Rachel Carman

ENL 360


            Mowbray Allen wrote an article, “Does Dante Hope for Virgil’s Salvation,” that explores the proposed salvation of Virgil, in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Hopelessness, Divine Justice, and human consciousness of the Divine are explored, among other things, in order to better understand the ambiguity of Virgil’s salvation, or lack thereof, which has been a crisis of faith for Dante, as well as many Europeans after Dante (198). “The pain their [the readers’] belief in Virgil’s permanent damnation has caused them” is “entirely consistent with the pilgrim’s own feelings and…with the poet’s intentions” (195). Dante uses Virgil to pose an important question about Divine Justice; Virgil’s damnation has a specific purpose (194). However, does Virgil deserve salvation?

            Allen points out that hopelessness is “the essence of the state of damnation” (193). Virgil himself is in limbo, where the only punishment is hopelessness and longing for hope. In Inferno, the sign at the gate of hell states that all who enter should abandon hope. Even those who “inherited the promise to Abraham were once subject to the law announced on the gate of Hell” (194). Some of these were saved in the harrowing of Hell. The difficult thing for the pilgrim, as well as the readers, is the fact that Virgil has become such a sympathetic, nurturing character. He guides the pilgrim through the deepest, darkest levels of hell, and up Mount Purgatory. He is the strength upon which the pilgrim relies. Allen suggests that “one may even come to assume that Dante made Virgil a sympathetic figure and then left him eternally damned precisely to make the point that God’s ways are not our ways” (198). So, is the eternal damnation of Virgil, according to the human conception of justice, following the sphere of Divine Justice that is portrayed in Dante’s work?

            Allen uses the Eagle’s rebuke of the pilgrim, in Paradiso, XIX, 85-90, to show that “Divine Justice measures human justice, not vice versa” (198). This is the catalyst for Allen’s exploration of the Sphere of Justice in Divine Comedy. His first point about the Sphere of Justice is that “human conceptions of justice are but manifestations of Divine Justice” (198). That is to say, human ideas of justice have come from heaven itself. Allen quotes the Humanism of St. Thomas and Dante to argue: “human reason and human conception of justice are of use in man’s attempts to understand the justice of the universe” (199). Allen also uses the example of Marco, in Purgatorio, XVI, to further illustrate his point that the “degeneracy of the world cannot be determined by the heavens, for without free will ‘there would be no justice in happiness for good or grief for evil’” (199). Humans cannot look to Heaven as the reason for bad things happening, otherwise there would be no free will; thus, there would be no reward for good or evil.

            Allen’s second point about the Sphere of Justice explores the proper way to pray, as explained in Paradiso. “Divine will cannot be changed by human prayer; yet this fact does not invalidate prayer” (199). Humans cannot change things simply because they pray for them to be changed. Allen further explains, using Paradiso, XX, 94-99, that although humans may think that they are getting what they prayed for (vanquishing Divine will), God only grants prayers that are asking for the right things—the things that He wills (Divine will vanquishes the human). Essentially, if people pray for the right things (according to Divine will), their prayers will be granted (because the prayers fit into God’s plan). God is willing to change things if they fit into His plan. Allen offers his own interpretation of Paradiso, XX, 134-138, which deals with the harmonized will of God and the elect through prayer: “God, like a consummate ecdysiast, knows how to…tease an audience, by making a predestined revelation conditional upon the will of the audience…to draw it in to participate…so as to enhance its pleasure” (203). Thus, everyone is made happy through Divine will.

            One way, according to Allen, to interpret the Eagle’s rebuke is as a lesson to the pilgrim to teach the proper style in which to pray (200). The pilgrim is “encouraged [by Gacciaguida] in the assurance that his highest and best conceptions of justice cannot surpass the goodness of God…for they are manifestations, and…instruments, of that Good” (200). The pilgrim can use his prayers for the overall Divine will, to sound It forth. Allen continues to argue that it is pointless to figure out if the virtuous pagans will be saved. “Such attempts would only forestall the proper expression of concern for them: the fervent love and living hope of prayer” (200). Those who are saved cannot suffer for the damned, or their happiness would be imperfect. The only thing the elect can do for the virtuous pagans is to pray for their salvation, rather than question God’s will or what is right and wrong (200). The highest state of the blessedness of the saved is to have “happy hunger”: “confident longing for the increase of their loves by the addition of some…of the damned to the family of love” (204). As stated earlier, if Divine will is prayed for, then that prayer will be granted. If God’s will includes saving some of the damned, then it will happen.

            Another avenue that needs to be explored is the fact that no one, besides God himself, knows who will ultimately be saved by God. Allen contends that much of Paradiso “consists of a forceful statement that there can be no such thing as orthodoxy in the sense of definitive human knowledge of the Eternal Judgment” (197). There is no common knowledge of Eternal Judgment, because God only knows to whom he will give eternal salvation. Even the elect do not know who will be saved, even though they can see God and can normally identify who is to be saved (202). The elect think that not knowing is sweet, and are satisfied that they are following God’s will. Allen claims that the ambiguity of not knowing opens up interpretation, rather than closes it (201).

            The Eagle, in Paradiso XIX, gives the pilgrim hope for Virgil’s salvation. When the Eagle is telling the pilgrim about those who have gained access to Heaven, he includes the salvation of two virtuous pagans (202). According to Allen, line 135 “becomes an all but explicit statement that there is hope for the salvation of some more…of the virtuous pagans” (202). Further, the pilgrim’s “evident satisfaction must be something of a mystery for any but the hopeful reading” (202). The pilgrim becomes satisfied that Divine will shall prevail, and Virgil’s salvation is in the hands of God.

