Dante on Monarchy
Source: Introduction to The De Monarchia of Dante Alighieri, edited with translation and notes by Aurelia Henry (Boston and New York: Houghton, Miflin and Company, 1904).
He who was “the spokesman of the Middle Ages,” who saw and told of his fellow-men and their destiny, uttered a message not for one century of time only, nor of one significance. In each of Dante’s larger works, the Vita Nuova, the Convito, the De Monarchia, and the Divine Comedy, this message is pronounced in one or all of its three phases, the religious, the philosophical, and the political. Because no author ever wrote with such singleness of purpose, nor through such diverse mediums carried to completion a solemn intent, the series of his productions are bound together as inevitably as the links of a chain, lending to one another meaning and value. And because these productions are so similar in purpose, if various in manner of expression, we may call them a unified message, and may apply to them all the words of explanation the poet sent to Can Grande when he presented to him “the sublime Canticle of the Comedy which is graced with the title of Paradiso.” “The aim of the whole and the part,” he wrote, “is to remove those living in this life from a state of misery, and to guide them to a state of happiness.”
The recognition by the student of this desire to know and to help his brother man, which gives to Dante’s writings a loftiness of tone and elevation of character that six centuries have failed to obscure, is the preventer of much misunderstanding, and the first essential to appreciative interpretation. The keynote of philanthropic endeavor Dante strikes early in the Convito, where he says, “I, knowing the miserable life of those whom I have left behind me, and moved to mercy by the sweetness of that which I have gained little by little, while not forgetting myself, have reserved for those wretched ones something which I have already for some time held before their eyes.” And again in the De Monarchia the author determines to concern himself “in laboring for posterity, in order that future generations may be enriched” by his efforts. The message that Dante felt called upon to deliver to the world is, then, virtually the same in the four works we have mentioned, but in the Vita Nuova the religious aspect is paramount, in the Convito the philosophical, in the De Monarchia the political, while the Divine Comedy concerns itself with the message as a whole. We might say that each of the first three writings has its own melody, a simple motif; in the Comedy the three themes combining swell into a movement of wondrous and complex harmony. And we might sum up the thought of the entire message in the words of Matthew: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
Lowell, recognizing the ministering spirit of Dante, has said: “There is proof upon proof that he believed himself invested with a divine mission. Like the Hebrew prophets, with whose writings his whole soul was imbued, it was back to the old worship and the God of the fathers that he called his people; and not Isaiah himself was more destitute of that humor, that sense of ludicrous contrast, which is an essential in the composition of a sceptic.”
Or, to put the matter more concretely, Dante had looked abroad on mediæval society, had engaged in the practical affairs of Italy, had grown to feel that he understood conditions better than other men, and so believed that he was called of God to point out to men the right road. He beheld the two institutions that had for centuries striven to unite all Europe in a common interest—the Empire that had been revived under Charles the Great, and the Church that had attained to supremacy under Gregory VII—and he realized how sadly each had failed of its ambition. He saw, further, that despite these efforts there had come about in Europe the formation of nationalities, each differing in language and character, each having its own peculiar government, each torn by internecine strife, and each at times warring with the others. And he, together with other thinkers of that period, longed for unity among men, for unity that seemed never to be made a reality. Yet Dante believed and proclaimed that such a unity could come about, but in one way only, through a regeneration of society and a uniting of political interests under one head independent of the Church. This is the political aspect of Dante’s message.
