Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Divine Origins of the Free Market

Column by Lawrence M. Ludlow.

Exclusive to STR

I last read the Divine Comedy as a medievalist in graduate school. My brother Richard, fueled by wonderful coffees of his own roasting, recently took up the reading of this work with extreme enthusiasm – so much so that he inspired me to revisit the work after nearly 33 years of neglect. So on Good Friday of this year, I began to once again dive into this celebrated work. This was an appropriate date for my adventure since Dante claims to have embarked upon his poetic journey in the dark wood described in the Inferno on that very date 713 years ago.

A Brief Introduction to Historical Revisionism and Its Application to Literary Interpretations

Those of us who study the Austrian School of economics and libertarian theory (especially the American variety of anarcho-capitalism, or voluntaryism) are aware of the need for historical revisionism to correct the pro-state bias that characterizes contemporary historical writing. Many of us have shared our disappointment upon discovering that the majority of modern history writing contains a deep bias that assumes both the inevitability and the “good” of the nation-state as well as centralized economic policy. Furthermore, the discipline of economics is dominated by econometricians that pursue the chimera of central planning. They attempt to “fine tune” the voluntary transactions of the free marketplace by advocating a host of politically imposed interventions that serve only to distort and derail the path of spontaneous human interactions – creating the economic chaos that plagues the “mixed economy” of our times. Ludwig von Mises exposed the psychological roots of the conventional interpretation of historical and economic events in his short work, The Anti-Capitalist Mentality. State control of the education process is another source of this dominant worldview (see State-Run Schools: The New Caesaropapism at the Future of Freedom Foundation website). Scholars rarely dare to bite the hand that feeds them.

But what does this have to do with Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy, and free-market economics? I would like to suggest the need for a new discipline – a new playground – for revisionism. Just as many libertarian scholars are gradually re-writing historical interpretations from a libertarian perspective, it is perhaps time to do the same for literary interpretation. Fortunately for us, there are many examples of historical revisionism before us. In addition to the many essays and books by Professor Ralph Raico, Professor Murray N. Rothbard began his search for the early origins of free market thought many years ago – cutting a wide path for those of us who wish to follow in his footsteps. For example, he identified the 15th Century academic roots of free-market theories in his book, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. In particular, he identified a number of late-Scholastic thinkers whose efforts were centered at the University of Salamanca. Lew Rockwell has provided a brief and valuable introduction to that school in this article. Because it points back to the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century, this late-scholastic link is important for a thorough understanding of the context in which Dante created his Divine Comedy. Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic’s scholastic, is the source of inspiration for the “Salamanca School” of thought. Within the Catholic Church, for example, the eminent status of Aquinas as a theologian and doctor of the Church can be perceived by means of his sobriquet, Angelicus Doctor. His influence on both the Salamanca School and, even earlier, on Dante Alighieri, is reflected throughout the Divine Comedy. Indeed, Dante places Aquinas in the fourth sphere of The Paradiso, the sphere of the sun. From this source, the souls of the wise illuminate the world with their teachings. So as I began to re-read the Divine Comedy, my mind was alert to the possibility that Dante himself may have reflected some exposure to free-market notions as he wrote this famous poem, and as we shall see, I was not disappointed by what I found there.

Literary Revisionism, Anyone?

Dante was born in Florence in the year 1265, only nine years before the death of Thomas Aquinas in 1274. Furthermore, it is important to remember that Dante was busy working on the Divine Comedy during the first two decades of the 1300s, and his work reflects the full influence of Aquinas in addition to the arguments of many other theologians whose writings defined medieval thought. Consequently, I could not help but notice the difference between modern conceptions of ethics and those held by Dante and his peers. Dante’s expansive poem comprises 100 sections, called cantos, and these are grouped into three main parts – the Inferno (the first 34 cantos), the Purgatorio (33 cantos), and the Paradiso (33 cantos). I should not have been surprised to discover – treasured in the very heart of the entire work – an overt message that describes what Dante clearly understands to be the last word – or divine interpretation – of the workings of the marketplace and, in particular, of the free market. It can be found in verses 40 through 78 in Canto XV of the Purgatorio, which is the 49th canto of the entire Divine Comedy. At this location within the poem, it rubs shoulders with the 50th and 51st cantos, which together share the honor of holding the precise central position at the living heart of this work. This is no mere coincidence. It is important to remember that throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante is careful – obsessively so – to create perfect symmetry in the organization of his material – imposing mathematical and literary structure upon the poem in every verse and canto. His encyclopedic poem is as much an example of symmetrical architecture as it is a masterpiece of the written word.

We already are familiar with the Marxian social gospel that is so popular among many current theologians and their followers. In the verses I will cite, Dante himself voices an understanding of the marketplace that shares this erroneous communitarian view of economics. In particular, he describes his adherence to what is known among libertarians as the fallacy of zero-sum economics. Those who hold the zero-sum view claim that in a free marketplace, the gains of one participant are exactly balanced by the losses of another. If the total of the gains and losses are added up, the sum will be zero. In other words, if the sum total of all wealth were embodied in a single chocolate cake, one person’s share of cake would be another’s loss. Furthermore, the addition of each new market participant requires the slicing of thinner and thinner pieces of this cake. We libertarians, of course, despise this theory. If it were correct, the seven billion inhabitants of planet Earth would now be sharing and dividing infinitesimally small pieces of the very same chocolate cake that was first made available in the mists of Mexican pre-history. If such were true, I frankly wonder if there would be so much as a single calorie available to any of us – and very stale calories at that. Furthermore, the current spectacle of American obesity appears to belie this interpretation without my assistance.

