The Politics of Dante

I propose, in the two weeks I have before going to Florence, that we look at two works of Dante: the Convivio and the De Monarchia .  Although the whole of the Convivio is worth our attention, I am only going to talk about Book IV, in which Dante talks about the empire, Rome, the authority of Aristotle, etc .

Here is a link to a translation of the Convivio .

The Italian text is found at a very useful site .

The Italian text of the De Monarchia is available here .

Wicksteed’s translation is in Google books.

More later today.

Much of the Convivio is taken up with Dante’s explanation of why he wrote the work in Italian, rather than in Latin.  The simple answer is that he wanted it to reach a large Italian audience, whereas in the De Monarchia and in his work on the use of Vernacular, he wanted to reach an international readership.  Book IV begins with a Canzone, which (as is his method in this work and in the earlier La Vita Nouva ) he proceeds to expound, both the themes and the structure. The canzone’s relevance to the work lies in the question of nobility–is it inherited, as aristocrats believe, or is it a personal quality.

Dante is in a curious position.  As a member of the bourgeois elite (though not from a very elevated family), he was able, on the basis of his obvious talents, to serve Florence in many official capacities, until he was exiled by Corso Donati–the brother of his good friend Forese Donati.  Most of the Florentine Guelph elite families were not noble, and even the Ghibellines, who supported the Empire and were more like English Tories, were predominately from the merchant class.  The obvious exceptions are the families of rustic nobility–the Counts Guidi of the Casentino, for example–and some old families with obviously Germanic surnames, who had settled in Florence and intermarried with the merchant elite: the Uberti and the Alberti.  The situation is complicated by the tendency of the merchant elite to ape the nobility–adopting surnames and coats of arms, manufacturing knighthoods, etc.

Now, Dante is, as I observed, in a curious position.  Although rather a shirttail member of the Guelph elite, he has gone far in life and in exile consorts with people like the Guidi of the Casentino, Guido Novello da Polenta of Ravenna, Can Grande della Scala of Verona, et al.  But, as he reminds us in several places in the Commedia, his remote ancestor Cacciaguida was knighted by the emperor for his services on Crusade.  Closer to his own time, one of his ancestors married a girl whose sister was given by the emperor to Guido the Old, the founder of the fortunes of the Guidi of the Casentino.   So, Dante is no upstart who wants to deny the significance of inherited nobility.

His canzone, he tells us, is really about the nature of goodness, and the beautiful lady represents philosophy:

“Among the errors was one I condemned the most, which is dangerous and harmful not only to those who display it but also those who condemn it, to whom it brings pain and suffering. That error was one concerning human goodness, to the extent that it is seeded in us naturally and should be called ‘nobility’; an error so entrenched through bad habit and lack of intellect that almost all opinion was thereby rendered false. From false opinion false judgment sprang, and from false judgment inappropriate reverence or disdain, resulting in the good being held in vile contempt and the bad being honored and exalted. It created the worst of confusions, as is clear to anyone who considers carefully the result of such confusion. Since my lady’s looks had altered somewhat in their tenderness towards me, and especially in those features I gazed at while trying to discover whether the primal matter of the elements was contained in God – such that I refrained from entering the field of her gaze for a while – and living, as it were, in her absence, I began to consider the defect in man reflected by the said error. To avoid idleness, which is the lady’s great enemy, and to eradicate that error, which robs her of so many friends, I decided to call out to those treading this evil path, so that they might rediscover the true way. I therefore began a canzone with the words: Those sweet rhymes of love, in which I intended to return men to the true path with respect to the right conception of nobility, as can be seen by grasping the meaning of the text which I shall now explain. And since I wished to provide an essential remedy in the canzone, I thought it more effective not to use figurative language, but to supply the medicine the fastest way, so that health might be swiftly restored where it had been so undermined by poison that it was rushing towards foul death.

So it will not be necessary to unveil allegory in explaining the canzone, but simply discuss the literal meaning. By my lady I mean that same lady whose symbolic meaning I fully revealed in the previous canzone, namely that most virtuous of lights, Philosophy, whose rays make flowers bloom so they might bear the fruit of mankind’s true nobility.”

The relationship between nobility of character and nobility of birth is a powerful theme of the Odysssey, and nothing so connects the world of Dante with the world of early Greece as this difficulty–however easy it seems to us.  Now, on to chapter IV “On imperial authority,” which is the reason I begin with this work.

To understand Dante’s argument, we have to get rid of fixed notions like republican virtue or the merits of non-centralized societies or our horror of monarchy.  In Medieval Tuscany, there were two ultimate sources of authority–Pope and Emperor–and they were almost always in conflict.  As a Guelph, Dante might have supported the Pope’s universal claims to rule, but, in fact, he hated the most powerful Pope of his day, Boniface VIII.  Tuscan cities were ferociously competitive:  It was city against city, nominally  pro-imperial Ghibellines against nominally pro-papal Guelphs, neighborhood against neighborhood, family against family.  Dante’s older friend, Guido Cavalcanti, was the finest poet before Dante, as well as a student of philosophy, and yet he was the gang leader for his faction in its street fights against Corso Donati’s boys.  Florence was always at war–with Sienna, Arezzo, or Pisa, and, later, Milan–while Sienna was always at war with Arezzo and Pisa with Lucca.  In Siena, the rivalry of the neighborhoods was conducted first in a violent form of Lacrosse in which people were regularly killed.  The famous Palio delle Contrade–a horse race–later took its place as a less violent alternative.  Thus, when Dante talks about peace, he does not have in mind anything he has ever experienced, nor does he have in mind some totalitarian world-order.

Also, we should bear in mind that he is an Aristotelian and a Thomist, and he takes it for granted–and who cannot?–that the ethical end of human activity is happiness.  Hence his recapitulation of Aristotle’s theory of political development–substituting, as Thomas did, neighborhood for village–from family to neighborhood to city to kingdom to Empire.  But note that at every stage, the object is fulfillment, happiness, sufficienza for that stage.  In other words, he has a well worked out theory of subsidiarity, a fine theory until Pope John XXIII began turning it upside down to justify the powers of government.

Then, in a nutshell, Empire and Emperor are necessary to maintain peace–though not to stifle local autonomy and creativity, as might be assumed–which is an indispensable precondition for happiness.

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