Commentary on Dante’s Monarchia
Book One, Chapters ix - xvi
The details of Dante’s next argument draw from an inaccurate understanding of the universe, but the gist is, I think, still valid. Prue Shaw summarises it in an annotation, “as God and the Primum Mobile [Prime Mover] are to the workings of the universe... so the monarch and the law should be to the workings of human society, being respectively the source of action and the mechanism by which action is regulated.” Again, the universe is orderly, and human society ought to be orderly as well. Order is best accomplished by a single ruler.
Dante actually begins his argument by saying, “Again, every son is in a good (indeed, ideal) state when he follows in the footsteps of a perfect father, insofar as his own nature allows.” Now, he does qualify this as a “perfect father,” but I appreciate this analogy because every child does view his father as a perfection of masculinity. Even when we grow and realise that he is ultimately just a man, it is natural for men to measure themselves by their father’s measure, and women to measure their husbands by the standards of their own father (and, it may be said, similarly for one’s idea of femininity and one’s mother). Though our father is fallible, we must hold ourselves to some external, visible standard, and this one comes very naturally. This is why Confucius said, “If a man does not stray from his father’s ways for three years after his death, he may be called a good son.”
Expanding on that idea, we do have a perfect Father in God, whose nature we are to imitate “insofar as [our] own nature allows.” In a sense, the universe is ruled by fathers, from God the Father to the king as father of his people to our own immediate father, and by kings, from Christ the King, the king of a nation, and our father as head of the household. Respect for kingship and for fatherhood are often found together. This is why the Analects of Confucius tells us, “Master You said: ‘A man who respects his parents and his elders would hardly be inclined to defy his superiors… A gentleman works at the root. To respect parents and elders is the root of humanity.’”
Now the arguments become more concrete, and Dante expands on common arguments for monarchy in general. “[W]herever there can be conflict there must be judgement to resolve it, otherwise there would be an imperfection without its proper corrective; and this is impossible, since God and nature never fail in their provision of what is necessary.” Dante’s form is relatively abstract, but our own experience tells us that resolving conflicts is why we have courts, and is a principal function of government. However, what happens if there is a dispute between two states? There must be a single monarch superior to them who can resolve the question, or else conflict, physical or otherwise, will likely break out.
The United Nations seems relevant again, but because the U.N. is republican in form, it is prone to politics, and thus cannot be trusted to resolve conflicts justly. As stated earlier, democracies are simply civil wars with votes instead of bullets. Furthermore, because it is not sovereign, it has no authority beyond what its members accept. Finally, because its councils are made up of the very states it is designed to aid in resolving disputes, it is unlikely to be disinterested itself. So, the U.N., and any similar organisation, is only a crude imitation of the universal monarch that Dante envisions.
Of course, this applies to republican governments at lower levels, as well. They are factional, lack sovereignty, and are seldom disinterested. Obviously, a monarch may also be interested, depending on the nature of the case brought before his courts, but political matters are much less of a factor for his government, whereas one can say that democracy simply is politics.
Dante tells us “the world is best ordered when justice is strongest in it.” Who will dispute this? Now, justice requires two things. First, it requires power. Even an earnestly right-hearted man will accomplish little if he is powerless. The second requirement is charity, or rightly ordered love. The monarch will have this charity because the happiness of his subjects is the end of the office he holds. Furthermore, charity is perverted chiefly by greed, but with what can one bribe a monarch? His domain is bounded only “by the ocean,” as Dante puts it.
To the first point, the state relies on two things to operate, authority and power. Authority is legitimacy, or the right to rule. Power is the credible threat of violence. Men only look to an institution for judgement if they consider it to have jurisdiction over them. Men generally abide by judgement they dislike if they recognise the sovereign’s legitimacy, but not always; some obey only out of fear. When the sovereign possesses one of these but not the other, justice cannot be served and the land falls into chaos. So, the emperor during the Sengoku Era in Japan had authority but not power, and the land was wracked by civil war. The Soviet Union had power but not authority, and it quickly became a nation-sized prison. Frederick the Great had both power and authority, and Prussians revered him for generations afterward.
