The Hottest Place in Hell: Neutrality and the Politicization of Dante in the United States

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” You have probably encountered this quote somewhere—on social media, as the opening quote of a bestselling novel, in an op-ed advocating for activism on either side of the political spectrum—attributed to either Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), John F. Kennedy (1917-63), or Martin Luther King (1929-68). In fact, you may have seen people arguing on Twitter over who should be listed as the legitimate author of this saying. The truth is, this quote—which I am going to call “pseudo-Dante”—does not belong to neither of the three, and that is precisely what makes it so unique.

As many studies have demonstrated, Dante’s interest in political engagement and ethics has been a central aspect of his reception in the United States. Dennis Looney has uncovered the unique patterns of Dante’s reception by African American writers.[1] Guy Raffa has explained that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s support of Abraham Lincoln and abolitionism may have influenced his translation of the Divine Comedy into English.[2] Akash Kumar has shown that Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was an avid reader of Dante and that the Divine Comedy may have had some influence on his thoughts on inaction.[3] Finally, Deborah Parker has examined John F. Kennedy’s frequent and strategic use of the pseudo-Dante quote.[4]

The thing about apocryphal sayings—words that are attributed to an author or a celebrity although they never actually said them—is that they speak volumes about how communities take ownership of culture and ideas. Apocryphal sayings tell us ever-shifting stories of encounter, assimilation, and appropriation. The case we are going to discuss tells us a very specific story—how Dante, his authority, and the religious implications of the Divine Comedy were transformed into a strategic rhetorical tool in twentieth-century American political debates.


1. Where Neutral Angels (Don’t) Fly

Everything begins in the third canto of Inferno, the first canticle of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Here, between the gates of hell and hell proper, Dante encounters countless souls who have been rejected by heaven and hell because they “lived without infamy and without praise” (Inf. 3.34) and spent their lives in selfish pusillanimity, refusing to commit to good and sin alike. These souls share their gruesome punishment with those angels who did not take a side during Lucifer’s rebellion (Inf. 3.37-39).

Dante’s condemnation of cowardice is unequivocal. Through Virgil, he tells us that these souls are not worth an ounce of attention and repeatedly characterizes them as “wretches who were never alive,” “miserable,” and “displeasing both to God and to his enemies.” He created a space in the afterlife to represent their rejection from God’s plan of salvation and retribution, putting his original twist to a well-known biblical passage (Rev. 3:15-16):

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

The state of these souls differs quite evidently from the one reported in the pseudo-Dante quote. In Inferno, neutrals do not reside in one of the “hottest places in hell”—they are simply not in it. Another immediate difference is that the lowest regions of Dante’s hell are, in fact, increasingly cold. Dante believes that God is the ultimate source of life and desire, the opposite of which—Cocytus, the core of evil, where Lucifer lies with traitors—is a frozen lake far from any warmth.

The pseudo-Dante quote also establishes the condition in which neutrality deserves to be punished, that is, in the face of a “great moral crisis,” a perceived threat to established ethical principles. While Dante is undoubtedly no stranger to nostalgia for a golden age of nobility and the belief in the urgency of certain ethical choices, these notions have no place in his discussion of the neutrals. The only slight exception to this point is Dante’s mention of neutral angels, whose fate was sealed during the first “crisis” in the entire universe, Lucifer’s celestial coup.

2. World War I and the Race Against Neutrality

If this quote is so different from Dante’s actual text, then, where did it originate? We need to look at the first years of World War I, a time in which neutrality acquired a whole new meaning for the American public. While interest in Dante’s treatment of the neutrals was indeed somewhat present in previous years—Teddy Roosevelt is one of the most notable cases—it is between 1915 and 1917 that this interest becomes increasingly independent from Dante’s original text of and takes a life of its own.

This process started in 1915, when Henry Dwight Sedgwick, a prolific writer, published a lengthy essay about Italy’s engagement in World War I in the October issue of the Yale Review.[5] At the end of this essay, he concluded:

“The Italians . . . entertain a conception of neutrality quite different from our own. To them neutrality is not, as we assume it to be, a thing to be proud of. To the Latin mind neutrality is unworthy, except when the matters in dispute are so shrouded in darkness that it is impossible to say which combatant is right and which wrong. . . . Perhaps this is due to the influence of the greatest of Italians. Few sentences are as deep engraven in the Italian mind as the famous verses from the third canto of “The Inferno.” Every Italian boy learns them by heart. Virgil has led Dante through the gate of Hell to where in the starless air they hear strange tongues, horrible cries, words of pain, accents of anger, and deep, hoarse, noises. Dante, overcome with horror, asks Virgil who these sufferers are. Virgil answers:

                      This wretched state
The sorry souls of those endure
Who without shame and without honor lived.
They are commingled with that caitiff crew
Of angels, who neither rebels were,
Nor true to God, but for themselves.
In order not to be less beautiful,
Heaven drove them out; the deeps of Hell receive them not,
Lest damned souls should glory over them . . .
Mercy and Justice disdain them:
Speak not of them, but look and pass.

