Re: Reid Invokes Dante

by Katherine Connell

Andrew—Reid was actually invoking President John F. Kennedy’s misquotation of Dante. JFK gave a speech in 1963 on the occasion of the West Germans establishing their equivalent of the Peace Corps, in which he said, “Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.” Except Dante didn’t say that. According to the JFK library:

In fact, President Kennedy got his facts wrong. Dante never made this statement. The closest to what President Kennedy meant is in the Inferno where the souls in the ante-room of hell, who “lived without disgrace and without praise,” and the coward angels, who did not rebel but did not resist the cohorts of Lucifer, are condemned to being whirled through the air by great winds while being stung by wasps and horseflies.

Close enough? After reading the quote twice for emphasis, Reid said, “I’ve thought about those words very often, and very often lately.” 

Incidentally, the moral crisis that JFK was referring to was that Western Europe and the United States were “islands of prosperity in a sea of poverty,” and the neutral people deserving of hellfire were those who pursued “merely their private interest” rather than laboring abroad “in some small village . . . lay[ing] a seed which will bring a rich harvest for us all in later days.” So it’s not exactly the most apropos allusion to use in rallying support for raining down missiles on Syria, but never mind.