Commentary on Dante’s Monarchia
Book Two, Chapters i - v
Anyone with some intellectual curiosity has occasionally changed his beliefs on one topic or another as he learns new things and his understanding increases or evolves. Dante notes, “When confronted with an unfamiliar phenomenon whose cause we do not comprehend we usually feel amazement; and equally, when we do understand the cause, we look down almost mockingly on those who continue to be amazed.” Occasionally, people on the Right look down on those who continue to buy the narrative of Whig history and the variants of Liberalism. However, we should always work with a sense of humility, because everyone who grew up in the West was a Liberal of some sort and had to work to break out of that frame. We should always be confident and unapologetic about the truth, but let’s follow Dante’s lead and lend a hand to those honest inquirers who sense that something is wrong with the world, but don’t yet fully understand it.
Now, the particular question Dante seeks to answer is whether the Romans ruled the world by right. This was relevant in the Fourteenth Century because the Holy Roman Empire was seen as the successor of the Roman Empire, and so if Rome ruled by right, then all other rulers who defy the Emperor are traitors or usurpers. Today, the Holy Roman Empire is as thoroughly destroyed as its model, but the issues of legitimacy that Dante addresses are still of interest to us. Let’s continue.
Dante writes, “to ask whether something happened by right… is the same thing as asking whether it happened in accordance with God’s will.” We do need to make a distinction here, that is, what God wills to happen is not the same as what God allows to happen. The former is something God specifically plans and brings about, as happens in many incidents in salvation history. The latter is something that God merely permits; for example, we are permitted to sin in the exercise of our free will, but clearly this is not what God wills for us.
So, that Rome did rule the known world is obvious enough. In question, though, is whether they did this with divine aid and approval, in which case they ruled the world by right, or whether they did so merely by ambition and force of arms. There is, as Dante points out, a limit to how certain we can be about this. Not all fields of knowledge are equally certain or precise. However, the will of God is not inscrutable, but is communicated via signs, which we discuss below.
Immediately, we delve into aggressively illiberal territory. Dante writes, “It is appropriate that the noblest race should rule over all the others; the Roman people were the noblest; therefore it was appropriate that they should rule over all the others.”
Now, this approach seems somewhat odd at first, because we’ve been discussing the rule of one man, but now we’re discussing an entire people. In an empire, one nation typically is dominant, and the Roman Empire was a Roman enterprise. In fact, problems tend to arise if this is not the case, as one can see with Austria-Hungary’s internal problems through much of its history. However, one typically thinks of the issue of sovereignty in terms of a single man or dynasty. Furthermore, the other universal monarchy one thinks of is the papacy. Most popes were Italian for a long time, which is reasonable since the pope is the bishop of Rome, but the office does pass between men of many nationalities. The Holy Roman Empire could also, in principle, pass between men of various nationalities, though in practice it became essentially a hereditary possession of the Habsburgs. A universal empire on the model of either the HRE or papacy would likely operate on similar lines.
As a practical matter, a universal empire would likely be established by an effort of one nation over a period of many years. We’re still essentially looking at the legitimacy of a particular dynasty, though, or perhaps an elective monarchy.
In any case, Dante proves the nobility of Rome by proving the nobility of their ancestor Aeneas. Few would deny that Aeneas was a noble man, but is it legitimate to use myth in this way? It’s common for a nation to use myths for various purposes, but truth matters, so when looking at the issue of monarchical legitimacy we must dismiss this line of thought.
Does the nobility of one’s ancestors make one noble? Yes, in a limited capacity. Even from a materialist perspective, genes matter, and at least some character traits we might associate with nobility are likely heritable to some degree. Furthermore, a concern for noble behaviour would likely be handed down from one generation to the next; Cicero’s On Duties, for example, is addressed to his son, and Prussian princes often wrote short books of advice to their heirs, though obviously in most families such transmission wouldn’t be so formal.
Furthermore, we’re not individualists, here - it is better to deal with households than individuals, and the nobility established by one’s forefathers is a man’s own to keep or lose.
Can nobility reasonably apply to a whole people, and not just a person or family? Yes, though obviously this requires generalising. If a nation or race tends to behave nobly in its families, its laws, its religion, and so on, then we can safely call that people “noble.” Does a nation’s nobility give it the right to rule? As with individual men, it is certainly preferable that the noblest rule, for obvious reasons, when nobility can be established and agreed-upon. However, because it can be so difficult to compare nobility at both the larger and smaller scale, it is not at all practical to make this a rule, and again, the actual ruling and right to rule belongs more properly to a man or dynasty than to the nation the ruler comes from.
