Dante Alighieri was born at Florence under the sign of Gemini in 1265. His mother died in the early 1270s, and he went to the Franciscan school of Santa Croce. On May 1, 1274 he met Beatrice Portinari, who was a few months younger than he. On February 9, 1277 Dante was betrothed to Gemma Donati. Dante’s second significant meeting with Beatrice was in 1283, and he married Gemma in 1285. Dante’s father died in the early 1280s, and he was left with his stepmother. At the age of eighteen Dante took over the family’s business, and he sold letters of credit for funds. In late 1287 Beatrice married Simone de’Bardi and went to live with him in Oltrarno. Dante participated in military service for Florence, and on June 11, 1289 he fought in the Florentine cavalry against the Ghibellines at Arezzo. The podesta Corso Donati led a successful attack, and the Aretines were defeated, having 1,700 killed and 3,000 taken prisoner.
As a young man Dante wrote the romantic poems of The New Life (La Vita Nuova) between 1283 and 1291 and then the prose commentaries connecting them from 1292 to 1295. He began by describing his first meeting with Beatrice, who is dressed in red, when he was nearly nine years old. The first time she spoke to him was exactly nine years later, and she is dressed in white. He feels blessed and goes home and falls asleep. Dante dreams that he sees his master Love holding Beatrice in his arms; she is naked except she is wrapped in a crimson cloth. Love gives her Dante’s heart to eat, and he weeps bitterly. He sends this poem to his friends, and his best friend Guido Cavalcanti encourages him. Dante feels weak in her presence, and one day another woman thinks he is looking at her. Dante decides she can be a “screen” to cover his secret love. Others begin to talk about his love for this woman, and one day Beatrice fails to return his greeting. Dante is heartbroken. Her presence makes him “glow with the flame of charity” so that he will forgive all who ever injured him. He has a vision of Love, who urges him to write a poem about his feelings toward her. This takes the form of a ballad asking for mercy.
At a wedding when Dante sees Beatrice and nearly collapses, women and Beatrice laugh at him. He writes that when Love slays his spirits, he cannot explain this to anyone who is not devoted to Love. When ladies tell him he is writing about his own condition, he decides to praise Beatrice in poetry. He describes her as having heavenly virtues. He addresses the ladies and says that they know what love is by insight. A friend asks Dante to write about Love itself. He begins a sonnet, “Love and a gentle heart are a single thing.” (20) He finds beauty in a virtuous woman’s face that awakens Love’s spirit.
When Beatrice grieves over her father’s death, Dante mourns in sympathy for her, and he is ill for nine days absorbed in thoughts of mortality. He sees Beatrice approaching with the woman who is beloved by Guido Cavalcanti, and Love speaks from his heart. Dante writes sonnets about how seeing her awakens love. Then suddenly he learns that Beatrice has died on June 8, 1290. He grieves so much that for a while he can not write. He believes that God took her to heaven because of her virtue and humility. He sees a woman in a window taking pity on his suffering, and he hopes that she will assuage his grief. Then he deprecates himself for being unfaithful to the memory of Beatrice. He describes the conflict between the desire in his heart for the woman in the window and his soul’s attachment to Beatrice. When Beatrice appears to him in a vision, he repents his attraction to the other lady. During the Easter festival of 1292 he writes a sonnet about the pilgrims. Finally he concludes this work with the vow that he will not write about Beatrice again until he can do so in a worthy way.
Faced with death, Dante found relief in reading The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and in Cicero’s essay “On Friendship.” While staying with Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella, he studied the theology of Thomas Aquinas, and his time at the Franciscan school in Santa Croce resulted in his being influenced by the mystical theology of Bonaventure.
In 1295 Dante entered politics by joining the Guild of Doctors and Pharmacists, and he served on the Council to the Captain of the People from November 1295 to April 1296. Then for five months he was on the Council of the Hundred and opposed the magnates. On May 7, 1300 he was nominated ambassador to San Gimignano and was sent to consolidate the Guelf league in support of Pope Boniface VIII in his crusade against the Aldobrandeschi family of Santa Flora. Dante was elected as one of the six priors who ruled Florence from June 15 to August 14, 1300. At the time Florence was rife with civic strife between two groups called the Whites and the Blacks. In his History of Florence Machiavelli mentioned how Dante tried to make peace.
Both parties being in arms, the Signory,
one of whom at that time was the poet Dante,
took courage, and from his advice and prudence,
caused the people to rise for the preservation of order,
and being joined by many from the country,
they compelled the leaders of both parties
to lay aside their arms,
and banished Corso, with many of the Neri (Blacks).
And as an evidence of the impartiality of their motives,
they also banished many of the Bianchi (Whites),
who, however, soon afterward,
under pretense of some justifiable cause, returned.1
Corso Donati was a relative of Dante’s wife, and he had also agreed to banish his best friend, the poet Guido Cavalcanti, in his effort to be fair. The next priors recalled the Whites from exile, and in the spring of 1301 the Blacks met in the church of Santa Trinita to try to take power. Dante led a group of Whites, and three times in September he urged that full power be given to the priors.
Dante as a White opposed the interference of Pope Boniface VIII, who sent Charles of Valois to intervene. After Charles of Valois came to the Black headquarters on October 4, Dante was one of three envoys who went with four Bolognese lawyers to the Pope. Charles entered Florence on November 1 and was supported by the extreme Blacks. Charles helped the Blacks to power and exiled more than six hundred Whites. While in exile Dante was convicted of malfeasance with public funds on January 27, 1302 and was sentenced to pay 5,000 florins within three days and remain in exile from Tuscany for two years. As Dante was not there to pay the fine, on March 10 he and fourteen others by default were condemned to death. At first Dante and other White Guelfs tried to raise military aid for the Ubaldini Ghibellines to attack Florence; but after Benedict XI became pope, he hoped for peace. In March 1304 Benedict sent Cardinal Nicolo da Prato to Florence to mediate. Dante supported reconciliation and refused to take up arms against his native city of Florence even though he “formed a party by himself.” After Benedict died in July, the Whites who fought were defeated at La Lastra on July 20.
Dante spent the next two years in Bologna studying philosophy, law, and rhetoric. He began writing De vulgari eloquentia in Latin tracing the history of poetry in the vernacular Italian. He never completed this book and started writing The Banquet (Il Convivio). The commune of Bologna expelled Dante with the Florence exiles on October 1, 1306. Dante was sent by Marchese Franceschino Malaspina as an ambassador to Sarzana, where on October 6 he concluded a peace with the bishop of Luni.
Dante continued to work on The Banquet during his wanderings in the next two years. He planned fifteen treatises but completed only four books of The Banquet. He tried to explain moral principles. In the first book he suggested that people not talk about themselves because they either praise or blame themselves. Both are to be avoided because no one is capable of judging oneself truly and justly because self-love deceives us. Yet he found that Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy wrote to clear his reputation of infamy, and Augustine in his Confessions instructed readers by his example. Dante hoped to do the same. He wrote that a gift will be useful to the recipient if it is given in joy, changes things for the better, gains friends, and is a free act. He believed that those who acquire education only to gain money or status are not truly educated.
Each of the other three books of The Banquet begins with a canzone and then has a longer prose section that interprets the poetry. In the first canzone Dante addresses the creative intelligence of the heavens as one who could understand what is going on in his heart. The lady (Beatrice) he loves from afar has deeply transformed his life.
