“Dante Alighieri and the World”

“There was the endeavour to untangle knots — truth and lie, sin and redemption, piety and lust. There was always the goal to risk all for truth. Take this tercet from Dante Alighieri:

‘When truth looks like a lie,
a man’s to blame
Not to sit still, if he can, and
hold his tongue,
Or he’ll only cover his
innocent head with shame.’

“Scribes and great TV anchors, who can give a spin to any development, should heed the lines. We need to take sides when truth stares you in the face. In Canto III, some angels did not take sides when Satan revolted, but timorously sat on the fence. They were placed lock, stock and barrel in Hell. The colourless mediocrities most of us are, get short shrift. He talks about the ‘sorry souls who won neither praise nor blame for the lives they led’. Of course, the first words we learnt of Dante’s Inferno, as students, were ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here’, the inscription on the gates of Hell. During the lockdown, I thought that the three translations of Dante I possess should be put to good use. One hoards books and never reads them, though 20 years back I had read Dorothy Sayers’ fine translation of Inferno my father had left me. Michael Palme’s translation is better. What Dante did was mind-boggling. The entire European civilisation was placed before the reader, from Greek legends onwards. You have a full canto on the Dis, which is his word for the underworld. The river Lethe, Acheron the boatman who herds the souls who drop: ‘So from the bank there one by one drop all… As drops the falcon to the falconer’s call.’ The eighth circle gets flatterers (half our political parties would be in trouble, praising the 8 pm lockdowns, or the two-line denunciations by Rahul G). There are also soothsayers in the same circle (good grief, our Chandraswamis with red tilaks and rudraksh malas!). Actually, you can’t honestly exclude we Indians from any inferno you can devise.”    –Keki Daruwalla, The Tribune, August 2, 2020

Guy Raffa, “There’s a Special Place in Dante’s Inferno for Wafflers and Neutral Souls”

“Dante’s Divine Comedy, an epic poem recounting the Florentine’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, remains the go-to guide to the afterlife, the world’s most famous travelogue for the great beyond. But Dante matters more than that. Dante’s encounters with the dead offer enduring lessons for the living, including one that speaks with vital urgency to us today.

“Consider California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s press conference on June 5, 2020, as a Dantean case study. The governor insisted that ‘we’—institutions and the community at large—must change to combat systemic anti-Black racism. Urging individuals to ‘take a stand,’ he quoted the medieval Italian poet: ‘Dante infamously said that the hottest place in hell is reserved for those in a time of moral crisis that maintain their neutrality.’ The lesson drawn by Gov. Newsom? ‘This is not the time to be neutral.’

“This might be the place for me to stop, tear out my hair (or what’s left of it), and object, ‘Dante never said those words! They imply that neutrality is the worst sin for Dante, but treachery is, and the punishment for that sin isn’t fire but ice!’ But I won’t do that, because the complicated life of this fictitious quotation is so deeply embedded in U.S. history that the correction is pointless.”   –Guy P. Raffa, “There’s a Special Place in Dante’s Inferno for Wafflers and Neutral Souls,” Zócalo Public Square (August 31, 2020)

See also our posts on the use of the famous (mis)quotation by Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy.

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).