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