The second canzone begins “Love which speaks to me within my mind about my lady,” but he feels he is unable to express what he hears. For this he blames his own weak intellect. Divine power extends into her as it does into an angel, and her gracious actions display Love. Her sweet smile draws one toward paradise. The author realizes that when he called her proud, he was mistaken. In his commentary Dante delineates four ways by which poetry may be understood. First is the literal meaning of the words in the story. Second is the allegorical truth that is hidden under the beautiful fiction. Third is the moral significance that teachers notice. The fourth Dante called anagogical and is the spiritual or mystical interpretation relating to eternal life. He reminds us that all four meanings depend on the literal sense. Dante believes that humans are drawn to what expresses the goodness of God, and so the quality of one’s soul is shown by what one loves. He explains that only humans and angels love truth and virtue. Human beings reflect God’s goodness in varying degrees. Some who do not use reason are like animals, and others are similar to angels. His lady’s eyes reflect the six emotions that Aristotle considered proper for humans—graciousness, zeal, pity, envy, love, and shame. Her mouth reveals the soul. Dante believes that the beauty of philosophy is ethics.
In the third canzone Dante refutes the notion that wealth is the basis of nobility. Some consider a man noble if he comes from a family that has been rich for several generations. Disagreeing with common opinion, Dante holds that riches neither add nor take away nobility because they are by their nature base. No matter how many riches one has, they do not remove desire for more or the anxiety of losing them. Yet the upright person is not shattered by their loss. One is not born noble, but for Dante nobility comes from virtue. Wherever virtue is present, nobility is found; but the reverse is not true. The noble soul displays itself in each stage of life. As a youth it is obedient, gentle, and modest, and then the body develops in beauty and harmony. The mature person is courageous, self-controlled, and strong but with love and courtesy and loyalty. In old age the noble are prudent, just, and generous. In the last phase of life the noble soul prepares for union with God. Dante explains that the good person directs one’s efforts to things more important than accumulating riches such as performing beneficial actions that develop friendships.
In November 1308 Heinrich VII of Luxembourg was elected king of the Romans. In 1310 when Heinrich VII set off for Rome with the Pope’s approval to restore peace in Italy, Dante wrote a letter to the princes and people of Italy asking them to welcome Heinrich as a peace-bringer. Dante was present at Milan in January 1311 when Heinrich was crowned king of Lombardy. On March 31 he wrote an open letter to the Florentines criticizing them for not opening their gates to Heinrich as the Holy Roman Emperor; he warned them that if they did not change, Heinrich might invade and destroy their walls. On April 16 Dante wrote to Heinrich urging him to take Florence by force in order to gain control of Italy. Heinrich became preoccupied with a siege of Brescia, and at the beginning of 1312 he condemned the Florentines as rebels against the empire. Heinrich was crowned at Rome in June but not at St. Peter’s by the Pope but in the church of St. John Lateran by a cardinal from Prato. Heinrich’s wife died, and he did not invade Florence. He came down with malaria and died on August 24, 1313.
From late 1312 until 1318 Dante spent most of his time in Verona, where he was supported by its ruler Can Grande della Scala, whom Heinrich had named imperial vicar on March 7, 1311. Pope John XXII condemned Can Grande and imposed interdiction against Verona, and on December 16, 1317 the Pope excommunicated the Ghibellines Can Grande and Matteo Visconti of Milan, and Passarino Bonaccolsi of Mantua. During this time Dante wrote his political treatise De Monarchia (translated as On World-Government) to refute the papal claim of worldly power over the emperor, and he urged everyone to accept the Emperor as the temporal sovereign authority who could unite the world under one rule of law.
In the first book of De Monarchia Dante argued that humanity needs unity and peace. He noted that the knowledge of a single government for all humanity is most important but has been least explored. Since his higher nature loved truth, Dante felt that he should use his capabilities to work for posterity to help future generations by publishing useful truths that have been neglected by others. He believed that the knowledge of one government has been disregarded because it is not immediately gainful. Dante suggested that the goal of human civilization should be the same as that for all particular civilizations and that the need was not merely for thought but for action. He believed that human intelligence aims at this conclusion because the best means to the happiness of all is universal peace. Similarly the wisdom of individuals can best develop when they are able to sit in peaceful tranquility. Thus the angelic host announced to the shepherds glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace to people of good will. Jesus and the early Christians greeted each other “Peace be with you.”
Dante followed Aristotle in arguing that one must regulate and rule, and the others must be regulated. Thus for an individual to find happiness the intellect must be the guide; the household must have a head; and every community needs a leader. A kingdom divided against itself will be destroyed. So the well-being of the world requires a single government. Human government is only a part of the larger administration of the universe by the one God. Humans are most like God when they act like God in unity. Humanity should follow the pattern of God, who rules the heavens. Dante quoted from The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.
O happy human race,
if love guides your souls
as heaven is guided!2
Dante prophesied that human governments would be imperfect as long as they are not subordinate to a supreme tribunal because there must be adjudication between them. Thus the one government must provide a supreme judge to settle conflicts. Dante believed that the world government is likely to be least greedy and most just because it has nothing more to gain. Justice can be obscured by will when it is not free of greed. In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle pointed out that greed is the opposite of justice. Dante believed that charity and joy in being just refine and enlighten justice. The world government by already being most powerful can afford to be most charitable and devoted to the good of all.
Dante believed that humanity is at its best when it is most free, and for him this human freedom consisted of being ruled by reason and living for the good of all. Such freedom is only possible under a united government. Lower animals are not free because they are dominated by their appetites. Those who let their desires block their judgments are slaves of their desires. Only a single government for the world can check the abuses of partial governments, whether they be democracies, oligarchies, or tyrannies. These perverted politicians can enslave people. Laws are made for the sake of social order, not the reverse, and those who follow them do so for that purpose, not for the sake of the legislators. The legislators should serve law; laws should not be made to benefit the legislators. The world government itself must be ruled by the universal laws that are for the good of all and should be regarded as the servant of all.
Dante believed that a world government is most apt to be reasonable because it has fewer obstacles from selfish interests that might prevent it from attaining universal justice than any other government. The universal government could guide the particular governments by establishing laws that lead all people to peace. Nations, states, and cities have their own internal concerns that require special laws; but the world government could provide the more general laws that lead all to peace. Dante noted that Moses composed general laws but appointed chiefs to make judgments for the tribes. Dante believed that concord in a person or a social group depends on unified will.
All concord depends on a unity of wills;
the best state of mankind is a kind of concord,
for as a man is in excellent health
when he enjoys concord in soul and body,
and similarly a family, city, or state,
so mankind as a whole.
Therefore, the well-being of mankind
depends on the unity of its wills.3
Dante cried out to humanity to see how greed has torn apart the seamless garment of peace, and to urge them to act he concluded the first book of De Monarchia by quoting the beginning of the Second Psalm.
Behold how good and how pleasant it is
for brethren to dwell together in unity.
Why have the nations raged,
and the people devised vain things?
The kings of the earth stood up
and the princes met together against the Lord,
and against his Christ.
