The Politics of Dante's De Monarchia

In the Inferno, the ninth gate of hell was set aside for the worst of all sinners: those who betray their masters. Here, the pilgrim Dante is led by his own “master,” Virgil, see them frozen in the mouths of the three-headed Satan. “‘The soul above who has the greatest punishment,’ said my master [Virgil], ‘is Judas Iscariot, who has his head inside and his legs stuck out. Of the other two who have their heads out, the one that hands from the black mug is Brutus: see how he writhes, and speaks not a word! And the third is Cassius, who seems so strong of limb. But the night rises again, and now is the departure, for we have seen everything.” Even with Judas being punished in a more severe manner than Brutus and Cassius, the comparison is striking. Judas betrayed Jesus for money while Brutus and Cassius betrayed Caesar to prevent the Republic from turning into a dictatorship, yet here in the ninth circle of hell, they were conflated to be nearly identical crimes. If political betrayal is equivalent to spiritual betrayal, then the understanding of correct government is as important as correct religion. This syncretism of Roman politics with the Christian gospel goes to the heart of Dante’s own attempt to merge the monarchism of Aristotle’s Royalty government with the monotheism of Catholic theology: one king, one God.

Dante, following in the footsteps of his father, was originally a White Guelph who fought for the pro-Papal forces in the Battle of Campaldino in 1289 and again in 1294, but when the White Guelphs and Black Guelphs split apart, first along family lines and then on the question of how much influence the Pope should have, Dante continued to side with the White Guelphs against those who continued to support Papal influence. After Pope Boniface VIII’s Florence ambassadors were mistreated in 1301, Dante and several other delegates from the White Guelph party were sent to Rome to determine the Pope’s intentions. The other delegates were sent away but Dante was asked to stay while the brother of Philip the Fair of France, Charles de Valois, led the Black Guelphs into Florence and defeated its forces in six days. Despite the fact that all his possessions were confiscated, he was ordered to pay a fine, and ordered to remain exiled from Florence on pain of being burned to death. He join in several White Guelph schemes to try and regain power, but each of them failed due to one political betrayal after another. Dante became wary of the infighting and so he quit the faction around 1308, the same time he began writing the Inferno. Thus, it seems that the betrayals within the White Guelph party can be seen as possibly influencing his ultimate design to compare the political betrayals of Brutus and Cassius with the betrayal of Judas.

That same year, Henry VII became king of the Romans and in 1309 announced his intentions to become corronated as Holy Roman Emperor in Italy, which he did in 1312, reviving a title that had not been used since Frederich II died in 1290. His plan was the restore the former glory of the Holy Roman Empire, but the center of anti-imperial forces were in Florence. Dante saw in Henry VII as a political savior who would end the Church’s desire to dominate the temporal sphere as well as the spiritual and who would have the political power to end the continuous betrayals and spltting of factions that had characterized his involvement in Florentine politics. Thus, the subtitle to his name would be given, “Florentine by birth, but not by character.” Dante’s hopes were that the Holy Roman Empire would flower into a the Golden Age that he had seen through the eyes of Virgil’s earlier Roman Empire.

In The Political Vision of the Divine Comedy, Joan M. Ferrante writes, “The Roman empire is the political entity that dominates Paradise from canto 6, where Justinian traces its history from Aeneas to Dante’s time, to canto 30, where Dante sees the seat in the rose reserved for Henry VII, the emperor who might have saved Italy and Europe if individual cities and kingdoms and the church had not interfered. The importance of the empire in Dante’s scheme is suggested much earlier in the Comedy: at the very beginning of Hell, the first character to speak of Dante is Virgil, the poet of empire, who identifies himself in terms of the emperors under whom he was born and lived (1.70-71: “I was born under Julius… and I lived at Rome under the good Augustus”), and whose last words in the canot are of the “emperor” of heaven and “city” he rules. In Hell 34, the two assassins of the emperor are placed in Satan’s mouths on euither side of Judas, the enemies of the empire punished on the same level as the enemy of God.”

