James Burnham’s Dante: Politics as Wish

[Feeling momentarily short of inspiration, I thought I’d type in what I think is one of the greatest political essays ever written, James Burnham‘s Dante: Politics as Wish. This essay opens his The Machiavellians (1943), which will currently set you back $67 – for a used pocket book. It’s worth it.

If you have reactions to Dante: Politics as Wish, please post them as usual, writing as if I, not Burnham, were the author. I will try to answer on his behalf. – MM]

1. The Formal Meaning of De Monarchia

In the 1932 Platform of the Democratic party we may read the following:

“Believing that a party platform is a covenant with the people to be faithfully kept by the party when entrusted with power, and that the people are entitled to know in plain words the terms of the contract to which they are asked to subscribe, we hereby declare this to be the platform of the Democratic party.

“The Democratic party solemnly promises by appropriate action to put into effect the principles, policies and reforms herein advocated and to eradicate the policies, methods and practices herein condemned.

“We advocate:

“(1) An immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus and eliminating extravagance, to accomplish a saving of not less than 25% in the cost of the Federal government…

“(2) Maintenance of the national credit by a Federal budget annually balanced on the basis of accurate executive estimates within revenues…

“(3) A sound currency to be preserved at all hazards…

“We condemn: …

“(4) The open and covert resistance of administrative officials to every effort made by Congressional committees to control the extravagant expenditures of the government…

“(5) The extravagance of the Farm Board, its disastrous action which made the government a speculator in farm products…

“To accomplish these purposes and to recover economic liberty we pledge the nominees of the convention…”

That the nominees upheld the pledge was made clear by the candidate for the Presidency on July 2, 1932, when he spoke in public acceptance of the nomination:

“As an immediate program of action we must abolish useless offices. We must eliminate actual prefunctions of government – functions, in fact, that are not definitely essential to the continuance of government. We must merge, we must consolidate functions of government, and like the private citizen, give up luxuries which we can no longer afford.

“I propose to you, my friends, and through you, that government of all kinds, big and little, be made solvent and that the example be set by the President of the United States and his cabinet.”

He returned to these themes frequently throughout the campaign. In a radio address delivered July 30, 1932, for example, he summed up: “Any government, like any family, can for a year spend a little more than it earns. But you and I know that a continuation of that habit means the poorhouse.”

What are we to make of the words in these several quotations? They would be easy enough to explain if we could assume that the men who wrote them were just liars, deliberately trying to deceive the people. There is, however, no convincing evidence that would permit us to draw so cynical a conclusion. Are we to believe, then, that they were utterly stupid, with no understanding of economics or politics or what was going on in the world? Taking the words as they stand, this would seem to be the only alternative conclusion. But this also does not seem very plausible. These men and their associates, though they doubtless knew less than everything and less than they thought they knew, were surely not so ignorant as to have believed literally what the words seem to indicate. There is some further puzzle here. Perhaps the words do not really have anything to do with cheap government and sound currency and balanced budgets and the rest of what appears to be their subject matter.

We are asking questions about the meaning of the words men use in connection with political and social affairs. In order to avoid bias from partisan feelings of the moment and to seek a greater generality in the answer, I shall briefly examine these same questions as they arise from words written more than six centuries ago.

* * *

Dante Alighieri, besides the most wonderful poem ever written, finished only one other major work. This was a treatise on politics, which he called De Monarchia, a title that may be translated as “On the Empire.” De Monarchia is divided into three Books, each of these sub-divided into numerous chapters. The general subject stated by Dante is “the knowledge of the temporal monarchy… which is called empire,” by which is meant “a unique princedom extending over all persons in time.” The topics for the three Books are explained as follows: “In the first place we may inquire and examine whether it [the unique empire] is needful for the well-being of the world; in the second, whether the Roman people rightfully assumed to itself the function of monarchy; and in the third, whether the authority of the monarchy depends immediately upon God, or upon some other minister or vicar of God.” The “empire” Dante has concretely in mind is the Holy Roman Empire of medieval times, which he mistakenly believed to be the continuation of the ancient Roman Empire.

In answer to his three main inquiries, he maintains: first, that mankind should be governed by a single “empire” or state; second, that this sovereignty is properly exercised by the Holy Roman Emperor (conceived as the continuator of the ancient Roman Emperor); and third, that the temporal, the political authority exercised by the Emperor is independent of the authority of the Pope and the Church (as Dante puts it, “depends immediately on God.”)

