Dante Occupies Wall Street

Dante Occupies Wall Street

(Image via Wikipedia)

~by Arthur Emlen

In the Fall of 1947 at the University for Foreigners in Perugia, I took a course in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Dante completed this epic poem in 1321 just before he died. It was unusual because it was written not in Latin but in his native Italian, revealing the beauty of the language.* It is significant also because it reveals timeless social and moral issues just as relevant today seven centuries later. Those issues are forcefully being brought to the fore by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The Inferno is an allegory telling of a journey through nine circles of Hell where familiar figures receive a punishment appropriate for their behavior. Though it must be said, that appropriateness had one exception. Perhaps to save his own skin, Dante assigned to Limbo, in the first circle, those Greek philosophers and other worthy heroes of the past, simply because they had not received a Christian baptism. Aside from that, Dante was an insightful and subtle moral philosopher. He even assigned to the first circle those “uncommitted” souls who never took sides on the issues of the day. Their punishment was forever to be made uncomfortable, stung by wasps and hornets.

The next seven circles of Hell are for those who committed acts more deliberate and specific—the lustful, the gluttons, and the greedy, including both misers who hoard and those who squander. Yet Dante also found a place here for the angry who find no joy. Violence and usury also appear in circle seven, where loan sharks who impoverish others are described as violating the two legitimate sources of wealth—people and property.

The eighth and most richly designed circle of Hell is devoted to perpetrators of conscious fraud. This circle is a complex domain supervised by a winged monster having the face of an honest man. It includes panderers and seducers, who exploit the passions of others. It includes flatterers who exploit others by using language, and their punishment is to be steeped in human excrement. Circle eight includes false prophets and fortunetellers, who forever must now walk forward with their heads facing backwards. Here too are the corrupt politicians and grafters, whose sticky fingers boil in pitch. Here as well are hypocrites, thieves, and fraudulent advisors who gave false advice or used their position to counsel others how to engage in fraud. Not forgotten are sowers of discord and falsifers such as counterfeiters, perjurers, and imposters.

Perhaps most significant and relevant to the modern world is Dante’s final ring of Hell. Frozen in a lake of ice are those who committed acts of treachery that involved betrayal of trusted relationships. Dante includes betrayers of family ties, of community ties, and of nation. In contemporary terms, these frauds would include betrayals of trust by any who have been given, or who have acquired, a position of responsibility, whether to serve, govern, advise, protect, or nurture, and whether to educate, research, or honestly investigate and report the factual truth.  All of these are fiduciary relationships, whether legally contracted or morally implied. They are the ties that bind and are the foundation of a just society. Dante was probably right to be most concerned about fraud that involved betrayals of trust.

The behaviors that Dante was able to observe in fourteenth century Italy are alive today in the USA—though with further sophistication. Dante didn’t know about telemarketers. Surely we would like to condemn them to a life without privacy, peace, and quiet. And Dante didn’t know about those fraudulent conjurers and sellers of risky securities composed of bundles of home loans on the verge of bankruptcy. Surely we would wish those greedy betrayers to be mired in the debt they fostered, along with the regulators, legislators, and financial advisors who also failed in their fiduciary duties.

On fundamental morality, Dante had us nailed back in 1321, even though he could write a lively second edition.  But alas, there is another parallel to the times then and now: failures in accountability. He understood how little accountability there would be for those Florentines and Vatican Popes from whom he had to flee and write about. But in his allegory, punishments could take place only in an afterlife. “Lasciate ogne speranza voi ch’entrate.”  The sign above the entrance to the Inferno warned: Abandon all hope you who enter here.

