The 700 Year Old Lessons of Dante’s Inferno As Applied to the 2016 Presidential Campaign

Op-Ed by Dan Burstein

“Some days our presidential campaign can seem like Dante’s Inferno,” President Obama said to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi during the Italian leader’s recent White House visit. Obama’s remark about the Clinton/Trump campaign was in the context of a slew of references to cultural icons aptly chosen for the Italianate occasion, but there is more to the Dante reference than just a random allusion.

Dante and his imagery of Hell figure heavily in Inferno, the Ron Howard/Tom Hanks film that opened last month based on Dan Brown’s 2013 thriller of the same name. Scholars cringe over Dan Brown’s misappropriation of Dante in his pop culture stew—and are undoubtedly cringing even harder at the movie version. But the novel and the film contribute to bringing Dante back into the public conversation. And that is a good thing, especially if that public conversation reaches our nation’s political leadership in Washington.

An actor who dresses up as Dante and recites the Divine Comedy near Dante's family home in Florence. Photo by Julie O'Connor.

An actor who dresses up as Dante and recites the Divine Comedy near Dante’s family home in Florence. Photo by Julie O’Connor.

Re-reading the Divine Comedy myself a few years ago for the first time in more than four decades, I was struck by how important a political epic it is. Known in history primarily for its poetic artistry, theological arguments, and role in encouraging the shift from Latin to vernacular Italian, Dante’s master work is also a major commentary on political leadership and mis-leadership. Democrats as well as Republicans, the White House as well as the Congress, and even the Supreme Court, would all do well to revisit it at this historical juncture.

The Divine Comedy (within which Inferno is the first of three books) is relevant today, more than 700 years after it was written, in large part because of Dante’s polemic against excessive and extreme partisanship. We rail against this same problem in our 21st century politics, but few if any modern commentators can muster the ferocity of poetic imagery Dante uses to condemn those who divide people, cities, and the nation into warring camps for their own political and personal gain.

Over and over again, Dante returns to the dangers of political warfare between parties, among the city-states of Italy, and between forces of the Emperor and forces of the Pope. His own personal story of politics, war, and ultimate exile from the Florence he loved, is bound up in the century-long Guelph/Ghibelline civil wars. Even after the Florentine victory of Dante’s own party (the Guelphs), worse in-fighting broke out between the warring factions of Black and White Guelphs.

Dante’s vision of the Inferno (Hell) is a place where eternal punishments are designed to fit the crimes committed in life. The punishments Dante imagines for the factionalists are particularly vivid: He condemns to the Inferno both the Guelph leader of Pisa, Ugolino, and his enemy, the Ghibelline Archbishop Ruggieri. They dwell in Hell for all eternity with Ugolino perpetually gnawing at the head of Ruggieri, while both are encased up to their necks in tortuously, extremely cold ice.

Dante uses the imagery of physical cannibalism as a metaphor for those who would cannibalize the common good of Florence or other communities through partisanship, factionalism, and betrayal. Dante returns to cannibalism when he arrives in the very base of Hell. There, he finds a monstrous Satan perpetually gnawing on those Dante deems to be the three worst people in history–Judas, who betrayed Jesus, and Brutus and Cassius who betrayed Julius Caesar by conspiring against him and then assassinating him, setting in motion the ultimate collapse of the Roman Empire.

Even short of cannibalism, the partisan zealots are pictured as suffering frightening fates. In Canto 6 of Inferno, Dante inquires about several leaders of both Guelphs and Ghibellines from his own 13th century. These are all people who had been in and out of power, led battles, wars, purges, and murders of opponents. He is shocked to discover that every person he asks about has been condemned to be punished in the Inferno, even those Guelph leaders whom he had been taught as a young man to honor.

Dante consigns to the Inferno numerous political and religious leaders who promoted partisanship for their own selfish reasons and allowed Florence to be turned from a glorious city with relative unanimity of civic purpose to a state of near-permanent civil war. Although Dante fought on the side of the Papacy in a famous military battle and considers himself a devoted Catholic, he condemns several Popes and numerous powerful religious figures to the Inferno for their hypocrisy and their promotion of conflict for un-holy goals.

On the other hand, Dante honors a few among his own real life political opponents who were trying to do something virtuous for Florence. As a way of praising their bipartisanship, he promotes them out of the Inferno and to Purgatory (where there is some hope of purging their sins and eventually achieving redemption). Dante constantly seeks to contrast his Florentine enemies from Pisa or Siena who did some good works or had better approaches to good government with the false patriots of Florence who were self-interested and hypocritical in their alleged love for their city.

Those who shied away from acting as zealots themselves in favor of neutrality or resignation are not exempt from eternal condemnation. Pope Celestine V—the last Pope to choose to resign voluntarily prior to Pope Benedict XVI in 2013—did so in the late 13th century, allowing Pope Boniface VIII to take over. Boniface is skewered and satirized in ways that make it clear he was among Dante’s most hated enemies. This Pope ends up in the Inferno’s nightmarish pit of the “Simonists” (religious officials who sold out holy principles for money and power).

The sin of simony can be analogized to today’s political figures who sell out the country and their principles to lobbyists and other forces of big money in politics. Boniface is clearly guilty of these crimes. But Dante makes the case that Celestine, who was generally regarded as a saintly man, paved the way for Boniface as a result of his resignation. He is therefore treated as an accessory to Boniface’s crimes. Indeed, Celestine is condemned to the antechamber of Hell for what Dante calls the “cowardice” of his resignation.

Dante excoriates the gridlock that dominates Florence and particularly condemns the way one administration passes a law only to have it overturned by the next. In words that sound torn from current political debate over Obamacare, Dante asserts that society has to let new laws go into force for a good length of time, and have the public gain experience with them, before determining they need to be overturned. Dante was not only a poet, he was a Florentine legislator before his exile. So he knows whereof he speaks when he criticizes lawmakers for the constant partisan shifts and personal power grabs that, according to him, make the laws they pass in October not even last “until mid-November.”

Dante’s idea of political utopia is a naive and nostalgic view of how well government worked in the glory days of the Roman Empire. Nowhere does he suggest he has any recognition that the slaves, the plebeians, and those conquered by Rome may not have had the same benign view of how well the empire functioned.

But we can learn much from the power of Dante’s poetry to call attention to just how abhorrent and dangerous partisanship and gridlock can be. Dante calls out across the centuries to all of us, particularly those who would be leaders and lawmakers, to step off the road that leads to the dark moral forest and re-examine our lives, our beliefs, and our actions…before it is too late.

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Dan Burstein is co-author of Secrets of Inferno: In the Footsteps of Dante and Dan Brown. He has written or edited four prior guidebooks to the fiction of Dan Brown, including the bestsellers Secrets of the Code and Secrets of Angels & Demons.

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