Inferno, Canto 4
Recovering from his swoon, Dante finds himself across Acheron and on the edge of the actual Pit of Hell. He follows Virgil into the First Circle - the Limbo where the Unbaptised and the Virtuous Pagans dwell '"suspended", knowing no torment save exclusion from the positive bliss of God's presence. Virgil tells him of Christ's Harrowing of Hell, and then shows him the habitation of the great men of antiquity - poets, heroes, and philosophers.
The Prepatory Lecture
Questions for Reflection
Canto 4, © Jan Hearn
Limbo. After those who refused choice come those without opportunity of choice. They could not, that is, choose Christ; they could, and did, choose human virtue, and for that they have their reward. (Pagans who chose evil by their own standards are judged by these standards - cf, Rom. ii. 8-15 - and are found lower down.)
Here again, the souls “have what they chose”; they enjoy that kind of after-life which they themselves imagined for the virtuous dead; their failure lay in not imagining better. They are lost (as Virgil says later, Purg. vii, 8) because they "had not faith" - primarily the Christian Faith, but also, more generally, faith in the nature of things.
The allegory is clear: it is the weakness of Humanism to fall short in the imagination of ecstasy ; at best it is noble, reasonable, and cold, and however optimistic about a balanced happiness in this world, pessimistic about a rapturous eternity. Sometimes wistfully aware that others claim the experience of this positive bliss, the Humanist can neither accept it by faith, embrace it by hope, nor abandon himself to it in charity. Dante discusses the question further in the Purgatory (esp. Cantos vii and xxii) and makes his full doctrine explicit in Paradise, Cantos xix-xx.
Mark Vernon's Lecture