Dante Alighieri’s scorn of those who remain neutral when right is fighting against wrong has become part of the Italian inheritance. For such reasons Italy is willing to fight and is fighting.”

Sedgwick’s brief discussion of Dante in this essay was tremendously popular. It appeared in local newspapers from all over the United States, with enticing titles such as “Dante on Neutrality,” “The Doom of the Neutral—As Dante Saw It,” “The Italian Idea of Neutrality,” and so forth.[6] While Sedgwick correctly quoted the Divine Comedy from Longfellow’s translation, his concluding remarks cemented the association between Dante and neutrality in a time where the latter, as more and more countries entered WWI, had become an urgent matter of political debate. Further, Sedgwick attributed to Dante a specific definition of neutrality—“those who remain neutral when right is fighting against wrong”—that resonated immediately among readers.

Dante on Neutrality

The association between Dante and the condemnation of neutrality triggered a creative process that would lead to the invention of the pseudo-Dante quote. Its earliest written record appears in June 1917, that is, two years after the publication of Sedgwick’s article and just a few months after the United States declared war to Germany. We are in the Harbor Island auditorium of Wrightsville Beach, NC, where the Baptist Seaside Assembly—a local congregation—is holding their annual meeting. In the morning, W. M. Vines, then pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, NC, delivers a heated talk entitled “The Christian Minister and the War” that strongly supports the declaration of war against Germany.[7] He starts his speech with the following statement:

“Dante, in his Inferno, put those who are neutral in the everlasting fight between right and wrong in the lowest place in hell.”

Vines’ words capture a stage in which the pseudo-Dante quote has already acquired an aphoristic status but has not yet crystallized into the form we know today. Vines is still very much indebted to Sedgwick’s definition of neutrality (“those who are neutral in the everlasting fight between right and wrong” echoes almost word by word Sedgwick’s “those who remain neutral when right is fighting against wrong”). We can also see, though, that in this transformative process no memory of Dante’s actual organization of hell has been retained. The hottest places of pseudo-Dante’s hell are in the making.

Vines was a Baptist pastor, and while the content of his speech was political, the network of religious congregations across the United States is likely the context in which the pseudo-Dante quote solidified and thrived during the war and after it ended.

In fact, the second earliest written record of the pseudo-Dante quote is from another sermon report. It is 1921. This time, we are in Marysville, OH, where the First Methodist Church is hosting a revival with two invited speakers, H. A. James and L. A. Wegner.[8] On March 26, James delivers a sermon on the crucifixion, which he concludes quoting Dante:

“Pilate washed his hands in the vain attempt to be neutral. There can be no neutrality when Jesus is on our hands. We must dispose of him by either accepting or rejecting him. Dante pictured the lowest place in hell as the place reserved for the man who tries to be neutral.”

Here, neutrality is defined as complacency with the violation of prohibitionist laws against alcohol consumption,[9] but once again, what is noteworthy about this mention is the historical context in which it is placed. James and Wegner were two minor nodes of the widespread and well-established circuit of Methodist revivals—events that were meant to gather communities, renew faith and religious fervor, and gain new converts to local churches. As itinerant speakers, James and Wegner were invited to revivals all over the Midwest. While there is no written record of other sermons delivered by James, we can imagine that the pseudo-Dante quote was part of his repertoire and many different audiences eager for salvation encountered Inferno through his words.

