I’ve never really been one for writing book reviews. That’s what the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) is for, among many other outlets. But I did just finish Dante’s Inferno, and talking about it is effectively a book review, so settle in. If you haven’t read it, Inferno is basically what you would expect. Dante, guided by his senpai Virgil, enters and traverses the bowels of Hell. He listens to many, many different sinners, along with their stories. The plot is leading up to him reaching Heaven, but that doesn’t actually happen until after Inferno.
Ok. Cool. Plot summarized. Now to the fun stuff. The Inferno is a really interesting read, because while it is very “of its time” (literally, you would not believe how many then-contemporary Italian political references there are), it also contains many aspects that can be extended to present day political life. I mean, human nature doesn’t change THAT much, does it? If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen a few quotes that pretty directly relate to the modern political climate. What I found most peculiar about Inferno though, is how Dante treats sin.
Today it seems like there is no middle ground. You are evil, or you are good, and if you are sinful, then you can never be virtuous. By contrast, in the book, there is a split. There are those people who never look back, and are bad through and through, but there are also those who were great, but punished for their sins. The proof that they were great is that Dante speaks well of some of them. Speaking well of somebody who inhabits Hell, not Heaven, seems a bit…wrong, right? But I think that’s the crux of the story—that despite our flaws and short comings, we can still be good people, if we act in a manner that uplifts humankind. By contrast, if we instead turn our backs on humanity and virtue, and live a life solely for ourselves, that greed will consume us and damage everything around us.
A bit of pride is good. Too much pride is dangerous. The Greeks used Icarus to portray this, among others. Dante used various Popes and historical figures like Brutus and Cassius. Yet those men, if Shakespeare’s tragedy is to believed, were trying to defend democracy in betraying Cesar. They were punished, but their actions were, in many ways, for a greater good. What do you think? Where would you draw the line? Let me know in the comments!
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