But as soon as Dante expresses his zero-sum analysis of marketplace economics, Virgil – who acts as Dante’s divinely appointed guide throughout his journey down into the Inferno and during his wonderful ascent of the Purgatorio – immediately upbraids him and provides the correct alternative, an unabashed free-market perspective. In Dante’s poem, this perspective is a reflection of the divine perspective of God. Let’s now examine the text itself.

Revising Dante’s Zero-Sum Economics: 39 Verses Encapsulate a Divine Economic Theory

To provide the context for this analysis, it is important to remember that Dante has just completed his visit to the second cornice (or ledge) of Purgatory, a ledge inhabited by the souls of those who must purge themselves of the sin of envy. Envy is one of the seven deadly sins of Catholic theology, and the souls of the envious lean against each other for support – mutually helping each other in a loving way that they refused to exhibit while on Earth because of their resentment of the good fortune of others. Furthermore, the eyelids of these repentant sinners are sewn shut because in life, they were in the habit of casting their envious eyes upon the goods of their brothers and sisters, resenting others for their good fortune. It is important to understand that for Dante, acting as poet-physician, the proper antidote for the sin of envy is nothing less than love – or caritas. And we will see that the doctrine of love will provide the concluding lesson of my essay as well.

Once again, Dante has just departed from the second cornice of Purgatory and is climbing the stairs to the third cornice. As he climbs, he makes a conscious effort to consolidate his understanding of the lessons learned during his visit to the ledge inhabited by the souls of the envious. He turns to his guide, Virgil, and begins to question him about the words of a “spirit from Romagna” who had spoken briefly to Dante. Knowing this, we are prepared for the relevant passages. I have provided them here in their entirety using John Ciardi’s translation throughout, which reflects the terza rima of Dante’s Italian. It is available through Kindle Books; Dante Alighieri (2003-05-27). The Divine Comedy (412-414). NAL Trade. Kindle Edition).

Dante Learns a New Way to Think About Sharing
Let’s begin our exploration by focusing on verses 40 through 51:

My Guide and I were going up the stair— (Verse 40)
we two alone— and I, thinking to profit
from his wise words as we were climbing there,

questioned him thus: “What deep intent lay hidden (Verse 43)
in what the spirit from Romagna said?
He spoke of ‘sharing’ and said it was ‘forbidden.’ ”

And he: “He knows the sad cost of his own (Verse 46)
besetting sin: small wonder he reviles it
in hope that you may have less to atone.

It is because you focus on the prize (Verse 49)
of worldly goods, which every sharing lessens
that Envy pumps the bellows for your sighs.

By “sharing,” Dante’s Virgil means the envious type of sharing – i.e., taking from another person what is not yours to possess and forcibly imposing a “sharing” that is forbidden, a confiscatory type of “sharing” by means of forced redistribution. This is a zero-sum type of sharing in which one person’s good fortune comes at an equal cost to another. The following verses constitute Virgil’s reply and critique:

But if, in true love for the Highest Sphere, (Verse 52)
your longing were turned upward, then your hearts
would never be consumed by such a fear;

for the more there are there who say ‘ours’— not ‘mine’— (Verse 55)
by that much is each richer, and the brighter
within that cloister burns the Love Divine.”

What is Virgil saying? He is instructing Dante to adopt the perspective of the “highest sphere” (i.e., the Empyrean). For Dante, the Empyrean is the highest heaven, beyond the physically delimited universe, the abode of God. He is instructing Dante to abandon his envious fear that the marketplace will not provide sufficiently for everyone. He even goes so far as to re-define the possessive pronoun “ours” – asking Dante to abandon the envious desire to make something “mine” and to realize that in the marketplace, “our” wealth is much “richer.” Like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes (the feeding of the 5,000) reported in all four Gospels of the New Testament, the marketplace is able to multiply wealth itself – baking more and better cakes that can subsequently become “ours” to “share” in a positive and divine way. But in this divine sense of sharing, there is no coercion or forced redistribution. Instead, the market functions as a creative engine that produces wealth that the envious method of sharing cannot possibly replicate.

Upon hearing of this new way of thinking about “ours” and of “sharing,” Dante voices his confusion:

I am left hungrier being thus fed, (Verse 58)
and my mind is more in doubt being thus answered,
than if I had not asked at all,” I said.

How can each one of many who divide (Verse 61)
a single good have more of it, so shared,
than if a few had kept it?” He replied:

The Limitless Bounty of the Marketplace

We can see that Dante is persisting in his zero-sum analysis. He simply cannot believe the divine message. Then, as if he were an anachronistic follower of Ludwig von Mises and a spokesman for the Austrian School (via his birthplace near Mantua, which is at least partway to Austria compared to Florence) the long suffering Virgil replies to Dante with the following gentle words of reproof:

Because within the habit of mankind (Verse 64)
you set your whole intent on earthly things,
the true light falls as darkness on your mind.

The infinite and inexpressible Grace (Verse 67)
which is in Heaven, gives itself to Love
as a sunbeam gives itself to a bright surface.

In short, Virgil asks Dante to abandon his outmoded economic paradigm of command-and-control economics, where the Diktat of economic viziers can only derail the spontaneous order of things and undermine the natural benefits of a free market. Virgil is telling Dante that the wealth created by the free and spontaneous order is as abundant as the divine light emanating from the sun. One person’s enjoyment of it does not subtract from the enjoyment of another. And please, let’s not over-extend the metaphor by talking about shadows cast by individuals positioned more closely to the sun! We must assume that Dante is referring to a divine sunlight that probably does not cause cancer either! In an analogous way, Stephan Kinsella’s path-breaking work “Against Intellectual Property,” demonstrated that the concept of intellectual property (IP) is inappropriate for a similar reason.

