Dante had a revolutionary vision for a new world order. It may help us overcome neoliberal stagnation today.
By the Streit Council Editorial Team
FOREWORD -- Contemporary discourse around international relations (IR) continues to be dominated by Westphalian ideological dogmatism. Alternative paradigms for post-national IR are still understudied, especially exploration of world-state formation and democratic world federalism. The Streit Council challenges this consensus in part by studying neglected sources of political philosophy, in-depth works operating outside the ideational parameters set by modern IR. We thereby aim to redefine modern academia’s intellectual canon. Dante’s seminal De Monarchia, in which the author advocates global unity under a single world government, is one such source.
By presenting this text to a broader audience, we seek to offer an alternative intellectual tradition to neoliberalism today, constructing a progressive vision that actively pursues a positive ideal for humanity. The following article is a continuation of our efforts, presenting Dante as an early advocate for world unity and as an important political thinker. It is an extension of other analyses on the same theme, including this contribution by Streit Council’s own Advisory Board Member Tad Daley.
The article proceeds first by explicating and detailing the theoretical core of Dante’s political philosophy. We examine the author’s theory of human nature and the origin of civilization, as well as the consequent ideal toward which he sees human history as progressing. Our second part explores Dante’s conceptualization of "monarchy" and how it relates to world peace as the means of attaining humanity’s ideal state. Our third part on political freedom in De Monarchia is divided into two sections, the first focused on the similarities between Dante’s thought and world federalism in its conception of the role of the state, and the second to political freedom proper as a central feature of the political model being described. Our fifth and final part compares Dante’s thought to that of Immanuel Kant in Toward Perpetual Peace, arguing that both represent similar but importantly different interpretations of historical progress. We emphasize here the advantages of Dante’s proto-federalist and prescriptive approach to positive peace.
-- The Streit Council Editorial Team
There has been growing scholarly interest in a lesser-known work by Dante Alighieri, De Monarchia, in which the Italian philosopher advocates the unification of mankind under a single world government. Streit Council Advisory Board Member Tad Daley details the theoretical and political relevance of the work to contemporary international relations here. Daley takes a world federalist framework to analyze the text’s transformational worldview, stressing its recommendation for world peace and the progress of human civilization.
While the theory presented in De Monarchia has been a positive reference amongst scholars of international organization for some time now, there has been controversy around the political-philosophical nature of the work. The political model Dante imagined to sustain global unity was a universal Christian Empire governed by an all-powerful monarch. The hailing of the text as a reference for contemporary democratic internationalism therefore appears surprising, even misplaced.
This piece, however, will support Daley’s ambitious reading of De Monarchia as an “anticipation” of democratic federalism by arguing that Dante’s philosophy is at its core revolutionary, aiming ultimately at the rational progress of mankind as enabled by a system of political freedom.
While Dante’s philosophy was developed within the constraints of pre-democratic historical and ideational circumstances, if read in context it becomes clear that the inner logic of the text is of deep relevance to progressive thinkers today. Dante envisions a geopolitical order populated by free citizens and in which world peace enables society to become more rational. The development of abstract reason eventually leads to action, allowing for unbounded progress in human civilization.
We also argue that the condemnation of Dante as incompatible with a cosmopolitan perspective is anachronistic because it places liberal constructs on a text from the 14th-century. We propose that Dante’s thought offers instead an alternative interpretation of progressive historical development to that of liberalism, while still sharing liberalism’s commitment to progress, political freedom, and reason in socio-political relations. We offer a brief comparison of Dante’s central theses to those of Kant in his seminal Perpetual Peace, which we will treat (albeit in reductionist capacity) as the representative liberal theory of world peace and historical progress.
II. The Progress of Human Reason as Dante’s Philosophical Ideal
Before analyzing the nature of the political order Dante recommends, we must first establish the philosophical goal towards which such a model aims. In other words, we must inquire to the ends of the new universal order De Monarchia wants to establish before we can evaluate the means Dante proposes we employ.
