Dan Burstein: Fire and Ice, Dante, and JFK, and the Perils of Moral Neutrality

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secrets of inferno cover(Warning: This commentary  contains spoilers regarding the plot of Dan Brown’s Inferno).

The epigraph that opens Dan Brown’s Inferno reads as follows: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”  The quote is not attributed to anyone. The exact same words are italicized and repeated in the Epilogue, where they are interpreted by Brown’s fictional Harvard professor, Robert Langdon, to mean that, “In dangerous times, there is no sin greater than inaction.”

In between Epigraph and Epilogue, Elizabeth Sinskey (the novel’s fictional character who heads the World Health Organization), hears Bertrand Zobrist (the biotechnology genius bent on single-handedly stopping the world’s population from exploding further),  intone the exact same words about neutrality and the darkest places in hell as she watches the frightening video message Zobrist recorded before his suicide. Watching the video, Sinskey feels goose bumps on her neck, because this is the “same quotation that Zobrist had left for her at the airline counter when she had eluded him in New York a year ago.”

Indeed, we read those exact words once again in Chapter 38 when Sinskey is handed a message from Zobrist at the airport as she is checking in for her flight from New York to Geneva, after having just alerted the “CIA, the CDC, the ECDC, and all of their sister organizations around the world,” to Zobrist’s potential bio-terror threat she has just learned of as a result of his meeting with her at the Council on Foreign Relations. The three other times the quote is used it is unattributed. But in the JFK Airport scene, Dan Brown calls it a “famous quote derived(emphasis added) from the work of Dante Alighieri.”

The quote is, in fact, derivative, but not exactly from Dante. The great Italian poet of the 14th century was indeed critical of those who stayed neutral in times of moral crisis. But Dante did not consign the neutrals to the “darkest places in hell.”  In the Divine Comedy, he reserves the true “darkest places in hell” for the likes of Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, who betrayed Jesus and Caesar and caused their murders. For the neutrals, there is a different kind of punishment: Dante deems their lives to be so lacking in consequence that they are forgotten completely. They are not even worth the condemnation of hell. They have no chance at redemption in purgatory, let alone heaven. No one wants them and so they remain dead souls outside the gates of hell, forever forgotten for the crime of having failed to choose sides at an important juncture.

 So the quote is not really “derived” from Dante, because Dante’s cosmology is somewhat at odds with the meaning of the quote. So who is it derived from?  Turns out, the origins of this quote have more to do with John F. Kennedy, America’s 35th President, whose tragic assassination in 1963 we recall this month. JFK apparently made a few mistakes in his interpretation of Dante—or else, like Dan Brown, knowingly played a little fast and lose with Dante’s real meaning.

The John F. Kennedy Library website notes:

One of President Kennedy’s favorite quotations was based upon an interpretation of Dante’s Inferno. As Robert Kennedy explained in 1964, “President Kennedy’s favorite quote was really from Dante, ‘The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.'”

This supposed quotation is not actually in Dante’s work, but is based upon a similar one. In theInferno, Dante and his guide Virgil, on their way to hell, pass by a group of dead souls outside the entrance to hell. These individuals, when alive, remained neutral at a time of great moral decisions. Virgil explains to Dante that these souls cannot enter either heaven or hell because they did not choose one side or another. They are therefore worse than the greatest sinners in hell because they are repugnant to both God and Satan alike, and have been left to mourn their fate as insignificant beings neither hailed nor cursed in life or death, endlessly travailing below heaven but outside of hell. This scene occurs in the third canto of the Inferno

It appears that JFK made this remark multiple times, but there is a particularly good documentary trail citing this quote (using the formulation of  the “hottest places in hell,” not the “darkest places in hell”) in remarks he made in Bonn, Germany in June of 1963 at the height of the Cold War. Dan Brown knows Dante well enough to know that Dante’s vision of the worst part of hell where Satan resides is characterized by brutally cold and frozen ice, not by the heat of fire that has become more commonly associated with hell in the last several hundred years. So Brown changed “hottest” to “darkest” and says the quote is “derived” from Dante, although this may have been a last minute correction since, in the Italian edition of Inferno, the epigraph still uses the phrase piu caldi–meaning hottest, not darkest.

In any event, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis,” has become the most quoted sentence in Dan Brown’s Inferno. Several of the academic experts who contributed to our recently-published book, Secrets of Inferno: In the Footsteps of Dante and Dan Brown, comment on it in their essays. You can also find plenty of online and social media discussion of this quote.

JFK can be forgiven for mis-remembering Dante’s words and thinking that the great Poet imagined hell as fiery rather than icy. It is an exercise in nostalgia to contemplate a time  in our American public discourse (a mere 50 years ago) when a President could invoke Dante to discuss great moral issues and how we should confront them. 

But Dan Brown is playing a different kind of game here. He repeats this quote four different times in Inferno, strongly suggesting that it comes from Dante, and asks both his characters and his readers to themselves avoid condemnation to these “darkest places in hell” in their own lives by taking urgent action against the perceived crisis of population explosion. By the end of the book, he has revealed that Sienna has never wavered in her support for Zobrist, and that Sinskey and even Langdon have become convinced that Zobrist is basically correct. The characters have all adopted one form or another of Zobrist’s argument. Now Brown wants his readers to do the same. But the readers haven’t even heard a good argument against the population explosion thesis in the entire book, nor have they been offered any meaningful action alternatives besides Zobrist’s mad man theory of history. (Zobrist has entitled himself to the right to determine the fate of the planet and the fertility rates of its seven billion people).

The questions about how to make the earth’s resources and population trends more sustainable and better harmonized are not the moral equivalents of JFK’s urgent appeals of that era for Federal action to integrate the University of Mississippi or to check the spread of Soviet totalitarian power in the world. Nor are they the equivalents of Dante’s call to get religion out of the earthly money-and-power business and restore it to its spiritual essence. Brown has many clever tricks up his sleeve in his Inferno. But the trick of creating a false equivalency between an issue he has identified as critical and the moral and philosophical wisdom of Dante falls flat.

A small and humorous footnote to this story: With his Boston accent, JFKs references to the immortal Dantewere heard as Myrtle Dante by some radio listeners. There are reports of people writing to the White House and various media outlets to find out who this Myrtle Dante was and how she had become such a source of wisdom and inspiration to the President.

Dan Burstein is Co-Author and Co-Editor of Secrets of Inferno: In the Footsteps of Dante and Dan Brown. You can learn more at our website.

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On November 22, 2013
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