Divine Sunlight, Intellectual Property, and Love

The shared understanding of a concept among more than one person merely expands with the number of people who share that concept. When greater numbers of people appreciate the concept of a wheel and the advantages that a wheel brings to the art of transportation, the sharing of this concept among many minds does not dislodge it from the mind of the person who originally conceived it. One person’s grasp of a concept does not subtract from another’s. In other words, there is no scarcity in the realm of understanding just as there is no scarcity in the availability of divine sunlight to all who are illuminated by it. That is why the concept of IP is an anti-concept and quite destructive. As Kinsella has shown, the concept of property rights was developed to resolve conflicts of ownership that apply to real, or physical, property – not intellectual concepts. Only physical property is afflicted by the burden of scarcity because the limitations of its physical nature imply that it cannot be simultaneously employed by more than one person. In other words, one cannot have one’s cake and eat it, too. But this concept does not apply to intellectual knowledge – which like the sunlight described by Virgil, shares a quality in which “the blaze of Love is spread more widely, the greater the Eternal Glory grows.”

As much light as it finds there, it bestows; (Verse 70)
thus, as the blaze of Love is spread more widely,
the greater the Eternal Glory grows.

As mirror reflects mirror, so, above, (Verse 73)
the more there are who join their souls, the more
Love learns perfection, and the more they love.

In addition, we can perceive here the overwhelming importance of love in Dante’s exposition. Just as the divine sunlight described by Dante’s Virgil is not diminished by its ability to illuminate many darkened minds, and just as Kinsella’s rejection of intellectual property and replacement of that anti-concept by the concept of shared knowledge demonstrates the undiminished capacity of a shared idea to transform countless lives for the better, love itself does not diminish in proportion to its being shared. Instead, it increases and grows tremendously in its impact. This is a powerful message, and it is one we should all consider deeply. From an anarcho-libertarian perspective, the writer Glen Allport has explored the importance of love as a means of emotional connection in his many valuable essays at Strike The Root – most particularly in The Doctrine of Love and Freedom. While I frequently fail in my attempts to incorporate Glen Allport’s approach in my sometimes-snarky essays, these failures cannot diminish the intrinsic value of the important message of free markets or the equally valuable message of love. I hope that this essay does much to make up for the deficit – shortening my own future journey through Purgatory.

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Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture
Columns on STR: 37

Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.  


mhstahl's picture

Fascinating article, Lawrence. Thank you for writing it, and for giving me a chance to think about what I really think was a better time.

I'd like to offer a, hopefully profitable, critique.

Being a medievalist myself, though focused on a far earlier time, I can certainly appreciate the frustration brought about by the heavy influence of Marxist historical theory on the period with its peculiar brand of teleology. Indeed, the interpretation of the era deserves serious attention.

That said, I worry a bit about the notion of "revisionism", or "re-writing historical interpretations from a libertarian perspective." To my mind, this is little better than writing from a Marxist perspective since it implies the application of modern moral assumptions and edicts upon people who were wholly unaware of such concepts.

To me the value of history is to be found in understanding how societies function as they really were under a variety of cultural and moral norms, rather than acting as a force majeure to bolster contemporary political, moral, or ethical arguments. I think that when this sort of "perspective" interpretation is done it gives credence to the post-modernist charge that "history" is really nothing but a manipulation to serve contemporary ends-that historians are, in effect, nothing but ambulance-chasing lawyers making a case for whatever current philosophical fad which they have an interest(I do not think that you are trying to do anything of the sort-indeed, you are trying to correct just such obfuscation, I'm simply pointing out why I have trouble with the concept of revisionism according to any modern perspective.)

Case in point, Dante.

It seems a stretch to me to suggest that Dante was a sort of proto-Misean. Though you are in quite good company in doing so, since, if I recall correctly, Rothbard attempted to do the same thing with the work of Thomas Aquinas in his History of Economic Thought that you cited. I believe this to be a flawed, and even anachronistic, analysis. While Aquinas, and his admirer Dante, did indeed postulate some ideas that have become core to the notion of the "free-market", I don't believe that there is any evidence whatsoever that he had any inkling of such a concept as he was writing, though I'm happy to be wrong. He certainly had no idea of the teleological interpretation of the economic structure of his age concocted by Marxist historians centuries after he had turned to dust.

When I read the passages you selected, I thought more of Aquinas's "just-price theory" and his concern over the proper behavior of Christians in economic matters than any "free-market" analysis. Aquinas himself postulated no "zero-sum games," the notion that a market generates its own marginal increase in resources through increased production, and most certainly not that markets should be unrestrained (exactly the opposite, IIRC.) These are advanced economic theories that apply to a "capitalist" marketplace that would not exist in a significant way for several centuries.

Instead Aquinas believed that a certain amount of profit was just as it reflected the sellers effort in providing the good to meet the buyers need, but that anything beyond that amount was unjust and in fact an act of theft on the part of the seller. To Aquinas, someone with a need had a "right" to resources provided they compensated the possessor** for their effort in making the item available. If no effort was involved, there was no "just-price" and no moral way to make a sale-such as in the case of interest on loans, which he condemned.

