Commentary Inf III 52-57
Dante's essential technique for indicating the crucial moral failures of his various groups of sinners is here before us for the first time. The neutrals, who never took a side, are portrayed as an organized crowd following a banner: exactly what they were not in life (e.g., the neutral angels who neither rebelled directly against God nor stood with Him, but who kept to one side). And in this respect the neutrals are punished by being forced to assume a pose antithetic to that which they struck in life. At the same time, the banner that they follow is the very essence of indeterminacy. Not only is there no identifying sign on it, but is not held in the anchoring hand of any standard-bearer; it is a parody of the standard that is raised before a body of men who follow a leader. Elsewhere we will encounter other such symbolic artifacts. In Dante's hell the punishment of sin involves the application of opposites and similarities. Here the sinners do the opposite of what they did (form into an organized group) and the same (follow no fixed purpose). This form of just retribution is what Dante will later refer to as the contrapasso ([Inf. XXVIII. 142]).