JFK’s Favorite Quote: “The hottest places in Hell…”

“One of President Kennedy’s favorite quotations was based upon an interpretation of Dante’s Inferno. As Robert Kennedy explained in 1964, ‘President Kennedy’s favorite quote was really from Dante, “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”‘ This supposed quotation is not actually in Dante’s work, but is based upon a similar one. In the Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil, on their way to Hell, pass by a group of dead souls outside the entrance to Hell. These individuals, when alive, remained neutral at a time of great moral decision. Virgil explains to Dante that these souls cannot enter either Heaven or Hell because they did not choose one side or another. They are therefore worse than the greatest sinners in Hell because they are repugnant to both God and Satan alike, and have been left to mourn their fate as insignificant beings neither hailed nor cursed in life or death, endlessly travailing below Heaven but outside of Hell.”   –“John F. Kennedy’s Favorite Quotations: Dante’s Inferno,” from the JFK Library

For more, see Deborah Parker’s essay “The Historical Presidency: JFK’s Dante,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 48.2 (June 2018): 357-372.

The frequently misattributed quotation was also cited by Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1967 address on the Vietnam War (see here).

Martin Luther King, Jr., on Nonviolence (March 31, 1968)

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.   Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Address delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (March 31, 1968)

Read the full transcript at the website of the King Institute, Stanford University.

The image above comes from here, courtesy of the DC Public Library.

Martin Luther King, Jr., on “The hottest places in hell…” (April 15, 1967)

“I come to participate in this significant demonstration today because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this mobilization because I cannot be a silent onlooker while evil rages. I am here because I agree with Dante, that: ‘The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.‘ In these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, there is no greater need than for sober thinking, mature judgment, and creative dissent.” [. . .]  –Martin Luther King, Jr., Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (April 15, 1967)

Read the full address here.

Images from the day of the address, including the image pictured at right, can be viewed here.

The frequently misattributed quotation was also cited multiple times in John F. Kennedy’s speeches (see here).

The Nine Circles of Libertarian Hell

Distributed-republic-blog-banner-nine-circles-libertarian-hellFirst Circle—The Virtuous Heathens: Those who care strongly about liberty in one particular sphere (e.g. freedom of speech, freedom of religious practice, the drug war, etc.) but don’t care much about it other spheres. These people are infuriating for their lack of general theory underlying their politics, but at least they’ve sorta got the right idea and can make themselves somewhat useful. This circle contains members of the NRA, ACLU & other such single-issue organizations, and is guarded by John Stuart Mill.

“Second Circle—The Lustful: Those who fall madly in love with a dim vision they have of a more egalitarian society and then hastily rush off to elope with it, without giving much thought about just how much promise there really is in the relationship. These people’s hearts are often in the right place but they show a frightening lack of concern for whether or not the policies they endorse are actually likely to accomplish the goals they desire. This circle is filled with innumerable bleeding-hearts and is guarded by Thomas Sowell. [. . .]    –Matt McIntosh, The Distributed Republic, June 30, 2007.

Read the full list of the “Libertarian circles of Hell” on the Distributed Republic.

“Dante, Trump and the moral cowardice of the G.O.P.”

“One of John F. Kennedy’s favorite quotes was something he thought came from Dante: ‘The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.’

“As it turns out, the quote is apocryphal. But what Dante did write was far better, and it came vividly to mind last week as Republicans failed to take a stand after President Trump’s racist tweets and chants of ‘Send her back,’ directed at Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who immigrated here from Somalia, at a Trump rally in North Carolina.

“In Dante’s Inferno, the moral cowards are not granted admission to Hell; they are consigned to the vestibule, where they are doomed to follow a rushing banner that is blown about by the wind. When Dante asks his guide, Virgil, who they are, he explains:

‘This miserable way is taken by sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.

They now commingle with the coward angels, the company of those who were not rebels nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.’

“They are destined to be forgotten. ‘The world will let no fame of theirs endure,’ Virgil explains. ‘Let us not talk of them, but look and pass.’ Dante describes the vast horde who chase after the elusive banner that ‘raced on so quick that any respite seemed unsuited to it.’ Behind the banner, he writes, ‘trailed so long a file/ of people—I should never have believed/ that death could have unmade so many souls.’

“And to those ranks we can now add all the politicians, pundits and camp followers who refused to take a stand when they were confronted with this stark moral choice posed by Mr. Trump’s racist attacks on four minority freshmen Democratic women.” [. . .]    –Charles Sykes, America, the Jesuit Review, July 21, 2019.

Contributed by Martin Kavka, Florida State University

Indiana voters sort out “Dante’s Inferno” GOP Senate primary

Republican voters in Indiana will pick a nominee Tuesday to challenge one of the nation’s most vulnerable Democratic senators, wrapping up a GOP primary so dominated by animosity and personal attacks that one top state party official described it as ‘Dante’s Inferno.’