But the De Monarchia, though it embodies Dante’s political ideals, can be read understandingly and sympathetically only when these political ideals are related to those of his religion as set forth in his other works. These in turn depend upon his theory of the universe and of moral order. To make this matter clear, we will state briefly the fundamental principles upon which Dante constructed his theory. For him the universe begins and ends with God: it begins with God the First Cause, the Primal Motor, the Maker, the Alpha of all things; it terminates in God the Ultimate End, the Great Arbiter, the Chief Good, the Omega of all things. The earth, on which dwells man, is at the centre of the created universe. About it are the nine moving heavens, according to the Ptolemaic astronomy, comprehended in the tenth, the Empyrean, the heaven which is at perfect rest because therein dwells God and Divine Love, and nothing is left for this heaven to desire. The Empyrean “is the sovereign edifice of the universe, in which all the world is included, and beyond which is nothing; and it is not in space, but was formed solely in the Primal Mind.”1 Not less fundamental than the unitary concept of the universe is that of the duality of man’s nature. This duality is not only in man’s nature, but in all things pertaining to him, his mode of existence, his mode of acquiring knowledge. That is, man is endowed with a twofold nature, a perishable and an imperishable, a soul and a body. He therefore lives for two ends, happiness on earth and happiness to be attained in heaven. Earthly beatitude is reached by the right ordering of temporal affairs; heavenly beatitude is made possible by Papal guidance in matters of the spiritual realm. Moreover, his life is active or contemplative, governed by reason or faith, enlightened by philosophy or revelation. Armed with these two ideas, we can approach the work under consideration.
Starting from man’s dual nature, the De Monarchia sets forth the manner in which the earthly happiness of the human race may be acquired by the right ordering of temporal affairs, the overlordship of a sole Monarch, the presence in the world of a Universal Empire. The body of the work is divided into three books, in each of which is expounded one side of the question at issue: first, the necessity of Universal Empire is proved; second, the right of the Romans to imperial authority; third, the direct bequeathing by God of this authority to the Romans without the mediation of the Church. In the first chapter the author says, “The knowledge of temporal Monarchy, one of the most important and most obscure of subjects, is brought forth from its hiding-place and explained for the good of the world.”
The first book of the De Monarchia pronounces that that which is the purpose or end of the human race is “to actualize continually the entire capacity of the possible intellect, primarily in speculation, . . . secondarily in action;” that “in the calm and tranquillity of peace the human race fulfills most freely and easily its given work;” that “universal peace is the best of those things ordained for our beatitude;” that “to the shepherds sounded from on high the message, not of riches, nor pleasures, nor honors, nor length of life, nor health, nor beauty, but peace.”1 Peace can come, Dante insists, only when there is one Monarch to own all, to rule all, to embrace in his dominion all kingdoms and states, to harmonize opposing princes and factions, and to judge with justice all temporal questions. And let us not forget that Dante’s passionate plea for peace arises amid the uninterrupted turbulence and strife of the never-to-be-pacified Italy of his day.
In taking up in the second book the question of Rome’s foreordination for supremacy, Dante makes use of what was in his day a startling premise—that, in the same manner in which the Jews were the chosen race for receiving and dispensing the religion of God to the peoples of the earth, so the Romans were the race chosen to receive and dispense the knowledge of law and justice. And in the proof at various points evidence is adduced as indisputably correct from Roman as well as Jew, from Virgil and Ovid, Lucan and Livy, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. History and poetic fiction have equal consideration and equal weight. To question his authorities never occurs to Dante. Especially from Virgil, “our divine poet,” he takes his idea of the Roman Empire—from Virgil, who in his Aeneid and Georgics sang of Rome, the conqueror and civilizer of the world; Rome, of origin divine, of antiquity great, of duration eternal, of jurisdiction universal. That Dante’s reasoning throughout this second division of the treatise is often based on unauthentic statements, that therefore some of his proofs are of no lasting value, it is unnecessary to emphasize. Nor less strange than those that precede it is the final statement, the climax of the argument of the second book, that Christ by His birth under the edict of the Emperor Augustus, and by His death under the vicar of the Emperor Tiberius, confirmed the universal jurisdiction of the Roman Empire.
