Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 17 – better together

Life’s not a zero-sum game, say the souls on the terrace of envy, so don’t live it that way. Dante doesn’t ‘get it’ at first, but Virgil explains.

We have just met Guido del Duca, scion of one of the leading families of Romagna, the region next-door to Tuscany, where Dante comes from. Like all the souls on this terrace, del Duca’s eyes are sewn shut as a punishment for his refusal to embrace the common good. He confesses that, in life, he was inflamed with envy and took joy in others’ pain, indulging in what we today call Schadenfreude. He launches into a tirade against the iniquity of the people of the Arno valley, where virtù così per nimica si fuga, “virtue is fled from like an enemy”.  It’s the same or worse in the Po valley and Romagna, là dove i cuor son fatti sì malvagi, “where hearts have grown so wicked”.

Half way through his lamentation comes this anguished question:

The poets leave the terrace by a stairway that takes them to the next level. Purged of envy, Dante asks Virgil what del Duca meant:

Virgil’s reply points to a tendency as common today as it was in mediaeval Italy: to think of life as a zero sum game, in which one person’s gain must of necessity be another’s loss. The assumption that this is so, when in fact it may not be, is called zero sum bias. Think Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin:

Envy leads to social breakdown. From The Seven Deadly Sins by Pieter van der Heyden licensed under Creative Commons

The underlying belief is that human relations are of necessity antagonistic. The amount of good in the world is finite, so each individual must grab his or her share of it, at others’ expense. The result is envy. And from envy it’s but a small step to resentment, then alienation, then hatred. Hence the hell that is life in Tuscany or Romagna, as described by del Duca.

Envy breeds resentment, hate, murder. Cain slays Abel by Gustav Doré licensed under Creative Commons

In the spiritual life, Virgil says, people don’t think like that. You, my dear Dante, are blinkered. Take the blinkers off, sharpen your vision and look up. Then you will see that cooperation, fellowship, sharing and love itself are mutually reinforcing, ever-expanding values:

Dante the man, intelligent and cultured as he is, probably understands Virgil’s point by now. But Dante the character in his own poem feigns a Trumpian stubbornness and stupidity, depicting himself as a bad case of zero sum bias:

Of course, Dante is much more polite than Trump would have been! Nevertheless, Virgil’s reply is a masterly rebuke: 

He then drives the message home:

The infinite goodness of the One means that, in the end, all cups will overflow. And if you still don’t understand, Virgil adds, remember I will pass you on to Beatrice:

Sama Alshaibi’s solo exhibition Zero Sum Game. By ForPalestinianArt licensed under Creative Commons

The values of community and collective endeavour, of sharing and partnership, feature strongly throughout the Purgatorio and were highlighted in the choreography and music of this section of the Dante Project, the ballet produced by the Royal Opera House to mark the Comedy’s 700th anniversary. I think the creative team were right to emphasize this theme. With the dire social relations of 13th century Tuscany and Romagna writ large across whole tracts of today’s world, these values are more desperately needed than ever.

Genius line:
Di vera luce tenebre dispicchi. Such a brilliant refutation of spiritual blindness. A classic trope of the toxic mother-in-law.