One of the great ironies of Dante's Inferno is the centrality of earth-bound fame, moral reputation, praise and blame. The importance of reputation would seem to contradict Virgil's efforts in leading Dante through Purgatory to impart a more meaningful moral message. Yet it is important to remember that Dante travels alive; Virgil's lessons are instructive in a direct and practical manner. Dante ascertains life lessons from those he encounters in the afterlife, so that he may improve his prospects for earthbound fame. The importance of fame seems paradoxical when considered in light of the transitory nature of existence. However, Purgatory presents the consequences of a poor public relations scheme. Investment in moral reputation has the potential to strengthen The Divine Comedy's overarching pretensions, by linking the importance of one's earthly life to the life beyond.
Dante makes it clear that reputation does not necessarily have to be pristine to be good; in fact, it is far better to have a bad reputation than no reputation at all. For example, in Canto III:
"This miserable fate Suffer the wretched souls of those, who lived / Without or praise or blame, with that ill band Of angels mix'd, who nor rebellious proved, Nor yet were true to God, but for themselves Were only," (lines 35-38).
Those who "lived without praise or blame" suffer a particularly "miserable fate," and are described as "wretched souls." What Dante means by this is that neutrality and mediocrity are signs of a spiritual sickness. It is as if the person is dead inside, if someone lives "without praise or blame." That person would have gone through life asleep, not awake and dead to the vicissitudes that challenge one to reach the pinnacle of human existence.
It is ironic that a journey through Purgatory to teach a spiritual lesson, and one that strongly emphasizes the structure of sin throughout all the circles of Hell, would advise the journeyman to remain neutral. It would seem that neutrality would be a desirable goal, because in being neutral, the person avoids taking any risk and theoretically avoids temptation. What Dante shows is that temptation is a necessary learning opportunity. It is better to face temptations, take risks, and make mistakes than it is to live in a cave sheltered from all sin. Virgil presents neutrality as one of the greatest sins because it shows the person was too timid to be taught. This is sinful avoidance, not as divine repose. To be "without praise or blame" is worse than being with either one. The modern day equivalent of Dante's moral message is that it is better to have bad publicity than no publicity at all.
If The Divine Comedy purports to provide spiritual guidance, then the most important message in the poem relates to personal branding. The concept of earthly reputation is framed in terms of branding. Someone like Virgil creates his brand as a poet, who has the ability to help other poets like Dante navigate the tricky waters of human existence. How one conducts affairs while alive becomes the person's brand. After the person is dead, there are no more chances to change how the person will be remembered. Virgil is trying to say that Dante needs to focus more on how he is living, so that he will be remembered the way God and Fortune intended him to be remembered. The journey is partly to scare Dante into remembering that he needs to work on how to present and brand himself. To unfold the lesson, Virgil takes Dante on a seemingly never-ending journey through the circles of hell to reveal the consequences of sin. Those consequences include a tainted soul and also a tarnished reputation. All the people Dante meets in hell are defined more by what they did wrong in life than how their existence has been in the afterlife. In other words, sin is to be avoided not just because God deems sin to be "bad," but because sin is bad for one's brand. The people in Purgatory will be unable to change their brand from beyond the grave.
Moreover, Virgil's emphasis on the lesson of avoiding neutrality ties into a grander lesson about the difference between selfishness and self-branding. Selfishness is sinful. The line, "Nor yet were true to God, but for themselves Were only," shows that people who are neutral are true only to themselves because they are falsely free from temptation. On the contrary, those who are true to God are not afraid to make mistakes. A strong personal brand is unafraid of self-expression. This is why Dante is guided through purgatory by a poet, not an accountant. A poet is someone who uses art and creativity to forge a personal reputation or brand. As a poet, Virgil symbolizes a guide who knows the importance of creative self-expression. He is trying to teach Dante how to live and write without self-censorship, yet also without sin. It is personally challenging to be able to walk the delicate balance or razor's edge between lust, gluttony, and avarice on the one hand, and gutlessness on the other. The emphasis on creative self-expression is important because one's reputation is not based as much on overt or predictable sins like gluttony but on the willingness to take a stand and create a strong brand. The message about embracing both praise and blame in Canto III is that it is better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all.
Then again in Canto VII, Dante makes a similar assertion related to the need for both praise and blame in living a worthwhile earthly life. Here, Virgil invokes the power of Fortune in human affairs. The analysis of Fortune's role is crucial for understanding the theme of earth-bound fame in the Inferno. Praise and blame are due to Fortune as well as to work. People are quick to ascribe both praise and blame to Fortune, when in fact the reverse is true. Fortune is exempt from judgment and she is thoroughly "blessed," in Canto VII:
"This is she, / So execrated e'en by those whose debt / To her is rather praise; They wrongfully / With blame requite her, and with evil word; / But she is blessed," (Canto VII, lines 93-96).
Fortune is actually above both praise and blame; she is a grand architect. What seem to be good luck or bad luck are all part of life's natural vicissitudes. The wise person understands that Fortune is "blessed," and accepts whatever Fate has to offer. A strong person avoids chastisement, judgment, and anger because it is fundamentally wrong to "blame" fortune with "evil word." Certainly, Virgil's teachings to Dante somewhat denounce the role that free will plays in the construction of one's personal earthly reputation. "Wherefore one nation rises into sway, / Another languishes, e'en as her will / Decrees, from us conceal'd, as in the grass / The serpent train," (Canto VII, lines 84-88). There are aspects of personal reputation on earth that are not up to the individual. Virgil suggests that Dante respect the motions of Fortune, and remain concerned only with that which he can control. According to Fortune's will, whole nations may "rise into sway" or "languish."
Thus, according to Dante, personal reputation and the success of one's life and career are dependent more on Fortune than anything else. A person can do everything right and still remain poor or ill. No matter what, Fortune should be thanked because her plan is always forged with wisdom. This does not mean that a person is exempt from making morally correct decisions, but that the circumstances of life beyond a person's control are no cause for worry. It is better to live a good life, create a strong creative brand, and still…