Analysis | Dante's Canto IV: Cowardice and Heavenly Ascension

In the early cantos of Inferno, it is made apparent that Dante, represents the redeemable sin of cowardice due to lack of faith in his own soul. It is the lack of such conviction that makes him akin to heathens and the unbaptized for they are all lost. Though those who possess these sins reside in the furthest circle away from damnation, it can be argued that they are to endure the most severe punishment by God. Dante illustrates this concept through Canto IV where he is introduced to what truly composes a lost soul, what makes a person redeemable and how one must find his way towards salvation.  

Dante begins this canto by exposing that the degree of his spiritual blindness is extreme enough that he requires a heavy strike of thunder to forcefully illuminate his folly to him. This alarming force is the poet, Virgil, whom by punishment leads Dante on his pilgrimage toward salvation. One way Virgil does so is by explaining what it means to be lost through the example of the own spiritual error of those who reside in Limbo. He states that: 

“ ‘they did not sin. Though they have merit, 

   it is not enough, for they were unbaptized-- 

  denied the gateway […]

  And among these I am one’” (lines 34-35; 39).

These lines serve as a basis for the contemplation of the correlation between Virgil with Dante’s sins. Both are noble, wise and exemplify honor, but both lack conviction in spirituality.  Just as Virgil fails to commit a life faithful to God, Dante, though he is baptized is hindered by lack of spiritual strength in his own merit.  Since they both possess what the other lacks, the Heavenly beings chose to merge their paths together so that the redeemable one can attain salvation. Here, readers become aware of Virgil’s contrapasso— not only is he refused salvation, but he is further punished by becoming Dante’s guide on a pilgrimage toward what he will never be able to attain for himself— forgiveness and admittance to the Holy land. 

Virgil, then begins to explain that like he, Dante must pay the correlating consequence for his spiritual error. He uses two of his most coveted values of piety and furor to teach Dante what it means to be lost and how to overcome cowardice. Dante must utilize these two characteristics in order to come to terms with his undulating strength in spirituality if he is to reach salvation. This is addressed when Dante questions if he is ready for the journey into hell when he sees his master overcome with fear. Virgil explains: 

“ ‘The anguish of the souls

    below us paints my face

    with pity you mistake for fear,” (lines 19-21)

thus teaching Dante that virtue, and furthermore salvation, stems from the understanding of sin and the perseverance to correct it. These are core beliefs found in his poem, The Aeneid, and thus is the marking of how their celebrated profession and intellect has the power to redeem a soul if conjoining their intellectual strength with spiritual conviction. 

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The explanation that Virgil gives to Dante is the necessary thunderclap that sharpens Dante’s clarity of vision in order to get through Hell. Dante then becomes attuned to what it means to be lost for now he: 

“[understands], [and] great sadness seized [his] heart, 

  for then [he] knew beings of great worth 

  were here suspended in this Limbo,” (line 43-45). 

Here he learns that the first step in fully embracing virtue is in the feeling empathy. Dante now reveres Virgil and all the rest who are stuck in Limbo in a new regard and is now sees that his spiritual state is parallel to Virgil’s—he is one of the lost souls. This realization is the first instance where his fear vanishes and causes his cowardice to become hope, and thus becomes the basis on which he can withstand the deeper realms of Hell. 

With Dante’s fear momentarily removed, he becomes aware that some of the traits that can assure his ascension into Heaven are observation and knowledge.  He realizes that he, unlike Virgil, is baptized and therefore, is assured the possibility of forgiveness if he is to subordinate his intellectual valor with spiritual steadiness. He uses his vision of Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan greeting him in an intellectual paradise to support this theory. Dante is only allowed to see these great poets because he possesses some of the their noble traits, which make him reconcilable. However, it is only after these poets deliberate Dante’s ability to utilize his intellect in accordance to their teachings, that Dante is granted access to beauty of intellectual paradise. 

Though Dante is well received by these poets and embarks on a brief journey in the company of his contemporaries, he mistakes this moment of finding true salvation in a spiritual regard. Characters such as Hector, Aneas and Cicero then begin to which characteristics he must absorb to equip him for his journey through Hell. However, Dante’s intellect alone is not enough to ascend him to the Holy Paradise, and thus that is why: 

“The company of six falls off to two 

  and my wise leader brings me by another way

  out of the still, into the trembling, air.

  And I come to a place where nothing shines,” ( Lines 148-151).

Dante must decipher the value of his ability to evaluate both literal text as well as the situations in his own life and apply what is granted by his knowledge and the teachings of his master. The clarity of his position in Limbo is sharpened and is forced to come to terms that he has far more to learn about virtue. 

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His intellect is only a starting point to salvation, rather than salvation itself. If it were true salvation, Ovid would not be in his vision because his text is in direct opposition of the teachings of piety Virgil is trying to teach him. Instead, Ovid is there to serve as example of all the condemnable sins— lust, anger, heresy and violence that merit a concrete outcome of damnation, and to illustrate that Dante’s sin has the most severe punishment, as his fate is unknown. All of the aforementioned sins found in Ovid’s text have pre-destined outcomes in the eternal realms of Hell. It is now Dante’s responsibility to understand that cowardice for those who are not baptized, do not get the opportunity of the ascension into Heaven. Since he has both a vow to God and the ability to utilize his intellect, he must embrace Virgil’s teaching furor and perseverance to earn his promised residence in Heaven and to restore his honor to both himself and to God.