Dante was wrong about where hell is. It’s right here on earth, or not at all. Punishment is now or never, and society may be punishing the wrong parties. In Boomerang (2011) Michael Lewis writes about how we allowed fraudulent misrepresentation of financially risky securities. The story is entertainingly told, but sadly true to life. We in the USA threw that boomerang of greed and fraud, and it proved how international greed is—easily adapted to the national character of Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany, as well as our own. That was our debt we suckered them with, and now the boomerang is winging back across the Atlantic to swack us again. Hell on earth is not discriminating. I once became acquainted with a man who had robbed banks during the Great Depression, and he received a very long prison sentence. Nowadays, according to former bank regulator William K. Black (2005), the best way to rob a bank is to own one. We don’t prosecute fraud much in this country, although the SEC has just announced it is prosecuting those at Fannie and Freddie, whose dishonesty about risks taught Wall Street a thing or two about fraud [Mortgenson and Rosner, Reckless Endangerment (2011)].

The Occupy Wall Street movement is drawing attention to the need for accountability, as well as to the need for change in social and economic policies that will restore the health of a democratic society. The sentiments and aims of the Occupy movement are not as unfocused as they may appear. The movement is identifying many imperatives because the problem is complex and the needs are great: Re-regulate banking, hedge funds, and derivatives. Stop usury and the sleazy banking that promotes unaffordable housing and replaces family savings with debt. Expose the bribe-takers who sell the greedy legislation, and expose their sources. Require immediate financial disclosure of all political ads and influence. With transparency, follow the money! Pass real tax reform—personal and corporate—that stops cheating the 99% to enrich the 1%. Rebuild the economic capacity of families and of the working classes, without which quality of life and a vibrant economy are not possible. Remember, our last two economic depressions were no accident; they followed on the heels of the 1928 and 2007 extreme peaks in disparity of incomes (Reich, Aftershock, 2010). Protect consumer interests. Enable all families and individuals to build some wealth. Respect labor and insist on fair wages. Repair the tattered safety nets, including health care. Invest in the common good. Stop destroying the planet. No longer allow careless enterprise to pass along the costs of environmental harm. And stop our unwinnable wars.

All of these imperatives are linked together. They will continue to receive political support, because they spring from commitment to democracy and to sentiments of fairness that are rooted in a shared heritage of the civilized world. Recently this morality has been given renewed voice by the movement to Occupy Wall Street, and Dante lit candles that helped to light the way.


* The opening six lines of the Inferno by Dante Aligheri (1321):

Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita
mi retrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era ´e cosa dura,
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier renova la paura!
Translation: Midway through this journey of our life, I found myself in a dark forest, in which the straight and true path was lost to me. To say how it was is a hard thing to do—this wilderness so savage, dense, and powerful, that just thinking about it brings back fear.

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42 thoughts on “Dante Occupies Wall Street

  1. I haven’t heard that kind of judgement coming from the occupiers.  Dante never condemned anyone for having wealth, only those who acquired it or used it improperly.  OWS seems to condemn anyone who has wealth, without regarding how they obtained it.  That’s not surprising in a populist movement, but it does fly in the face of Dante’s morality, in which a person is to be judged by his actions.


    • Certainly, the OWS movement is a less nuanced outcry than Inferno, but their demands, vague as they are, are also not quite so final and eternal as Dante’s hellish punishments.  OWS seems less to be targeting specific individuals than expressing solidarity around a boiled-over disgust that the institutional bulwarks of our way of life feel as if they’ve been coopted for the further enrichment of the elite at the cost of greater immiseration for the vast many, and that those who support the furtherance of this kind of regime seem to feel there’s nothing at all wrong with that.


      • Art, I didn’t mean to accuse you of mass condemnation.  Laura, I think that OWS has tended toward it, and I think that John’s comment reflects that.  Again, that’s not an accusation against John.  But I think that a general sense of frustration against the system has that kind of non-specificity that assumes that anyone who has been successful is probably guilty of something.  I’ve heard no anti-OWS people who say that we shouldn’t prosecute the guilty.  I think there’s fairly universal agreement that we should prosecute the guilty.  What has made the OWS movement distinct, in my assessment, is their tendency to lump all 3 million of the “one percent” together as responsible for our current situation.


