American Politics in the Fourth Circle of Hell

We can find the perfect illustration of modern American politics in 14th century European literature. In the seventh canto of the Inferno in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, the sins of the avaricious and the prodigal are punished. The author and his host, after dispelling the garbled words of the god of wealth, observe the unrecognizable faces of the souls of the wealthiest sinners, toiling laboriously and uselessly in defense of their ideologies, working against each other willingly, and with each other without recognition, to effort fruitless endeavor in an eternal Moebius loop. In this H. R. Huse translation:

As the waves of Charybdis break
against each other as they meet,
so in this place the souls must clash.

Here I saw more people than elsewhere
on one side and the other, shouting loudly
and pushing weights with their chests.

They bump against each other and then all turn,
pushing back the load and crying,
“Why do you hoard?” or “Why do you squander?”

Thus they go on each side
of the dark circle to the opposite point,
shouting their insulting refrains.

When they reach the place, they turn again
through their half circles to the other clash.
And I, my heart oppressed, said,

“Master, now tell me who these are
and if all the tonsured ones
on the left are of the clergy?”

And he to me, “In the first life
all were so twisted mentally
that they could not spend with moderation.

Quite clearly their voices bark this out
when they come to the two points of the circle
where contrary faults divide them.

Those whose heads are tonsured, as you see,
were clerics and popes and cardinals
in whom avarice shows its strength.” [Dante aligned clergy members with politicians, at times—SG]

And I, “Master, among such as these
I must surely recognize some
who were defiled by these vices.”

And he to me, “You conceive a vain thought;
the undiscerning life which made them sordid
now leaves them too obscure for recognition.

Throughout eternity they will clash;
some [the avaricious] will arise from the graves with fists closed,
and the others [the prodigal] with their hair shorn.

Bad giving and bad keeping have taken from them
the fair world and placed them in this strife
which words of mine will not glorify (1433-4).

Avarice means to hoard one’s wealth for the sake of hoarding wealth. The American Republican Party, with its battles against taxation, universal healthcare, and the minimum wage, fit the category of the avaricious too beautifully to deny. They worship the wealthy (see Jamie Dimon’s appearance before Congress), and work to keep wealth in the hands of the wealthy. Cutting food stamps, closing public schools for the sake of charter schools, lowering capital gains taxation, defending oil barons, pilfering the planet of its resources and its health…all in the name of the Republican credo: “extreme greed for wealth or material gain for those who already have it.” When I hear the word “conservative,” I have long ago supplanted the term to mean “avaricious.”

The Democratic Party is not safe from rebuke as their members perpetuate the vicious semi-circle under the guise of the prodigal. Having accepted the Free Market as God and been blessed with wealth by Fortune, Democrats fervently oppose the avaricious by insisting upon reckless spending. The Democratic idea of helping those without money continues to be to fund larger government expenditures. The lavish, extravagant spending pushes our country further into debt, and most of the wealth spent by Democrats finds its way back into the pockets of the wealthy, both the prodigal and the avaricious, instead of helping those without wealth, or even a living wage. Liberals are indeed prodigal, and they constantly shout and fight the avaricious Republicans without realizing they are the same faceless, wealthy sinner.

Taking some literary liberties, I envision two enormous meal-grinding wheels in Dante’s fourth circle of hell, with the avaricious Republicans pushing the spokes on one wheel and prodigal Democrats manning the other. A line divides the two wheels, and as the two parties pass one another amidst their toils, the individuals look up from their labor to shout insults and protestations at one another. What do the two parties grind with their meaningless exertion?…Why, the soul of the United States of America. For what purpose?…The perpetuation of the Free Market, the appointed God of the country, which both parties serve at the expense of its good citizens. There is a place waiting in hell for the modern corporate soul of American politics, and this fourth circle expands as more Americans take their place at their selected ideological grinding wheel.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. “The Divine Comedy.” Literature of the Western World: The Ancient World through the Renaissance. Trans. H. R. Huse. Eds. Brian Wilkie & James Hurt. Vol. 1. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 1398-1571. Print.

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Scott C. Guffey
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