In the introduction to her translation of the text, prominent scholar and progressive activist Aurelia Henry emphasizes that Dante was working towards a totally new model of society, for which political unity was but the necessary foundation. Henry quotes Dante as stating that only through peace would mankind be able to attain its purpose and “actualize continually the entire capacity of the possible intellect” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, xxiii). World unity and peace are essential because they will allow for this larger goal to be met.
In other words, Dante does assert a philosophical destination for humanity’s socio-political development. He argues that because human beings possess not only intellect, but “potentiality” of intellect (in that humanity’s intellect can be developed upon and expanded) as their distinctive feature(Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 14), it must be humanity’s purpose to develop these intellectual faculties over time. It is, in a sense, within our nature to do so. While intellect can be exercised by individuals, there is the “potential” of a broader collective intelligence that must be fostered by us as a species.
It is from this realization of our internal nature that human society will emerge. According to Dante, the intellect as social fact exists either as “political sagacity”, which informs the “things to be done”, or “art”, controlling the “things to be made” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 14). The cultivation of our general intellect allows for both political and cultural life to emerge as active expressions of that intellect.
Contemporary readers will forgive me if I choose to treat the “intellect” as the equivalent to what today we might label “reason”. Human “intellect” for Dante is ultimately the capacity to reason in abstraction, and to eventually implement the conclusions of that reasoning. Dante is exploring the political-philosophic place of reason as it defines humanity and its destiny.
In Kantian terms, Dante treats “speculation” or the “speculative intellect” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 13-14) as a sort of pure reason in that it is a primordial human quality. Indeed, engaging in speculation, or our more abstract intellect, is the “supreme end for which the Primal Good brought into being the human race” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 14). The practical reason in this equation, as expressed through art and politics, is the reification of our naturally endowed pure reason as “the speculative intellect becomes by extension the practical”.
Dante is detailing for us an interesting theory of both human nature and historical progress. Humanity differentiates itself from other animals through its abstract intellect, or reason, and it therefore must be its purpose to live as a rational species. Eventually, the process of realizing our potential intelligence as human beings will lead to a society governed by rational principles, as reason is translated into action. The ideal state for humankind is this, as the moral demand for reason to accomplish itself will take objective (or “practical”) form through political governance (and, it should be noted again, cultural invention.) We will record this as Dante’s theory of social progress.
Dante also posits a theory of first principles in which rational acts are based in our very capacity to reason, which is in theory boundless in its development. It is in fact our “function”, that for which humanity was created by “God and Nature”, to develop our abstract reason (which then gains social expression). We face an absolute imperative to reason as such, and it is on the basis of this measure that subsequent principles can be judged.
Now that we have determined the commanding ideal of Dante’s thought, we begin our investigation of how world peace, as specifically accomplished through world monarchy, help achieve this purpose.
III. World Peace and Dante’s Conception of Monarchy
Dante makes clear the condition necessary for humanity to develop its rational capacities, and attain social progress: it is “amid the calm and tranquility of peace (that) the human race accomplishes more freely and easily its given work” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 16). Only if unpreoccupied by war and conflict can human reason be directed towards itself. The “given work” of the human race enabled by this general peace is, as noted above, the triumph of reason. World peace is therefore a necessary precondition in the pursuit of humanity’s highest ideal of rational development.
One must therefore begin a theory of political order from the “necessary” result that is world peace “as a predetermined formula, into which (…) must be resolved all things needing to be proved” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 17). World peace must be structurally ensured by the state itself, and must be the first element from which all other institutional features of a political system are derived. And if the nature of a political state grows out of the demand for world peace, then that state must be universal.
Thus, a world state is necessary to ensure world peace. World peace is desirable because it allows for the unfettered development of our rational capacities, and from this our rational political and social actions. Dante also gives us a methodological approach to constructing a governmental model: “we perceive the nearest way through which may be reached that universal peace toward which all our efforts are directed as their ultimate end”. Whatever the model of the state Dante envisions, it will be the result of his assessment, given the real conditions before him, of how to attain world peace as rapidly as possible.
It is here essential to recognize when Dante was writing. The Middle Ages was a time marked by the start of competitive nation-building. It is in this environment that Dante seeks to elaborate a complete transformation of his political environment, one which would depart from factional rivalries and divisions and allow for social progress through reason.