        • Sure, there’s a wholesale blame thing going on in the tone of the protests.  But honestly, I’m not sure I see enough coherence in OWS to say that I see any tendancies beyond a mass expression that the protesters feel that most everyone is in the same sinking boat, which is sinking because of inequality and the privileged immunity of the economic elite.  That is, an expression of solidarity in recognition of a shared predicament, rather than a demand that specific heads should roll, or even that the one percent are in any way evil merely by dint of being in the top one percent of income.  After all, the predicament is actually shared broadly even all the way up to perhaps the top 0.01%.  I think they’re just saying (passionately) that the problem is everyone’s problem, and even the one percent should be on their side — then there’d be no other side and they could just go home and not be so angry anymore.

          Can’t agree that the wholesale blame thing distinguishes OWS.  Depending on which friend I talk to, there’s a marked tendency to blame all problems on “liberals,” “conservatives,” “communists,” “the media,” “young people today,” etc


        • I helped organize a local Occupy group, so I heard a lot of the stories our people told, and listened to their ideas.

          The majority seemed to be angry, not at the 1% personally, but how the 1% have become a defacto aristocracy, a privileged class.

          Or more specifically how the System is itself a creation of political class, with rules and structure warped and twisted to benefit their benefactors.

          But it is admittedly difficult in a sprawling movement like OWS o get the sort of nuance and focus we are talking about here.


  2. Dante’s mentor Brunetto Latini, some say his teacher, was one of those sodomites.   Dante speaks to him in Canto XV:

    “Se fosse tutto pieno il mio dimando”
    rispuos’ io lui, “voi non sareste ancora
    de l’umana natura posto in bando;

    ché ’n la mente m’è fitta, e or m’accora,
    la cara e buona imagine paterna
    di voi quando nel mondo ad ora ad ora”

    “m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna:
    e quant’ io l’abbia in grado, mentr’ io vivo
    convien che ne la mia lingua si scerna.”

    “If my appeal then had been fully granted,”
    I said to him, “you would not be
    Still banished from the ranks of humanity.”

    “For it is graven in my memory, it grieves me
    Even now. the caring, kindly, fatherly image
    Of you, when in the world from hour to hour,

    “You taught me how a man may make himself immortal,
    How grateful I remain, while I yet live,
    I will behovely express it in my speech.

    -translation mine.


      • Well, you either read it or you didn’t; the point was to update the various kinds of sins and personages to the modern world. I’m sure they had a ton of fun writing it (especially with the tomb of Kurt Vonnegut). While N&P injected a lot of their own views and politics into it, that’s entirely appropriate; Dante included his own in the original as well and was not in the least bit shy about it.


        • Have you read the sequel? Escape from Hell

          It’s not as good as the original, naturally, but it does tackle some interesting ideas such as “what would hell look like after Vatican II?” and “What would hell look like after 9/11?”

          They hit some interesting notes in the book… Sylvia Plath is the Muse this time rather than Benny. We, of course, meet new friends (and some old friends) and Ted Hughes shows up, the bastard.

          Anyway, if you haven’t read it, it’s worth a read. (I probably wouldn’t read it a second time, however.)


          • Ted Hughes has been turned into a cardboard villain by a few tendentious feminists.   The reality was quite different.   Sylvia Plath was a difficult and tortured soul, a terrible mother and a horrible wife.  Hughes had followed her around for years and lived in her shadow.   Plath had flung herself at Hughes, hiding the reality of her own mental illness from him until she’d set the hook.   As far as I can tell, and I’ve read most of the poetry of both Hughes and Plath, the only person Sylvia Plath ever cared about was Sylvia Plath.

            Suicide, speaking as someone who’s had to carry the coffin of a young man who told the world Fuck You and took his own life with a gun, is the nastiest thing someone can do to the people who loves him.  I watched his grieving father punch a dent in his son’s coffin.  Several of us had to physically restrain him.

            Ted Hughes had a knack for loving tortured, highly intelligent women.   They left him weeping.   I will always defend the likes of Ted Hughes, for he was a fine poet in his own right, a good man, a master of the English language, not the mere companion of the entirely overrated Sylvia Fucking Plath.


  3. And Dante didn’t know about those fraudulent conjurers and sellers of risky securities composed of bundles of home loans on the verge of bankruptcy.

