Dante: Pity, Piety, and Hell


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Dante Alighieri uses the word pietá to highlight the need to correct and align emotional responses to appropriate religious ones. For him, that means that in Hell one should not be nice to the damned. Accordingly, to be a villain to the damned is to see and judge him as God does.

A stone sculpture showing hell with demons eating sinners and boiling them in drums over fire.
Dante believes that in Hell, one should not be nice to the damned. (Image: Cavan-Images/Shutterstock)

Pity and Piety

In Dante’s epic poem Inferno, the maturation of the character of ‘Dante’ is central, which is evident in the way language changes for him. It reflects the maturation happening. Dante changes his understanding of the meaning and the true significance of the word pietá.

In Italian, especially in late medieval Italian, pietá means both ‘piety’ as well as ‘pity’. How are piety, a religious sensitivity, and pity, a sensibility to other people’s suffering, lexically identical for Dante? It suggests a tight connection between religious rectitude, religious propriety, and proper emotional responses to situations.

Dante does agree with that. However, whereas this might mean that religious responses must become as sensitive to reality as emotional ones, Dante proposes that things should go in the opposite direction; that is, that emotional responses have to be corrected in order to have them align to the proper religious ones. Essentially, that means that in Hell, one should not be nice to the damned.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Paolo and Francesca  

An example of this early in the poem, in Canto 5, is the famous story of Paulo and Francesca. They are adulterers who have a sexual affair prompted by their reading a medieval romance together, where they read their lives into the book. There begins to be confusion for them between the fictional story of the romance and their own interpersonal story at the time that they’re reading it.

It’s a dangerous allegory for Dante of the power of reading in general, especially the power of reading problematically fictive books. Paolo and Francesca, though, are caught in bed together by her husband—who is Paolo’s brother—and they are killed by him in a fit of fury.

They end up in Hell. Dante finds them in Hell, condemned to run in a circle trying to catch each other endlessly, and never able properly to actually realize their consummation.

Stockholm Syndrome

A sculpture of a man and a woman holding hands.
When Dante hears the story of Paulo and Francesca, he is overwhelmed by pity for them. (Image: Chatsam/CC BY SA/3.0/Public domain)

What’s interesting about this story, when they tell it to Dante, is that they both blame the book that they were reading for their affair; that is, they don’t take responsibility themselves.

Dante hears their story, and just as they were overwhelmed by the passions of the book, Dante is overwhelmed by pity for them, and at the end of their story, he faints.

Evidently, at the beginning of the Inferno, Dante suffers from a kind of theological Stockholm syndrome, where it’s easy for him to feel pity for people even in situations where pity is inappropriate. Virgil, his guide in the Inferno, is trying to tell him this throughout, but the only way he learns is by meeting and interviewing the damned again and again, and over time beginning to see they are damned for a reason.

Learn more about the nature and origins of evil.

Hell and Self-Deception

Adulterers, deceivers, murderers, cannibals, traitors; the details of all their crimes differ, but they all share one thing in common: they never owned up to what they had done, or what they had thereby become. They never came to terms with what they had done; and in refusing to acknowledge that, in indulging in that kind of self-deception, each person’s soul has been warped in some particular way, and that warping now, after their deaths, cannot be undone.

Dante holding a book in his hand, standing before the gates of Hell, which have been broken down.
The gates of Hell were broken open by Jesus Christ’s descent into Hell. (Image: Domenico di Michelino – Jastrow/Public domain)

Interestingly, none of the damned in Hell wishes that warping to be undone; none of them want to leave. There’s much grief, and many requests for pity, but no true repentance; none of them actually want to get out.

This is known from the beginning because as they walk through Hell they realize the gates of Hell have been smashed down and broken open by Jesus Christ’s descent into Hell to rescue those who really want to leave. In other words, Hell is a prison whose gate is open.

Virgil and Piety

Hell was made not just by God’s justice, but by God’s love; the ‘primal love’ is what makes Hell. The biggest question at the heart of Dante’s picture of Hell is, ‘What does it mean?’ And when Dante comes to see the meaning of that, he understands why piety lives here when pity is quite dead.

True piety, then, before this situation, is to have no pity for the damned because pity for the damned is impious. As Virgil teaches Dante in a famous line: “Here pietá lives when it is quite dead.” In other words, here piety lives when pity is quite dead, that’s the crucial thing, and pity lives only when piety is quite dead.

True piety as Dante comes to see over the course of the poem, is thus, to see and judge the damned as God sees and judges them. He, in fact, develops a kind of maturity and ability to see properly over the course of the whole book.

Learn more about human evil and malice in Greek philosophy.


Hell is not extrinsic to the crimes for which the damned are sent there. That was Dante’s problem with Paolo and Francesca. He thought that they just fell in love, and who can really blame them for that? It wasn’t so much the falling in love, it was the falling in love, committing adultery, and then refusing to own up to what they had done.

For Dante, the point is that they don’t want to be around the truth; they want to live in a kind of duplicitous place. Hell, for Dante, is that place; Hell is just the extension of the damned’s crimes, their full flowering. Hell is what evil has wanted to be, for Dante, all along.

Common Questions about Dante: Pity, Piety, and Hell

Q: What does Dante see Paulo and Francesca doing in Hell?

Dante sees them condemned to run in a circle, trying to catch each other endlessly, and never being able to realize their consummation.

Q: What was the theological Stockholm syndrome Dante suffered from initially?

Dante suffered from a kind of infernal Stockholm syndrome, where he felt pity for people even in situations where it was inappropriate.

Q: What, according to Dante, was the self-deception those condemned to Hell indulged in?

According to Dante, those condemned to Hell never truly repented; and in refusing to acknowledge their sin, they indulged in a kind of self-deception.

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