It is easy to object to the conclusions of the De Monarchia thus far, and to say that the end of man’s being and God’s foreordination of the Roman supremacy were fine subjects for theorizing, but that they could not carry any remedy for the evils in mediaeval Italy. It is easy to answer to them that peace was practically impossible when the Roman and Teutonic elements of society were not yet fused in the peoples of Europe; that the Roman Empire in its ancient sense had died when Romulus Augustulus laid down the sceptre in 476; that Dante entirely misapprehended the spirit of the ancient Roman supremacy; that, except under emperors of extraordinary talents, the Holy Roman Empire ever since its revival had been “a tradition, a fancied revival of departed glories;” and that, despite the endeavors of Imperialists and Papists, practically all power was in the hands of the nations as such, so that during Dante’s life the Empire was growing more German, and the Papacy more French. As Mr. Bryce says, “In the days of Charles and Otto, the Empire, in so far as it was anything more than a tradition from times gone by, rested solely upon the belief that with the visible Church there must be coextensive a single Christian state under one head and governor.” Yet in the first two books, whatever quaint absurdities be present, Dante promulgates the doctrine of international peace, a doctrine that even the twentieth century does not despise.
But the invaluable part of Dante’s political message, and the pith of the De Monarchia, lies in the third division, where are discussed the relations of the Empire and Papacy, and where Dante publishes his belief in the separate existence of the Church and State. Having recognized the presence of two chief governmental elements in Europe, having accounted for their presence by the design of God to meet the requirements of man’s dual nature, and having acknowledged that these two elements are wrongfully at constant war the one with the other, Dante proceeds to show that they are both from God for the good of man, but with functions distinct and different. Especially does he prove that the one in no way depends for its right to exist upon the other. The Papacy, he maintains, is a spiritual power, sovereign over the souls and the spiritual welfare of men, and the Empire is a temporal power, sovereign over the lives and bodily welfare of men. If Empire and Papacy exercised their authority in their own realms, the world would have no more war, than which there is nothing more to be desired in this world.
So much for the argument of this treatise, which has been called “the creed of Dante’s Ghibellinism.” This designation is only true in part, for, as Cacciaguida prophesies in the seventeenth canto of the Paradiso, “To thee it shall be honorable to have made thee a party by thyself.” And Dante, though a Ghibelline, was not so in all details of his political creed. Much that this party did was beyond the pale of his sympathy, and he rebukes them harshly more than once in the Divine Comedy. Seeing that they have used the Imperial ensign and influence in contests where there was no question of Empire, he writes, “Let the Ghibellines work, let them work under another ensign, for he ever follows that amiss, who separates Justice and it.”1
The names Guelf and Ghibelline stand for the two parties that in the name of Pope and Emperor fought so strenuously on the soil of Italy for political supremacy. On the one side, the highest power, the right of investiture, was claimed by the Emperor, who was the nominal leader of the Ghibellines; on the other, the Popes, since the eleventh century and the strengthening of Papal control under Gregory VII, had persistently claimed that right for the Church, and the Guelf party fought to establish this claim. But it must be borne in mind that in the Italy of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries these party names were often used on occasions and in disturbances where the principles for which they stood had no place, and where the purpose and end of the strife were purely selfish and personal.
In general, however, the tendencies of the two parties were clear enough. The Imperial power, looking back toward its greater day, remembering that the Roman Emperor had once been Pontifex Maximus, and that authority must stay with the few, and those by precedent the nobles of ancient name, arrogated to itself all power, and maintained in all contests the cause of the nobles against the commons, the claims of antique titles against those of new-won wealth. The Church, moved by the true democracy of Christianity, as well as by the selfish wish to keep her hand on the pulse of the nations, and to prevent a centralizing influence in northern Italy, maintained the cause of the municipalities, fostered the independence of the cities, discouraged unity of action and aim among them, and at times sought to release whole nations from allegiance to their king.
The clearest statement of the claims of the Church in the fourteenth century is found in the Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII, published in 1302. Boniface put his theory into practice more than once, and sometimes with amazing success. It is said that, seated upon the throne of Constantine and arrayed in crown, sceptre, and sword, he announced himself to the throngs of pilgrims that flocked to Rome at the jubilee in 1300, as “Caesar and Emperor.” He arbitrated difficulties between Edward of England and Philip of France, and finally declared the latter excommunicate and offered his throne to Albert of Hapsburg, then Emperor.