Let us break their bonds asunder:
and let us cast away their yoke from us.4
In the second book of De Monarchia Dante argued that Roman rule of the world was acquired by right. This is obviously questionable. In the third book he suggested that the emperor was sanctioned directly from God and not through the pope. He argued that although the Church may hold the spiritual power, the temporal power should belong to the emperor. Also in an era when most governments had been dominated by kings and emperors for many centuries it is not surprising that Dante would visualize his call for a single government in one person, especially as he had suffered personally from the strife in Florence under its experiments as a republican city-state. In this he failed to see the danger of tyranny from a single ruler. Yet many of his arguments and fundamental principles are of great value. He was the first to argue so persuasively for the unity of a world government that could establish a supreme court to settle all international disputes; in this he planted an important seed. His turning away from the authority of the Church as a practical and political peacemaker also indicated the trend toward secular government and the separation of church and state.
Here are some good quotes from De Monarchia:
Since individual men find that
they grow in prudence and wisdom
when they can sit quietly,
it is evident that mankind, too,
is most free and easy to carry on its work
when it enjoys the quiet and tranquility of peace.5
Justice has greatest power under a unitary government;
therefore the best order of the world
The human race is at its best when most free.7
O humanity, in how many storms must you be tossed,
how many shipwrecks must you endure,
so long as you turn yourself into a many-headed beast
lusting after a multiplicity of things!
You are ailing in both your intellectual powers,
as well as in heart:
you pay no heed
to the unshakable principles of your higher intellect,
nor illumine your lower intellect with experience,
nor tune your heart to the sweetness of divine counsel
when it is breathed into you
through the trumpet of the Holy Spirit:
“Behold how good and pleasant it is
for brethren to dwell together in unity.”8
In 1308 Dante abandoned the writing of The Banquet and began working on his Commedia. He completed the 34 cantos of the Inferno in 1314 and began circulating copies. The first canto is a general introduction to the Commedia. Dante the poet writes about himself as a pilgrim who begins a journey midway in his life at the age of 35. He realizes he has wandered off the straight path and finds himself in a savage wilderness. To show the good that comes out of this he has to talk about things that are not good. He assumes he strayed from the true path when he was sleepy, and in a valley he feels deep fear. As he begins to climb up the steep slope, he sees a leopard that blocks his way at every turn. Consoled by sunshine and the chance of escaping, he is plunged into fear again when he sees a hungry lion coming at him. Then he notices a lean and greedy she-wolf, and he decides not to try going up the hill. Dante sees a man coming toward him, and he learns that he is the Roman poet Virgil, whom he considers his teacher. Virgil tells Dante he must travel on another road. The Latin poet also says that a man will save fallen Italy, and the signs appear to point to Can Grande della Scala of Verona. Virgil promises to be Dante’s guide out through an eternal place; but on the way he will see the tormented shades of hell suffering the second death. Then they will see those who have hope of escaping their burning. Dante asks him to take him to the gate that Saint Peter guards.
In the second canto Dante asks Virgil why he is being allowed to visit hell as did Aeneas and Saint Paul. The ancient poet explains that the blessed lady (Mary) instructed Saint Lucia and Beatrice to help him find freedom. A man should fear only those things that have power to do him harm, and the fires of hell are no threat to them. Dante is freed of his fear and trusts his guide and teacher to lead him. As they approach the gates of hell, they see a sign that says, “Abandon every hope all you who enter.”9 They are about to enter the place where souls have lost the good of intellect; but first they see sad souls who lived lives of neither blame nor praise. They were neutral and inactive, but now they follow after any banner. The wretches are naked and are stung by hornets and wasps around them. They are cursing God, their parents, and the human race. Before they make the journey across to hell, Dante falls asleep.
Dante awakes in Limbo, the first circle of hell, and Virgil leads him into the sightless world. These souls grieve but are not tormented because they did not sin; but they were not baptized. Without hope they live in desire. Dante learns how a mighty Lord (Christ) came and released Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Israel, and Rachel. Dante sees many noble pagans such as Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, who welcome the two fellow poets. Other heroic non-Christians they see are Hector, Aeneas, Caesar, Camilla, Penthesilia, and Brutus who founded the Roman republic. Other noble women include Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia. Saladin is alone. Greek philosophers are the great Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Democritus, Diogenes, Thales, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Zeno, and Heraclitus. There are also Orpheus, Cicero, Seneca, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, and Galen as well as Avicenna and Averroes, who wrote commentaries on Aristotle.
In the next circle they first see Minos, who judges those entering hell and sends them to their punishment. In the upper part of hell are punished the sins that result from what Aristotle called the uncontrolled passions. Here are those who have made their reason a slave to appetite and committed the sin of lust. Queen Semiramis made laws to give license to lust. Cleopatra loved men’s lusting, and Helen’s adultery provoked a major war. Francesca da Rimini tempted Paolo Malatesta, and her husband slew them while they were embracing. She tells Dante, “There is no greater pain than to remember, in our present grief, past happiness.”10 In the third circle they see the three-headed dog Cerberus. Here gluttons suffer under rain and howl like dogs. As they enter the fourth circle of hell, they see Plutus, the god of wealth and find the prodigal, miserly, and the avaricious that include priests, cardinals, and popes. The angry fight each other and with teeth tear into limbs. The slothful are so sluggish that they are mired in slime. The gates to the infernal city of Dis are slammed in Virgil’s face.
Aristotle categorized the violent with other forms of bestiality. The two pilgrims see the three Furies, and between the realms of the intemperate and the violent are the heretics who hold false beliefs. Many Epicureans sought only pleasure in life and do not believe in the immortality of the soul. Dante’s friend Guido Cavalcanti and his father are among these. Emperor Friedrich II and the Ghibelline cardinal Ottaviano degli Ubaldini were also considered heretics. In the sixth circle the two poets approach the stench of the violent. Yet God hates malice and the fraudulent even more, and they suffer the most in the lower hell. One may commit violence against oneself by suicide, against others by murder, or against God by cursing or despising Nature. The deceitful include hypocrites, flatterers, sorcerers, liars, thieves, simonists, panderers, seducers, and grafters. Usurers are also punished.
Among the bestial they see the Minotaur and Centaurs. The souls of the violent are being boiled in a river of blood. They include Alexander, Dionysius, Attila, and Pyrrhus. Alexander may refer to the imperial Macedonian conqueror or to the cruel Alexander of Pherae, and Dionysius may be the tyrant of Sicily or his son. Dante also saw the Ghibelline tyrant Ezzelino da Romano and infamous highway robbers from Italy. After crossing the Phlegethon River, tearing a branch off a thorn-bush enables Dante to have a conversation with a Florentine who hanged himself. On burning sand they find blasphemers and wandering usurers and sodomites. Dante recognizes his teacher Brunetto Latini. The flying monster Geryon takes Dante for a ride so that he can see from above. In the eighth circle of hell they find pimps, seducers, and flatterers. They see Jason, who seduced Hypsipyle, and the sluttish whore Thais is covered with excrement.
Virgil and Dante see the legs of Pope Nicholas III, who is expecting Boniface VIII, and many Simonists are being punished. Teiresias and other soothsayers are there. Devils escort the pilgrims to a bridge. Corrupt officials are squatting in pitch. Hypocrites wear gilded cloaks that are weighed down with lead. Caiaphas is impaled because he persuaded Pharisees to turn over Jesus to the Romans. They are told that the devil is a liar and the father of all lies. Many thieves are in the darkness. A heap of ashes was Vanni Fucci, who stole the treasure from the church of San Zeno at Pistoia, and he predicts conflict in Florence. A split flame turns out to be Ulysses and Diomed. The former tells how he sailed beyond the Mediterranean and drowned in the great ocean. Guido da Montefeltro gave bad advice to Pope Boniface, who then promised a pardon to the Colonna family.