To establish the first point, that there should be a single unified world-state {the “world” that Dante had in mind was of course Europe and the littoral of the Mediterranean; but no such restriction is made in his argument, and his reasoning applies as well, or as ill, to the entire world as to the world he knew}, Dante begins by stating certain “first principles,” which, he believes, are the necessary foundation for all political reasoning. The ultimate goal for all mankind is the full development of man’s potentialities, which means in the last analysis eternal salvation and the vision of God. The aim of temporal civilization is to provide the conditions for achieving this ultimate goal, chief among which is universal peace. A variety of subtle arguments, distinctions and analogies shows that this condition, and in general the organization of the collective life of mankind in such a way as to permit the reaching of the ultimate goal, can only be carried out through “unity of direction.” God, moreover, is Supreme Unity, and, it being His intention that mankind should resemble Him as much as possible, this can be done only when mankind is also unified under a single ruler. The motion of the heavens is regulated by the single uniform motion of the outermost sphere (the primum mobile), and man should strive, too, to imitate the heavens. Only a unified political administration can check tyrannical governments and thus give men freedom, can guard the freedom of others by being itself wholly free, can guarantee concord and harmony, which always presuppose unity. These arguments, which prove that there should be a single unified political administration for all mankind, led by a single ruler, are historically substantiated by the fact that the Incarnation of Christ took place under the temporal rule of the Emperor Augustus.

In the second Book, Dante considers and accepts the claim of the Roman people to the seat of the universal empire. It is justified by their nobility derived from their descent from the Trojan Aeneas, and by numerous miracles which God worked to give witness to the claim. The Roman public spirit showed that they were aiming at the right, and thus must have had right on their side. Furthermore, the legitimacy of their claim was proved by the fact that the Romans had the effective faculty of ruling, the power to rule, whereas all other peoples failed in effective rule, as noted in the Scriptures and other sacred writings. Finally, the sacrifice of Christ would not have been valid in erasing the stain of original sin from all mankind unless Pilate, as the representative of Rome, had had valid authority to pronounce judicial sentence upon all mankind.

Book III discusses the ever-recurring problem of the relations between Church and State, the question, as Dante’s time saw it, whether the temporal, the political ruler had independent authority and sovereignty, or was subordinate to the spiritual authority of God’s Vicar on earth, the Pope. The question must be judged, Dante argues, on the fundamental principle that whatever is repugnant to the intention of nature is contrary to the Will of God. The truth has been obscured by a factious spirit, and by a failure to recognize the primary authority of the Bible, the decrees of the councils and the writings of the Fathers. The argument for the subordination of the empire (that is, the state) to the Church on the basis of the analogy of the subordinate relation of the moon, representing the empire, to the sun, representing the Church, is without weight because the analogy is false, and even if it were true, does not really establish the dependence. Nor are various often quoted instances in the Bible any more conclusive. Christ gave Peter, representing the Church, the power to loose and bind, but expressly limited this power to the things of Heaven, not of the earth.

The donation by which the Emperor Constantine, after his conversion and cure of leprosy, granted authority over the Empire to Pope Sylvester, was invalid, since it was contrary for him to make the grant or for the Pope to receive it. {The apologists for Papal supremacy made a strong point of the famed “donation of Constantine,” and Dante was plainly troubled by it. The donation was proved a forgery by Lorenzo Valla in the 15th century.} The argument that there cannot be two supreme individuals of the same kind, and, since the Pope cannot be regarded as inferior, he must be held superior to the temporal ruler, does not hold. The spiritual and temporal authorities are of two different kinds, and the individual supreme in one order might well be inferior in the other. Positively indicating the independence of the temporal rule from the spiritual are such facts as that Christ, Paul and even the angel who appeared to Paul acknowledged the temporal authority of the emperor. Finally, it is in harmonious accord with the twofold nature of man, both body and spirit, that God should have established, directly dependent only on Himself, two supreme authorities, one temporal and one spiritual. The temporal ruler, then, is in no way subordinate, in temporal things, to the spiritual ruler, though it may be granted that he should properly give that reverence to the spiritual ruler which is due him as the representative of eternal life and immortal felicity.

* * *

Let us consider this outline of what may be called the formal argument of De Monarchia.

In the first place, we may note that Dante’s ultimate goal (eternal salvation in Heaven) is meaningless since Heaven exists, if at all, outside of space and time, and can therefore have no bearing on political action.

