The Reading Room
Dante at 700: What the Supreme Poet can teach us about work, love, art, and life : Inferno, Canto IV: Escaping Limbo
A Reading Room series on The Divine Comedy
Dante is awoken by a loud clap of thunder. He gets up to his feet, looks around, and tries to comprehend where he is. He is standing on the edge of a deep, dark, misty valley reverberating with the echoes of thunder. Dante strains to see into the valley but still cannot make anything out through the fog. “Let us descend now into the blind world,” says Virgil, pale (apparently) with terror. “I’ll go first, and you’ll follow closely behind me.”
“How can I come into this place,” Dante asks him concernedly, “if even you’re afraid of it?”
“I’m not pale because I’m afraid of this place,” Virgil replies, “but because I’m profoundly sorry for the people who are in it. Let’s continue; we have a long road ahead of us.”
Dante follows Virgil in, and they first come upon the uppermost circle of the valley. This is Limbo, the first circle of Hell. Dante hears no crying or wailing here, only sighs—but sighs so forceful and persistent that the very air trembles. He finally begins to be able to glimpse some people; from the looks of it, it is a very large group of people—men, women, and children.
Virgil explains to Dante that all these people he sees are people who lived before the age of Christ. Although they were not sinners, they are not able to enter Heaven because they were unbaptized. “And among such as these am I myself,” says Virgil. “Because we did not sin we are not given torturous punishments. Our punishment is more spiritual and psychological: to live on here with desire (of reaching Heaven) but without any real hope that we will ever truly be able to attain it.”
Dante’s heart is immediately seized with grief, for he knows of people who, though they may be good people, are or will be suspended in Limbo for this very reason.
Virgil tells Dante that not all meritorious people who lived before Christ were doomed to be in Limbo forever. After his death, Christ descended into Hell and brought back with him to Heaven the souls of the unbaptized righteous men and women—such Adam, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Jacob, and Rachel—who lived before they were able to accept him. But before this occasion no other human spirits had ever been saved from Limbo.
Before we descend into the real heart of Hell, we first go with Dante and Virgil into an area of Hell that, though in Inferno proper, is in Hell but not of it: Limbo, the place where those who did not (and were not able to) accept Christ but who were otherwise good people must reside for eternity. Those of us who are not Christian (and even some of those who are) might feel that the existence of Limbo is extremely unfair. Hell, as harsh as it is, is at least understandable: it is a place where sinners and criminals can be punished for their crimes with perfect justice. But what about Limbo? Why should a place exist where otherwise good people who did not accept Christ must reside without real punishment, but without real hope of reaching paradise either?
The existence of a Limbo in the afterlife is a matter of Christian (and particularly Catholic) theology, and as such it is incumbent on Christian theology to answer for it. (Some scholars have speculated that the Christian doctrine related to unbaptized souls was conceived—either consciously or unconsciously—in order to deter infanticide, a not uncommon practice in pagan Greece and Rome.) But in our present-day lives here on earth, we do know that many sorts of limbos really do exist—and many of us may in fact find ourselves trapped in them at various points in our lives. Perhaps some of us are even in a limbo now. A limbo is a place—an emotional, spiritual, or psychological place, or a medical, financial, or professional state—in which we find ourselves stuck. We do not feel any particular torment, but neither do we sense much potential for advancement. Things are just good (or, more aptly, not bad) enough where we are able to stave off the bill collectors and fend off the temptations of indulging in our worst impulses; but neither are things really good enough where we feel a sense of true accomplishment. We have a desire for more—but, like in Dante’s Limbo, we appear to have no hope of ever actually achieving it.
Traveling through the Underworld’s Limbo with Dante and Virgil is helpful for us because it reminds us that there are genuine limbos in our mortal world here above, and that we shouldn’t castigate ourselves too harshly if we happen, at some point in our lives—as the majority of us will—to find ourselves trapped in one. (After all, we aren’t really in hell—we are just in limbo.) Moreover, we should feel hopeful if we do find ourselves trapped in an earthly limbo—and actually become aware of it—for, unlike the Limbo in the Underworld, limbos in this world do offer the possibility of hope. Once we become conscious of the fact that we are indeed stuck in a limbo, we immediately have the hope of one day escaping it. The existence of Dante’s hopeless eternal Limbo thus, perhaps paradoxically—yet eminently understandably—gives us hope of escaping and transcending our temporary earthly limbos. We may not ever attain paradise, but because we have been given the gift of being human, there is always hope that we can better our situations, lift ourselves out of our mortal limbos, and improve the lives of those around us. As the Hungarian-Canadian physician Gabor Maté has written,
Not every story has a happy ending…but the discoveries of science, the teachings of the heart, and the revelations of the soul all assure us that no human being is ever beyond redemption. The possibility of renewal exists as long as life exists. How to support that possibility in others and in ourselves is the ultimate question.- Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts