Libertarian Themes in the Seven Deadly Sins of Dante's Divine Comedy

As some readers are aware, I often try to identify historical events and documents that show a libertarian streak in them. In May 2013, I wrote an essay for STR entitled Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Divine Origins of the Free Market. In the blog comments that followed, I suggested that Dante’s ranking of the seven deadly sins—in particular, the sequence by which he distinguished less serious from more serious sins—reflected insights that we share as libertarians, regardless of our status as atheists, agnostics, or Christians.
In an essay entitled “Libertarian Themes in the Seven Deadly Sins of Dante’s Divine Comedy” and published at, I fleshed out that suggestion; I showed how Dante and aspects of medieval Catholic theology had more in common with libertarian beliefs than the beliefs of many modern-day Christians, who have been infused with a puritanical—and even Manichaean—attitude about the natural world and its bounty and beauty. Indeed, the perceptions about the natural world shared by the theologian Thomas Aquinas and some of today’s libertarians may help explain why libertarianism resonates so deeply with Catholics, Jews, and other minorities—including Native Americans and members of the gay community.


Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Our friend, Tim, had some insightful comments about this piece, which he mistakenly posted with my original article. I'll post his comments here, which provide some correction about my misunderstanding of Buddhism.


Timmaayy, posted on July 26, 2014

Excellent piece! Let me add one bit of supporting evidence, a few references that are beyond your scope, but struck me as I was reading, and then end with a minor point of disagreement.
The observation that pride is both the deadliest of the seven sins and at the very heart of libertarian objections to the existing political order is an outstanding insight!
I was surprised, however, that you didn't mention that pride is also what Christians, both then and now, regard as THE "Original Sin" -- the very transgression that resulted in all mankind's banishment from paradise, thus both the impetus behind the death and resurrection of Jesus and the sine qua non of "Mount Purgatory."
Further, while I recognize that the purpose of your thesis was a comparison of libertarian precepts with Dante's "Seven Deadly Sins," I was struck by the support to be found in the gospel accounts of the teachings of Jesus.
In my opinion the two most powerful of his parables (because they are so reproachful for most of us who are less spiritually advanced) both deal with the second deadliest of the sins: envy.
Who is not startled into greater self-awareness at the conclusion of the story of "The Prodigal Son" by the father's response to the (entirely understandable) indignation of the older brother? Likewise, the rejoinder by the owner of the vineyard to his resentful day-laborers who (also quite understandably) expected more than they were actually owed -- an expectation that envy transmogrified into entitlement? [Side note: as with nearly all of Jesus' parables neither of these is multiply-attested as the former appears only in Luke, the latter only in Matthew.]
Your point about the lesser sins of greed, gluttony and lust being no more than immoderations arising from otherwise natural and wholesome pursuits, and that it is merely obsessiveness that is to be eschewed, also finds support in the teaching of Jesus.
One incident that comes immediately to mind (some checking might well locate others) is his response to critics by making a "no-win" comparison of himself with John the Baptist. Where his mentor's asceticism drew accusations of demon possession, his own, more typical style of fellowship brought charges of being a drunkard and a glutton. [Another aside: Although this anecdote appears in both Matthew and Luke, it most likely traces to the lost "sayings gospel" scholars refer to as Q and is, therefore, also lacking multiple attestation.]
However, this "Middle Way" is ubiquitous in and fundamental to Buddhism. Indeed, it was in coming to an appreciation of the destructiveness that attends both reckless overindulgence and extreme asceticism that was the catalyst for the Buddha's enlightenment.
Which brings me to a point of (minor) disagreement.
Based on my, admittedly rudimentary, understanding of this Eastern philosophy, the characterization of Buddhists as viewing "the things of this world as evil and the desires of the flesh as something to be shunned" is misplaced.
To my mind the Buddhist view of the worldly realm bears fairer comparison with Dante's conception of Purgatory. Both apprehend a "place," so-to-speak, of refinement/purification in the struggle to attain the spiritual perfection required to reach the top of the mountain, i.e., to enter heaven (or nirvana.)
Two important distinctions, however, are that with the latter the climb takes place within the spiritual realm and in full knowledge of the destination. Whereas for the former the effort is made in this physical realm and in, at least initially, ignorance of the purpose. Indeed, for Buddhists it is overcoming the state of ignorance that is the very key to progression. The fundamental aspiration for the Buddhist is "Enlightenment."
This brings me back to your point about pride being the "sin" that underlies all that libertarians find objectionable in the political order.
There is unequivocal, historical validation in the fate of the competing form of Christianity that was exterminated by the Roman Catholic church following its ascension to official state religion under Emperor Constantine: Gnosticism.
"Gnosis" is, of course, Greek for "knowledge." Gnostics, like Buddhists, also thought this to be the key to salvation. Christian Gnostics (there were other forms) believed that the "Christ" was a divine emissary who came into this world to bring the knowledge of how to escape from it and return to the "Father," the one, true God. Buddhism in fact has an analogous conception of the "Bodhisattva" -- though many Gnostics, unlike Buddhists and orthodox Christians, believed that the divine Christ entered the human, Jesus, not at his birth but rather at his baptism.
Like their orthodox counterparts, Gnostics recognized the fact that Jesus Christ was executed by the Roman occupation force (at the behest of the Sadducees whose role and authority he threatened), that he was then raised from the dead by the Father and subsequently appeared to his followers to reassure them of the rightness of his message, before returning to the "Pleroma" (the "fullness" in Greek which is how they described the spiritual plane.)
But for Gnostics the Christ's mission was to bring the means of escape from what they did, very much, believe to be an inherently evil world.
While they shared with Jews and orthodox Christians the belief that the physical universe was fashioned by Yahweh to whom both of the other groups believed unquestioning obeisance was owed, Gnostics did not see Yahweh as the one, true God. Rather, the regarded Yahweh as a vain, jealous, vindictive (indeed, self-described as such), lesser deity who, having been cast out of the Pleroma, created the physical universe and managed to populate it with sparks of the divine trapped in human bodies, deluding them into thinking him the one, true god to whom his creation owed exclusive worship, unending sacrifice and incessant flattery.
Judaism at the time was in practice fundamentally similar to the other, primitive, animal sacrifice cults that dominated the Western world (vis-a-vis the more sophisticated theologies in the East such as Buddhism.) The only notable difference was that in place of a pantheon of gods with their own concerns the Jews recognized only this single, all-powerful divinity whose sole fixation was the affairs of his creation.
The notion that appeasement of god(s) via animal sacrifice, however, was the same -- providing Paul the rationale needed to incorporate Jesus into the existing order. It was he who (in an effort to explain how an executed criminal could have been the "Messiah" of Jewish prophesy) developed the idea that Christ's mission was to become the ultimate animal sacrifice to Yahweh, crucified for the sins of all mankind.
Gnostics, feeling no such parochial constraints, in fact believed that the snake in the Garden of Eden was actually the hero of the story -- indeed, a previous incarnation of the Christ who attempted to warn Adam and Eve, encouraging them to take the knowledge Yahweh was so determined to keep from them and learn the truth.
Add to all of this heresy the fact that Gnosticism is a surpassingly mystical belief system where the goal is a direct, unmediated experience of the divine with little use for bishops, deacons, etc. and one need not be blessed with supernatural, prophetic abilities to predict what would happen once the hierarchical, authoritarian, Roman Catholic form of Christianity was empowered by Constantine.
In any case your point about belief in an inherently evil world more properly characterizes the rival, Gnostic form of Christianity than Buddhism which, I believe, more closely resembles Dante's views.
Anyway, many thanks for this outstanding piece. I really enjoyed it.