Commentary on Dante’s Monarchia

Book Three, Chapters i - x


We now come to the question of the division of authority between the Roman Pope and the Roman Prince, and whether the emperor depends upon the Church for his authority. We will run through the first half of this book fairly quickly, since most of Dante’s points are very specific to the debates among his contemporaries. In the second half, though, we will spend more time surveying the nature of secular authority and how it and religious authority relate each other.

Dante in this first chapter notes that his arguments here will require putting some men to shame, and will undoubtedly make him many enemies. However, the truth is more important than winning friends. We should all take this attitude, taking care in how we frame our arguments but never shying away from what is true, even if it makes us unpopular. With that in mind, let us continue.


Dante sets out a first principle, “what is contrary to nature’s intention is contrary to God’s will.” We can say that God’s will is revealed through the natural law, and whatever contradicts the natural law therefore contradicts God’s will. With this in mind, we will attempt to discover Nature’s, and thus God’s will as it applies to imperial and ecclesiastical authority.


Dante here specifies his audience as those faithful Christians who are well-intentioned but misguided in their support of the Papacy over the authority of the Emperor. He excludes those who are not well-intentioned, i.e. are motivated by greed or some other vice, as well the “decretalists,” those who believe that the Church’s traditions are the foundation of the faith, equal to the ecumenical councils or Scripture.

This limiting of one’s audience is worth emphasising, because it is common for men to get caught up arguing with people they will never convince of anything. Debating those who argue in bad faith is obviously a fruitless endeavour, and when debating with the well-intentioned we must find some common first principle and proceed from there. For a Catholic, this means beginning with the Church’s doctrines when speaking to other Catholics, with the Church Fathers when speaking to schismatics like those in the Eastern Orthodox Church, with Scripture when speaking to heretics, and with reason when speaking to pagans. Of course, finding that first principle can often be a difficult challenge in itself, but is necessary if both parties are to accomplish anything and not simply talk past each other.

As for the decretalists, these are still with us in groups like the Sedevacantist schismatics, who place more authority in the guidelines established by certain popes than they do in fundamental doctrines. While faithful Christians would certainly do well to study papal encyclicals and the like, we must realise that very few invoke papal infallibility, and do not override Scripture or the ecumenical councils. Doctrine is found only in Scripture (as interpreted by the Church) and Sacred Tradition, occasionally clarified or defined by the Councils or by the papacy when speaking ex cathedra. The opinions of various Church Fathers, saints, and popes, though they should be considered seriously and deferred to most of the time, should not be confused with doctrine.


Our poet now turns to refuting his opponents’ Scriptural arguments, beginning with that concerning the “greater and lesser lights” created at the beginning of the world, which they interpret as symbolising the spiritual and temporal power. Dante argues that this is absurd, because spiritual and temporal authority are remedies for sin, but the sun and moon were created even before man was.

He does note that though the moon does not depend on the sun for its existence, its light is amplified by it, and is willing to say that the spiritual power should support the temporal power when necessary. For example, the Church should preside at coronation ceremonies to emphasise the king’s God-given authority. Of course, the Church should also work to chide and restrain the temporal power when necessary, as a number of saints and clergymen have done.

Finally, it’s worth repeating Dante’s point, citing St. Augustine, that not every event reported in Scripture has a symbolic meaning. Each event should be considered according to its context, and taken on essentially a case-by-case basis. This is important first, of course, because it helps ensure a proper understanding of Scripture for ourselves. Furthermore, a poor understanding of Scripture often undermines a man’s faith. Here in the United States, for example, it is relatively common for people to leave the churches they grew up in because their pastors preach a literalist interpretation of Scripture, which they later find to be untenable. Poor exegesis, then, even when well-intentioned, lays a trap for the faithful, which threatens to undermine their faith.


Many take from Genesis an argument that Levi symbolised the priesthood and Judah temporal power, and since Levi preceded Judah in birth, so the spiritual authority precedes temporal authority. Dante does not accept the premise that they do symbolise these things, but argues that even if we grant it, precedence in birth does not imply precedence in authority, because it is common for people to hold authority over others younger than themselves, such as a bishop who is younger than an archdeacon.

Some may argue that precedence in birth does imply greater authority, because older siblings are often trusted with authority over their younger siblings, and it is traditionally the oldest son who inherits royal or noble positions. However, in the case of households, the oldest child is entrusted with authority in special cases because the oldest is usually the most mature, and not because age in itself grants authority. In the case of royalty, the end of government is to provide justice, and to do this there must, as noted previously, be peace, security, and law. There must, then, be some method for determining who the king is going to be in order to prevent disputes from arising, and the principle of primogeniture has historically been the most stable way of doing this. Other methods, though, such as elective monarchy or having the sovereign name his own successor, have also been used.


