More Dante Now, Please! (Part 2): Let’s Hear It for Free Will!

November 25, 2020 Updated: January 6, 2021

In Part 1 of this article, we spoke of the importance of young minds being exposed to great literature—though the point is true for all people of whatever age. Great literature can provide an antidote to “woke” virtue signaling, and also provide a context within which some real thinking about life, the meaning of life, and our purpose can be explored.

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.

Perhaps the most important area in which Dante is decisive and adamant is on the question of human free will. On this, everything depends—and by “everything” I don’t just mean his “Divine Comedy” or the rationale for the poem, or even “just” Christianity (whose theology underpins the poem), but I mean Western civilization itself.

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?

The consequences of not maintaining the core belief in free will are all around us. To believe in free will (and incidentally, William James, the father of American psychology, expressed this wonderfully in his aphorism “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will”) is to take personal responsibility for one’s own fate and situation. Whereas, the contrary is the consequence of Determinism.

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William James. Houghton Library, Harvard University. (Public Domain)

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.”

To be very clear, I am not saying that we need to be Catholic, as Dante was, or even Christian in order to believe in free will, but it is essential that we do believe in free will. The famous 18th-century atheist Edward Gibbon (as cited by Margaret Thatcher) allegedly observed of the Athenian Greeks: “In the end more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.”

This statement is a profound observation that is still true, and it means that empires and civilizations are conquered not from without, but from within. What could be a starker witness to our present peril?

Possessed by Reality

So, 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.

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Novelist Ayn Rand in 1943. (Public Domain)

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.

Dore's Capocchio
The torments of Hell endured by Capocchio, in an illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante’s “Inferno.” (Public Domain)

What “The Divine Comedy” reveals is that there are three levels of decision making.

Psychology of Addiction

The 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.

Keith Humphreys, a leading professor on the psychology of addiction, put this amusingly when he said, “The existence of Starbucks is evidence that man is an irrational creature.” Though not life-threatening in the same way as drugs, even coffee has the power to make us drink it when we know the fifth cup is far too many!

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.”

The power is in our will to decide, and not even God overrides this freedom. Indeed, freedom is the backstop of love itself, as Dante’s poem makes clear, for love cannot be love if it is not freely given.

Neglecting the Soul

Putting 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.

“Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell
“Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell,” 1861, by Gustave Doré. Oil on canvas, 10.3 feet by 14.7 feet.  Brou Museum, Bourge-en-Bresse. (Public Domain)

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.

Please also see “More Dante Now, Please! (Part 1): How Dante Provokes Thinking.

James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won the first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and spoke in June 2019 at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.