Second, the lesser goals derived from the ultimate goal – the development of the full potentialities of all men, universal peace, and a single unified world-state – though they are not perhaps inconceivable, are nevertheless altogether utopian and materially impossible.

Third, the many arguments that Dante uses in favor of his position are, from a purely formal point of view, both good and bad, mostly bad; but, from the point of view of actual political conditions in the actual world of space and time and history, they are almost without exception completely irrelevant. They consist of pointless metaphysical and logical distinctions, distorted analogies, garbled historical references, appeals to miracles and arbitrarily selected authorities. In the task of giving us information about how men behave, about the nature and laws of political life, about what steps may be taken in practice to achieve concrete political and social goals, they advance us not a single step.

Taking the treatise at face value and judging it as a study of politics, it is worthless, totally worthless. With this, it might seem that no more could, or ought to be, said about De Monarchia. Such a conclusion, however, would show a thorough failure to understand the nature of a work of this kind. So far we have been considering only the formal meaning of the treatise. But this formal meaning, the meaning which is explicitly stated, is the least important aspect of De Monarchia. The formal meaning, besides what it explicitly states when taken at face value, serves to express, in an indirect and disguised manner, what may be called the real meaning of the essay.

By “real meaning” I refer to the meaning not in terms of the mythical world of religion, metaphysics, miracles and pseudo-history (which is the world of the formal meaning of De Monarchia), but in terms of the actual world of space, time, and events. To understand the real meaning, we cannot take the words at face value nor confine our attention to what they explicitly state; we must fit them into the specific context of Dante’s times and his own life. It is characteristic of De Monarchia, and of all similar treatises, that there should be this divorce between formal and real meanings, that the formal meaning should not explicitly state but only indirectly express, and to one or another extent hide and distort, the real meaning. The real meaning is thereby rendered irresponsible, since it is not subject to open and deliberate intellectual control; but the real meaning is nonetheless there.

{I am arbitrarily defining the distinction between “formal meaning” and “real meaning” in the sense I have indicated, and I shall continue to so use it. The distinction has nothing to do with the psychological question whether Dante (or any other writer who may be in question) consciously attempts to deceive his audience by hiding the real meaning behind the facade of the formal meaning. The disguise is there, independently of any intention; and deception, including self-deception, does often occur. It is possible, of course, as we shall see further, that the formal meaning and the real meaning should be identical; and it is an object of science to see that, so far as possible, they are.}

What, then, is the real meaning of De Monarchia?

2. The Real Meaning of De Monarchia

From the 12th to the 14th centuries, many of the chief disputes and wars in feudal Europe focused around the struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The exact origin of these two great international factions is not altogether clear. They first came into prominence in the year 1125, in a conflict over the succession to the Emperor Henry V, a member of the Hohenstaufen family. His son, Frederic, supported by the great nobles, claimed the Empire, which was not, however, a hereditary office. He was opposed by the Pope and by many of the lesser nobles, whose candidate was Lothair, the Duke of Saxony. Lothair was elected; but upon his death in 1137 was succeeded by the brother of Frederic, the Hohenstaufen Conrad, who was in turn (in 1152) followed by the great Hohenstaufen, Frederic Barbarossa.

The Guelph faction took its name from the party of Lothair; and the Ghibelline, from the party of the Hohenstaufen. The exact significance of the division varied from period to period, but in general line-up and most of the time, the Guelphs were the party of the Papacy, the Ghibellines, the party of the Empire. On the whole, the greater feudal nobles were Ghibellines, especially in the Germanic states and in Italy. As a counterweight to them, the Pope brought many of the Italian city-states into the Guelph camp, in particular the rising burgher class of the city-states, which was already in internal conflict with the great nobles at home. This distinction, however, holds only in general; often adherence to one or other of the factions was a device to secure special and temporary advantages independent of the over-all division. For example, the House of France during the 13th century inclined toward the Guelphs in order to secure leverage against the Empire. Two of the junior members of the French royal family, Charles of Anjou and Charles of Valois, were among the leading champions of the Guelphs. The Italian cities, similarly, often chose sides in such a way as to aid them most in meeting local and immediate problems.