Muhammad is deformed and torn for rejecting Christ by starting a new religion, and his son-in-law Ali is punished for causing a schism and civil war. Fra Dolcino was condemned as a heretic by Pope Clement V for starting a sect that shared their property and their women; he and Margaret of Trent were burned in 1307. Pier da Medicina caused conflict between the Polenta and Malatesta families. Caius Scribonius Curia persuaded Julius Caesar to cross the Rubicon and fight a civil war. Bertran de Born was a troubadour from Provencal who urged Henry to rebel against his father Henry II of England. He admits he lost his wits and carries his head in his hand, an example of Dante’s contrapasso, punishments that bring poetic justice. Like karma, sins bring their own punishment with their consequences. Falsifiers are plagued with various diseases. Master Adamo is thirsty because he counterfeited florins. Virgil reproaches Dante for having sympathy for the suffering of the sinners, and he gradually becomes more detached. Nimrod is blamed for dividing the languages of the world and creating the tower of Babel. Giants and others in their pride and envy tried to rebel against God. Lucifer and the Titans are among the worst offenders. Antenora is punished for betraying Troy to the Greeks. The Ghibelline leader Buoso da Duera was bribed by Charles of Anjou to let the French pass. Ganelon betrayed Roland and the Franks to the Saracens.
Dante criticizes Pisa for killing four innocent children of Count Ugolino. In the third division called Tolomea of the lowest realm Cocytus, those who betrayed guests are punished. Alberigo di Ugolino suffers being frozen for having his dinner guests murdered. In the very lowest place stands Lucifer, frozen from his chest down. Judas Iscariot has his head in ice with his legs kicking. Brutus and Cassius also suffer there for having assassinated Caesar. Finally Virgil guides Dante to climb out of hell through an opening, and once again they can see the stars in heaven.
The second realm in which Dante travels is a mountain where souls are purified so that they become worthy to ascend to heaven. Virgil is guiding Dante toward his freedom. In the waiting area before they enter purgatory, they meet the ancient Cato of Utica, who killed himself rather than be enslaved by Caesar. Here they can see the sun, and the living Dante is the only one who casts a shadow. More than a hundred souls arrive in a ship, but not all are ready to enter purgatory. Manfred and others are waiting there because they delayed repenting, though sincere prayers from those on Earth may shorten their terms. Manfred was excommunicated twice; but because he repented before he died, he may be saved.
The two poets begin climbing the steep mountain and have to use both hands. Virgil explains that the climb is most difficult at first and will get easier as they ascend. Dante sees his old friend Belacqua. He is one of the indolent who delayed repenting, and he has to wait as many years there before he can enter purgatory. Belacqua mentions that prayers from a heart living in grace may shorten his wait. As they leave the indolent, Dante looks back and his shadow is seen by some. Virgil warns him about lagging behind and losing sight of his goal. They meet a group of souls who repented only moments before their violent deaths. Pia asks Dante to remember her.
Dante recognizes several people he knew and frees himself from these Italians by promising to ask others to intercede for them. He asks the Roman poet if he believes in the power of prayer. Virgil replies that he does and that Beatrice will explain it to him more fully on the mountaintop. The two poets ask Sordello the way to the upward path. Dante reflects on how politically active Florence is but laments their corruption. Sordello offers to guide them and explains that no one can make progress on the mountain of purgatory at night. They spend the night on a ledge and see several negligent rulers such as the Hapsburg emperor Rudolf, Ottokar II of Bohemia, his son Wenceslaus IV, Pedro III of Aragon, Philippe IV of France, Charles of Anjou, Jaime II and Frederic of Sicily, and Henry III of England.
The pilgrims find a group of souls singing hymns, and two angels appear to protect them from a serpent. Dante talks with Pisa’s former podesta Nino Visconti and the noble Corrado Malaspina. Dante falls asleep and dreams he is taken by an eagle to a fire. He wakes, and Virgil tells him that the lady Lucia carried him to the gates of purgatory. They go up three steps that symbolize the three stages of repentance: self-examination, contrition, and penance. A guardian angel writes seven Ps on the pilgrim’s forehead and advises him to wash away those wounds there. He unlocks the gate and warns Dante that if he looks back, he will be expelled. Dante enters and hears the hymn Te Deum laudamus.
When the pilgrims have entered the narrow way through the gate, they see three acts of humility carved in marble. In the first an angel announces to Mary her mission; in the second David dances before the Ark of the Covenant; and in the third Emperor Trajan stops his army to listen to a poor widow’s plea. Here the proud carry crushing slabs of stone on their backs and pray to God the Father in heaven. Virgil asks them which is the quickest way up the mountain. Omberto Aldobrandesco says that pride ruined his entire house after he abandoned the Ghibellines to join the Guelfs of Florence. The artist Oderisi of Gubbio recognizes Dante, who admits that Giotto is currently most celebrated. Provenzan Salvani is doing penance for having tried to get Siena to destroy Florence. Dante sees carvings on the rocky floor of Satan falling from Heaven, the giant Briareus, Apollo (Thymbraeus), Nimrod who built the Tower of Babel, weeping Niobe, King Saul, weaving Arachne, Solomon’s son Rehoboam, the matricide Alcmeon, Assyrian king Sennacherib, the Scythian queen Tomyris, Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes, and the defeated Trojans. The angel of Humility brushes a P from Dante’s forehead as Pride is purged away.
At the next cornice they encounter Envy, and they hear Mary saying, “They have no wine.” Pylades is another good example when he says he is his friend Orestes to protect him. Jesus teaches people, “Love those who do you harm.”11 The envious are atoning for their envy with their eyes sewn shut. Sapia, who helped defeat her own town of Siena, asks Dante to pray for her. He also talks with some envious Italians from Tuscany. Virgil explains that heavenly gifts keep on giving. Worldly things that are shared diminish; but divine love multiplies when it is given to others. The beatitude to help resolve envy is for the merciful, and Dante sees a vision of Mary asking the child Jesus where he was. The Athenian tyrant Peisistratus forgives his daughter’s suitor for an indiscretion. The third example of love is Stephen forgiving those who are killing him.
Virgil and Dante enter the smoky region of Wrath. The living poet asks his guide why the world is destitute of virtues and has so many vices. Virgil says that people in the world attribute things to the influence of the spheres, but he says that free will plays a role. Otherwise punishment for wrongs would be unjust. The spheres may initiate tendencies, but humans have reason to decide right from wrong. The child turns to whatever it likes. Love is what motivates us, but love may be diverted by many things. Humans need laws to restrain them in order to create a true city. At sunset the pilgrim sees three examples of wrath involving Procne, Haman, and Amata. After her husband raped her sister, Procne killed her son. The Persian minister Haman persuaded King Ahasuerus to decree the death of all Jews in Persia. When Turnus failed to kill Aeneas in battle, frustrated Queen Amata killed herself. The angel of Gentleness is hidden in its radiance but guides them with a voice. The blessing is for the peacemakers, who do not feel sinful anger.
