When you hear the words “Dante” and “Inferno,” your initial thought is probably something like this:
- Some guy named Dante wrote it a long time ago
- It’s a book about the levels of hell
- The Catholic faith has something to do with it
- There’s something about “comedy,” but not in the traditional sense
- I might have read the book in high school
Up until recently, that’s pretty much all I knew about this classic work. But what gems of wisdom are hidden in those lyrical texts? I decided to find out.
We all know the Romans created many marvels in the ancient world. But prior to that, it was the Etruscans who controlled much of central Italy between 750 and 500 B.C. My family actually lived in the Etruscans’ main city, Perugia, which is about 2 hours from Florence by train (assuming it’s running on time). By the 13th century when Dante Alighieri was born, the region had been heavily influenced by centuries of conflict and conquests.
Although I lived in Italy in the late 1980’s and attended “scuola elementare statale” (public elementary school), my knowledge of Italy’s history was quite limited. In an attempt to brush up on my written Italian, while visiting a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Phoenix Arizona a few months ago, I perused the Poetry section. The obvious classics were there: Shakespeare, Yeats, Dickinson. But one title jumped out: “Dante’s Inferno” by Dante Alighieri.
Hmm. Wasn’t he Italian?
I leafed through several versions, looking for one written in the original Italian… And to my joy, discovered a fantastic bilingual edition by poet and author Robert Pinsky called “The Inferno of Dante.”
On each page, verse by verse and canto by canto, Mr. Pinsky provides the original version to the left side, and his English translation to the right.
If you speak more than one language, you’ll understand how challenging (and sometimes impossible) it is to convey the full meaning of any word perfectly. Mr. Pinsky’s book faithfully preserves the meaning, while also conveying the original rhythm of Dante’s writing—a task no other translator has successfully done.
You should know that, even in its original language, this “poem” is not light reading. Much like William Shakespeare’s work (as described by Oxford professor Peter Hainsworth), it takes a bit of tenacity to power through the entire thing.
But unlike Shakespeare, who weaves tongue-in-cheek humor that stands the test of time, Dante’s work is a dark description of unspeakable horror. He describes an underworld in which sinners are punished, using an imagined nine levels of eternal damnation.
Dante’s 3-part series starts with “Inferno,” which describes his long descent into hell with the Roman poet Virgil. In “Purgatorio” (Purgatory), Dante and Virgil meet repentant sinners as they labor to earn the privilege of entering heaven. And in his final book “Paradiso” (Paradise), Dante continues his journey as he ascends the planetary circles that lead to heaven.
Here’s an artist’s rendition of these levels:
What I Learned from Dante’s Inferno
Several things surprised me when I read the original Italian version of “Dante’s Inferno.”
First of all, if you can read Italian, you’ll understand it!
My Italian is a bit rusty, so it was shocking to start at Canto 1 and be able to read every word without much trouble.
Dante wrote all three volumes in his own Tuscan dialect, not in the Latin of educated statesman and poets. By doing this, he took a bold step away from convention. His contemporaries shied away from using a low-brow dialect. But Dante wanted to make his material accessible to everyone, not just the elite. Thanks to my background of living in Tuscany, his writing was even easier to understand than other ancient works written in Latin.
The concepts are artistic.
Although Dante’s subject matter is very challenging (I mean, it’s about the horrors of HELL), his descriptions are detailed and have a pleasant musicality. He even weaves in a few jokes that are nearly imperceptible to see in the English version. (Although you can understand these if you read Pinky’s “The Inferno of Dante”!)
I was actually shocked at this. For some reason, I had assumed that the Inferno was a dusty old story about some guy’s crazy ideas of ways to torture people. Part of the genius Dante’s use of a technique he invented called “terza rima” (which means “third rhyme”). The ending of each line connects with the 3rd and 5th lines. You can think of it as an “aba, bcb, cdc, ded” pattern, where the two “A” lines rhyme, the two “B” lines rhyme, and on and on. It’s an incredibly catchy way to present a story.
Applying the Strategic Perspective
Many business owners have difficulty applying abstract concepts like risk, vulnerabilities, operational processes, and employee engagement. As a visual learner, I like to use frameworks to understand these abstract concepts from a more structured viewpoint. But before we do any framing, we need to take a few steps back to see the situation from a big-picture point of view.
This “step back” process is what is so beautifully illustrated in Dante’s story. His concept of the levels of hell, and the journey to descend and then ultimately to leave it behind, is a great allegory for the strategic planning process.