To my mind, this notion is reflected quite clearly in Virgil's pronouncements about sharing. The increase in goods comes from their "just" disposition, rather than from increased production. Marxists, of course, take this as a justification for communism, which it is not. What it is, instead, is a totally different concept of "property" than anything we see in the modern world. What's wrong with that? Personally, I think that the modern notions of freedom, liberty, and the requisite "free-market" are powerful enough to stand on their own without the blunt attempt to justify them by shoehorning alien and antique philosophies into the mix. I also happen to think that such a "free-market" would consist of "property" concepts wildly different from either those of the middle-ages, or today.

Personally, I think that-if somehow he could come to understand the theories-Aquinas would be mortified by the ideas of Marx, and those of von Mises. The concepts simply do not belong to his time.

Again, I very much enjoyed the article, please do not take my words as anything other than a differing analysis and a hope for discussion.



**I don't think "owner" is the right term-since Aquinas thought that if you bought a loaf of bread from me for twice the "just" price because you were hungry and nothing else was available, then I stole from you.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Thank you for writing and for your comments. While I understand your concerns about the possibility of distorting history by means of revisionism, I have come to think of all good history writing as revisionism. Yes, there are facts that remain stable – year after year. On the other hand, all history writers choose which facts they examine and which they will ignore. And that, to me, is why revisionism is so important. It is a way of resurrecting “forgotten” facts by saying, in effect: “Look at this.”
For example, regarding the study of ancient Greek or Roman history, the Greek and Roman historians and their admirers were incredibly biased. Even worse, because the Greeks and Romans were so admired by Renaissance-era writers and their successors (education was biased toward study of the classics in an almost uncritical way), the Greek and Roman civilizations have never received the scrutiny and critique they need. Fortunately, historical revisionism has come to the rescue. For example, in about 1987, I read a re-interpretation of the demise of the Roman Empire that was written by a graduate-level (master’s level) student at the University of Chicago. The title was “Ancient Suicide of the West,” and it was published by the Foundation for Economic Education. It’s still available online, and I encourage STR readers to study it well. It is a wonderful take-down of the Roman Empire. It demonstrates how the Pax Romana is a myth. I personally believe the idea of a Pax Romana, even though it did not originate with them, was perpetuated by writers such as Augustine and other apologists because they positively associated their high valuation of Christianity with the political creation of the Romans. But the article, by Nicholas Davidson, showed how the Romans squatted over and bled dry the entire Mediterranean civilization and its economy until Rome died of indigestion (like all empires) and was replaced by an experiment in de-centralization – the Middle Ages. And it was this medieval world of political experimentation that was the birthplace or the civilization that breathed new life into the idea of liberty. And you don’t even have to read every word of Gibbon! Here's a link to the article: http://www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/the-ancient-suicide-of-the-west
In addition, the writings of Livy and Tacitus and of Julius Caesar are full of name-calling against the German “tribes” and Celtic people. One would think they were speaking of wild and savage proto-humans. But they weren’t. With the passing of each decade the true story of the international trade conducted by the Celtic people – as well as their vast wealth and high state of civilization – is becoming difficult to hide with the many new archaeological discoveries. Similarly, when I visited Ireland in 2004, I saw the only surviving bishop’s regalia in all of Ireland. The remaining examples had all been destroyed by Cromwell. The regalia was encrusted with diamonds and emeralds and other gemstones. It spoke of wealth. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would have assumed, by its absence as the British conquerors wished, that the Irish never had a pig in a poke. Only the jewels in the Tower would have existed in their absence. Knowing this, think of the stories never told by “authorized” court-approved historians.
I encourage readers to visit some of my own “revisions” at STR. For example, read my essay on Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type here (Johann Gutenberg: Genuine Inventor and Benefactor of Mankind: http://www.strike-the-root.com/81/ludlow/ludlow3.html
From my essay, you can learn that it was the invention of printing and the consequent and precipitous drop in the price of reading material that formed the groundwork for the revolution in literacy and all of the other consequences – including the scientific/technology revolution and perhaps the kind of sentence parsing that lead to individualism. You won’t learn this in public schools, where you learn way too much uncritical material about how the propaganda centers (i.e., public schools) spread in America – but without calling them by that name! Similarly, read my essay, “Christ’s Teachings on Taxation,” also on STR: http://www.strike-the-root.com/91/ludlow/ludlow1.html
