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Extended Essay

How do the depictions of morality and justice

within Hell in ​Paradise Lost ​and ​Inferno
compare to each other and their time periods?

By: Vincent Kageyama

Word Count: 3990
Candidate: GDZ-756
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Built into almost all religions is some form of an afterlife, which is a means of controlling
the actions and ethics of practitioners. Two renowned literary works that depict a punitive
afterlife are ​Inferno, ​by Dante, and ​Paradise Lost​, by John Milton. Both of these works depict
Hell and the geography, morality, and the hierarchy of Hell. Dante’s work was written in 14th
Century Italy and ​Paradise Lost ​was written in 17th Century England. Italy was almost entirely
Catholic during the 14th century and the Church was the main power in Italy during this time. In
England religion was split between Anglican Church and Protestantism, and author Milton was a
devout protestant (Labriola, Albert). These religious institutions were both very powerful within
their respective regions and time periods and had great influence over politics as well.

Inferno ​is a book which depicts Dante, a lost soul who is not evil, but is caught between
virtue and sin, and his journey with the ghost Virgil through Hell and showing Dante what awaits
him if he does not follow God’s will. Dante, the author, is also the main character and the agent
through which the story is told. This choice leads Dante to reference events and experiences from
his life and time period within the work. The story follows Dante’s journey through the nine
layers of Hell and the punishments of each. Dante’s work describes how punishments correspond
with sins and how justice is served in the afterlife. Some common motifs presented within the
work are morality and justice. These are portrayed throughout the work in the presentation of the
characters and the structure of Hell.

During 14th century Italy,​ ​religion was viewed with heavy cynicism and as a result the
church began to clamp down on hearsay. This caused the social classes to be polarized with the
ruling class wanting even more power and the lower classes to behave erratically ("Decameron
Web." ). During the late 13th century Italy was divided into two factions; one faction supported
the pope and the other supported the emperor. Dante fought for the faction supporting the
emperor and when they won it became required to be in a guild in order to serve in office. After
his faction the Guelfs won, they began fighting among themselves and the faction split into two
groups. Dante’s group, the Guelfs, advocated for autonomy from the pope and later when he fell
out of office he was exiled and banished from Florence with the penalty of returning being death
("Dante's Early Life."). This political unrest and Dante’s experience in politics is referenced
within Inferno.

In​ Paradise Lost​, the story details the aftermath of the battle in heaven. Satan (Lucifer)
has fallen from heaven and is with the other fallen angels plotting their revenge. The story also
details the fall of man and the original sin. This paper will only be examining the attributes of
Hell within Paradise Lost and will exclude the story of man. The events of ​Paradise Lost ​start
with Satan addressing the other fallen angels after their defeat in heaven. He rallies them and
prepares them to go back to Heaven to fight God once again. Before this happens he leaves to go
to Earth and to investigate God’s newest creation, Man. In this section ideas of justice, authority,
and power are explored.

In 17th century England the prevailing religion was Protestant but they continued to carry
out Catholic ceremonies ("England in the Seventeenth Century."). Milton grew up in a
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controversial household, his father was a moneylender and this was highly frowned upon. He
used this money that he knew was obtained from means that were frowned upon in religion and
society (David Hawkes). During this time period anti-catholic sentiment started to grow as
people viewed it as hearsay and as against both the Anglican church and the protestant
movement ("16th and 17th Century England." ). This was evident in Milton’s household and he
grew up with his grandfather who was a devout Catholic, but when John was found having an
English bible and was banished from the house during his childhood (David Hawkes).

This paper will be examining each book and their depictions of Hell and ideas on
morality and justice. Something that will be considered is the external political and religious
circumstances of each of the books. Both of these works are widely viewed as literary
juggernauts within each of the book’s cultures and a cross examination of each of them and these
ideas is very valuable to both ideas on religion and history. However we can also gain a view as
to ideas on ethics and guilt through these books views on morality. This is a great insight as we
can see how these different religions can influence ideas on good and evil and how we can
compare their ideals to contemporary ones. This literary comparison can provide great insight as
to how we as a society can view criminals and those who wrong our society. Ideals like good and
evil will always be debated and these works are a perfect example of how two great authors can
generate ideas and ideals for years from beyond the grave.

