Commentary on Dante’s Monarchia

Book Three, Chapters xi - xvi


Returning to Dante’s opponents, they refer to when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor after calling on him for protection against the Longobards; according to this precedent, the emperors are defenders of the Church and must be called by the pope. However, Dante argues that by this logic, the direction of dependency would have been reversed when Emperor Otto I restored Pope Leo VIII. More importantly, though, the usurpation of a right does not establish a right.

Does it not? Sir Robert Filmer, in Directions for Obedience to Government in Dangerous or Doubtful Times, writes of usurpers, “Though a usurper can never gain a right from the true superior, yet from those that are subjects he may; for if they know no other that has a better title than the usurper, then as to them the usurper in possession has a true right.” In other words, in usurping a title, the usurper is duty-bound to respect that office, as is most obvious in usurpations of government. Furthermore, if a subject has known no sovereign but the usurper, he is bound to obey the usurper. Thus, while a dynasty’s founder, for example, may be a usurper, once he is established, he, or at least his successors, effectively become legitimate, and a long-lived dynasty may be taken as solid evidence that they possess the right to rule.

Some monarchists do great harm to their own cause by insistence on legitimacy, as is most obvious in the divisions among French monarchists. This is not to say that legitimacy is to be ignored, of course, but when a dynasty falls, whether the Stuarts, Bourbons, Romanovs, etc., that is a sign of the loss of the Mandate of Heaven. The restoration of, say, the Hohenzollerns or Habsburgs would be a joyous occasion, and the current heirs are the best candidates for a return to monarchy in Germany or Austria, but if any man can establish a dynasty in those places, he ought to be treated as the legitimate sovereign.

Some may argue that this position is overly utilitarian and not based enough on right. It is true that the author tires of the Right forming circular firing squads, but when even Filmer makes this concession, it looks absurd to try to out-royalist the staunchest defender of absolute, divine right monarchism. A man owes obedience to newer dynasties as an adopted child owes obedience to his adoptive parents, even if he later learns who his biological parents are. The legitimists may object that usurpation is more like kidnapping than adoption, and in periods of civil war there may be truth to this, but this is hardly the case in long-established dynasties.

Returning to Dante’s point, what about one authority usurping the right of another? For example, in England parliament, over many centuries, has usurped powers that ought to belong to the king. Sometimes, this has been in response to truly tyrannical or incompetent rulers, and one can imagine that if Richard I had lived longer so that John had never been crowned, or if Henry III or Edward II had been better rulers, parliament may never have grown as powerful as it did. Ideally, they ought to have surrendered their powers under better kings, but it is very difficult for men to voluntarily surrender powers that they already possess. In parliament’s case, I would say that they are long-established enough that they are a legitimate institution, but their usurpation is wrong because it contradicts the nature of monarchical government. They may exist as a forum to express the concerns of the people and act in an advisory role for the king, and perhaps even act as a “safety-valve” to step in against men like King John.

So, the “usurpation” of a right establishes a right only in special circumstances. Any usurped right ought to be looked on with great suspicion, and accepted only when it does not conflict with the common good or the nature of the office usurped from, e.g. taking royal prerogatives away from the monarch.


Dante’s opponents refer to a principle from Aristotle’s Metaphysics and argue that “all things belonging to a single species are referred to one thing which is the measure for all things which belong to that species; but all men belong to the same species; therefore they are to be referred to one man as their common measure,” that man being the pope. Dante answers that the offices of pope and emperor are two different categories of things and thus do not refer to each other; furthermore, since the holders of these two offices are both men, they would refer to someone else as their common measure.

Dante doesn’t say so, but I would presume that if we are to measure all men by one measure, then that measure would be Christ, since He is the most perfect of all men. While Christ the King may hold both temporal and spiritual authority, though, this is beyond the ability of men. Now, in the ancient world kings sometimes did hold both religious and secular offices, but this is an imperfection on their part; because these two offices are different by nature, they ought to be held by different men. Thus, it is appropriate that among Christians they are separated, following the example of the Kingdom of Israel, where the priestly office was held by the Levites, but secular authority was held by David and his heirs.


Our poet, having refuted the most common arguments used by his opponents, now proceeds to prove his case positively that imperial authority derives directly from God and not via the Church. He writes that the empire preceded the Church, and thus could not have taken its authority from it. Furthermore, he refers to St. Paul’s appeals to Caesar (in Acts 25:10, 27:24, and 28:19). Obviously, the saint would only appeal to a legitimate authority, but the emperor had not received any papal blessing at that point, so clearly imperial authority was already in place.

