A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
June 29th, 2014 by William

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here

The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri somewhere between 1308 and his death in 1321 and it is widely considered the preeminent work of Italian literature and one of the greatest works of world literature. The poem tells of Dante’s journey through Hell being guided by the Roman poet Virgil. It’s an allegorical vision of the afterlife as representative of the medieval world-view. It is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. In the Divine Comedy, Dante depicts Hell (the Inferno) as having nine circles of suffering. As Dante follows Virgil lower and lower into the depths of Hell, he’s shown people who have committed greater and greater evil in their life. In this post we’re going to take a close look at the Inferno, or Hell, as a metaphor for the modern workplace.

Allegorically, the Inferno represents the Christian soul seeing sin for what it really is. In the story there are three beasts representing three types of sin: self-indulgence, violence, and maliciousness. These three types of sin also provide the three main divisions of Dante’s Hell: Upper Hell (the first 5 Circles) for the self-indulgent sins, Circles 6 and 7 for the violent sins, and Circles 8 and 9 for the malicious sins. Dante called the 6th through the 9th circles “The City of Dis.” Throughout the city are Dark Priests who worship their dark god−Satan. Reminds me of the typical workplace where loyal sycophants worship the head sociopath. In fact, the whole theme of layered circles in Dante’s Hell mimics the typical layered workplace organizational chart. You may think that Dante’s nine layers is a bit of an exaggeration however, from my own experience I’ve worked in organizations with that many layers from top to bottom.

Dante and Virgil’s trip through Hell begins when they come to the gates of Hell where the inscription reads: “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.” There’s a lesson for modern times here as those words should be the disclaimer added to the end of every job offer warning new hires of their impending doom.

After having read this dreadful warning Dante and Virgil enter the first level of Hell−the Vestibule. Here, as Virgil explains, are those being punished who had passed their time in a state of apathy and indifference both to good and evil. These are the Opportunist referred to in a previous post.

This first circle is “Limbo” where the residents are the pagans, who, technically not sinful, are guilty of not accepting Christ. Limbo is neither heaven nor hell and thus shares many characteristics with the workplace–most people in the workplace feel themselves in some sort of limbo during their career. Metaphorically you could say these are the folks that haven’t drunk the organizational Kool Aid, with Christ being the metaphor for upper management.

After passing through the first circle, Dante and Virgil reach the ferry that will take them across the river Acheron and to Hell proper. From here on down through Hell in each circle we find all of those condemned for active, deliberately willed sin and as such are sentenced to one of the lower eight circles.

In the second circle of Hell the damned are those overcome by lust. You may not think that Dante’s circle where the lustful reside could be a metaphor for the workplace however; we need to look at it not from the strict sense of the definition, but the lustfulness to better oneself–most often at the expense of others. We all have this “leaning” to a degree–even if subconscious. It’s one of the prime motivations for all the games people play in the workplace.

The third circle is where the gluttons are forced to “lie in a vile slush produced by ceaseless foul, icy rain.” In the workplace, gluttony is closely akin to lust: we always want more–more money, more praise, more promotions–we never can have enough.

The fourth circle holds the greedy, those whose attitude toward material goods was all consuming. Just like gluttony and lust we all are greedy to some extent and greed is an integral part of modern business. This also represents the organizational bullies who lack empathy and whose prime motivation is narcissistic.

The fifth circle holds the angry, where in the swampy waters of the river Styx, those that still resist their fate fight each other on the surface, and those who have given up to their fate lie gurgling beneath the water, withdrawn “into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe.” The angry represent the typical disenchanted workers in a dysfunctional organization; bullied, overworked, disrespected and abused−pushed to fighting with each other for position by design of the sociopaths at the top. Those who have given up join what I called “the working dead.”

In the sixth circle we find the heretics trapped in flaming tombs. They suffer for their beliefs or opinions contrary to the orthodox (i.e., management) doctrine. This represents those who have the guts to voice opinions contrary to the organization’s pseudo leaders and will ultimately end up relegated, like those in circle five, to the working dead.

Circle seven holds the violent. Here we find a representation of the bullies found in the workplace; the more obnoxious ones who have transcended all decency and become either physically or psychologically violent with their subordinates or colleagues.

The last two circles of Hell hold those that performed conscious fraud or treachery. Certainly fraud and treachery are synonymous with the top management found in the modern business environment. In the eighth circle we find the fraudulent. This is where all those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil are damned. The ninth circle holds the treacherous, which are distinguished from the fraudulent in that their acts involve betraying their relationships with others. Again we find the organizational bullies–the bosses who knowingly do not support their subordinates, or actively undermine their careers.

Just like the typical workplace organization, the Inferno is a highly structured, tiered system of torments with everyone having his, or her, proper place. As I noted above, the lower levels of Hell−the sixth through the ninth circles−are called “The City of Dis.” As we’ve learned, the most serious sinners are here. Here it is extremely hot, and contains areas more closely resembling the common modern conception of Hell (or could it be the workplace?) than the upper levels.

Dante emphasizes the character of the City of Dis by describing its architectural features: towers, gates, walls, ramparts, bridges, and moats. This provides a perfect analogy to the modern workplace of fiefdoms, and the impediments to those who wish to navigate through it. As Dante described his journey through the city with Virgil, “We moved toward the city, secure in our holy cause, and beheld such a fortress. And on every hand I saw a great plain of woe and cruel torment. Bitter tombs were scattered with flame made to glow all over, hotter than iron need be for any craft. And such dire laments issued forth as come only from those who are truly wretched, suffering and forever lost!”

In a previous post I wrote about the applicability to the modern workplace of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Written in 1942, The Screwtape Letters is an epistolary novel, containing the letters written by expert demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood−a devil in training. An important point presented in Lewis’s work is that he portrays Hell as some kind of demonic bureaucracy, with endless paperwork, criticism, and micromanagement. Sound familiar?

While C.S. Lewis may have heard tales of the then modern workplace and fashioned his novel around them, in Dante Alighieri’s time there probably wasn’t the type of workplace organizations we see today. In that sense Alighieri proves to be like Nostradamus in predicting the future of the workplace.

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World put it perfectly; “One of the many reasons for the bewildering and tragic character of human existence is the fact that social organization is at once necessary and fatal. Men are forever creating such organizations for their own convenience and forever finding themselves the victims of their home-made monsters.” In other words we, ourselves, create the Hell that is the workplace.


One Response to “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here”
  1. Wilbur Willason says

    An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment.
    I do believe that you ought to publish more on this subject matter, it might not be a taboo matter but generally people do not talk about these subjects.

    To the next! Cheers!!

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