There is no written record of the pseudo-Dante quote in the 1930s, but we can certainly imagine that it continued to thrive in the ephemeral world of sermons and congregation gatherings, especially as World War II approached. Let’s just picture an example. In the First Baptist Church of Petaluma, California, on a cold Sunday night in 1939, Reverend O. F. Goettel delivered a speech entitled “Can a Christian be Neutral in the Present Controversy?” We have no report of that speech and we do not know whether Goettel mentioned the pseudo-Dante quote, but we can certainly imagine that he may have.[10]

3. World War II, or, How Pseudo-Dante Became “Viral”

World War II brought a new flare of popularity for the pseudo-Dante quote, which officially expanded its reach beyond religious congregations and became part of the rhetorical repertoire of lay political debate in the United States. Between 1940 and 1941, we have at least two records of the pseudo-Dante quote being used by political activists in the renewed attention to what neutrality means in the face of a global conflict. The first one is in a short think piece published on The Daily Princetonian, in which John B. Whitton, then Professor of International Politics at Princeton, cautiously warned against the degeneration of neutrality into “indifference and irresponsibility,” closing his piece with a hasty reference to pseudo-Dante.[11]

parsons - by arthur sheppard

The second is a speech delivered by Louisiana delegate Edward Alexander Parsons (1878-1962) during the Continental Congress for Freedom (Washington, DC, October 9-10, 1941), a major event sponsored by Fight for Freedom that drew delegates from all forty-eight states with the goal of urging Congress to repeal the Neutrality Act. Much like Vines to his local and much smaller audience in 1917, Parsons delivered a heated interventionist address. According to a report of that speech, his concluding reference to pseudo-Dante—“Dante had a particular place in his Hell for the hypocrites and the neutrals”—was welcomed with a standing ovation.[12]

At the beginning of World War II, then, pseudo-Dante had already become a common rhetorical tool in the political calls to action, and by the end of the war it had finally transitioned into the form we know today. We find it in two volumes by Henry Powell Spring, What is Truth (1944), a bulky collection of aphorisms, and The Spirit of Literature (1945).[13] Spring was a follower of Rudolf Steiner and a very active member of the Anthroposophical Society of America. He was primarily a compilator, and What is Truth is often the earliest written source for many apocryphal sayings whose attribution is still uncertain. It is then impossible to conclude whether Spring should be credited for fixing pseudo-Dante in the form we know today, or he simply recorded a version that had already become common.

We know, though, that shortly after the publication of What Is Truth the pseudo-Dante quote started appearing in this new fixed form in a variety of contexts. In July 1944, it appeared in a short editorial on patriotism and neutrality in the Pampa Daily News.[14] In 1947, Cornell University Professor F. A. Harper used the pseudo-Dante quote in a Q&A with students on teaching and propaganda.[15] In 1953, attorney general of Texas John Ben Shepperd, a conservative Democratic, used it while advocating for a more stringent synergy between the government and the church.[16] In 1955, a piece that appeared in the Missouri Baptist journal Word and Way quoted pseudo-Dante as a form of accusation against the “large group of so-called Christians whose theme song is Moderation.”[17]

All these cases predate John F. Kennedy’s earliest recorded public use of the pseudo-Dante quote in 1956. In fact, Kennedy encountered pseudo-Dante much earlier and penned it in a notebook of aphorisms dated 1945-46. Most of the quotes collected in this notebook are apocryphal in some way, but the key fact is that they all became, in varying degrees, part of Kennedy’s repertoire—the pseudo-Dante being the most important and most frequently used in the group. Robert Kennedy did in fact note that pseudo-Dante was his brother’s favorite quote. JFK would use it tactically at least twenty-five times during his political and presidential career. “For Kennedy,” explains Deborah Parker, “the quotation was not merely decorative: it encapsulated, framed, and punctuated points he wished to make.” Kennedy’s persistent use of the pseudo-Dante quote turned it into a fixture of political debate in the United States. Starting in the late 1950s, its popularity increased exponentially because it was now conflated two projections of authority—one primarily moral and spiritual (Dante) and one political (Kennedy).

Dante JFK

In the early twentieth century, Dante’s voice was borrowed and transformed into an explicit and concise call to action that has everything to do with the American conception of neutrality and the intense evolution that this concept sustained pre- and post-1941. In this perspective, it makes much sense that the places in which the pseudo-Dante quote first developed and thrived were religious congregations: groups, that is, that would prioritize the moral and spiritual potential of Dante’s original ideas and turn them into an absolute diktat. It also makes much sense that World War II and specifically the years between 1941 and 1944 were the period in which the pseudo-Dante quote acquired its most iconic and definitive shape, as this was the time in which the United States abandoned their traditional endorsement of neutrality in foreign politics. From that moment, this call to action has been chameleon-like and has changed aims, colors, directions, and status throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

This wild journey has led us through many crucial moments of the political history of the United States. Exploring more recent usages of pseudo-Dante would uncover many more—anti-communist propaganda, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and so forth. This quote has adapted to the many voices that have employed it strategically in their speeches, sermons, and tweets. It has also acquired a global audience in many languages other than English and is now used far beyond the United States.