The first pillar of a new universal politics will therefore have to resolve these structural rivalries in medieval life. In an environment in which different sources of authority are competing for legitimacy, Dante must imagine a source of power which could institutionally supersede any individual (or national) claim to supremacy. The author of De Monarchia poses the basic political problem as such: if a conflict arises between two lords (“princes”), sovereignty requires a third to resolve the issue through his “judgement” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 30).
Immediately, Dante situates his text within the specific moment of European history in which he writes. In a world preceding the Enlightenment and liberal constitutionalism, the basic unit of political authority is that of the individual prince, and any new model of political order would have to take this fact into account.
Dante therefore poses the problem of peace as one of avoiding conflict between two princes entangled in a controversy. One could imagine the intervention of another prince, operating as mediator between the two rivals. But such a prince would not possess greater authority than either of the two parties, requiring yet another prince to intervene. Either this process “will be carried to infinity”, or the third party to which one turns must be granted an office positioned hierarchically above the original rivals.
According to Dante, this logically necessitates the creation of a monarch, or a prince given superior and final authority over political disputes. The figure of the monarch represents a power of arbitration, serving as that “primal and highest judge” in all political matters. The pursuit of the monarch will not be power or satisfaction within a given controversy, but impartial Justice, and this will become the governing principle of the monarchical state (“(T)he world is disposed for the best when Justice reigns therein”) (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 31).
It now becomes clear that Dante is not building a defense of monarchy as it might later be developed by reactionaries during and after the French Revolution. The monarch is not simply an ontological good, but is rather a pragmatic solution to a given problem with respect to the issue of violent conflict. That power is to be granted to a single individual is necessary because medieval power is itself individualistic. Monarchy would ensure that a political system dominated by feudal aristocrats would nonetheless become a peaceful one.
Finally, monarchy, or the absolute concentration of power in a single source of authority, is useful because it allows for the organized pursuit of an ideal. Dante tells us that “(W)hen several things are ordained for one end, one must rule and the others obey” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 18). In other words, Monarchy is a unifying structure in that it subjugates all political decisions to a single unitary body. A totally unified political regime allows for the total unity of all components of the system, and ensures that every part of this system moves towards the stated ideal (here the boundless development of reason).
Thus, Dante establishes monarchy as the “nearest way” to establish a world state capable of maintaining peace. A monarchical state can also orient the parts of a system towards a single end, that of humanity’s rational development. But this strategic vision leaves much to be desired for a democratic readership: could Dante’s vision not justify, say, an Enlightened despot pursuing rational social reform? We must identify the place, if any, Dante leaves for political freedom in his model of the world monarchy.
IV. Dante’s Monarchy as a System of Political Freedom
a. Monarchy as Early World Federalism?
Some criticism levelled against a more progressive reading of De Monarchia rests not merely on the form of government advocated in the work, but on the apparently totalizing approach of its core reasoning. Mary Elizabeth Sullivan, for instance, argues that Dante’s emphasis on the collective nature of humanity’s moral development disregards the rights and interests of the individual. Dante’s emphasis on the absolute power of the monarch “not only fails to address universal human rights but actually denies their possibility”. Dante’s Monarchy is charged with “moral absolutism” (Sullivan, 2018, 519), a system in which individuals are obligated to submit to dogmatic Christian judgements regarding behavior and belief ” (Sullivan, 2018, 518). As such, texts like De Monarchia can certainly not be considered a forerunner to “idealist” histories, especially as represented by liberalism and the Enlightenment.
We first contend that thinking of humanity as having a collective direction is not incompatible with believing in political freedom. The existence of the state as a collective body pursuing general ends does not cancel the individual rights of those over which it rules. We do, however, agree that Dante’s approach differs from liberal assumptions in important respects. Unlike many contemporary cosmopolitans, Dante believes that the state is a fundamental and necessary feature of human progress.
But that greater human freedom and social progress are the desirable end of Dante’s system is, as we shall demonstrate, beyond question. As such, we will argue that De Monarchia could be more reasonably understood as a forerunner to world federalist theory.