On a final note, it’s worth pointing out that Guido Vernani criticised Dante over this issue by arguing that it was the Jews, not the Romans, who were God’s chosen people. If Rome’s destiny were so important and divinely sanctioned, surely Scripture would make some mention of this. Dante doesn’t address the issue, but one could also say that the Jews were the chosen people for the spiritual realm and analogous to the Church, Rome for the temporal realm, which is valid even under pagans. Nonetheless, they are intertwined, so one would expect an explicit approval of Roman authority somewhere, and Dante will argue later that there is such approval. It's not as explicit as “the Romans are a chosen people,” but there is a clear approval of Roman authority in general, as we will see.
Dante now argues that anything brought about with the aid of miracles is in accord with the will of God, and he proceeds to give several examples of miracles that aided Rome in its times of need. Now, I think it’s clear enough that miracles are a sign of divine approval, but even if we accept that the miracles Dante relates are true, their interpretation is far from certain. For example, he relates an episode when the Gauls were attacking Rome under cover of night and successfully captured much of the city, but before getting to the Capitol a goose never seen there before cried out and woke up the guards, who were able to repel the invaders. Guido Vernani wrote of this example:
The tale of the goose is even sillier because this goose was either a real, living creature or a fantastic one. If it was a real goose, a creature extremely alert by nature, and if it was sleeping, it awakened and cackled at the slightest noise; therefore the tale is not to be regarded as miraculous but ridiculous. Concerning this, the blessed Augustine speaks derisively as follows in City of God: “For then the whole city was in the hands of the enemy, save only Capitoline Hill, and this too was about to be taken, were it not that the geese at any rate were awake while the gods slept...” If, on the other hand, the goose was a phantasm, it was easy for the demons not only to shape it but also to speak through it, in just the way the devil spoke to our first parents through the serpent.
In any case, no nation that I’m aware of has experienced miracles of this kind, so we’ll set the issue aside. One point of interest, though, is that most of these occurred during the Roman Republic. I suppose they are still relevant, since Dante is discussing Rome as a nation, and even though they were a republic they were also an empire, in the sense that they ruled over other nations. One wonders, though, if these are supposed to confirm the validity of Rome’s empire, shouldn’t something like it have happened for the emperors? The only example I’m aware of is the instruction given to Constantine in a dream to paint the Christian monogram on his soldiers’ shields (or in an alternative version, that this instruction appeared to him in a vision in the sky) prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
There’s also a question of whether republics are legitimate at all. Dante doesn’t address the issue, though given his comment in the previous book about monarchy best preventing the three perverse forms of government, I’d speculate that he would consider republics and aristocracies legitimate, at least at lower levels of government from the universal monarch, but far less ideal than monarchism. For myself, I find it difficult to accept republican legitimacy, because there is no one personally to possess sovereignty, and they tend to base their legitimacy on the absurd basis of the consent of the governed, rather than God, who is the true source of authority.
Our poet now moves from miracles to the conduct of the Romans themselves. “Whoever has the good of the community as his goal has the achievement of right as his goal.” The Romans, he says, did rule for the good of the world, as evidenced by the conduct of various Roman heroes. Now, I suppose it is possible that Rome worked with good intentions and conquered the world for its own good. Others, including St. Augustine and, of course, Guido Vernani again, disagree. One suspects that Rome’s enemies would argue that Rome civilised its neighbours in much the same way that the United States in recent decades has liberated its enemies.
Actually, that comparison may be unfair. American liberation is typically a disaster for victor and vanquished alike, but Rome did in fact civilise many of the various barbarian tribes of Europe. Does the long-term good justify Roman wars of conquest? It’s easy to say so after the fact. Dan Carlin, in his podcast series on the Mongol conquests, points out that while many do justify the Mongol expansion because of its later benefits, it is worth asking whether the victims would have agreed. After all, the dead were the ones who paid the price for these later benefits. The Roman Empire greatly benefited the world; were I to meet the ghost of a Gallic warrior, though, I would hesitate to tell him that his destruction was for the best.
