268. To Hell and Back: Dante Alighieri

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Italy’s greatest poet Dante Alighieri was also a philosopher, as we learn from his Convivio and of course the Divine Comedy.

This episode is dedicated to John Kleiner, the inspirational teacher with whom I had my first experience reading Dante.



Further Reading

• C. Ryan (trans.), Dante: the Banquet (Saratoga: 1989).

• A. Mandelbaum (trans.), The Divine Comedy of Dante Aligheri (Berkeley: 1980-84).


• E. Gilson, Dante and Philosophy, trans. D. Moore (London: 1948).

• R. Imbach, Dante, la philosophie et les laïcs (Fribourg: 1996).

• R. Jacoff (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Dante (Cambridge: 1993).

• C. Moevs, The Metaphysics of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Oxford: 2005).

• M. Santagata, Dante: the Story of his Life, trans. R. Dixon (Cambridge MA: 2016).

• J.A. Scott, Understanding Dante (Notre Dame: 2004).

Stanford Encyclopedia: Dante


Bear on 1 February 2017


One of Dante's important contributions to Western learning was his development of Linguistics. I can say for certain whether he was the first, but Dante started to classify languages based on structure. He came up with a tripartite classification of the Romance languages based on the  word used for "Yes".  Since Latin has no word for yes, the languages that evolved from Latin, Dante classified them into Langues d'oil (i.e. French), Langues de si (Italian, Spanish &c) and Langue d'oc (Occitan).

This approach has been extensively reused in linguistics to classify languages and language families. As we will discuss later, there are many connexions between Philosophy and Linguistics, particularly in the 20th century.

At the time, Occitan was the poetic language of Western Europe and the language of the Troubadors, and Dante considered writing the Comedy in Occitan before settling on his own native language. The irony is that the Langues de si are widespread and spoken in many parts of the world, while Occitan is a minority language that is endangered.

Patrick on 21 July 2018

Philosophy of Hell

Hi, Peter - 

Thanks so much for making this podcast! It's one of my favorites.

Would you please say a few words about how Dante and other philosophers rationalize religious traditions related to hell and damnation? Or could you point me in the direction of some modern scholars who've discussed this? 

For example, how does an immaterial soul feel pain? (Or, if that soul is lucky enough to go to Heaven, how does it feel pleasure?)

What makes it morally just that God would condemn a sinner to eternal torment without the hope of salvation? If our life on earth is infinitely shorter than our life after death, then wouldn't confining the window of repentance to our years on earth gives us infinitely less time to repent and seek the grace of God? 

Is there a philosophical reason why the souls of the dead in Dante's Comedy resemble their mortal bodies, or is this just a practical aesthetic choice on Dante's part? For example, is a child's soul somehow more childlike than an adult's? Is the soul of a glutton like Ciacco obese? If my soul develops in tandem with my body, does this mean that my soul is most fully developed at the moment of my death? What, in this case, would "developed" even mean? 

If you have any interest in writing one, I would also love to hear an episode about the Reformation's changing conceptions of Purgatory (granted, that will be a while from now, but I'm happy to wait!) 

Thanks again for such a wonderful podcast.

In reply to by Patrick

Peter Adamson on 22 July 2018


This is definitely a topic that is covered in scholastic philosophy. As usual the author who has received the most attention is Aquinas, cf. the readings I suggest in the episode about his views on the soul. There is a notorious passage in his Summa where he says that blessed souls are in part rewarded by enjoying the suffering of the damned in hell, or something to that effect (maybe I am remembering as worse than it is, but I think that's what he says). You're right that it would be worth covering in the Reformation as well!

On the topic you might check out the book called Hell and its Afterlife: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.

In reply to by Patrick

M-- on 29 January 2023

Different religious perspectives on the dilemma of evil/hell

I found an interesting Islamic perspective on the reason for hell existing. It's a research paper published by Yaqeen Institute that's primarily focused towards the question of why disbelief in God is inherently wrong and unjust, but one of the topics they grapple with is why hell forever is the allotted punishment by God. I hope this helps answer your question :) 


URL: Why Is Shirk the Greatest Sin of All? | Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research

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