This is a valid perception about the communications of Jesus, and it needs to be heard amid the business-as-usual pro-state excuses. So let these new memes fly! Given the context of how Jesus spoke in half-riddles, my observation carries some weight.
On more recent historical topics, we have Ralph Raico writing about the insanity of President Wilson among many other issues. Similarly, Thomas DiLorenzo has re-constructed our views about the dictator Lincoln. The book, Reassessing the Presidency (edited by John Denson) is a magnificent re-examination of how we look at presidents and how we value their contributions. Denson’s books are all quite wonderful correctives. If this be revisionism, let’s make the most of it. Jim Powell’s book, Wilson’s War, is mandatory reading. He connects the dots and takes us down the trail of bread crumbs to unravel the disastrous U.S. foreign policy in WW1 – a policy that virtually guaranteed the creation of Stalin, Hitler, WW2, and the current military-industrial-surveillance state as a result – and the tens of millions of corpses they produced and continue to produce. This story has never been told in such a compelling way, yet none of the information in Powell’s book is new. Any graduate-level class in Russian history or WW1 studies will identify these facts – but only in isolation from each other. They are only rarely strung together in a convincing narrative, with a few exceptions. Wilson's decision to tip the scales in favor of Britain and his payments to the Russian Duma led to the Bolshevik phase of the Russian Revolution and the horrible Versailles Treaty. This is revisionism at its best. It causes us to re-think our views of WW1 and WW2. So are the books of Stinnett regarding FDR and how he orchestrated us into WW2. Regarding Rothbard, I found his 4-volume set, Conceived in Liberty, to contain wonderful insights that I’ve never encountered before about life in Colonial America and beyond. They are valuable for their insights.
And while it is true that Murray Rothbard’s claims regarding the Salamanca School refer to a very small portion of the writings of these Salamanca scholars, they carry important tid-bits of information. Similarly, you can find much contradiction in Aquinas, but Aquinas represents quite a change over Augustine, and the tantalizing bits are there – even if covered over (and even dominated) by much that isn’t. And that brings us to Dante. I agree that there is ambivalence in Dante’s wonderful poem and even in this passage, but the interpretation I offer here is worthy of consideration. Consideration of Dante's other writings, such as Il Convivio, will balance out any misinterpretation I make. But the other pro-state memes are already out there and have done their damage and will continue to do so. Ironically, my interpretation of Dante was triggered by John Ciardi (the translator) himself. His notes contained the conventional interpretation of Dante’s economic policy, but it was this claim of his that caused me to re-read the text. I thought to myself: “Oh, really?” I may be incorrect because one can read the text either way, but if this meme goes out there, who knows what other readers of the classics will see in the future? When researchers take off their predisposition-laden blinders and re-examine the writings that have already been stamped with official evaluations, they may actually document entire chains of phrasing that has passed without remark -- leading to a re-evaluation that may adjust the canonical interpretations. We only find what we look for. The value of these insights is often in what they induce other researchers to do. Perhaps the corpus of Dante’s writings (I’m just starting out with this author as a beginner) will show that another view dominates his other writings, but that still leaves something open to discussion. After all, Augustine’s later work is the source for much later Reformation-era talk of double-predestination, yet so much of his earlier work is full of wonderful discussions of free choice. These writers are full of contradictions. Even Adam Smith contains the Labor Theory of Value in his Wealth of Nations, so this wouldn't be the first time we run into ambiguity!
So while I share your concerns about the possibility of distortion, is it really a problem? After all, the famous Pirenne thesis made clear some fascinating information about the Middle Ages, and some of his theory still stands tall. The best history writing is – after all – the making of a thesis and the other scholars making the responding anti-thesis. This professional argumentation – back and forth – is what makes the advance of historical understanding possible and leads to new discoveries and re-discoveries of old facts that were ignored for too long. In fact, the pallid historical writing one sees in high school textbooks is not history writing at all. It is pre-digested propaganda. Only when students and readers are exposed to the argumentation itself between historians does history come alive. I’d even go so far as to say that without revisionism, there IS no history writing – at least none that is readable or interesting or capable of triggering a thought. Like science, the facts of history are always undergoing revision -- as well they should.
I think that your critique of what I saw stands on its own – without any need to dismiss revisionism. So perhaps you should simply grant yourself the respect and confidence of a different “take” than mine. It will prove itself out without any reference to revisionism.
Again, thanks for your comments.

