As groundbreaking as Dante’s Inferno was as a highly personal exploration of human nature and the consequences of sin, the author most certainly had a wealth of tradition to draw upon, and from extraordinary sources. Dante’s epic poem is unique, certainly in terms of individual voice, experience, and perspective. At the same time, it strongly reflects how both Virgil and Augustine confront the same moral and spiritual crises, and in ways both structural and thematic. In essence, Dante’s Inferno borrows from the greats before him, even as he expands on the Aeneid and Augustine’s Confessions, and takes the intense confrontation between man and sin to new levels.
To begin with, the influence of Augustine’s Confessions on Dante may be described as oblique. More exactly, Augustine does not literally descend into hell, even though he documents a journey of the soul as intense and painful. It could in fact be said that, for Augustine, hell was the life he embraced before understanding of God came to him; his wild youth and indulgences took on the quality of hell after he reformed his spirit. This is in essence a metaphor, or mortal interpretation, of Dante’s literal journey. The core purpose and motives remain, however, very much the same. Augustine is autobiographical, just as is Dante. He is devoutly attempting to trace a path to God and knowledge through introspection, as Dante’s immersion into the realities of hell go to the same intent. Both men seek primal understanding of sin above all, which reinforces the ambitions of both men to better serve God. Then, Dante and Augustine each requires a guide, and Aristotle directs Augustine as Virgil leads Dante through the circles of hell. These similarities in place, it is then seen that Dante is influenced by Augustine, in that he more directly confronts the realities of sin which so tortured the saint in his early days. He renders them as realms of experience, externalizing Augustine’s inner tumoil and giving tangible shape to Augustine’s conflict.
With regard to Virgil, the parallels between the Aeneid and the Inferno are far more direct, if only in Dante’s actual employment of the poet as his guide. The connection is irrefutable; Dante turns to Virgil because in a sense Virgil has already provided great experience in having faced sin in its literal manifestations. In the Aeneid, the hero must enter the underworld, but it is interesting to note that the agenda is not based on personal redemption. Aeneas must enter hell, as his father instructs him, to better know the fate of himself and Rome (Lawall et al 993). He encounters multiple representations of sin and the consequences of it, but there is another distinction; he also sees in this pre-Christian afterlife how the good reside in peace and comfort. Virgil’s hell is not hell in the Christian sense, just as Aeneas’s journey through it is not a matter of personal redemption or the need to comprehend sin. It is more pragmatic an experience, echoing Homer’s use of the underworld in the Odyssey.
The direct parallels, then, lie in Dante’s ambition to translate Virgil’s underworld to a fully Christian realm. This is a change in structure demanding an equal change in meaning, and the former consistently amplifies the latter. Dante seizes upon Virgil’s forms and ideas in the Aeneid and greatly expands upon them, creating a complex hierarchy of sin and punishment. From the First Circle of Limbo, in which pagans await judgment only due to their failure to acknowledge Christ, to the Ninth Circle and those damned for acts of betrayal, Dante provides a consistently Christian emphasis and foundation, altering Virgil’s underworld into a realm where sin is sin because God – and God’s injunctions – are defied. Dante “adapts” Virgil’s creation and infuses it with meaning he believes must be present in any landscape of sin and judgment.
There is as well the important element of Virgil himself as employed by Dante. This suggests something far beyond influence, in fact, in that Dante seeks to reinvent Virgil as he creates an expanded and Christian hell. To move the pagan poet from his own belief system in this way, and importantly as the guide, indicates an intent in Dante to save, and not merely honor, the inspirational poet. It could be said that Virgil’s influence on Dante is so profound, Dante feels compelled to save him even as he seeks to save himself.