Justice is a transversal theme throughout Dante’s Divine Comedy, as it is in practically all of the most important literary works throughout history. As we start our journey with Dante we find that the very gates of Hell have been erected by the Holy Trinity in the name of Justice.1 There the first souls we come upon are those who have neither lived for God nor rebelled against Him but have lived only for themselves. They are the petty souls that both “mercy and justice hold in contempt”2 for their lukewarmness, bringing to mind the grotesque warning of Revelation 3:16 ­­– “because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (RSVCE).

The souls in Hell are always there for a specific and permanent reason, and we, accompanying Dante, must learn that this is just. If we are tempted to pity them, we, like Dante who wept at what he saw, must heed Virgil’s reproach: “Here pity lives the best when it is dead.”3 Thus from the outset it would seem that Hell is the place where justice is applied with full rigor and Heaven where mercy abounds for all. However, this sort of dichotomy has no place in Dante’s work nor his cosmic vision. In fact, this absolute dichotomy between justice and mercy belongs wholly to a pre-Christian era. Sophocles’ classic Greek tragedy Antigone is just one example of this irreconcilable conflict between justice and mercy, before which man remains powerless. Dante, better than anyone in the history of literature, depicts the seamless reconciliation of these two virtues in the Cross of Christ.

The development of a Christian culture and ethos was long and varied process, incorporating certain elements of both Jewish and Hellenistic thought and tradition, while eschewing others.  Dante embraces this history and, throughout the entire Commedia, elucidates how those traditions are not rejected outright but rather resurrected and illuminated in a new Christian light. So that this light might shine more clearly, he allows the pre-Christian and Christian worldviews to be seen in their stark contrast, taking advantage of the difference between his two guides: Virgil and Beatrice. The problem of justice will not find its resolution until Dante’s cosmic vision is completed in the Paradiso, but it comes only after a long build up in which these two worldviews must confront each other, for they inevitably produce radically different conceptions of justice. The question of the efficacy of praying for those in Purgatory will help us begin to reflect on the mystery of justice. In Canto VI of the Purgatorio, Dante has been petitioned by a group of souls to pray for them so that they could sooner reach the sanctity of Heaven. He questions Virgil about the curious request, something that Virgil had described as useless:

“O my true light, you seem to have denied explicitly, in a particular verse,” said I, “that prayer can bend high Heaven’s decree, Yet this is all the people pray for here. And so will every hope of theirs be vain? Or haven’t I yet got your meaning clear?”Replied the poet, “My text is plain, nor is their hope deceived, if you attend closely, and if your thought is whole and sane. For judgment’s summit is not leveled if in but one instant burning love fulfills what here a man must wait to satisfy, And in the place where I affirmed that word, one’s sins could not be recompensed by prayer – for prayer was separate from the Lord...”4

It is well known that the line Dante refers to is spoken by the Sibyl of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Stop hoping you will change the will of the gods by praying.”5 In this passage the soul of Palinurus begs Aeneas to bury his body so that he may cross into the underworld to receive his rest, and the Sibyl rebukes him for trying to bend the will of the gods. In the Purgatorio, Dante allows Virgil to be his own exegete. First, Virgil explains that the will of God and a person’s prayer for mercy are not in conflict but that, in His omniscience, God knows all before it occurs and His will is fulfilled – not changed – by a personal act of loving mercy in the form of a prayer. Prayers for a person offered up after their death can have efficacy beforehand, since God, the terminus of true prayer and the source of all grace, is outside of time.6 Secondly, only prayers directed to the true God can bring about any fruits, so the pagans’ prayer, directed at false gods, would indeed be in vain. After giving his answer Virgil admits however that ultimately it must be Beatrice who clarifies this question in full.

Returning to Sophocles’ Antigone, here we can draw a connection between Palinurus and Polyneices, Antigone’s brother. Polyneices has fallen into the same fate as Palinurus after his uncle and the newly named King of Thebes, Creon, orders that he be left unburied. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, comments that tragic drama is made possible by the irresolvable conflict between two rival goods or virtues and that it is Sophocles, especially in Antigone, who best explores these heart-wrenching situations.7 Sophocles differs both from Plato, who argues that all virtues are not only compatible but also mutually supporting, and a contemporary individualistic view that denies that any hierarchy of values can be established given the great variety of human beliefs. Sophocles holds the tragic position that, though there is an objective moral order, we are often incapable of finding a harmony and must recognize the authority of both rival and irreconcilable virtues. In the end, it is only by the intervention of the gods that the conflict is ended, though it never reaches a real resolution. In the play, no one is saved by his or her adherence to one virtue or another, and Fate’s unwavering edict against the house of Oedipus is carried out to the extreme. In an attempt to avoid the conflict between Antigone’s mercy towards her brother and Creon’s justice, the Chorus pleads with Creon to have mercy on Antigone, who, by law should die. Creon’s obstinacy leads to a truly tragic massacre, and though we are inclined to think that the proper resolution would have been for Creon to acquiesce to the demand for mercy, this would not have been a true reconciliation but rather one value winning out over the other. The pre-Christian tragedy of human existence is exactly this: the irreconcilable conflict between two incompatible goods.

