Commentary on Dante’s Monarchia
Book One, Chapters i - viii
Dante begins: “For all men whom the Higher Nature has endowed with a love of truth, this above all seems to be a matter of concern, that just as they have been enriched by the efforts of their forebears, so they too may work for future generations... For the man who is steeped in the teachings which form our common heritage, yet has no interest in contributing something to the community, is failing in his duty.” Dante does not wish to be such a man, “lest some day [he] be accused of burying [his] talent.” Therefore, he will set out to explain the significance of temporal monarchy.
Of course, in Dante’s time the importance of monarchy was widely accepted, and some even accepted the need for a universal monarch, though this monarch was more often identified with the papacy than the secular ruler Dante has in mind. To give a little background, our poet was specifically prompted to write because of a dispute between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor over the question of who was subordinate to whom. Some said that the Emperor depended on the pope for his authority, others said that he did not. Dante sides with the Emperor, but goes farther by claiming that the Emperor, as heir to the Roman Empire, had jurisdiction over the entire world. So, he will be arguing for a universal monarchy.
How deep is our decline, though - while Dante could at least take for granted that his contemporaries would accept the legitimacy of monarchy in general, modern readers take for granted that democracy is certainly the best, if not the only legitimate, form of government. Dante’s arguments, for the most part, stand on their own. I will summarise his arguments chapter-by-chapter to refresh the memory of those who’ve already read the Monarchia, and to give people new to the work a context for my own comments. If you haven’t read Monarchia previously, it’s useful but not necessary for this Commentary, but I would recommend going through this free edition on the Online Library of Liberty, or buying a copy of either the Cambridge University Press or Catholic University of America Press’s editions. I will be taking my quotations from the CUP edition.
Primarily, though, I will attempt to demonstrate the relevance of Dante’s arguments and assumptions - not in the way of a hip church youth minister, by dumbing-down the content and making it into Liberalism Lite, but by arguing that the beliefs and assumptions of the Medievals were sound, instructive for us, and relevant because they were right and Liberalism and its descendants, including American Conservatism, are wrong. I will also beg the reader’s patience for a few tangents from points that our poet will raise.
I claim no special qualification for this task; “I a prophet? Nay, nor a prophet’s son.” Rather, my one qualification is the same as Confucius’s - enter a village, and you will find none as fond of learning as I am. The process of learning is neverending, but gradually one notices patterns, and can begin to draw conclusions. If nothing else, I hope that I can help you better understand and begin to consider what Dante has to say.
Dante begins by defining a few terms and emphasising the importance of first principles. Those who have studied logic or debate will know that this is a critical step in any serious discussion; when asked what his first action would be if appointed governor of a state, Confucius said that he would “rectify the names.” There is a (seemingly apocryphal) quotation attributed to Socrates that “wisdom begins with a definition of terms.” Furthermore, St. Thomas Aquinas points out that when engaged in debate, assuming that we’re dealing with an honest opponent, we must proceed from a common ground. Otherwise, we are apt to get nowhere but spend hours talking in circles.
For example, how often do we see Progressives and Conservatives talk past each other, argue in circles, and do so for days on end in any controversy, to no resolution? This often happens because both proceed from different first principles, and each mean subtly but significantly different things by terms such as “liberty” and “equality.” To choose a recent example, consider the debate, such as it was, over same-sex pseudomarriage. Now, the true Right is oriented primarily towards order, while the Left is oriented towards liberty or equality, depending on which branch of Liberalism we’re discussing (I am being generous, of course - most on the Right consider the Left oriented towards chaos). However, the phony Right, that is, American Conservatives and Neoconservatives, attempt to base their thought on that of the Founding Fathers. The Founders, though, were Classical Liberals, and so the phony Right found itself attempting to conserve an older version of Liberalism, thus conceding the frame to their opponents and finding themselves with no coherent position from which to argue. The Social Conservatives often attempted to bring in religious arguments, but this too is cut off at the knees by their simultaneous praise for the Liberals they look to as heroes. Thus the Left, utterly confident in its own righteousness and working from an internally consistent logic, accomplished an astonishing cultural shift in merely a couple decades.
So, Dante defines his key terms. We will be discussing “temporal monarchy,” which, Dante says, “men call ‘empire’, is a single sovereign authority set over all others in time.” Note that Dante is using “empire” in a special sense throughout. The term typically means something like “a kingdom which rules over multiple nations,” like the Roman, British, or Russian empires did. Here, though, Dante means a kingdom that rules over every nation - a universal monarchy. When referring to “empire” or “monarch,” this will be his meaning most of the time.
