I used to be a Dante scholar, so I’m accustomed to answering questions about the poet no one asked. Here’s one: Were he alive today, to which circle of hell would Dante consign President Donald Trump? Trump’s sins are many, so Dante would have options: there’s the second circle, which punishes the lustful, or the third, for bloated gluttons. Trump could also be at home in circle four (avarice and prodigality) and five (anger and acedia, or laziness). So much then for crimes of passion, or, in Dante’s Aristotelian framework, offenses that involve only the will. The penalties in those circles seem too lenient. So what about circles reserved for more cold-blooded transgressions, which require the intellect? Circles seven (violence), eight (simple fraud, including flattery, thievery, and barratry, or selling political office), and nine (treacherous fraud, reserved for the most serious felons, who betray relatives, country, guests, and benefactors) all seem viable. But sending Trump there is contingent on him demonstrating the conscious use of his intellect, which, of course, would be difficult. That leaves just circle six: heretics and atheists.
Those are serious charges, so what evidence might Dante adduce to support such a claim? First, a note about how Dante’s poetry operates: the Divine Comedy is a sprawling, encyclopedic work, with hundreds of characters. In it the poet recounts his own journey to God by way of the three realms of the medieval afterlife: hell, purgatory, and paradise. As Dante (usually called “the pilgrim” by critics) wends his way along the path of salvation, every one of his encounters with such characters teaches a kind of moral lesson, illuminating different aspects of human vices and virtues against the background of divine justice and grace. What makes Dante’s writing so singularly compelling, as Erich Auerbach, T. S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, and other readers have pointed out, is the poet’s uncanny ability to render a character’s entire essence almost instantaneously, often with just a single dramatic phrase or gesture.
One of the most memorable is Farinata degli Uberti. He was an aristocratic Florentine military captain who, after being expelled from his native city, famously led Sienese troops against his fellow citizens, routing them at the bloody Battle of Montaperti in 1260. Dante meets him among the circle of the heretics and atheists in Canto 10 of the Inferno, standing in an open stone tomb licked by flames. Farinata’s crime, as Dante presents it, isn’t so much the explicit rejection of a belief in God—medieval people couldn’t really conceive of “atheism” as we do—as it is the conviction that “the soul dies with the body” (a view then known as “Epicureanism,” after the Greek thinker Epicurus). In practice, such a philosophy amounted to a rejection of the existence of any eternal meaning or value beyond oneself. An Epicurean for Dante is a person who arrogantly makes himself into his own god.
In the Inferno, Dante decides to make an example of Farinata. As the pilgrim passes his open tomb, he sees the captain rising defiantly “from the waist up,” puffing his chest and holding his forehead high. Farinata’s gesture, which conveys spiteful disdain (gran dispitto) for hell (and by extension for God’s justice, which rightly punishes sin) is intimidating, but it’s also pathetic: rather than power and grandeur, his stance reveals his smallness. His condescending speech is no better: obsessed with the status of his family name and the political fortunes of his descendents, Farinata hardly notices that he stands alone, literally burning forever in hell.