Dante’s Inferno Canto 3
Cowards,Neutrals • This idea of a marginal place--inside the gate of hell but before the river Acheron--for souls neither good enough for heaven nor evil enough for hell proper is a product of Dante's imagination, pure and simple. Included among these cowardly souls--also known as fence-sitters, wafflers, opportunists, and neutrals--are the angels who refused to choose between God and Lucifer. What does this original idea say about Dante's view of human behavior and its relation to the afterlife?
The great refusal • From among the cowardly fence-sitters, Dante singles out only the shade of one who made "the great refusal" (Inf. 3.60). In fact, he says that it was the sight of this one shade--unnamed yet evidently well known--that confirmed for him the nature of all the souls in this region. The most likely candidate for this figure is Pope Celestine V. His refusal to perform the duties required of the pope (he abdicated five months after his election in July 1294) allowed Benedetto Caetani to become Pope Boniface VIII, the man who proved to be Dante's most reviled theological, political, and personal enemy. An alternative candidate is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who refused to pass judgment on Jesus. Why does Dante refuse to name any of the shades--including the notorious one--in this particular region?
Abandon all hope • It is not until the beginning of canto 3 that Dante finally enters hell-- at least its outer region--by passing through a gateway. The inscription above this gate--ending with the famous warning to "abandon all hope"-- establishes Dante's hell as a creation not of evil and the devil but rather of his Christian God, here expressed in terms of the Trinity: Father (Divine Power), Son (Highest Wisdom), and Holy Spirit (Primal Love).
The Boatman • In the classical underworld (Hades), which Dante knew best from book 6 of Virgil's Aeneid, Charon is the pilot of a boat that transports shades of the dead--newly arrived from the world above--across the waters into the lower world. Like Virgil's Charon, Dante's ferryman is an old man--with white hairs and fiery eyes-- who at first objects to taking a living man on his boat. In each case, the protagonist's guide-- Virgil for Dante--provides the proper credentials for gaining passage on Charon's boat.
The three rivers • This is the first of the rivers and marshes of Virgil's underworld in the Aeneid that Dante includes in his topography of hell. Whereas Virgil makes no clear distinction between the locations and functions of these bodies of water (Charon seems to guard them all), Dante's infernal rivers are more sharply drawn. Here the Acheron functions as a boundary separating the cowardly neutrals from the souls in the circles of hell proper. Charon ferries these shades across the river. This attention to detail reflects Dante's desire to underscore the reality of hell and the protagonist's journey through it.