Major Themes: Politics and the Church

In this section we will examine: 

  • Dante’s idea of man as a social and political animal
  • Dante’s idea of peace and its political significance
  • Dante’s idea of Empire
  • Dante’s idea of Church
  • Dante’s idea of the relationship between Church and Empire.

Dante’s idea of man as a social and political animal

Man, for Dante, is a social and political animal. As Dante explains in Convivio IV, iv, the end of human existence is happiness, and no human being could reach this end without the help and support of others. All human beings depend for their sustenance and well-being on the relationships they establish with other human beings. All human beings are therefore, by their very nature, social. This idea, which is derived from Aristotle’s Nichomachean ethics, may be seen as one of the fundamental principles underlying Dante’s thought. It is crucial, in order properly to come to terms with the Commedia, always to bear in mind that Dante did not conceive of the human being in individualistic terms. For Dante, human beings exist for and before others. Rationality is that which, for Dante, distinguishes human beings from other animals. In turn, man’s nature as a social animal is that which, for Dante, defines the way in which human beings ought to exercise their rationality.

Dante believed that in order to be true to their nature, human beings ought to live together in communities. It is fitting, therefore, that they should organise their lives around well-defined political structures such as city, kingdom and empire. These structures are necessary in order for human beings to work together for the common good, each person contributing, according to his or her talents and dispositions, to the well-being of the community as a whole. According to Dante, being a social animal also involves being a political animal. Politics, for Dante, is not simply something done by governing bodies or political rulers. Everything anyone does has political implications –i.e. effects for the community one is part of. Every individual, according to Dante, ought to recognise this, and ought to recognise how their behaviour may contribute to the political life of the community as a whole. For Dante, to use one’s rationality properly one must not act for self-centred motives, but for the common good.  

According to Dante, the main obstacle on the way to both individual and communal well-being is greed (‘cupidigia’), the selfish desire for earthly things, power and possessions. ‘Cupidigia’ leads human beings to turn against each other, and prevents individuals from acting not only for their own well-being but also for the well-being of others. When reading the Inferno you should always ask yourself if, and on what terms, the different sins punished in the Inferno may be seen as actions that encourage selfishness and/or that go against the well-being of the community as a whole.

Peace, politics and the Empire

Dante believed that the ideal social and political condition for human beings to achieve happiness is peace. Peace is achieved when the life of a community as a whole is not disturbed by the attempts of individuals and/or factions to pursue selfish ends and turn against other human beings. The duty of political leaders is to guarantee peace within the community they are governing. It is also their duty not to enter into war with neighbouring communities out of greed for political power and earthly possessions. Dante’s invectives in the Inferno against Florence and other Italian cities are a bitter criticism of the way in which civic living is governed not by the desire for peace and common well-being, but by greed and selfish motives.  

Peace throughout the whole world can only be guaranteed, according to Dante, through the authority of the Emperor. As Dante explains in book I of the Monarchia, it is necessary that human society and all earthly things be governed by the authority of a single Emperor. All other political authority should be seen as deriving from that of the Emperor, who in turn derives his political authority from God. If all political leaders (including the Emperor himself) were able to recognise this then, according to Dante, universal peace could be achieved. For, if all authority over earthly things is ultimately seen to rest with the Emperor by divine – and therefore unchangeable – decree, then it simply makes no sense for political rulers greedily to covet, and fight each other for, political power and earthly possessions. Ideally, all other political rulers and governing bodies ought, for Dante, to recognise the authority of the Emperor and govern their communities following his guidance for the creation of peace. However, the political situation of Dante’s day was very far from this ideal state, and Dante criticised both the Emperor and other political rulers for failing to guarantee peace for human beings.

The Church

Dante’s understanding of man as a social being is not only defined by his idea of politics but also by his idea of Church. Dante lived at a time in which ecclesiastical authorities, and in particular the papacy, were making unprecedented attempts to increase the political and institutional power of the Church, and were competing against political rulers for wealth and material possessions. Dante saw this as an utter perversion of the nature of the Church. For Dante, as for other medieval theologians, the Church ought in no way to be seen as a political institution, and ecclesiastical authorities should not spend their time pursuing or administering political influence and/or material possessions. This is because the Church ought to be seen simply as the community of all those who believe in God and participate in the love which is God.

For Dante, the Church does not directly correspond to any earthly institution. In Monarchia, III, xv, 2–3, Dante says that ‘the “form” of the church is simply the life of Christ, including both his words and his deeds’. This means that the Church is defined simply as the community of all those who follow the example and teaching of Christ. It is by following the example and teaching of Christ that, according to Dante, human beings may participate in the love which is God. The example and teaching of Christ was seen in the Middle Ages to be defined by the ‘two greatest commandments’: to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself.  

