political revue

Year XXXVIII, 1996, Number 2 - Page 133



Anyone wishing to explore the historical roots of federalist thought can not avoid taking a careful look at the ideas expressed by Dante Alighieri in his essay on monarchy. As is well-known, this work was written on the occasion of Emperor Henry VII’s entrance into Italy, that is, around 1311-12: an initiative which Dante had welcomed in the hope that the imperial authority could be re-established not only with regard to the communes (which contained very serious internal rifts, as well as conducting wars amongst each other, as Dante himself had dramatically experienced) but also concerning a Church and papacy which was ever more directly involved in Italian politics.
Dante’s essay aimed to offer a theoretical basis for the political and juridical role that the empire (in the hopes of its supporters) was called on to play in the Europe of that time. Dante based his argument on three main theses, to each of which is dedicated a chapter: the empire is necessary to the world; the Roman Empire, from which the medieval emperors descend, is the only legitimate one; imperial authority derives directly from God, and therefore depends neither on the authority of the Church nor on the Roman papacy.
Each of these theses is maintained, on the basis of various arguments, following the typical style of medieval culture in the age of the Scholastic. Dante tended to develop his arguments by syllogisms; very often he anchors his assertions on the authority of passages in the scriptures” or on the authority of Aristotle, who is called “the Philosopher”. Yet, many of Dante’s assertions are original and arise out of a shrewd and profound analysis of the great political issues of his time.
Dante’s most audacious thesis, if we consider the historical context in which the work was written, was that concerning the source of imperial authority, that is, the autonomy of the empire from the Church and the pope. That the emperor owed his position to God alone had already been maintained in the past by certain royalist authors, particularly in the 11th century, the age of the controversies surrounding imperial investitures (by Pietrus Crassus, for example). Yet Dante re-proposed with force and considerable courage (in an Italy which had become predominantly Guelph) the thesis of the equal dignity of the two supreme posts of the papacy and empire, each autonomous within its sphere since directly created by God. The arguments against Dante’s thesis are rejected one by one, including those drawn from the Bible: for example, Dante rejects the argument that the investiture or deposition of the kings of Israel by the prophets prefigures a papal prerogative to select or depose the emperor, since Samuel and the other prophets did not act as “vicars of God” (as those of the papal party argued), but as simple messengers of a decision taken and expressed by God himself (Monarchy, 3. 6). The profound meaning ofthis approach lies clearly in the championing of the autonomy of the temporal sphere with regard to the spiritual one, that is, one of the main achievements of European civilisation.
But the most interesting aspects of the essay, as regards the prehistory of federalism, are to be found in certain passages of the first book, where Alighieri develops the thesis of the need for a universal monarchy. These are the passages that we reproduce below and which we submit to the attention of our readers.
Three of Dante’s assertions seem to our eyes extraordinarily important. Above all, the thesis according to which the ultimate aim of the human race as a whole, in as much as it is organised in political institutions, is universal peace (note how Dante did not refer only to Christianity but to mankind in general, to the “human race”). Secondly, the lucid explanation of the need for a political authority that was superior to the cities and kingdoms, and able to impose itself if necessary even with force in order to avoid the proliferation of insoluble disputes (and therefore, to avoid the resort to war). Thirdly, the idea that the emperor does not possess the exclusive right to make laws, but only a superior legislative power, which integrates with but does not eliminate that legitimately wielded by the cities and kingdoms, each of which possesses specific characteristics that require specific laws.
Certainly, we must not forget that the political construction theorised by Dante is inseparably linked to the world of mediaeval culture. The universal political institution is the empire, which is potentially absolute, at the service of men but desired by God in the form of dynastic succession and within the parameters of the Roman and Christian tradition; an empire in which there was no space for the division or balancing of functions and powers, and even less so for forms of democratic control over public offices and the exercise of authority. Yet the greatness of this intellectual construction, conceived (it should be noted) when the political role of the medieval empire was historically on the wane, does not fail to impress, if only we consider the complex evolution, then just at the beginning, of the formation through history of the “national” states: those states which, by proclaiming themselves “sovereign” and “absolute”, were to dominate the European political scene for about seven centuries.
