John F. Kennedy's Favorite Quotations: Dante's Inferno

One of President Kennedy's favorite quotations was based upon an interpretation of Dante's Inferno. As Robert Kennedy explained in 1964, "President Kennedy's favorite quote was really from Dante, 'The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.'" This supposed quotation is not actually in Dante's work, but is based upon a similar one. In the Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil, on their way to Hell, pass by a group of dead souls outside the entrance to Hell. These individuals, when alive, remained neutral at a time of great moral decision. Virgil explains to Dante that these souls cannot enter either Heaven or Hell because they did not choose one side or another. They are therefore worse than the greatest sinners in Hell because they are repugnant to both God and Satan alike, and have been left to mourn their fate as insignificant beings neither hailed nor cursed in life or death, endlessly travailing below Heaven but outside of Hell. This scene occurs in the third canto of the Inferno (the following is a translation from the original written in the Italian vernacular):

Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries 
were echoing across the starless air, 
so that, as soon as I [Dante] set out, I wept.

Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, 
accents of anger, words of suffering, 
and voice shrill and faints, and beating hands -

All went to make a tumult that will whirl 
forever through that turbid, timeless air, 
like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.

And I - my head oppressed by horror - said: 
"Master [Virgil], what is it that I hear? Who are 
those people so defeated by their pain?"

And he to me: "This miserable way 
is taken by the sorry souls of those 
who lived without disgrace and without praise.

They now commingle with the coward angels, 
the company of those who were not rebels 
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.

The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened, 
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them - 
even the wicked cannot glory in them."

And I: "What is it, master, that oppresses 
these souls, compelling them to wail so loud?" 
He answered: "I shall tell you in few words.

Those who are here can place no hope in death, 
and their blind life is so abject that they 
are envious of every other fate.

The world will let no fame of theirs endure; 
both justice and compassion must disdain them; 
let us not talk of them, but look and pass."

And I, looking more closely, saw a banner 
that, as it wheeled about, raced on - so quick 
that any respite seemed unsuited to it.

Behind that banner trailed so long a file 
of people - I should never have believed 
that death could have unmade so many souls.

After I had identified a few, 
I saw and recognized the shade of him 
who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.

At once I understood with certainty: 
this company constrained the cowardly, 
hateful to God and to His enemies.

These wretched ones, who never were alive, 
went naked and were stung again, again 
by horseflies and by wasps that circled them.

The insects streaked their faces with their blood, 
which, mingled with their tears, fell at their feet, 
where it was gathered up by sickening worms.