Dante was born in 1265, a time just preceding the European Dark ages in which the continent saw as much as half or a third of its population vanish. Dante lived in a time where 95% of the population had no genuine education, no literacy, and was ruled by a feudal aristocracy. If a man had been a farmer, his child would be farmer and that was the end of it – to say nothing of the status of women. It was a completely static and feudal society where change was not permitted. The human mind was banished as an agency by which the laws of the universe could be derived. Instead, the arbitrary authority of a priori thinking, typified by the works of Aristotle, reigned supreme. Church service and education were in Latin, though very little of the Italian population could speak, read or write Latin. As a result, the conception that human beings could develop and change their fate was almost non-existent. If this were not bad enough, the Italian language as such also did not exist: the territory known today as Italy was littered with local dialects numbering in the 1000s if not 10,000s, scattered across petty fiefdoms and kingdoms – each in perpetual strife with one another.
Life in the 13th century was for the most part a very ugly prospect. Moreover, because Italian as such did not exist, a literate language did not exist, which meant that there was no vehicle by which to develop and impart fundamentally new ideas – the precondition for any sovereign nation state to free itself from the shackles of empire.
Herein lies the genius of Dante Alighieri. He answered the question, which many of us might ask today: how can we overcome a dark age and create a new renaissance in human thinking? He did this the same way Homer did with his Iliad and Odyssey, the same way Virgil attempted to do with his Aeneid and the same way Shakespeare succeeded in doing with his dramas: through poetry .