The Imperial rights are best enunciated in the De Monarchia, which, as we shall try to show, was written in all probability to help establish over Italy, independently of the Church, a rightful ruler in the temporal affairs of men, a ruler pictured as ideal in an ideal condition of society. The Golden Bull issued by Charles IV at Frankfort in 1356 takes up constitutional and legal points that our treatise never pauses to consider. We learn much, besides, of Imperial rights from the rulings of various Emperors. The career of such a man as Frederick II in the preceding century shows how much the Empire could demand and how much obtain under a powerful leader. That of Henry VII in the fourteenth shows that the time had gone by for Imperial dominion, and how much the Empire could ask and how little obtain even under the leadership of a great man.
So Dante’s De Monarchia is Ghibelline, inasmuch as it denies to the Church supreme command in temporal things, and recognizes a universal Monarch in temporal affairs; but it is a purer Ghibellinism than that of the party at large, for he saw Church and State only as separate powers, viewed Pope and Emperor as equal in rank but as wielding authority in different realms; and under this twofold rule he prophesied, with enthusiasm his party could not share, that the human race would live in the calm and tranquillity of universal peace.
Turning from the treatise for a moment to a consideration of Dante himself, there is something of deep pathos in the thought that, from the solitude of an exile brought upon him by the warring of his countrymen, he should so continually and earnestly plead for peace—that its blessings, now denied to him and to all the human race, might come upon the world. How far he traveled in search of “the best of those things ordained for our beatitude,” we learn in another work. He declares to the spirits in Ante-Purgatory, “If aught that I can do pleases you, O spirits born to bliss, do ye say it, and I will do it for the sake of that peace which makes me, following the feet of a guide thus fashioned, seek it from world to world.”1 And though he could not bring peace to self-willed Italy, he found it for himself in unquestioning obedience to the will of God, and sang forth his triumph and joy in the immortal line, “In His will is our peace.” It is not strange that a sympathetic and imaginative mind should have drawn the famous picture of the seeker of peace among the mountains, at the Monastery of Santa Croce del Corvo. Though Fra Ilario’s apocryphal letter is so well known, I quote the description given therein: “Hither he came, passing through the diocese of Luni, moved either by the religion of the place, or by some other feeling. And seeing him, as yet unknown to me and to all my brethren, I questioned him of his wishings and his seekings there. He moved not; but stood silently contemplating the columns and arches of the cloister. And again I asked him what he wished, and whom he sought. Then, slowly turning his head, and looking at the friars and at me, he answered ‘Peace.’ ”
The date of the De Monarchia is uncertain as far as historical evidence is concerned, and any attempt to establish unquestionably the time of its composition is met with insurmountable obstacles. To be sure, the earliest biographers of Dante mention the work, and Boccaccio gives some interesting notes of its history, but Boccaccio is also the only one of them who attempts to assign a period for its composition. He writes in his Life of Dante:1 —
“At the coming of Henry VII, this illustrious author wrote another book, in Latin prose, called the De Monarchia. This he divided into three books, in accordance with three questions which he settled therein. . . . This book, several years after the death of its author, was condemned by Cardinal Beltrando of Poggetto, papal legate in the parts of Lombardy, during the pontificate of John XXII. The reason of the condemnation was this. Louis, Duke of Bavaria, had been chosen King of the Romans by the electors of Germany, and came to Rome for his coronation, against the pleasure of the aforenamed Pope John. And while there, against ecclesiastical ordinances he created pope a minor friar called Brother Piero della Corvara, besides many cardinals and bishops; and had himself crowned there by this new Pontiff.
“Now inasmuch as his authority was questioned in many cases, he and his followers, having found this book by Dante, began to make use of its arguments to defend themselves and their authority; whereby the book, which was scarcely known up to this time, became very famous. Afterwards, however, when Louis had returned to Germany, and his followers, especially the clergy, began to decline and disperse, the aforesaid Cardinal, since there was none to oppose him therein, seized the book and condemned it in public to the flames, charging that it contained heretical matters.