By the latter half of the 12th century, the Emperor ruled over most of the Germanic areas and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which included most of southern Italy. The major expansive aim of the Empire was to secure control of the cities of northern Italy, the richest and most prosperous cities of all Europe. The object of the Papacy and of the cities themselves, or at least the burghers of the cities, was to block the advance of the Empire. The Papacy set out to destroy the Hohenstaufen family, which led the Empire, and which the Popes rightly understood to be the core of the Ghibelline faction. After a century of struggle, this was done; the hold of the Empire on the Kingdom of the Sicilies was broken by the Guelph, Charles of Anjou; and the last of the Hohenstaufen family, the romantic youth Conradin, was slaughtered after his defeat by Charles in the battle of Tagliacozzo – in 1268, three years after the birth of Dante. The struggle, however, continued, and the Empire still kept its dreams fixed on the Italian cities.

* * *
Now Florence, Dante’s own seething, rich, dynamic city, the leader of Tuscany and one of the chief states of the late medieval world, became a great and uncompromising bulwark of the Guelph faction. Machiavelli, in his History of Florence, describes how internal conflicts within Florence broadened to join the international Guelph-Ghibelline division. In the course of a private quarrel, a group headed by the Uberti family assassinated a member of the Buondelmonti family. “This Murder divided the whole City, part of it siding with the Buondelmonti, and part with the Uberti; and both the Families being powerful in Houses, Castles and Men, the quarrel continued many years before either could be ejected; yet though the animosity could not be extinguished by a firm and stable peace, yet things were palliated and composed sometimes for the present, by certain Truces and Cessations, by which means (according to the variety of accidents) they were sometimes at quiet, and sometimes together by the Ears. In this Condition Florence continued till the Reign of Frederic II [of Hohenstaufen, Emperor from 1215-1250] who being King of Naples, and desirous to strengthen himself against the Church; to corroborate his interest in Tuscany, joined himself to the Uberti and to their party, by whose assistance the Buondelmonti were driven out of Florence, and that City (as all Italy had done before) began to divide into the Factions of the Guelphs, and the Ghibellines.”

The triumph of the Ghibellines in Florence was, however, brief, as was only natural in a city which was beginning a great commercial and industrial expansion in terms of which the old-line nobility was a constant drain and obstance. The death of Frederic II in 1250 gave the Florentine Guelphs their chance to overthrow the Ghibelline rule and exile the leaders of the Ghibelline faction. The Ghibellines returned temporarily to power after a victory in 1260, but were again and definitively driven out, with the help of Charles of Anjou, in 1266 – a result which was a phase of the broader campaign of the Pope and Charles against the last of the Hohenstaufen.

After a number of experiments in internal adminstration, the government of the city, firmly Guelph, gravitated into the hands of the Merchant Guilds, now representing the chief social force in the town. Membership in a Guild became a prerequisite of political office. The executive power was held by a body of six Priors, elected every two months from each of the six wards into which Florence was divided. In 1293 the remarkable “Ordinances of Justice” placed heavy legal disabilities on the great nobles as individuals and as a class. Nobility, it was said, became a disgrace in the commercially based democracy of the Florentine Republic.

The hope that the suppression of the Ghibellines would end domestic turmoil in Florence quickly vanished. There was too much life there for tranquillity. In 1300 the dominant Florentine Guelphs themselves split into a new factional division: the Neri (“Blacks”) and Bianchi (“Whites”). Here is Machiavelli’s account:

“Never was this City in greater splendor, nor more happy in its condition than then, abounding both in men, riches and reputation. They had 3,000 Citizens in the Town fit to bear Arms, and 70,000 more in their Territory. All Tuscany was at its devotion, partly as subjects, and partly as friends. And though there were still piques and suspicions betwixt the Nobility and the people, yet they did not break out into any ill effect, but all lived quietly and peaceably together; and had not this tranquillity been at length interrupted by dissension within, it had been in no danger from abroad; being in such terms at that time, it neither feared the Empire, nor its Exiles [eg, the Ghibellines], and could have brought a force into the Field equivalent to all the rest of the States in Italy. But that disease from which ab extra it was secure, was engendered in its own bowels.

