Hope for Virgil
In The Divine Comedy, When Virgil is forced to leave Dante’s side at the end of Purgatory, you may have found yourself heartbroken and ready to fight for his salvation. Surely it is not just that the virtuous guide has to go back to Hell. Fortunately, it is a possibility that this is not the end for Dante’s teacher, Virgil. There is hope that Virgil will make it to Paradise, in fact the point of his story is to teach us to hope.
We first run into Virgil in the first canto of Inferno. Luckily for Dante, Virgil was sent by Beatrice to guide him through the horrors ahead. Virgil was chosen for this task because he was someone that Dante looked up to as a role model in life. When Virgil comes to Dante, Dante recognizes him immediately and trusts him to lead the way. In the material plane Dante was guided by Virgil’s writing, and now that he is in the afterlife Virgil will continue to guide him through Hell itself.
In life, like Dante, Virgil was a poet. He lived from 70 to 50 BC and was regarded as one of the most famous poets of his time. He was not only loved by Dante but also the Roman Empire that claimed him as their very own. Often in his poems, he advocated for Roman ideals, and his most famous work, The Aeneid, actually tells the story of Rome’s founder. Like many other poets of his time, his works also tackled the topics of virtues and vices. He used these topics to try to teach the society that read his poems to be better people and citizens of Rome.
Unfortunately, Virgil died before Christ was born so he never had the chance to become a Christian. He also wasn’t a Jew, which was the only way to get into Paradise before Christ created the new covenant and payed for the world’s sin. So despite his virtuous life, Virgil ended up in the first layer of Inferno with many other virtuous pagans such as Homer, for the rest of eternity.
This may seem like the end for Virgil, but it is repeatedly shown throughout The Divine Comedy that God is willing to break the rules to save souls. Dante shows us again and again that God pursues every soul out of right love. So perhaps there is still hope. The biggest example of God going out of his way to save souls is Emperor Trajan.
Trajan lived from 53 to 117 AD and reigned as Emperor for nineteen years. He was an effective and just ruler, especially when it came to managing his armies. He was also known for lessening taxes and being generous to the poor. All this earned him a place among the five good emperors of Rome. When it came to the new religion known as Christianity that was rapidly spreading across his kingdom, Trajan advised his lessers to neither act against or for the Christians. His reign was a time of less persecution for the new religion.
Despite his just rule he died without becoming a Christian, which landed him in the first layer of Inferno with Virgil. However, Trajan did not stay in there for eternity. Nearly 500 years after Trajan died Saint Gregory I served as pope. During his papacy, he grew to respect Emperor Trajan and prayed that he would one day make it to Paradise. Shortly after, God brought Trajan back from the dead so that he could repent, ask for forgiveness, and become a Christian. When he died a second time he finds himself no longer in Limbo but on the path to Paradise, “One, from Hell, where there is no returning to right will, returned to his own bones, as the reward bestowed upon a living hope, the hope that gave force to the prayers offered God to resurrect him and convert his will” (Alighieri Paradiso XX 106-111).
Trajan doesn’t just make it into Paradise as a lowly soul but he is placed on Jupiter, which is the sphere of justice. We find him there in the eyebrow of the eagle, one level down from Saint Peter himself. We also see Trajan in Purgatory where he is pictured on a mural with Mary and David as an example of humility. It is unbelievable to think that this pagan who had the chance to become a Christian but didn’t is not only saved through bizarre means but then put in such a high place in Paradise and Purgatory. Yet this is exactly what occurs.
Emperor Trajan is far from the only example of God breaking rules to save souls. There is also Cato, who was another example of a virtuous pagan like Virgil himself. Dante meets him in his early time in purgatory and learns that he not only died neither a Christian or Jew but also a victim of suicide! There is also Ripheus, who we find in the eyebrow of the eagle right along with Trajan. He died a virtuous pagan but through grace made it to Paradise. Both of these figures should not have been able to make it into Paradise, but God broke his own rules to get them there.
A last example of this phenomenon is Dante himself. The reason that Dante is traveling on this journey through the afterlife is so at the end of his journey he can learn the error in his own ways in life, change them, and then write The Divine Comedy which will help save the souls of others. Beatrice tells us that Dante lost his way in life and this is the only way he can be saved. She tells Virgil, “He is, I fear, already so astray that I have come to help him much too late” (Alighieri Inferno II 65-66). Therefore Dante is just another example of God breaking the rules to save someone’s soul. God so wanted to save Dante’s soul that He let Dante walk through the afterlife before his own death.
