Why Dante’s 9th Circle is for Traitors | Daniel Evans
The Prime Minister is in even more trouble than before. “Operation Save Big Dog” wtf? That can’t be real. Whatever, there’s a lot of leadership challenge speculation. Some of it is my own. Twice! Third time? Not quite.
You’ve no doubt by now heard the inevitable cliché that the person who wields the knife doesn’t take the crown. Is that true? There’s quite a lot of kings, let alone revolutionaries, who got that way by killing their enemies. Up front confrontation and right by conquest is a very different thing to sneaky snake betrayal from within your own team. Before Genghis Khan united the tribes he had a rival, Jamukha. Jamukha’s men betrayed him, giving him up to Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan had them all killed. He did not want disloyal men in his army. Mongolians at the time had a taboo around spilling blood in particular circumstances. Jamukha’s men were probably boiled. So was Jamukha but apparently he literally asked for it rather than serve under Genghis Khan.
What’s the contemporary comparison in British politics? It’s probably that goofy group of MPs who had no self or public awareness, stropped hard, had the whips removed, started the Change/Independent/Whatever Party, inevitably lost their seats, and went into obscurity after the 2019 general election. Different scale, same concept of political treachery. Better to lose your seat than your head? Appropriately gutless. All lacklustre.
Anyway, with all this talk of leadership challenges flying about, treachery is a juicy topic. It’s also very rarely discussed in and of itself. Treachery. It’s not an obvious choice as the number one sin, is it? Nine circles is also not obvious.
There are the Ten Commandments. Bit procedural? Seven deadly sins. Too few? How about the 613 Jewish mitzvot? Too many? It wouldn’t be very poetically elegant. Ah well, nevermind, though there are some interesting prohibitions in there. No talking to wizards (Deuteronomy 18:11), no cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5), and no relations with beasts (Leviticus 18:23).
Love the Lord thy God and love thy neighbour (Matthew 22:35-40)? Two? Too few. It makes for more of a haiku or limerick than what Dante was aiming for. It’s a clue though. Treachery doesn’t explicitly appear anywhere in that mix. And why is it worse than violence, for example, which Dante places seventh?
The short answer is that Dante is writing his greco-biblical fan fiction from a certain political perspective. Guelphs and Ghibellines, the Neri and Bianchi, it’s all politics at the highest stakes. Manoeuvres and machinations, trust and betrayal. He’s deep in the middle of it, loses twice in the sides he supports, and lives out his life in exile from Florence.
The worst people in the world are the ones you never see coming. The worst among those are the people who present as friends and lure you into relying on them. The other sins represented in Dante’s circles are all quite direct and appetitive e.g. lust, gluttony, anger. Fraud is a relative exception and it sits just above treachery in the eighth circle. Fraud and treachery are manipulative.
Dante is also writing from a certain theological perspective. Holy Roman Emperors, Popes, the Florentine Blacks and Whites, pft. God and Satan are on a whole other level.
It’s not too long before Dante writes The Divine Comedy in the early 1300s that Thomas Aquinas reinvigorates Christian thinking in the mid 1200s. Aquinas is still widely cited and his presentation of the cosmological argument for the existence of God is taught in every beginners philosophy course. Credit where it’s due, Aquinas draws heavily from Aristotle, but he wasn’t a Christian so I guess that doesn’t count. Whatever, it’s greco-biblical fan fiction.
The cosmological argument for the existence of God is that everything in the world seems to be caused or moved by something else. That ultimately has to start somewhere. If that somewhere itself had a cause, that wouldn’t be the end of the matter. At some point there has to be some kind of origin which itself needs no explanation, exists by its own justification, and is the unmoved thing which moves everything else. That would be God.
To sin, in this context, would be to step out of order with everything which emanates from God. It would be to deliberately bring yourself out of tune with God, to dare to assume His role, to present yourself as the ultimate source of creation.
It’s not just about creation, order, and cause and effect. It’s about love. Inferno is great but Paradiso is very underappreciated.
Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven is driven by his love for Beatrice, which in turn must be set properly in order as love for God. The triumph of The Divine Comedy is that Dante learns by the light of truth that God’s love is at the centre of the universe and sets everything else in motion.
At its core, it’s an Aquinian-inspired view that “all things created have an order in themselves, and this begets the form that lets the universe resemble God”, an order of “love that moves the sun and the other stars”.
So, back to treachery and the ninth circle of hell. Dante also presents a basically Aquinian-inspired view of sin. The ninth circle of hell is a frozen lake. Satan is stuck eternally, frozen in the middle of that lake, waist deep, and his wings blow the winds which freeze the four concentric circles within the ninth.
It’s a terrible, ironic, Aquinian mockery. Satan is made, of sorts, into an unmoved mover. He is stuck, frozen, freezing the rest of the ninth circle with every flap of his wings. He cannot create, he is not the source of anything in and of himself. At best he can corrupt and influence people to stray from what God has set in motion. Satan saw God himself in the fullness of His love and turned against it. Satan was a traitor to love itself.
Beyond Satan, the first sins of humans aren’t much different. Adam and Eve disobey God and eat the apple. Cain murders Abel. The first concentric circle within the ninth is named Caina for those who betray their family. The rest are reserved for those who betray their country, guests, and benefactors, and full traitors frozen in the ice.
Love the Lord thy God and love thy neighbour. If the sin is put into political terms, it might be to turn from friend into enemy.
In Dante’s presentation, the punishment is to be frozen out (exiled?), to lose the light and warmth of love. It’s fitting, then, that the inscription on the gates of hell is “abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. And if you deny the ties that bind you, to people and to God, the ice will bind you eternally in the ninth circle.
Now, returning to contemporary politics. Set aside whether you agree with the total political, medical, etc. paradigm which Boris Johnson is part of/set up. Whether it’s his own rules and principles, the law, the people, the Queen, his staff, his party, even himself, he has betrayed it all. Betrayal is why he has to go.
Losing his premiership and seat don’t seem quite enough. The punishments of the ravaging horde are definitely too much. It remains, Boris Johnson, you are a stranger amongst the loyal. You do not belong. How about the boo box? Nobody can say I don’t offer solutions and fair compromises.