“In like manner he attempted to burn the bones of the author, and would have done so, to the eternal infamy and confusion of his own memory, had he not been opposed by a good and noble Florentine knight, by name Pino della Tosa. This man and Messer Ostagio da Polenta were great in the sight of the Cardinal, and happened to be in Bologna, where this matter was being mooted.”
But if Boccaccio unhesitatingly names the occasion and approximate date of the De Monarchia, Lionardo Bruni (1368-1444), who wrote a biography of Dante somewhat later, dismisses the treatise with brief but unfavorable comment. “He also wrote in Latin prose and verse: in prose, a book entitled De Monarchia, written in unadorned fashion, with no beauty of style.” We will not stop to contradict Bruni’s criticism, but merely note that his statement has no chronological value.
Giovanni Villani, the first historian of Florence, gives a most appreciative but far too brief account of the poet in his Cronica:1 “He also wrote the Monarchia, where he treats of the offices of popes and emperors.” That is all the information Villani vouchsafes on our subject.
If we could believe Boccaccio implicitly, any further search for the date of the De Monarchia would be idle; but Boccaccio has proved himself untrustworthy in many instances, and in this case, whether his statement rests on his own assumption, whether he took it from current tradition, or whether he knew whereof he spoke, we shall never be able to prove absolutely. However, we can to some extent strengthen or weaken Boccaccio’s claim to belief by internal evidence in the writing itself. Unfortunately, there is a singular absence of such evidence in the De Monarchia. This book stands unique among the works of Dante in its impersonal nature, whereas his writings generally are marked by their strongly autobiographic character. In it is no personal reference definite enough to indicate any certain time in the author’s life; there is no unmistakable allusion to contemporary events; nor is there mention of any other of his own writings either finished or planned. Nevertheless, the fact that the book is in Latin and is of polemical nature, the parallelism of expression between this and other works, the confession of political experience in the first book, of changed political views in the second, and the indirect allusion to his own exile in the third, are clues which various scholars have followed up with zest, and from which they have arrived at three differing conclusions as to the time of its composition.
Some Dante students think the work was written previous to Dante’s exile, January 27, 1302, most probably during his political life in Florence; others believe it to be a heralding or commemoration of the coming of Henry of Luxemburg to Italy, and would place it between 1308 and 1314; a third class consider it more probable that it is one of the last labors of the author, and assign it to some period between 1318 and 1321.
Scartazzini has stated very clearly the points in favor of each of the three views, and commented on each in turn.1 But before we review his line of argument, let us notice some of the more general facts of this internal evidence.
That the language of the De Monarchia is Latin puts it at once into comparison with the uncompleted Latin writing De Vulgari Eloquentia. But as the date of this second treatise is as uncertain as the first, it can in no way help us. The second treatise must have been in process of writing as late as 1308, while Villani and others date it 1321. Next, is there any marked change in opinion or power between this and Dante’s other works, any differences that would betray immaturity of judgment, growth of insight, or even retrogression? No; as might be drawn from our generalizations at the beginning of this introduction, the content agrees in all essentials with the author’s other writings. In the maturity of its religious faith; in the knowledge of classic and Hebrew authors; in the ideal civil polity outlined; in the concept of the universe and moral order; in the theory which makes cupidity the basic sin of mankind, and free will his most divine gift, this political document agrees with the Convito and the Divine Comedy. So much alike are they that, especially in the case of the Convito, the order of ideas is at times the same. The phraseology is in some places identical with that of Dante’s three letters written during Henry’s sojourn in Italy, those written To the Princes and Peoples of Italy, To the Florentines, and To Henry VII.1
Now for Scartazzini’s opinion. He gives six reasons for the theory that the date was prior to the exile in 1302. (1) As in the Vita Nuova, some scholars see in the De Monarchia no allusion to Dante’s banishment, in a failure to mention which it would differ from the Convito, the De Vulgari Eloquentia, and the Comedy. (2) The opening paragraph is too modest for Dante, unless at the beginning of his literary career. (3) The reference made in the first canto of the Inferno to Dante’s beautiful style must have been to the De Monarchia. (4) If written subsequent to 1302, the treatise would certainly contain an allusion to the Unam Sanctam of that year. (5) The discussion of nobility2 differs from that of the Convito,3 while the view in the Convito accords with that expressed in the Paradiso.1 (6) Were it not true that Dante’s work was written before or very early in the fourteenth century, his assertion would be false that the subject of Monarchy had been treated by no one hitherto.