First, Dante does not deny that the constituent elements of political order (whether this be individuals or larger units) may be organized by “the order of parts among themselves” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 23). The author seems to imply the existence of an organically formed and complex system, in which particular agents are already able to coexist without being absorbed or erased by a governing superstructure. This vision of human society is important because it is, in fact, morally neutral and does rest on coercion.
The author does however stress the existence of another and more final unity, namely “the order of parts with reference to a third entity”, which ensures the existence of a “total order”. This is the world monarch, which as we know is meant to ensure the peaceful unity of the whole. This reasoning remarkably parallels federalist thinking: the various and diverse parts of a political system organize themselves to a large degree. But it is necessary for a state to exist which ensures that the system as a whole obey a final arbiter (the central government) and that conflicts between the various parts (whether individuals, groups, or local jurisdictions) be peacefully adjudicated.
There is no reason why the ideological nature of this authority could not be modified and given a more democratic framework, as long as the condition of unity is fulfilled. The standard Dante sets out for the rational state is one in which an authority can “regulate or rule” its component parts. In fact, the author explicitly states that in the government of a village (which follow the same general rules of governance as all other political units), unified rule requires that there be “one ruler chosen for them by another, or one risen to preeminence from among themselves by their consent” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 20).
Dante’s mention in this passage of various intermediary forms of governance (the home, governed by elders, the village, the city, and finally the princely kingdom) demonstrates that even his theory of unified rule grants some degree of autonomy to local institutions. It is from this very principle, in fact, that Dante derives the legitimacy of world government: smaller jurisdictional levels are not to be negatively eliminated, but it is rather the totality of the political order, in this case the world stage, which must also be granted its own positive sphere of legitimate unity (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 21), which it currently lacks.
Furthermore, the example of the village demonstrates the theoretical possibility of an electoral principle as a system of unity. Elections were in fact a component of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, the very institution Dante believed could achieve his world monarchy (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, xx). Though selection was reserved for the princely class, an exclusionary franchise was also a reality for historically liberal societies like the United Kingdom and the United States as well. That this system could and likely would over time develop in a more democratic direction with the experience of history can fairly be assumed.
We could therefore imagine the Monarch being composed of a federal body, selected by princes who are themselves popularly chosen national representatives. The Monarchy takes an almost symbolic role, in that is represents the unity of all human beings. A functional representative system, defined by the democratic experience and theory of later generations, could equally fulfill this purpose. In fact, democratic federalism is a system particularly apt at ensuring the final unity of a political system’s various parts. More on this in the following section.
b. A State of Freedom
We shall now see how Dante’s emphasis on freedom as a structural feature of the political system reveals him to be a progressive thinker, and compatible with an eventually federalist (or broadly democratic) model of world government. Indeed, Dante explicitly states that the “human race is ordered for the best when it is most free”, which the author characterizes as a system in which “men may live for themselves” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 45). The “basic principle of our freedom is freedom of the will”, which for Dante is expressed more fully as judgement (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 40-41). Dante generally uses judgement as a synonym of intellect or, for our purposes, reason (expressed here in the ability to judge rationally).
Political freedom is essential to Dante because it allows for the freedom of rational judgement. This, besides the preservation of peace, is the basic condition for reason to develop. Monarchy, according to the author, serves this purpose best: “the race is most free under a Monarch” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 44). Recalling Aristotle’s theory of political systems, Dante seems concerned with other systems, including primitive or direct democracy, because they violate or threaten freedom as they “force mankind into slavery”. The monarch, if he is also an honorable leader and properly dedicated to the ideal of freedom, will form a good government. What qualifies good governance is made explicit, and is again extensive political freedom: “Upright governments have liberty as their aim”.
As we have already argued, Dante’s preference for monarchy is historically contingent. We know that political authority in Dante’s experience is inherently personal, and that monarchy was a practical shortcut to achieving world government. And based on his own experience in medieval politics and a theoretical survey of ancient systems, he has concluded that only a monarch, who governs according to high ideals instead of the mechanics of power and popular passion, would be respectful of liberty and help ensure it. Within a structurally personalistic context, Dante in fact defines the monarch as a political leader committed to freedom and justice.