Glock27's picture

A compound-complex dialogue. About five to six years past I read Dante's "Divine Comedy" for a second round. I am far from an intellectual sleuth and read it blindly as a work of art and not a political piece. The Divine Comedy and the Bible are two texts I must presume are subject to interpretation. As human beings we can read into each text what we will, but it dose not make it so.

I thoroughly enjoyed this dialogue and it has stimulated me to consider reading it a third time at a different level. Will I? Probably not as it takes, I am assuming an intense effort to focuse on something other that what appears to be artistically obvious. Is it a politica piece or is it a performance of art. I am nearing my end and I question my need to be so penetrating. For those who are younger may benefit in looding at a new revision of Dante.

For me this has been one of the more beautiful excursions into dialogue regarding issues all human kind is confronted with. as for me I continue to struggle with the issue of the "human Condition" an element which infects every person alive at all stations of life.

Great work on both your parts. I would be anxious to see more of this high caliber material produced.

Respectfully, Glock27

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

While the Comedy is a work of poetry, its primary message seems to be a theological and ethical one – although Dante allows himself plenty of latitude to vent his spleen and thus give voice to his somewhat parochial (by our standards) political views. Most refreshing to me, however, was his sane and much more balanced attitude toward human failing or sin. His perceptions are much more searching and perceptive than those encountered among today’s poets (rock stars?) and, of course, in public discourse. For example, in ranking the sins of mankind, his ordering of the seven deadly sins in order of their danger and degree of evil is as follows – with the worst at the bottom of the following list:
Sloth/Acedia (spiritual laziness)
The first three sins are examples of immoderate (too much?) love. Sloth/Acedia is considered an example of insufficient (too little) love. The last three are the most serious – examples of bad love. Ironically, much of what passes for “news” and “public comment” these days passes over the two most damaging forms of sin – envy and pride. For example, in our socialist dictatorship, envy has even been raised to the level of a semi-sacrament, and pride is not even considered damaging to human interactions.
Furthermore, wrath is treated with a great deal of ambiguity, depending upon the context. For example, it is reviled when practiced by the individual in the street – whether during a gangland killing or even in the case of home self-defense when a resident shoots a felon in the act of breaking into a home. And those who attribute anthropomorphic qualities to firearms (the anti-Bill-of-Rights crowd who despise the 2nd Amendment) would consider an act of self-defense as itself a crime. Ironically, at the same time, government-sponsored violence and bullying is looked upon with great favor by the mob – whether it is a SWAT team gunning down someone in the middle of the night in search of relatively harmless substance such as marijuana or whether the government’s military kill-squads are committing mass-murder abroad among under-armed, impoverished people to enforce U.S. hegemony and the (evil) empire.
Even more bizarre – to Dante – would be the modern attitude toward sloth/acedia. In America, where spirituality is commoditized in the form of “spiritual” crystals and large rock formations in cities such as Del Mar, California and in Sedona, Arizona, very few people consider spiritual laziness to be a deficiency.
Perhaps most bizarre of all, are contemporary attitudes to greed, gluttony, and lust. Greed is not even perceived as a form of love, however immoderate. It is considered worse than envy. But when you think about it, which causes more damage to social interactions? Greed or envy? Surely envy is much uglier and twists an individual into a hateful thing. As unfortunate as immoderate greed is, it at least is not directed in a hateful manner to one’s fellow creatures. It is merely buffoonish if taken too far. But even a little envy is a very ugly thing and something that disrupts human relationships entirely. Yet it is the political mainstay of our times.
And while the self-destructive nature of gluttony is recognized in our society, it causes more shame to more people than the much more damaging sins of wrath, envy, and certainly pride. Even more bizarre is the public outrage expressed on the topic of lust. While it is true that promiscuity involving the violation of a marriage contract or even an unwritten understanding between two people is truly an act of betrayal that causes severe damage, at least the one betrayed can somehow pick up the pieces and live. But the victim of a government-sponsored crime of violence – whether it is the theft of taxation or the mass-murder of war – can oftentimes never be compensated or restored to the status quo ante. And we continue to treat men and women differently on this score -- excusing and encouraging and winking at the habits of promisuous men while simultaneously looking askance at women whose practices are identical. Perhaps most bizarre is the uber-shaming that homosexuality still evokes in many circles. In Dante’s Purgatorio, however, the only difference between heterosexual and homosexual examples of lust was that they ran in opposite directions as they worked out their salvation. The modern stigma was entirely absent from Dante's discussion of the topic. I think the inhabitants of contemporary “Amurka” are in need of a good sanity lesson from Dante. Sadly, far too many Americans would rather their children joined one of the tax-subsidized armed forces than be gay. This is topsy-turvy thinking at its most outrageous and disruptive – or so I think.
For these insights alone -- which act like Drano for our clogged minds -- a reading of Dante's Divine Comedy is well worth the time and effort. I have rarely enjoyed poetry this much.

Glock27's picture

Lawrence Ludlow: I am flatly amazed at your analysis of Dante converting into todays terms. From my point of view it is amazing.
I just had a storm to move through and lost all my original words so this is short. I simply love what you have done here--it is simply brilliant and now I must pull down my copy and begin again. Have you taken a sorte into Miltons Paradise lost to see if there are parallels there. From my memory I am certain there are and probably a lot one could drag out of Milton.
What you have provided here I believe is a much needed change of pace rather than the pablum spouts that go back and forth.
I have not classified myself as anything for this site but I do appreciate the mind set that is here, men and women with a clear understanding of Natural freedom and Natural law. I still cling to the Constitution only on the basis that it has never had an honest chance of being performed in the manner it appears to be intended. On a National level I am uncertain that full freedom can be achieved. Maybe more on local levels as long as the government does not try to interfere, however there are the greedy, the lustful, those filled with avarice and gluttony; people who want to be in complete control of everyone else. I am 69 and my health is not the greatest. I spend each day in pain from osteoarthritis and an unidentified abdominal discomfort that can be painful at times. With this said I have no fear of dying defending my right to keep and bear arms.
Magnificent job Lawrence.

With my deepest respect

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Unfortunately I haven't yet dipped into either John Buyan or -- as you suggested -- Milton. I'm looking forward to both. While I believe that the Constitution inevitably led to the current situation as Stephan Molyneux explains in his FreeDomainRadio site, I understand why people cling to their beliefs (a faith-based religion?) in an institution they were raised to believe had some basis and credibility. It is frequently a generational thing, and not many of us can pull the rug out from under our feet and look at the dirty floor thereby revealed. It really is unnerving because it causes a fundamental shift in the foundations that underlie so much of our perceptual reality. Once done, however, the pulled rug cannot be put back in place. For the most compelling take-down of the Constitution, I encourage you to read the brilliant essay by the abolitionist, Lysander Spooner more than 150 years ago. It's called "Consitution of No Authority." He literally dismantles its premise, its foundations, and its imposition in a way that utterly compels you to reject it. I read it in 1985 and never looked back. I encourage you to do so. It's brief and riviting and free on the web. Thanks for writing.

Glock27's picture

Lawrence: Thanks for your kindly reply. Yes Buyan and Milton are heavy as is Dante. I have read Spooner--several times for that matter and paragraph by paragraph. I am unable to find in him what everyone else here does. Spooner was absent the plethora of written history. Much of what we know did not come until later. I do not disagree with the idea that the Constitution has no authority unless you want it too. I found many problems with his analogies, but that is not to fault him. He did with what he had. I doubt many people of the time even knew a Constitution existed except for a handful. Hell, many people today only know there is a Constitution but that is as far as it goes. I will also concede that the Constitution has some flaws in it that has made possible for the gradual decay of this soil. Yet, to this day I have seen no one propose something better. As I see it to Proclaim that I am "Free" has no authority either unless I proscribe some dictate that defines my freedom.

