Dante Alighieri, author of the ‘Inferno’ is buried in Ravenna. Unlike his book, it is a beautiful and extremely peaceful place. It’s on a quiet back street, to the right there is a small park and trees. The tomb itself is impressive, but he needs little physical memorial. His life and work have become part of civilization’s ground floor. The importance of not ‘yielding to evil’ is part of his coinage and often crosses my mind. Dante had good reason to be preoccupied with this thought or he lived in difficult, violent times.
If there is one thing the last five thousand years have taught us it is this, it is not gold mines, it is cities which are humanity’s greatest generators of wealth and where there is wealth, there will be a battle over who will control it.
In Renaissance Italy, princes, the church and the local elected assemblies waged constant war for control of all cities – especially the ones in the north, Florence, Siena, Bologna, Verona. Get on the wrong side of one of the ascendant, princes, bishops or assemblies and you could end up in someone’s torture chamber as Niccole Machiavelli found out. Dante’s Inferno was never far away.
It is the immense wealth of modern cities which now powers the nation state. Who controls the nation controls the cities and who controls the cities controls their taxes and disposition. Canada is no different. More than eighty per cent of the nation’s taxes come from cities, 50% of those billions go to federal government, 42% go to provincial governments and the cities themselves limp by on the remaining 8%.
I suspect if it were possible to do a similar analysis in Dante’s day, we would find that the division of wealth between the princes, the church and city hall would have been about the same. This is why the Medici’s and the Pope could build immense palaces and commission stunning works of art that amaze us to this day. It is why the federal government can afford to spend more on a single fighter jet than the largest cities do on their entire public transit system.
I sat in the quiet church contemplating these things. Thinking how complex life has become since Dante’s day but how the questions he posed and dilemmas he faced have not changed much. Dante struggled with a civic version of Job’s burden. ‘What do you do when the world is not just?
Who has not faced, in his or her own way, the despair contemplation of this question brings? For it is clear that the world is not just, the daily newspapers are filled with stories from Dante’s various levels of hell. But if I’ve learned anything from 14 years in civic politics it’s that injustice in far away places is much easier to deal with than the stuff that happens in your own city and your own neighbourhood. You don’t need a front page to be aware of local injustice.
Justice is a human concept that comes straight out of city and civic life. Civic justice is all about ‘how we live’. There is nothing abstract about this at all. As soon as people began to live in cities, they began to create codes and laws for living together. We don’t know how successful the first Mesopotamian codes were, we only know that they existed and they were complex covering many of things the modern law does today, obligations to the State, the purchase of goods and services, marriage and divorce etc. Not just the codes, but letters describing legal actions have been preserved on baked clay.
But the first time we can get some idea of the over-all success and failure of the ‘law’ is with the Greeks and especially the Romans. Roman law and concepts of justice are still with us to this day. The rule of law today was for Cicero’s as it is today, for without the law there can be no fairness. Without fairness, government becomes the rule of more powerful over the less, which ultimately sinks to Libyan tyranny.
In the church an organist happily interrupts my thoughts with great powerful surges of music which rise towards the roof above. A church or a mosque roof is as near as to closing off the sky, yet keeping the sense of wonder the sky gives that men have devised where an organ becomes the sound of the solar wind. My thoughts disperse for a while, but when the music stops they return to where they started.
In life’s essentials are things that different today than in Dante’s day? One percent of the American population now has more wealth than the other 90 per cent. This division of wealth is close to what existed in the pre-industrial age, in Dante’s age. The Libyan people want freedom, not tyranny as the citizens of Florence, Bologna and so on did. You could work your way around the world finding easy comparisons.
One of Dante’s response to injustice was to coin the phrase ‘yield not to evil’ and another was to create a complex hierarchy for hell. Socrates was to take the hemlock, but all these old stories are abstract to me. They are just stories. What isn’t abstract is what is happening in my own city – right now. I look upon the abrogation of Ottawa’s largest, oldest and most important public space, Lansdowne Park to the private sector for a commercial development as a fundamentally evil act, because it will damage the city economically, socially, environmentally for generations to come. The city doesn’t need another shopping centre. It needs a central park. I take it very personally. How could I not? It’s in the neighbourhood, I represented for 14 years.
Nor is it in my nature to ‘yield to evil’. But does there not come a point when refusing to cede becomes arrogance? I fought for the preservation of Lansdowne as a public space for many years as an elected official and the matter is now before the courts. I do not know what that resolution may be. Naturally, I hope it is in the favour of preserving the park, but what if it isn’t? What if giving 40 acres of land on the banks of a UNESCO World Heritage site to developers for more big box and housing wins before the judge? I presume there will a new level of hell devised for this, but that doesn’t help me in the here and now.
What I would like to ask Dante when he is sending me to my own level of hell is ‘does there not come a point when being right is not enough?’ Does there not come a point when the prayer of St. Francis takes precedence: To change what you can, to accept what you can’t and to have the wisdom to know the difference?
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