Thus, while on the surface Dante’s preference for the power of a single monarch appears to be a repudiation of democracy or republicanism, it in fact derives from a greater concern for liberty. Going further, Dante grants liberty a legitimacy outside of political systems, claiming that it is the “greatest gift bestowed by God upon human nature” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 43). This is evidently a natural law concept of political freedom, which is granted by God and therefore cannot be violated by the interference of any corrupting political order. Most remarkably, freedom is granted to each individual person, as he/ her has an “immutable” soul (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 42). This recalls the historically Christian basis for individual rights as they would later emerge, which are granted to each citizen irrespective of the state. One might also note that this is very cosmopolitan of Dante.
While historical experience has largely discredited personalistic forms of power, Dante has made a bigger and more important philosophical case. He has argued that humanity must prioritize the development of a system that is the most protective of liberty. Ensuring that the existing relations between human beings remain free and thus follow their own course, which is to become more rational over time, is the very purpose of government. This is entirely consistent with a modern and cosmopolitan conception of government. Indeed, liberal constitutionalism itself arose in large measure to place limits on democracy in order to prevent the majority from violating the rights of minorities.
Dante himself outlines a primitive notion of checks on political authority which, while insufficient, articulates the principle of limited government. The actual power of Dante’s world state itself depends entirely on, and is only legitimated by, political freedom. The state must have political authority over its subjects, but monarchs are to be “servants with respect to the end of governing,” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 46) that is the ideal of reason. And reason cannot exist without free subjects. State operatives, whether it be the monarch or lesser princes governing the system’s constituent parts, are granted authority only because they are obligated to this mission. This produces “consuls for the sake of the citizens, and a king for his people”, as opposed to the might-is-right system which defined political order in 1313.
In other words, Dante envisions a state in service to its citizens. The monarch governs not by divine rule, but depends on the performance of his political obligation, that is to preserve the freedom of the polity and thus to advance reason. This is a truly radical position, and predates a similar move made Thomas Hobbes’ in his Leviathan by the English philosopher separating temporal and ecclesiastical authority, which had important consequences for the development of English liberalism. Dante’s text, however, predates the Leviathan by 300 years.
We have surveyed Dante’s political philosophy, and have demonstrated its progressive content. Dante believes in the rational development of mankind, requiring a universal politics aimed at securing peace and preserving liberty. The particularity of Dante’s theory does, however, differentiate it from later liberal thought. We will engage in a brief comparison between Dante’s political philosophy and that of Immanuel Kant to argue that both establish similar, yet distinct, intellectual traditions with regard to history, freedom, and the place of reason in society.
V. World Order and World Peace in Dante and Kant: Inverted Progressivisms
Both Kant and Dante are philosophically progressive in that they hold the historical process to be linear and moving towards an end state. This end state will be defined by a general and universal peace, greater reason in the governance of human affairs, and a maximization of political freedom. As we shall detail however, these philosophers disagree over the causal relationships between these different elements of their respective systems. We argue that their differences result from the different historical circumstances confronting both actors. We also argue that Dante can be read if not as an alternative to Kant’s liberal theory, then as an important addition to progressive historical thought more generally, bringing a non-nationalistic approach to world peace and freedom.
In Towards a Perpetual Peace, Kant famously envisions a system of republics at peace with one another, and one in which positive reason governs both in domestic and international affairs. This universal peace, however, depends uponthe attainment of political freedom domestically, as each national government must first be converted to a republic. Indeed, the “republican constitution” is what “offers a prospect of attaining the desired result, i.e. a perpetual peace” (Kant, 6). Kant believes that because republics depend “on the consent of the citizens”, the governed would have to actively take up the burden of such a war for themselves. This seems far less likely than if a monarch chooses to go to battle and place the financial and human burden of the war on his/ her subjects.
Where does reason fit in? Kant believes that reason is the “highest legislative moral power” and that it “sets up peace as an immediate duty” (Kant, 8). But for reason to govern in human affairs there must first be “a general agreement between the nations”, which would eventually mature to a non-imperialist and “pacific federation” of states. Greater reason, like peace, first requires the success of republicanism.
