In my last post, I looked at the positive ways Dante used the figure of Virgil, a pagan poet, in his Divine Comedy. Dante respected Virgil, and he recognized and admired the Roman strength and beauty that Virgil represented. However, Dante was also a clear-sighted Christian, and he saw that nothing solid could stand apart from Christ. In the Divine Comedy, the Roman world has vanished, and in its place has been put another world that is not trapped in sage hopelessness, but can achieve true victory over evil.
Virgil is not given ultimate authority, because he is a piece of the pagan world, not the Christian. He cannot have absolute power, because he does not have a connection to God, the true Power; his weaknesses grow more apparent as the Inferno progresses. He can brush Minos aside by asserting the divine sanction of Dante’s journey (5.23). However, when the travelers come to the gates of Dis, Virgil is helpless. His words, which were able to take the travelers past so many dangers, are not able to prevent the demons from barring the gates against Dante’s journey (8.115). Instead, a messenger from Heaven must descend to open the gates—and he is able to open them easily (9.89). This incident points back to the greater breaking of the gates of Hell, Christ’s glorious descent before his Resurrection (8.126), the victory that led to the utter defeat both of the devils and of the pagan world that Virgil stands for. For all of Virgil’s knowledge, he has no real power. He can invoke divine sanction, but he does not possess it.
This powerlessness of Virgil is brought to startling clarity in the first circle of Hell, that of the noble pagans. All who dwell in this circle “are lost yet only suffer harm through living in desire, hopelessly” (4.41-42). They know the good but cannot attain it. This description is uncannily parallel to Dante’s description of himself when he is faced with the three beasts—he sees the heavenly hill but has no hope of reaching it (1.54). Virgil, the guide, is also lost; but to him no help can ever come. We have seen how Dante makes himself one of the group that contains the great pagan poets; however, it is as important to note that, at the end of the canto, “that company of six declined to two” (4.148), and finally to just one (in the Purgatorio). Dante enters Paradise alone. This gradual falling-off is the looming reminder that the world of the pagans has ended; Virgil can make a good guide, but in the end he, too will be supernumerary.
Dante does not just differentiate the Christian world from Rome without Christ by showing the weaknesses of Virgil as a character; he also decisively moves beyond Virgil as a literary influence, and gives us a new, Christian concept of heroism that I’ll explore in my next post.