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"Canto XXXIV," Satan in the Lake of Ice, engraving by Gustave Doré, c. 1868

Dante, by John F. Kennedy


The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.
–Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321)

Hardly, friends. This quote, used to preface the latest book by a writer with a most noxious and reckless disregard for the truth, cannot possibly come from Dante. First because in Dante’s Infernothe ninth circle of Hell (Canto XXXI), the lowest and presumably the darkest, was reserved for traitors. Satan himself was there, stuck in a perpetually freezing lake of the tears streaming from his six eyes as he chewed with his three mouths on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Now that’s good reading.

Those last two were particularly relevant to Dante, an Italian writing in the tumultuous 14th century who blamed them for the destruction of a unified Italian state. Hard to say old Brutus and Cassius did not pick a side.

Second, the most basic of Internet searches reveals the true source of the misquote from a reliable compendium of human knowledge, 1988’s Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy visited Bonn, West Germany, to sign a charter establishing the German Peace Corps. In his remarks he said, “Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.” A useful quote for a speech made in the extended shadow of the Berlin Wall, and reportedly one of JFK’s absolute faves. Even his presidential library notes on its website that this is an interpretation of Dante and not a direct attribution.

The best guess at what Jack was referencing is a passage from Inferno‘s Canto III, shortly after our guides, the poetic embodiments of Dante and Virgil, pass the gate with that most legendary of doormats–“Abandon all hope ye who enter here”–but before they reach the river Acheron, where Charon will ferry them into Hell proper. In this wasteland, this “miserable mode,” Dante hears mingling cries of anguish:

And I, who had my head with horror bound,
Said: “Master, what is this which now I hear?
What folk is this, which seems by pain so vanquished?”

And he to me: “This miserable mode
Maintain the melancholy souls of those
Who lived withouten infamy or praise.

Commingled are they with that caitiff choir
Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,
Nor faithful were to God, but were for self.

The heavens expelled them, not to be less fair;
Nor them the nethermore abyss receives,
For glory none the damned would have from them.”

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto III, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1865-6/77

In other words, to Dante, those who remain neutral and, by extension, selfish, are repugnant to both Heaven and Hell and remain ever on the opposite shore. How ironic, then, that Kennedy uses Dante to reinforce the value one of the more altruistic projects ever conceived, the Peace Corps. Take a lesson, writer of most alarming renown, as that simultaneously corrects a very lazy mistake and properly uses the word “ironic.”

Worth a note is that the initial misquote is redoubled, since Kennedy cited Hell’s hottest places, not darkest, as the end of those who remain neutral. A possible out for the Big Donut until you recognize that the above quote from Inferno makes no mention of the weather, while others in Dante’s Hell–the heretics in their fire pit in Circle VI or the thieves guarded by the fire-breathing centaur Cacus on Circle VIII–would have a much more persistent relationship with burns and heat stroke.

In short, never trust a hack and the Internet. Or, when in doubt, go to the legos.

This entry was published on 15 May 2013 at 11:51 am. It’s filed under D and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Dante, by John F. Kennedy

  1. Marvelous, Art. Enjoyed revisiting Dante, and particularly this reflection on how misappropriations get turned into legends of a sort. JFK, too!! MOre legend. (<:}&

    On Wed, May 15, 2013 at 11:51 AM, Art On Edge

  2. It’s so hard to tell people that you will never find a translation which says that.

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