Depictions of Hell

The two depictions of Hell are quite different from the way they are geographically laid
out to the way they are laid out. In ​Inferno H ​ ell is depicted as nine circles. The circles of Hell in
Inferno ​are set in a descending order beneath the earth. The layout of each circle is different with
some of the circles having compartments within the circles.In ​Inferno’s v​ ersion of Hell the nine
levels each have different punishments which are assigned individually based off the sins
committed during life. In Inferno each level has a punishment which is set to be symbolic of the
sins that are committed to during life. For example in the seventh circle, those who have
committed suicide are turned into tree trunks where their trunks are attacked and nested in by
Harpies. This is symbolic in that the people who have harmed themselves now do not have a
body and suffer eternal external pain. One layer that is very interesting is the first one, Limbo.
Limbo is for those were good in life but did not accept Christ and christianity. This layer is not
punishing, but is not rewarding which keeps with the moral and judicial code presented by the
work. These people are good and have led a morally sound life, yet they have not been baptized
and are not an official part of the Christian church which leads to them being placed here.
Another interesting circle in ​Inferno i​ s the final ring of the ninth circle which is where Satan
(Lucifer) resides. There he is stuck in a frozen lake, where he is an indescribable giant who
brings such fear to Dante that the narrator is unable to fully describe him. “Ask it not, Reader, for
I write it not, Because all language would be insufficient. I did not die, and I alive remained not”
(Dante 175). There the enormous demon punishes three sinners: Judas, Burtus, and Cassius. The
soul with the greatest pain is Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Pontius Pilate, which
shows that this circle is for traitors. This sin was the greatest as Judas directly betrayed God,
which shows a major point within each of the books, in that sins are acts against God.
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In ​Paradise Lost t​ here is a lot less description of Hell and the work is centered more
around the Fall of Man rather than Hell. “A dungeon horrible, on all sides round, As one great
furnace, flam’d: yet from those flames No light, but rather darkness visible, Serv’d only to
discover sights of woe” (Milton 12). This quote gives an accurate feel to Hell within Milton’s
universe. It is at the bottom of the universe below everything and it is essentially a terrible lake
of fire with few areas of land. This quote also uses an interesting oxymoron to emphasize the
awfulness of Hell, where flames give no light, but rather visible darkness serving the purpose to
show that everything within this universe is tainted. During the start of man flames would have
been viewed as good and bringing light whereas here in Hell they only bring darkness. In this
version of Hell all of the Fallen Angels and Demons who have fought against God in Heaven
have been cast down here as punishment. They are initially chained there but once they are able
to free themselves they set up debate as to what their next move should be. They construct
Pandemonium which is Hell’s capital and this golden monument is where the Demons convene
to plan their next move.

In ​Inferno t​ he depiction of Hell is purely punitive and there is a system of judicial

punishment where crimes correspond to punishments. In ​Paradise Lost ​Hell can be seen as more
of a prison where the demons are in control of their decisions and actions within their newly
found reality. This can be seen within their geographical structure as Dante’s depiction is layered
symbolizing this idea of a hierarchical system of punishment, where as the flatness of Milton’s
depiction shows this universal punishment. Hell in ​Inferno ​can be viewed as God’s eternal
punishment for sinners with no chance for redemption and no longer having control over their
destiny. ​Paradise Lost’s ​Pandemonium shows that they have the option of still having control
over their destinies as the demons are able to debate as to what their next move should be. One
difference is that in ​Paradise Lost, t​ he demons do not express any form of regret or sorrow for
their actions. “To do aught good never will be our task; But ever to do ill our sole delight: As
being the contrary to his high will Whom we resist” (Milton 16). This quote exemplifies this idea
that the demons in Hell have no redeeming qualities and their only purpose is to be purely evil
and act against God’s will. In ​Inferno ​the people that Dante meets in Hell are sinners and do not
exhibit any redeeming qualities, however through Dante’s memories and interactions with the
sinners, the reader is able to empathize with them more.

One important thing that the depictions differ in is their portrayal of Satan (Lucifer). In
Inferno he is described as the worst demon and is enormous and while he is the tormentor of the
worst sinners in Hell, he is also being punished. He is stuck there with no free will, and is
trapped inside his own kingdom and while he is the king of this place, he has no ability to do
anything except punish these sinners. “The Emperor of the kingdom dolorous From his
mid-breast forth issued from the ice” (Dante 176). This shows that while he may be the head of
Hell he is not the true-ruler of it as God still has total control over everything there. In Paradise
Lost, Satan is the leader of Hell and he is actually able to exert influence over the other demons
there. He is also able to leave Hell and have free will without constraints, even though he is
ultimately powerless when exposed to God’s might, which is similar to Inferno where they are
both seen as the leaders of Hell, yet in reality they are still powerless compared to God. In
Paradise Lost, S​ atan’s free will exemplifies this idea of standard justice and his status being the
same as the other demons shows that he is just a sinner. In contrast in ​Inferno, D ​ ante’s portrayal
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of Satan as an enormous tormenting demon shows that he is the worst sinner of all, and is
punishing the other sinners, while he is trapped at the top of his kingdom. Dante’s portrayal
shows an almost irony in that Satan, who so badly wanted to supercede God as the ultimate ruler
of the universe, is now the ruler of this kingdom, Hell, yet his rule is a punishment as he is forced
to eternally punish the other members of his kingdom.