Lay authority, universality and subsidiarity: these are the three cornerstones of a coherent vision of political institutions that Dante theorised. Of these, only the first was to be achieved in Europe during the modern age. The second and third were instead to remain unrealised necessities (more precisely, they were not even expressed) until contemporary times.
All men whom the higher Nature has imbued with a love of truth should feel impelled to work for the benefit of future generations, whom they will thereby enrich just as they themselves have been enriched by the labours of their ancestors. [...]
Now since the truth about temporal monarchy is the most beneficial yet neglected of all these other beneficial but obscure truths, and yet has been neglected by all because it leads to no immediate reward, I intend to draw it out of the shadows into the light. There I shall be able to examine it for the benefit of the world, and to my own glory gain the palm of so great an enterprise. [...]
Therefore we must first consider the meaning of “temporal monarchy”, what its essence is and what its end.
The temporal monarchy that is called the Empire is a single Command exercised over all persons in time, or at least in those matters which are subject to time.[1]
Doubts about temporal monarchy give rise to three principal questions. The first is the question whether it is necessary for the well-being of the world.[2] The second is whether it was by right that the Roman people took upon itself the office of the Monarch.[3] And thirdly, there is the question whether the Monarch’s authority is derived directly from God or from some vicar or minister of God.[4] […]
[..] if the whole process of human society has an end, then this end can serve as the principle by which to demonstrate the validity of our subsequent argument. It would be absurd to suppose that this or that society has an end without acknowledging that there is one end common to them all.
Therefore let us see what is the ultimate end of human society as a whole.
[...] there must be some particular function proper to the human species as a whole and for which the whole species in its multitudinous variety was created; this function is beyond the capacity of anyone man or household or village, or even of anyone city or kingdom. What this function is will become clear once the specific capacity of mankind as a whole is evident.[5] […]
Now since what applies to the part applies also to the whole, and since the individual man becomes perfect in wisdom and prudence through sitting in quietude, so it is in the quietude or tranquillity of peace that mankind finds the best conditions for fulfilling its proper task (almost a divine task, as we learn from the statement: “Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels”.[6] Hence it is clear that universal peace is the most excellent means of securing our happiness.[7] This is why the message from on high to the shepherds announced neither wealth, nor pleasure, nor honour, nor long life, nor health, nor strength, nor beauty, but peace.[8] […] “Peace be with you” was also the salutation given by the Saviour of men.
The human race is at its best and most perfect when, so far as its capacity allows, it is most like to God. But mankind is most like to God when it enjoys the highest degree of unity, since He alone is the true ground of unity — hence it is written: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one”. But mankind is most one when the whole human race is drawn together into complete unity, which can only happen when it is subordinate to one Prince, as is self-evident. [...]
And wherever there is a possibility of dispute there has to be a judgement to settle it;[9] otherwise there would be imperfection without a remedy to heal it, which is impossible, since God and nature never fail in essentials.
It is clear that a dispute may arise between two princes, neither of whom is subject to the other, and that this may be their fault or their subjects’; therefore a judgement between them is indispensable. However, since neither can take cognizance over the other (neither being subject to the other — and equals do not rule over equals), there needs to be a third person enjoying wider jurisdiction who by right rules over both of them.[10] This person must be either the monarch (in which case our argument is complete), or not the monarch, in which case he himself will have an equal outside his own jurisdiction, and it will again be necessary to have recourse to a third person. Either this process will go on to infinity (which is impossible) or eventually it will lead us back to a first and supreme judge whose judgement will either directly or indirectly solve all disputes: he will be the Monarch, or Emperor.
Therefore monarchy is necessary to the world. [...]
In regard to acts, the contrary to justice is to be found in limitations on power; for since justice is a virtue governing relations, between people, how can it operate in practice without the power of rendering to each his due? [...]
On the basis of this exposition we reason as follows: justice is the most powerful in the world when located in a subject with a perfect will and most power; such is the Monarch alone; therefore justice is at its most potent in this world when located in the Monarch alone. [...]