Scartazzini answers each of these objections:—
(1) In De Monarchia 3. 3. 12, Dante says of those who “boast themselves white sheep of the Master’s flock,” that “in order to carry out their crimes, these sons of iniquity defile their mother, banish their brethren, and scorn judgments brought against them.” We can find no excuse for the bitterness of this statement unless the writing was after his exile, prompted by the sting of present pain.
(2) To boast of one’s experience in public affairs, to undertake to enrich posterity from one’s store of wisdom, as Dante does in the first paragraph to the De Monarchia, Scartazzini thinks can scarcely be called overwhelming modesty. Besides, the Convito and the De Vulgari Eloquentia were not brought to their present state of completion until the coming of Henry VII in 1311, and Dante’s literary achievement would not be large until such time as these writings were known. This would allow the De Monarchia a date as late as this in which to have made its appearance, and yet precede them. But is it probable that both these works would fail to mention the De Monarchia, had it been completed prior to them? Besides, we must not forget that the author’s change from Guelfism to Ghibellinism took place before this writing, as is evident from the first chapter of the second book. And though it is impossible to assert at what time such a change took place, it could not have been in the author’s early years.
(3) The allusion to Dante’s beautiful style in the first canto of the Inferno, and to the fame it had brought him, is doubtless not to the De Monarchia, but to the early and beautiful lyrics.
(4) The whole argument of the third book is virtually a reply to the Unam Sanctam, though that bull is not and could not well have been mentioned by name.
(5) As for the alleged contradiction in the treatment of the nature of nobility, it is evident that the writer’s purpose was not the same in both contexts. In the De Monarchia he is speaking of nobility that gives the possessor power, which is surely a hereditary nobility. In the Convito he speaks of nobility of soul, which cannot be hereditary.
(6) Dante’s declaration that no one else had treated of the subject of temporal Monarchy simply means that no one whose work was worthy his consideration had done so.
Scartazzini treats, secondly, of the theory that the De Monarchia was written between 1318 and 1321, passing rapidly over the facts advanced in its support. Of first importance are the words found in so many of the manuscripts,1 in the discussion of free will, “Sicut in Paradiso Comediae iam dixi.” Were these words genuine, and not spurious as the best students of the texts affirm, we could be certain that the fifth canto of the Paradiso was composed before this prose work. The interesting fact that Dante’s theory of the markings on the moon agrees with that of the Paradiso,2 and not with that of the Convito,3 is no indication that the later opinion was arrived at in the very last years of the author’s life, but merely that it was later than that of the Convito. The last reason in favor of a very late composition is the similarity in diction and phrase with Can Grande’s letter and various parts of the Paradiso. The similarity cannot be gainsaid, but even so the De Monarchia bears yet stronger likeness to the language of the letters To Henry VII, To the Florentines, and To the Princes and Peoples of Italy.
