Canto 21: Those Who Play with Fire Get Burned


Detail from Corrupt Legislation (1896) by Elihu Vedder. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

By Joel Morehouse

It’s always interesting to see where various characters end up in the Divine Comedy. Some do well, others seem to get caught by a technicality. While passing through the fifth ditch of Malebolge in Canto 21, Dante’s pilgrim smells deceit and graft from the beginning. Here we have the Ponzis, Boeskys, Milkens, and Shkrelis of Dante’s time. If you or I had lived then, we would have known the names.

Graft is the use of political power and resources for personal gain. Just as skin belonging to one part of the body is taken and grafted onto another part of the body, “graft” is all about taking resources from a legitimate public goal and appropriating them to a personal project.

It’s difficult to address the relevance of this topic today. We turn in receipts for three-dollar purchases, and itemize expenditures for lunch meetings. Every debit card purchase is tracked and recorded, so the idea of directing significant public resources toward personal gain seems outdated and distant.

Dante, however, is no fool.

In our time, Saul Alinsky famously said, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” While we’re not necessarily talking about money and political projects, Alinsky’s approach can resemble graft in some key ways. Altogether too often, we encounter leaders who leverage their power and popularity in order to crush their opposition, especially in order to build monuments to their own achievement. Alinsky’s kind of leadership mistakes the community as “mine,” and wields it for personal gain and aggrandizement, through shifting alliances and leveraging.

As it turns out, Alinky’s world of alliances and polarizations is nasty business, and leaders of his ilk quickly find themselves in a mire of difficulty just like the lake of bubbling, sticky pitch in Dante’s Canto 21. This black sticky pitch is used, says Dante, to patch the ships in Venice. While greed and desire for personal advancement might be the “pitch” which holds the ship of state and commerce together, it shouldn’t be the “pitch” for the barque of Peter.

Even Plato (who, according to Dante, doesn’t make it into heaven) recognized that there must be a higher standard, a higher truth: in the Republic, Socrates famously reminds Thrasymachus that even thieves trust one another not to steal. If everything is wrapped up in politics, in “ad hominem” attacks and changing alliances, in relationships leveraged for personal aggrandizement, the transcendent “catholic” truth is lost. In fact, we can’t even get along with each other at the most basic level! There must be a fixed point, a lodestar. Justice and virtue (and, dare I say, faith!) are the only fixed stars worthy of our sight, the only true foundations for the common good and human freedom.

The way out of the sticky mire of graft and deceit is wrought with unforeseen challenges. In this case, when Dante’s pilgrim is ready to leave, Malacoda falsely offers some of his troop as guides on the way. This seemingly generous offer (in the form of an alliance, no less!) is a lie, because we find out all of the bridges crossing the sixth chasm are destroyed. There seems to be no way to separate a good alliance from a bad one, because all is inevitably done for personal satisfaction and greed. Without a guide, then, it seems there is no way out of empty politics, deceit, and graft. “Eat or be eaten,” they say. What malice! What a mess! What to do?

For those with faith, this confusion is a reason for compassion, but not apathy; and fortunately, like Dante’s pilgrim, we have a merciful guide who will not leave us behind on our journey to Paradise.

Mr. Joel Morehouse is a musician and educator, and resides with his wife Julia Tucker in Syracuse, NY. He holds Bachelors degrees in history and music, and a Masters degree in Secondary Education, from Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, NY. He also completed further study in classical liberal arts, sciences, and languages at Augustine College in Ottawa and Thomas Aquinas College in California. He currently serves as director of music at St. Ann Church in Syracuse, NY, and is completing further graduate study in pipe organ performance and choral conducting at Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music.

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