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Dante and the CCP Virus: What Do We Learn?

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

Taking a step from hell to purgatory

Dante shows us a way beyond hell to purgatory. Detail from an allegorical portrait of Dante Alighieri, late 16th century, by an unknown master. National Gallery of Art. (Public Domain)

When we look at the world today, we see a world of trouble, turmoil, and an increasing sense of hysteria and panic threatening to rage out of control. We seem to be victims of forces beyond our control. For the West, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, is perhaps a supreme example, though we may well have cited global warming, catastrophic natural phenomena, or even our own wars that never seem to end.

For most, we’ve never seen or experienced anything like this pandemic. Those who fought in or experienced World War II are mostly dead now, and the Baby Boomer generation is the generation of affluence the likes of which the world had never experienced before—but heck, it seems as if someone has to pay the piper today!

Of course, surely we were expecting this, weren’t we? We have had it before, haven’t we? Why, the Black Death in the 14th century was a particularly nasty epidemic, sometimes called the Great Plague. It is estimated that it killed well over 30 percent of the European population and that it took over 200 years for the population numbers in Europe to recover.

“The Triumph of Death,” circa 1562, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Prado Museum, Madrid. (Public Domain)

Furthermore, by another irony, it is reckoned that the Great Plague (from China most likely) entered Europe via the Italian peninsula. Today, of course, it would appear that the CCP virus began its attack on Europe in Italy too.

It would have been, perhaps, a small consolation to those who died of the plague to learn that there was a rather large benefit accruing from their deaths: Namely, the modern world is almost inconceivable without this tragedy, for it was the Black Death that led inexorably to the demise of the feudal hierarchies that had held sway in Europe for so long.

The truth is, workers became in such short supply that they could almost name their prices to go and work anywhere. Mobility and communication increased massively. And so a new model of society—protocapitalism—began, and the grip on power by the lords and ladies started to weaken.

Allegorical portrait of Dante Alighieri, late 16th century, by an unknown master. National Gallery of Art. (Public Domain)

The Falsiers: Then and Now

But that is such a long-term perspective; what we really need is hope now, real hope. It is interesting that in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” one of the many punishments meted out to the unsaved and unredeemable is a hideous and loathsome disease that never heals.

Dante meets these victims in Canto 29 of  “The Inferno” (Dorothy Sayers’s translation):

So step by step we went, nor uttered sound, To see and hear those sick souls in their pains, Who could not lift their bodies from the ground

An illustration of Canto 29 from Dante’s “Inferno” by Gustave Doré. (PD-US)

And their crime? They are all falsifiers, alchemists of one sort or another, who led their fellow human beings to hope that they could transmute base metals into gold.

In a funny sort of way, doesn’t this echo our modern world? We certainly now have a hideous disease that eats our lungs, but isn’t a characteristic of our times also that we are attempting at every level to turn base metal into gold? Governments are printing money via quantitative easing, cryptocurrencies abound promising free money for those who invest, but real saving—what traditionally was considered common sense—is actively discouraged by absurdly low and abnormal interest rates. As Bill Bonner said as recently as January this year, “A huge crisis—caused by fake money and fake thinking—is coming.” Fake thinking, too? Like the alchemists in Dante?

It’s Your Choice

We are, then, at a huge crisis point. But if Dante can accurately depict hell, maybe he can also provide us with hope in terms of how we think about and conceptualize this drama. For the starting point is this: The whole “Divine Comedy” has as one of its central tenets a key principle of Western thinking until, perhaps, the 20th century—namely, freedom of will.

Freedom of will means that people can change: their beliefs, their attitudes, their thoughts, their feelings, their choices, and so their decisions too. The point about Dante’s hell is not that it is a place where God—the big Man in the sky, as it were—rains down punishment on people for major or minor infractions of some code they may or may not follow. Rather, hell is the place where people get what they want.

God does not punish us for breaking rules; instead, hell is where you get exactly what you want. Sandro Botticelli’s depiction of Canto 28, part of the Eighth Circle of Hell. Dante and Virgil are each shown six times as they descend through the chasms. (PD-US)

As Dorothy L. Sayers expressed it: “Hell is the enjoyment of your own way forever.” It is in one sense the meaning of that old Frank Sinatra song “I did it MY way.” Not God’s way, not Christ’s way, not the eightfold path Buddhist way, and not the Way of the Tao—not the ways of the ancient masters with their focus on love, compassion, fellowship, and each other. No, but MY way: the totally selfish way.

And here is the consequence of that: What we find in hell is the inability for all its inhabitants to go beyond solipsism. In other words, they cannot communicate except in what seems to be repetitive monologues within themselves. I hesitate to say “dialogue” within themselves, since the soul with which one does dialogue, they now have lost. In essence, their situation is exactly analogous to that of a drug addict (or any addict): They cannot be reasoned with because they have lost their will, their free will. They have given it away, which is what it means to lose one’s soul.

In this sense, they are trapped and isolated. Isolated? That word—now applying to the CCP virus as we all start self-isolating to avoid contamination by each other! How like hell that sounds: each trapped with himself or herself forever.

Dante holding his “Divine Comedy,” next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above, 1465, in a fresco by Domenico di Michelino. Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower, Florence, Italy. (Public Domain)

A Way Beyond Selfishness

But, of course, the “Divine Comedy” does provide us with a way out of hell, just as in this life even addicts can regain their free will and once more enter the world of light. What is the first step, then, in moving from hell at least to purgatory where there is hope?

Illustration for Dante’s “Purgatory” by Gustave Doré. (PD-US)

First, one must recognize and accept the problem, the real problem. And the real problem is always Me: I am the problem; that is, not other people or other races, not officials, and not governments. No, I am also causing problems and now I acknowledge it; I need to turn from my habitual modes of being to a new and better way.

Second, as I turn from justifying myself, I also reach out to others; my own existence not only depends on but also is for others. We are a community, and we need to look after each other. This is something that becomes very apparent in Dante’s purgatory. Whereas in hell everyone seems to blame everyone else and deny any personal responsibility, in purgatory all are taking pains to give each other credit and to encourage each other.

Purgatory does not get us directly into paradise, but it is a great start. We are on the journey.

So, although we may be self-isolating at this time, we need to consider our own responsibilities, reassert the freedom of our wills to be agents for positive change, and to use the technologies we have to reach out to others and support them. In this way, we can break through the entrapment of hell—the place where we do not want to be!—and not be victims of forces beyond our control.

The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.

James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won the first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and spoke in June 2019 at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.

Contributed by James Sale

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