            Virgil, however, is gaining favor in Heaven, which may cause his selection, by Divine will, for salvation. First, he is suffering for the pilgrim’s salvation, which is “higher in one respect…than any other such human act in the poem” (196). As previously mentioned, Virgil is the strength and light by which the pilgrim is able to continue on his journey through Hell and Purgatory. The pilgrim’s confidence is restored numerous times by “Virgil’s frequent offering to Dante of the hope which he himself does not feel” (195).

            Second, the prayers of the elect, as well as the living, have started working as an advantage to Virgil, who has become famous (204). Allen contends that some of the damned have more interest in maintaining good names, or honor, rather than a desire for earthly immortality (204). “Their honored fame, which resounds in your life above, wins grace in Heaven, which thus advances them” (qtd. in Allen 204). The elect, from the beginning of the poem, have good will for Virgil (204). Beatrice tells Virgil, in Inferno, II, that she often praises him to the Lord. Thus, Virgil has been gaining favor due to his selflessness with guiding the pilgrim’s journey, as well as his honored and respected name.

            Allen states that “to hope or pray or work or suffer for…the supreme happiness of another…is the essential Christian act as presented in the Comedy” (196). It is obvious, through his guidance of the pilgrim, that Virgil suffers for the salvation (happiness) of another. Also, Allen argues, through his many examples, that “an explicit affirmation [of Virgil’s salvation] would be a conclusion at once premature and anticlimactic, inadequate to the artfully unfolding drama which is beatitude” (194). In other words, by affirming Virgil’s salvation, the wonder and complexity of Divine Justice would not be fully conveyed to the reader. Further, there would be no need for the complexity of Divine Justice—the good would gain entry into Heaven, the sinners would not.

            Since Virgil is depicted as such a compassionate, honorable character, it is difficult for the reader to grasp the ambiguity of his soul’s future. However, Virgil has done two things to boost his favor in Heaven. First, he has gained favor by suffering for Dante. Second, he gains favor from others who are praising him to God, whether they be the elect, or the living. As Allen so pointedly puts it: “the campaign of importunate violence on behalf of Virgil…seems to have begun. It is hard to imagine that that campaign could fail” (204). Allen believes there should be living hope on the behalf of Virgil, especially since so many have felt warm love toward him; Virgil, according to Allen, should be given salvation (204).

            In response to Allen’s description of hopelessness as a definitive of Virgil’s place in hell, it is easy to see that Virgil does, indeed, belong in Hell. Virgil is, as Allen claimed, a hopeless character. However, there were damned souls who were taken to Heaven in the harrowing of Hell. Who’s to say that another harrowing won’t happen, in which more souls will be worthy of ascension?

            I find myself torn as to whether or not I feel Virgil’s damnation is just. There are points that Allen makes that are consistent with the text, but Allen also asserts that he feels Virgil should be given salvation, which is putting himself into a position to judge, a position that is improper for humans to hold (201). It is not up to human’s to decide whether or not Virgil should be damned or saved; it is up to God. Therefore, it is difficult to actually decide whether Virgil deserves ascension to Heaven, or if he should remain in Hell, among the hopelessly damned.

            The point Allen makes in regards to man’s ability to use the human conception of justice to understand Divine Justice is questionable. Isn’t the point of having an all-knowing being to have some things left unspoken or unknown to the “lesser” beings, whether they are humans or the elect? No one, except God, knows the plans for everyone, or the form of justice used to determine the plans for everyone. The way to find true blessedness and happiness is not to attempt to see God’s plan, but to pray for God’s will to be done.

            I agree that Divine will cannot be changed by human prayer. If that were the case, many people would be getting into Heaven that are undeserving. People cannot simply pray for something and get it. Their will must be refined through the will of the Divine, which will be left, in part, ambiguous. A “win-win” situation happens when both God’s will and human will are, simultaneously, achieved.

            Virgil has, obviously, made a good name for himself. He gives without asking for anything in return. He trudges to the bottom of Hell in order to guide the pilgrim to Lucifer and beyond, a dreaded trek that Virgil has made before. He carries the pilgrim through parts of Hell, restores hope for him, and teaches him the meaning of evil, an important lesson to learn in order to ensure salvation. If to suffer for the beatitude of another is the essential Christian act in Dante’s Comedy, Virgil has completed the most important act for a Christian. Virgil certainly suffers in Hell, yet he still takes the pilgrim on the journey through Hell and Purgatory, knowing that he will not gain anything from it and not hoping for anything to come of it—he is hopeless.

            If prayers full of praise can, indeed, win favor for Virgil, then God must have been looking approvingly at him. Beatrice praises Virgil to God, and living humans honor and respect him. According to the Comedy, praise can offer a means of ascension to heaven (204). Souls can earn, through their reputations as good people and the praise from others, entrance into Heaven. Therefore, since Virgil has suffered and has been praised by many, it can be argued that his damnation is not just, and he deserves to be in Heaven.

            Since no one besides God will ever know the true future of Virgil’s place in the hereafter, it seems vain to try to answer the question of whether or not Virgil deserves salvation. It is obvious, through the ambiguous description of God’s will in relation to Virgil, that the question of the merited salvation of Virgil is a difficult one to answer. There has already been a harrowing of Hell, but we don’t know if there will be another before the Final Judgment. As good Christians, we are supposed to pray for God’s will, without trying to pass our own judgment. I propose that, in accordance with the aforementioned factors, we don’t ask if Virgil should be saved. Rather, we should ask: is it God’s will that Virgil be saved? Unfortunately, that is a question that won’t be answered until the Final Judgment. 


Allen, Mowbray. “Does Dante Hope for Virgil’s Salvation?” MLN 104 (1989): 193-205. JSTOR. 2 Dec. 2006.

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