Dante begins this short book by telling his audience that he has an unpopular truth to share. “No one has attempted to elucidate it,” he says, “on account of its not leading directly to material gain,” but share it he must, because men are made to seek the truth, and he does not want to be accused by later generations of “hiding [his] talent.” So, he argues that the world ought to be ruled by a single absolute monarch, that the Roman Empire ruled the known world by right (which, presumably, is passed to its successor), and whose power is God-given, though not dependant on the Church.
Unsurprisingly, De Monarchia (or just Monarchy in Cambridge University Press’s edition) had few fans in the Fourteenth Century and has even fewer fans now. As for me, of course, I love it.
Now, it can be a tough read; Dante structures each of the three parts as a series of syllogisms, and though he does explain some principles of logic as he goes, the writing is dense and requires the reader’s full attention. If you’ve read, say, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas you probably have a good idea of what to expect. He also writes primarily for a Christian audience; though he doesn’t rely on Scripture as much as, say, Sir Robert Filmer, he does make frequent reference to Biblical events, and one of his arguments in the second part, on whether the Romans ruled the world by right, is that they did because Christ gave an explicit approval of Roman authority. He also makes much use of pagan writers like Virgil or Cicero, and he draws from Aristotle about as much as the Bible, so non-Christian readers will still find a lot of material to consider, it just won’t be as convincing as it would to Dante’s intended audience.
The first part, on why a universal monarchy is needed, is the most interesting and relevant for modern readers. The second seems like a moot point; whether Rome ruled the known world by right is interesting for fans of that era of history, but who can plausibly claim to be “Roman” now? Even in Dante’s time, the Holy Roman Empire was only “Roman” in a very loose sense. I suppose Moscow is sometimes called the “Third Rome,” but I doubt that Dante would accept an Eastern Orthodox monarchy as a legitimate candidate for his universal empire. The third part considers whether a monarch depends on the papacy for legitimacy, and Dante argues forcefully that it does not, though papal approval can and should lend its support to monarchy.
Probably De Monarchia‘s main weakness is that it seems very theoretical. Once we accept that the Holy Roman Emperor (or some other suitable “Roman,” I suppose) has the right to rule the world, how do we arrive at that goal? Even Rome did not conquer the entire known world, much less the entirety of the seven continents. I suppose if the United Nations were turned monarchical and halfway effective we might be in the ballpark, but the UN is in no way Roman. Perhaps Dante must be content with the first step of convincing people that this is a goal worth working towards at all.
In any case, I’m reluctant to try summarising his arguments or even quoting at length, since his syllogisms are so interdependent that it’s difficult to find a snappy quote that stands apart. Besides, it’s only ninety-four pages, so really, if you have any interest at all in the subject, this is a must-read book.
On a final, somewhat tangential note, in my post on the appeal of Mishima Yukio I speculated on why Dante may have included Cato at the gates of Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. My theory was that even though Cato committed suicide, he did so not out of despair but out of zeal for the rule of law. Sure enough, in the second book Dante briefly discusses Cato and says, in part, “in order to set the world afire with love of freedom, [Cato] showed the value of freedom when he preferred to die a free man rather than remain alive without freedom.”