The Reading Room
Dante at 700: What the Supreme Poet can teach us about work, love, art, and life: Inferno, Canto III, Part 2: The Fallacy of Neutrality e:
A Reading Room series on The Divine Comedy
As Dante and Virgil enter the antechamber of Hell, Virgil tells Dante that all the agonized wailing he’s hearing are the voices of those who “lived without infamy or praise”—those who could not bring themselves to commit to either good or evil. Also present in this antechamber are angels who were neither faithful to God nor outright rebellious against God.
(Many of the demons in Hell are fallen angels—they were once angels but ended up in Hell, doomed to preside over the punishments of sinners, when they joined Satan’s ill-fated rebellion against God, as portrayed in another epic theological poem, Milton’s Paradise Lost.) As far the human souls that are lamenting so agonizingly, Virgil says that they are not even worth speaking about. Because of their unwillingness to take a side in the contest between good and evil, they are condemned to eternally chase a blank banner. Dante observes that there are so many people chasing after this blank banner that he can scarcely believe that death has felled this many souls.
Dante then sees a group of people being stung so frequently by flies and hornets that blood drips from their faces and trickles down, along with their tears, to their feet; the fetid mixture is lapped up by worms.
Dante falls silent for some moments until he and Virgil reach the River Acheron, where they meet an old man with white hair and wheels of fire around his glowing red eyes. This is Charon, a figure from Greek mythology who ferries the souls of the dead into the Underworld. Charon urges Dante to get out of this place—Dante is still living, and the place he’s about to enter is reserved for the dead. Virgil, though, tells Charon that a higher power has willed that he lead Dante through Hell. Charon relents and agrees to ferry Dante and Virgil from one side of the Acheron (the antechamber to Hell) to the other shore (Hell itself). The souls of the dead, hearing these words and observing this exchange, gnash their teeth, cry, and curse God, as well as the entire human race, for engendering their very existence. Dante spots a troop of souls massed on the bank of the Acheron, waiting their turn to be ferried into Hell. The dusky domain shakes so violently that the mere memory of it, Dante writes, is enough to make him sweat with terror. Dante feels a blast of wind hit him, and a thunderbolt of red light strikes the ground. Dante is so overcome, and all of his senses so overwhelmed, that he faints—“like a man whom sleep doth seize I fell.”
In this canto we see one of the more memorable sights in all of Inferno: a group of souls who are condemned to chase after a faceless flag for all of eternity. Because in their lives they stood for nothing, in their afterlives they are condemned to chase after a banner that stands for nothing. The obvious question, though, is why are these people even in Hell? After all, all they were in their lives was neutral: they declined to take sides in the war between God and the Devil. If they were merely neutral, shouldn’t they therefore be in Purgatory—the territory between Heaven and Hell which we and Dante will visit in the next book of The Divine Comedy—rather than in Hell?
Put as simply as possible: no. Early in Inferno, Dante teaches us one of the most profound and important lessons in all of the Divine Comedy: that there is no such thing as “neutrality.” Even the decision to remain “neutral” is itself not a neutral decision. From the greatest conflicts in all of history—the war between Heaven and Satan—to the more modest yet still highly significant moral and ethical choices which we must make every day, choosing not to take sides is itself a choice: a choice to not actively opt to fight for what is just and right. Every opportunity we have to work for the good that we decline—even though we think we might be remaining merely “neutral” on the issue—is itself a choice to let evil and corruption continue to go unopposed.
When I played tennis competitively in high school and college, one of my tennis coaches once told me that there is not such thing as a “neutral” shot; every shot that you hit in a rally is either a good shot or a bad shot. Even the seemingly neutral “rally-balls”—those shots that a player hits into the middle of the court, those shots that are neither outright winners nor unforced errors—are shots that either advance your position in the rally or weaken your position in the rally. The aim of the game, he explained, is not to try to hit winners whenever you can; it’s to make sure that every shot that you hit is a good shot—a shot that moves you in a positive direction in the rally—rather than a bad shot.
So too, Dante is telling us, with our decisions in life. Our aim in our lives should not necessarily be to become great heroes or valiant crusaders on behalf of the right and the good (although if we are in the position to do so, this would be highly commendable); it is to make sure that we do actively choose good or evil, and that we do make the small but significant daily choices that move ourselves, our peers, and our family—and, by extension, our society—in a positive direction, rather than decline to take a part in these daily ethical and moral matches in which there is so much more at stake than what we may perhaps at first sight believe. Failure to make these choices will not result in you merely getting to watch the match from the sidelines; it will result in you being condemned, along with evildoers themselves, for your passive abetting of creeping corruption. Never was the erroneousness of thinking that “neutrality” is a legitimate option expressed as starkly and as hauntingly as in the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller’s poetic confessional regarding those who remained neutral and declined to speak up and take sides in the early years of the Third Reich:
First they came for the CommunistsAnd I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me
And there was no one leftTo speak out for me.
There is no neutrality in life. And neither, as we see in Inferno, is there in death.