The textbook I use to teach history has a picture of Dante in the section about the Renaissance. This year (September 14 to be exact) is the 700th anniversary of his demise. He is most famous for a series of three epic poems detailing a soul’s journey through Hell and Purgatory into Paradise, and then back to the world.
The third chapter (Canto) of The Inferno describes souls and angels who are tormented, but are not in either Hell or Heaven, because the angels would not choose between G-d and Satan, and the people were neither good nor evil. They can’t go up because they lack virtue, but they will be lorded-over by the truly damned in Hell, which isn’t just (and would reward some of the damned, so that’s not acceptable, either.)
For some reason, this year I was skimming over bits of the Inferno to use in a lesson about education and the Renaissance, and thought of someone who was neither good enough for heaven or bad enough for the infernal realm.
Now Tomlinson gave up the ghost in his house in Berkeley Square,
And a Spirit came to his bedside and gripped him by the hair —
A Spirit gripped him by the hair and carried him far away,
Till he heard as the roar of a rain-fed ford the roar of the Milky Way:
Till he heard the roar of the Milky Way die down and drone and cease,
And they came to the Gate within the Wall where Peter holds the keys.
“Stand up, stand up now, Tomlinson, and answer loud and high
The good that ye did for the sake of men or ever ye came to die —
The good that ye did for the sake of men in little earth so lone!”
And the naked soul of Tomlinson grew white as a rain-washed bone.
The poem is much longer than the excerpt above, but Tomlinson, the newly dead, can’t get into heaven or you-know-where because he never did anything. Now, [spoiler] since Old Scratch is a lawyer at heart, he finds “the roots of sin” in the unhappy Tomlinson and sends him back to go, you know, actually commit a sin and earn his place among the damned.
Both Dante and Kipling are riffing off of Revelation 3: 14-22, the letter to the church in Laodicea. Because the Laodiceans were neither hot nor cold, they are rejected. “Go do something!” Preferably good, of course, but anything is better than nothing. Dante finds himself in trouble at the beginning of the Inferno because he is guilty of acedia (sloth). He knows what is good, what he ought to do, and . . . can’t be bothered. He’s spiritually lazy. He doesn’t do any good (” . . . those things which we have done and those which we have left undone,” as one confession puts it.) That’s Tomlinson’s sin as well. Acedia, “sloth,” not doing what should be done. In Tomlinson’s case, he hadn’t bothered to do anything but read about other people’s activities. Dante . . . spent a wee bit too much time on politics, but he claims sloth/acedia.
I’m sure that Kipling had read Dante. Everyone did, in those days. I know Kipling knew the Biblical reference. And he probably had met more than one Tomlinson, people who lived only in books, and never thought for themselves. “This I thought that another man thought of a Karl in Norway,” Tomlinson claims. But he, himself, never did.
Be either hot or cold, a saint or a sinner, choose G-d or Satan. But don’t just sit there!