[August 6, 2019] For several years, my interest in the fundamental nature of leadership has only strengthened and reinforced by reading the 2011 book Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.1 What stood out for me was the discussion of Benedict Arnold and his betrayal of the United States when he joined the British cause in the American Revolution.
Betrayal is not just an undesirable quality. When I read Dante’s Inferno back as an undergraduate, I was both intrigued and surprised at its philosophical depth (at least that is what my professor said). What stood out for our Classic Literature class was that sins like torture, murder, and rape were not at the bottom of the pit. Betrayal was the most deplorable; even more evil than taking of a life.
The readings of great literature, including various religious texts like the Bible, time after time, provide us with stories of betrayal. Dante placed Cain, Antenora, Ptolemy, and Judas at the bottom of the pit along with Lucifer himself. He considered these men the archetypes of the evils humans can do and deserving of no pity: only contempt.
If Dante has been writing during the American Revolution, certainly Benedict Arnold too would have been at the bottom of the 9 Circles of Hell with others who occupy the fourth round, and most serious level of treachery. I highly recommend reading a translation of the entire Divine Comedy, which traces the journey of Dante from darkness and error to the revelation of the divine, light, and the beatific vision of God.2
There are messages in these old texts, those that we dismiss only at our peril. One message is that it is best to speak the truth and not attempt to deceive. The value of truth is often misunderstood because it is seen as just another value to be lumped in with loyalty, honor, and justice. I content that the virtue of telling the truth is both opposed to betrayal but that it is also the foundations on which all other values reside.
Betrayal is the most evil. It has emerged, slowly with the development of humankind, as the anti-value; that which destroys and elicits the greatest primeval and strongest reactions. Everyone has been betrayed at some point in their lives, and we thus know what this means. To know the truth about betrayal and why this is so is ultimately what motivates leaders to do good as best they know.
- I reviewed another excellent book by Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 2005. You can find it here: https://www.theleadermaker.com/reading-list-update-50/