Dante Alighieri? John F. Kennedy? John A. Hutton? Theodore Roosevelt? W. M. Vines? Henry Powell Spring? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Dante Alighieri composed the famous tripartite epic poem “The Divine Comedy”. The following statement was supposedly included in the first part called “Inferno”:
The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.
I have been unable to find this expression in any English translations of the poem. One webpage at Goodreads asserts that President John F. Kennedy attributed the remark to Dante. Another webpage at Goodreads claims that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. made the ascription to Dante. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Dante’s poem does include a section describing the fate of individuals who were neutral between good and evil. Their experiences were gruesome, but they were not placed in a location that was scorching hot.
Dante placed Satan at the lowest part of Hell which was at the center of the Earth, but that location was also not hot. Instead, Satan was trapped with ice around his waist.
QI believes that the statement under investigation evolved in a multistep process from a changing and imperfect interpretation of Dante’s work. In 1915 Theodore Roosevelt accurately wrote that Dante had “reserved a special place of infamy” for neutral angels. In 1917 a religious orator named W. M. Vines incorrectly stated that Dante had placed neutral individuals “in the lowest place in hell”.
In 1944 the spiritual writer Henry Powell Spring penned a book of aphorisms that included a statement ascribed to Dante that closely matched the modern quotation. John F. Kennedy used the saying several times in speeches in the 1950s and later. Kennedy also attributed the remark to Dante.
The remainder of this article consists of two main sections. First, selected citations are used to trace the expression chronologically. Second, a group of citations presents examples of the proposed denizens of the “worst place in hell”, “the hottest place in hell”, and “the very heart of hell”.
Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik for his valuable pioneering exploration of this topic. 1
In 1913 the religious writer Reverend John A. Hutton presented his analysis of Dante’s poem. Hutton described the destiny of individuals who were unwilling to choose between good and evil. Interestingly, they were not actually placed within Hell: 2
In Dante’s great poem, the neutrals, those who in this world had never taken a side, occupy the mouth and vestibule of Hell. There they swirl unceasingly in clouds of red sand, their faces bitten by wasps and hornets. They pursue in a blind fatal way a flag which never stays for a moment in one place.
Dante denies them the moral dignity of a place even in hell itself. “Heaven will not have them, and the deep Hell receives them not lest the wicked there should have some glory over them”—lest the wicked, that is, looking at these neutrals, should be able to feel that there were souls worse than themselves.
And what was the sin of these neutrals? Oh, simply this: they had never taken a side. They had spent God’s precious moment, which is our life, they had spent it watching which way the wind was likely to blow.
The remarks above were based on material in Canto 3 of “Inferno”. Below are illustrative excerpts translated into English from the original Italian by Allen Mandelbaum. Dante’s protagonists noticed that both humans and angels were in the region designed for neutral beings: 3
“Master, what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?”
And he to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.
The endlessly moving elusive flag was described as follows:
And I, looking more closely, saw a banner
that, as it wheeled about, raced on so quick
that any respite seemed unsuited to it.
Behind that banner trailed so long a file
of people-I should never have believed
that death could have unmade so many souls.
The incessantly biting insects were presented as follows:
These wretched ones, who never were alive,
went naked and were stung again, again
by horseflies and by wasps that circled them.
The insects streaked their faces with their blood,
which, mingled with their tears, fell at their feet,
where it was gathered up by sickening worms.
This outcome was horrific enough that former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a 1915 book titled “America and The World War” that neutral angels were sent to “a special place of infamy”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4
Dante reserved a special place of infamy in the inferno for those base angels who dared side neither with evil nor with good. Peace is ardently to be desired, but only as the handmaid of righteousness. The only peace of permanent value is the peace of righteousness.
In 1917 a Wilmington, North Carolina newspaper reported on a speech by Dr. W. M. Vines who inaccurately asserted that neutrals ended up in “the lowest place in hell”: 5
In the outset of his address on “The Christian Minister and the War,” Dr. Vines declared that a position of neutrality is utterly untenable and impossible for a minister. “The Christian minister must have convictions on all great issues,” he continued. “Dante, in his Inferno, put those who are neutral in the everlasting fight between right and wrong in the lowest place in hell.”
