Dante understands the relationship between justice and punishment in coldly logical scholastic terms, or as a fearful symmetry predicated upon the unity of the divine will. In Philip H. Wicksteed’s view of the issue, the supreme excellence of God is revealed both as mercy and justice. The infliction of penalties is the manifestation of justice toward those who have withheld their love from divine goodness and have bestowed it on lower beings. As there is free will, there must be accountability and, therefore, retribution. The relationship is one of cause and effect. In Summa theologica I, 19, 3-3, Thomas Aquinas deals with the necessity and eternity of the will of God: “Apparently, whatever God wills, he must. For everything eternal is necessary. Yet whatever God wills, he wills from eternity, otherwise his will would be changeable.… Moreover God wills things other than himself inasmuch as he wills his own goodness. This he wills of necessity.” God’s will imposes necessity on some things, but not on all. He wills no moral evil, but he wills physical evil or suffering, by willing the good to which it is attached. This, in Aquinas’s view, is the case with justice. In willing justice, God wills penalty, and in willing to maintain the balance of nature, he wills that some things should follow their course and die away. The eternal nature of Hell, physical and mental evil, is restated three times by the gate’s “speech made visible” in order to hint at its trinitarian source: eternal pain, eternal things, and eternal endurance (ETTERNO DOLORE … COSE … IO ETTERNO DURO). The final verse of the inscription is the syllogistic capstone of Hell’s existence and necessity: ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE.
Dante’s phrase JUSTICE URGED ON MY HIGH ARTIFICER (4; the Italian verb is mosse, and, in Thomist fashion, it refers to divine will moved of necessity) echoes Aquinas’s thinking on “distributive justice.” In Summa 1, 21, 1, Aquinas compares this category of justice to “the rightness of a ruler or steward dispensing to each according to his worth. As this justice is displayed in a well-ordered family or community through its head, so the good order of the universe, manifested both in natural and moral beings, sets forth God’s justice.” Guilt and punishment form a necessary association in both Dante and Aquinas. The accountability of humans to others (God, society) and self brings about the concept of “merit” or “demerit.” The decisive factors of guilt are the human act’s “due order,” and its reference to persons. Sin is “an action lacking due order” (actus debito ordine privatus). Order is a relationship of priorities and proportions. An act is said to have “due order” when it fits the exigencies of an end or a goal. Sin lacks “due order” because its act, in Aquinas’s commentator, T. C. O’Brien’s words, “lacks the totality exacted by the meaning of charity.”
A notion of eternal damnation, formulated purely in terms of justice, simply cannot satisfy the mind. Dante’s trinitarian epigraph at the top of the gate indicates recognition of this problem and provides an answer to it. If divine justice exacts “afflictive” punishment for the debt of sin (malum poenae, in Aquinas’s words) and final impenitence, it is because the Power, the Wisdom, and the Love of God were all rejected by the free agency of the rational creature. Hence Dante’s MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY, / THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE (5-6). Most of us can understand that Hell was fashioned by the Power, the justice, and the Wisdom of God. We are less easily reconciled to the association of Hell with God’s “primal love.” In Aristotelian terms, the human psyche moves toward its objects of desire. It is driven by love because it is created by a loving God. The souls in Hell, though they have lost “the good of the intellect” (18), still vividly retain the impulse of the “primal love” (6) that drives them, hopelessly, toward the object of desire. The last line of the epigraph, LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA, means that the souls enter the fateful gate of no return stripped of the vestments of charity. The loss of the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice places the dwellers in Hell beyond atonement and voids their pain of any possibility of redemption.
—Eugenio N. Frongia, “Canto III, The Gate of Hell”, in Lectura Dantis: Inferno, a Canto-By-Canto Commentary, edited by Allen Mandelbaum, Charles Ross, Anthony Oldcorn, University of California Press, 1998, pp. 38-39
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