Divine Justice
Dante crafted his Commedia in such a manner as to encompass as many opposing yet intertwining disciplines as possible, thus allowing a variety of readers’ emotions to be aroused, while still pulling through his own beliefs shaped by his political experiences and belief in Christianity. Using his own established literary style, Dante explores the disciplines of theology, Christianity, paganism, ethics, philosophy, history, and art. He depicts a full array of life through each sinner, providing a sound and well-rounded argument based upon morals as well as the disciplines. The Seventh Circle of the Inferno holds those who have committed violence against self and in Canto XIII, the contrapasso of these tormented souls is developed and revealed through Pier della Vigna, Dante’s literary techniques, and the various disciplines.


Dante makes the Divine Comedy extremely realistic by drawing characters from history. Pier della Vigna is one such character. He was born in 1190 and ended his own life in 1248. Pier rose quickly through the ranks and became very close to Frederick II; he was a close confidant of the King and supposedly had the power to sway Frederick’s decisions. Some envious colleagues falsely accused Pier of betraying the King’s trust and Pier was thrown into prison where he took his life. All of these key points in Pier’s life are captured by the story he tells to Dante the Pilgrim. Pier introduces himself as “I am he who possessed both keys to Frederick’s heart—and I turned either, unlocking and locking with so soft a twist I kept his secrets from almost any other.”[i] Pier’s just nature and complaint of “the harlot” of envy makes him a pitiable character. He thought “Dying would be a way to escape disdain (of jail), making me treat my juster self unjustly.”[ii] Even though Pier was a just man, the sin of suicide was truly wicked and deserving of a proportionally wicked punishment.


Pier della Vigna was involved in the Sicilian School of Italian Poetry and was extremely famous for his eloquence. Dante’s writing in this portion of the Inferno is reflective of this style, thus serving to enhance the relationship between Dante the Pilgrim and Pier. Dante’s terza rima, poetic form of triple rhymes, is further enhanced utilizing the poetic device of anaphora to make the opening words of the canto negatory. These first tercets are an introduction to the woods where “The leaves not green, earth-hued; the boughs not smooth, knotted and crooked-forked; no fruit, but poisoned thorns.”[iii] The forest is a symbol of death, or rather a negation of life. All of the negatives accentuate that the sin of suicide can have no positive consequences.


This emphasis on the iniquity of suicide is mostly based in religion. In pagan times, suicide was sometimes looked upon as the honorable choice, but Dante was a strong Christian, which is reflected in Dante the Pilgrim’s journey from being “off the true path”[iv] to being one who could discern between right and wrong. In the Christian belief of hell, the damned failed to repent in life, an opportunity of which they are deprived in hell. Dante the Pilgrim has less and less pity for the sinners as he moves through the circles of hell because his belief in divine justice is strengthening with his ability to differentiate between the sinner and the sin. Those who commit suicide are condemned by Minos’ twirling tail, and their soul is dealt with in the following manner: “It falls to the wooded place—no chosen spot, but where fortune flings it in.”[v] Because they did not allow divine justice to choose their path of life, they are now deprived of making a choice for where their soul falls. They treated the gift from God (their body) in a haphazard manner, and thus their souls are treated the same by God. The souls “Sprouts like a grain of spelt, to shoot up as a sapling, then a wild plant.”[vi] They took their own life and are denied a bodily form, instead receiving the form of an ‘accidental’ shrub. This is the divine justice of the sin and its punishment that Dante the Pilgrim comes to accept as only fair.


Dante also makes many pagan references in this canto, which is typical