Dante views of the government were heavily influenced by Aristotle. This was common of many thirteenth century philosophers, including Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle postulated that there were three good forms of government: Royalty, Aristocracy, and Constitutional Government. Each of these could be perverted into bad governments, each reflecting the “dark side” of each of the good governments; they were Tyranny, Oligrachy, and Democracy, respectively. The egalitarian nature of Democracy was to be feared because it was considered to be “rule of the mob.” The demos of Athens had lost the Athenian Empire in the Peloponnesian War and had put Socrates to death. According to Aristotle, the best form of government was that of Royalty, but conversely, it’s perverted form was also the worst form of government. The Constitutional Government was “safer,” in the sense that Democracy was the least perverted form of the three. Transposing the ideal of the perfect monarchial government into the thirteenth century, Dante saw in the Holy Roman Empire exactly what it had always meant to be: a reincarnation of Caesar’s Empire.

Dante’s permeire treatise on government is De Monarchia, three books each dedicated to one question: 1) Is monarchial authority necessary for the well-being of the world?, 2) Did the Roman people rightfully assume the universal authority?, and 3) Does the emperor’s authority stem directly from God, or is it dependant on the Pope? It’s unknown when Dante’s De Monarchia was written, but it is generally believed that he had not finished it in time for Henry VII’s arriveal in 1310. Taking Aristotlean persepctive, Dante saw universal law is best being acomplished through the agent of one state rather than several. Freedom is considered the most perfect condition of mankind, and this can only be accomplished through a monarch that was entirely free and not tempted by worldly influences. Since the monarch would have the greatest honor in the world as emperor, there would be nothing that could possibly be given to him that would further his own desires. The monarch would could then set an institutional basis for society to curb the vast amount of greed and corruption that Dante saw in thirteenth century Italy. Thus, absolute power stops corruption absolutely. It notably paralleled the monotheistic of the spiritual sphere: the emperor symbolized the all-powerful yet eternally benevolent nature of God, only here in the temporal world, just as God ruled over the spiritual world.

Ferrente writes: “It is presumably because the rule of one, a king, is most like the rule of God that Thomas in the De regno prefers monarchy to Aristotle’s city, though he speaks of the city as the perfect community. The rule of one is, of course, ‘natural’: the heart rules over members of the body, the reason over powers of the soul, and bees have one ‘king,’ just as there is one God (De regno, 1.2.19). The king is to his kingdom what God is to the world (1.9.72) and what the soul is to the body (2.1.95). Ultimately all kings are subject to the pope, as to Christ, because the ministry of God’s kingdom is entrusted to priests (2.3.110), since it only through divine power that man can attain to the possession of God. There is no question that Thomas means secular authority to be subordinate to spiritual (ST, 2.2ae, q.60, a.6); nonetheless the emphasis throughout Thomas’s works seems to be that of a secular state. The state seems to have a life of its own; it is an organism that lives independently of individuals. Though men are mortal, givernment should be perpetual (De regno, 2.4.120).”

Answering the second question, Dante describes the Roman Empire as the greatest social order in history because the people of Rome acquired by right instrumented through divine providence. He admits that in his youth he “looking through the matter in an entirely superficial way, I thought they had gained their supremecy not by right by simply by force of arms.” This was a common attitude from the Guelph persepctive. But some time before his exile he was “led by the most compelling signs” to see tht it had been God’s Providence that had guided the Roman people to their triumphant position, and began to look on those who held his former opinion in scorn. But how might dante have reacted if the Empire had been willed by God to in another country? The Christian emperor Justinian ruled the empire from Constantinople, but the laws that he codified were used as proof that only Rome could properly govern the world. Yet at the same time, Constatine moving the capital eastward is viewed in a generally negative light. As Ferrante says, “Justinian’s references to Pharsalia, Pompey, and Cleopatra (6.65 ff.) suggest that eastward movement of empire is generally bad, echoing the message of the statue in Crete, the symbol of human history which turns its back on the east. Constantine reversed the normal relation of pope and emperor by bestowing secular power on the spiritual organ; Justinian exemplifies the proper relation, the emperor guided by the poe in matters of faith, when he is led out of heresy by another pope, Agapetus.”

