BECK index

Dante, Marsilius, and Petrarch

Dante on One Government
Defender of Peace by Marsilius
Petrarch's Humanism

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

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.
Dante, On World-Government 1:4

Justice has greatest power under a unitary government;
therefore the best order of the world
demands world-government.
Dante, On World-Government 1:11

The human race is at its best when most free.
Dante, On World-Government 1:12

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."
Dante, On World-Government 1:16

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.
Marsilius of Padua, The Defender of Peace 1:1:4

Just as the love of the people is gained more easily
by mercy and generosity than by any other quality,
so, conversely, nothing is more guaranteed
to provoke a people's hatred than cruelty and greed.
Petrarch, "How a Ruler Ought to Govern His State"

In 1306 Pierre Dubois offered a plan for a league of nations in his book The Recovery of the Holy Land. Dubois had studied at Paris under Thomas Aquinas and Siger de Brabant. He became a lawyer and was a member of the Estates General assembly. He was a chauvinist patriot who believed in a strong French military, and he wanted the French king to rule the West and the East, including Palestine and the Greek Empire. He suggested the education of both boys and girls for service in the East. He proposed that disputes between sovereign princes be settled by means of arbitration by a council of appointed clerics and laymen from each nation. He exhorted all Christian believers to join in peace and refrain from war, and he suggested as a penalty for violation the loss of property and exile to the Holy Land. Dubois proposed establishing a league of universal peace. He suggested that a council of prelates and princes along with secular knights owing service should solemnly swear to uphold with all their power this league of peace and its penalties and see that it is observed. Unfortunately his scheme was obviously too biased in favor of the French.

Dante on One Government

Dante Alighieri was born at Florence under the sign of Gemini in 1265. He went to the Franciscan school of Santa Croce. As a young man he wrote the romantic poem The New Life in 1292, and three years later he entered politics, serving on the council. In 1300 Dante was elected as one of the six priors who ruled Florence. 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. Dante as a White opposed the interference of the Pope, but Pope Boniface VIII sent Charles of Valois to intervene. Charles helped the Blacks to power and exiled over six hundred Whites including Dante, who was charged with corruption in office. While in exile Dante supported reconciliation and refused to take up arms against his native city of Florence even though he "formed a party by himself." In 1306 he was sent by Marchese Franceschino Malaspina as an ambassador to Sarzana, where he concluded a peace with the Bishop of Luni. In 1310 when Henry VII of Luxemburg 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 Henry as a peace-bringer. During this time Dante wrote his political treatise De Monarchia (translated as On World-Government) in which he urged that everyone accept the Emperor as the temporal sovereign authority who could unite the world under one rule of law. Dante's masterpiece Divina Commedia was composed in exile and was completed shortly before he died in 1321 of a fever he caught while on a diplomatic mission.

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 the fewest 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

After two centuries of crusades, it is not surprising that Dante as a Ghibelline turned to the German Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to try to institute in practice his theory of one government rather than to the Pope, who was supported by the rival Guelfs. 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 republican city-states. 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.

Defender of Peace by Marsilius

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 between 1275 and 1280. He studied with Peter of 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 back 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 Marsilius 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."5 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 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.6

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.7

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.

Petrarch's Humanism

Francesco Petrarch was born at Arezzo on July 20, 1304. Seven years later his family moved to Pisa, and he met Dante. In 1312 the Petrarchs took up residence in Avignon, the current papal center. His father wanted Francesco to be a lawyer, and he studied at Montpellier and at the university in Bologna. After his father died, Petrarch began an ecclesiastical career at Avignon in 1326. On April 6 the next year he saw Laura in a church. She was married and eventually had eleven children; but Petrarch later rhapsodized in his love for her in many sonnets of his Canzoniere. Petrarch traveled in France, Germany, and Flanders and during his life lived in several Italian cities. He was not married to the mother when his son Giovanni was born in 1337. Petrarch worked on the epic poem Africa about the victory of the Roman Scipio over the Carthaginians but never finished it. As early as 1339 Petrarch wrote to a Milanese official hoping that his lord Luchino Visconti would bring unity to Italy.

In 1341 Petrarch was crowned Poet Laureate by Robert of Naples on the Capitoline hill in Rome. Four years later he discovered the letters Cicero wrote to his friend Attica. In his many letters Petrarch often referred to the humanistic writings of Cicero and other classical philosophers. In his letter to posterity, Petrarch explained that he always felt contempt for wealth and hated the anxiety it demanded; so he practiced plain living and ordinary fare. He believed he had a well balanced intellect rather than a sharp one and that he most inclined to moral philosophy and the art of poetry. In this letter he also mentioned that he disliked the dishonesty in the legal profession and so could not practice it.

