“The Paper Chase” Meets “The Banner Chase”

It could be argued that in Dante’s Inferno, the Vestibule of Hell was worse than any of the circles of Hell insofar as it was the most unpleasant for the souls there.  This is supported by the text (Canto III):  Virgil tells Dante that the people in the Vestibule are “envious of every other fate.” (Emphasis added).  The heavens will not accept them, and neither will the abyss.  “Wow,” one thinks, “Are these murderers?  Rapists?  What did they do that was so bad?”  The answer:  They were apathetic.

They are the melancholy souls of those who lived without infamy or praise.  They did nothing in their lives, for good or for evil, but only for “self.”  Scattered among them are the Angels who took neither side in the War in Heaven that resulted in Lucifer’s expulsion.  For all of eternity, these self-interested souls are doomed to chase a banner, which can never be caught, while gadflies and hornets sting them, and maggots drink their blood and tears.

It’s utterly fascinating that Dante would choose to give these souls, the indifferent and apathetic ones, the worst fate.  Basically, he is saying that it is worse to do nothing than to do evil, which is a really brave thing to assert.  I suppose it could also be interpreted as:  it is worse to only be motivated by self-interest than to be motivated by evil.  But, still, that is quite a thing to say!

Today, many of us would probably disagree with Dante.  Many people would be outraged by the notion that a murderer deserves a better fate in hell than some dude with no convictions.  (Please note that when I say “better,” I am still comparing two horrible and undesirable fates, and to that extent, one can only be so much better than the other).  Part of this outrage and distaste might arise from the realization that most of us would be included in the indifferent and apathetic crowd, and none of us want to consider ourselves as somehow deserving of a worse fate than an “active sinner,” if you will.

The law certainly does not agree with Dante on this point.  The law does not punish people who are indifferent, apathetic, or who do not take sides.  Sometimes, it even encourages people to be this way.  Take protests, for example.  Many people may be deterred from protesting for something good and worthy out of the fear that they will be arrested.  By looking out for their own self-interest, they refrain from taking sides in the matter.  And unlike Dante’s G-d, the law does not reward selfless good actions (with the exception of a few tax exemptions or scholarships here and there).  This only increases the likelihood that people will act self-interestedly, indifferent to issues that do not directly involve them.

Lawyer/law school culture definitely promotes amoral, self-interested behavior (note:  amoral, not immoral).  Law students are encouraged not to care about anything beyond their grades and class rank.  They must be careful about what student organizations they join, or include on their resumes, because they may affect their chances of getting the job.  They must also modify their appearances, even if it means changing something about which he or she felt strongly, in order to appease an employer or judge.

When students object to having to do these things to get a job, or to having a value system that relies solely on grades, they are not received well.  They are considered naive, unrealistic, or lacking experience.  Those who try to shift the focus away from grades are assumed to be doing so because they have bad grades, and so are probably not worth listening to anyway.  It is accepted and expected that students will spend all of their time trying to get the best grades, and will sacrifice their beliefs and convictions to get whatever high-paying job they can.  Especially in an economic situation like the one in which we currently find ourselves, the more one sticks to his or her convictions at the risk of losing a job opportunity, the more one is regarded as having lost touch with reality.

Opportunism is just a reflection of the values of a capitalist society.  Here, money is what matters.  “Success” means making a lot of money, and “freedom” means having the money to buy whatever stuff you want.  If you have different definitions of success and freedom, you will most likely be an outcast in law school and in many parts of society, but look on the bright side: you’re less likely to be stuck in the Vestibule!


1 Comment

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One response to ““The Paper Chase” Meets “The Banner Chase”

  1. Bob

    Vestibule! If the Inferno if ever updated, change that to the Grand Canyon size-wise to accommodate the crowd. Ayn Rand’s followers alone would have it standing room only. But interesting, no white-supremacist, jihadists, neo-nazis, etc. Plenty of big firm lawyers, corporate drones and Amway folks. Now that’s truly hell!

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