De Monarchia is a three-part treatise Dante wrote anywhere between the 1290s and the final year of his life, 1321. Since this wasn’t an era when people tended to date their work, and record-keeping wasn’t as precise as it is today, we can only guess. Some people believe he wrote it when he still lived in his beloved Florence, while others think it was a heralding or commemoration of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII coming to Italy, and thus written from 1308–14. Still other scholars believe it was one of Dante’s final works, written from 1318–21.
Though Dante argued for the use of vernacular language in De Vulgari Eloquentia, he chose to write De Monarchia, De Vulgari Eloquentia, Eclogues, and Quaestio de Aqua et Terra in Latin because it would assure a much wider audience. If he wrote in Italian, he’d only reach people in his own homeland, border regions, and nearby areas under Italian rule. In the Middle Ages, Latin was Europe’s lingua franca, understood by all educated people.
Because this book isn’t easy to find in translation, and the subject isn’t exactly lighthearted or of general interest, not many modern people have read it. As much of a passionate Dantephile as I am, even I can’t see many people choosing to read it for fun. It’s the kind of thing people might point to on their bookshelves as proof of how intellectual and educated they are, but aren’t very likely to have actually read unless they’re hardcore Medieval history scholars.
De Monarchia comes to about 28,000 words (plus a lot of modern, explanatory footnotes), so it’s not a very long read. Don’t come to it expecting to be blown away by beautiful, timeless poetry. This is about the relationship between religious (i.e., Papal) and secular (i.e., the Holy Roman Emperor). Dante tries to be fair to both sides instead of taking one absolute position and tearing apart any other views.
Dante’s position is that both the Pope and Emperor are human, and derive their authority and power directly from God. Because they’re both humans and peers, they shouldn’t have power over one another. While Dante was always very careful to kiss up to the Pope and take his religious authority seriously, he also didn’t think one peer should rule over another. Only God has the right to do that.
Instead, the Pope and Emperor are two equal swords, each given power by God to rule over their own respective domain. They should respect one another’s different spheres and not encroach upon matters and territories which aren’t theirs.
The purpose for which God created humans, Dante believes, is to make full use of our highest intellectual potential. And to do that, we need universal peace. If we’re forced to deal with wars, internal strife, and political bickering, we can’t accomplish our work very easily or freely.
It’s the natural order of things for one person to assume the leading role in a household, community, city, empire, etc. Very rarely can two equals share power without clashing, since the desire to be top dog and have no competitors is so strong.
Thus, the world needs one unified leader for its well-being.
Humanity is made in the image of God, and “is ordered for the best, when according to the utmost of its power it becomes like unto God.” And when we unite as one, we most live up to our Divine image, since God is also one. However, we need a single monarch and empire to achieve this oneness.
Justice is most effective when the monarch is just, and the worst enemy of justice is greed. Dante idealistically believes this perfect world monarch has no reason for greed, since he has nothing to desire with all his power and wealth. Greed is only manifested among rulers of individual cities and kingdoms.
Love and charity exist to the highest degree in this monarch, and thus his sense of justice is magnified and most effective. Because of this great love, humans are most free when ruled by a monarch instead of game-playing politicians.
Dante supports local rulers and laws, since every region has different needs, but the monarch should still govern in general matters germane to all humans.
As an Italian, Dante was obviously biased in claiming his Roman ancestors as the noblest people on Earth, and therefore deserved precedence over all others. He cites myths and fictional stories with heroes who can do no wrong, exaggerated and apocryphal historical stories, and Biblical literalism.
Dante interprets the Romans’ many military victories over other empires and huge expanse of territory as proof God was on their side. Lots of theological opining under the guise of historicity and political science follows.
While Dante believes the Pope has authority to rule the Church, he also thinks the Pope should stay in his lane and not meddle in secular governance. In other words, he advocates separation of church and state. Radical thinking for the 14th century!
In 1329, De Monarchia was burnt at the stake as heretical, due to charges brought by French cardinal Bertrand du Pouget. This was the same person who sought to have Dante’s bones burnt at the stake.
In 1559, the Inquisition included De Monarchia in its first index of forbidden books. It remained on the list till the end of the 19th century.