Few works of literature have had the lasting and extensive influence of Dante’s “Inferno.” Just take a walk by Cantor to see how Auguste Rodin was inspired by the Inferno: The Thinker, the Gates of Hell and the kiss between Francesca and Paolo. Great writers as diverse as Chaucer, Balzac, T.S. Eliot and Primo Levi were influenced by Dante and borrow heavily from his work in the “Inferno.”
Often, people try to render Dante’s “Inferno” more comprehensible by creating adaptations that fit Dante’s classic to a modern context. Though modernization of classical literature can further understanding, perhaps it is even more essential to defamiliarize our reality by placing it in the mirror of the Inferno.
Let’s descend, shall we?
Excess. A concept that is visible in several sins in Dante’s circles of Hell. One such set of sinners are the gluttonous. Gluttony is, of course, the compulsion or inability to stop eating. However, it extends much beyond the literal excessive consumption of food. Gluttony can be seen in the insatiability of modern capitalism. It represents the desire to constantly consume, to always have the best and the newest products. Without gluttony, capitalism and consumerism would cease to exist. Furthermore, the foundations of modern capitalism originate in the sin of usury, or the practice of lending money with high rates of interest. Usury is commonplace in our banking system.
In Dante’s Inferno, the punishments that sinners receive are a direct response of the sins that they committed. This is known in Italian as contrapasso, or counter-suffering. The lustful are eternally battered by capricious winds, and the heretics are locked in tombs. Essentially, contrapasso is retributive justice.
Though contrapasso punishments are in the spirit of the law, we must ask: does that make them right? It is a pertinent question, as retributive justice exists today, both in legal systems and unofficially. Capital punishment is legal in 31 states in the United States. In 2017, 23 individuals on death row were executed in the US. Between 1985 and 2003, 22 people were killed for crimes that they had committed as juveniles. Though Roper v. Simmons in 2005 outlawed this practice and declared it unconstitutional, for nearly 20 years, our criminal justice used retributive justice to punish individuals who had committed crimes before they even had the right to vote.
Furthermore, it is not proven that retributive justice actually deters crimes. In 2012, the National Research Council released a report that stated that previous studies that showed the death penalty provided an incentive against murder were “fundamentally flawed.” Additionally, the 2016 FBI Uniform Crime Report found that though the South is responsible for more than 80 percent of executions from death row, the South also has the highest murder rate in the country.
Thus, we must ask ourselves, what kind of justice relies on such extreme punishments? Especially as we descend further into Hell, the punishments become even more deliberately enormous. “Enorme” in Italian, in fact means beyond norm. The Hell in Dante’s Inferno is visible all over our world whenever a higher power believes in the right to distribute justice.
Outside of official legal systems, the desire for retributive justice can launch us into the infernal cycle of reciprocal violence that has plagued humanity for most of our history. Inherently, the thirst for retaliation comes from hatred. Thus, people always seem to retaliate in excess, leading to perpetual escalation.
This quest for excessive retaliation splits people into an “us vs. them” mentality and today, many societies in our world are splitting into factions. There is discord about accommodating refugees and fulfilling international commitments such as the Paris Climate Agreements. Italy’s most recent election illustrates the anti-European Union and anti-immigration sentiments in the country. The rise of populism in Italy, especially stronger right-wing influence in some circles, deepens the schism between people of differing political beliefs. Italy’s politics show that though French voters managed to defeat Marine Le Pen and turn away from the right, Europe’s populist days are far from over.
In the United States too, we are living in an extremely polarized, fragmented society. Democrats fight Republicans. Pro-choice against pro-life. Everything has turned into an “us vs. them” mentality, and there is no space for dialogue with the other side. We forget our neighbors. Sometimes, we appear to let hate and anger triumph over what is good and what is just. However, retaliation against others only serves to create greater factions between opposing sides and more fear, violence and anger. Through mimetic violence, we can become indistinguishable from our enemies.
In this polarized time, it is important to remember Dante and the dangers of division and retaliation. When Dante crosses the bridge into the tenth and final subcircle, or bolgia, of Malebolge, he sees Geri del Bello, who was father’s first cousin, shake his fist at him. In his life, Geri del Bello was infamous for sowing discord. Geri del Bello was killed by a warring faction in Florence and is angry that Dante has not avenged his death. While Dante feels momentary guilt that he has not avenged his kinsman, he does not act. Dante’s choice illustrates that though anger and anguish can lead to a thirst for retaliation, it’s possible to recognize that this is not the best course of action.
Excess and power follows Dante further into Hell. Infamous giants from mythology and Christianity connect the eighth and ninth circles of Hell. These giants are enormous figures with tremendous physical power. However, the strength of the giants comes without intelligence. The belief in entitlement to power lies in the psychology of megalomania. We can see this destructive psychology in the corruption, abuse, scandal and crimes that President Trump and his advisors have committed, illustrating the dangers of power without intelligence. An egocentric thirst for power is a dangerous and frightening characteristic in one of the leaders of the free world.
In light of our current world climate, Dante’s final lesson is that even neutrality and passivity are incredibly dangerous. In the first circle of Hell, Dante passes sinners who never chose a side in life. He does not even choose to engage with them. Those who remained neutral even when morality was at stake do not get their own speeches in the Inferno. As my professor, Robert Harrison, said, “Beware of neutrality when the situation demands an existential decision.” Thus, even though choosing sides can be divisive, it is also essential. People need to act; to mobilize to defend the issues and values that they care about: basic human rights, equality, the environment, the climate. The world, now more than ever, needs good advocates. And while fighting for what you believe in, do not forget to speak to your neighbors and your adversaries. Dante engages with people in each circle. He never pretends to be morally superior to anyone and his experiences show that we can all be susceptible to immoral action.
Dante probes his sinners’ psyches deeply. Many of the sinners’ speeches appear as a stream of consciousness, which can be a mind trick to avoid self-confrontation. This form of speaking using a self-reflective self-consciousness is widely used in modern literature. As Professor Harrison said, “In literary history, history does not matter.” All literature and all stories can be contemporaries of one another. Thus, some of the seemingly incomprehensible anger, violence and egoism in our world can be contextualized through Dante’s “Inferno.”
Contact Sophie Stuber at sstuber8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.