“There were two Families in Florence, the Cerchi, and the Donati, equally considerable, both in numbers, riches, and dignity; being Neighbors both in City and Country, there happened some exceptions and disgusts betwixt them, but not so great as to bring them to blows, and perhaps they would never have produced any considerable effects, had not their ill humors been agitated and fermented by new occasion. Among the chief Families in Pistoia, there was the Family of Cancellieri: It happened that Lore, the Son of Gulielmo, and Geri, the son of Bertaccio, fell out by accident at play, and passing from words to blows, Geri received a slight wound. Gulielmo was much troubled at the business, and thinking by excess of humility to take off the scandal, he increased it and made it worse. He commanded his Son to go to Geri’s Father’s house, and demand his pardon; Lore obeyed, and went as his Father directed, but that act of humanity did not at all sweeten the acerbity of Bertaccio’s mind, who causing Lore to be seized by his servants (to aggravate the indignity) he caused him to be led by them to the stable, and his hand cut off upon the Manger, with instruction to return to his Father, and to let him know, ‘That wounds are not cured so properly by words, as by amputation.’ Gulielmo was so enraged at the cruelty of the fact, as he and his friends immediately took arms to revenge it; and Bertaccio and his friends doing as much to defend themselves, the whole city of Pistoia was engaged in the quarrel, and divided into two parties. These Cancellieri being both of them descended from one of the Cancellieri who had two Wives, one of them called Bianca: that party which descended from her, called itself Bianca; and the other in opposition [because the name “Bianca” has the same meaning as the word for “white] was called Nera [“black”]. In a short time many conflicts happened betwixt them, many men killed, and many houses destroyed. Not being able to accommodate among themselves, though both sides were weary, they concluded to come to Florence, hoping some expedient would be found out there, or else to fortify their parties by the acquisition of new friends. The Neri having had familiarity with the Donati, were espoused by Corso, the head of that family. The Bianchi, to support themselves against the accession of the Donati, fell in with Veri, the chief of the Cerchi, a man not inferior to Corso in any quality whatsoever…

“In the Month of May, several Holidays being publicly celebrated in Florence, certain young Gentlemen of the Donati, with their friends on Horseback, having stopped near St. Trinity, to see certain Women that were Dancing, it fell out that some of the Cerchi arrived their likewise with some of their friends, and being desirous to see as well the rest, not knowing the Donati were before, they spurred on their horses, and jostled in among them. The Donati looking upon it as an affront, drew their Swords; the Cerchi were as ready to answer them; and after several cuts and slashes given and received, both sides retired. This accident was the occasion of great mischief; the whole City (as well People as Nobility) divided, and took part with the Bianchi and Neri, as their inclinations directed… Nor did this humor extend itself only in the City, but infected the whole Country [that is, all of Tuscany]. Insomuch that the Captains of the Arts [ie, the Guilds], and such as favored the Guelphs, and were Lovers of the Commonwealth, very much apprehended lest this new distraction should prove the ruin of the City, and the restoration of the Ghibellines.”

The last sentence gives the key to the meaning of the new division. The Neri faction, however it did in fact originate, was made up of the firm and unyielding ultra-Guelphs. The Bianchi were a centrist grouping, inclined to try to compromise and bridge the gulf between Guelphs and Ghibellines.

Dante, as an active citizen of Florence, had been brought up as a Guelph. He had enrolled in the Guild of Druggists and Physicians in order to be eligible for political office. When the new conflict broke out, he lined up with the Bianchi faction, though at first, apparently, he concealed his allegiance under a cover of impartiality. In 1300 he was elected as one of the six Priors for the term June 15th to August 15th. The new conflict had by then become threatening. Dante and his fellow Priors, as the chief magistrates of the City, made the mistake of trying to resolve it by banishing simultaneously several leaders of both factions. Probably this was a deceptive maneuver by the Bianchi, who thought thereby to get rid of the Neri leaders and then to readmit their own men at the first opportunity.

The Neri, however, were not so easily reconciled. They were determined, and they had a much firmer line than the Bianchi, who were in reality vacillating between the major camps of Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Neri made a clever move. They appealed to the Pope (Boniface VIII) to arbitrate the dispute. He sent as his delegate to Florence Cardinal Matteo d’Asquaparta. It was hard to make an open objection to this procedure. What more natural and fair than that the spiritual head of Christendom should intervene to compose the quarrels of his erring children? In truth, however, as we have seen, the Pope was the leader of the Guelphs. The object of his intervention would be to swing the decision to his firmest political supporters, the Neri. This the Bianchi well knew, and they therefore refused to accept the offices of Cardinal Matteo, who departed, leaving the city under an interdict.

The religious arm having failed, Boniface turned to the secular. He called upon his old allies of the House of France. At his request, Charles of Valois, brother of King Philip, came to Italy. On November 1, 1301, he entered Florence in great state, still nominally as arbitrator and pacifier. He quickly arranged a purge of the Bianchi. There was issued, on January 27, 1302, a decree of fines and two years’ banishment against Dante and a number of his colleagues. When this was disregarded, a sterner decree was published on March 10th, calling for the death by burning of Dante and fourteen others if they should fall into the hands of the Republic. They were forced thus into exile.

