Dante, Socrates, and ‘Situational Ethics’


In Plato’s Apology, Socrates speaks movingly about the prospects of his imminent death. He finds no reason for alarm over his upcoming demise, as he sees two possibilities beyond the grave: the first is blissful unawareness and the utter destruction of consciousness, Hamlet’s consummation devoutly to be wished; the second is an afterlife in which all souls of the dead would be able to socialize, converse, and generally pal around together. (Shame on Socrates for thinking that only these two possibilities might obtain. For someone of his intellect, he should have recognized that when speculating on matters that cannot be investigated, there are literally an infinity of possibilities). Socrates says:

What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? … What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too?

According to The Divine Comedy, it is the second scenario that is the fate for Socrates, for there he is, in the First Circle of Hell, with other great minds and heroes from the classical world – the likes of Homer, Ovid, Aristotle, Democritus, Aeneas and Hector. And just as he anticipated, it isn’t a bad life (or afterlife), but it isn’t heaven, either. The residents here are in Limbo: they are not tortured, burned, maimed, or harassed by demons. They are left to share each other’s company and certainly must have a number of stimulating discourses. (It always seemed that, given how the treatment in the Vestibule is so much worse than that in Limbo, that they should be reversed.) But these souls are yet denied the pleasures of Paradise, and this is something that these ancient worthies are aware of, and which they no doubt commiserate over.

Why were these Virtuous Pagans sent to a benign part of Hell instead of being rewarded for their virtues in Heaven? Through no fault of their own, they were born at the wrong time, before that glorious age when God finally had His Plan all worked out and sent His Son to earth to suffer that famous, staged death. And only those people that had the opportunity to accept Christ would be given the chance to get to Paradise. Regardless of how moral anyone born before that time might have been, regardless of any brave or selfless acts they may have committed, or what mysteries they may have solved, they were, in the modern vernacular, Shit-Outta-Luck.

It hardly seems fair to run a world that way, but let’s give Dante the benefit of the doubt. Let’s take the tack that those born before Christ’s time didn’t know the full rules of the game, so to speak, so they couldn’t earn the rewards of accepting Him- but at least they would not incur the harsh penalties reserved for those that violated Christian laws, either.

Except that isn’t quite the way it plays out. Recall Socrates mentioned Odysseus (that is, Ulysses), as one of the persons he looked forward to meeting after death. But that intrepid wanderer isn’t there in Dante’s First Circle. Socrates must have been disappointed. It turns out that Socrates will not be speaking with him at all. Odysseus is in Hell, to be sure, but he isn’t in Limbo with so many other Greeks. Because he was regarded as an “Evil Counselor” he has been sent to the Eight Circle, where his afterlife isn’t very pleasant; it involves a bit of roasting.

So, for Dante, the punishments of Hell are enforced retroactively, while the rewards of Heaven are not. Regardless of your virtues, if you lived before a certain date, you cannot get the full rewards offered to others. But you can still incur the penalties of sin. It is also an admission that the standards of good and evil existed before God set them out explicitly in the Christian version, although the consequences and rewards are not meted out consistently.

Then, there is also the matter of the souls that were removed from the First Circle during ‘the harrowing of Hell.’ These include Adam, Abel, Abraham, Rachel, David, Moses, and Noah, all born before Christ as well, but given Get Out Of Hell Free cards because they were mentioned in the Old Testament, apparently. The likes of Abraham, he who was prepared to murder his own son at the behest of the voices in his head, and Moses, the leader that slaughtered countless innocents and condemned countless young women to slavery and rape, go to Heaven. Socrates, brilliant philosopher and advocate of reason, stays in Hell.

I imagine Socrates would not be impressed with this scheme. Nor Odysseus, for that matter. And I’m reminded of how various fundamentalists decry the values of secularists and humanists as involving “situational ethics.” As if Christianity is some kind of model for the notion of objective rules and punishments. A few hours browsing in the Old Testament should convince anyone that there has never been a more haphazard, inconsistent, and ever-shifting system of morality than the one that the Hebrew God acted by.


4 Responses to “Dante, Socrates, and ‘Situational Ethics’”

  1. You said: “Moses, the leader that slaughtered countless innocents and condemned countless young women to slavery and rape…”

    Can you explain what you are referring to here?

    In this essay, you’ve done a fantastic job of showing why Medieval fundamentalism was really, really bad. I’m not sure, however, that you said anything about modern Christianity.

    • Schmoo:

      How about that famous example of racial cleansing, Numbers 31; the slaughter of the Midianites, where Moses explicitly calls for the complete extermination of the all their males, including children, and all females except for the virgins which are to become the property of the Hebrews.

      I agree that in this essay, I have not addressed anything related to “modern Christianity” – if by that term we mean the liberal, reasonable personal spirituality practiced by the like of Unitarians, etc. But I think it would also go without saying that there are more people that proudly call themselves Christian that continue to adhere to a medieval worldview and wouldn’t see anything wrong with Dante’s reasoning.

  2. I’ve always been dubious of theistic claims to objective, unchanging morality. A quick glance in the direction of the Old Testament will reveal that condoned or even outright ordered acts which almost any modern Christian would find utterly repulsive. Yet, presumably, it was right and good for those killings and pillagings to occur during that time, in that place, and under those conditions…but only under those conditions.

    Er, where does the objective, unchanging morality figure into this?

  3. Thanks for the references re: Moses, S.A. I agree that many modern fundamentalists would find Dante to be in line with their worldviews. But I don’t believe this characterizes most modern Western Christians.

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