He then explains that while some subjects are primarily theoretical because they are beyond human control, e.g. principles of mathematics or physics, which man can understand but cannot change, we’ll be discussing forms of government and political science, which of course concerns something that humans can control. Therefore, everything we discuss will be directed towards action, and not simply understanding for its own sake.
Now, much of what follows does seem rather theoretical. Even in Dante’s time there was little chance of establishing a universal monarchy, and there is even less chance now. However, before we can act on a subject we must first understand it. I do not expect to see many monarchical restorations in the near future, and I certainly do not expect to see the whole world acclaim, say, Karl von Habsburg as Emperor tomorrow. For that matter, there is little that can be done to work towards either goal, but what I can do, and what royalists must do as a first step, is to shift the Overton Window and make these ideas thinkable again, and thus lay the groundwork for action by future generations.
Dante sets forth the principle, “God and nature do nothing in vain; on the contrary, whatever they bring into being is designed for a purpose.” There are those who would object to this teleological conception of the universe, especially among materialists. However, most people do have an intuitive understanding of this at some level. The universe is not completely random, and we can observe, for example, that every part of the body has a purpose directed to the good of the whole, that every species has a place in the ecosystem, etc. Those wanting a fuller explanation of the idea of teleology would do well to look up Dr. Edward Feser’s excellent book Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide.
In any case, we can see that different levels of human society exist for different purposes. The individual exists for his own sake and to know, love, and serve God. The family exists to raise the next generation; the city to provide the needs of the family, since no man or family can be entirely self-sufficient; the civil government at various levels from province to kingdom to provide justice and peace so that its subjects can pursue their own higher purposes. Following this chain from the lowest level up we arrive at the highest, mankind as a whole. “[T]he highest potentiality of mankind,” Dante writes, “is his intellectual potentiality or faculty.” No other creature is capable of thought and the perception of truth as man is, and a specie’s purpose is defined by its highest unique capability. However, a single person cannot actualise this potential on his own, so we must organise into society to realise this.
Furthermore, this potentiality is not just for universals, but particulars, thus theoretical knowledge should lead to action. That is, we discover a truth, some general principle, and then put it to use.
It may be objected that this can be pursued in smaller groups than all mankind. However, a glance at the history of philosophy or science indicates that intellectual endeavours are accomplished most efficiently when those engaged in these pursuits can most easily engage with each other. A small community can indeed accomplish a great deal, as in the relatively small world of ancient Greece, but isolation produces an unnecessary handicap.
So far, this discussion has been rather abstract. However, starting in the next chapter the arguments will become clearer.
So, we see “that the activity proper to mankind considered as a whole is constantly to actualise the full intellectual potential of humanity, primarily through thought and secondarily through action.” Dante quotes a common medieval saying, that a man “grows perfect in judgement and wisdom when he sits at rest.” The necessity for universal peace will be taken as a first principle for all the arguments that follow.
The truth of this is, I think clear on its own. A nation cannot build if it is under invasion, and a man cannot philosophise during a street fight. We can imagine this as something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at a societal level. Men must first provide for the necessities of food and shelter before seeking higher things, and this requires that the society be well-ordered.
There is a good explanation of this at Unqualified Reservations, which argues that freedom requires law, law requires security, and security requires peace. If the nation is at war, it must seek peace. The saying “war is the health of the state” is wrong - it may be the health of the military and the bureaucracy, but is always undertaken with the greatest peril. The World Wars destroyed Europe, the Vietnam War destroyed the United States (as they had existed up to that point!), the Afghan War destroyed the Soviet Union, and so on. This is why Sun Tzu noted that there has never been a prolonged war from which a state has benefited, and one can easily see that even short wars can be extremely risky. The ill effects are both immediate and obvious, as well as long-term, because those most likely to die in war are the bravest who eagerly risk themselves for their comrades. This is why Ezra Pound often wrote of the First World War, e.g. “there died a myriad, and the best among them.”
We are not, however, speaking simply of formal war between states. Once we have peace, we must have security. Civilisation is a product of low time preference, that is, in simple terms, long-term planning. This requires trust among the members of a society, and cannot be done in areas of, say, frequent crime or rioting. Recall, though, that “law” is a later step, and is found in a society that is already well-ordered. Those who cry about violating the “human rights” of criminals in a society that suffers from frequent tumults can rightly be called barbarians, for they enable barbaric behaviour on the parts of society’s worst members. “A whiff of grapeshot” will never be popular among the mob, but men who value order will see that it is sometimes necessary.
Once society is secure, one can enact a more formal code of laws. Again, low time preference depends on knowing the “rules of the game,” so to speak. Furthermore, while being occasionally stopped by police is preferable to an occasional mugging, it is not conducive to a civilised society once crime is mostly under control. Not that one should have a multitude of laws, as this eventually becomes counter-productive and produces a multitude of lawyers.