Shakespeare masterfully depicts these two conceptions of justice side by side in the Court scene of The Merchant of Venice. A similar plea for mercy is repeated and rejected, but this time the result is not tragedy but comedy. In Act IV, Shylock, a moneylender, demands the forfeit of his bond for a pound of the merchant Antonio’s flesh, Antonio having been unable to pay his debt in time. Portia, the lover of Antonio’s friend Bassanio, enters disguised as a lawyer and tries to convince Shylock to take the path of mercy with one of the most famous odes to mercy in all of literature:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest
God’s When mercy seasons justice.
Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.8

Here Shakespeare echoes Dante: “But by the bounteous gifts of divine grace ­– whose rain descends from mists of such great height...”9 Mercy, being a characteristic of divine love, cannot be produced by mere human means. Before this inspiring ode, Shylock proves himself to be totally consumed by cruelty exclaiming, “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, The penalty and forfeit of my bond,” rejecting even triple the money owed him, and even refusing to provide Antonio with a surgeon to bind his wounds because it was not stipulated in the bond. Shylock’s fate is now set as Portia not only upholds his right to take Antonio’s flesh according to justice but orders him to do so then and there according to the law he has invoked. True to Shakespearian dramatic style, just before Shylock’s knife falls, Portia adds that the full measure of justice requires that Shylock take his pound of flesh while taking “no jot of blood” whatsoever, since none was stipulated in the deed. Through his rejection of mercy, Shylock has now bound himself in an impossible obligation by the same justice he himself demanded. He cannot escape his fate and even more charges are brought for attempting against the life of a citizen of Venice.

While Antonio owed a debt that he could not pay in time, the lack of mercy on Shylock’s part opens the door to his liberation by Portia, whose love for Bassanio is extended to him. While justice and mercy are opposites in the eyes of Shylock, to Portia, because of Bassanio’s love, it is just that Antonio should receive mercy. Though the play is a comedy, there is no doubt that Shylock is a tragic character not unlike Creon, who has nothing left to live for and even begs for death: “Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that.”10

Sophocles’ insight into the dramatic nature of human life is perhaps not far from the truth, but Shakespeare possessed a more refined and persuasive concept of mercy, discerning the all-powerful role of love. In the case of Antonio, once his mercy plea had been rejected, Portia’s love and intellect were enough to save him. However, when Shylock’s plea for mercy failed he was trapped in brutal tragedy, not by fate but because he had closed himself to love; there was no one who would defend him. There is no doubt, however, that the love that unifies justice and mercy was expressed in its fullest terms in Dante’s Paradiso.

In Canto VII, Beatrice resolves a number of Dante’s doubts about divine justice. First, Dante wonders how it could be just that Christ died on the cross and also just that God punished those who crucified him.11 Then he admits that he “still can’t see the reason why God chose that man should be redeemed in just this way.”12 To answer the first, Beatrice invokes the dual nature of Christ; Christ’s human nature deserved the Cross but Christ’s divine nature could not have received a greater offense. The second doubt is more difficult to resolve because the answer is, as Beatrice says, is inconceivable to those who have not known love.13 Man’s situation was dire; because of original sin, mankind owed an infinite debt. Beatrice explains that, “Either the Lord alone for courtesy pardon the sin, or for his foolishness mankind make satisfaction on his own.”14 Justice would require mankind to pay the full weight of the debt; mercy would see God forgive man’s debt in full. It is only through Christ, through His supreme act of love, that these two are united. The solution had to come from God as a grace from heaven, from “the outpouring of his generous heart,”15 because “all the other means would have left justice poor.”16 If loving mercy were not at the center of the solution, justice itself would have been compromised. Thus the Incarnation and Redemption of mankind comes about in the same way as creation itself – from the depths of the Heart of God – and justice and mercy are one.

Only now we may return the question of the fate of the “virtuous pagans.” Is it just for them to be excluded from Paradise even though Christ had not yet come? Would it be just for them to be included though in life they had not followed Christ? This is a problem clearly dear to Dante’s heart as it is the last great question Dante will ask in his ascent through Paradise. The question is directed to none other than the Eagle of Justice in Canto XIX, begging him: “Breathe upon me and free me, help me break the long fast and the hunger of my heart.”17 Here we ought to point two possible answers that can be given to this dilemma before offering Dante’s. On the one hand, Calvin believed that there was no such thing as a virtuous pagan, judging that whatever virtues a pagan could have were mere human virtues, unpleasing to God. Meanwhile, on the other, a more modern position claims that all, or almost all, must be saved so as not to contradict God’s infinite kindness. However, we will see that Dante’s answer differs from these and, rather, resembles that of Aquinas, which allows for the possibility of a “baptism by desire” but retains a much more mysterious quality, preserving the gratuitous and unfathomable nature of God’s mercy.

