This canto begins with Dante suddenly waking up in Limbo. “Limbo” means ‘rim’, and Dante places it on the rim, or edge, of hell. What is going on here theologically? As Anthony Esolen points out in his notes on this canto, the idea of limbo answers the question of what happens to “the virtuous men and women who never knew Christ?” There are two common answers to this. Calvinists would say that there are none who “have ever really existed” because natural virtue is impossible. The opposite view is the one that’s pretty common today, and that is either that “there is no God” so there’s no point in asking the question, or that there is a God but “everyone who exceeds a certain modest level of virtue” will go straight to heaven. Dante has a different answer.
The souls here are pagans who were genuinely virtuous but who lived and died before Christ. They had a share of the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, but they were unfortunately lacking the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love (see Purg. 7.34-36). Perhaps some of them lived after the coming of Christ but nonetheless died without baptism. Yet because they were not guilty of mortal sin, they are not being punished the way those in the lower levels of hell are. Instead, they’re experiencing a natural happiness as opposed to a supernatural happiness. The latter is what the souls in heaven enjoy when the supernatural gift of grace they possessed in life came to fruition in the glory of heaven. Nonetheless, these worthy or otherwise innocent unbaptized souls in Limbo do have as much happiness as they’re capable of naturally experiencing.
Dante’s explanation for the eternal fate of these virtuous pagans, especially the ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle (“The Master”), Socrates, and Plato, is that they used their intellect to pursue the truth as much as they were able to. They don’t have supernatural wisdom—a gift of the Holy Spirit—but they still have the use of reason and the natural wisdom that comes from experience and reflection while pursuing the truth. It’s this natural wisdom, symbolized in lines 68-69 by “a fire which overcame a hemisphere of darkness”, that provides the only source of light in Limbo, although it’s a faint light because Christ, who is the Light of the World, isn’t with them.
Dante’s guide Virgil wrote the epic poem, The Aeneid, a mythological story about the founding of Rome. Dante mentions a number of ancient Romans who helped to make the Roman Empire what it was. Thereby he expresses his admiration for their heroism. The Romans, though, borrowed their mythology from the Greeks, so we also find in Limbo heroes from the Trojan War like Hector and Aeneas (the main hero of Virgil’s epic poem). In addition to Roman and Greek pagans, Dante even places in Limbo a few Muslims. Now the Islamic religion began seven centuries after Christ but rejected baptism. So we find among the unbaptized virtuous pagans, the unbaptized virtuous Muslims—Saladin, Averroes, and Avicenna. Saladin was the Islamic ruler of Egypt who opposed the European Christian forces in the second and third Crusades. Yet, although the European Christians considered Saladin an enemy, they considered him to be a noble and magnanimous one. Averroes and Avicenna, on the other hand, were both medieval Muslim philosophers and are both mentioned and utilized often by the Christian Theologian St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologia.
So we see here Dante’s realism about natural human reason and pagan virtue. Human reason is not nothing. Pagan virtue is not nothing. Even if they pale in comparison to the light of revelation and the holiness that comes from grace, they are still not non-entities—mere empty shades or illusions. They are real. This is because created things have their own proper reality. Nature is real. For the medieval Christian mind, nature is neither the supreme reality nor is it swallowed up by the supernatural. The two exist, if hierarchically, yet in harmony. We see this in the structure of the Divine Comedy as a whole. Although, it will be the Christian soul of Beatrice who will take over as Dante’s guide at the gate of heaven, it will still be the virtuous pagan Virgil who will lead him through the pit of hell, up the mountain of purgatory, and all the way up to threshold of heaven. The natural is a stepping stone to the supernatural.
Here we see the breadth of the medieval mind. While still being true to Christianity, it could also give credit where credit was due vis-à-vis paganism. By synthesizing the classical and Christian eras, the medieval mind was all embracing and generous. There is a sort of cosmic reconciliation that is taking place here. All things and times find room in the medieval universe. The medieval mind was characterized by a breath-taking intellectual expansiveness. What about us today? What about us Christians today? Can we appreciate other creeds and modes of thought and people groups outside Christianity and do so without, on the one hand, demonizing those different from us or, on the other, losing our intellectual integrity or Christian identity? As we can see most especially in Dante, the medieval mind could do just that. I wonder if this medieval mind has something to teach us moderns.
Ms. Amy MacKinnon has taught and volunteered in parishes for over 15 years and has served as Director of Religious Education in the Diocese of Arlington, VA, and Coordinator of Religious Ed in the Archdiocese of Boston, MA. She earned both an MA and STB in theology and is currently working on her STL while serving as president of Christ the Teacher College, an online school for advanced degrees in catechetics.
Background photo by Gregory Klisch from his blog Lightbox 3D