Recall what was said earlier about the prerequisites of freedom, i.e. peace, security, and law. Peace may be accomplished by negotiation, but law must be backed by significant, though just, punishments, and security requires at least a credible threat, if not actual violence. Those who live in societies that are already at the “freedom” stage may soak their sleeves in tears at the violations of supposed rights, but since we must live in a fallen world, not all will respect the rule of law. In the event of riots, the sovereign must either apply “a whiff of grapeshot,” or admit that he cannot maintain order and therefore has clearly lost the Mandate of Heaven. Interestingly, this is in some sense true even if one adopts Libertarian ethics, for private property may also be legitimately defended with force when needed. Man may be a social animal, but he is also violent, and to a degree some are uncomfortable admitting, civilisation rests upon this threat of violence.
Perhaps we can formulate it this way: “[might makes] rite makes right.” For most men, the state rules by right if it follows the rites, that is, the standards of good conduct, and thus possesses moral authority. For those who don’t follow the rites themselves, might must come in.
Some will here refer to Lord Acton’s famous maxim that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” However, a glance at history indicates that this is by no means certain. The Austrian Habsburgs and the Hohenzollerns, for example, ruled best when they were strongest; Prussia and Austria suffered when their power was more limited. This should not surprise us - what incentive does the King of Prussia have to abuse his power? This would be to hamper the productiveness of his people, thus lowering the value of his own estate; remember, in a monarchy the state is essentially a family business. If pushed too far, it would risk revolt.
Some may point to various dictators like Joseph Stalin. However, these dictators tend to be insecure in their power; the Bolsheviks gained their position through revolution, implicitly justifying revolution even against themselves. Furthermore, these states are often more-or-less cults of personality that could be changed significantly by removing the personality at the centre. If one removes a hereditary monarch, though, a crown prince is standing by to take his place. There may be changes, but the fundamental power structure does not alter significantly.
So, if one wants a just government, one needs a powerful government. Though it’s not unheard-of for a monarch to abuse his power, it’s not anywhere near as common as Liberals imagine.
The other part of the equation Dante mentions is charity or rightly ordered love. Certainly, a monarch ought to be charitable, and many monarchs certainly are. However, charity isn’t as strictly required as one may expect; while having a St. Edward the Confessor is great, even selfish kings tend to realise that it is in their own self-interest to see to it that the family business is well-run. Those uninterested in ruling or unable to rule adequately may place the business of government in the hands of someone more capable, as we see in the cases of Richelieu, Metternich, or Bismarck.
Dante also brings up the issue of greed, which he says is the chief danger to this charity. Now, it’s true that a monarch can be very difficult to bribe, and a universal monarch would be even more difficult. Obviously, he’d have no foreign rivals to contend with. However, greed may still spring from his private affairs, and even if he has no foreign enemies, history does furnish plenty of examples of domestic enemies in revolutionaries and usurpers. Also, we can envision a monarch overtaxing his subjects for his own good, though we must point out that monarchies tend to be far more efficiently run than republics, as is to be expected - in a republic, it’s easy to vote oneself other people’s money, but for a monarch the state treasury is his treasury, and it’s clearly in his interest to see that the budget remains balanced and sustainable.
Dante’s final point is that a monarch’s love will be rightly ordered because the people are closer to him than to any other figure, because they relate to him as toward the whole. This seems dubious, because men most love what is physically, emotionally closest to them, like their family, friends, and countrymen. It is true, though, that men are sometimes more loyal to a whole nation than to their particular region, though this tends to vary greatly depending on local culture and history. Perhaps Dante’s idea would be true once the universal monarchy has endured for several generations, but my own connection to, say, the American president is more abstract than my connection to my home state, and in a conflict between the two I, and several others, would side with my state over the Union. Indeed, in American history, this has gone back-and-forth over time; with Americans being citizens of their state first and Union second prior to the War Between the States, but to the Union primarily in more recent decades.
