What are Dante's hell circles

Summary of The Divine Comedy

The scholastic philosophy and the Ptolemaic worldview

Dante's Divine Comedy assumes the reader has a deep knowledge of the medieval worldview. This was determined on the one hand by the teaching of scholastic philosophy and on the other hand by the astronomical system of Ptolemy. The scholastics (derived from the Latin word for "school") formed the learned class in the monastery schools of the Middle Ages between the 11th and 15th centuries. They tried to "save" the knowledge of ancient philosophy into Christianity: Instead of banishing pagan knowledge, ancient ideas should be harmoniously combined with the beliefs of Christianity. In their methods, the scholastics relied primarily on Aristotle, while they hardly included the other Greek thinkers. Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas were among the most important scholastics.

Until the discoveries of Copernicus in the 16th century, the astronomical system of Claudius Ptolemy from the 2nd century provided the common image of the cosmos, to which Dante also referred. The Ptolemaic worldview places the immobile earth in the center of the universe. The stars move around the earth on spheres or rings. According to this system, the sun is on the fourth orbit away from the earth. In the outermost area of ​​the universe one suspected a fixed star sky, a sphere that controls the day-night rhythm, and the "primum mobile": the sphere that drives the movement of all other levels.


Dante probably wrote his main work between 1307 and 1321. At that time he lived under the curse of his hometown Florence and stayed in Verona, Tuscany, Ravenna, but also for study purposes in Paris. Dante came up with the plan to write the epic poem in the Italian vernacular very early on. The title of the work, which was originally just called La Comedia, seems unusual today, because the journey into hell doesn't exactly sound like a "comedy". However, the name must be understood as a generic term: According to the rules of poetry in Dante's time, a story that begins in horror and ends happily was called "comoedia". The Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a biography of Dante in 1360 and gave his main work the nickname "divine". The editor of an edition from 1555 referred to this, so that Dante's work was henceforth referred to as the Divine Comedy.

Impact history

The Divine Comedy not only marks the beginning of great Italian literature, it also represents its climax. For the Italians, Dante is the national poet par excellence. His hometown Florence even demanded the body from Ravenna back after his death. Dante's main work really does not make it easy for the reader to follow him: Even his contemporaries had to fall back on detailed comments to understand the political and historical allusions. Unfortunately, there is no longer any manuscript made by the author. Science has over 450 copies for this. The oldest can be found in a Florentine codex from 1350. The first prints date from 1472. Dante's description of hell and heaven was the inspiration for the most important artists, who decorated the various editions in ever new variations. The "Dante painters" included Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo and, in later centuries, the English sculptor John Flaxman, the poet and painter William Blake, and the French Gustave Doré. Even composers like Rossini, Schumann and Franz Liszt insisted on setting excerpts of the lavishly decorated poem to music.

The German classics had a hard time with Dante's otherworldly scenario: Goethe and Schiller behaved rather disparagingly towards the "musty scent from Dante's hell" (Goethe). Others, like Lessing and Klopstock, were at least reserved. For the German Romantics, however, Dante was a festival, a lavish picture of colors and language that corresponded to the romantic notions of "universal poetry". That is why it was primarily the Schlegel and Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling brothers who encouraged more Dante reading in the middle of the 19th century. The German poet Stefan George translated individual chants, and Peter Weiss reminded Dante's descriptions of hell of Auschwitz throughout his life. Samuel Beckett was so infatuated with Dante's Inferno that he dedicated an essay (Dante, Vico, Bruno, 1929) and a short story (Dante and the Hummer, 1932) to it.