Rather than miracles being limited to the Holy Land, Dante believed numerous miracles occurred in pagan Rome and relays the miracle story of the goose that roused the defenders of the Romans on the night that the Gauls tried to take their last stronghold. Dante also used a list of Roman heroes that St. Augustine had used to attribute the prideful ambitions of the pagans and instead glorified them as virtuous martyrs who served the public good “with toil, with poverty, with exile, with the loss of their children, the loss of their limbs, even with the sacrifice of their lives.” Rome’s success is revealed both by reason and faith. “Let Peter bless the one to whom God grants victory.” God is always on the side of the victor and so it is by divine will that Rome won the “race” for complete domination over the the world. Only Alexander the Great’s empire came as close as the Roman Empire did, and he claims that the Roman historian Livy wrote that Alexander had sent Rome an ultimatum to surrender but that he “collapsed in Egypt before receiving a reply from the Romans, virtually in the middle of the race.” But contemporary accounts of Livy say that the Romans probably hadn’t even heard of Alexander at that time. Following a traditional medieval worldview over that of Thomas Acquinas, Dante says that might essential means right, saying, “whatever is acquired through trial by combat is acquired by right.”. Dante even twists the words of the Matthew 18:20 to provide evidence for divine right by combat, saying “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Perhaps even more radical is his interpretation of the divine incarnation of Jesus, saying that he “chose” to be born in the “fullness of time,” the Pax Romana of Rome, it proved that God approved of the Empire. The empire of Rome is proven on a theological level as only a legitimate judge, Pontius Pilate, could possibly mitigate the sins of Adam onto Christ so as to effect the salvation of mankind. As John A. Scott writes in Understanding Dante: “Indeed, Christ himself is offered as the supreme proof that the Roman Empire was willed by God, since he chose to be born and enrolled as a member of the human race through an edict emanating from Roman imperial authority (cf. Luke 2.I-7). Moreover, Scott says, ‘if the Roman Empire was not lawful [de iure], Adam’s sin was not punished in Christ”…. A penalty imposed by an unlawful judge was not a punishment but an injury. Thus, Christ’s passion would not have been a punishment for original sin if it had not been ordered by an appropriate judge, who had to have ‘jurisdiction to be punished in Christ’ (Mon. 2.II.5)… Hence, the empire’s authoirty had to be both universal and willed by God. ” This kind of theological meshing brings about some problems in logic, as Ferrante points out: “In Paradise, Justinian shows the will of God working through the empire not only in his actions, the reform of the laws and the stablishment of order, but in those of the pagan emperors to whom God have the task of carrying out his justice, first by crucifying Christ to save mankind, and then by taking revenge for Christ’s death in the destruction of Jerusalem. It is ironic, or course, that pagan Rome under the emperors served God in the salvation fo mankind, while Christian Rome, under the popes, does the devil’s work. Peter, speaking of his successor, sayis he has ‘made a sewer of my cemetary, from which the perverse one who fell from up here takes pleasure down there’… In the heaven of justice, Jupiter, it is once again emperors who represent God’s will.”

Dante then addresses the third question as to whether the emperor’s authority comes directly from God or from the Pope. Dante examines a popular metaphor in his time used by Boniface and some hierophants that the Church was equivalent to the sun and the empire equivalent to the moon. With the sun, the moon had no light, and just as Ptolemy had stated that the sun was 7,644 and a half times larger than the moon, so too was the Church 7,644 and a half times more important and authoratative as the empire. Dante, however, argues that the sun and the moon had already been created by God prior to Adam, who at that point had not even eaten from the Tree of Wisdom fo Good and Bad, a chronological error that God couldn’t possibly be responsible for. Nevertheless, he decided to alter the celestial metaphor to say that although the sun did provide some of the light of divine grace for the moon, the moon nevertheless provided some light of its own, as evidenced by an eclipse. Likewsie, the revolutions of the moon are also not derived directly from the sun. Although the Pope is the vicar for the Lord of all things, it does not follow that vicars themselves have power over all things. Just as they have no power over nature, they also have no power over the temporal sphere.

Other evidence for papal authority came from readings of the Books of Samuel, in which the prophet both anoints King Saul and then later deposes him, proving that the Church did have authority over temporal power. Dante refutes this by saying that Samuel was not acting as God’s vicar, but as his messenger, just as angels are, serving only as a mouthpiece for God. In the early 1600s, King James took a positon similar to Dante’s using the same verses to prove that kings held authority from God independent of the Church in his Trew Law of Free Monarchies by arguing that by accepting a king under Samuel, all of mankind was now subject to the will of the monarch.

