Dante and Moral Equivalency

Yesterday, got into a discussion that ended up pretty heated – I used bad words, and got loud, if you can imagine – over moral equivalency. My interlocutor is a fine man, highly educated, with a background in Medieval history. In the course of chatting over a shared task we had volunteered to perform for our school, he brought up Marxism in an aside. I mentioned that while Marx may have had a point or two in his diagnoses, his prescriptions had proven 100% disastrously wrong every time they had been tried.

This didn’t go over well. In short order, we began arguing over the presumably fine and critical distinction between good socialists and bad communists, about the presumed miracles of justice socialism had worked, and about the evils of Capitalism.

That argument, while invigorated (to put it politely) by the real human beings involved in it, is, in its disincarnated pure form, rather tedious. What it boils down to, it seems to me, is the difference between a rich sense of morality with fine gradations, and a one-size-fits-all world of moral equivalence, where all evils fall, at most, into one or very few categories. The moral world of Dante versus the Moral world of Marx.

Sophisticated, stern yet compassionate Dante…

The Inferno, the first third of Dante’s masterpiece the Divine Comedy, is a finely laid out and illustrated tour of Christian morality. Every sin has its place and punishment, and a sinner or two to illustrate the type and his behavior.

It is a crucial feature of Dante’s genius that he put recognizable historical and mythological people in hell. He’s not out for political revenge(1), as he’s careful to put plenty of Guelfs and Ghibellines among both the damned and the saved(2). Instead, he makes real the nature of sin – that it’s not some arbitrary concept, or mere instrument for generating guilt feelings, but a real force at work in the world, with real, horrible consequences. Paolo’s and Frencesca’s ever-popular sin results in not only their own damnation (the outcome Moderns are most likely to recoil from) but in the (hinted) damnation of Francesca’s husband for murdering them, who thereby loses his wife and younger brother in a moment of passion, the loss of a mother to Giovanni’s and Francesca’s children, of a husband to Paolo’s wife, of a son to Paolo’s parents, and the probable destruction of the family and political relationship that the marriage between Francesca da Rimini and Giovanni Malatesta represented.(3) All this, from a little private affair – and this is in the highest circle of Hell, where the least sins are punished.

And of course it gets worse as you descend. Each sin has its representatives, whose lives illustrate the true nature and cost of that sin. Each indulgence, each betrayal, costs not only the sinner the happiness he was created for, but ripples through the world, through Church and State, wrecking havoc both spiritual and physical. Of course Judas’s and Brutus’s sins are worse than Paolo’s and Francesca’s. Of course sins leading to the death of the Roman Republic and of God Himself are worse than sins that merely destroy a couple families and the peace between two cities. Of course betrayal of duties to God and Republic are worse than betrayal of personal vows.

… or bitter, irrational Marx, who, it must be said, sported a totally righteous beard.

Just not to the Marxist. Nope, there is one and only one sin: being on the Wrong Side of History. Not only is there no moral distinction to be made between how Indians were treated in America and what Stalin did to the Kulaks, there is no distinction between paying only $40/hour with bennies and pressing 6 year olds into mining coal. The sort of personal sins, sins merely between individuals, don’t even rise to the level of ‘sin’ – as Marx’s treatment of his own marriage amply demonstrates.

It occurred to me, after our little shouting match discussion, that my friend, as a product of modern society and modern schooling, had probably never encountered a serious argument against moral equivalency. Where? Home? School? Therefore, my assertions about weighing the cost of the supposed victories of socialism, or indeed ANY argument that presupposed that there were many different, nonfungible, as it were, sins was merely incomprehensible to him.

So next time, we’ll argue about that. Wish me luck. Better, say a prayer for our souls.

  1. I don’t know if this feature of Dante is even comprehensible to many modern political minds – that you’d imagine stern eternal Judgement populating Hell with both political friends and enemies. That is, I suppose, the whole point of this essay.
  2. Caveat: Dante grew less political, or at least less partisan, as he grew older, so this balance of political enemies and friends is perhaps less evident as you read through the Purgatorio and Paradiso. I tend to think the point persists, but was made so dramatically in the Inferno that it warranted less attention as Dante aged and grew less interested in it. But also note that I’m not a real Dante scholar, I just play one on the Internet.
  3. Moderns, again, will reflexively recoil and condemn the thought of a marriage for political reasons as being somehow positive, but they have existed and persisted throughout most cultures throughout all of history to this day. That a culture that is OK with idiots of whatever sexes marrying a week after meeting in a hook-up bar frowns upon two families arranging a marriage between their own children is probably the highest praise and validation arranged marriages will ever get. But I digress…

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

6 thoughts on “Dante and Moral Equivalency”

  1. The arranged marriages issue came to my mind again today, in a discussion on St. Paul’s admonition that it’s better to marry than to burn with lust. In which case it would probably be advisable to marry off young people at as early an age as possible. And how better to do that than by arranged marriages? That might explain first, why arranged marriages have always been common, and second, why people married at younger ages in the past (at least I think they did).

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