When a spot was declared to be “a special place of infamy” or “the lowest place in hell” some listeners probably concluded that it was also the hottest place, although that was not true in Dante’s conception of hell. QI conjectures that commentators like Theodore Roosevelt and W. M. Vines reflected a transformative domain of interpretation that enabled the emergence of the claim that neutral beings were placed in the hottest part of hell.
In 1944 the spiritual philosopher Henry Powell Spring published a compilation of meditative aphorisms and quotations titled “What Is Truth”. This work contained the earliest strongly matching instance known to QI of the target quotation: 6
THE HOTTEST PLACES IN HELL ARE RESERVED FOR THOSE WHO, IN A PERIOD OF MORAL CRISIS, MAINTAIN THEIR NEUTRALITY.—DANTE.
In July 1944 a newspaper in Pampa, Texas printed the same saying credited to Dante: 7
Dante is quoted as saying, “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” No one would contend that this column or this newspaper has been neutral.
In 1956 John F. Kennedy who was at that time a Massachusetts Senator received an award during a meeting of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. While delivering a speech, Kennedy employed the saying and credited Dante: 8
“Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality,” he declared. “This question of the basic right of each citizen to be permitted to develop his talents to the maximum regardless of his race or creed is a moral question.”
One day in November 1958 the United Press International news service released a collection of “Today’s Quotes” that included a remark by Kennedy. Once again the U. S. Senator employed the adage and ascribed the words to Dante: 9
“I do not think, in trying to remain aloof from the Algerian and similar controversies, in the United Nations and elsewhere, that we have remembered the words of the poet Dante: ‘The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.'”
In 1971 “The New York Times” book review section discussed a volume by Peter Tauber about his experiences in the Army Reserve that included an instance of the saying: 10
The nicest thing the author can say about the Reserve is that, “like the hottest places in Dante’s hell, it specializes in accommodating those who in times of moral crisis preserved their neutrality.”
Below are some additional chronological citations highlighting the types of people who have been assigned to the worst part of hell.
A sermon published in 1765 condemned individuals who persisted in unbelief to an unhappy fate. The word “hottest” was spelled “hotest” in the following passage: 11
… cast the blame upon men themselves, if they remain in unbelief, and doom them to the hotest place in hell for their wilful obstinacy …
In 1837 a religious text discussed hypocritical individuals who made a pretense of piety and holiness “merely to cover their evil designs and practices”: 12
Now the danger of so doing is unspeakable; for our Saviour tells us ‘they shall receive the greater condemnation;’ and the hottest place in hell is reserved for ‘hypocrites and unbelievers:’ and therefore from hypocrisy, ‘Good Lord, deliver us.’
In 1853 a religious writer described the grievous destiny of those who reject offered grace. 13
… God does not immediately punish men for their sins, but gives them space for repentance; how then are all not saved? because they won’t believe God’s love, and the worst place in hell is reserved for those who reject the offered grace.
In 1869 a study of church history remarked on the dangers of excommunication: 14
… there was the evidence of the holy virgin Herluca, to whom the secrets of this world and the next were freely revealed, and who learned in one of her visions that the most terrible fire in hell was reserved for those who died unreconciled of excommunication.
In 1918 the President of the American Public Health Association delivered an address in which he stated that Dante had consigned traitors to “the very heart of hell”. Indeed, Brutus, Cassius, and Judas were punished together with Satan at the central bottom point of hell: 15
The Imperial Chancellor could not understand that when Great Britain puts her name to a treaty, that she signs it with blood. The German Chancellor well understood that war is hell, but he found it convenient to forget what Dante taught, that the very heart of hell is reserved for those who are traitors to their friends.