There then occurred what had been sure from the beginning of the Neri-Bianchi division. The Bianchi, routed within Florence, were too weak to recover power unaided. Their only possible allies were the remaining Ghibellines of Tuscany, with whom the Bianchi joined. Before long the Bianchi, toppled from their hopeless center position, were themselves full-fledged Ghibellines.

The united Bianchi-Ghibelline forces were, however, still not strong enough. Their attempts to re-enter Florence by force were repulsed. In a state of disintegration, the last and only hope seemed to be the ancient core of the Ghibelline faction, the Empire itself, and to the Empire their dreams turned. The Emperor would come, like an avenging leopard, to crush the pride and insolence of unbridled Florence. Since the Pope’s success against the Hohenstaufen, however, the Empire, under the guidance for the first time of the cautious and remarkable Hapsburg family, had curbed its ambitions and stayed at home. But the new star of the House of Luxemburg was rising. To it the embittered Ghibellines of Tuscany chained their hopes. In 1308, Henry of Luxemburg was elected Emperor as Henry VII. Dante, in a series of bombastic public letters, called upon his Roman sword to smite the wicked of the Church and the cities, and restore Italy to its imperial grandeur.

“O Italy! henceforth rejoice; though now to be pitied by the very Saracens, yet soon to be envied throughout the world! because thy bridegroom, the most clement Henry, Divus and Augustus and Caesar, is hastening to the bridal. Dry thy tears and remove the marks of grief, O thou fairest one; for nigh at hand is he who shall release thee from the prison of the impious, and, smiting the malicious, shall destroy them with the edge of the sword, and shall give out his vineyard to other husbandmen such as shall render the fruit of justice at time of harvest…

“But you [Florentines], who transgress divine and human law, whom a dire rapaciousness hath found ready to be drawn into every crime, – doth not the dread of the second death pursue you? For ye first and alone, shunning the yoke of liberty, have murmured against the glory of the Roman prince, the king of the world and the minister of God, and on the plea of prescriptive right have refused the duty of the submission which ye owed, and have rather risen up in the insanity of rebellion!…”

Henry did at last come down into Italy. But he could make up his mind to nothing; he dallied sluggishly with his army, undertaking and lifting half-hearted sieges of the towns. In 1313 he fell ill and died. The rhetorical balloons of the Ghibelline exiles thus ingloriously burst. Dante never re-entered Florence. The rest of his days were spent wandering among the households of the remaining Ghibelline princes in northern Italy. His revenge on his Guelph enemies had to be satisfied by thrusting them into the worst torments of his Inferno. For Boniface VIII, ultimate author of his defeats, though he was not dead in 1300 – the date which Dante assigns to his journey through Hell and Purgatory and Heaven – a particularly hideous spot in Hell is duly reserved and waiting. {Inferno, Canto XIX. Nicholas III, Boniface’s predecessor, is already there, stuffed head first into a narrow hole, with flames moving eternally over both his feet. As Dante goes by, he stops to talk to the inverted Nicholas. With a marvelous sense of irony, Nicholas is made to mistake Dante for Boniface.}

* * *

We are now in a position to understand the real meaning of De Monarchia.

Eternal salvation, the highest development of man’s potentialities, everlasting peace, unity, and harmony, the delicate balance of abstract relations between Church and State, all these ghosts and myths evaporate, along with the whole elaborate structure of theology, metaphysics, allegory, miracle, and fable. The entire formal meaning, which has told us nothing and proved nothing, assumes its genuine role of merely expressing and disguising the real meaning. This real meaning is simply an impassioned propagandistic defense of the point of view of the turncoat Bianchi exiles from Florence, specifically; and more generally of the broader Ghibelline point of view to which these Bianchi capitulated. De Monarchia is, we might say, a Ghibelline Party Platform.

It should not be imagined, however, that this point of view is argued rationally, that there is offered in its favor any proof or evidence, that any demonstration is attempted to show that its acceptance would contribute to human welfare. The proof and evidence and demonstration, such as they are, are all devoted to the mysteries of the formal meaning. The real meaning is expressed and projected indirectly through the formal meaning, and is supported by nothing more than emotion, prejudice, and confusion. The real aims are thus intellectually irresponsible, subject to no intellectual check or control. Even if they were justifiable, the case for them is in no degree established.

