- Dante Politico: Toward a Mapping of Dante’s Political Thought
The studies collected in this volume show the impact that Dante’s political thought has had in historical and geographical circumstances far removed from his own. This essay, intended as a complement to the Introduction by Dennis Looney, turns to the Middle Ages and explores some of Dante’s political ideas as they took shape in light of his own historical and poetic experience, and in relation to the initial reception they elicited. Political concerns traverse Dante’s corpus from his early production to his works of maturity—notably, Convivio 4, De vulgari eloquentia, the Monarchia, the Commedia, and the political Epistole—and are inseparable from the philosophical, theological, and poetic modes of inquiry that pervade his intellectual career. It is an integrated approach that calls for an equally integrated reading.
The phrase Dante politico must be understood in a twofold sense: Dante reflecting on the social nature of human beings— the Aristotelian concept of man as a political animal—and Dante heralding a specific theory of an ideal politia, or form of political organization. While in Aristotle the organized community identifies with the polis, or city-state, Dante’s political unit is the universal empire, an overarching structure that unifies smaller entities such as kingdoms, cities, and villages under a common rule of law. We find Dante’s first pronouncements on this matter in Convivio 4, the treatise revolving around the question of nobility in which Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen figures as Dante’s privileged interlocutor. Defined as “the last emperor of the Romans” (Conv. 4.3.6), Frederick II—lawgiver and himself a theorist of sovereignty in the Liber Augustalis—is not just an opponent in the debate on nobility but the implicit catalyzer of Dante’s discourse on the empire. “The root foundation underlying the Imperial Majesty” Dante declares “is, in truth, man’s need for human society, which is established for a single end: namely, a life of happiness” (Conv. 4.4.1).1 [End Page 13]
With this statement, Dante historicizes the philosophical question of happiness and makes it a function of the empire—an instrument for the achievement of society’s natural end. At the same time (in 4.4 and 5), he establishes the providentiality of the Roman Empire, whose legitimacy was sanctioned by the Incarnation as the expression of divine will, thereby inscribing the natural end within the providential plan of salvation history. This convergence inaugurates Dante’s theology of history, which encompasses, in turn, his sustained concern with justice.2 The theme of justice, also addressed in the allegorical canzone “Tre donne intorno al cor mi son venute” (“Three women have come round my heart”), a poem intended for the fourteenth treatise, comes up in Convivio 1.12.9–12.3 Justice, Dante states, is the most human and thus the most lovable of virtues, “which resides in the rational or intellectual part of the soul, that is, in the will.” In Convivio 4, when he brings history into focus and sets out to define “imperial art,” the will is at the center of his argument. The emperor who, by virtue of possessing everything, is free from cupidity and best equipped to keep the world at peace, presides over the sphere of praxis—all human operations that are subjected to the will. Hence, his task is to “formulate, demonstrate, and enforce the law,” a task that earns him the title “cavalcatore della umana volontade [the one who rides in the saddle of the human will]” (4.4.3–4, 4.9.9–10).
These insights from the Convivio are carried over to the Latin treatise Monarchia, in which Dante not only refines his imperial theory, but also defines the respective prerogatives of Church and Empire, thus entering the great contemporary political debate on the relationship between the two powers. His new argumentative strategy to demonstrate the necessity of the empire relies here on the principle of reductio omnium ad unum (reducing all things to one) and on similitude.4 God is one and humanity is at its best when it resembles the oneness of God. It does so...