I went into reading Jon M. Sweeney’s recent book Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible, and Eternal Torment (Jericho Books, 2014) knowing nothing about the author and little more about the book. The blurb promised that the volume would provide an analysis of Dante’s source for the Divine Comedy and explain how Dante revised and refashioned earlier ideas about the afterlife to provide a new vision of eternal damnation that later Western figures would adopt and adapt for centuries to come. However, the book is a bait and switch, and its real purpose quickly becomes clear: It is a work of Christian (specifically Catholic) apology, from an author who has written seven books on Francis of Assisi and various tomes on the papacy and medieval Catholicism. Sweeny converted to Catholicism in 2009 and writes with the zeal of a convert, though on his blog he denies that Catholicism plays a defining role in his religious views.
I am, to be frank, unsure how to review Inventing Hell. It is the kind of book that defies attempts to summarize or critique because its purpose is so different from its purported subject matter. There is, surprisingly, very little Dante in a book about Dante’s Inferno. There is no deep reading of the Inferno, no real attempt to explain Dante’s organizational structure of Hell, and very little on the combination of pagan and Christian elements in the poem itself. Dante is largely reserved for the last chapter, and even then only in cameo. Instead, the author devotes the majority of the book’s thirteen chapters to outlining the gradual development of the concept of hell from the shadowy Sheol of the ancient Hebrews to the Underworld of the Greeks and Romans to the fiery abyss of the Qur’an. The basic argument is this: The Jews had very little concept of an afterlife until the intertestamental period, when apocalyptic thoughts shaped a new vision of the life to come. The Greeks and Romans condemned all the dead to a shadowy netherworld, and Christians turned Hell into a source of eternal damnation due to the myth of the Fallen Angels (yes, the Watchers again!—though Sweeney knows them only from Jubilees and seems ignorant of 1 Enoch) and their chained suffering in deepest Tartarus. Islam, drawing on this tradition, then described a Hell of fiery horror, the closest approximation of the modern concept of Hell before Dante.
The author, though, makes no distinction between concepts that Dante could not have known, might have known, and definitely did know. For example, in discussing Hebraic concepts of Sheol, he seems to assume that Dante would have known the original Jewish conception and its Greek transfiguration in the Septuagint, but (since Dante did not speak Greek or Hebrew) fails to consider how the Vulgate—the Bible Dante knew—presented this material, and the effects of the Latin translation on Dante’s understanding. Sweeney suggests Dante might have read Robert of Ketton’s twelfth century Latin translation of the Qur’an, but makes no effort to substantiate this, nor does he mention the competing translation by Mark of Toledo.
It’s a problem throughout the book, less because Sweeney is entirely ignorant of Dante’s true sources but more because Sweeney isn’t really interested in Dante except as window dressing for promoting his own view of how the myth of Hell plays into the need for Christian salvation, preferably through the sacraments of the Catholic Church.
In so doing, Sweeney is extremely selective in painting his portrait of the development of Hell. In fact, he admits as much, telling readers that he has always found the Classics, like the Iliad and the Aeneid to be boring and that his book would “skate long” the high points rather than dive deeply into any particular topic. In so doing, Sweeney presents the case the Dante was unique in imagining that hell-bound sinners would suffer particular tortures at the hands of demons. But this concept is already well-established in the Church Fathers, a millennium before Dante. Tertullian, writing in De Spectaculis 30, said that in the afterlife good Christians would be filled with “exultation” watching the sinful tormented. Augustine, in City of God 20.22, wrote that the saints were privileged to enjoy visions of the damned roasting in torment for their enjoyment. Clearest of all is a medieval text from fifty years before Dante, the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas: “Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned” (supplement to Part 3, 94.1).
This would seem to be pretty good evidence that Dante didn’t “invent” Hell but shaped a tradition that was already well-known in the Christian world, with no need to appeal to the Qur’an or blame Islam for introducing hellfire into a formerly peaceful afterlife. To his credit, Sweeney does devote part of the last chapter to Aquinas’s influence on Dante, so he recognizes that his own case in earlier chapters is a bit overstated. However, he leaves out the long history of Christians fantasizing about how much they’d enjoy watching the damned suffer, one of the key attractions of the reader’s experience of the Inferno.
Sweeney makes numerous other omissions and errors that it would be tedious to catalog here. A few examples will suffice: He fails to consider the development of Greco-Roman ideas about the afterlife, or their Mycenaean, Minoan, Indo-European, and Near Eastern antecedents; instead, for him Homer and Hesiod invented the afterlife for the Greeks. He misreads Hesiod’s Theogony 767-774 as stating that the underworld god Hades (whom he conflates with the god of death, Thanatos) has a tail, when the lines refer to Cerberus, his dog. Sweeney writes of Hades, “He has a tail and uses it to beat back anyone who might try to escape his world, before, that is, he considers devouring them.” Hades did not eat people either.
In the end, I was somewhat torn about Sweeney’s book. On the one hand, it is an enjoyable read and written clearly and engagingly, provided you like (as I do not) the sing-song cadence of sermonizing and frequent personal asides about the author’s feelings. On the other hand, it is a homily, not an analysis. It is superficial, leaves too much out, and provides virtually no views other than those of the author, who is, by his own admission, uninterested in dealing with the full depth of the material, preferring to “skate along” for a “breezy” result.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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