Furthermore, let us grant that Rome did pursue its conquests with good intentions. We simply arrive at a further difficulty that ends do not justify means. Some actions are inherently evil, and men may not undertake them under any circumstances. This is why, for example, one may not harm an innocent man even to save the life of another. Again, perhaps every Roman war was just, but I doubt it. The fact that they succeeded brilliantly does indicate that they had the Mandate of Heaven, but that concept is typically understood as something acquired by virtue. Become worthy, then accept power is the idea. Realistically, people will fight wars, and as Sir Robert Filmer explains one must at some point treat a usurper as legitimate. A people then mythologise the early conflicts that led to the establishment of the new dynasty, but let’s not believe too strongly in what is essentially propaganda.
St. Robert Bellarmine, in De laicis, raises a related point while discussing the validity of non-Christian rulers. Of Cyrus, for example, he says, “Cyrus had obtained a kingdom for himself through his desire for domination, and not for the sake of God’s service; and yet God aided him, and gave him the kingdom he was seeking, that He Himself might liberate the people of Israel from the Babylonian Captivity.” Shortly after, Bellarmine also mentions Rome, “In like manner the Romans sought empire not for the sake of God, but through a desire for worldly glory… Yet God gave them supreme rule, not only that He might reward them for their good works in the moral order, as St. Augustine likewise shows in the City of God, but also that through the union of all the nations under one government the way might be prepared for the preaching of the Gospel, as St. Leo says in his first sermon for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.” In other words, even if the Romans did not explicitly pursue right, God may still have willed their empire so that He may work through them.
Our friar Vernani raises yet another objection to this chapter, pointing out that two or more nations may simultaneously strive for the common good. Of course, all nations would indeed argue that they do so, so we should be cautious in applying this argument.
Now, at this point, all of this may still seem like a purely academic exercise. What application does any of this have to the modern world?
The application is that some nations do use this type of narrative to justify their actions. Indeed, Americans love to mythologise their own history in just this way. Let’s apply a Dantescan analysis to the City on a Hill.
We begin with the early settlers at Jamestown, the Puritans of New England, etc. They were hardy and eminently worthy men and they founded a just, orderly society in the wilderness. When their sovereign lost the right to rule due to his abuses of power, the Founding Fathers declared the independence of the colonies. The rightness of their cause is evident because of the participation of heroic men like George Washington, justly called an “American Cincinnatus.” From there, they proceeded to civilise North America, much as the Romans had done in Europe, with only one major war of conquest, the Mexican-American War, but the rest was accomplished peacefully, including the most important, the Louisiana Purchase. Indeed, who can deny the rightness of this Union, when its bloodiest war was fought not in conquest, but among its own members for the worthy cause of eradicating slavery? Following generations brought the blessings of liberty to the rest of the world, fighting two world wars and the Cold War in the process. Surely, then, the United States rules the world by right.
All Americans are taught some variation of this as a child. Since we’re on the topic, though, it’s worth pointing out that the American case for empire falls apart on close inspection. The rebellion against George III was fought on dubious premises, as Thomas Hutchinson explains in Strictures Against the Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, even if some of His Majesty’s government’s actions were unjust, rebellion is always of dubious morality, and the Founders proceeded to establish a Liberal, secular republic. Liberalism is evil in itself, as it argues that legitimacy comes from the people, rather than from God. Declaring “non serviam” to the Lord’s Anointed is a poor start for an empire, and civilising the continent did involve many wars against the natives. While the world is likely better for American civilisation of the continent, I would be as hesitant to explain this to a Cherokee ghost as I would to the Gallic warrior.
Still, let’s accept the American usurpers as legitimate. Continuing the narrative, even if we accept that eradicating slavery is a laudable goal, and I doubt that many readers will argue against this point, and that the War Between the States was fought for that purpose, ends do not justify means. Abolishing slavery does not justify the death of one Mississippian farmer, much less the slaughter of 600,000 men and the evisceration of the rule of law by the Lincoln Administration. Furthermore, even if we accept American entry into the world wars as justified, Allied conduct during the wars hardly meets the standards put forward by Cicero, much less the standards of a Christian nation, and the abolition of various European monarchies and desacralizing the Japanese emperor after the wars is unacceptable; handing much of the world to a Communist power can hardly be called a “liberation” for anyone. After the Second World War, we can also notice that the nations the United States liberates often find themselves in worse shape than when they were un-liberated. Though the author loves his country, he does so for the same reason he loves his family, i.e. because it is his. Americans like to see themselves as a type of christ, but the fruits of their actions are disturbingly rotten.