The third date suggested for the writing of the work under discussion is that of the coming of Henry VII to Italy as Emperor. And there is much in favor of this last belief. From the purely polemical nature of the De Monarchia it is apparent that it was brought into being by some urgent and present motive. But even as late as the Convito, Dante wrote hopelessly of the condition of the Empire and those “who sat in the saddle.” He calls Frederick of Swabia “the last Emperor of the Romans, last, I say, as regards this present time, although Rudolph and Adolphus and Albert were elected after his death and from among his descendants.”1
There was one time in Dante’s life when a motive urgent and present existed, one time when he saw with perfect clearness that his dream of Universal Empire was about to be fulfilled, and in the intensity of his belief he spoke to the rulers of Italy words that glowed with ardor and intense faith: “Behold, now is the acceptable time in which the signs of consolation and peace arise, for a new day grows bright, revealing a dawn that lessens the gloom of long calamity. . . . Henceforth let thy heart be joyful, O Italy! who deserveth to be pitied even by the Saracens, but who straightway shalt be looked on with envy throughout the world, because thy bridegroom, the solace of the earth, and the glory of thy people, the most clement Henry, Divine, Augustus, and Caesar, hastens to the nuptials.”1 And this man whose way Dante, like another John the Baptist, prepared in Italy; whose feet he ran to kiss as a most humble subject; whose actions he forbore not to rebuke or praise in words a father might have used, was Henry of Luxemburg, elected after the death of Albert to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire.2
As we have said, the three letters written by Dante concerning this occasion are in their reasoning and phraseology remarkably like the De Monarchia. Especially is that To the Princes and Peoples of Italy like the second division of our treatise. Space cannot be given here for quoting such parallel passages, but they are indicated in due place in the notes to the translation.
We may add to this evidence drawn from immediate purpose and similarity of language Boccaccio’s assertion to the effect that Henry’s election inspired Dante to attempt to bring from its hiding-place the knowledge of temporal Monarchy, in order “to keep watch for the good of the world.” In summing up the testimony for the probable date of the De Monarchia, we would say that the reasons for ascribing it to a time previous to 1302 are about as slight as those that place it at the end of the poet’s life. Because it is so distinctly a work of occasion, because Boccaccio has pointed out that occasion, and no internal evidence can be found to disprove his statement, and, finally, because it is so akin to the letters of the occasion named, we ascribe it to those years when Henry’s accession to the Imperial throne promised to bring mankind to the calm and tranquillity of universal peace.
And may we strengthen this conclusion by the witnessing of Dante’s epitaph, which, though of minor import, should not be omitted? This epitaph was long thought to be of Dante’s composition, but now is believed to have been the work of Bernardo Canaccio about 1353, and is interesting at this juncture merely for the fact that as first in the list of the poet’s achievements is named “the rights of Monarchy.”
- jvra monarchiæ svperos phlegethonta lacvsqve
- lvstrando cecini volvervnt fata qvovsqve
- sed qvia pars cessit melioribvs hospita castris
- avctoremqve svvm petiit felicior astris
- hic clavdor dantes patriis extorris ab oris
- qvem genvit parvi florentia mater amoris1
Does it seem probable that if the De Monarchia were one of the first of Dante’s productions, ranking with the Vita Nuova in its youthfulness, it would have been coupled over his grave with his supreme achievement?
When we realize that the bud of Dante’s hope was blighted, that his brave efforts depicted in the De Monarchia and the letters of the same period were utterly vain, we feel that a sorrow not to be borne had come to him who had known for so many years “how tastes of salt another’s bread, and how it is a hard path to go down and up over another’s stairs;” we feel that a final failure had crowned him whose life was outwardly all defeat, and inwardly all victory. Except in earnestness of purpose and courageousness of spirit, Henry in no particular fulfilled the prophecies of Dante. “Tumults and revolts broke out in Lombardy; at Rome the King of Naples held St. Peter’s, and the coronation must take place in St. John Lateran, on the southern bank of the Tiber. The hostility of the Guelfic league, headed by the Florentines, Guelfs even against the Pope, obliged Henry to depart from his impartial and republican policy, and to purchase the aid of the Ghibelline chiefs by granting them the government of cities. With few troops and encompassed by enemies, the heroic Emperor sustained an unequal struggle for a year longer, till in ad 1313, he sank beneath the fevers of the deadly Tuscan summer. His German followers believed, nor has history wholly rejected the tale, that poison was given him by a Dominican monk in sacramental wine. With Henry the Seventh ends the history of the Empire in Italy, and Dante’s book is an epitaph instead of a prophecy.”1
Yet when it was all over, with what splendid courage and unfaltering devotion Dante eulogizes the man in whom had died all promised political unity, and the hope of peace for blood-soaked Italy! The praise of the Emperor who had failed is spoken by Beatrice in the Empyrean heaven, where she and Dante, rising into the yellow of the everlasting rose, behold the host of those who sit in glory: “Look how great is the assembly of the white garments. Behold our city, how great is its circuit; behold there our stalls so full, that few folk hereafter are awaited. In that great seat on which thou hast thine eyes, by reason of the crown which already is placed over it, ere thou shalt sup at this wedding-feast, will sit the soul, which on earth shall be Imperial, of the high Henry who will come to set Italy straight before that she shall be ready.” Dante believed with a more modern poet that, after all, “’t is not what man does which exalts him, but what man would do.”
