It’s difficult to imagine any sort of connection between the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and something that occurred in an unremarkable bedroom in Italy almost exactly 700 years prior. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the deep historical connections between Russia and Ukraine, at many times one and the same state, during the preceding seven centuries. But last autumn marked the 700th anniversary of the death of the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri, from malaria, in Ravenna, on September 14, 1321. His bones lie there still.
And though it’s almost wholly unknown today, Dante was arguably the first great political philosopher to make a systematic case that all wars between nations might someday be eliminated entirely, and that it is within the power of human ingenuity to cast war forever onto the rubble heap of history. Dante showed us the pathway out of the Ukraine war. Dante anticipated both federalism and democracy.
And Dante showed us how someday humanity might abolish war.
The great poet, of course, is considered one of the brightest stars in the firmament of humanity because of his immortal poem, “The Divine Comedy.” Yet another wonderful new translation just arrived this year from the poet Mary Jo Bang. It contains three parts: “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso.” It’s universally held up as one of the most important works of literature in history. It’s deemed one of the primary progenitors of the Renaissance. It puts on display the full spectrum of human behavior, from dark depravity to divine benevolence—and suggests that any one of us can journey from the one to the other. Its poetic rhythms and deployment of vivid imagery are spellbinding. And because he wrote in the Italian dialect of the Florence of his day, Dante is considered today no less than the “Father of the Italian Language.”
And though his distant heirs today likely receive zero royalties, “Dante’s Inferno” has even been made into a wildly-popular video game as well.
But if one considers not just literary excellence but also historical impact, it may be, in the very long run, that another more obscure work by Dante will provide humankind with an even greater tangible consequence. Because in a work called “De Monarchia,” (“On Monarchy”)—this one written in Latin in 1313—Dante put forth one singular grand idea about how the human race as a whole might one day organize its affairs. And it appears to be the very first work of literature to present in a comprehensive, coherent, and compelling fashion a solution to the problem of war. He called it “world government.”