Politics as Dante's Inferno

Literature professor that I am, I appreciate this application of the unutterably great Dante to today’s political and cultural woes.  It’s by Henry G. Brinton, pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, who got it published in USA Today:

In Inferno, hell is cold at its deepest levels, not hot. People are frozen in place, eternally. Nothing ever changes. . . .

The hell that Dante envisions is a series of concentric circles, containing the souls of people being punished for a variety of sins. His poem is “the drama of the soul’s choice,” according to English crime writer and poet Dorothy Sayers. The seriousness of the sin increases as the observer moves downward from the first circle to the ninth; for instance, the residents of the second circle are being punished for lust, while the souls in the ninth are suffering for treacherous fraud against individuals and communities. . . .

In Dante’s frozen ninth circle, there are two damned souls who do not face each other. Instead, they are pressed together chest to back, with one gnawing the back of the other’s head. I think of my Facebook friends who send blistering political messages, containing insults that they would never deliver face to face. . . .

Says Peter Hawkins of Yale Divinity School, a Dante scholar, “Among the many things lost at this depth is the notion of e pluribus unum, one out of many.” Here, private egos run wild, with no chance of healthy partnership.

In this ninth circle, the man who is eating the other’s head is an Italian count who was betrayed by an archbishop and locked in a tower to starve to death. The two men are traitors who represent corruption within both the state and the church, but what locks them in hell is the hatred they chose in the last moments of their lives. Dante is reminding us that we don’t have to choose that path.

We can all choose to do better, right along with the characters of The Divine Comedy. As the story moves from Inferno to Purgatorio to Paradiso, the focus of the characters shifts — they gradually move from looking at each other to gazing upward toward “the love which moves the sun and the other stars.”. . .

Politics is so often a zero-sum game, with one candidate’s gain coming from another’s loss, but Dante offers a heavenly ideal of sharing and mutuality. “In the Paradiso,” says Alan Jones, dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church in San Francisco, “love is the only ‘commodity’ that isn’t diminished by sharing.”

via Column: When politics freezes over – USATODAY.com.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Abby

    I may be getting this wrong, but once you go to hell you can work your way back out?

  • Abby

    I may be getting this wrong, but once you go to hell you can work your way back out?

  • Abby

    Sorry, my question is off topic.

  • Abby

    Sorry, my question is off topic.

  • http://fivepintlutheran2.wordpress.com/ David Cochrane

    ” Hell is repetition. But then we all knew that.” Andre Lanoche, Storm of the Century by Stephen King.

    Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results
    Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins133991.html#msVmZ0Asyhgmpd3V.99

  • http://fivepintlutheran2.wordpress.com/ David Cochrane

    ” Hell is repetition. But then we all knew that.” Andre Lanoche, Storm of the Century by Stephen King.

    Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results
    Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins133991.html#msVmZ0Asyhgmpd3V.99

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Anybody read the Niven & Pournelle version of The Inferno?

    Down in the frozen Ninth Circle were two senators from opposite parties who had voted opposite of each other on an issue of national defense. Their crime was that each had voted opposite their respective conscience, but according to their respective party’s line.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Anybody read the Niven & Pournelle version of The Inferno?

    Down in the frozen Ninth Circle were two senators from opposite parties who had voted opposite of each other on an issue of national defense. Their crime was that each had voted opposite their respective conscience, but according to their respective party’s line.

  • Rose

    Soon the Chicago boys will begin to cannibalize Romney.
    But it won’t be mutual.
    There are two Great Unmentionables in this presidential race:
    1. Romney had a great father and Obama had a skunk.
    His foster-father mentors were skunks too.
    Romney has miles of training and experience in being a man and discipling young men.
    2. There are 40,000 unrepentant American women who had abortions. Never speak of them.
    There would be mass psychotic break if they realized their sin
    without receiving grace.
    Women project their error onto men: Men are responsible and Democrats feed this projection: the gigantic issue must be men who are refusing to pay for birth control.

  • Rose

    Soon the Chicago boys will begin to cannibalize Romney.
    But it won’t be mutual.
    There are two Great Unmentionables in this presidential race:
    1. Romney had a great father and Obama had a skunk.
    His foster-father mentors were skunks too.
    Romney has miles of training and experience in being a man and discipling young men.
    2. There are 40,000 unrepentant American women who had abortions. Never speak of them.
    There would be mass psychotic break if they realized their sin
    without receiving grace.
    Women project their error onto men: Men are responsible and Democrats feed this projection: the gigantic issue must be men who are refusing to pay for birth control.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Rose, congratulations on being prime exhibit no.1!

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Rose, congratulations on being prime exhibit no.1!

  • Joanne

    Dante was a politician, who being a White Guelph, was on the losing side and spent most of his middle and late life in exile. His body, a far as we know, is still in Ravenna, a favorite place of mine, and not in the magnificent sarcophagus in San Lorenzo. He was perfectly capable of writing just like Rose, and made great friends and enemies wherever he went. And, as you might imagine his friends were in nice places in his great poem and his enemies and otherwise popularly bad persons were in bad places.

    I don’t think anyone would say that it was the depth of his thoughts on heaven and hell that made his work so seminal, but rather his radiant use of Italian, the vulgar tongue. The French say he created the Italian language. Most everyone who could read did read it, but especially understand it when it was read aloud by excellent readers of poetry. It could be performed in parlors or large rooms and even the ladies would know and recognize some of the scandalous but powerful he dared to put right where they belonged. His local Florentine political brawlers got their share.

    Chaucer, another diplomat, and Boccacio would continue to write novel sized poems later in the 14th century in the vernacular. Latin continued till about 1800 as the language of scholarship and any really important matters that must be understood all over Europe, like a contract for a wife between great families.

    I honestly never cared for The Comedia. It’s way too artificial for my tastes. However, if I were to study it as a document of early Italian language, I would probably adore his use of language.

  • Joanne

    Dante was a politician, who being a White Guelph, was on the losing side and spent most of his middle and late life in exile. His body, a far as we know, is still in Ravenna, a favorite place of mine, and not in the magnificent sarcophagus in San Lorenzo. He was perfectly capable of writing just like Rose, and made great friends and enemies wherever he went. And, as you might imagine his friends were in nice places in his great poem and his enemies and otherwise popularly bad persons were in bad places.

    I don’t think anyone would say that it was the depth of his thoughts on heaven and hell that made his work so seminal, but rather his radiant use of Italian, the vulgar tongue. The French say he created the Italian language. Most everyone who could read did read it, but especially understand it when it was read aloud by excellent readers of poetry. It could be performed in parlors or large rooms and even the ladies would know and recognize some of the scandalous but powerful he dared to put right where they belonged. His local Florentine political brawlers got their share.

    Chaucer, another diplomat, and Boccacio would continue to write novel sized poems later in the 14th century in the vernacular. Latin continued till about 1800 as the language of scholarship and any really important matters that must be understood all over Europe, like a contract for a wife between great families.

    I honestly never cared for The Comedia. It’s way too artificial for my tastes. However, if I were to study it as a document of early Italian language, I would probably adore his use of language.

  • helen

    Only forty thousand unrepentant women and fifty million abortions?

  • helen

    Only forty thousand unrepentant women and fifty million abortions?

  • helen

    Abby @ 1

    Political hell, maybe, but I’m beginning to doubt that, too.

  • helen

    Abby @ 1

    Political hell, maybe, but I’m beginning to doubt that, too.


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