A very important thing to note about Dante’s attitude towards the papacy is that, despite all his harsh criticism of corrupt popes, Dante never questions papal authority or the idea of papacy as such. In fact, throughout the Commedia Dante always shows respect for the papal office itself – as is shown, for example, in Inferno XIX, 100–102. Note also that, even though Dante thought that someone like Boniface VIII was abusing his spiritual authority, this did not mean that his spiritual authority was no longer valid. As we saw when reading Canto XXVII, for example, even though Boniface makes the offer of absolution to Guido for devious political ends, the absolution would itself have been valid had Guido truly repented.

Dante’s idea of the relationship between Empire and Church

We have said so far that Dante’s idea of man as a social animal is defined both by his idea of politics and by his idea of Church. This raises the question of how, for Dante, the two are to be related.  

In Dante’s day, there was intense debate regarding the relationship between the Church and political authority. The debate focused in particular on whether or not the authority of the Emperor derived directly from God or whether it was imparted to the Emperor by the Pope – i.e. on whether or not the Pope had the right to take a stand in political affairs. Boniface VIII, for example, strongly argued that all authority, political and spiritual, was given by God to the Pope, and that it was the Pope’s duty then to impart political authority on the Emperor. As we have seen, Dante disagreed strongly. He argued that the authority of the Emperor derives directly from God. More specifically, he argued that God had provided human beings with two guides: the Emperor to guide human beings in political terms, the Pope to guide human beings in spiritual terms. The passage from the Monarchia below (with key sections in bold to make it easier to navigate) tells us more about Dante’s idea of the relationship between Church and politics:

Ineffable providence has […] set us two goals to aim at: i.e. happiness in this life, which consists in the exercise of our own powers and is figured in the earthly paradise; and happiness in the eternal life, which consists in the enjoyment of the vision of God (to which our powers cannot raise us except with the help of God’s light) and which is signified by the heavenly paradise. Now these two kinds of happiness must be reached by different means, as representing different ends. For we attain the first through the teachings of philosophy, provided that we follow them, putting into practice the moral and intellectual virtues; whereas we attain the second through spiritual teachings which transcend human reason, provided that we follow them putting into practice the theological virtues, i.e. faith, hope and charity. These ends and the means to attain them have been shown to us on the one hand by human reason, which has been entirely revealed to us by the philosophers, and on the other by the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets and sacred writers, through Jesus Christ the son of God, coeternal with him, and through his disciples, has revealed to us the transcendent truth we cannot do without; yet human greed would cast these ends and means aside if men, like horses, prompted to wander by their animal natures, were not held in check ‘with bit and bridle’ on their journey. It is for this reason that man had need of two guides corresponding to his twofold goal: that is to say the supreme Pontiff, to lead mankind to eternal life in conformity with revealed truth [i.e. the Bible and Christ], and the emperor, to guide mankind to temporal happiness in conformity with the teaching of philosophyAnd since none can reach this harbour (or few, and these few with great difficulty) unless the waves of seductive greed are calmed and the human race rests free in the tranquillity of peace, this is the goal which the protector of the world, who is called the Roman Prince [i.e. the Emperor], must strive with all his might to bring about: i.e. that life on this threshing floor of mortals [i.e. the world] may be lived freely and in peace. […]

(Monarchia, III, xvi, 7–11)

Discussion point: Inferno XXVII

As we noted when reading through Inferno XXVII, Dante’s encounter with Guido da Montefeltro is one of the most psychologically and morally complex of the first cantica. This complexity, as we also noted, comes from the relationship between Guido’s fraudulent political advice and Boniface VIII’s abuse of his spiritual authority. After having worked through this section you should be in a position to make a more detailed assessment of the complexity of Inferno XXVII.  

A note on the significance of Rome

Rome plays a special role in Dante’s thought, especially in relation to his understanding of Church and Empire. You should note that Dante believed the Emperors of his day to be the direct political descendants of the Emperors of Ancient Rome. And, as he explains in Book II of the Monarchia, it was on the Emperors of Ancient Rome that God originally bestowed authority over temporal matters. Rome and the Roman Empire are, for Dante, a fundamental part of God’s providential plan for history. In fact, as Dante also explains in Book II of the Monarchia, universal peace was only ever achieved during the reign of the Emperor Augustus; and it was at this time of universal peace that Christ was born.

© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame