Underrated Philosophers V: Dante

Yes, as I’ve said before, that Dante. Great philosopher, decent poet.

Why is he great? Don’t let anyone lead you into thinking that separation of church and state is a modern idea and that the Middle Ages were a time filled with torture chambers, witch trials, the Spanish Inquisition, and kings in bed with the Pope. That was the supposedly enlightened Renaissance, when kings and popes actually had enough power to get away with those sorts of nasty things. No, the middle ages were filled with conflicts between church and state, with nobody more eager to see the two separated than our friend Dante.

Now, I’m pretty sure everyone who reads this has read their Inferno. Perhaps not as obsessively as I have, but that’s because you all are comparatively normal, and not Dantefreaks. If you’ll remember back, there are all sorts of allusions, helpfully explained in the notes that you of course read, to some political struggle that involves half the denizens of Hell, especially that Pope shoved headfirst into his own personal pit of fire whom Dante gives a good tongue lashing. Of course, the exact details of the struggle probably weren’t what you were paying attention to—it was probably high school, your English teacher probably didn’t know the whole story themselves, and hey, it’s kinda complicated—but it’s actually pretty important to the history of Western philosophy, so I’m going to give the recap.

Florence (Dante’s hometown) was contested territory between the Kingdom of Italy, part of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Papal States. Between military struggles and political intrigues, the town kept changing hands between various parties who supported the Empire or the Pope, and, as soon as one faction won a final victory over the other, it split into two new factions, mostly, as best I can tell, for the sake of keeping the feud going. As often happens whenever insanely complicated political struggles go on for far too long, everyone eventually finds themselves on the wrong end of some coup or other—as Dante did while out of town on a diplomatic mission. This lead him to a very obvious, but very bitterly learned, conclusion: bad things happen when political factions vie for power.

So, he comes up with the radical idea that there ought not be conflicting powers. Human beings should respect one supreme authority in all secular matters, another supreme authority in all sacred matters, and that these two authorities ought never have overlapping jurisdictions. Thus, every problem, sacred or secular, will have someone who will be its ultimate judge, and never will these two powers ever be able to meddle in the other’s business.

There should be one temporal ruler, the Emperor of a renewed Roman Empire, and one sacred ruler, the Pope, for all of humanity. One should have all power over secular things, the other all power over sacred things—but, it must be noted, no power in the other’s domain. The powers of church and state should remain separate; neither popes nor emperors should wield the powers of the two swords made famous in Unum Sanctum, Boniface VIII’s claim to have dominion over all secular rulers.

Without any possibility of the sacred power interfering in the affairs of the secular power, parties aligned with the Pope would naturally go away, and Dante could go home. Simple, right?

Well, like all simple things, not really. It turns out people in power are really unwilling to give it up, and emperors and popes are no exception. The response of the imperial faction is, philosophically, more interesting—it leads to Ockham and Marsilius, after all—but the historical reaction of the papal factions to Dante’s De Monarchia, especially the Bologna Dominicans, was to have the poet’s body exhumed, posthumously tried for heresy, and burned at the stake. If it weren’t for the actions of the Carthusian monks of Ravenna who bricked his body into the wall of their abbey, the author of the Divine Comedy would have met the fate of the most stalwart enemies of Christendom.

Naturally, Dante’s vision of separate powers fell on deaf ears. With both sides willing to claim the plurality of powers, the idea that each should mind its own business was extremely unpopular for a good long time…until another group of people found themselves exiled from their homeland due to an insanely complicated politico-religious struggle. Not that the Anabaptists get too much credit for that either (especially since the Munster Anabaptists were only the most notable radically reformed sect to try their hand at establishing the Kingdom of God on earth), but it is interesting to note how much good philosophy comes from people who are down on their luck, oppressed by the powerful, and left longing for a home they will never see in this life.

Forget Aristotle’s idea that one needs leisure and goods to be a philosopher. The true lover of wisdom is one who has seen too little of it, the seeker of justice the one who has too much bitter familiarity with injustice. Philosophers are found among the exiles, the oppressed, and the conquered, those who are narrowly able to skip town before the law catches up with them, not among the well-fed and powerful. Looking back over the five underrated philosophers I’ve talked about so far, four of them (Marsilius, Pascal, Scotus, and Dante) were either condemned by The Authorities, were run out of town with their life in danger, or both.

It’s a pretty common fate for philosophers, really. It’s also another entry.



3 thoughts on “Underrated Philosophers V: Dante

  1. Your comment about good philosophy produced by “people who are down on their luck, oppressed by the powerful, and left longing for a home they will never see in this life” made me think of another paradigmatic example: Boethius.

    • So that “other entry” I mentioned…yeah, he’s going in there. I’ve been out of town for a bit, so I’m late, but the Consolation is an almost perfect example of what I mean.

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