Dante asks what sin is being purged on the next terrace, and the Roman explains to him that indolence is being treated with zeal. Love is natural and rational. The natural love is never at fault, but the mind may choose the wrong goal by lacking zeal or by having too much. Those fixed on the Eternal Good observe temperance while loving worldly goals, but those turning to evil go beyond reasonable limits. Love is the seed of every virtue that grows within one but also of every wrong deed needing punishment. Love is always looking out for the welfare of oneself; no one hates oneself. Evil springs up in relation to one’s neighbor. A person may look for one’s success in the downfall of others. Those afraid of losing honor or fame or power or favor if another rises, want the worst. Those who feel wronged may flare up in anger and seek revenge against one’s fellow man. These three sins of pride, envy, and anger are being purged by those below. If one’s love is too timid, then one is punished with the slothful where they are. Above them are terraces where others are punished for yielding to excessive desires in three ways.
As they observe the lazy being treated by learning zeal, Virgil continues his discourse on love. Love is a spiritual movement that does not rest until what one loves is enjoyed. What seems good may upon reflection be seen as bad. Reason may withhold consent from the pursuit of desires by separating good love from bad. Those who use their freedom by exercising their reason leave a legacy of ethics to humanity. Various loves may arise by necessity, but everyone has the power to restrain them. This noble power comes from the freedom of the will. The slothful penitents hurry along, shouting out examples to follow and avoid. Dante has a dream of a siren who appears at first to be ugly and deformed; but as he gazes at her, she becomes beautiful. The angel of Zeal says that those who mourn will be comforted, the blessing of that terrace.
On the fifth terrace the pilgrims see penitents laying on the ground crying. These are the greedy, and the former Pope Adrian V explains that they had their eyes on worldly things; so now they are bound with their faces on the dirt. Virgil says that the hideous woman in Dante’s dream represents the vices of the next three terraces—Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. Greed is like a she-wolf whose appetite is never satisfied. They hear voices calling to the Virgin Mary, the ascetic Roman Fabricius, and the generous Saint Nicholas. Hugh Capet describes how his descendants became avaricious kings of France named Louis and Philippe. They took over Provence, Ponthieu, Normandy, and Gascony, and Philippe IV destroyed the Templars and burned their Master to get their wealth. At night their prayers turn to cries against greedy individuals in history. As the pilgrims move on, they hear those near them singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” Dante has another P removed from his forehead. They experience a great earthquake on the mountain of Purgatory and discover this was caused by the liberation of the Roman poet Statius, who says that he did penance on the terrace of Avarice for his opposite sin of prodigality. The blessing is for those who thirst for justice, but the hunger for justice is saved for the gluttons.
On the sixth terrace of Gluttony they smell sweet fruit, and they hear examples of temperance. Here the bodies of the penitents are thin and emaciated, and they use their mouths to pray. Dante sees his friend Forese, who used to enjoy eating, but he says the prayers of his surviving wife shortened his penance. Dante also talks with other gluttons, and from a tree he hears shouts about exemplars of gluttony. Statius is still with them, and the angel of Abstinence shows them the way to the next terrace. Dante asks why the gluttonous shades are so thin if they have no need for food. Statius explains how the blood produces the body in the womb, and then the Prime Mover breathes a soul into the vegetative and animal spirit so that it will have reason, memory, and will. When the soul leaves the body at death, the aerial body forms from desires and changes from feelings.
On the seventh and last terrace the pilgrims walk on a narrow ledge between fire and the mountain. They see the lusty spirits and sing a hymn praying to banish lust from their hearts, and they praise the virginity of Mary and the goddess Diana and the virtuous wedlock of faithful husbands and wives. The shades in the fire notice that Dante has a body of flesh but do not step out of the fire. They refer to the extremes of lusty behavior as the homosexuals in Sodom and the bestiality of Pasiphae mating with a bull. Dante confesses that he is climbing the mountain to cure his blindness and to reach his lady above. The shades refer to those who called the young Caesar a queen. Arnaut Daniel wrote erotic poetry in Provençal. The angel of Chastity sings the blessing of the pure in heart and tells them they must pass through the flames. Virgil says there may be pain but no death. After they experience the heat, a voice says, “Come, you blessed of my Father.” The pilgrim meditates and falls asleep. He dreams of a lovely, young girl picking flowers in a meadow; she is Leah, and her sister Rachel sits inside. She promises fruit that will bring peace to his hungry soul. Virgil says that he has taken the pilgrim as far as he can, and with his last words he crowns him lord of himself.
Dante wanders on and follows the lady on the other side of the stream to the original garden of Eden. She tells him that the two streams there are Lethe, which erases memories of one’s sins, and Eunoe, which restores the memories of good deeds. She quotes Psalm 32: “Happy are they whose faults are taken away, whose sins are covered.” The pilgrim sees a fantastic pageant with people dressed in fabulous costumes. The procession halts, and Dante sees Beatrice, who reprimands him for wasting his talents. The journey through Hell was needed to bring him to salvation. The pilgrim weeps and confesses that after her death he was lured by the world’s false joys. Then he faints. When he comes to, the lady leads him into Lethe and pushes his head under so that he drinks. Then she leads him back to Beatrice, who unveils her mouth. Dante is nearly blinded by her sight. They follow the procession to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They see fantastic things and hear hymns.
Dante falls asleep and is awakened by the lady. The procession has moved away, and he sees Beatrice with her seven handmaidens on her chariot. Dante sees a golden eagle, a fox, and a dragon. Then he sees on the chariot an ungirt whore next to a giant. The lady shows him where Beatrice is sitting. Beatrice tells him to observe the chariot well and write about what he sees. The seven handmaidens sing and weep with Beatrice over the fate of the chariot (symbolizing the Church). The pilgrim, the lady, and Statius walk behind her. Beatrice prophesies the deliverance of the Church, and she says the lady Matelda will explain. Matelda leads the pilgrim to drink the water of the Eunoe. Dante concludes the second canticle of his poem by saying he was reborn from the waters and is now ready and eager to rise to the stars.
The glory of the One penetrates the entire universe and moves all things. Dante so begins the third canticle of his poem and writes that he has been to the brightest heaven and seen things no person can describe. He calls upon the Muses and Apollo for inspiration during his heavenly journey. In the earthly paradise he sees Beatrice gazing at the sun. He does likewise briefly and feels himself to be “transhumanized.” Before he can ask his question, Beatrice says that his mental conceptions prevent him from seeing clearly what he is experiencing. He wonders how his body can rise, and she explains that every being is guided by its own instinct to its appropriate level. As they move above the Earth’s atmosphere into the fire, Dante hears the music of the spheres. She explains that Providence regulates the entire universe. Humans may be brought down by false desires. She looks up to heaven.
Dante and Beatrice ascend to the sphere of the moon. As she gazes at heaven, she advises the poet to direct his mind and gratitude to God for having lifted them up to the first celestial level. They long to see the Being whose nature is united with God and their own. Dante is thankful and asks her about the dark spots on the moon. After a long discussion she concludes that the differences of light and dark are related to its virtue. Dante sees pale faces and thinks they are reflections, but they are not. Beatrice explains that those on this level made vows to God but broke them. This is the lowest place on the hierarchy of Paradise, but it is still in the empyrean realm. Dante talks with Piccarda Donati in the slowest sphere. He asks if she yearns for a higher place. She says the virtue of heavenly love tempers their will so that they do not desire more than they have. Discord has no place among those who exist in Love.
