When Dante and Virgil come to the foot of the tower, they see two lights shining from it, and another light in the distance flashing in reply. Dante wants to know whats going on, and Virgil points out something coming toward them across the marsh. Its a little boat, and the demon who steers it, Phlegyas, gloats, thinking Dante is an evil soul that has come into his power, then swells with held-in rage when Virgil tells him they are only going to cross. Virgil gets in the boat first, but it is only when Dante gets in that the boat sinks lower in the water.
As they cross, one of the spirits wallowing in the mire asks Dante who he is. Dante recognizes him and feels no pity: Filippo Argenti is where he belongs. Filippo reaches out toward the boat, but Virgil pushes him away, and blesses Dante for his indignation, saying that this man was utterly arrogant while he lived and is now furious because no good is remembered of him. Many now living who think they are great kings will meet the same fate. Dante wants to see Filippo thrust deeper into the mire, and his wish is fulfilled when the whole crowd of angry souls attack Filippo, and he even attacks himself.
Now Dante hears more sounds of grief and gazes intently forward. Virgil tells him that they are approaching the mighty city of Dis. Dante sees its mosques, lit by the glow of the eternal fire within. They come to the gates of Dis and get out of the boat, and above the gates they see a host of fallen angels, who say that no living man may enter here. They invite Virgil to come, and tell Dante he must go back alone, if he can. Now Dante is really scared, and he begs Virgil not to go, but Virgil says their entering cant be stopped, and promises not to forsake Dante. He goes to talk to the fallen angels, now devils; Dante cant hear what theyre saying, but he sees them slam the gates shut in Virgils face. Virgil comes back with all his self-confidence gone, but he assures Dante that even now someone is on the way down the steps of Hell to open the gates of the city.
The way Dante weighs down the boat reminds us-he is a living human being, still in his body, while the others are bodiless shades. He can still choose; he is not stuck. Its interesting that, even in traditions where theres a belief in reincarnation, being in a human body is thought of as giving a unique opportunity for spiritual growth.
The scene with Filippo Argenti has horrified many readers. What kind of Christianity is this? Could it be, some ask, that Dante the pilgrim is being shown as affected by Hell, taking on the sins he condemns? One answer that has been given is that on the literal level, all the pilgrims reactions to the souls in Hell are reflections of their own state, as though to underline that they can only have what they chose while they were alive. Allegorically, its easier-Dante for the first time sees his own tendency to violent, destructive anger and summons up the energy of righteous anger to reject it. As for the political meaning, Filippo was a Florentine, and he was typical of the arrogant and violent aristocrats who were doing Florence so much damage.
The city of Dis consists of all the rest of Hell: the walls of Dis go all the way around the pit. Only within these walls does the fire of Hell burn. Allegorically, on the personal level, this is the point where Dante must begin to confront, not just his tendencies to give in to lust or anger and so on, but his actual, willed choice to do harm to others and himself, turning his back on the love that he believes has been revealed to him through Christ-and Beatrice. Virgils help is not enough, when it comes to facing this truth about himself.
Dante sees the “mosques” of the city of Dis. We saw earlier that Dante could revere the valor and wisdom of three great Muslims, Saladin, Avicenna, and Averroes, but here we see that he shared the belief that prevailed in his day, that Islam was a willed, deliberate turning away from the love revealed in Christ, a “heresy.” From that point of view, mosques are what one would expect to find in the city of Dis.