Dante’s Descent to Dis: A Path all People Pursue
Although Dante borrows heavily from Virgil in The Divine Comedy, he does not borrow Virgil’s hero. In the Aeneid, Aeneas is lost and confused, seeking to understand the reason for his suffering and the purpose behind his wandering. On the way, he communicates with divine beings, an ability that differentiates him from the other characters. Dante, on the other hand, understands that he must descend to the underworld so that he may recount his experiences to the living and guide them toward God’s righteousness. Since he knows the purpose of his mission, the underworld serves a different function for Dante. Unlike Virgil, who uses the underworld to characterize Aeneas as great, Dante uses it to characterize his pilgrim as an average man. This allows us to relate to and evolve with Dante as he travels through hell, suggesting that we must all make our own journey to understand God’s grace.
Virgil first emphasizes Aeneas’ greatness through his interaction with divine beings. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas encounters spirits or gods that only he can see, showing that the gods have singled him out for a great journey. For instance, when Aeneas attempts to kill Helen after Priam dies, Venus appears and instructs him to “put an end to toiling so. I shall be near, to see you safely home” (2.811-812). Although Helen is present at this moment, only Aeneas can hear the goddess, indicating that his status is above hers. Virgil emphasizes this point when Aeneas meets the spirit his recently deceased wife, Creusa, in the rubble of Troy and she tells him, “You shall make landfall on Hesperia … and the years will bear glad peace, a kingdom, and a queen for you” (2.1013-1017). Yet again, although Anchises and Ascanius are next to him, only Aeneas appears to hear the warning, further showing his unique status among mortals as a man able to communicate with spirits. Then, after landing in Crete, Aeneas’ men suffer from a plague and the gods of Troy appear to Aeneas, telling him that he “must prepare great walls for a great race” in Italy (3.223). Here, only Aeneas can hear them, and although he does not know where Italy is or how to find it, the gods’ decision to speak to him alone indicate that he is a man unique among men because he can accept his duty. By endowing Aeneas with the ability to communicate with the divine when no one else can, Virgil not only characterizes him as a great man but also establishes an ability Aeneas will need in his trip to the underworld.
In the underworld, Virgil then uses Aeneas’ ability to communicate with supernatural beings to equate him with the glory of the Roman Empire, emphasizing Aeneas’ greatness. With the help of two god-sent doves, Aeneas finds a golden bough and becomes one of the only mortals ever to descend to Dis, where he meets his father, Anchises. During their meeting, Anchises tells Aeneas, “Look now, my son: under [Romulus’] auspices illustrious Rome will bound her power with earth, her spirit with Olympus” (6.1047-1049). In this passage, Anchises ties Aeneas’ fate to the fate of the Roman Empire, noting that both are bound to the great spirit of Olympus, showing Aeneas’ divine status among mortals. Virgil confirms the function of this conversation when Anchises charges Aeneas with the obligation “to pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, to battle down the proud” (6.1151-1154). In this passage, Virgil bestows Aeneas with obligations traditionally given to the state – such as the rule of law – and thereby equates Aeneas with the glory of an entire empire, showing that his greatness far surpasses that of the average person. In this way, Aeneas’ incursion into the underworld not only emphasizes his ability to communicate with divine spirits but also links him to the glory of an entire empire, differentiating him from the average person. Because Aeneas is so far above common people, we as readers can admire him even though we cannot relate to him.
Unlike Aeneas, Dante at first remains silent in his interactions with supernatural beings, making him a relatable character. Before the pilgrim’s incursion into hell even begins, Dante contrasts with Aeneas when he asks Virgil “But why should I go [down to hell]? Who sanctions it? For I am not Aeneas, am not Paul” (2.31-32). In this statement, the pilgrim shows that he feels unworthy of communicating with souls, saying that he lacks the greatness of Paul or Aeneas. Of course, some might say that Dante has no trouble communicating with Virgil, who is himself a soul. Although this is true, Dante only feels comfortable speaking to Virgil after humbling himself by answering Virgil “with shame upon my brow” (1.81). In this way, Dante the character remains an ordinary man, which the poet reinforces through other meetings with supernatural beings. When Dante and Virgil meet Charon, for instance, Charon addresses Dante directly but Dante never responds (3.88-89). His fear prevents him from speaking to Charon, ultimately prompting Virgil to explain Dante’s purpose for him. In this way, Dante uses interactions with supernatural beings to contrast his protagonist with Aeneas. While Aeneas responds like a divinely chosen hero, Dante responds with fear, as a common person would.