Everywhere in Heaven is paradise, though the light of divine grace does not shine equally. Piccarda was forced to marry, breaking her vow. Empress Constance is a similar case. The author believes that she was forced out of a convent to marry Heinrich VI. Dante has two questions, and Beatrice answers them both. Plato believed that each soul returns to the star or planet from which it came. Beatrice says that Piccarda and Constance were assigned to the sphere of the moon because of their giving up their vows, not because they came from there. Beatrice also clarifies that all souls in paradise are equally eternal. Although these two were forced to give up their vows, they could have resisted or gone back to them later. Beatrice, like Aristotle, explains the difference between the absolute will and the conditioned will. The absolute will does not consent to wrong, but the conditional will may bend to circumstances. Beatrice glows with light and explains that even when human love is seduced, some trace of this Light still shines through, though it may be misapprehended. A vow is a freely made sacrifice of one’s personal free will to God. Free will is God’s most precious gift to the intelligent, and giving it back in a vow is a reciprocal gift to God. The vow is a pact that may not be annulled except in certain ways. The Church may grant a dispensation. For the Jews if a sacrifice was changed, the substitute sacrifice should be one-fifth greater than the original sacrifice.
The pilgrim and Beatrice move up to the second realm, which is Mercury. There the former emperor Justinian recounts Rome’s history, and he criticizes both the Ghibellines and the Guelfs in recent times. Beatrice intuits that Dante is wondering how just vengeance can be justly avenged. Many generations after humans disobeyed and sinned, the Divine Being motivated by unselfish love chose to descend into human nature. Joined to the First Cause, the original human nature is pure and good; but the sins of the first couple caused them to be chased out of God’s holy garden. The crucifixion may be considered a punishment for assuming that nature. Because of the divine and human nature of the one who suffered that punishment, nothing could be more unjust. Divine goodness rejects all envy and reveals eternal beauty in itself. What derives from the Diving Being is eternal and completely free, and it is not subject to the laws of created things. Only sin can take away human freedom and one’s true goodness. Yet one may win back one’s lost dignity by making just amends for past misdeeds. Either God must grant clemency, or humans must atone by paying their debts. Humans have too many limits to make amends for the disobedience. God needed to act to bring humans back to their integrity. The poet still does not understand why the elements of God’s creation are not secure against decay. Beatrice explains that created matter is formed by those powers, and the souls of plants and animals come from the sacred motions of the stars. However, the Supreme Goodness breathes life directly into him, filling him with love and desire for God.
Dante realizes he has entered the sphere of Venus when he notices that Beatrice is more beautiful. After Charles Martel, son of Charles II of Anjou, recounts the history of Naples, the poet has a discussion with him about heredity and why people are different. Charles says that men have different natures for different purposes, and their diverse activities enable society to work together. Individuals need to pay attention to their own abilities in order to develop their potential. After the light of Martel disappears, the pilgrim sees Cunizza da Romano, whose brother Ezzelino was an infamous tyrant. Her life was influenced by Venus. She leads him to Folquet of Marseilles, who became bishop of Toulouse, and he introduces Dante to Rahab, the whore of Jericho. Souls in the realm of Venus smile in joy, but those below expose their sullen minds. God can see all.
Next Dante rises to the bright sphere of the sun, where the souls are brilliant. The love of the Son breathes forth eternally, and all that moves in mind and space is constructed in sublime proportions. The great Artist loves His art so much that His gaze is always fixed on it. Dante and Beatrice and find themselves in the center of a circle of twelve learned sages. Thomas Aquinas speaks first, and the others are his teacher Albertus Magnus, the canon lawyer Gratian, Peter Lombard, King Solomon, Dionysius the Areopagite, the historian Orosius, Boethius, Isidore of Seville, the venerable Bede, Richard of St. Victor, and Siger of Brabant. Thomas can answer Dante’s questions without being asked, and he explains that the sheep will be nourished. He tells the story of Francis of Assisi, who, like Jesus, was married to Poverty. He notes that recently his own flock of Dominicans has become greedy for richer food.
Then they see a second ring of wise men outside the first. The great Franciscan theologian Bonaventure recounts the life of Dominic, who became God’s athlete and was kind to his own and ruthless to his enemies. He fought to crush the heresy of the Albigensians in Provence where it was strongest. Bonaventure, like Thomas did, admits that his order has deteriorated. The Franciscans were divided by the Spirituals. Bonaventure introduces his circle of Franciscans, who are Illuminato, Augustine of Assisi, Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Mangiadore, Peter of Spain who became Pope John XXI, Nathan the prophet, Patriarch John Chrysostom of Constantinople, Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, the Roman rhetorician Donatus, Archbishop Rabanus of Mainz, and the prophetic abbot Joachim of Calabria. Thomas Aquinas explains that Solomon was the wisest king, but some men have been wiser. He agrees with Dante that Adam and Jesus were created with perfect wisdom. Yet Solomon was wise enough to ask for an understanding heart in order to judge his people on issues of right and wrong. He warns against judging too quickly by appearance because people change and have varied behavior.
Beatrice expresses how the brilliance of the souls will remain after they are reunited with their bodies in the resurrection. Souls shine according to their love. As Dante gazes into her eyes, he realizes they are being lifted up to the red sphere of Mars. Although he questions the pride of heredity, Dante is delighted to meet his great grandfather’s father, Cacciaguida, who tells him about Florence before it was corrupted. Then houses were not built too large, and people lived more simply in peace and moderation. He went on the second crusade with Konrad and was killed while fighting the Saracens. The poet asks his ancestor to tell him about his forefathers. The families that lived in peace and justice later fell during the conflicts between the Guelfs and Ghibellines. Dante asks him about his own future, and Cacciaguida says that the poet will be exiled from Florence but will find refuge with Lombard lords, especially the young Can Grande della Scala. The public often blames the party that has been wronged. Although his great poem criticizes important men, it will nourish humanity. People learn from the examples of illustrious persons. After gazing into Beatrice’s joyful eyes again, she urges him to listen to his ancestor tell about great military heroes, whose souls flash before him like lightning. They are Joshua, Judas Maccabeus, Charlemagne and Roland, William of Orange and Renouard, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Robert Guiscard.
Dante and Beatrice are lifted from the red sphere of Mars to the whiteness of Jupiter, where they see a jovial torch. The message spelled out in Latin is “Love justice, you who judge the earth,” which is from the beginning of the Wisdom of Solomon. The avarice of the Popes is symbolized by smoke that blocks the light, and the poet decries their bad example. They fight by withholding spiritual nourishment, using interdicts and excommunication. Then when these are cancelled, the papacy gains revenue. An M symbolizing the world (Mundo) or Monarchy is transformed into an imperial eagle. Dante asks why souls who are unaware of Christ and baptism are damned, such as those in India. The eagle replies that eternal judgment is too high for human minds to comprehend. There is no truth except in God. Many who cry, “Christ, Christ” on judgment day will be less close to Him than those who never knew Christ. Recent Christian rulers are criticized. Albrecht of Austria invaded and plundered Bohemia. Philippe the Fair ruined the French economy with taxes to pay for his wars against Flanders. Norway’s Haakon V attacked Denmark. Serbia’s king Stephen Urosh II counterfeited Venetian coins. The eagle refers to six champions of justice—the kings David and Hezekiah, the emperors Trajan and Constantine, William II of Naples and Sicily, and the ancient Trojan Ripheus.
