“Soleva Roma, che ‘l buon mondo feo,
due soli aver, che l’una e l’altra strada
facean vedere, e del mondo e di Deo”
“Rome, which formed the world for good,
once held two suns that lit the one road
and the other, the world’s and that to God.”
Dante Alighieri is well known for being the author of the Divine Comedy, probably one of the most important works written in the West in medieval times, given its continuing influence over the creative arts up to the present day. And yet not everyone knows his other works in quite the same way, particularly the Convivio and De Monarchia, which reveal his many interests and proficiencies as well as the staggering wealth and depth of his knowledge. As he shows off this encyclopaedic knowledge, certain themes crop up more than others, revealing the author’s particular interests. Perhaps the most prominent of these is politics. For Dante, to meditate on this theme meant to take stock of his own condition, so tragically determined by his political choices. Immersed in the Classical authors, Dante had assimilated the political thought of Aristotle and Cicero. As a result, he conceived policy as the way to create a pacific coexistence for citizens through laws and justice. In line with Classical ideals, Dante considered it a moral duty for everyone to be involved in political life if they had the capacity to do so.
Being a politician in the Middle Ages was not exactly an easy ride. A centuries-old and at times ferocious struggle for supremacy was ongoing between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire. On the one hand, the pope wanted to exercise his power over the emperor as the head of a Christian nation. On the other, the German emperor was determined not only to obtain complete autonomy from the pontiff, but also to influence certain important decisions within the Roman Church, such as the designations of bishops and even the election of the pope.
In the peripheries of the Empire, the tensions between these authorities reached a violent climax in Italy, at the time one of the richest parts of Europe, both culturally and economically. These violent conflicts, probably owing to the area’s proximity to Rome, were not only well documented in city records, but also in Dante’s own private reflections. There were two factions: the Guelphs, who traditionally supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines, allies of the emperor in opposition to the pontiff. The period was characterised by wars between neighbouring cities as well as within cities. This generated the climate of terror and bloodshed to which the Divine Comedy bears witness. The poet himself was banished from Florence and later sentenced to death for his political activism. It is worth noting the traditional reluctance of political theorists to deal with practical administration, from Aristotle to the early 16th Century. Indeed, only a generation after Dante, Petrarch, although he did write about the troubling Italian situation, carefully abstained from involving himself in it. In this regard also, the Florentine showed himself to be the brightest star in the Medieval cultural environment.
Dante’s fascinating progression from Guelph to Ghibelline is not our main concern, however, as I would like to focus the discussion on his philosophical speculations, which were aimed at resolving the moral paradoxes of Christians who were involved in policy. To obey the rules of the Church or to obey the laws of the state? The debate was an age-old one, dating back as far as the 5th Century BC in Athens, when Antigone made her touching decision in Sophocles’ well-known tragedy. For the first time in the history of western literature, freedom of conscience had been recognised by the Theban heroine’s choice to prioritise the law of the gods over earthly laws. However the dichotomy which led her to sacrifice her young life remained intact and irreconcilable.
Dante recalled St Augustin’s idea from De Civitate Dei and developed it, enabling him to heal this rift by illustrating the autonomy and necessity of both institutions as they descended directly and naturally from God. His explanation was a philosophical one: given that man is made of body and soul, his nature is both corruptible and incorruptible. And as any nature must have a purpose, Dante found that living in peace was the purpose of the body, and eternal happiness the purpose of the soul. Moreover, he identified two guides appointed by God to lead the people towards those aims: the emperor was the leader of earthly life and the pope was the leader of eternal life.
As such, he argued that the emperor must have unrestricted power, since only a person who has everything does not desire anything else, and is consequently in a position to treat people equally. (Some of you may remember an Italian Prime Minister who used the same argument to win votes, but the final result did not quite match up to the idea!). The pope, as the Vicar of Christ, was only supposed to be concerned with giving moral instruction to humanity in order to secure their salvation, while supposedly being immune to all power and riches.
Thus Dante, as a Christian and politician of the early 14th Century, was able to corroborate the “Two Suns Theory”, an early version of secularism according to which the Church and the empire were two separate entities that were both necessary for humankind. Although his philosophical thought is rigorously scholastic, the poet approaches problems from an ethical stance, rather than treating them purely speculatively. His reasoning is never merely an end in itself but a tool with which to discover the solution to existing problems and situations.
It doesn’t matter if much of our later reading gives Dante the role of a tireless and blind loyalist, belonging to an antiquated world. It doesn’t matter if he did not adequately consider the Italian bourgeoisie’s reinforcement as a pressing request of freedom and autonomy hardly compatible with the absolute power of the Emperor. It doesn’t matter if national kingdoms were appearing on stage as competing powers for the Holy Roman Empire, and therefore representing a serious threat for the political unity of Christianity. It doesn’t matter if Dante’s ideological structure, which he meticulously constructs in his works, was going to collapse like a house of cards.
The great Florentine writer and philosopher should not be considered as a laudator temporis acti; that is, an inactive, slow and pessimistic reader of contemporary society. Rather he should be considered as a man who courageously made his critical skills available for the advancement of society, which, according to him, was the only possible means to achieve the advancement of mankind, and therefore the only way to reflect the divine order on Earth.
Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info: http://www.iseolakess.it