As I am writing this piece, pseudo-Dante is being used in support of #BlackLivesMatter, the protests against police brutality, and more. The creative process that led to the creation of this quote took place through decades of countless fleeting voices, only some of which were recorded on paper and are now available to us. This story is only partially about Dante’s voice—it is about theirs.

Laura Ingallinella


[1] Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the “Divine Comedy” (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2011).

[2] Guy Raffa, “Longfellow’s Great Liberators: Abraham Lincoln and Dante Alighieri,” Not Even Past, January 18, 2017.

[3] Akash Kumar, “Teddy Roosevelt, Dante, and the Man in the Arena,” Digital Dante (New York: Columbia University Libraries, 2018). 

[4] Deborah Parker, “The Historical Presidency: JFK’s Dante,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 48/2 (2018): 357-72.

[5] Henry Dwight Sedgwick, “Italy and the War,” Yale Review 5 (1915): 19-37, at 36-37.

[6] See the following examples: “Dante on Neutrality,” Oakland Tribune (Oakland, CA), October 6, 1915, 10; “Dante on Neutrality,” Oxford Public Ledger (Oxford, NC) October 30, 1915, 2; “Dante on Neutrality,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), November 24, 1915, 8; “The Doom of the Neutral—As Dante Saw It,” The Austin American (Austin, TX), November 12, 1915, 4; “The Italian Idea of Neutrality,” The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, NE), November 22, 1915, 6.

[7]  Walter M. Gilmore, “Dr. B. D. Gray Give Seaside Audience Refreshing Cruise,” The Morning Star (Wilmington, NC), July 1, 1917, 10. On W. M. Vines, see John Marvin Crowe, The Biography of a Thriving Church: A History of First Baptist Church, Charlotte, North Carolina, 1832-1952 (North Carolina: First Baptist Church, 1953), 49-50.

[8]Powerful Sermon on the Crucifixion,” The Evening Tribune (Marysville, OH), March 26, 1921, 2.

[9] There is another similar reference from the same years. Criticizing the then governor of Maryland’s violation of prohibitionist laws, an anonymous journalist noted that “Dante claimed there is a hell beneath all other hells for those who are neutral in the fight between good and evil”: “A Lawyer Who Will Not Accept Criminal Cases,” Manufacturers Record, December 6, 1923, 86.

[10]In the Curches,” Petaluma Argus-Courier, 14 January 1939, 8.

[11] “Neutrality, a wise and legitimate policy in the present crisis, may degenerate into indifference and irresponsibility. Dante reserved in Hell a special place for the man who never took a stand on any issue”: John B. Whitton, “Propaganda and ‘Propaganditis’,” The Daily Princetonian, February 6, 1940, 2.

[12]What Is a Neutral?,” The Eunice News (Eunice, LA), October 31, 1941, 2. It is worth noting that Parsons was a passionate bibliophile and owned an interesting collection of medieval and early modern manuscripts, among which a fourteenth-century manuscript of the Commedia; the manuscript is now in Austin, University of Texas at Austin, MS HRC 45 (olim Phillipps 8881; see the entry on Digital Scriptorium). Parson also published quite a few books, one of them on Dante: Dante Alighieri (New Orleans: Searcy and Pfaff, 1924). This is probably why his mention of the pseudo-Dante seems to be more accurate than the ones preceding it.

[13] Henry Powell Spring, What Is Truth (Winter Park, FL: The Orange Press, 1944), 270; Spring, The Spirit of Literature (Winter Park, FL: The Orange Press, 1945), 34.

[14] “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 Neutrality,” Pampa Daily News (Pampa, TX), July 10, 1944, 4.

[15] September issue of “Question and Answers” of the Foundation for Economic Education, as quoted in R. C. Hoiles, “Common Ground,” Pampa Daily News (Pampa, TX), October 15, 1947, 13.

[16] “The Christian’s Relation to Government,” Oelwein Daily Register (Oelwein, IA), September 25, 1953, 7.

[17]The Vogue for Moderation,” Word and Way (Kansas City, MI), March 24, 1955, 4.

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