The Pathos of Politics (22) Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri

Of all things that are ordered to secure blessings to men, peace is the best. ~ Dante

Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), simply called Dante, is best remembered for his Divine Comedy (1320), an imaginative vision of the afterlife that is representative of the medieval worldview as it had developed in the church by the 14th century.

The darkest places in Hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. ~ Dante

Dante’s use of the vernacular in his works helped create a national Italian language while breaking the monopoly that Latin had on literary communication. This was a revolt against tradition.

This shall be the new light, the new Sun, which shall rise when the worn-out one shall set, and shall give light to them who are in shadow and in darkness because of the old Sun, which does not enlighten them. ~ Dante

Dante was a member of the lower nobility. He abhorred the nouveaux riche and their ostentatious manner of living. He saw Florentine society as becoming vulgar and coarse.

Dante’s political philosophy had one foot in the past and the other in the future. It was a curious mix of ecclesiastical scholasticism and pungent antipapism that nevertheless was typical of his age.

Dante’s chief political work was On Monarchy (De Monarchia) (~1313), which condemned the theocratic conception of power. An antipapist, Dante argued that the emperor and pope both derived their authority directly from God.

Dante’s yearning for unity was as strong as that of ecclesiastical scholars centuries earlier. His arguments followed their same lines of logic, albeit coming to a contrary conclusion on the issue of the “swords of power.”

The predominant Christian conceptions of the state came from Augustine and Aquinas. Augustine saw government as a penalty and remedy to human frailty and sinfulness, set up by divine providence. In contrast, the later Aristotelian view of Aquinas was that government was a natural expression of human sociality.

Dante combined the two into a new synthesis. Following Aquinas, Dante saw the state as arising from social drives. But Dante considered its atomistic forms – city-states, principalities, and kingdoms – as inadequate because the sin of avarice perverts them.

Using Augustinian elements to argue a remedy for these sins, Dante imagined the institution of universal government as divine providence, so that man may partake of the blessings of earthly peace, justice, and freedom in the same way that God provided the universal church with the means to attain salvation.

Dante was the first to address whether a world government would benefit the human race: a prospect he enthusiastically averred.

Where unity is greatest, there good is also greatest. ~ Dante

Dante also had an argument for world government that was quite modern: the need to settle disputes between states without resorting to war.

Wherever there is controversy, there ought to be judgment; otherwise there would be imperfection without its proper remedy, which is impossible; for God and Nature, in things necessary, do not fail in their provisions. ~ Dante

There can only be judgment if the authority issuing it is mutually recognized as final. Dante was centuries ahead of his time in appreciating that the essential institutional development toward world government would be judicial.

When a number of things are arranged to attain an end, it behooves one of them to regulate or govern the others, and the others to submit. ~ Dante

Dante considered an absolute ruler a necessity.

The whole human race is ordered to gain some end. There must, therefore, be one to guide and govern. And so it is plain that monarchy is necessary for the welfare of the world. ~ Dante

Channeling Thomism, Dante cited the example of God as the monarchial ruler of the universe, to which humans must submit.

Dante was by no means advocating tyranny. He stressed justice and freedom as virtues. Dante determined that the greatest enemy of justice is avarice: the inability to be disinterested and content.

Dante emphasized the Aristotelian idea that rule of law is preferable, because personal judgment is likely to be perverted by self-interest. A monarch of a world state would be in the best position to dispense justice according to the law, as he would have nothing further to gain.

Moreover, because a world monarch would be “the servant of all,” freedom would best be realized under monarchy, as regional rulers could at best only identify with a portion of humanity.

Despite his enthusiasm for a unified state under a single ruler, Dante did not believe in uniformity for its own sake. He expected cultural diversity to continue. Dante was one of the first to separate political sovereignty from cultural autonomy.

For nations and kingdoms and states have, each of them, certain peculiarities which must be regulated by different laws. ~ Dante

Dante’s revolutionary break with the church was in finding that the 2 universal orders – church and state – were equal in relation to the other, neither subordinate; each dominant in its own domain.

In cleanly bifurcating church and empire, Dante did more than diminish the temporal authority of the church. He declared the independence of philosophy from theology; a radical departure from Aquinas, who marked the culmination of the scholastic doctrine in finding philosophy the “handmaiden” (ancilla) of theology.

Dante’s challenge was a transitional step to the subordination of theology to philosophy inherent in the humanism that imbued the Renaissance.

From a little spark may burst a flame. ~ Dante

The church was fully aware of the tinder potential packed into De Monarchia. Pope John XXII banned the book as heretical in 1329, and it was put on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1554, 5 years before the taboo book list was printed. De Monarchia stayed proscribed for some 350 years before being removed as no longer a threat.