Why The Inferno?

So one year a guy asked an innocent question about why I asked you fine young people to read The Inferno of Dante, which I interpreted as a question about the relevance of The Inferno. I talked about it as a text that gives us a glimpse into historical values, as a bridge between the dominant values of the Church in the Middle Ages to the balance of faith and reason that resulted from the Renaissance. And I talked about art and beauty, and the literary achievement that is The Divine Comedy.

Virgil welcomes Dante to the Club of Great Poets.

Virgil welcomes Dante to the Club of Great Poets.

Those are all bona fide reasons to read a text like the Inferno, to read a text that has informed the content of so many Western texts that its imagery is almost unconsciously present in the minds and works of novelists and non-fiction writers alike. Plus, the outcome I have in mind through the Fun Times in Hell assignment will push your writing in directions it would otherwise never go.

The pragmatists among you might understand and accept all this rationale, yet it may or may not answer the question of relevance. What I think I wish I’d done when Andrew asked the question was refer to my Arnaldo Momigliano quote, the one I cribbed from one of Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History books. It goes a little something like this:

“In all these civilizations (Chinese, Indian, Persian, Greek, Roman) there is a profound tension between political powers and intellectual movements. Everywhere one notices attempts to introduce greater purity, greater justice, greater perfection and a more universal explanation of things.”

I would have emphasized the idea of greater purity, justice, perfection, a more universal explanation of things. It’s important to recognize that Dante doesn’t establish a system of justice; he explicates an existing system while simultaneously exorcising his own demons, and, using the writer’s toolbox, shares his perspective on the genesis of sin, as well as the appropriateness of punishment. He places both enemies and allies in Hell, for better or worse, and chastens himself for hubris when his pilgrim questions God’s will. And by writing in Italian, he does something else that speaks to me through a Thomas Cahill quote:

Languages bring values with them, and one cannot learn a language without making one’s own the things the civilization that developed the language considers important. One could not learn Greek without reading Homer, and one could not read Homer without encountering the Greek heroes and Greek gods.

And one cannot read Dante without encountering the corruption of religious and political authorities, without encountering those names that are to be revered and reviled in Western civilization, without encountering a tension between human mercy and vindictiveness, between human mercy and divine, absolute justice.

Sorry for wearing on your patience, but I’m getting to a point here, and the point is this: our sense of justice is in a constant state of flux between our belief that wrongdoers should be punished and our hope that they can be redeemed; between our desire for retribution and our sense of compassion. In one generation, our Supreme Court makes decisions that strengthen the ability of law enforcement officials to catch and convict criminals; in another, it makes decisions that protect the rights of the accused and handcuff the police and other agencies.

Our sense of justice has to come from somewhere, and it may be found as much in our nature as in our nurture. We are appalled at the idea of cutting the hands off of thieves, or stoning adulterers, yet these are forms of justice that exist today outside the Western world. But think about the degrees of guilt we accept in our society: if you beat the crap out of someone and say “faggot” or some racial slur while you’re in the midst of the beating, you’ve done something worse than just beat the crap out of someone.

And if you kill someone…well, just think about it from your experience of watching Law and Order: how many degrees of homicide are there? At the end of the day, the act is the same – there is a killed and a killer – but we have so many degrees of culpability. And where do they come from? I think they come from our desire for greater justice, for a more universal explanation of things. Motive matters because we have compassion for people who we like to believe would not otherwise have committed a crime unless some external stimuli had prompted the action. But should it?

Consider these hypothetical instances of dead-making:

My mother is in a bank. The bank is robbed. The gun goes off. My mother is killed. The crime: felony murder, a capital offense in some jurisdictions.

My mother is in a crosswalk. A banker who has had a few pops drops his cell phone, doesn’t see her and plows her over. (My poor mother – if she knew I was doing this to her, she’d disown me.) The crime: ultimately, probably some sort of aggravated driving crime that would result in no jail time.

I don’t think these comparisons are hyperbolic. We don’t sympathize with the bank robber because we think it was his choice to commit that crime, and he has to deal with the consequences. We sympathize with the impaired, distracted driver because, you know what?, that could be us.

For society to achieve a sense of fairness, it has to let go of perfection, or at least the idea that perfection is the reconciling of everyone’s individual good with the greater good. We have to be willing to acknowledge that certain contexts establish the forms justice has to take. How do we do this? Should we have a set of unyielding, absolute standards, standards that are immune from our compassion, that are sturdier than the fleeting nature of our emotion? Or should we use the prevailing emotional condition of society (terrorism? I’m willing to sacrifice some civil liberties in the name of security) to interpret those standards?

If you read this far, your sense of duty will commend you to heaven, or, at the very least, it will keep you out of the next circle of Hell that flows from my fingers onto a computer screen.

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