Finally, once law and order is established, we have freedom to pursue the higher things.
Having laid the foundation, Dante constructs the rest of his argument - temporal monarchy is necessary for the well-being of the world. Any complex organisation requires a director; a man is guided by his intellect, which directs the rest of the body; a household is ruled by the father; a city is ruled by a single body, and so is a kingdom. Since mankind has a single goal, as demonstrated above, there must be a single director.
Many today, infected with the memetic virus of Liberalism and its offshoots, will object to this. However, the necessity of lower-level “monarchies” becomes evident when we consider the disastrous consequences of egalitarian and individualistic arrangements. Men allow themselves to be ruled not by their intellect but by their passions, which are many, and rates of depression, suicide, STDs, and the like rise. Families shun too much authority, and marriage has been destroyed by frivolous divorce, with disastrous consequences for those involved and for society as a whole. Cities and provinces have been swallowed into the leviathan state, but these democratic states are rent by factionalism, short-term planning, indecision, and constant strife. It’s been well said that democracy is simply civil war with votes instead of bullets, and society is thus divided into hostile camps, destroying the peace discussed in the previous chapter. All of this for what? The illusion of autonomy for the common man. Klemens von Metternich was honest when he adopted the motto “everything for the people, nothing by the people,” but modern oligarchs and bureaucrats are able to wield far more power than even an authoritarian like Metternich would have dared grasp, simply by throwing the fool’s gold of elections before the people they often hold in contempt. We will discuss freedom in a later chapter, but for now it will suffice to say that freedom and democracy have little in common. As Michael Anissimov put it in A Critique of Democracy, “Does this [giving up democracy] mean we’re sacrificing our ‘freedom’? No, because I don’t define freedom as being able to cast one meaningless vote among millions in an election.” I don’t define it that way, either, and neither does Dante, as we’ll see shortly.
“As a part stands in relation to the whole, so the order in a part stands to the order in the whole. A part stands in relation to the whole as to its end and perfection: therefore the order in a part stands to the order in the whole as to its end and perfection.” In other words, a part contributes to the whole, and the order or perfection in a part contributes to the order or perfection of the whole. To use Dante’s example, the parts of an army should contribute to the operation of the whole. Smaller units contribute to the order and good operation of the larger units of which they are a part, which in turn contribute to still larger units, and so on up to the level of the entire army.
Dante then points out that there are two kinds of order in things, that which relates part to part, and that which relates part to a larger unit. So, there’s an order observable in how the different divisions of an army relate to each other, and how they each relate to the larger units of which they’re a part. The order in these interrelationships exist for the sake of the whole. Now, the different parts of humanity (e.g. family, city, kingdom) relate to each other as parts, therefore the parts lower than kingdoms are ordered to the one rule of the kingdom of which they’re a part, and those kingdoms themselves must also relate to a single universal monarch.
It took me a while to fully follow Dante’s reasoning, but I think it’s actually fairly simple. The parts of a man contribute to the good of the man, directed by his intellect; the parts of a family contribute to the good of the family, directed by the father; the parts of a city contribute to the good of the city, directed by a mayor (or some other governing body); the parts of a kingdom contribute to the good of the kingdom, directed by the king; the parts of mankind contribute to the good of mankind, directed by... who? No one at the moment, but ideally they ought to be directed by the Monarch.
Now, there do exist today international organisations like the United Nations or the European Union. Can these stand in for the universal monarch? In a limited way, perhaps. They do encourage a unity among states, which is good. However, the U.N. is not sovereign, and is run more or less as a republic. As such, it suffers the same problems as a republic on any lower level and encourages factionalism among its members. It also operates on more-or-less egalitarian first principles. Perhaps if the U.N. were changed into a monarchical structure and given sovereignty, it would be close to what Dante envisions. However, as a fundamentally Liberal project it begins with a very different set of assumptions, and so we must look elsewhere.
Mankind is a whole in relation to its constituent parts, and is itself a part in relation to a whole, i.e. the universe. The parts of mankind are well adapted to it, and mankind should be well adapted to the whole of the universe. These parts are well adapted in relation to a unifying principle, that is, one ruler. For God is a monarch, ruling all of creation.
This argument can be difficult to grasp, but I think it can be summarised as viewing the universe as “kings all the way down.” The universe is ruled by a king; mankind is (or at least rightfully is) ruled by a king; nations are ruled by a king; families by a king. Dante’s reasoning, then, is that it would be odd if all of these different levels of being were ruled by a monarch, except for one.