The ostensible goals of the formal argument are noble, high-minded, what people often call “idealistic.” This serves to create a favorable emotional response in the reader, to disarm him, to lead him to believe in the “good will” of the author. The unwary reader carries this attitude over to the practical aims of the real argument. But what of these latter aims, what do they concretely amount to? When we dig behind the formal facade, they emerge as vengeful and reactionary.

They are the aims of an embittered and incompetent set of traitors. Dante and his friends had failed miserably in their political careers. They had been defeated in an attempt to take over the government of their country. Quite properly, in accordance with the customs of the time, and for the interests of internal security, they had been exiled. They then joined with the disintegrated forces of earlier exiles, whose only wish was to revenge themselves on Florence, and to destroy her power. The enlarged group also failed. They then crawled slavishly to the feet of the Republic’s oldest and most thorough enemy – the Emperor – begging him to do what they were too weak and too stupid to have done. The aims of the Empire in northern Italy were very far indeed from eternal salvation, universal peace, and the highest development of man’s potentialities. The Empire clutched greedily after the amazing wealth and resources of these remarkable cities, and dreamed of reducing their proud, fierce independence to the tyrannical rule of its Gauleiters.

In those days, by an odd conjuncture, the Papacy with the Guelph faction was supporting the most progressive developments in society. It was the newly rising class of burghers in the cities that was just beginning to break the now withering hand of feudalism. The burghers were expanding trade and industry – already the splendid woolens finished in Florence, and the gold-piece (“florins,” they were called) which its citizens had resolved to protect against the hitherto universal practice of debasement, were becoming known throughout the western world. The merchants were reopening among men links of social communication that involved more of life than war and pillage. Nor was it merely trade and industry that were advancing: the new riches were being transformed into an art that was perhaps the most magnificent the world has ever known (Giotto himself was Dante’s contemporary), and were stimulating a renewed interest in the endless possibilities of a more truly human knowledge.

Naturally, the great nobles looked with alarm. They and their ways could have little place in this new world. The economic position of the nobles rested on the land, on an agriculture carried out by serfs and villeins tied to the soil. The burghers wanted men to work in the shops. The cities subordinated the countryside to themselves, exploiting itself ruthlessly, it is true, to supply cheap food and raw materials. The nobles were trained only for war – war conducted as the personal combat of knights – and political intrigue. The burghers wanted less war, because it interfered with commercial prosperity; and, when it came, wanted it for valuable economic ends (a port or a source of supplies or a market). They wanted a politics and government by law instead of by personal privilege.

The great nobles, in short, and their party, the Ghibellines, wanted to stop history short; more, wanted to go back to their full day, which was already beginning to end, its twilight first seen in these Italian cities. Dante, whom commentators willing to judge from surfaces are so fond of calling “the first modern man,” “the precursor of the Renaissance,” was their spokesman. His practical political aims toward his country were traitorous; his sociological allegiance was reactionary. Without his exile, true enough, it may well be that he would never have written his poem. A rotten politics, which besides had no appreciable influence on the course of political events, was no doubt a small price to pay for so marvelous a human gain. But there is an intellectual advantage in separating the two, the poetry and the politics, for judgment.

3. The Typical Method of Political Thought

It is easy to dismiss De Monarchia as having a solely historical, archaic, or biographical interest. Few now would consider it seriously as a study of the nature and laws of politics, of political behavior and principles. We seldom, now, talk about “eternal salvation” in political treatises; there is no more Holy Roman Empire; scholastic metaphysics is a mystery for all but the neo-Thomists; it is not fashionable to settle arguments by appeal to religious miracles and allegorical parables from the Bible or the Fathers.

All this is so, and yet it would be a great error to suppose that Dante’s method, in De Monarchia, is outworn. His method is exactly that of the Democratic Platform with which we began our inquiry. It has been and continues to be the method of nine-tenths, yes, much more than nine-tenths, of all writing and speaking in the field of politics. The myths, the ghosts, the idealistic abstractions, change name and form, but the method persistently remains. It is, then, important to be entirely clear about the general features of this method. They may be summarized as follows:

1. There is a sharp divorce between what I have called the formal meaning, the formal aims and arguments, and the real meaning, the real aims and argument (if there is, as there usually is not, any real argument).

2. The formal aims and goals are for the most part either or altogether supernatural or metaphysical-transcendental – in both cases meaningless from the point of view of real actions in the real world of space and time and history; or, if they have some empirical meaning, are impossible to achieve under the actual conditions of social life. In all three cases, the dependence of the whole structure of reasoning upon such goals makes it impossible for the writer (or speaker) to give a true descriptive account of the way men actually behave. A systematic distortion of the truth takes place. And, obviously, it cannot be shown how the goals might be reached, since, being unreal, they cannot be reached.