Beatrice does not smile in the seventh sphere of Saturn because Dante could not stand the joy; music is not heard for the same reason. Deep charity urges souls to serve the wisdom that governs the world and assigns each soul its task. They meet Peter Damian, who rose from being an abbot to become a cardinal in the 11th century. The corruption of the Popes causes a thunderous roar, and Dante is comforted by Beatrice. The saintly Benedict comes forward, and the poet asks to see him without the light veiling him. The famous monk explains that in the highest realms all desires are fulfilled. Benedict hopes that his order will climb the ladder to heaven, but he has been disappointed and criticizes the greed of usury. What the Church has should be given to the poor. The pilgrim and his lovely guide follow this saint up to the next sphere of the stars, and Dante sees the constellation Gemini under which he was born. He looks back through the seven spheres of heaven and realizes how small the Earth is. He asserts that the truly wise turn their attention to higher things.
Beatrice announces the arrival of the hosts of Christ in triumph. The poet sees that the light of the Christ is like the sun that gives light to all the others. The Virgin Mary is like a rose and the apostles like lilies. The ninth sphere is the Prime Mover, and they hear a hymn praising Mary as the queen of heaven. Beatrice asks for divine knowledge, and Peter responds by circling her three times. She asks him to test her friend on faith, and he asks Dante to define faith. He gives Paul’s definition that it is both “the substance of those hoped-for things and argument for things we have not seen.”12 Dante is concerned that the good faith that grew as a vine has become a thorn, and heavenly music confirms his opinion. He affirms that he believes in the one God who moves all the heavens in His love. The teachings of the Gospels have convinced him. Peter approves his response by circling him three times also.
Next Beatrice asks the apostle James to question the pilgrim on hope, and he says, “Hope is sure expectancy of future bliss.”13 Dante tries to see if John, the brother of James, has a body; but he learns that only Jesus and Mary rose to heaven in their bodies. Dante tries to see the light of John and becomes blinded. John asks Dante the third question on love, and he answers that God is the beginning and end of his love. Dante is asked how he came to love, and he explains that good perceived sparks love that becomes more bright as we realize its goodness. The human mind is moved by love toward what is good. As the heavenly throng sings “Holy,” the poet regains his sight and sees another light, who is the first human, Adam. He answers the four questions put to him by Dante, explaining that his sin was disobeying God’s warning out of pride.
The light of Peter turns red as he reprimands the current pope Boniface VIII for turning his sepulcher into a “sewer of blood and filth.”14 At first Peter was succeeded by martyrs such as Linus, Clerus, Sixtus, Pius, Calixtus, and Urban; but he laments how Christendom has become divided. He is angry at the privileges they buy and sell and calls them “rapacious wolves who dress in sheep’s clothing.”15 Peter instructs the poet, who must return to earth, to open his mouth and not hide what Peter himself has not hidden from him. Beatrice explains how the center of the universe makes everything else move while the Mind of God contains it all and burns with love. She castigates how greed drags humans down, leaving only children innocent. Dante sees nine glowing circles that represent the nine orders of angels. She understands his question and explains that God created angels in pure love. Angels see everything through God and have no need for memory. The poet sees light flowing like a river between banks of flowers. Then he notices that the flowers are composed of the elect souls. Beatrice informs him that they have transcended the nine spheres into the heaven of pure light. Dante sees an empty place waiting for Emperor Heinrich VII, whom he had hoped would save Italy and Europe.
Dante describes the best of the elect as part of a white rose, and he realizes that his guide Beatrice has been replaced by the elderly Bernard of Clairvaux. She is now in the third circle of the rose. Distance is no obstacle to seeing her clearly, and he thanks her for leading him from bondage to freedom using every means in her power. Bernard directs the pilgrim to turn to the Virgin Mary, who is in the highest place of honor. Opposite her is John the Baptist and next to her are Peter, Adam, John, and Moses. In the next circles are Eve, Rachel, Sarah, Rebecca, Judith, and Ruth. Beatrice is next to Rachel. In the circles next to John the Baptist are Francis, Benedict, and Augustine. Bernard offers a prayer to Mary on behalf of the pilgrim and tells her of his journey. Dante experiences his vision becoming clearer as he penetrates more the ray of Light that is Truth itself. The pilgrim makes his prayer to the Supreme Light and unites his vision with the Infinite Worth he is seeing. Finally he feels that his will and desire are “impelled by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”16
In the spring of 1318 Ravenna’s ruler Guido Novello da Polenta invited Dante to live there, and he accepted. Scholars say that he completed his Paradise canticle and had it circulating in 1320. In the spring of 1321 Doge Giovanni Soranzo complained that Ravennati had seized a Venetian ship and killed its captain and crew, and he prepared for an attack in revenge with his ally Forli. Guido sent Dante as his envoy to negotiate a peace. Legend held that the Venetians were so afraid of the famous poet’s eloquence that they would not let him speak at the conference; but peace was arranged and signed in September. Dante returned by land and tried to go around the Valli di Comacchio’s mosquito-infested marshes, but he caught malaria. He died of fever on the night of September 13, 1321.
Thirty years later Giovanni Boccaccio began writing his Life of Dante as though he were a secular saint. He may have been the first to refer to Dante’s great work as the divine Comedy, and gradually Dante’s Comedy came to be known as the Divine Comedy. In his biography Boccaccio relates an extraordinary story of how Dante died before making a copy of the last thirteen cantos of Paradise and sending them to Can Grande Scala as he usually did. His sons and others searched for several months for the missing cantos and could not find them. His sons Iacopo and Piero were poets and tried to finish his poem. According to Boccaccio, Dante’s devoted follower Piero Giardino often told the story of how eight months after the poet’s death, his son Iacopo came to him at dawn and told him of a dream in which Dante appeared to him dressed in pure white with his face illuminated. In the dream Iacopo asked his father if he was alive, and he answered that he was, in the true life, not an earthly one. Iacopo then asked if he had finished his work, and if so, where the missing cantos could be found. Dante said he had and led him to the room where he used to sleep and showed him a place in the wall where he would find them. Iacopo awoke and went to Piero Giardino, and together they went and found the missing thirteen cantos behind a matting covering a secret hole in the wall. They were mildewed from dampness, but they were able to remove the mold and copy the pages.
I find it hard to believe that Dante while dying of sickness would “forget” to bequeath the last thirteen cantos to someone unless he had a deeper purpose in mind. I suggest that he wanted to prove that he would be alive after death and that he had faith that he could communicate it to those on earth. So strong was his faith that he was willing to risk losing to posterity the climax of his immortal poem if he could not do so!
Another Ghibelline who turned from Church authority toward secular government for peace was Dante’s younger contemporary, Marsilius of Padua. Three years after Dante died, Marsilius completed The Defender of Peace (Defensor Pacis) in 1324. Marsilio dei Mainardini was born in Padua about 1275. After serving in the imperial army he began studying medicine at the University of Padua and completed it at the University of Paris. He studied with Pietro d’Abano and other Averroists and was briefly rector of the University of Paris in 1313. Marsilius was sent by Can Grande della Scala and Matteo Visconti to offer the captaincy of the Ghibelline League to Count Charles of La Marche some time before 1319; but nothing came of this, and Marsilius returned to Paris.