So where does all this information leave Virgil? Is he doomed to be trapped in Inferno for the rest of time, or does he have a chance to make it to Paradise and be in the presence of God? The fact of the matter is that there is evidence for both sides. Dante never tells us either way, but to come to a valid conclusion you must look at all the evidence available.
Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence that Virgil is damned to Inferno is that is where he currently resides. That is where he has been placed and the large majority of souls never leave their eternal punishment. Moreover, when Jesus came and took people like Abraham and Isaac from Limbo to Paradise, He did not take Virgil with them. Virgil missed the first boat completely.
Unlike most of the souls in Limbo, Virgil has actually traveled through hell twice before. He also guided Dante all the way through Purgatory and instructed him the whole way. Virgil made it to the very edge of Paradise but was turned away without entering. Beatrice then took on the role of instructor for Dante, and Virgil was sent back to Inferno to spend the rest of eternity.
Perhaps that is not the end for Virgil. He lived before the coming of the Messiah so he never even had an opportunity to become a Christian. Although he was not a Jew, he was a virtuous pagan. He lived a life that many would have considered moral. His writing also was meant to inspire others to live virtuous lives and avoid many of the world’s vices.
If Trajan, who had the opportunity to become a Christian but didn’t made it into Paradise, why not Virgil, who never even got the opportunity to convert? They both lived fairly virtuous lives, Virgil even more so than Trajan, so in that regard they are equals. Of course the main reason that Trajan was given a second chance was because Saint Gregory I prayed for him and God heard his prayer. Although Virgil most likely does not have any great popes praying for him, he does have Beatrice praying for him. Before he left to retrieve Dante she told him, “When once again I stand before my Lord, then I shall often let Him hear your praises” (Alighieri Inferno II 73-74). Beatrice is pictured as being very high up in the layers of heaven, so if God heard the prayers of an earthly pope it is very reasonable to believe that He would hear and respond to her.
One might argue that Virgil himself seams to believe that he is trapped in Limbo for the rest of time, and they would be right. The very gates of Inferno say, “Abandon every hope, who enter here” (Alighieri Inferno III 9). As far as Virgil knows he has no reason to hope. It is a part of his nature in Inferno to be hopeless, so of course he would not give us any hints of him one day being saved.
In the end, it all comes down to hope. We aren’t the only ones wishing to know Virgil’s fate. Dante also struggles with the question of what happens to virtuous pagans after death. We see him ask in Paradise:
A man is born along the shoreline of the Indus River; none is there to speak or teach or write of Christ. And he, as far as human reason sees, in all he seeks and all he does is good; there is no sin within his life or speech. And that man dies unbaptized, without faith. Where is this justice then that would condemn him? Where is his sin if he does not believe? (Alighieri Paradiso XIX 70-78)
Dante himself wants to hope for Virgil and the rest of the virtuous pagans. He fights for them with his questions and hopes for them in his writing.
Dante never tells us what happens to Virgil. We last see him at the end of Purga- tory and then, as far as we know, he goes back to Limbo in Inferno. This open ending is an invitation for us to practice the virtue of hope. Dante wants us to participate in the hope for Virgil’s soul so that we can learn to hope for the hopeless. So even though we don’t know what Virgil’s fate is we can hope that he makes it to Paradise and can stand in the love of God.
So why does any of this matter? Besides the fact that by the end of The Divine Comedy you probably care about Virgil to some extent, all this matters because if Virgil can be saved there is hope for us. That is what Dante wants us to do. He wants us to hope. He wants us to hope for Virgil, our loved ones, and ourselves, because as long as there is hope we will strive towards the goal.
There is a good amount of evidence in The Divine Comedy that would point to Virgil being able to be saved. Many souls in similar situations to him such as Trajan, Cato, and Ripheus eventually made it to Paradise, so why not Virgil? The eagle in Paradise tells Dante:
No one without belief in Christ has ever risen to this kingdom – either be- fore or after He was crucified. But there are many who now cry ‘Christ! Christ!’ Who at the Final Judgment shall be far less close to Him than one who knows not Christ; the Ethiopian will shame such Christians when two companies are separated, the one forever rich, the other poor. (Alighieri, Paradiso XIX 103-111)
They make it clear that no one really knows who will end up in Paradise, but it is reasonable to say that Virgil can be saved through hope. However, in the end, it is not about if Virgil makes it to Paradise or not, as much as it is about Dante teaching us to practice the virtue of hope through the character of Virgil.