We may also add Christ’s words to Pilate discussed earlier, as well as His instruction to “render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.” Now, these were spoken specifically in relation to Roman authority, but they do relate to a larger point that Christian republicans, and Libertarians especially, ought to take into account. That is, Roman imperial authority is the only secular authority to receive direct approval in the New Testament, and monarchism is the only form of government to receive such approval in the Old Testament. Remember, Caesar nominally ruled in the name of the Senate, but Christ and St. Paul do not appeal to the Senate, nor to the Roman people, nor does Our Lord say “render unto the Senate that which belongs to the Senate,” but specifically to Caesar. Furthermore, the first Gentile convert to the Faith was a Roman centurion, Cornelius, and Christ said of the centurion whose servant He healed that none in Israel had greater faith than he. The former incident especially is appropriate, because it was Roman peace that allowed the apostles to quickly spread the Gospel across the known world.

Now, both of these were military men, as was Longinus, who traditionally is also said to have been an early convert. Of all the parts of the state, Libertarians are most critical of the armed forces, yet it is via these men that the Gospel first spread beyond the sons of Abraham. Why should this surprise us, though? The Old Testament declares David a man after God’s own heart, and what was David? A poet, yes, but also a king and a warrior. “By Saul’s hand a thousand, by David’s ten thousand fell!” Even before Christ began His ministry, many people came to see the last prophet, St. John the Baptist, to be baptised and hear his preaching. When a group of soldiers approached him, he instructed them, “Do not use men roughly, do not lay false information against them; be content with your pay.” He says nothing of their status as soldiers, even though they most directly perpetrate the violence of the state, but merely instructed them not to abuse their power.

Here some will absurdly point to Samuel’s warning about the establishment of the monarchy, overlooking that Samuel’s words apply to any form of government whatever. An anarchist may happily concede this point, but I would advise the “Christian” anarchist to read more of the Bible than those parts that he imagines suit his preconceptions. The structure of Israel’s society was already monarchical on a small scale, or more specifically patriarchal, long before Saul’s reign. However, the sacred authors explain the chaos of the age of the Judges, before the kingdom, by noting that “This was in the days before any king ruled in Israel, when men lived by the best light they had.”

Others may refer to just before Samuel’s warning, when God tells the prophet that the people’s demand is a rejection not of Samuel, but of God Himself. However, the Lord says this because Samuel possessed a good deal of authority over Israel because he relayed God’s will to them. In other words, Israel was literally a theocracy in this respect, and so by asking for a king they were very directly rejecting God’s rule! The people did not just ask for a king, though - specifically, they asked for “a king as other nations have.” The Hebrews may have been the chosen people, but they constantly fall into sin in the Old Testament by wishing to imitate the pagan nations around them, much like the Christians who insist that Christ the King is a republican and reject “God’s minister, working for thy good,” as St. Paul calls the sovereign in his Epistle to the Romans, and instead demand a republic like the pagans and heretics who murdered Charles I; who murdered His Most Christian Majesty Louis XVI and his wife and young son; who murdered the holy martyr Nicholas II and his family.

In declaring “non serviam” to God’s minister, these supposed Christians follow a number of Biblical incidents involving “the people.” It was the people, after all, who built the Tower of Babel, who demanded that Aaron construct the golden calf, who worshiped the idols of Israel’s neighbours, who asked for the release of Barabbas, and who cried out “Crucify him!” Saul lost God’s approval of his reign when he permitted his men to violate God’s command to destroy Amalec completely, and he confessed to Samuel, “I have sinned; I have transgressed the Lord’s will and thy command; I was afraid of my own people, and humoured their desire.”

One should note, to be fair, that strictly speaking monarchism is not a doctrinal issue. It is possible, then, that for centuries popes, saints, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, all wise and holy men, were wrong that the plain sense of Scripture does not mean what it says. After all, the only sources the sacred authors could draw from for knowledge of republicanism were various Greek city-states, the Roman Republic, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is also possible that Christian republicans do their work as wise as doves and innocent as serpents.


Dante now writes that if the Church had the right to give authority to the monarch it would come from one of these sources:

From God - however, it did not come from natural law because ecclesiastical authority is by divine law, and there is no evidence for such authority over secular power in Scripture, but if anything the opposite is the case. For example, of the Levites, who were the priests of the Old Covenant, Numbers 18:20 says, “the Lord said to Aaron: You are to hold no lands, no portion is to be assigned to you, among your fellow-Israelites. I am all thy portion; these others have their several possessions, thou hast me.” In other words, they alone, the priestly class, were without temporal power and authority.

From itself - but one cannot give what one does not already have.

From another emperor - but this was proven false earlier.

