And we made the point that classic texts are those which have proven their worth over centuries, even millennia, not the latest and fashionable books spouting clichéd memes. Dante, we said, is a good example of just such an author who is valuable to read and, further, to study. Indeed, although he died 699 years ago, his work is as topical and relevant now as it was then.
Determinism or Free Will?British writer A.N. Wilson in his book “Dante in Love” puts it this way: ‘The story of Christian theology—and it could be said, the whole story of Western thought—has been an everlasting battle between Determinism and some effort at declaring a belief in our freedom to make moral choices. If we are no more than the sum of our DNA, or no more than what the materialist forces of history have made us, or no more than the product of our social environment, then the courts of law—let alone Hell—are monstrous engines of injustice; for how can someone be held to account for his behavior if it is all preordained?”
Isn’t being held to account for one’s behavior—or not—one of the issues of the hour now in America?
Determinism leads to helpless hand-wringing, evasion, and the notion that one is a victim of circumstances. This is nowhere more apparent than in the increasing consensus that criminals are not criminals, that they cannot help their crimes and so need help rather than correction, and that one must not, therefore, judge them or even their behavior.
As writer Theodore Dalrymple observed in his book “Our Culture, What's Left of It”: “When young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as 'non-judgmental.' For them, the highest form of morality is amorality.”
This attitude manifested in looking at the riots across America, and even in the UK many of the media persistently describe the rioters as “peaceful” and seem to want to minimize the idea that they are culpable for the damage or injury they inflict. Why, so the media suggest, they are protesting rightly against societal wrongs!
As Robert Oulds, director of The Bruges Group, in his “Moralitis: A Cultural Virus,” commented: “[This attitude] is damaging the very social justice causes that it was supposed to help, because it has abandoned reality in favor of an emotive and irrational phenomenology of grievance.” For “grievance,” we can clearly read “victim status.”
Possessed by RealitySo, while the ideas of free will and personal responsibility are not Dante’s own, his poem powerfully explores their ramifications. The whole three-tier structure of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise demonstrates what happens when people exercise their will, or ignore the reality of it.
First, think about our relationship to reality. In “What's My Type: Use the Enneagram,” author Kathleen V. Hurley wrote: “We come to understand that reality lies not in what can be seen and touched and possessed, but rather in what is unseen, intangible, and can be possessed by no one. Indeed, reality begins to possess us.”
In this sense, “The Divine Comedy” is a profound commentary on our lives’ choices, and on novelist Ayn Rand’s perception that “we can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.” Our actions—our thoughts, our motivations—matter, and eventually they catch up with us, if not in this life, then in the next.
There is a poignant and powerful moment at the end of Canto 29 of the “Inferno” where Capocchio, an alchemist and falsifier of nature, admits to Dante (following Clive James’s loose but expressive translation here): “My trade/ Was falsifying nature. I did well/ In life. But everything is real in Hell.” The consequences of reality cannot be avoided; we make decisions, but then the decisions, as in Hurley’s phrase, possess us.
Psychology of AddictionThe first tier, Hell, is for those who take no responsibility for their actions. They are condemned forever to repeat their dysfunctional behaviors, their self-pitying words, and their obsessive and repetitive thoughts; they cannot break free from the decisions they have made in their mortal life. And, in a profound sense, they don’t want to.
Perhaps the best parallel we can find for this kind of behavior in our life now is addiction: Addicts often know that drugs, drink, gambling, sex, or whatever else obsesses them are bad for them or have them in thrall, as it were; but still, knowing that, they cannot break free.
Hell, then, is a place where we cannot break away because we do not want to. We prefer to be in Hell; that is our choice, our free choice. As A.N. Wilson says, “No one is in Hell who did not in a sense choose to be there.” Or as Dorothy L. Sayers expresses it more positively in “A Matter of Eternity,” “Hell is the enjoyment of your own way forever.”
We have got what we want—but no more; no Paradise, and no change from the misery that is our choice.
Long ago in 1912, scholar Edmund Garratt Gardner wrote: “Let all Hell, all the world, even all the hosts of Heaven, come together and combine in this one thing; they will not avail to extort a single consent from free will in anything not willed.”
Neglecting the SoulPutting all this in secular and psychological terms, Irish poet Thomas Moore says: “When soul is neglected, it doesn't just go away, it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence and loss of meaning.” What a brilliant way of interpreting the problem: The soul—or what we nowadays call the Self—is “neglected.”
We see this very clearly in addicted people—that lack of attention to themselves, that lack of pride in themselves, and everything they have, eventually, becoming subordinated to only one thing: their “fix.” And “fixed” they are.
But criminal behavior, too, is equally a kind of “fix,” as Dante reveals only too well. For example, as we finally discover in the lowest depth of Hell, Satan is fixed there along with history’s three greatest traitors: Cassius, Brutus, and Judas Iscariot.
The ancients thought the same. Krishna in the Indian scriptures speaks of doers of evil, ignorant men whose passion for lust, wrath, and avarice are a threefold way to Hell, as explained in Donald A. Mackenzie’s “Indian Myth and Legend.” How interesting that Krishna identifies three of the major sins we find in Dante: lust, wrath, and avarice.
The modern Western world doesn’t like even the idea of Hell—doesn’t like God being “judgmental”—and so seeks to undermine its credibility. Dante is a salutary reminder that freedom is good, our ultimate goal in fact, yet its misuse has dire and eternal consequences.
The great poet W.B. Yeats said, “The imagination has some way of lighting on the truth which reason has not …” This is exactly what we have in Dante’s incredible poem and his depiction of Hell: truth.
If this is Hell, then what happens in Purgatory and Paradise? How are they different, and what states of mind make all the difference, so that one can be there rather than in Hell? These are the topics of our next article.