We conclude this inadequate consideration of the De Monarchia, its significance, content, history, and probable date of composition, by saying that if on perusal the subject of the De Monarchia seem antiquated and of small import, if many arguments adduced are based on unhistoric assumptions, if the style is marred by logical devices and bare syllogisms, nevertheless it will be found to contain ideals of life more perfect than man yet boasts of attaining except in dreams. Never has ideal civil polity been imaged forth in more simplicity and beauty, and never perhaps has one been more utterly impracticable. Yet in some of its principles, in the necessary disinterestedness of the supreme ruler in political matters, in the mutual independence of Church and State, in its strong advocacy of peace, it has rightly been compared to the United States under its President, and to the Netherlands under a supreme Stadtholder. To quote Mr. Dinsmore:1 “His essential aspiration is that of many minds to-day, and we are beginning to see its realization. The code of international law is a source of universal order; the recent Peace Congress at the Hague, in establishing an international tribunal, took a long step toward extending the area of peace for which the soul of Dante longed; in America the Church is separated from the State, a precedent which is exerting a wide influence in Europe.”
Besides, the De Monarchia is an indispensable part of the work of a man whose whole life was devoted to one end, and whose work was a unified expression of his great, unified life. It is a manifestation of that gift in Dante which Mr. Bryce so praised in Hildebrand; that gift whose manifestations the world cannot afford to lose, wherever they come into being; “that rarest and grandest of gifts, an intellectual courage and power of imagination in belief, which, when it has convinced itself of aught, accepts it fully with all its consequences.”
Without the De Monarchia the threefold message of Dante would be incomplete; without the De Monarchia it would be far less true that for us as well as for Italy Dante is the thirteenth century.
[1. ]Conv. 2. 4. 1.
[1. ]De Mon. 1. 4.
[1. ]Par. 6. 103.
[1. ]Purg. 5. 61.
[1. ]Earliest Lives of Dante, tr. James R. Smith, p. 69.
[1. ] See lib. 9, cap. 136; tr. Napier’s Florentine History, bk. 1, ch. 16; also Dinsmore, Aids to the Study of Dante, p. 61.
[1. ] Scartazzini, A Companion to Dante, pp. 318 ff.
[1. ] Latham, Letters 5, 6, 7.
[2. ]De Mon. 2. 3.
[3. ]Conv. 4. 3.
[1. ]Par. 16. 1 ff.
[1. ]De Mon. 1. 12. 3.
[2. ]Par. 2. 58 ff.
[3. ]Conv. 2. 14.
[1. ]Conv. 4. 3. 3.
[1. ]Letter 5. 2. 3.
[2. ] Albert died May 1, 1308. Henry was elected November 27, 1308; entered Italy, October, 1311; received the iron crown of the Lombards at Milan on Epiphany, 1311; Dante’s letter to him April 16, 1311; died at Buonconvento, August 24, 1313.
[1. ] Lowell has translated this:—
- The rights of Monarchy, the Heavens, the Stream of Fire, the Pit,
- In vision seen, I sang as far as to the fates seemed fit;
- But since my soul, an alien here, hath flown to nobler wars,
- And, happier now, hath gone to seek its Maker ’mid the stars,
- Here am I, Dante, shut, exiled from the ancestral shore,
- Whom Florence, the of all least-loving mother, bore.
[1. ] Bryce, chap. 15.
[1. ]The Teachings of Dante, p. 56.