From the consent of all men or by the most exceptional man - but it is self-evidently not the case that all men consent.

These are all straightforward enough, except perhaps for the last point. Let’s look first at whether the most exceptional man could grant such authority. His right to confer authority on the Church would, I suppose, follow from the fact that the most exceptional man would presumably be the noblest man, who has the right to rule, as discussed in the first book. If he has the right to rule, he could delegate his authority to others. However, while it does seem absurd at times for a man to be ruled by his inferior, there are many relationships where we expect this. For example, a man may be more virtuous than his father, but would still owe him filial piety. Another man may be wiser than the secular authorities that rule him, or holier than members of the clergy, but he still owes them obedience. Christ was certainly a wiser and holier man than any of the authorities above him, whether secular, religious, or familial, yet He submitted to them. Of course, it is wise to confer authority upon exceptional men, as under Emperor Ferdinand I when many affairs of state were left to Klemens von Metternich. However, it is not necessary to do so.

As for the consent of all men, I cannot see why this would matter, except that if all men did agree on something it’s probably obviously true. All sane men, for example, agree that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The idea of popular consent, though, is nonsense, and the opinions of common men is of value to the state only as a practical matter, not because the sovereign depends on them for any sort of right. A man may become king by acclaim, but this is a different thing, as acclamation is the recognition of the Mandate of Heaven by the noblest members of a nation, and not akin to a popular vote. Unfortunately, Dante does not clarify what he has in mind exactly, though understandably since it’s not directly relevant to his point.


Next, Dante argues that whatever is in conflict with the nature of something is, of course, not among its powers, which is a similar point to that made in chapter ii. However, using secular authority is against the nature of the Church. We know this because the “form” of the Church is set by the life of Christ, who, even though he could legitimately have claimed temporal authority, explicitly declined to do so.

Now, Christ is indeed the model for the Church, but He is also the model for all men to follow. Since secular authorities are also men, should they renounce secular authority? It seems, then, that while it is not the Church’s purpose to engage in worldly affairs, there is not an absolute prohibition against it. So, though Dante is correct that the Church does not necessarily have an authority over temporal rulers, it may under some circumstances exercise such authority itself, as in Vatican City.


Finally, Dante proves that the authority of the emperor derives directly from God. Man has two natures, physical and spiritual, which are ordered to different ends, happiness in this world and in the next. Man could achieve neither of these unless his passions are held in check, so he has two guides, one for each part of his nature. The pontiff provides guidance for eternal happiness, and the monarch provides the peace and freedom necessary to attain worldly happiness and to pursue eternal happiness.

He also notes that the Roman Prince is in a sense subject to the pope, because earthly happiness is itself ordered to eternal happiness. He is to provide the order necessary to allow men to pursue things higher than mere survival, and so he is a great aid to the Church. Besides, all legitimate authority has limits, as discussed earlier.

We demonstrated in the first book that monarchy is necessary to the well-being of the world, though there are many schismatics and pagans who deny that the papacy is also necessary. Is it not strange that a man may stand for order in worldly affairs, but act as an anarchist in the spiritual realm? The Right is by nature oriented towards order, because order is necessary for man to achieve his highest ends. As stated in the first book, freedom requires law, law requires security, and security requires peace, but these things are wrecked by republicanism. We can see that this is true in spiritual matters, as well. Though the Catholic Church has not been free from division, after two millennia it remains a single institution, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” Yet schism begets schism, heresy begets heresy, and the “reformers” of the Sixteenth Century could not last a single generation before degenerating into innumerable squabbling factions, to the peril of many souls who consequently lack the peace and certainty that a strong foundation provides. Now, to be fair, some of our separated brethren do have hierarchical structures in their church, but as a whole they have proven wholly incapable of retaining anything like unity.

This observation of the chaos wrought by schismatics in religious affairs is, I think, the strongest argument for Dante’s universal monarch. Though I do have some concerns about the survivability of local cultures and nations, I do not believe that these are insurmountable. The British Empire, for example, did not pass the same laws in India that they did in England, and granted their colonies a great deal of autonomy. Indeed, the Holy Roman Empire itself allowed a great deal of autonomy, and perhaps too much.

Besides, having attained the Mandate of Heaven, why should the emperor do more than sit on his throne and face the south? Concerns about the overreach of power apply to all forms of government at all levels of society, but as demonstrated, monarchy is the one that operates most efficiently and justly. Is the world to be blessed with its sage emperor soon? Almost certainly not, any more than the whole world will likely soon repent and be baptised. However, let all Christian monarchists keep this ideal in mind, as we work to show man the path to happiness in this life and the next.

First published on 27 September, 2015