Another famous passage long used for papal authority is Matthew 16:19 in which Jesus tells Peter that “whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” which for generations had been interpreted to mean that each of Peter’s successors had completele authority over both heaven and earth. Dante, however, contends that this is limited to what is necessarily ascribed to the office of Pope. The Pope could no more annul a marriage than he could absolve those who refuse to repent, so it only goes to show that the passage had not intended to provide infinite authority to his person.

Dante also examines Luke 22:34-38, which had long been interpreted as a symbol for papal authority: in it, Jesus asks a disciple, supposedly Peter, if he had lacked anything when Jesus had previously sent him out without purse, bag or sandals. The disciple replies that he had lacked for nothing, to which Jesus says, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’ [Isaiah 53:12]; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.’” All the disciples, not just the one, replied, “See, Lord, here are two swords,” to which Jesus says, “That is enough.” These “two swords” were seen to represent secular power and spiritual power, both of which were conferred to Peter, who was equated with the first disciple that spoke, and seemingly assumed to be the only disciple to mention the two swords. Dante points out that the reply “would have been contrary to Christ’s intention and because Peter was in the habit of replying in haste, only considering things in a superficial manner.” He also puts the event in its proper context as being directly after the Last Supper, soon before Jesus was arrested. Thus its shown that Jesus had not intended for two swords to go to one man, but that 12 swords should be taken, one for each disciple, so as to warn them of the persecutions they would face after his death. Had Peter’s meaning been the same as the hierocrats who fostered it on him, Jesus would have rebuked him just as he always did when Peter spoke out against Christ’s divine will. Any allegorical meaning should be linked to the saying in Matthew 10:34, in which Jesus says, “I have not come for peace, but a sword.”

Another piece of evidence that Dante confronts is the Donation of Constantine, which at the time, few people doubted to be authentic but was finally discredited as a fraud in the 1400’s. Dante, however, argued that Constantine had no such right to donate the empire since the emperor does not actually own the empire and “to divide the empire is contrary to the office delegated to the office delegated to the emperor.” It’s the emperor’s duity to ensure the unity of mankind under one authority. Dividing the empire is compared to the division of Christ’s garments: a symbol that Boniface had previously used to symbolized the indivisible unity of the Church. Dante also uses Aristotle’s argument that a gift is only valid if the donor is entitled to the ggirft and the recipient is able to receive it. Dante uses this to argue that the Church was unfit for the authority of temporal power because of Jesus’ prohibition against the collecting of money. This belief that the Church should practice the poverty attributed to Jesus in the gospels became so antagonistic to the Church that two years after Dante’s death Pope John XXII declared it to be a heresy to say that Christ and the apostles carried no possessions. Dante, too, saw the Church being perverted by wealth and blamed it on Sylvestor, the “first rich father” who had accepted Constantine’s donation.

Thus, while riches and prosperity brought greatness upon the Empire, it prefigured only greed and corruption for the church. Those who willed their property to the Church were misguided, even if their heart was in the right place. Dante thus places the Christian countess Matilda in Purgatory alongside Cato. Considering the placing of Brutus and Cassius in the ninth circle of hell, it might seem surprising that Cato is placed in Purgatory, but Cato was different because unlike Brutus and Cassius, Cato had never made peace with Caesar, and so he had never technically betrayed his superior. Dante makes a comparison between the two: both having honorable intentions yet being ultimately misguided as to God’s will. As Ferrante says, “Cato is not only a pagan and a suicide, but a defender of republican Rome against the future empire; Matilda is a Christian countess who fought literally and figuratively to defend the church against the emperor and tried to leave her strategically located lands to the church when she died. Instead of condemning them for their anti-imperial actions, Dante exalts them for the purity of their motives and their courage in support of their beliefs. Cato sacrificed his life in the cause of moral liberty and Matilda defended the reform pope against the corruption within the church. Leaving her lands to the church was well intentioned, like Constantine’s Donation, which was far more harmful but does not deny him heaven.”