A Brief History of Hell

There is an interesting little connection between the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s account of the various reasons for immoral behaviour, and the Christian notion of Hell.

Firstly, according to Aristotle, a moral action must be deliberately chosen, involving conscious knowledge of what is good. A good action is not just something with a good result, but must involve you having a good sense of what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. It must also spring from the right motives and virtuous instincts. So, virtuous adults are likely to be those that have had a good moral education growing up: Mummy and Daddy taught them right from wrong, and made sure that they were encouraged for sharing their toys, and disciplined for stealing down into the kitchen in the middle of the night to scarf all the cookies and blame it on the dog.

When things go wrong, morally speaking, it’s therefore either because people haven’t developed the right moral habits (virtues), or else because they lack the correct moral understanding. This gives us basically three categories of wrongdoing:

  1. those who possess moral awareness, but have not developed the right moral instincts (what Aristotle terms akrasia);
  2. those who have developed the wrong moral instincts and the incorrect moral understanding (vicious people);
  3. and those who have no will power or rational capacity at all, and are almost totally subject to their own irrational desires (brutish persons).

Taking the first of these first, akrasia means “incontinence”, which is nothing to do with lack of bowel control. An incontinent person, in the moral sense, knows what they should do, but lacks the will power, self-control, or well-developed moral instincts to follow through on that knowledge. In contrast, the vicious person (i.e. possessing vices) has self-control, but has (through a bad upbringing, bad moral choices, etc) developed both a twisted sense of right and wrong, and bad moral habits. Such people consciously and deliberately choose immorality. The brutish person, however, lacks any sort of reason. These individuals are barely human, and behave like animals (brutes), possessing no restraining rationality.

Of course, all three types of people may only have these characteristics in relation to certain actions – maybe they are only occasionally incontinent, vicious, or brutish. However, since (for Aristotle) virtue is an all or nothing affair, then even partial bad tendencies are enough to poison the whole character.

When we come to Christianity, we’ll see that this three-part division has had a huge influence. The Christian vision of Hell has perhaps been most greatly shaped by the medieval poet Dante in his Divine Comedy, specifically the first part or Inferno. Dante was heavily influenced by the theologian St Thomas Aquinas, who was chiefly responsible for applying Aristotelian philosophy to Christianity. So we should not therefore be surprised that the Roman poet Virgil (whom Dante employs as his guide through his visionary journey) specifically references Aristotle, noting that Hell broadly divides into three main areas: the incontinents, the violent, and the malicious (see enclosed map below). Dante divides incontinence into four: the lustful, the greedy, the hoarders or wasteful, and the wrathful – or, sex, food and drink, money, and anger. “But that’s all the good stuff!” you say. Sometimes I worry about you…

The second major division – corresponding to Aristotle’s notion of brutish behaviour – Dante devotes to violence, which you may not think particularly different from anger (wrath), but Dante has some very particular things in mind, such as violence against God (blasphemy), against nature (sodomy), and against the self (suicide). As with Aristotle, Dante sees brutish behaviour as worse than incontinence, but not as bad as vice. Violence is more than just losing your temper, but a debased characteristic that pervades the whole person.

The final two circles are reserved for the truly wicked: those who have lied, deceived and betrayed. Such behaviour is not the result of momentary impulse, nor even a coarse or brutish nature, but a developed and cultivated form of evil that employs our highest function: rationality. The most wicked sinners are there by coldly calculated conscious choice.

Along the way, the inhabitants of each circle suffer suitably fitting punishments: the lustful are blown about by a perpetual wind, forbidden ever to touch those with whom (when alive) they committed adultery; those who deceived by flattery are immersed in a tide of human excrement, as if they now have to live with all the “crap” they spewed during life. In all of these predicaments there is therefore a poetic irony at work, as if the sinners have brought their punishments upon themselves through pursing the sin that condemned them there. This is perhaps more a Platonic notion than an Aristotelian one – that immorality is almost a form of self-harm – but Aristotle too makes clear the connection between living morally and living happily, and that therefore to behave immorally is simply a recipe for misery.

But there are also a number of specific tweaks that Dante adds to Aristotle’s moral categories. Heresy is deemed a sin worthy of its own circle, situated between incontinence and brutish violence. There is also, somewhat ironically, a higher circle (“Limbo”) reserved for “virtuous pagans”, or those wise non-Christians who lived a virtuous life, but had the misfortune not to believe in the Christian God. These individuals are not punished, but nor are they rewarded, the circle’s inhabitants merely living in an eternal waiting room. Here are many of the great and noble thinkers, writers, generals, etc, of non-Christian cultures and times, which includes of course the Greek philosophers of antiquity… and thus Aristotle himself.

Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

Note: due to spam, comments have been disabled on this post, but you are welcome to contact the author to discuss further.

Image credits: Dante and Virgil before Farinata, from Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by Gustav Doré, 1890. Map of Hell (origin unknown – please let me know!).