Dante wakes to a clap of thunder. He has been in a deep sleep for some time, so his eyes are rested. He finds himself across the Acheron and on the brink of a deep abyss from which he hears the "thunder of Hell's eternal cry." Virgil asks Dante to follow him, but Dante is wary because Virgil is deathly pale. Virgil explains that his pallor is due to pity, not fear.
The poets enter the first circle of Hell — Limbo — the place where virtuous pagans reside. Virgil explains that these shades (souls) are only here because they were born without the benefit of Christianity, either due to being born before Christ, or because the soul was an unbaptized child. Dante asks if any soul was ever redeemed from Limbo, and Virgil tells him that the "Mighty One" came once and took a number of souls to Heaven.
The two poets have been walking during this conversation, and they pass by the wood of Limbo. Dante sees a fire ahead and realizes that figures of honor rest near it. He asks Virgil why these souls are honored by separation from the other spirits, and Virgil replies that their fame on Earth gained them this place.
A voice hails Virgil's return, and the shades of Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan approach the two poets. Virgil tells Dante their names and then turns away to talk with them. After a time, the group salutes Dante, saying they regard him as one of their number. The entire group moves ahead, talking about subjects that Dante does not disclose, and they come to a castle with seven walls surrounded by a small stream.
Dante and Virgil then pass over the stream, go through the seven gates, and reach a green meadow. Dante recognizes the figures of authority dwelling there, and as the poets stand on a small hill, Dante gives the names of rulers, philosophers, and others who are there and regrets that he does not have time to name them all. Prominent among the philosophers are Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and "the master of those who know" (Aristotle). Dante and Virgil leave this quiet place and come to one where there is no light.
Between Hell proper, the place of punishment, and the vestibule, Dante places the circle of Limbo, devoted to those people who had no opportunity to choose either good or evil in terms of having faith in Christ. This circle is occupied by the virtuous pagans, those who lived before Christ was born, and by the unbaptized.
Many of the shades in Limbo are not really sinners, but people who were born before Christianity. These virtuous pagans live forever in a place of their creation. The shades that Dante singles out, such as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato, lived by wisdom and thought, not religion, or at least not Dante's religion. Therefore, the Hell that they reside in allows them to reside in human wisdom, but without the light of God. Most of the first circle is in darkness, though Dante allows reason to create a small light of its own. Socrates, for example, wrote that he envisioned the afterlife as a place where one would have discussions with great people that came before or that lived in the present. Therefore, Socrates gained his ideal eternity.
Thus, Socrates is in Limbo, discussing philosophy and ethics with the other great souls that are there. In other words, Socrates attained the kind of afterlife that he, as a wise man, envisioned as the perfect one. His afterlife is not punishment; it is the failure of the imagination to envision the coming of Christ and faith in the coming of the Messiah. Moments after Virgil arrived in Limbo, he records that someone "in power crowned" appeared in Hell and took from there the shades of all the ancient patriarchs of the Old Testament, who had faith that the Messiah would some day come.
Allegorically, the fact that these pagans lived a highly virtuous, ethical, or moral life and are still in Limbo implies that no amount of humanistic endeavor and no amount of virtue, knowledge, ethics, or morality can save or redeem a person who hasn't had faith in Christ. Likewise, if an individual has faith in Christ, they must be openly baptized and in a state of grace to avoid Limbo. For Dante, good works, virtue, or morality count for nothing if a person hasn't acknowledged Christ as the redeemer.
The religious theme is particularly apparent in Dante's question that asked if anyone had ever been redeemed from Limbo. Virgil tells Dante that a "Mighty One" came when he was new to the circle and took some Old Testament figures: "our first parent" (Adam), Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David the King, Israel and his children, Rachael, and many more. Virgil again refers to the Harrowing of Hell, Christ's descent into Hell on the day of his death to rescue these figures. Aside from this one instance, there is no choice or escape from Limbo.
There are also moments of extreme self-awareness in Inferno, moments where Dante the Poet intrudes on his narrative. Dante feels exalted at meeting his forefathers in thought and poetry: Homer, Horace, and Ovid. Clearly, Dante sees himself as one of them, and they invite him into their circle. This shows a great deal of self-consciousness on Dante's part; he places himself among the great classical poets, thus suggesting that he is one as well.
The language in this section is remarkable because Dante elevates these souls and seems to have the highest respect for them; words such as honor, majestic, master, and luminous don't occur regularly in the rest of the text of Inferno. Dante clearly believes that good works, morality, and virtue count for something, but not enough to allow a soul into Heaven.
Mighty One Christ.
our first parent Adam.