I have read Browns book on "How I found freedom in an Unfree world". He has made the most sense than many I have read. I will re-visit Spooner and go through it with my concerns and maybe you can show me where I am falling off the wagon
With deepest respect

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Glock27, the reason you do not find it compelling is that you do not share a philosophical basis with us -- namely, the repudiation of initiatory force. Until you do, you will be  unable to follow where we go. Likewise, however, you will not be able to appeal to any basis for prohibiting some folks from victimizing others. The inherent contradiction in creating a criminal monopoly cannot stand. It is a self-exploding argument and cannot pass the smell test of logic. Until you demand of yourself that consistency, you eschew serious consideration in many ways. Professor Murray Rothbard has laid out the meta-ethical basis for anarcho-capitalism in two books: "For a New Liberty" and "Ethics of Liberty." Both are available free online at Mises.org. Hans Hermann Hoppe has created a parallel argument in his book, "Democracy: The God That Failed." The twin underpinnings of the (1) non-aggression axiom (the prohibition on initiatory violence and fraud) and (2) self-ownership principle are the basis for libertarian anracho-theory. Until you explain why some people should be allowed to agress against others without creating a contradiction, you will have a problem that you cannot solve with a piece of paper -- i.e., the Constitution. You must also study meta-ethics to realize what a system of ethics demands to be considered such. Until you do, you will be lost to these perceptions. Most of us moved on long ago. And while it is possible to say all moral systems are merely human inventions -- which is true -- there is no other alternative really, is there?

Glock27's picture

I have searched the Von mise site and cannot find the PDF of the books you mention. Maybe you could give me a better source for the material?

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Glock, I just published a follow-up essay at fff.org--i.e., more on Dante and the Seven Deadly Sins. Here's the link:
It is entitled “Libertarian Themes in the Seven Deadly Sins of Dante’s Divine Comedy” and published at fff.org.

Glock27's picture

Again Lawrence, I must thank you for your kindly reply. I find it most helpful. It seems as if you offer me a chance to discover. I will truly search the texts you have offered. But to be clear I have an irrevocable distaste for the current governmental system. The Constitution has been raped from George Washington onward. I believe a few of the founders were honest in their effort to see that a free society evolved, it's just that others observed an opportunity to countermand. I am compelled to believe that under any situation there are those whom will take advantage of any system in order to capitalize of the lives of others. I have observed this to be an age old problem, ergo the reason I do not fall into line here. I am 69 and have had years of fraud lain against me. I believe in many of the concepts presented here and only wish it could be a truism. The tragedy I see here is there are individuals eager at aggress against others here because they do not hold the same view. This site becomes representative that human being will never be able to get along. I have often said the only true freedom is for one to escape hundreds of miles away from civilization and live under his or her own terms. It sounds outlandish but in my mind it is the only way one can truly have freedom.
I am hooked to stay where I am. I believe it would be wonderful if each of us could enjoy the freedom we desire, b ut I just don't see it happening. I have been a member on this site for a year and I have seen assholes and I have seen some genuine, authentic individuals who truly want to see a change.
Again, thanks for your words of encouragement. Maybe I will see. As I said Harry Browns book "How I found Freedom in an unfree world" has been the best.
With deepest respect.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

For a New Liberty: http://mises.org/document/1010/For-a-New-Liberty-The-Libertarian-Manifesto
NOTE: The "Libertarian Creed" begins on page 22. I suggest you start there. It ends on page 37. Then begin at the beginning. This is as far as I go.
All of Rothbard is at this link -- includidng Ethics of Liberty and For a New Liberty: http://mises.org/Literature/Author/299

Glock27's picture

Had I not been so blind I would have noted the PDF symbols. Thanks.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

As some readers are aware, I often try to identify historical events and documents that show a libertarian streak in them. In May 2013, I wrote an essay for STR entitled Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Divine Origins of the Free Market. In the blog comments that followed, I suggested that Dante’s ranking of the seven deadly sins—in particular, the sequence by which he distinguished less serious from more serious sins—reflected insights that we share as libertarians, regardless of our status as atheists, agnostics, or Christians.
In an essay entitled “Libertarian Themes in the Seven Deadly Sins of Dante’s Divine Comedy” and published at fff.org, I fleshed out that suggestion; I showed how Dante and aspects of medieval Catholic theology had more in common with libertarian beliefs than the beliefs of many modern-day Christians, who have been infused with a puritanical—and even Manichaean—attitude about the natural world and its bounty and beauty. Indeed, the perceptions about the natural world shared by the theologian Thomas Aquinas and some of today’s libertarians may help explain why libertarianism resonates so deeply with Catholics, Jews, and other minorities—including Native Americans and members of the gay community.

Timmaayy's picture

Excellent piece! Let me add one bit of supporting evidence, a few references that are beyond your scope, but struck me as I was reading, and then end with a minor point of disagreement.

The observation that pride is both the deadliest of the seven sins and at the very heart of libertarian objections to the existing political order is an outstanding insight!

I was surprised, however, that you didn't mention that pride is also what Christians, both then and now, regard as THE "Original Sin" -- the very transgression that resulted in all mankind's banishment from paradise, thus both the impetus behind the death and resurrection of Jesus and the sine qua non of "Mount Purgatory."

Further, while I recognize that the purpose of your thesis was a comparison of libertarian precepts with Dante's "Seven Deadly Sins," I was struck by the support to be found in the gospel accounts of the teachings of Jesus.

In my opinion the two most powerful of his parables (because they are so reproachful for most of us who are less spiritually advanced) both deal with the second deadliest of the sins: envy.