Morality versus Justice

Morality and justice are two very important motifs that are presented within each of the
books. It is very important to define each of them carefully as they have overlapping definitions.
In this paper morality will be defined as the code of ethics that prevail in each of the two works.
This can be seen as the code of conduct which the books dictate as the way life should be lived,
and then when these codes are broken, justice takes over. Justice is the second part of morality in
that once the code is broken then a punishment or action is taken to reinstate or avenge the
broken code. The parameters must be set very carefully due to this close line that they share.
Within the setting of Hell, this paper will use morality as the will of God and the sins that lead to
and correspond with Hell. In Hell justice is the punishment carried out to offset the sins that have
offended God or the actions taken to right the wrongs done.


While there is evidence of each author’s version of justice, the ideas on morality are far
more extensive in each work. They both have one common trait however, and that is that God’s
will and love must be obeyed and reverenced. In ​Inferno a​ ll of the sins that are committed can be
traced back to one single broken idea and that is God’s will or betraying his love. For example,
those who have committed suicide have harmed God’s creation and his love, with which he
brought man into existence, and these people have harmed themselves and his creation, therefore
they have committed this sin, an act against God and are now being punished for it. This seems
to be the supreme law of the universe in both works that you must not commit an act against
God. However in ​Inferno ​there is another type of infraction and that is one against your fellow
man, where murder or betrayal can both lead to going to Hell. Since both works center on Hell,
where these people are being punished for committing sins and breaking this moral code we can
only know what infractions lead to punishment and not what actions lead to reward.

The way that Hell is structured in Dante’s ​Inferno ​allows for the reader to rate how severe
a sin is based off of the corresponding punishment and ring. As Paul Chevigny states, “Just
because it emphasizes the guilty mind of the criminal, The Inferno bears an intriguing relation to
contemporary criminal law jurisprudence” (Chevigny 788). As a result of this hierarchy and
establishment the reader is able to gain access into Dante’s ideas on guilt and the severity of sins,
where the more direct a sin is against God the worse the sin is. From this hierarchy of sins we
can determine that in Dante’s mind betrayal is the worst sin that can be committed and therefore
is the worst on a moral compass (Chevigny 789). Through this insight, we are able to rank
crimes and actually gauge actions on a morality scale based on corresponding punishments. This
ability to create a scale in ​Inferno ​is actually vastly different from the idea of morality in
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Milton’s work where it is a set of rules leading to a more binary outlook on ethics. In ​Paradise
Lost​ God’s will and love is the guideline with any actions against him leading to punishment,
therefore we come to this idea of a binary code of ethics. In this code we have either good or evil
based on a person’s obedience to God. This binary morality is far different from the ideas that
can be seen in ​Inferno. ​The moral code that is established in ​Inferno​ is based off of the Catholic
set of morals, but with an added emphasis on this idea of a moral compass. Dante creates this
idea of a moral compass by creating distinctions in levels of severity in sin and then the idea of a
form of justice symbolic to the sin.

Paradise Lost’s ​binary code of ethics leads to this idea of good and evil. By using Satan
as a character he personifies evil and God personifies good and power. By having Satan as the
figurehead of Hell, ​Milton i​ s able to show this idea of free will, something which contrasts
Lucifer’s position in ​Inferno,​ where he is trapped and forced to eternally torment sinners. This
idea of free will is important as while you have free will in order to avoid Hell you must not
abuse this freedom and go against God’s will. This is shown by Satan and the other demons fall
from Paradise and their now eternal punishment in Hell. There lies the ultimate idea in both
works God’s will is the guide to avoiding Hell and the path to light, as his love is eternal and
perfect, and the consequences for breaking his will and love are dire and eternal.


