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Dante's Influence on Modern Vice and Virtue

Writing by Emily Tennant. Artwork by Yury Aleksanyan.

How does religion use the concepts of vice and virtue to control the masses? Here, I consider the case of Christianity. Notably, the perpetuation of extreme images of heaven and hell serves to create moral panic. The population is thereby ensnared by religious concepts of right and wrong, despite the massive human development that has occurred since the Dark Ages. We may have more freedom of speech and expression than ever before, but this liberty is under threat.

Modern concepts of heaven and hell first gained popularity with the publication of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in the 14th century. At this point in history, the Bible was only written in Latin, a language not spoken by the working classes; meaning that only the highly educated and members of the clergy had access to the scriptures. For this reason the majority of the population did not have the freedom to form their own thoughts about biblical scripture, merely having to accept what they were taught by religious leaders. When Dante’s poem was first published, it immediately gained popularity as it made the more abstract ideas of the Bible tangible for the first time. It is often said that The Divine Comedy reflects specifically medieval images of heaven and hell. However, it is also possible that Dante shaped these images through his work. In the poem, Dante presents the Bible as the final authority, despite touching on many subjects which are only discussed allegorically in the Bible. Furthermore, Dante’s work was the inspiration for much artwork depicting hell as a violent, tortuous, and physical realm. A great example of this is Illuminations, created by the Master of the Antiphonar of Padua in the 14th century.

These illustrations fast became the most recognised modern imagery of hell. This is beneficial to rulers – it is very easy to control a population when it believes that refusal to comply might result in endless labour, constant storms, or persistent violence. Indeed, much of the European working classes faced these issues in reality on a daily basis, and so strived for heaven, which was presented as the antithesis to their worldly problems. Christian concepts of good and evil were not just social values instilled by the Church but were also conflated with the law in many European countries. Indeed, in 1215, Henry de Bracton (the ‘father of common law’) defined the application of law as the sanctioning of virtue and prohibition of vice. He argued that state law must follow God’s higher laws, suggesting that UK law has its foundations in Christian concepts of right and wrong.

Even nowadays, the Christian influence on UK law is clear. In the House of Lords, twenty-six seats are reserved for Anglican Bishops, five of which (the Bishops of Canterbury, York, Durham, London, and Winchester) are guaranteed and do not have to go through a selection process. We also have a Christian monarch – acting, too, as head of the Church – as our head of state.

Beyond the legal system, general notions of right and wrong in Western society still stem from ancient religious beliefs. Even though the percentage of people identifying as Christian in the UK is decreasing, the influence of Christian philosophy is clear in politics, education, law, and business. It has often been argued that it was the prevalence of Christian morals which delayed comprehensive sex education in schools, and allowed Thatcher’s Section 28 legislation to be passed, outlawing the promotion of homosexuality in local authorities such as schools and support groups.

It could even be argued that Western capitalism, liberalism, and individualism has its origins in biblical passages. Some would seek to justify private property rights with Christian concepts of free will and human dominion over the natural world. This is in stark contrast to more collectivist or communist regions such as China or the MENA Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), where the dominant religious system is atheism or Islam, respectively. For example, Islam stresses the importance of community and collective morality. This idea is expressed in the Hadith - important phrases or guidance that the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said to those around him. One Hadith describes unity with one’s community as a “quality by which malice cannot enter the heart of a Muslim”. Indeed, at the time of the Cold War, one of the arguments against Communism in the Western world was that it was seen as an anti-Christian ideology.

Ancient Christian beliefs surrounding sex, family, work, and politics still influence our concepts of vices in modern UK society. To be a good person is to be a hard-working, (nuclear) family-oriented individual. A good society is one in which state welfare is discouraged, and individual achievement is rewarded.

Despite this strong influence, the formal powers of the Church are rapidly declining in the UK and the masses have more powers of free speech than ever before. Interestingly, Christian thinkers were among the first to advocate free speech in the Western world, with reformers such as Martin Luther and William Tyndale. This follows from the first Christians, who outwardly declared their faith, despite it being against the law at the time. This freedom of speech is, however, delicate. The introduction of the Police, Crimes, Sentencing, and Courts Bill 2022 means that protests (including those attended by one single person) which are ‘too loud’ can be restricted and cancelled.

It stands to reason that views of right and wrong are part of a wider social structure, otherwise our legal systems would collapse entirely. However, there must exist some degree of flexibility and individuality. Otherwise, the population falls prey to a dogmatic, immutable moral system, under which vice and virtue are not concepts or guidelines, but stringent laws.

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