In conclusion, this quotation did not appear in “Inferno” by Dante Alighieri, and it does not accurately reflect the location of neutral beings in Dante’s elaborate eschatology. Nevertheless, QI conjectures that the statement evolved from a flawed re-interpretation of Dante’s work. The earliest close match in 1944 was published by Henry Powell Spring who credited Dante. The cast of sinners assigned to the worst part of hell by religious thinkers has varied substantially throughout history.
Images Notes: Portrait of Dante Alighieri by Sandro Botticelli circa 1495 via Wikimedia Commons. Image of flames from les_fendaillous at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to K. who asked about this topic repeatedly which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Barry Popik who was acknowledged in the main body of the article.)
- Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who…maintain their neutrality”, Date on website: November 21, 2009, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik on January 14, 2015) link ↩
- 1913, At Close Quarters by Rev. John A. Hutton (John Alexander Hutton), Chapter X: The Shame of Being Neutral, Start Page 101, Quote Page 101, Published by Robert Scott, London. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- Website: World of Dante; Section: Inferno Canto 3; Author: Dante Alighieri; Translator of Inferno: Allen Mandelbaum; General website editor: Deborah Parker (Professor of Italian, University of Virginia); Date on website: Not specified; Sponsorship: The World of Dante is sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities, University of Virginia; Website description: The World of Dante offers a digital environment for the study of the Comedy. This project is designed to appeal to the different purposes of a wide range of readers, not simply those with scholarly interests. (Accessed worldofdante.org on January 14, 2015) link ↩
- 1915, America and The World War by Theodore Roosevelt, Section: Foreword, Quote Page xi, Publisher by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1917 July 1, The Wilmington Morning Star, Dr. B. D. Gray Gives Seaside Audience Refreshing Cruise by Walter M. Gilmore, (Quotation appears in continuation section and is delivered by the last speaker: Dr. W. M. Vines of Charlotte). Start Page 1, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Wilmington, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1944, “What Is Truth” by Powell Spring (Henry Powell Spring), Quote Page 227, The Orange Press, Winter Park, Florida. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1944 July 10, The Pampa News, Common Ground by R. C. Hoiles, No Neutrality, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Pampa, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1956 February 17, Daily Boston Globe, Kennedy, Cutler, Wolfson Feted by Anti-Bias Group Start Page 1, Quote Page 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1958 November 24, Independent, Today’s Quotes by United Press International (UPI), (Quotation from Senator John F. Kennedy (Democrat-Massachusetts)), Quote Page B4, Column 6, Long Beach, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1971 May 30, New York Times, (Book Reviews: The Sunshine Soldiers by Peter Tauber and “See Parris and Die: Brutality in the U. S. Marines” by H. Paul Jeffers and Dick Levitan), Book Reviews by Robert Sherrill, Quote Page BR6, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1765, Twelve Sermons: On Seasonable and Important Subjects by Charles Chauncy, Section: Sermon VII, Quote Page 189, Printed by D and J. Kneeland for Thomas Leverett in Corn-hill, Boston, New England. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1837, Hole’s Practical Discourses on the Liturgy, Volume 1 of 3, Practical Discourses on the Liturgy of the Church of England by Rev. Matthew Hole, Edited by John Allen Giles, Section: Discourse LXI, Start Page 370, Quote Page 379 and 380, Published by William Pickering, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1853, Family Expositions: On the Epistles of St. John and St. Jude and Those of St. Paul to Timothy by the Rev. E Bickersteth (Rector of Watton, Herts), Second Edition Enlarged, Section: The First Epistle to Timothy, Quote Page 217, Seeleys, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1869, Studies in Church History: The Rise of the Temporal Power.-Benefit of Clergy.-Excommunication by Henry C. Lea (Henry Charles Lea), Published by Henry C. Lea, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1919 February, American Journal of Public Health, Volume 9, Number 2, Democracy and Public Health Administration by Charles J. Hastings (Address of the President, American Public Health Association on December 9, 1918), Start Page 81, Quote Page 82, American Public Health Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