Dante at 700: What the Supreme Poet can teach us about work, love, art, and life: Inferno, Canto VI: Why is Gluttony a Sin?
A Reading Room Series
We are now in the third circle of Hell with Dante. Everywhere he looks he sees new torments. It is raining—a cold, heavy, non-ending rain, ever-renewing in strength and accursedness. Huge pellets of hail and dark-hued water mixed with snow are pouring down forcefully through the shadowy air, pounding the perpetually irritated earth.
The three-headed monster Cerberus is standing and barking over the people that are submerged in the slush. He is a guard dog with red eyes, an oily black beard, a huge belly, and claws for hands. He rips through the bodies in the puddles, flaying and quartering them. The bodies of these shades themselves howl in the rain like dogs. The demon-dog Cerberus, though, has an even more fearsome howl, so awful that the souls who hear it wish they could be deaf.
Cerberus catches sight of Dante and Virgil, opens his mouth, and displays his tusks; every part of his body pulsates with cruelty. Virgil extends his arms, picks up a chunk of soil, and flings it at one of the monster’s mouths. Cerberus grows quiet as he begins to masticate the dust. With the monster now distracted, Virgil and Dante can move forward.
The sinners we see being punished in this circle of Hell are the Gluttons. We all know that gluttony is one of the 7 Deadly Sins, but why is this so? On the surface it seems like a glutton—unlike a thief or traitor or adulterer or liar—harms no one but himself. Shouldn’t overeating be considered like over-speaking—more of an incidental character trait than a damnation-worthy vice? Some people are introverts, and some are extroverts; some are more conscientious, and others are more free-spirited; and some people tend to eat more, and others tend to eat less. Or at least this is what we might think. Dante teaches us that this is anything but the case. Overeating, according to Dante, is no mere character trait to be shrugged at like so many others. It is a sin against oneself, and a crime against society.
In the past, having a full, Rubenesque figure was perceived as a sign of health. Today, thanks to modern medical science, we know that the heavier a person is, the more susceptible they are to hellish punishments in their earthly lives—diabetes, hypertension, liver disease, heart disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, stroke, and the dreaded metabolic syndrome. Obesity is not only the direct cause of numerous health problems but a direct cause of many societal problems as well. As public health experts like David Kessler and Robert Lustig have recounted in their books and lectures, obesity is not just an individual health problem; it is a genuine pandemic, as Lustig has termed it—every bit as serious (if not more so) as the Covid-19 pandemic. The obesity pandemic has been particularly grave in the United States, where (according to the prestigious medical journal JAMA) an estimated 280,000 to 325,000 people per year die due to obesity-related medical conditions (nearly the same number of people who have died per year due to Covid-19-related complications in the U.S. in 2020 and 2021). By 1990 medical analyses were reporting that approximately 260,000 Americans were dying every year due to obesity-related complications. Covid-19, according to New York Times and Our World in Data, has thus far killed 790,000 Americans. Since 1990, obesity—by even the most conservative estimates—has killed over 8 million Americans.
The obesity pandemic taxes the healthcare system: according to George Washington University’s Public Health Services and Harvard’s School of Public Health, between $147 to $210 billion are spent each year treated obesity-related diseases in the United States. These costs are passed on to insurance payers, resulting in increased premiums, copays, deductibles, and increasingly less affordable insurance for Americans living on minimum wage salaries. The economic value due to lost days of labor that obese individuals cost their employers as a result of their increased need for sick days and doctors’ visits is similarly astronomical. According to a study reported by Harvard’s School of Public Health, the individual and societal costs of obesity are at least as great as those of smoking.
Gluttony is no way to live—not if you have even a basic sense of sympathy for yourself and for your own bodily health. And, with what we now know about its societal costs, gluttony is no way to treat others around you as well. If you do tend to overeat, there may be psychological factors that are prompting you to engage in these harmful behaviors, and working with a credentialed therapist may be able to help you uncover (and then perhaps resolve) some of those underlying issues. What Dante wants us to know, though, is that we should be trying to resolve our individual and societal problem of overeating, at least as much as we have been trying to combat smoking and ward off the spread of Covid-19. Because gluttony, as we have seen in Canto VI—as well as from modern medical science—is not just a psychological problem. It is a moral and ethical one, relating directly to our responsibilities toward those around us to ameliorate the negative effects our actions have on our fellow human beings and to our transcendent duty to attempt, in whatever ways we can, to better our society and improve the lives of others.
“You don’t have to be good to eat good food,” I recently saw on a sign outside of a food establishment at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. But you do have to eat good—healthily, in moderation, and in a manner that won’t impact negatively on your fellow human being—to be a good person. Whether or not Dante supported vegetarianism, he would have very likely agreed with Michael Pollan’s dietary maxim: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
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Dante thought gluttony was a societal sin, but the rest of us should not. Neither of the two modern societal impacts identified by Goodman are valid bases for such a conclusion.
The alleged impact of obesity on other people’s insurance rates is created entirely by the state. With freed markets for insurance, underwriters would be able to write policies that internalize the cost and risk of such behaviors. Obese insureds would be charged higher premiums than the non-obese. Without the heavy hand of state regulation, underwriters would be able to segregate those costs such that they did not impact those whose behaviors were less risky.
That is, after all, the entire point of insurance. Insurance pools risk among those with similar risk profiles. With freed markets, you would not group together flood insurance purchasers who live at the New Jersey shore with those who live in Las Vegas. The idea that risky eating habits increase the cost of insurance for those who do not overindulge is a pure artifact of state intervention in insurance markets.
Similarly, citing loss of productivity as a “societal cost” suggests that individuals owe others a certain amount of their labor. But, of course, if that were true then all forms of leisure would be mortal sins because all leisure activities detract from productivity, including spending a few hours quietly enjoying literature. Why should the impact of obesity be singled out? All such choices are based on the subjectivity of value. Every day we choose how much of our time to be productive and how much of our time to enjoy as leisure.
Dante’s error notwithstanding, these types of choices are the very essence of individual liberty.