In 1343 the demagogic tribune of Rome, Cola di Rienzo, expelled aristocratic families and declared a Roman republic with himself as ruler. Petrarch wrote Cola several letters urging him to unite Italy, return the papacy to Rome, and bring peace to the region. After Cola was arrested, Petrarch wrote a letter to the Roman people urging them to intervene;; he complained the magistrates denied Cola legal counsel, although this was the common practice of the Inquisition. Concern over German mercenaries and the hired soldiers called condottieri and the violent calamities in Italy stimulated Petrarch to write a canzoni called "My Italy," which he concluded as follows:

My song, be humble, for you are addressed to haughty folk,
ever hostile to the truth.
Speak then to those few high hearts that love virtue.
Say to them: "Who gives me strength to speak,
as I go crying: 'Peace! Peace! Peace!'"8

Conditions were so violent in Italy that when Petrarch first visited Rome, his friends provided an escort of a hundred horsemen to protect him from the Orsini family. Petrarch spent much of his life studying and writing at his retreat in Vaucluse near Avignon, and even this place was once plundered and burned. Starting in 1350, Petrarch began writing letters to persuade Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV of Bohemia to come to Rome to be crowned, and Charles finally did so in 1354; but he soon left. Petrarch had hoped that one head could establish peace and order in Italy. Prior to the war between Genoa and Venice, Petrarch sent exhortations for peace to the doges of both cities, explaining to himself, "I thought myself blameworthy if, in the midst of warlike preparations, I should not have recourse to my one weapon, the pen."9 In 1353 Petrarch was sent to Venice to negotiate a peace and was there for a month. While living in Milan he also undertook diplomatic missions for the Visconti family to Prague in 1355 and to Paris in 1361.

Shortly before he died in 1374, Petrarch wrote a long letter to Francesco da Carrara, who had been ruling Padua since his father had been assassinated in 1350. A new code of laws was promulgated in 1362. In striving to become independent of Venice, Padua fought several wars against this powerful neighbor, followed by increased taxes to pay for them. Petrarch praised Francesco da Carrara for ending the border war with Venice in 1373 to bring peace to northern Italy.

Petrarch wrote Carrara that the first quality of a good leader should be friendship to the good citizens, though one must terrify the evil ones to be a friend of justice. Petrarch believed that nothing was worse for the state than to use fear and cruelty to maintain power. Roman history has shown that fear is opposed to longevity and security while goodwill favors both. He quoted Cicero that love is the best influence, and fear is the worst. A knight once told Julius Caesar that a man who is feared by many must fear many, and Cicero wrote that those who wish to be feared must be afraid of those they intimidate. Petrarch believed that public love is like private love, as Seneca wrote, "If you want to be loved, love."10 Petrarch advised the ruler to love the subjects like one's own children. In one of his orations Cicero had pointed out that the prince should be surrounded, not with arms, but with the love and goodwill of the citizens.

Next Petrarch emphasized justice so that each person gets what is due, and no one is punished without a good reason. He recommended gaining the citizens' affection through generosity and suggested building walls around the city, repairing the roads, and draining swamps. Superfluous expenditures should be avoided, and taxes should be only for public need. It is better when riches are not held by one person, and it is more useful for private citizens to earn money by their own work. Justice must be accompanied by mercy as well as generosity, because nothing arouses hatred as much as cruelty and greed. Cruelty is harsher, but greed affects more people. Petrarch warned Carrara against letting any of his courtiers control the state. True friends are needed; but one must never ask a friend to do anything dishonorable nor should one ever do something dishonorable for a friend, for there can be no true friendship without virtue and wisdom. He should give to the needy, not only from his own resources but also passing along donations from the rich to the poor. The good ruler is magnanimous while facing one's enemies in adversity, but at home the prince should be humble. He complained about pigs in the streets and excessive mourning in public. Petrarch advised the ruler to give the first place in governing to those with ability who are learned. Love and devotion to justice should accompany knowledge of the law.


1. Machiavelli, Niccolo, History of Florence tr. Hugo Albert Rennert, p. 68.
2. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy 2:8 tr. Sanderson Beck.
3. Dante, On World-Government 1:15 tr. Herbert W. Schneider, p. 22.
4. Psalm 2 quoted in Dante, On World-Government 1:16 tr. Herbert W. Schneider, p. 23.
5. Job 12:21.
6. Marsilius of Padua, The Defender of Peace 1:13:8 tr. Alan Gewirth, p. 55.
7. Ibid., 3:3, p. 431-2.
8. Petrarch, Francesco, Canzoni 128 tr. Morris Bishop in Petrarch and His World, p. 234.
9. Bishop, Morris, Petrarch and His World, p. 286.
10. Seneca, Epistulae 9:6 in Petrarch, "How a Ruler Ought to Govern His State" tr. Benjamin G. Kohl in The Earthly Republic, p. 45.

Copyright © 2003-2005 by Sanderson Beck

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Prophets of Israel
Chinese Sages
Upanishads and Yoga
Mahavira and Buddha
Greek Philosophers and Aristophanes
Stoic Philosophers
Jesus and the Early Christians
Zarathushtra, Mani, and the Cathars
Sufis, Philosophers, and Nanak
Francesco and Bonaventure
Dante, Marsilius, and Petrarch
Magna Carta to Wyclif
Erasmus, Anabaptists, and Mennonites
International Law Pioneers
Quakers: Fox and Penn's Holy Experiment
Peace Plans of Rousseau, Bentham, and Kant
Abolitionists, Emerson, and Thoreau
Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá on World Peace
Tolstoy on the Law of Love
Suffragettes and Women's Rights


Chronology of Peacemaking

BECK index