Here are 4 things we can learn about strategy from Dante’s Inferno:
We all make assumptions.
As humans, we have a tendency to develop biases. This means that we see life through a distorted lens based on our environment, personality, and life circumstances.
Sometimes, this distortion leads to illogical and inaccurate conclusions. I had “always assumed” that Dante’s work was a boring old story but never took the time to actually read it. In the same way, many leaders jump to conclusions about the root causes of problems in their organization.
Take the time to examine your long-standing beliefs. The entire foundation of Strategic Risk is predicated on your willingness to enter the unknown, so that you can properly respond to future vulnerabilities and threats.
Read more: Overview of the 5 Types of Strategic Risk
The deeper we go, the more we learn.
Dante’s allegorical journey wasn’t simple. At various points in the story, he was turned away, or he begged to be released from the never-ending descent toward the final circle of damnation.
One of the reasons this literary work is still a classic is because of the transformation that happened to the narrator, and also to Dante himself as the author.
In the same way, your journey to recognizing areas of potential weakness in your organization (or even professionally) is not going to be easy. You’ll be faced with the temptation to Fight, Flee, or Freeze: the 3 most common responses to fear.
See them below:
With practice, you can use the most useful response: to Face the problem directly. Facing fear will allow you to see root causes and effective solutions. And as you become more aware of risks by hearing bad news, you will start to foresee problems before they happen.
Read more: Let’s Define… What is “Bad News”?
Unpleasant topics need to be discussed.
Our culture acts as a kind of “stew” which we’re not always aware of. Derek Sivers shared a great post about how biased we tend to be. He believes we are surrounded by content and context that reinforce our sense of superiority in the world. It’s not pleasant to hear, but it’s true.
Maybe in your company, nobody’s talking about the “elephant in the room” topic that needs to be addressed. And maybe it’s time to put on your “Devil’s Advocate” cape to solve a problem no one else is willing to touch.
Foreseeing the worst is the best way to avoid it.
In Dante’s journey, he conversed with both the tortured souls (some of whom he had known in real life) and the demons who guarded them. He wrote the Inferno as a cautionary tale, to warn earth dwellers of the potential horrors to come and take steps to avoid it.
Likewise, planning for risk is unpleasant to many executive leaders. The average person doesn’t enjoy fire drills, tornado drills, or safety checks. But we all know what can happen if we’re not prepared. The best way to avoid problems is to anticipate them.
I ask several questions when first talking to a potential client. The most effective one is: “What will happen in your company if nothing changes?” The answer is usually
- “I’ll burn out,”
- “My company will fall apart,” or
- “We’ll have to close our doors.”
But imagining the worst possible outcome—the absolute worst thing that could occur—is healthy. It allows us to re-frame the problem and actively look for solutions. (One way to do this is with the Scrooge Effect method created by Tony Robbins; read it here).
A Sampling of the Inferno
I’ll end with the first few lines of Canto 1:
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi, quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant’è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.
Io non so ben ridir com’i’ v’intrai,
tant’era pien di sonno a quel punto
che la verace via abbandonai.
Ma poi ch’i’ fui al piè d’un colle giunto,
là dove terminava quella valle
che m’avea di paura il cor compunto,
Guardai in alto, e vidi le sue spalle
vestite già de’ raggi del pianeta
che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.
Allor fu la paura un poco queta,
che nel lago del cor m’era durata
la notte ch’i’ passai con tanta pieta.”
Inferno (La Divina Commedia)
Here are the same 7 phrases, translated into English (Robert Pinsky’s version from “The Inferno of Dante”:
“Midway on life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter
I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder
Off the true path. But when I came to stop
Below a hill that marked one end of the valley
That had pierced my heart with terror, I looked up
Toward the crest and saw its shoulders already
Mantled in rays of that bright planet that shows
The road to everyone, whatever our journey.
Then I could feel the terror begin to ease
That churned in my heart’s lake all through the night.
As one still panting, ashore from dangerous seas
Looks back at the deep he has escaped, my thought
Returned, still fleeing, to regard that grim defile
That never left any alive who stayed in it.”
I wish you great success on your journey.
If you are a business owner who feels frustrated about planning for the future, let’s talk. Read more about it here.
Grace LaConte is a business consultant, writer, workplace equity strategist, and the founder of LaConte Consulting. Her risk management tools are used around the globe, and she has successfully reversed toxic work environments for clients in the healthcare and non-profit fields. Grace specializes in lactation law compliance & policy development, reducing staff turnover after maternity leave, and creating a participatory work culture.