Not that everyone is completely bothered by inconsistency, of course. Many Conservatives, for example, would agree that it is best for a business to be run by one person, and that committees are often counter-productive. They also respect hierarchy in the context of the military. Yet, though they can see that these organisations are best run essentially as a monarchy, they balk at the suggestion that the organisation of government ought to be run in this way.
Often, they’ll object that we ought to have a say in how we are governed, and to be fair, the analogy to business does support this - we can “vote with our dollars” regarding how a business operates. However, a few things should be kept in mind. One is that, especially with large corporations, a single person’s “vote,” or even a bloc of votes, is not especially significant. If I decide to boycott, say, Wal-Mart, no one will notice. Even if I get all of my friends and family to do likewise, it will still make little difference, just as my one vote in an election for governor or Congress makes no perceptible difference.
Now, some may contend that with both businesses and republics, we can try direct petitions. These also tend to be ineffectual, but it is in the interest of the businessman or politician to keep one’s customers and constituents happy. However, those protesting often aren’t really the intended customer or constituent, anyway, so much as large vendors or donors. Besides, we can petition an absolute monarch as well. He doesn’t need our vote, but he does need to preserve order - if nothing else, if things get too bad, there may be a revolt, and the rebels will know exactly who to blame for their problems. Furthermore, since a monarchical government is more-or-less a family business for the royal family, it is in a king’s interest to keep his “customers” happy so that they’re more productive, which in turn increases the revenue he can collect.
That, of course, is the case with the most cynical of monarchs. Ideally, and more commonly than republicans give credit for, monarchs are seen, and even see themselves, as fathers to their people, and exercise a paternal care for their subjects’ well-being. Republican politicians, of course, are at least as likely to be cynical opportunists as a monarch - there’s a reason why ambitious people expend great amounts of time, effort, and money to obtain an office that usually doesn’t pay well, and such ambitious people are often those who are least to be trusted with power. Monarchs tend to vary greatly in their ambition, and have an incentive to be realistic about what they can accomplish, lest they destroy their own inheritance.
Our poet continues by writing that everything is in its ideal state when it is in harmony with God’s intentions, and this is especially true for mankind, since God said “Let us make man in our image,” and man is in his most ideal state when, insofar as his nature allows, he most resembles God. God, of course, is a unity, so mankind ideally ought to be unified as well, and unity is best achieved when it acts as a whole, which requires a single ruler.
Now, logically, this seems sound, but there is a major objection that can be raised. We can see by observation that God did create (or at least, provided the mechanisms to create) many separate peoples. Furthermore, God explicitly divides mankind after man’s attempt to build the Tower of Babel. From Genesis 11:3-8: “It would be well, they said, to build ourselves a city, and a tower in it with a top that reaches to heaven; we will make ourselves a great people, instead of scattering over the wide face of earth. But now the Lord came down to look at the city, with its tower, which Adam’s children were building; and he said, Here is a people all one, with a tongue common to all; this is but the beginning of their undertakings, and what is to prevent them carrying out all they design? It would be well to go down and throw confusion into the speech they use there, so that they will not be able to understand each other. Thus the Lord broke up their common home, and scattered them over the earth, and the building of the city came to an end.”
Now, from the beginning of the world, God did seem to intend for man to be unified. Without original sin and the attending punishment of death, filial piety would have made Adam essentially a universal monarch. St. Chrysostom says that Adam was made to be the father of all men so that we may learn to be ruled by one man, rather than by a multitude. In a fallen world, though, those who attempt to unify the world like the men of Babel are often prone to the sin of pride. This, perhaps, may be one criticism of the United Nations, that it is founded on man’s worship of himself, and not on something higher than himself. Rather than pride, though, Dante’s universal monarch will be created explicitly as a part of creation and not its pinnacle. That is, it represents an attempt by men to organise society according to what God originally intended. The men of Babel were already united, but abused that blessing, and so were punished by losing it. We can see something similar in the parable of the talents - the two servants who used their talents wisely were rewarded, the one who did not had even what he had taken away.
So, a Christian should approach such a project with the utmost caution and humility. If man were meant to be united, surely God would have provided someone to unite this. Dante will argue that the Romans did so, but they ultimately and unambiguously failed when their empire collapsed. Charlemagne’s attempt to re-found the Roman Empire, though it lasted several centuries, never really got very far. While it continued, it stood as a symbol of hope for the temporal unity of the world, but was destroyed by another universalist force.
Perhaps, then, man is to be united only in the sense in which all men are most clearly the same, i.e. in our common need of salvation from sin, while in temporal matters men are clearly not the same and are meant to be ruled separately.