Each book has their own depictions of justice within each realm of Hell. One
distinguishable difference is that in ​Inferno t​ he portrayal of the inhabitants of Hell call for the
need of a different type of justice. “ As in Dante's Inferno, monsters and demons inhabit the
convent, symbols of vice and personifications of evil” ("Commedia" in a Venetian Convent”). In
Inferno ​Dante portrays the inhabitants as monsters to give the effect of this idea that sinners are
monsters and that sins equate to acts of evil which require punishment leading to their residence
in Hell. In ​Inferno j​ ustice is served ironically to the sinners. For example, “Because he wisehd to
see too far before him Behind he looks, and backward makes his way” (Dante 102). This quote
describes those who had attempted to see into the future, and as a result of them doing this, they
are forced to always be looking backwards.As a result of their attempts to look into the future
their heads have been reversed and now must always look backwards. The use of irony within
punishments points to Dante’s interpretation of justice as being a punishment equivalent and
similar to the sin committed. In ​Paradise Lost​, all the demons are punished in the same manner.
They all have lost their privilege of free will and heaven and are now forced to dwell in the fiery
depths of Hell, their greed for more power in Heaven has led to their downfall.

One area where justice differs greatly is the idea of a hierarchical sense of justice, where
sins are punished as severely as the sins that are committed. As earlier stated this can be seen in
Inferno w​ ith the geographical landscape of Hell where in descending levels it can be seen that
punishments increase in severity when going down the hierarchy. This can be seen as symbolic
as the farther into sin a person goes, the more severe a punishment the sinner receives. Paul
Chevigny states, “Thus the levels of Hell may be seen to grade crimes, roughly speaking, in the
way a criminal code grades them, with penalties in proportion to their relative gravity”
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(Chevigny 788). This idea of grading sins with penalties relating to the severity goes back to this
idea of exerting true justice on these sinners. In ​Paradise Lost, t​ he idea of justice is not explored
as heavily as morality yet we can see that Milton does not depict this idea of perfect and true
justice with his being more of a universal justice. Milton’s form of justice in Hell can be related
back to that of almost a jail where the demons have been removed from society, Heaven, and
have been placed in a rehabilitation area. One similar idea of justice that can be found in both
books is God’s justice which is the ultimate justice. In ​Inferno i​ t can be seen as torturous and
vengeful for breaking God’s will where demons are actively punished eternally based on their
crimes. Milton on the other hand depicts this passive punishment where taking away their
privilege is enough to punish them, and the environment as their eternal punishment. “Regions of
sorrow, doleful shades, where peace And rest can never dwell; hope never comes That comes to
all: but torture without end (Milton 12).” This quote exemplifies this idea of universal
punishment in Hell, where it is endless torture and all pain, yet the demons punishments stem
from their disobedience of God.


Another valuable comparison that can be made of the works is the portrayed judicial and
moral codes to the time period’s ideals. In ​Inferno,​ ​Dante ranks sins committed and creates a
moral compass of how evil a sin is. Chevigny states that, “As I shall show in later sections in
more detail, the force of the contrast lies in the fact that for Dante, crimes of betrayal were the
most serious not only because they required the most deliberate exercise of free will” (Chevigny
790). We can view crimes and sins as synonymous and through Dante’s ranking of sins we can
see a clear difference between ideals of the Church and Dante’s. In ​Inferno ​the worst thing that a
person can do is sin directly against God or break his trust, which is shown in the last circle
where Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, suffers eternal torture from Satan. This is not
reflective of the judicial code during Dante’s time. “​Its position at the beginning of the criminal
code, in addition to the detailed penalties, indicates that robbery was the crime of greatest concern to
the ruling class which wrote and applied the ​law” (Guido 245). As a result of the wealthy
constituting the ruling class, the most serious laws revolved around health and secular things.
These laws also follow the ideas of the papacy, which was focused on secular ideas at the time
and was one of the contributing factors as to why Dante opposed the papacy (Quinones). This
reflects his political party alignment and his ideas on justice portrayed in ​Inferno,​ ​he is not
concerned with secular issues and focuses more on the intentional breaking of God’s will.

In ​Paradise Lost,​ Milton’s ideas about morality being almost binary with God as pure
good and Satan as pure evil can be seen as a reflection of the transition period of England.
During Milton’s life, England was experiencing a transition from Catholicism to Anglicanism
and as well as a transition to secularism (Hawkes XXXII). “And many people identified the
burgeoning autonomous power of money, a purely abstract sign, as a further example of diabolic
influence”(Hawkes XXXII). This idea of taking secularism and labelling it as inciting evil is an
example of this binary way of thinking. As the monarchy took power over England, secularism
became more prevalent and Milton’s book can be seen as a response to this shift in ideology as
one idea prevails above all others and that is, the unstoppable and undeniable authority of God.
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Milton was a devout Protestant and did not agree with this shift in ideology to Secularism. His
binary moral code is not reflective of the time period’s ideology and based on his portrayal of
good vs. evil, it can be seen that this is a commentary on England’s ideological landscape.
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