    It’s only fraud if they realised the assets were doomed and acted like everything was fine.  For my money, I think they actually believed everything was fine.  That makes them fools, but not frauds.


    • Good point, and probably true of some, since they were operating in an environment that was not transparent about the risks that lay hidden. What you say was truer of he buyers—the lemmings—than of the sellers and facilitators, some of whom not only  knew better but took short positions to profit from the pending disaster. But I think you raise a good point. There’s no culpability in being wrong or even in wearing blinders, if it’s your own money. On the other hand, greed is a blinder, and a greedy buyer is not  the same as a greedy seller or facilitator of risky goods who held a position of responsibility for the well-being of others. Much of the fraud was deliberately executed, facilitated, or allowed by those who took advantage of others, Greed was in the air, and in large gray area, many unknowing souls allowed themselves to be fooled or just mistaken. And it brought down the house.


      • than of the sellers and facilitators, some of whom not only  knew better but took short positions to profit from the pending disaster.

        When you have a lot of money invested in an asset class it is perfectly reasonable to unwind some of that risk by shorting it.  Shorting assets you are invested in is no more suspicious than insuring your house.

        I’m not just saying fraud was limited, I’m saying it was insignificant.  Speculative bubbles are the product of collective mania, not large scale fraud.


        • “Speculative bubble” and “collective mania” are nearly synonymous. Collective mania and fraud are alternative explanations. Not if you look inside and see the movers. To a significant extent I think collective mania is intertwined with greed and fraud. Quite a number of influential people were hard at work inflating our last mania. See Mortgenson and Rosner’s Reckless Endangerment (2011).


            • I think it is worth pointing out that although Republicans have been vocal advocates of deregulation and unfettered markets, the Fannie and Freddie train wreck was enabled more by Democrats—from design of the engine to hiring the engineers, laying the track, and dismantling the warning signals. What happened to our economy was a bipartisan disaster.


  4. What amazes me is that really so much of the Corruption we have could be fixed by simply looking at our laws for bribery and enforcing them.  A politician who’s offered to be flown somewhere to discuss something?  Either he flies on his own dime or it’s considered a bribe.
    I read a book in college about people preparing for the New York PD.  One of the big things I remember is that they were totally freaked out when buying things while in uniform.  They had to double check their reciepts to be sure they didn’t get anything for free.  If Internal Affairs caught them accepting even a free sandwich for lunch they could get fined (or fired) for accepting a bribe.

    Why do we hold beat cops to a higher standard than our highest elected officials?



    • … prosecute the blackmail instead, it’ll work quicker.

      (Honestly, I agree with you, but the PD around here gets discounts for eating at particular establishments. to be fair, I’m pretty sure gangcritters eat there too, so the establishment is merely saying “thanks for keeping it safe”)


      • Sadly that still translates to graff.

        If I’m a cop where am I more likely to frequent?  A place that gives me a 20% discount on food or a place that doesn’t?  So if someone who does ~not~ offer a PD discount needs a police officer to break up a gang hanging out there, they have to wait for someone to come, where the guys who are willing to suck up the cost offering a PD discount have the cops right there.  It creates a system where it’s just better policy to “Pay for Police Protection”.

        And there’s a problem with that.  Or there ~should~ be a problem with it.  I know I’ve heard interviews from guys in other countries who just accept that bribes are part of the cost of doing business….


    • It’s not much different in New Zealand’s civil service.  There are strict rules on gifts (limits, reporting etc.) though truth be told people just tend not to give you stuff since that saves on the hassle of declaring the gifts in the first place.

      Mind you, our politicians don’t take the kind of gifts yours seem to receive either.


  5. Hoorah, Art!  I appreciated the review of Dante (last read in 1983 — I should revisit it!) and your compelling writing.  This is just one reason I’m an “Emlenphile,” as Tod put it!


  6. Thanks, Art, for a thoughful piece.  While Dante relegates the bankers and coupons clippers to everlasting torment, the top ten incomes in US in 2010 were all in the health services, a category which Dante would not recognize.  Is OWS writing a Dante sequel?


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