Dante’s answer to the constant warfare among the Italian city-states was a one-world empire. The church in Dante’s day was little more than another secular power trying to impose its will by the sword. Thus, he longed for the “Pax Romana” of Imperial Rome to be restored in the Holy Roman Empire. The Divine Comedy is an allegory of works righteousness and political salvation.
Who was Dante? Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was born in Florence, Italy. Although later exiled by Florence, he grew up to serve in the Councils of Florence. He also wrote several books on political theory, best known of which is The Divine Comedy (1321). In it and an earlier work he eulogized his infatuation with Beatrice, a woman he met briefly in the streets of Florence. “Love with delight discourses in my mind / Upon my lady’s admirable gifts / Beyond the range of human intellect.” Like many gifted artists and poets, Dante struggled to find a benefactor. He lived for some years in the home of his patron, in the company of an arrogant jester. The latter, in spite of his shallow character was well paid for entertaining his Lord with foolish jesting and buffoonery. One day the man asked Dante, “How is it that I, who am so ignorant and foolish, should be so rich and favored, while you, who are so learned and wise, should be a beggar?” To which Dante replied, “The reason is that you have found a lord who resembles you, and when I find one who resembles me, I shall no doubt be as rich as you are.”
Historical context. Dante’s writings are colored by his political experiences. Dante was born into the anti-Imperial Guelf party in Florence, which was at war with the pro-Imperial Ghibelline party of Pisa. After they won, the Guelfs exiled Dante because of his pro-Imperial opinions. In exile at Paris his conversion to the pro-Imperial, Ghibelline party matured. He penned his great political work, De Monarchia (1311), in defense of that cause. As the Renaissance unfolded, a corrupt Papacy tried to tighten its grip on the churches and the civil authority. The Holy Roman Empire, under Henry VII of Germany, also wanted to control the feuding Italian cities. Dante wrote to condemn Papal hypocrisy and set forth his solution to the constant feuding. He wanted a revival of the Imperial Roman Empire. Dante chose the word “Comedy” because the poem ends happily in heaven.
Summary of Dante’s teaching. Dante’s great allegory, The Divine Comedy, calls for a one-world empire under a savior state. The Holy Roman Empire would rule at the expense of the church. According to Kantorowicz, Dante held that “The curse of mankind was conquered, without the intervention of the Church and its sacraments, by the forces of intellect and supreme reason alone, forces symbolized by the pagan Virgil….” (11). His attacks on the church were for the most part richly deserved. Yet his
work lays out an heretical alternative. Lasting peace and political stability could be had only by a universal monarchy with unlimited power, apart from Christ. Like Aquinas Dante liked to mix pagan Greek and Christian allusions. He had a special liking for Virgil. The greatest sins in Hell are offenses against political peace and unity. He indicted Brutus and Cassius, who murdered Julius Caesar. They are tormented forever by Satan himself together with Judas Iscariot.
The Divine Comedy depicts a system of works righteousness. Mankind must climb the mountain of purification (Purgatorio) to escape Hell and ascend to Heaven. It protrudes from the earth at the antipode (exact opposite pole) of Jerusalem. Thus it stands opposite to salvation by faith in the atoning work of Christ alone. Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatorio is the Roman poet Virgil. This symbolizes human reason as a guide to salvation. Only after purifying himself by severe discipline is Dante given access to Heaven.His guide in Heaven is Beatrice, the object of his unfulfilled love. She personifies the goodness and faith of Paradise.
Implications for subsequent history. Dante’s elegant work prefigured Richard Hooker. Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594) provided a theological basis for the “Divine Right of Kings.” He was a favorite of 17th Century British monarchs. Dante called for a unitary international state ruling apart from the church. This resonates with the political strivings of sinful man. Dante would surely have smiled at the 20th Century drive for one-world government in the proposed League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations. Dante argued for the 2-kingdom theory, which divorced temporal power from the Bible.
Biblical analysis. Contrary to Dante, the Bible teaches that salvation is the free gift of God. It is given by the atoning death of Christ on the cross for the sins of mankind. It is received apart from good works when the sinner puts his trust in Christ. On the contrary, the Bible condemns Dante’s political salvation. God thwarted the builders of the Tower of Babel in their drive for a one-world state (Gen. 11:7, 8).. In so doing, He forced the creation of nations, as men “scattered abroad from there over the face of the whole earth.” Acts 17:26 indicates that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men” and has determined “the bounds of their habitation.” His purpose was that “they should seek the Lord.” Dante seeks to void this Divine judgment with his international monarchy.
On the other hand, the conservative passion for “national sovereignty” makes the nation-state the final arbitrator of truth and justice. It is accountable to no one. This is an open invitation to bickering among nations and war. These were the very conditions that prompted Dante to write as he did of a global empire. What then is the Bible’s solution? Psalm 2 calls on the rulers of the earth to submit to Christ. Acts 2 says this Psalm is fulfilled in the New Testament era. Likewise, Psalm 72 describes the day when “all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.” This means that “many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…and he will teach us His ways…for out of Zion shall go forth the law…and he shall judge among the nations ….” (Isa. 2:3,4).
Corrective or prescriptive actions. The implication is that nations who have covenanted to rule by the law of Christ will unite in an international covenant. This will provide for judgment among the nations in terms of God’s law. It would also give common defense in the event of attack from any non-covenanted nation. As the nations are discipled (Matt. 28:19, 20), all the world will thus be united under Christ the King of kings