August 21 in 1983 and September 21 in 1972—Is the number 21 in these two dates a coincidence? Or was there a reason for two crucial political events in the nation happening on the 21st day of these two months?
Seven hundred years ago this year, in 1321 (mere coincidence in the number 21) a great Italian poet died in exile in Ravenna. He was exiled from his beloved city, Florence which was then the center of culture, politics, and finance—the city where Michelangelo and Da Vinci were born and lived. The reason for the exile: trumped up charges of corruption. The poet: Dante, the poet known by his first name.
The past week saw educators and educational institutions issuing Statements against the possible return of martial law as the country marked the 49th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by President Marcos on 21 September 1972. Reminding the public that historical revisionism on the martial law years is being promoted, the Statements recalled life under Marcos and warned that this dark past could return. And so the Statements advise Filipinos to be vigilant as the country prepares for national elections next year. As Dante observed: “We will not discover Truth and Beauty until we have lost them.” But we had lost them almost 50 years ago. We may lose them again.
Other institutions chose to speak out against corruption as this could provide the backdrop to the second declaration of martial law within 50 years. It does not puzzle many why there are (still) politicians who want to exploit a poor country, for reasons of avarice and greed, that they are supposed to lift up economically and politically. The cynics would say, “Corrupt politics is the only livelihood which could easily earn millions for politicians.”
In times like these, one wishes that Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy was a required reading among students or a subject matter for a telenovela to provide a guiding light to those who want to go into or are invited to be in politics and public service. Through Dante, the students could learn from Dante and Virgil as they journey through hell or inferno, purgatory or purgatorio, and eventually reach paradiso. Dante’s epic poem is a beautiful fusion of philosophical, theological, and scientific ideas during his time as he drew literary representations of living corrupt individuals during his lifetime suffering in the many circles of hell as well as exemplary persons who struggled for Good, assigned in paradiso. Dante’s journey in purgatorio is most relevant to us as it is based on Earth (the other two journey segments are in the After-Life) even for those who do not believe in purgatory. The reader realizes the urgent work that needs to be done within the quick passing of time on Earth as Dante and Virgil faced the brevity of time in their visit in purgatorio.
In Dante, fiction is not really fiction as some of his characters were still alive when they were assigned to the various levels of punishment or reward by the poet in his allegorical work. Divine Comedy is primarily about truth, justice, and the cosmic order. In Inferno’s Canto 6, he writes about insatiable greed, disorder, and politics at the local level. In Purgatorio’s Cantos 6, he writes about political and material greed at the national level. He repeats the themes in Paradiso’s Canto 6 where he comments on the state of the world. The three 6’s (or 666) convey an additional meaning in their referenced symbolism from the Book of Revelations.
A Renaissance-era political activist for Truth, Justice, and Order, Dante offended those in power. His allegorical epic poem written during his exile would influence those wanting Truth, Justice, and Order beyond the cities where he was born and died, and way beyond his lifetime.
So it is for these reasons that 100 professors in literature across the US share their ideas about Dante’s 100 cantos, in their YouTube lecture series, “One Hundred Days with Dante” which started early this month. It is a project conceived by those in the academe who in focusing a spotlight via literature on what is wrong in the US political landscape, hope to initiate change. For it is in times of moral malignancy in society that the arts and philosophy become the best expressions of what is wrong. And so in that other part of the world, in lieu of eloquent Statements on the need for national transformation and responsible politics, 100 teachers on Dante invite their fellow citizens and their leaders to please read or follow the 100 lectures on the Divine Comedy. “For, “Dante observed,”(they/we) have wandered from the straight and true”.
We support the Statements of Philippine universities sounding the alarm on the state of our national politics. But as an academic institution, we also echo the call of the teachers of Dante’s Divine Comedy to spend 100 days with him, as we do not have yet our own national literary work on Dantean themes.
In listening to the lectures we may be moved to do our urgent collective responsibility to bring about our own national and political transformation, and we may become critical enough not to be enticed by the campaign of a leader who will make us believe that only a strong rule—without any indication of a moral compass—will lead us back to “the straight and true.”