When the authorship of Marsilius became known two years after publishing his masterpiece, The Defender of Peace, he fled papal condemnation to take refuge with Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria at Nuremberg. In April 1327 a papal bull called Marsilius and Jean de Jandun “sons of perdition” bearing “fruits of malediction,” and they were excommunicated a few days later. That year Marsilius accompanied Ludwig to Rome in quest of the imperial crown, which he received from Sciarra Colonna as a representative of the people. Ludwig then declared Pope John XXII deposed and replaced him with the Minor Friar, Peter of Corbara, appointing Marsilius imperial vicar of Rome. However, the next year the Romans forced Ludwig and Marsilius to withdraw to Bavaria. Ludwig supported Marsilius even while he was trying to be reconciled with Pope John XXII and Pope Benedict XII. In response to Ockham’s criticism, Marsilius wrote his Defensor minor. Marsilius probably died in 1342, because the next year Pope Clement VI proclaimed the “heresiarchs” were dead.
Marsilius blamed the papal Guelfs for the wars and miseries suffered by the city-states of northern Italy. In his Defensor Pacis Marsilio used Aristotelian logic and citations of many sources from the Bible as well as philosophical books to demonstrate three main themes. First, states are created by human reason so that people can live well together. Second, political authority is needed to resolve conflicts, and to do so it must have coercive power. Third, the only legitimate source of this political power is from the will or consent of the people.
Marsilius began the first discourse with a quote from Cassiodorus on the importance of tranquility, and then he quoted Job, “Be at peace, and thereby thou shalt have the best fruits.”17 He noted also how Jesus and his disciples emphasized peace among themselves and toward others. Marsilius complained that Italy was being battered from all sides and was so weakened by strife that almost anyone could invade and seize it. Thus he considered strife an unbearable evil as peace is the greatest of goods. The health of the state depends upon its being governed by reason in tranquility. He agreed with Aristotle that in a good society the people live well, free to exercise their virtues, and they are not in slavery. In order to prevent oppression and slavery it was found necessary to give the sentences of judges coercive force, and a military was needed to protect the state from outside forces. In a healthy state the government, whether it be one ruler, a small group, or many people, operates for the good of all, and the efficient cause of the government is the minds and wills of the people, or occasionally God. Marsilius found that election was the best method for choosing good governors. Some governments are chosen by lot or by hereditary succession, and diseased governments take power by fraud or force or both. So he concluded
The authority to make or establish the laws,
and to give a command with regard to their observance,
belongs only to the whole body of the citizens
or to the weightier part thereof as efficient cause,
or else to the person or persons to whom
the aforesaid whole body has granted this authority.18
In the long second discourse of The Defender of Peace Marsilius argued against any temporal power for the papal authority, citing numerous passages from Christian scripture. He blamed such interference by Church authority in political affairs as the main cause of the discord in European cities and states. In the short third discourse he summarized his main points. He blamed the Roman bishop and his clerical coterie for trying to seize secular rulerships and for possessing excessive material wealth. Marsilius believed that no such rulership or coercive judgment over anyone in the world belonged to the pope or any other priest. Marsilius believed in divine scripture but held that it should be defined by a general council of believers, and only such a council can dispense with the commands or prohibitions of the divine law. He argued that scripture does not command anyone to be compelled by temporal punishment. Rather, salvation depends upon following divine law according to the dictates of correct reason, and he did not believe that all the commands of the Old Law must be obeyed.
For Marsilius the only human legislator is the whole collection of citizens or its weightier part. Papal decrees made without consent of the human legislators bind no one to punishment in this world. Only the human legislator or someone acting by its authority can dispense human laws. An elected official has that authority of the legislative will to use coercive force and needs no other confirmation. A city or state must have only one supreme government. Officials must be appointed according to the laws. No ruler or partial groups, regardless of their status, has power except by the determination of the legislators. Marsilius went so far as to say that no bishop or priest has coercive jurisdiction over anyone, even a heretic. Only the ruler authorized by the legislator has such coercive jurisdiction over both clergy and lay persons. He believed that all bishops should have equal authority through Christ and that other bishops can excommunicate the Roman bishop. No mortal can give a dispensation for marriages prohibited by divine law; but those prohibited by human law are under the authority of the legislator. A litigant may always appeal from the jurisdiction of a bishop or priest to the legislator or to those governing by its authority.
What made The Defender of Peace by Marsilius especially loathsome to the Roman Catholic Church was that he went even farther than asking the papacy to stay out of secular affairs by suggesting that the civil legislators can have authority over traditional Church issues such as regulating the number of churches, priests, deacons, and other officials who minister. Marsilius wanted the secular authorities to have jurisdiction over the bestowing of Church offices, public teachers, and even over Church possessions and their distribution. It is one thing for the state to be involved in education and charitable work, as it is in the modern era, but quite another to argue in this religious era that the state should take over the prerogatives and possessions of the Church and its religious affairs.
In the last chapter Marsilius concluded that if elected secular governments were not impeded by Church authorities, they could use their coercive jurisdiction to maintain civil peace. He called upon rulers and subjects to realize what they must do to preserve their peace and freedom. Yet he noted that even the supreme ruler, though elected, is still obligated to obey the laws.
The first citizen or part of the civil regime,
the ruler (whether one man or many),
will comprehend that to him alone
belongs the authority to give commands
to the subject multitude collectively or distributively
and to mete out punishment to any person
when it is expedient,
in accordance with the established laws.
And the ruler will also learn that
he must do nothing apart from the laws,
especially on important matters,
without the consent of the subject multitude or legislator,
and that the multitude or legislator
must not be provoked by injury,
because in its expressed will consists
the virtue and authority of government.19
He also urged the people to elect wise rulers who will follow the laws. Thus rulers and the people will be able to live in peace and will prosper together.
The fruits of peace or tranquility, then,
are the greatest goods, as we have said,
while those of its opposite, strife, are unbearable evils.
Hence we ought to wish for peace,
to seek it if we do not already have it,
to conserve it once it is attained,
and to repel with all our strength
the strife which is opposed to it.
To this end individual brethren,
and in even greater degree groups and communities,
are obliged to help one another,
both from the feeling of heavenly love
and from the bond or law of human society.20
1. History of Florence by Niccolo Machiavelli, tr. Hugo Albert Rennert, p. 68.
2. The Consolation of Philosophy Book 2:VIII by Boethius, tr. Sanderson Beck in Wisdom Bible, p. 768.
3. On World-Government 1:15 by Dante, tr. Herbert W. Schneider, p. 22.
4. Psalm 2 quoted in On World-Government 1:16 by Dante, tr. Herbert W. Schneider, p. 23.
5. On World-Government 1:4 by Dante, tr. Herbert W. Schneider, p. 22.
6. Ibid. 1:11, p. 7.
7. Ibid. 1:12, p. 16.
8. Ibid. 1:16, p. 23.
9. The Divine Comedy, Volume 1: Inferno by Dante tr. Mark Musa, 3:9.
10. Ibid. 5:121-123.
11. The Divine Comedy, Volume 2: Purgatory by Dante tr. Mark Musa, 13:36.
12. The Divine Comedy, Volume 3: Paradise by Dante tr. Mark Musa, 24:64-65
13. Ibid., 25:66-67.
14. Ibid., 28:25-26.
15. Ibid., 28:56.
16. Ibid., 33:144-145.
17. Job 12:21.
18. The Defender of Peace 1:13:8 by Marsilius of Padua, tr. Alan Gewirth, p. 55.
19. Ibid., 3:3, p. 431-2.
20. Ibid., 1:1:4, p. 5.