Method Notes on Dantes’ Inferno, Canto XII
What I want to focus on in my essay is the concept of guilt. In The Inferno, Dante
mentions that the condemned are not allowed to raise themselves “out of the blood more than his
guilt allows.” But what does Dante mean when he talks about guilt? Is it the guilt that the sinner
feels for the actions he has taken against the innocents around him? Or is it the guilt that God
puts upon him? I’m in favor of the second, but how can we be sure? I think that this concept is an
interesting issue brought about by Canto XII.
The 10 on 1
Who is the one who imposes it?
There are two options for the source of guilt, the self or a ruling power.
Is guilt less important if imposed by an outside force?
Would the condemned by sincerely remorseful or only sorry that they are now being
Is there a differentiation of guilt depending on if it was one’s own hand that did the
killing or the order for others to kill in your name?
In a place like hell, where no good comes from a lesson learned, is guilt really a
If the things that you do in the mortal life forever influence you in the eternal, there is no
real way to earn a second chance.
What is the point of hell, if the punishment yields no fruits?
If hell was created by God as an act of justice, how can one reason that endless
punishment for all, regardless of the severity of their sin, is fair?
Is the definition of hell a place where reason and fairness have no place?
Thesis: The guilt in Dante’s Hell is derived from the judgment of God.
February 23, 2009
Method Paper 2
Dante’s Canto XII
Guilt and a Lesson Learned
In Canto XII of Dante’s Inferno Dante comes across those who are violent against their
neighbors. Their unfortunate punishment is to boil in the blood of those they have killed for all
eternity, the depth is determined by how many deaths for which they were responsible while on
Earth. Dante is careful to mention that they are not allowed to rise “out of the blood more than
his guilt allows.” On first examination one must wonder what exactly this means. It may sound
as if the guilty soul of the damned will only allow itself out of its punishment a certain bit, but
this doesn’t make sense. Hell cannot rest on a system that relies on the guilty consciences of the
damned. What if the damned felt no guilt? This means that of course the guilt must be bestowed
upon them, more of a verdict than an emotion. The guilt of the condemned is determined by
God’s judgment, not by the conscience of he who is being punished.
In life guilt is an emotion that helps one process his or her actions and derive a lesson
from them. One learns not to do something if it makes him or her feel guilty. Guilt is a feeling of
wrong doing, which, in a normally adjusted person, results in an aversion to such wrong doing.
In short, guilt is a path by which one learns a lesson. A defendant is sentenced as guilty, then
punished and that punishment is supposed to teach a lesson. In a place like hell, there is no
productive outlet for someone to express a lesson learned. In Dante’s Hell it seems that no lesson
is ever learned. If no lesson is ever learned what is the point of endless torturous punishment?
The punishments also seem to be tailored according to the different severities of the crimes.
Killing one person will only cause your feet to be boiled in blood, while killing thousands will
cause your entire body to be submerged in the boiling blood. While this is a measure to keep
things a little bit fair, is continuous, but lesser, punishment in favor of continuous but greater
punishment really that much of an advantage? The perpetrator is still being punished for all of
eternity. There is no lesson learned, and if there is it’s truly fruitless. There is no second chance,
just continual pain and horror. One might argue that in a place such as Hell, where there is no
possibility for a lesson learned, guilt is not needed.
Hell is not like jail. Even if one gets a life sentence one will eventually die and, according
to Christian tradition, if one has sincerely repented for one’s sins and accepted Jesus Christ, one
will go to heaven. The punishment of jail therefore can teach a lesson, not all that go to jail learn
from their past transgressions, but the potential is there. Even if all prisoners do not learn, society
tried to teach them through this punishment. In Hell, if God is trying to teach unrepentant sinners
a lesson, where is the aftermath? What is one supposed to do if he or she has learned the error of
his or her ways? Where is one to go from there? He or she will still be stuck in hell, tortured until
the end of days. One is not given the chance to act on the lessons one has learned, to go back and
do things differently, to try to correct the wrongs he or she has committed, whole heartedly
apologize to the families of those one has wronged. If the punishment yields no fruit then there is
no point to the punishment or to that which brings the punishment, Hell.
Dante says that God created Hell in an act of justice. The God of the New Testament is
said to be a kinder God. He gave the world a chance to be saved through his son; he set out a
plan that would entail his son dying for the sins of the world in exchange for the ready
acknowledgment of this sacrifice and unrelenting dedication. The flipside to this master plan is
that anyone who doesn’t recognize the sacrifice and continues to do evil is punished by an
eternity in Hell as opposed to Heaven. This is God’s version of justice. However, God is only
kind as long as you are on Earth. Once you have failed the tests of the Earthly realm you are
irrevocably condemned to Hell. If we follow the train of thought carved out in the previous
arguments, Hell is not a place where you learn a lesson in order to apply it later. It is simply an
arena in which to be unendingly tortured. In such a scenario, where God has created Hell as a
sort of justice, we cannot reason that unending punishment for all, regardless of the severity of
the sin, is fair.
Perhaps this argument is missing the bigger picture. After all, there is a limit to the
amount of chances that one will be awarded in a lifetime. It is a Christian assumption that one is
given the opportunity to follow God many times in one’s life. It is actually a point that many
believers bring up in distress only to have the question explained away by religious leaders.
Although one is not allowed a second chance once they are already entrenched in the horror that
his or her actions has brought into reality, it is assumed that he or she had the opportunity in life.
This refusal of kindness seems strange from the God the New Testament describes. Is it possible
then, that instead of the punishment of Hell being the boiling blood, or being forced to eat
excrement, it is instead the inability to remove oneself from a position they could have easily
avoided? Maybe, Hell is, in fact, a place where the true punishment is the absolute absence of
reason, mercy or fairness.