Elizabeth Coggeshall, “Bad Apples and Sour Trees”

“Among the Times photographs, there is an image of a Black protester in Atlanta, cutting through the smoke, his open palms raised. He cries out, a vox clamantis in deserto, in righteous rage against the injustice that killed George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans. His defiant approach is a picture of the words Virgil uses to describe his charge at the entrance to Purgatory: ‘He goes seeking freedom, which is so precious, as one knows who gives up his life for its sake.’

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.

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).

How a Museum Reckons With Black Pain (2016)

A woman passes a display depicting the Mexico Olympic protest during a media preview at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, U.S., September 14, 2016. The museum will open to the public on September 24. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. - RTSNR10

A woman passes a display depicting the Mexico Olympic protest during a media preview at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, U.S., September 14, 2016.

“The Smithsonian’s new memorial of African American history and culture is at once triumphant and crushing.” […]

“The descent and ascent achieve an effect similar to Dante’s harrowing journey in Inferno, and the walk upwards through Reconstruction, Redemption, the civil-rights movement, and into the present day is a reminder of the constant push and pull of horror and protest.”    –Vann R. Newkirk II, The Atlantic, September 23, 2016

Contributed by Pamela Montanaro

“The Price of Loyalty in Syria”

the-price-of-loyalty-in-syria“. . .One night in Damascus, I met a 33-year-old computer programmer named Amir who had been part of the nonviolent protest movement from the beginning. . .
I asked if he was still active in the rebellion. ‘They put me in prison for two days,’ he said. ‘I was not tortured, no one even said a bad word to me. But for me it was — ‘ He stumbled for words, then turned toward me. ‘You know how Dante went to hell and was allowed to return? This cell was 10 meters square, with 152 people in it. It was two stories underground. There is no air, you feel constantly that you will choke. They had an undeclared system: for the first week, you stand, all day and all night. Then you get to lean against the wall for a few days. Then you get to sit. When you are standing, you are terrified to fall asleep, because you may never get up. Some people were there for only a few hours, some for days or weeks, and some had been tortured in ways I never imagined. For food, you get a bit of bread and some water, but that does not matter. You get about 30 seconds, once a day, in the bathroom, but trust me, you are not even worried about that. Because there are people in there who are literally asking for death.'” [. . .]    –Robert F. Worth, The New York Times, June 19, 2013

Occupy New Haven

occupy-new-haven

Contributed by Aisha Woodward (Bowdoin, ’08)

Cgil Strike, Genova, December 2008

cgil-strike-genovaThe sign cites (with a little alteration) from Inferno XXVI, 118-120
Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.’
Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.
(trans. Mandelbaum)

Contributed by Virginia Jewiss (Humanities Program, Yale University)

Dante in Protest

dante-in-protest
(Photo by Kavi Montanaro, October 21, 2008)

Banner on Via dei Servi in Florence, Italy. Students, faculty, and parents protesting funding cuts in education and privatization of the school and university systems.
Virgil is saying to Dante, “But no, Dante!… Even Inferno is now privatized… A single fiorino [medieval unit of currency] is no longer enough…”