Now Dante discusses freedom, and writes, “the human race is in its ideal state when it is completely free.” Dante criticises those who speak of freedom without ever forming a clear idea of what it is, and this problem has only grown worse since the advent of Liberalism. “Freedom” is worshiped but never clearly defined and has no agreed-upon definition; Americans worship it like the Greeks who built an altar to “an unknown god.” Fortunately, our poet does define his terms. The first principle of freedom is free will, which is freedom in matters of volition. We are free when we’re able to exercise that free will, that is, when we’re able to perceive something, make a judgement, and act on that judgement. We lose freedom in slavery, when we cannot act on our judgements, or when our judgement is pre-empted by desire. Animals do not have freedom, for example, because they do not judge but simply act on instinct and desire.
What does this have to do with a universal monarch? Men are most free when they live under a monarch, because only a monarchy can prevent the three perverse forms of government (which Dante, following St. Thomas Aquinas, calls tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy), which enslave men. Remember, the good forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy, and republicanism) rule for the sake of their subjects, while the perverse forms rule for the sake of the rulers. Historically, though, aristocracies are relatively few, and republics quickly degenerate into democracies and eventually into anarchy. Of course, monarchies can also degenerate, but they tend to be far more stable than other forms of government. For example, in an article at More Right, Michael Anissimov goes over the Hohenzollern, Habsburg, and Bourbon dynasties, and notes that almost all the transfers of power from one king to his successor were peaceful, and that the governments tended to be stable and run at least competently. He also provides a similar assessment of Frankish kings. When Americans congratulate themselves for the peaceful transfers of power from one presidential administration to another as though this is something rare, they are engaging in a self-congratulatory fantasy. This prejudice in the United States and, to some extent, the rest of the English-speaking world might stem from England’s unusually tumultuous history in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, but we should recognise that the English experience of that period is an outlier, and not a universal pattern.
In any case, a monarch does rule people in an immediate sense, so his subjects are not absolutely free, but Dante points out that he is their ruler only in respect to means, not ends. That is, he directs them towards attaining earthly happiness and is their master in terms of the means to that goal, but in respect of ends he is their servant. This is why that other universal monarch, the pope, is sometimes called “The Servant of the Servants of God.”
Some may object that the king’s subjects still are not free because they are not able to practise their judgement on proper means to the end of happiness. However, this is as true of aristocracy and republics as it is to monarchies. One could, therefore, argue that man is free only in anarchy, but an understanding of human nature disproves this. Again, man is a social animal, and wherever people gather, from the school playground to business ventures, hierarchies form naturally. Some imagine that these are examples of voluntary agreements, but this is hardly the case; in a group, people tend to follow natural leaders, generally by instinct more than by a chain of reasoning on the potential leaders’ respective virtues. Attempting to defy these small-scale hierarchies is more likely to bring social repercussions to the little anarchist than to the little “king by acclamation,” because people naturally want to follow someone. The Libertarian may whine, “but I don’t want to obey!” However, he must recognise that he is an outlier, and a general rule is not disproved by a few exceptional cases.
Besides, we may return again to the states preceding freedom, of peace, security, and law. A Libertarian approach to social order may work, somewhat, in a society already at the “freedom” stage. However, as discussed in the previous chapter, anarchism cannot provide peace, security, or law. Furthermore, the individualist approach of Libertarianism tends to eat away at the lower stages of society, and at their own ideals. Groups like single mothers, third-world immigrants, or those permanently impaired by drugs of various kinds, tend to become wards of the state, and the welfare programmes expand and fortify themselves. This is why even certain anarcho-capitalists have been surprisingly conservative on some issues; Murray Rothbard supported the Old Right in the United States, for example, while Hans Hermann-Hoppe has criticised free immigration. In other words, as some say, those who claim to be “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” don’t understand cause-and-effect.
The man who is best disposed towards justice is also in the best position to dispose others towards justice. The monarch is the man best disposed towards justice, as we saw in chapter xi, because he is the one with the requisite power and largely immune to greed. As Confucius said, in demonstrating virtue the sovereign is like the wind, people like the grass, and if the wind blows, does the grass not bend?