Virgil further emphasizes Dante’s role as an everyman by having him faint during scenes of horror. For instance, after “a whirlwind burst out of the tear-drenched earth, a wind that crackled with bloodred light” Dante, overcome with fear, faints (3.133). Then, overcome with such empathy for Francesca after he hears of her failed love affair, Dante notes that, “I fainted as if I had met my death. And then I fell as a dead body falls” (3.141-142). These examples of Dante fainting after being frightened or hearing a moving story do not portray him as a strong-willed hero, capable of facing any challenge. Rather, they reinforce the notion that Dante reacts to what he sees as any average man would: with terror.
By portraying Dante as a character we can relate to in the beginning, the poet then invites us to evolve with Dante as he descends through hell and allows us to understand God’s divine justice with him. Just as we sympathized with Francesca in canto 5, we can now share Dante’s opinions as he meets sinners who have committed grave offenses against God. For example, after encountering Filippo Argenti in the fifth circle of hell, Dante feels no pity for him saying “in weeping and in grieving, accursed spirit, may you long remain” (8.37-38). Although Dante’s disgust may alienate us at first, the poet assures us that Dante’s reaction is appropriate when Virgil, the wise guide, condemns the souls and shoves them off his boat (8.42). In this way, Dante the poet bridges the gap between the character’s pity and disgust, allowing us to cross it with him.
Virgil then introduces Bocca degli Abati to continue Dante’s evolution toward indignation, again likening Dante’s reactions to those of a common person. Featured toward the end of the poem, Abati resides in the ninth circle of hell for being a traitor. During his meeting with Abati, Dante notes that “his hairs were wound around my hand already, and I had plucked from him more than one tuft while he was barking and his eyes stared down (32.103-105). At this point, Dante has abandoned all sense of fear and treats the sinners with contempt. According to Dante the poet, this sin deviates more from God’s will than the previous ones and thus deserves harsher treatment, as Dante the pilgrim’s behavior indicate. By recognizing Dante as a relatable figure in the beginning, our notion of justice evolves along with Dante’s when he reaches the final circle of hell. After all, Dante reacts to increasingly repulsive sins with increasing disgust, a transformation most people would undergo. Thus, by portraying Dante the pilgrim as an everyman, Dante the poet enables us to undergo a similar transformation and see the glory in God’s eternal justice, just as the pilgrim does.
Although Dante has shed his shy approach to the souls in the underworld seen in the beginning, he has not shed the average qualities that connect him with the audience. The deeper Dante and Virgil descend into hell, the more repulsive the sins they encounter become, so Dante is naturally more repulsed by them as any person would be. The location of the sinners Dante meets also reinforces his role as an everyman. The deeper Dante the pilgrim descends into hell, the farther below him, both physically and spiritually, they are. Thus, his interactions with the dead do not require the courage Aeneas displayed, for he is looking down on these souls, unlike Aeneas who revered the souls he encountered. Thus, Dante’s growing boldness during his journey does not alienate him from the reader: it strengthens the bond between the two.
The question then remains: why choose an ordinary man to be the protagonist? Since most of us will never have the luxury of a divine guide to explain heaven and hell to us, the poet’s use of an everyman links his experiences with ours. Dante, by using an ordinary man in his epic, suggests that we all have a quest commissioned by heaven. This quest does not require Aeneas’ courage; it requires the ability to scrutinize our actions, reflect on our sins, and understand God’s purpose. Only after we have struggled with our personal demons and gone through our personal hell, Dante suggests, may we access the eternal bliss his pilgrim will ultimately experience at the end of his Commedia.