Reading The Inferno gives one pause at moments. Frequently in fact. It isn't so much the punishments described in Hell as it is a number of factors that stem from that. For example, did Jesus not teach us, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." And yet Dante, with impunity, assigns any number of people to any circle of Hell he chooses. Now, were these living people (at the time of his writing) one could say that this were a cautionary tale; however most of them are dead as of the writing of the work. What then do we adjudge from this seeming infraction of a commandment of love?
Next, we get from the Inferno a God of infernal intellect, delicating designing and manipulating Hell as to be of the most exquisite pain to the sinners assigned there. The lavish and ornate punishments that make up the bulk of hellish existence beggar the imagination. What then was Dante about?
Finally, we have an image of a God of such remarkable sternness, indeed of such profound violence that one is at a loss to figure out what Dante wanted us to understand of God from this.
The last question first. I don't know what Dante wanted us to understand of God, but what one can see of God in this is that the image of God fluctuates in time with the society in which He is seen. In Dante's time a clearly stern judge, devoid of compassion for circumstances, hewing carefully to the letter and not the spirit. In the time of "the enlightenment" a God of watchmakers and mechanists, having set the stars in their courses and the planets in their respective paths, he sits back to observe all and watch it slowly unwind. Today's God, the "Good Buddy Jesus." Everything goes, God is all inclusive, completely open to whatever perversion of justice, thought, or principle we need to feel good about ourselves. The point: none of these are accurate pictures of God. Each shows some feature of God distorted through the lens of the time. Dante's God, is God the Redeemer, picking carefully among the flotsam and jetsam of humanity to select the few, the proud, the elect to ascend into heaven and occupy ornate circles of praise at appropriate distances from divinity. The God of the enlightenment, is God the creator, and only that, an uninterested tinkerer who plays with galaxies and universes and lets them spin away to their natural destruction, never giving another thought to them except perhaps how lovely they are and how nicely they reflect His glory. The God of our times is the Sanctifier, making everything holy and everything whole, compassionate to the point of idiocy, embracing all ideologies and all human choices. Murder? Why not, so long as you don't do it to excess and you have what you think is a good reason for it. Adultery? Well, after all, how can we expect one person to fulfill the needs of an aimless humanity seeking to fill a God-sized hole?
Not one of these images tells us anything useful about God. Dante's comes closest because it is the least distorted--at least His justice is meted out with something approximating the justice devised by the human mind--it is rational and considered and ordered, like everything else about Him. Still, it isn't the complete picture of God. However, looking at Dante's image of God should help counterbalance the lunacy of some of the images suggested by people int he modern world.
On the first question--how Dante assigns to Hell with impunity--we get at the core of the question of Allegory. Dante and Virgil couldn't very well walk through an empty inferno. Nor would it perfectly suit the purpose to invent people to populate the place--it would require enormous work and lengthen the tale to the point of losing the train of thought. Instead Dante says something like--if the tendencies shown in this life went unrepented to the grave, this person, whom you all know, would be exemplary of this class of sins, which is punished in just such a way. This would also help us to better understand the mythological figures who intrude from time to time. While a great many philosophers and poets are in the limbo of the righteous pagan, we meet an awful lot of the classical crew on our journey through Hell. Are we to think that Dante thought that Jason really existed, much less Zeus or Hera or Aphrodite--offenses against whom are being punished in this very Hell? Or rather, he took the figures of well known stories and said, you know what these guys did, well, this is where they would be under the circumstances. The judgment is allegorical. Dante may have believed or even in some cases hoped for his vision of assignments, but their purpose is instructive, to latch on to a universal that can propel the reader through the poem.
And the second point was more or less addressed implicitly in the discussion of the third. Above all else, Dante's vision of God is that of the Person who wrests order from chaos, who delicately balances the tendency toward destruction with the tendency toward elevation. He has ordered the cosmos, down to and including the elaborate, ornate, and poetically apt structure of Hell itself--giving rise to the whole term poetic justice.
There is much more to be learned from Dante, much more. But these were questions that have surfaced for me nearly every time Ihave read The Inferno and I thought I'd take a stab at answering them for those who follow asking similar questions.
And follow you all should--a good version of Dante, with acceptable notes and good typesetting takes very little time to read. I prefer Ciardi's translation because the notes proved most helpful to me. Additionally the set-up in terza rima breaks gives some sense of rhythm to the eye. Others have faulted him for being too free in his translation. Truth is, a translation is a translation, and poetry can only come so close any way because there is always much lost in the course of translation. So you pick the version you will read best and then read it. But by all means, please go to the effort to acquaint, or reacquaint yourself with at least the first division of this great work. By all means, read all three. But at a minimum The Inferno.