Some supporters of papal authority over the emperor cite Samuel conferring kingship on Saul, and later transferring it, as evidence of the superiority of religious authority over secular. However, Dante answers that Samuel did not act as God’s vicar, but as his messenger. In other words, Samuel was not making his own judgement based on his own authority, but simply reporting to Saul what God had decided.

As an aside, the role of vicar is often misunderstood today, as well, though in a different manner than what Dante discusses. Several heretics portray the pope as a messenger, whom they imagine Catholics view as relating God’s will directly. Our life would, perhaps, be easier if that were the case. Instead, as vicar he acts on the authority delegated to him, and like any appointed vicar he may or may not perform his work wisely or well. Rather, the papal office exists for much the same reason that secular monarchies exist, because monarchy is the best and most Christian form of government, and it is appropriate for the Church to be governed in this way.


Some papal supporters point to the gifts of the Magi, which symbolise Christ’s spiritual and temporal authority, and argue that because Christ has these things, His vicar has them, as well. However, as Dante will say several times in this book, a vicar is not the same as the prince he represents. So, he has only the authority given to him for the specific office he holds, not all of the same powers as his superior.


Christ said to St. Peter, “And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Some claim that since authority was given to St. Peter to bind and loose all things (“whatsoever”), the granting of temporal authority presumably included, his successor has this, as well. However, Dante argues that this authority was given to Peter in the context of being given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, so phrases like “all” and “whatsoever” are limited to the class of things being referred to at the time. For example, if we say “all animals run,” the ability to run is being applied only to those things in the category “animals.” So, Peter’s authority to bind and loose is limited to those things pertaining to his office as keeper of the keys of heaven. After all, if he could bind and loose literally all things, he could, for example, dissolve a marriage (which, as an aside, is not the same as an annulment, which finds that a marriage was not valid to begin with), or forgive a man for sins of which he has not repented.

We may add here that all legitimate earthly authority is limited in some way. God may be infinite, but man is not, and so his relationships with others are also limited. For example, a parent has a great deal of authority over his child, and we are obliged to obey our parents, but we are not to obey them if commanded to do something sinful. In government, the authority of a city council is limited to their own city, a governor to his province, a king to his kingdom, etc. That much is obvious, but other limitations also apply. If we look at Medieval monarchs, we see that kings had to respect various rights and privileges of lower levels of society possessed by nobles, of course, but also of towns, guilds, the Church, and so on. Even later “absolute” monarchs could not rule arbitrarily.

This last point may seem counter-intuitive, but the type of strong monarchies that royalists generally support are authoritarian and strong, but not totalitarian. Julius Evola explains this distinction well in Fascism Viewed from the Right:

The traditional state is organic, but not totalitarian. It is differentiated and articulated, and admits zones of partial autonomy. It coordinates forces and causes them to participate in a superior unity, while recognising their liberty. Exactly because it is strong, it does not need to resort to mechanical centralising, which is required only when it is necessary to rein in a shapeless and atomistic mass of individuals and wills, from which, however, disorder can never be truly eliminated, but only temporarily contained. To use a happy expression of Walter Heinrich, the true state is omnia potens, not omnia faciens; that is, it keeps at the centre an absolute power that it can and must use without obstacles in cases of necessity and ultimate decisions, ignoring the fetish for the so-called ‘rule of law’. It does not, however, meddle with everything, it does not substitute itself for everything, it does not aim at a barracks-style regimentation of society (in the negative sense), nor at a levelling conformism instead of free acknowledgement and loyalty. It does not proceed by means of impertinent and obtuse interventions by the public sphere and the ‘state’ into the private sphere. The traditional image is that of a natural gravitation of parts and partial unities around a centre that commands without compelling, and acts out of prestige with an authority that can, of course, resort to force, but abstains from it as much as possible. The evidence of the effective force of a state is found in the measure of the margin it can concede to a partial, rational decentralisation. Systematic state interference can be a principle only in the socialism of the technocratic and materialist state.


Others argue that the two swords referred to during the Last Supper (Luke 22:38) refer to the spiritual and temporal power. Dante answers that nothing about the passage justifies this allegorical interpretation, but that it is more likely simply literal. He adds that if there is an allegorical interpretation, they refer to Christ’s statement that he brings “not peace but a sword,” and what He will accomplish with this sword will be done with words and actions, hence St. Luke spoke of Christ’s instructions to His apostles “to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). So, they represent doing and teaching, or words and actions.