3. From a purely logical point of view, the arguments offered for the formal aims and goals may be valid or fallacious; but, except by accident, they are necessarily irrelevant to real political problems, since they are designed to prove the ostensible points of the formal structure – points of religion or metaphysics, or the abstract desirability of some utopian ideal.

4. The formal meaning serves as an indirect expression of the real meaning – that is, of the concrete meaning of the political treatise taken in its real context, in its relation to the actualities of the social and historical situation in which it functions. But at the same time that it expresses, it also disguises the real meaning. We think we are debating universal peace, salvation, a unified world government, and the relations between Church and State, when what is really at issue is whether the Florentine Republic is to be run by its own citizens or submitted to the exploitation of a reactionary foreign monarch. We think, with the delegates at the Council of Nicea, that the discussion is concerned with the definition of God’s essence, when the real problem is whether the Mediterranean world is to be politically centralized under Rome, or divided. We believe we are disputing the merits of a balanced budget or a sound currency when the real conflict is deciding what group shall regulate the distribution of that currency. We imagine we are arguing over the moral and legal status of the principle of the freedom of the seas when the real question is who is to control the seas.

5. From this it follows that the real meaning, the real goal and aims, are left irresponsible. In Dante’s case the aims were also vicious and reactionary. This need not be the case, but, when this method is used, they are always irresponsible. Even if the real aims are such as to contribute to human welfare, no proof or evidence for this is offered. Proof and evidence, so far as they are present at all, remain at the formal level. The real aims are accepted, even if right, for the wrong reasons. The high-minded words of the formal meaning serve only to arouse passion and prejudice and sentimentality in favor of the disguised real aims.

This method, whose intellectual consequence is merely to confuse and hide, can teach us nothing of the truth, can in no way help us to solve the problems of our political life. In the hands of the powerful and their spokesmen, however, used by demagogues and hypocrites or simply the self-deluded, this method is well designed, and the best, to deceive us, and to lead us by easy routes to the sacrifice of our own interests and dignity in the service of the mighty.

* * *

The chief historical effects of the French Revolution were to break up the system of the French monarchy, with its privileged financiers and courtiers, to remove a number of feudal restrictions on capitalist methods of production, and to put the French capitalists into a position of greater social power. It might have been argued, prior to the Revolution, that these goals promised to contribute to the welfare of the French people and perhaps of mankind. Evidence for and against this expectation might have been assembled. However, this was not the procedure generally followed by the ideologists of the Revolution. They based their treatises not upon an examination of the facts, but upon supposedly fundamental and really quite mythical notions of a primitive “state of nature,” the “natural goodness of man,” the “social contract,” and similar nonsense. Naturally, the workers and peasants were disappointed by the outcome, after so much blood; but, oddly enough, most of France seemed to feel not many years later that the aims of the Revolution were well enough realized in the dictatorship of Bonaparte.

No doubt European unification under Hitler would have been evil for the European peoples and the world. But this is no more proved by complicated deductions to show the derivation of Nazi thought from Hegelian dialectic and the philosophical poetry of Nietzsche than is the contradictory by Hitler’s own mystical pseudo-biology. “Freedom from want” is very nearly as meaningless, in terms of real politics, as “eternal salvation” – men are wanting beings; they are freed from want only by death. Whatever the book or article or speech on political matters that we turn to – those of a journalist like Pierre van Paasen, a demagogue like Hitler, a professor like Max Lerner, a chairman of a sociology department like Pitirim Sorokin, a revolutionist like Lenin, a trapped idealist like Henry Wallace, a bull-dozing rhetorician like Churchill, a preacher out of a church like Norman Thomas or one in like Bishop Manning, the Pope or the ministers of the Mikado – in the case of all of them we find that, though there may be incidental passages which increase our fund of real information, the integrating method and the whole conception of politics is precisely that of Dante. Gods, whether of Progress or the Old Testament, ghosts of saintly, or revolutionary, ancestors, abstracted moral imperatives, ideals cut off wholly from mere earth and mankind, utopias beckoning from the marsh of never-never land – these, and not the facts of social life together with probably generalizations based on those facts, exercise the final controls over arguments and conclusions. Political analysis becomes, like other dreams, the expression of human wish or the admission of practical failure.


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