Perhaps the best example is that of the Emperor Trajan, adopted son of Emperor Nerva and one of the three pagans Dante mentions by name in his ascent through Paradise. Trajan is the first of the five flames Dante encounters in Canto XX of the Paradiso. He was renowned for his goodness and justice during his nearly twenty years as Roman Emperor. Even Machiavelli recognized his justice, naming him among the “Five Good Emperors.” Dante had spoken of Trajan’s justice in Canto X of the Purgatorio in which he described how Trajan, leaving for battle, stopped at the supplication of a widow who begged that, before he leave, he do justice for her son who had been murdered. Trajan obliged her saying, in the words of Dante, “justice desires it and pity restrains me.”18 Note here that the more forceful of the two virtues is mercy, which actively prevents Trajan from leaving while justice only wants him to stop. Trajan’s great example of justice – with mercy at its center – moved Pope Gregory the Great so deeply that he prayed for Trajan’s salvation. Legend holds that Trajan was temporarily resurrected so as to receive the Good News and baptism. In the end, Trajan’s salvation could not be accounted for by his goodness alone because it seems that Gregory’s prayer was also essential, though Gregory would not have prayed for Trajan had he not been so worthy of salvation. Once again, justice and mercy go hand in hand. It is worth noting that, though Dante places Virgil in Limbo, many commentators have expressed with hope that the prayers and love of the saints have done for Virgil what those of Gregory did for Trajan.

Trajan’s adoption should not be passed over lightly. Machiavelli notes that the Five Good Emperors – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius – were indeed all adopted so that they might serve Rome as its next Emperor. Perhaps it was knowing that they received this honor and duty as a gift from above that helped them understand their role and responsibility. In this way Trajan models the words of Christ in Matthew 20:28 – “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” – and thus Dante sees him fit to be the first among the five just rulers that make up the Eagle’s beak in the sphere of Jupiter. For Dante, a just ruler could not possibly be conceived as one who implements utilitarian calculations or a social contract based on equity. True human justice for Dante however is necessarily born of a love for justice that almost always implies an explicit love for God. Divine justice, though it may be carried out in a mysterious way, is the fruit of the love of Christ, accepted or rejected by each person in their freedom.

Though often justice and mercy appear to be opposed to each other, both in literature and in our daily lives, Dante and Shakespeare show that these two are not only compatible with each other, but that justice must be centered on mercy, otherwise it fails to be just. In this way, Dante overcomes the irresolvable pre-Christian vision of the human condition that is expressed so potently in Sophocles’ tragedies. Justice and mercy are united and eternalized in the Cross of Christ, like the horizontal and vertical beams of which it is constructed. Mercy, as if descended from Heaven, is firmly planted in man’s contingency and elevates justice to a higher level. God is not bound by human conceptions of what his justice must demand nor his kindness necessitate. For God is love, and love is always a free gift of self, neither required nor constrained. Before man’s sin, God chose both mercy and justice in the form of the Cross, revealing that both are united in his love. In the end, it had to be by the same force that inspired the very Incarnation, by the same force that cut across history creating a before and an after – by the way of love:

It had to be by God’s own ways, God’s laws,
that to his true life man might be restored:
I mean by both God’s pardon and the Cross.
For since the more a work stands in accord
with the outpouring of his generous heart,
the more it’s cherished by its architect
The divine bounty that has sealed its art
upon the world was pleased to use each way
to raise you to the glory you had lost.
Unto earth’s final night from earth’s final day
no deed so grand or lofty has been done
by justice or by pardon, nor shall be,
For when God gave Himself, enabling man
to rise again, His gift was all the more
mighty than had He pardoned him, alone;
And all other means would have left justice poor,
had not the Son of God in charity
humbled Himself to take on human flesh.19
  1. Dante, Inferno, translated by Anthony Esolen (New York: Modern Library, 2005), III, 4–7.
  2. Ibid., III, 48. Translations to English are from Anthony Esolen unless otherwise indicated.
  3. Qui vive la pietà quand’ è ben morta.” Ibid., XX, 28.
  4. Dante, Purgatorio, translated by Anthony Esolen (New York: Modern Library, 2003), VI, 28–42.
  5. Desine fata deum flecti sperare precando…” Virgil, Aeneis, VI, 376.
  6. Boethius’ understanding of time and eternity is evident here. Cf. The Consolation of Philosophy, V.VI.
  7. Cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 153–169.
  8. Shakespeare, Complete Works (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1996), IV. i. 183–205.
  9. Dante, Purgatorio XXX, 112–3.
  10. Shakespeare, Op. cit., IV, i, 74.
  11. Dante, Paradiso, translated by Anthony Esolen (New York: Modern Library, 2007), VII, 20–21.
  12. Ibid., VII, 56–57.
  13. Ibid., VII, 58–60.
  14. Ibid., VII, 90-92.
  15. Ibid., VII, 108.
  16. Ibid., VII, 118–9.
  17. Ibid., XIX, 25–26.
  18. “…guistizia vuole e pietà mi ritene.” Dante, Purgatorio, X, 93 (translation mine).
  19. Dante, Paradiso, VII, 103–20.

Michael is an Assistant Professor at the Edith Stein Institute of Philosophy in Granada, Spain and the Executive Secretary of the Laudato Si' Institute. He is also the author of the forthcoming book, "The Foundations of Nature: Metaphysics of Gift for an Integral Ecological Ethics" (Cascade Veritas Series, 2021).