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The Existence of Pathos in Dante’s Inferno

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Madeleine Calhoun First Year Seminar Professor Scheible 11/24/12 The Existence of Pathos in Dante’s Inferno The strength of emotions drives many unjustifiable actions of humanity. The human race is subjected to feelings of pity and compassion. Yet, when did we obtain these potentially harmful yet also helpful feelings? Why do we have these uncontrollable emotions? And what can these feelings possibly contribute to an individual, or a society? There is much contemplation about the roles that pity and compassion, as well as other feelings play into life.

Emotions are the basis of all interaction and relationship; they enable a certain level of trust throughout literature, which can also perceptibly be applicable in everyday existence. Dante’s Inferno, is an epic piece of literature that contains exemplary instances of the use of pity and compassion. Pity is the ability to sympathize for one’s situation, being able to look down with reason and an equal understanding. Compassion is affection, and care that is distributed and usually reciprocated in a relationship.

These emotions are used to create a foundation relationship and a basis of trust throughout the text between the characters, and the reader. These most basic human emotions, pity and compassion, are fundamental to a true human experience. They build a level of trust between Dante, the writer, and his reader. A necessity in all of literature is to establish a balance of trust between the narrator and the reader. Without this relationship, the reader will become disinterested, and it will be more difficult for him or her to make the vital connections with the characters.

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Just as Calhoun 2 Virgil guides Dante through hell; the poet guides the reader through the work of literature. According to Professor Joseph Luzzi at Bard College, Dante addressed the reader 20 times throughout the poem (Poetry and Knowledge in Inferno: Dante’s World Wide Web). This aids in the establishment of participation, and creates a more intimate and interactive relationship with the reader. The ability to have a protagonist with these human feelings of compassion develops a more believable plotline and affirms the easily accessible bond with the reader.

Dante accomplished this by creating a relatable main character, himself, who feels the same average emotions as every natural human. Should we pity those in hell? This question rattles the minds of those who read Dante’s Inferno. In this vernacular poem Dante is both the author and the main character. He is taking a journey through hell guided by Virgil. Many have no idea why Dante wants to visit hell. However, many infer that Dante used this book as a form of revenge for the society of Florence, from which he was exiled in 1301.

Also, he used this book as an attempt to exert more superiority over his enemies. Along the way, Dante emphasizes on all of the terrible sights of disfigured sinners, and giant monsters. His wild and imaginative tour taught him the full understanding of sin, and the consequences of these acts of wrongdoing. Dante experiences pity and compassion many times throughout the text. He pities the many sinners who have been placed in hell, and his friendship with Virgil aids his travels. These indisputable emotions both helped and hindered him during his time in hell.

Hell itself is an intimidating, unknown, and violent place. All of those who sin and die on earth are welcomed by the devil to hell. The architecture of hell is not Calhoun 3 designed to promote pity and compassion. Dante learns through his excursion that pity is not the appropriate response to the sinners. All of the sinners are aware of their situation; they have chosen their sin and hell is the consequence for their actions. Those in hell do not need to feel emotions for each other, because they are all in the same position, and their conditions have no permanent means to improve.

There is no place in the typical hell for compassion. This negatively affects Dante because he is a naturally merciful human, which may explain why he is merely visiting hell, and not a permanent member of the community. Dante came upon this realization the hard way because many times in hell he was admonishes for showing empathy. When the citizens of hell noticed Dante’s common affiliation with these emotions they viewed him as weak. This concept reinforces that Dante was placed at a disadvantage in this moment in hell. In this situation, Dante saw one of his loves, Francesca.

This romantic event obviously stirred him with both compassion and pity. “So that for pity I swooned as if in death. And down I fell as a dead body falls” (Dante V. 140-142). Dante’s implicit human instinct drove his emotions towards mercy for his poor lover. His previous mode of affection towards Francesca was no longer welcomed, and he now sympathized for his woman, and the preceding lust that they shared. These feelings should prove Dante a sincere mortal, are inhibit him in this situation. By comparing himself to a falling dead body, this may further be setting him on a similar Calhoun 4 omparative ground as those in hell. Dante may not realize how much hell is having an internal affect on him. This quote also displays Dante’s capacity to feel compassion for others, and he is instantly vulnerable to the maniacal tendencies of the sinners. He needs the compassion, and reassurance that he will not join the sinners in this cold alternate world. It is inevitable to recognize that fact that because Dante pities those in hell, his own position of morality should be questioned. In order to pity the sinners, would you have to understand them?

Or, at the least, be able to reason with their sins? Possibly it is merely the violent darkness, and impending deathly gloom that impulsively convinces Dante that these sinners are in need of condolence. He struggles with these pities, for it is difficult to have any sort of involvement with this society of hell. Dante’s strong sense of moral indignation makes it difficult for him to see the truth behind sin. However, it is these realizations that convince him that he belongs, or hopes to belong in heaven, instead of hell.