Now, Guido Vernani, one of Dante’s earliest critics, objects that only Christ can possibly have the virtues that Dante attributes to his monarch. Vernani is correct; our poet expects the monarch to love all men, but man is a finite creature and can only love that which he knows. Only Christ, infinite in His divine nature, can meaningfully love all men. Furthermore, though Dante is correct that the monarch would not have greed with regard to rival princes, he may be prone to other vices or even to greed with regard to other things.
However, we can look to history for Dante’s defence. What we ultimately want is good government, and though a Confucian sage-emperor is ideal, a king need not be a saint to foster effective government. Louis XIV and Frederick the Great were not saintly men, yet they are among the greatest rulers in Europe’s history. Nor is saintliness an automatic qualifier for good governance; St. Edward the Confessor was a holy man and beloved by his people, but he was a mediocre king. A man like St. Louis IX may be ideal, but the Sun King is hardly a poor substitute.
If a task can be accomplished by one entity, our poet says, there’s no reason to accomplish it by two. In other words, if the state can be run by a monarch, to run it by a triumvirate, a senate, or whatever else is to introduce needless complexity. Any competent economist or businessman will agree, but Dante emphasises this by pointing out that introducing added complexity like this “is unnecessary and pointless, and everything that is pointless is displeasing to God and nature, and everything which is displeasing to God and nature is evil (which is self-evident)...”
To answer the obvious objection, this does not mean that one man will attempt to carry out the affairs of state entirely on his own; any king has his ministers and his courts at various levels of government. Introducing multiple centres of power, though, accomplishes little more than introducing inefficiency and creating a potential point of conflict.
Dante also answers here a common objection to one world government or to large empires generally, and that is that different peoples have different cultures and are suited to different laws and forms of government. “For nations, kingdoms, and cities,” he says, “have characteristics of their own, which need to be governed by different laws; for law is a rule which governs life.” The universal monarch, though, will rule “in those matters which are common to all men and of relevance to all, and is to be guided towards peace by a common law.”
As an example, we can see a universal monarchy in action today in the papacy. The vast majority of day-to-day work in Church governance is done by parish priests and diocesan bishops; the pope rarely intervenes in local affairs, preferring to observe the principle of subsidiarity and allow those closest to, and best positioned to fully understand and be affected by, a situation handle local affairs. Rather, the great majority of what the pope does is address issues and hand down judgements that affect the Church as a whole, such as clarifying doctrinal disputes or setting standards for liturgy, and even in liturgy, he generally only intervenes in the Latin Rite, leaving the various Eastern Rite churches to follow their own traditions. Such official papal actions, unsurprisingly, tend to be rare, and as a practical matter his role is often symbolic.
A universal monarch will likely behave similarly, and we can imagine the world as a patchwork of states existing much as they are now. We can see a Prince of China ruling in an authoritarian Confucian manner, while a Republic of Texas operates on an almost Libertarian basis, for example. Frequent intervention in the affairs of the smaller states would be unwise and, for that matter, unnecessary. There is the question of how to handle borders for immigration and commerce, but one can imagine even this being left to individual states to determine, and it would be very much in the monarch’s interest to ensure that his subjects are as happy and productive as possible.
Dante writes, “[A]ll concord depends on the unity which is in wills; mankind in its ideal state represents a kind of concord; for just as one man in his ideal state spiritually and physically is a kind of concord (and the same holds true of a household, a city, and a kingdom), so is the whole of mankind; thus the whole of mankind in its ideal state depends on the unity which is in men’s wills.” Of course, this unity can only come about with one will to direct the others towards a single goal, and this will must come, from the monarch.
This argument depends on the goodness of unity in itself, which is what Dante spends most of the chapter describing. It is evident that harmony or a well-ordered society depends on some measure of unity, which is best provided by a monarch rather than by the constant low-level civil war of republics, as discussed earlier.
Finally, the goodness of unity is confirmed by Christ’s incarnation, because He either awaited or specifically brought about the unity of mankind under Caesar Augustus before coming to Earth. The unity brought about by Roman rule certainly facilitated the spread of the Gospel. Whether the timing of the Incarnation did indicate approval, we’ll discuss at some length in the next book, which will primarily cover the rightness of Roman rule.