“‘This race has slowly but surely descended into Dante’s Inferno,’ John Hammond III, who represents Indiana on the Republican National Committee, previously told The Associated Press.

“All three candidates have been the subject of unflattering news stories that have dredged up out-of-state living arrangements, questionable uses of tax dollars, drunken-driving convictions, voting histories and ethical transgressions.” […]    —WLWT5, May 8, 2018

President Obama Compares Election to Dante’s Inferno

“At his final state dinner Tuesday, President Barack Obama compared the current presidential election to a trip through hell.

“Obama, who was hosting Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, used a classic work of Italian literature to draw the comparison. ‘Some days our presidential campaign can seem like Dante’s Inferno,’ President Obama said in reference to the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, according to the Washington Post. The rest of the speech celebrated the relationship between the U.S. and Italy.” […]    –Daniel White, TIME, October 19, 2016

The 9 Rings of Donald Trump’s Administrative Hell

“In Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Divine Comedy, the titular character is guided through the nine circles of hell. The darker your crimes, the lower the levels of hell you descend to until you meet up with Satan himself, trapped at the center of it all.

“At the top are crimes such as heresy and failure to believe; at the bottom, closer to the devil himself, are the rings of treachery and violence. Reflecting on a campaign season during which Donald Trump literally called Hillary Clinton the devil and threatened to put her in chains, you have to wonder whether he wasn’t subconsciously projecting, given the hellish landscape he has turned his early administration into. However, it’s not the nether regions that should concern most Americans but those condemned to the outer rings for lesser crimes.

“Trump may not actually be the vision of Satan portrayed in Inferno, even if he staffs his new administration like the rings of hell. Inferno describes Satan as a ghastly creature trapped by his own vanity with three faces: one red, one yellow and one black. The fact that Trump is now in a position that he has lusted after for years but is equally overwhelmed and unprepared for is strangely apropos.

“While Trump does not have leather wings, he is banishing those who dared not believe in him to limbo, and surrounding himself with white nationalists, terror sympathizers and warmongers. Anyone thinking that perhaps Trump’s own erratic tendencies would be balanced out by some sort of smart team of rivals should take note of the entryway to hell: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” […]    –Jason Johnson, The Root, November 26, 2016

Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell and the Internet Inferno

“I’ve seen several references to various social media apps and the Seven Deadly Sins, but as I consider the darkness that seems to breed in social media circles — from teen bullying on Snapchat and Instagram, to Twitter trolls threatening female reporters in India with rape and abuse, to child pornography on the Dark Web and the children who suffer miserably, literally living in hell for predators’ public pleasure — Dante’s Inferno comes to mind, and how this ancient story from 1300 might actually describe our reality right now, as we enter the Information Age of our human development.

[. . .]

“Unfortunately our technology is held hostage by the worst of us. Until we can turn the technology around and use it against those who commit such evil, we can’t get out of the woods. However, Dante and Virgil do make it out of Hell. Interestingly the poets cross through the barren wasteland and to the river of forgetfulness, emerging from Hell on Easter morning.

“I find it interesting that they must forget the darkness in order to leave Hell and make their way to Heaven, where true connection, love and solidarity await. What must we forget in order to fulfill the promise of the Internet and the idea of a globally connected world?

“Our hate? Our jealousy? Our anger? Our fear? Our ignorance? Our greed? Our lust? Our mistrust?

“I imagine so. In the meantime, our experiences online seem to be on one hand accelerating and enabling those who wish to sow the seeds of discontent and on the other hand bringing us together, enabling the collection and sharing of information and knowledge, and making us aware of those places and people in our community who are in need. If we can rid ourselves of our lower natures and focus on the fact that when we’re online, we’re actively creating a world together, perhaps someday we will hold Beatrice in our embrace, and finally find human connection at the deepest, most satisfying level.”    –Nicole Sallak Anderson, “Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell and the Internet Inferno,” Medium, October 25, 2017

“Michael Wolff’s trip inside Trumpworld, and inside the president’s head, with Steve Bannon as guide”

“So the new Wolff book is much like the last one: a sail through the Trump diaspora and inside the president’s head with Bannon as the cruise director. [. . .]

“In the acknowledgments, Bannon is the only named source whom Wolff thanks, praising him effusively and, in an allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy, calling him ‘the Virgil anyone might be lucky enough to have as a guide for a descent into Trumpworld.’ In reality Bannon is more like Wolff’s Farinata, the former Florentine political leader whom Dante portrays as banished to the circle of hell for heretics, where, alone in his tomb, he still obsesses about his own era in politics but has no access to current events unless one of the dead brings him a snippet of news from the center of power.” [. . .]    –Ryan Lizza, The Washington Post, May 29, 2019.

Contributor Michael VanValkenburgh offers a correction to Lizza’s Farinata comparison, commenting “He is wrong to say Farinata is ‘alone in his tomb.'”