Perhaps the answer for those sinners in hell is that they do not posses this widely acknowledged, and ordinarily accepted trait of compassion. After all, in the modern day basic relationships and families are built off of the trust that is ensured by a certain degree of compassion. The ability to pity shows an individual’s mental capacity of care. Isn’t Dante just being a nice guy by feeling bad for those burning in hell? Pity and compassion may occasionally hinder Dante’s chances and position in hell; however, without these vital emotions, Dante would not have made it through alive.

Dante admits it for himself in Canto II, that the compassion he is given provides him with the strength, Calhoun 5 and power, to continue on with his travel through hell. Here, compassion is a positive emotion because it provides companionship, and allows for understanding. In this situation, Dante exudes his fear of hell. Beatrice, his other lover, and Virgil both console him, and show him the necessary compassion to inspire him to continue his journey. “Such in my failing strength, did I become. And so much courage poured into my heart… Your words have made my heart So eager for the journey” Dante II. 130-131, 136-137). Here pity and compassion serve as a motivation, and help Dante develop throughout his sojourn in hell. He uses the word “eager” to display how much a small act of compassion can almost rejuvenate Dante of fear. This quote explicitly displays the positive effects of empathy. Dante learns that when controlled, these emotions can show who the true sinners are. These relationships with others prove to Dante that he is not as alone as he primarily stated in the beginning of the canto. These extrapolations from the text can show that pity is transmittable, and malleable.

The feelings may come and go, yet they arrive at a convenient time for Dante’s incentive to proceed. Dante’s relationship with Virgil is the epitome of an example of compassion as a contagion. Virgil is not originally accustomed to being around these emotions, and he quickly learns that for this journey, as well as most others in life, pity and compassion are necessary. When Virgil notices Dante’s merciful nature, he first admonishes him for these feelings, but by the end, Virgil is taking part in the sequence of empathy. Calhoun 6 “He looked with care upon the ruin, Took though, chose a plan of action,

Then opened out his arms and took me in them” (Dante XXIV. 22-24). In this situation, Virgil was taking Dante through bridges, and climbing up cliffs. These are dangerous tasks in hell, and Virgil recognized this, then quickly after involuntarily reaches to embrace Dante, satisfying his need for compassion. Primarily in the plot Virgil is only Dante’s teacher; however, by the end of the poem, Virgil serves as more of a paternal or lord-like figure. He sees Dante as an equal for enduring the difficult circumstances of hell, and developing a thickness against the sinners.

Any form of compassion that Dante receives from Virgil mitigates his negative experiences, and establishes a necessary basis of trust between the two. This relationship pushes them both further on their journey, because they know that they are not alone. Dante learns from his acquaintances with pity that not everyone deserves it, and as the plot progresses, Dante develops a sort of strength, and begins to have immunity against the sore sights in hell. This illustrates that pity and compassion have positive potential to help an individual, and can shift depending on the affects or consequences of the emotion.

Opposing the internal pities that Dante holds in the text, he also cannot help but pity himself. Perhaps, this may be a reflection or effect from the compassion that he sees being given to others. The theory that Dante pities himself as well as the sinners could prove to be one of Dante’s mental rationalizations for the creation of Inferno. His Calhoun 7 experiences with these feelings exhibit the circuitous cycle of pity and compassion. First, Dante pities himself for being exiled; his solution then is to write the Inferno. His pity then shifts to the sinners in hell, and for this he eventually receives compassion from Virgil.

In the end, Dante reached a stage of revenge in which pity had been alienated. This cycle of pity takes control of Dante, and puts him in an inferior position to the others in hell, or to his fellow writers on earth. Dante sympathizes for himself because ultimately it is him who understands his own feelings of remorse from being exiled from his home. This proof of pity places Dante at an even more comparable human level, because the average individual in humanity finds it easy to take pity on themselves. If Dante had not been exiled… would he have put all of his enemies in hell?

Would Inferno have even been written in the first place? Pity and compassion are necessary emotions in Inferno, as well as in actual existence. Understanding this pathos of Dante and his relationships with Virgil shows the reader the extent to which pity and compassion can affect an individual. These overcoming feelings are natural, and they can both help and hinder depending on the situation. They should not be held back because they teach the essentials of truth and trust, and good and evil. The relationships developed from compassion assist us everyday, without them the human race would be alone.

If it were not for the pity that Dante had for others, and himself, we would have not been exposed to the necessary connections towards developing the Inferno. However, the larger question that should be considered is… where would human existence be without these emotions of pity and compassion? Calhoun 8 Works Cited Dante, Alighieri, Robert Hollander, and Jean Hollander. Inferno. New York: Doubleday, 2000. Print. Luzzi, Joseph. "Poetry & Knowledge in Inferno: Dante's World Wide Web. " Dante Inferno Symposium. Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson. Oct. -Nov. 2012. Lecture.

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