Why read the Monarchia, Dante's treatise on political theory? A minor work by one of the world’s great poets, written in the moribund language which he wisely rejected in favour of the vernacular when writing at full creative pressure, argued in a manner which can seem needlessly pedantic and repetitive in its procedures and its formulations, it expresses ideas which have been described as backward-looking, utopian and even fanatical. Yet a recent book on the political thought of the period can unselfconsciously refer to the Monarchia as a masterpiece , and it is surely a text of remarkable interest. The originality and power of the political vision it embodies, the passion with which that vision is experienced and expressed, shine through the alien language and the alienating methodology. The small effort the text requires of its modern readers is amply repaid by the sense it conveys of a man passionately engaged in the political debates of his age, but equally passionate in his determination that the pressure of present concerns should not blind us to underlying principles. Only a grasp of universal truths about human beings and human life will furnish an answer to the fundamental question of how people should live together and what form of political organization best suits human nature.
The attempt to argue from first principles is one of the most strikingly original aspects of the Monarchia, but it is not a work of ivory-tower idealism, of theory divorced from political experience. Dante had been actively involved in the political life of Florence in the closing years of the thirteenth century and the early years of the fourteenth; he had enrolled in a Guild in order to be eligible for public office, had served on important councils, and had been elected in due course as one of the six priors who governed the city for periods of two months at a time. In October 1301 he had been sent as one of three ambassadors representing the commune to the papal curia in Rome, on a peace-keeping mission to Pope Boniface VIII, whose aggressive and duplicitous intervention in the affairs of Dante’s native city threatened its independence and stability. He was never to see Florence again. As the competing factions within the Guelf party which controlled the city manoeuvred for power, a trumped-up charge of corruption in office was brought against him in his absence; the Black Guelfs had secretly made a treacherous alliance with the unscrupulous pope and so were able to oust the Whites (of whom Dante at this stage was one). A decree of January 1302 condemned him to a large fine, two years banishment from Tuscany and permanent exclusion from public office. The fine remaining unpaid within the stipulated three days, in March he was condemned to death at the stake should he ever return.
A political exile for the remaining twenty years of his life, he travelled throughout Italy, observing at first hand the devastating effects of factional intrigue and papal meddling in temporal affairs. What he had already experienced directly in Florence – public disorder, lawlessness, treachery, lust for power subverting any possibility of peaceful and orderly public life conducted according to principle and not shameless self-interest – he now saw as endemic to the whole country. His horizons broadened in exile to the point where he no longer identified himself with any political grouping, although the pro-imperial stance of his later years is closer to the Ghibellines than the Guelfs. Whether he wrote the Monarchia while there was still hope that the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII could unite Italy (and provide effective secular leadership for a country whose fragmentation into smaller political units and endless internecine warfare were exploited by a ruthlessly ambitious papacy), or whether he wrote it after these hopes had evaporated, is a question to which scholarship can give only a conjectural answer. But it is certain that when Dante engages with the centuries-long debate on the relative powers of pope and emperor (or ‘monarch’, as Dante usually calls him), his conclusions are born of direct and bitter experience.
In this sense, then, the Monarchia is not a work of theory divorced from practical experience of politics; rather, it grows out of painful personal experience of political life, and a thwarted desire to participate effectively in the public life of his native city. In another sense, though, the treatise is purely theoretical. Dante is arguing about principles and the conclusions to be drawn from them. The arguments are abstract, concerned to elucidate fundamental truths. At no point does he consider how his conclusions might be implemented in practice. Where Aristotle famously collected and examined the constitutions of 158 city-states as a preliminary to the elaboration of his Politics, and frequently refers to specific instances of actual political practice, Dante's argument is conducted on a different plane altogether, and can seem curiously devoid of concrete detail. He is interested not in how things are, but how they ought to be, though how they ought to be reflects, at a more profound level, how they really are, being based on a true understanding of human nature.
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 Antony Black, Political Thought in Europe 1250-1450, Cambridge 1992, p. 96
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