The Philosopher says that “in the perverted forms [of government] a good man is a bad citizen, whereas in the true form to be a good citizen is the same as being a good man”.[11] And these true forms of government aim at liberty; they intend men to go on living for their own sakes. Here the citizens do not exist for the sake of the consuls, nor the people for the sake of the king; on the contrary, the king is for the sake of the people, and the consuls for the citizen. Because just as the laws are made for the sake of the body politic rather than the body politic for the laws, likewise those living under the law do not exist for the sake of the legislator but he for them (as the Philosopher asserts in the writings which he has left to us on this issue).[12] From which it is evident that although the consul or the king are lords over others in regard to means, they are themselves ministers towards others in regards to ends. And this is particularly true of the Monarch, who is to be considered the minister of everyone. Thus one can already recognize how the very purpose of law-making postulates the necessity of Monarchy.
Therefore mankind is in its best condition under a Monarch; from which it follows that monarchy is necessary for the well-being of the world.
Of course, when we say “mankind can be governed by one supreme prince” we do not mean to say that minute decisions concerning every township can proceed directly from him (though even municipal laws sometimes prove wanting and need supplementing from outside [...]).[13] For nations, kingdoms and cities have different characteristics which demand different laws for their government [...].[14]
But our meaning is that mankind should be ruled by one supreme prince and directed towards peace by a common law issuing from him and applied to those characteristics which are common to all men.[15] This common rule, or law, should be accepted from him by particular princes [...]. Indeed this was precisely what Moses says he did in writing the Law: having called together the chiefs of the tribes of Israel he left minor judgments to them whilst reserving to himself the major decisions that affected everyone;[16] these were then applied by the chiefs of the tribes according to the particular needs of each tribe. [...]
[...] For if we survey the ages and condition of men since the fall of our first parents (the false step from which all our errors have proceeded) at no time do we see universal peace throughout the world except during the perfect monarchy of the immortal Augustus.
(Prefaced and edited by Antonio Padoa-Schioppa)

* We publish here a number of extracts from Dante’s work, privileging only those passages that are most directly connected with federalist matters. We have used the translation by Donald Nicholl: “Monarch and Three Political Letters”, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1954. The notes contain some particularly significant points from the original Latin edition, as well as indicating some of the biblical and Aristotelian sources referred to by Dante himself.
[1] “Est ergo temporalis monarchia, quam dicunt imperium, unicus principatus et super omnes in tempore vel in hiis et super hiis que tempore mensurantur”.
[2] “An [monarchia] ad bene mundi necessaria sit.” This is the subject of book I.
[3] Book II deals with this topic.
[4] Book III is dedicated to this subject.
[5] “Est ergo aliqua propria operatio humanae universitatis, ad quam ipsa universitas hominum in tanta multitudine ordinatur; ad quam quidem operationem nec homo unus, nec domus una, nec una vicinia, nec una civitas, nec regnum particulare pertingere potest. Que autem sit illa, manifestum fiet si ultimum de potentia totius humanitatis appareat”.
[6] Psalms 8.6.
[7] “Unde manifestum est quod pax universalis est optimum eorum que ad nostram beatitudinem ordinantur”.
[8] “Peace on earth and good will to all men”: Luca 2.14.
[9] “Et ubicumque potest esse litigium, ibi debet esse iudicium”.
[10] “Inter omnes duos principes, quorum alter alteri minime subiectus est, potest esse litigium vel culpa ipsorum vel etiam subditorum, quod de se patet; ergo inter tales oportet esse iudicium. Et cum alter de altero cognoscere non possit — nam par in parem non habet imperium — oportet esse tertium iurisdictionis amplioris qui ambitu sui iuris ambobus principetur”.
[11] Aristotle, Politics, III. 4 (l276b); III. 18 (l288a).
[12] Aristotle, Politics, IV. 1 (1289a).
[13] “Cum dicitur humanurn genus potest regi per unum supremum principem, non sic intelligendum est, ut minima iudica cuiuscumque municipii ab illo uno immediate prodire possint: cum etiam leges municipales quandoque deficiat et opus habeant directivo”.
[14] “Habent namque nationes, regna et civitates intra se proprietates, quas legibus differentibus regulari oportet”.
[15] “Sed sic intelligendum est: ut humanum genus secundum sua comunia, que omnibus competunt, ab eo [imperatore] regatur et comuni regula gubernetur ad pacem”.
[16] Exodus, 18.26.

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