I’ll simply note that in the Catena Aurea, St. Thomas Aquinas provides comments from several of the Fathers of the Church on this passage, and none offer the same interpretations given by either Dante or his opponents. St. Ambrose speculates that the swords signify the Old and New Testaments; St. Basil interprets Christ’s command to buy a sword not as a command but a prophecy that His followers will need to take up such things; Saints Augustine and Bede refer it to Christ’s earlier instructions that they take nothing superfluous when preaching as an indication that they are entering into a very different set of circumstances; and so on.


Next, we approach the larger issues of the nature of secular and religious authority directly, beginning with the Donation of Constantine. Now, the Donation has since been proven to be a forgery, making the immediate issue that Dante addresses a moot point. However, the discussion raises several important questions about the nature and limitation of these two authorities.

Let’s begin by summarising Dante’s argument. He writes that a man who holds an office does not have the authority to do things contrary to the nature of that office. To divide the empire in territory or to divide his own powers, though, conflicts with the purpose of the imperial office, which is to bind men to a single authority. Furthermore, since temporal jurisdiction is finite, if an emperor’s successors continue to divide the empire, eventually it will be divided out of existence, which conflicts with the purpose of the empire. We can see the dangers of such division in, for example, Charlemagne’s division of the empire between his sons, or Henry II’s division of titles among his sons.

In practice, sometimes a sovereign is forced to surrender some authority, especially since the advent of Liberalism, as when Frederick William IV was forced to accept some degree of popular rule in Prussia. However, this weakening tends to worsen, not improve, the functioning of government. The Habsburgs’ rule in Austria-Hungary suffered because of their limited power, and the whole empire, even stubborn Hungary, would have benefited from a stronger sovereign. We can also condemn those who allow empires or kingdoms to break apart, or at least lament such occasions when they are forced upon the sovereign.

The issue of divided authority becomes more difficult when dealing with republics, which often have no discernible sovereign, but which divide authority among multiple branches of government and even among the governed. It is not at all clear, for example, who is sovereign in the United States. Certainly not “the people,” because sovereignty is fundamentally the right to rule; if everyone has this right, though, then effectively none have it. Certainly not the states, because they have been wholly conquered by the federal government. The federal government, though, is constitutionally divided among three branches, contains innumerable bureaucracies of significant power themselves, and is also significantly influenced by outside powers like universities and the press. To speak of dividing the state’s authority, then, makes little sense because it could scarcely become any more divided.

As for territorial unity, again it is not clear what the citizens of different parts of a republic are supposed to be loyal to; in the American case, a flag and a contract whose terms are continually re-interpreted, presumably. Local loyalties are often more concrete and more appealing, hence the endurance of Southern nationalism. Keeping a republic unified is still preferable to the secession of one part, because union more closely approaches the ideal of monarchy, and given the prospect of having two republics instead of one, I agree with Arlo Guthrie’s reasoning in another context that “one big pile of garbage is better than two little piles of garbage.” Nonetheless, I will cast no stones at those who prefer loyalty to their countrymen over loyalty to a dysfunctional democracy.

After explaining that Constantine did not have authority to grant the Donation, Dante argues that the Church did not have the authority to receive it. He cites Christ’s instruction to His disciples to take no unnecessary material possessions with them when preaching (Matthew 10:9-10), and though this rule was relaxed later (see Luke 22:35), it was never revoked entirely. He writes, “God’s vicar could not have received [the Donation], not as owner but as administrator of its fruits for the church and for Christ’s poor, as the apostles are known to have done.”

Now, this is a hard line on the Church’s ownership of property, and it is one that Dante takes too far. While Christ does indeed tell his apostles to take nothing unnecessary with them, and clergymen do take vows of poverty, I see little reason to believe that this is to be taken as normative for the Church as an institution. At the very least, the Church will need buildings in which to say Mass, and furthermore once it grew outside the relatively small community in and around Jerusalem, there was an obvious need for visible institutions to administer things, in much the same way that a the ruler of a great nation will necessarily require property and aid just to administer his kingdom, more so than a tribal chieftain. We may also point out things like the Vatican museum serving to engender an appreciation for beauty and history in its visitors, which is helpful to the Church’s primary mission of the salvation of souls.

Regarding the Church’s poverty in its first few generations, we may remember St. Robert Bellarmine’s comment in De laicis, “God willed His Church to begin from poor and humble men, in order that the growth of the Church might not be considered the work of man, as might have happened had it grown by the favour of princes.”

There is still, however, the question of the Papal States, or Vatican City today. Does the separation of spiritual and temporal authority mean that the pope should possess no temporal authority at all? Pragmatically, it is beneficial for the pope to have the security that sovereignty provides, instead of being a prisoner in the Vatican, subject to whoever controls Rome at the time. What Dante seems to be doing here is assuming that the Church has only that authority explicitly given to it, but I am unaware of a strong case from Scripture or the Church Fathers that this ought to be the case.

Continue to Book Three, Chapters xi - xvi