Who is not startled into greater self-awareness at the conclusion of the story of "The Prodigal Son" by the father's response to the (entirely understandable) indignation of the older brother? Likewise, the rejoinder by the owner of the vineyard to his resentful day-laborers who (also quite understandably) expected more than they were actually owed -- an expectation that envy transmogrified into entitlement? [Side note: as with nearly all of Jesus' parables neither of these is multiply-attested as the former appears only in Luke, the latter only in Matthew.]

Your point about the lesser sins of greed, gluttony and lust being no more than immoderations arising from otherwise natural and wholesome pursuits, and that it is merely obsessiveness that is to be eschewed, also finds support in the teaching of Jesus.

One incident that comes immediately to mind (some checking might well locate others) is his response to critics by making a "no-win" comparison of himself with John the Baptist. Where his mentor's asceticism drew accusations of demon possession, his own, more typical style of fellowship brought charges of being a drunkard and a glutton. [Another aside: Although this anecdote appears in both Matthew and Luke, it most likely traces to the lost "sayings gospel" scholars refer to as Q and is, therefore, also lacking multiple attestation.]

However, this "Middle Way" is ubiquitous in and fundamental to Buddhism. Indeed, it was in coming to an appreciation of the destructiveness that attends both reckless overindulgence and extreme asceticism that was the catalyst for the Buddha's enlightenment.

Which brings me to a point of (minor) disagreement.

Based on my, admittedly rudimentary, understanding of this Eastern philosophy, the characterization of Buddhists as viewing "the things of this world as evil and the desires of the flesh as something to be shunned" is misplaced.

To my mind the Buddhist view of the worldly realm bears fairer comparison with Dante's conception of Purgatory. Both apprehend a "place," so-to-speak, of refinement/purification in the struggle to attain the spiritual perfection required to reach the top of the mountain, i.e., to enter heaven (or nirvana.)

Two important distinctions, however, are that with the latter the climb takes place within the spiritual realm and in full knowledge of the destination. Whereas for the former the effort is made in this physical realm and in, at least initially, ignorance of the purpose. Indeed, for Buddhists it is overcoming the state of ignorance that is the very key to progression. The fundamental aspiration for the Buddhist is "Enlightenment."

This brings me back to your point about pride being the "sin" that underlies all that libertarians find objectionable in the political order.

There is unequivocal, historical validation in the fate of the competing form of Christianity that was exterminated by the Roman Catholic church following its ascension to official state religion under Emperor Constantine: Gnosticism.

"Gnosis" is, of course, Greek for "knowledge." Gnostics, like Buddhists, also thought this to be the key to salvation. Christian Gnostics (there were other forms) believed that the "Christ" was a divine emissary who came into this world to bring the knowledge of how to escape from it and return to the "Father," the one, true God. Buddhism in fact has an analogous conception of the "Bodhisattva" -- though many Gnostics, unlike Buddhists and orthodox Christians, believed that the divine Christ entered the human, Jesus, not at his birth but rather at his baptism.

Like their orthodox counterparts, Gnostics recognized the fact that Jesus Christ was executed by the Roman occupation force (at the behest of the Sadducees whose role and authority he threatened), that he was then raised from the dead by the Father and subsequently appeared to his followers to reassure them of the rightness of his message, before returning to the "Pleroma" (the "fullness" in Greek which is how they described the spiritual plane.)

But for Gnostics the Christ's mission was to bring the means of escape from what they did, very much, believe to be an inherently evil world.

While they shared with Jews and orthodox Christians the belief that the physical universe was fashioned by Yahweh to whom both of the other groups believed unquestioning obeisance was owed, Gnostics did not see Yahweh as the one, true God. Rather, the regarded Yahweh as a vain, jealous, vindictive (indeed, self-described as such), lesser deity who, having been cast out of the Pleroma, created the physical universe and managed to populate it with sparks of the divine trapped in human bodies, deluding them into thinking him the one, true god to whom his creation owed exclusive worship, unending sacrifice and incessant flattery.

Judaism at the time was in practice fundamentally similar to the other, primitive, animal sacrifice cults that dominated the Western world (vis-a-vis the more sophisticated theologies in the East such as Buddhism.) The only notable difference was that in place of a pantheon of gods with their own concerns the Jews recognized only this single, all-powerful divinity whose sole fixation was the affairs of his creation.

The notion that appeasement of god(s) via animal sacrifice, however, was the same -- providing Paul the rationale needed to incorporate Jesus into the existing order. It was he who (in an effort to explain how an executed criminal could have been the "Messiah" of Jewish prophesy) developed the idea that Christ's mission was to become the ultimate animal sacrifice to Yahweh, crucified for the sins of all mankind.

Gnostics, feeling no such parochial constraints, in fact believed that the snake in the Garden of Eden was actually the hero of the story -- indeed, a previous incarnation of the Christ who attempted to warn Adam and Eve, encouraging them to take the knowledge Yahweh was so determined to keep from them and learn the truth.

Add to all of this heresy the fact that Gnosticism is a surpassingly mystical belief system where the goal is a direct, unmediated experience of the divine with little use for bishops, deacons, etc. and one need not be blessed with supernatural, prophetic abilities to predict what would happen once the hierarchical, authoritarian, Roman Catholic form of Christianity was empowered by Constantine.

In any case your point about belief in an inherently evil world more properly characterizes the rival, Gnostic form of Christianity than Buddhism which, I believe, more closely resembles Dante's views.

Anyway, many thanks for this outstanding piece. I really enjoyed it.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Thank you very much, Tim, for your insight and corrections regarding my perception of Buddhism! I'm glad you enjoyed the piece as well.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

PS: I will post this in my blog, where I provide a link to the article on which you are commenting (this one is the article that led me to post the later one).