Kant therefore envisions, like Dante, a state of rational social relations under a system of political peace. And again like Dante, he views the operation of political freedom as being a critical input to the securing of reason in society. But unlike Dante, who believes in the instrument of the state to establish such conditions, Kant believes that it is out of freedom itself that all other elements of the ideal state will come about.
The process through which the republican federation will achieve world peace and reason is the emergence of a “spirit of commerce”, or the desire for nations to become wealthy through trade. Nations will try to mediate conflict because war produces instability for international trade. Over time, these peaceful interactions allow for “greater agreement over their principles” and thereby “mutual understanding and peace” (Kant, 10). Reason and general peace develop hand in hand, slowly moving towards the ideal of lasting (perpetual) peace.
With the same goal of a free, peaceful, and rational society in mind, Dante’s process goes in reverse: it is an initial peace that leads to a system of political freedom, thereby enabling the development of reason. Another significant difference explicated here is that while for Dante the end goal of history’s evolution is progress through reason, for Kant it is reason that will allow for the ultimate end of world peace. Such a peaceful world order is instrumental to the former, and ideal for the latter.
The difference in thinking has a methodological basis. Whereas Dante proceeds through an ontological reasoning, in which the demand for reason requires a world state immediately capable of providing peace and freedom, Kant views the historical process as evolutionary: one must acknowledge the reality of competing nation-states, and hope to civilize this reality through human reason. Nature made human beings selfish and divided them according to nations. It must therefore be nature itself that “guarantees perpetual peace by the actual mechanism of human inclinations” through the operation of commerce and financial interest. Political freedom will allow this natural process to take its course, as commercial republics governed by self-interested citizens solidify a perpetual peace.
It is here that historical context once again proves vital. Kant was writing at a time when political division had more formally cemented itself in the international order through the Westphalian system. To him, nations are empirical facts, permanent fixtures established by nature itself and which civilization cannot overcome. Hoping for world peace, as well as a free and rational humanity, Kant must turn to the mechanics of nature as opposed to the intelligent design of state institutions because the structural realities with which he is confronted appear to be absolute. Because the state is inherently national, it must be content with the securing of domestic freedom, over which it has control. Reason and peace will only emerge subsequently as part of an automatic and necessary evolution.
Perhaps most revealing of this is the fact that Kant does entertain the concept of a “universal monarchy” resulting from “an amalgamation of the separate nations under a single power” (Kant, 10). And in doing so, the Enlightenment philosopher does not deny that total unity would be desirable if it allowed for peace. In fact, he views the desire for world domination as an expression of “the desire of every state (or its ruler) to achieve lasting peace” (Alighieri & Henry, 1904, 10). Division, however, is once again explained as an expression of nature’s will (“nature wills it otherwise”), which has separated nations through two characteristics: “linguistic and religious difference”. Universal monarchy cannot overcome these differences without resorting to unnatural coercion, eventually leading to despotism.
Dante, on the other hand, operated in a clearly pre-national world. Writing in an unstable environment with few formal norms of inter-state relations, he follows a logical and rationalist chain of thought from the issue of disunity and conflict to the necessary conclusion that is world government. If we consider Kant’s empirical observations to be historically contingent, then Dante’s medieval point of view may even carry an advantage in that it lacks any broad structural prejudices. Dante could construct a more consistent idealism because of the fluidity and uncertainty of the political landscape confronting him.
In contrasting the two philosophies, federalists and post-neoliberals more generally should find Dante’s reasoning advantageous. Economic competition as envisioned by Kant may be a sort of civilized system, but it is not a fundamentally peaceful mechanism because it maintains political division. It relies on an assumed historical evolution rather than being the consequence of organized political institutions. The author of Towards a Perpetual Peace alludes to a principle of “balance” as achieved by commercial activity. But does this balance eliminate the possibility of war entirely, even if economic interaction is extensive? And does the precondition that every nation become a liberal republic appear significantly more plausible than the construction of a world state?
The 20th and ongoing 21st-century seem to at the very least nuance this kind of liberal internationalism, which depends on the supposedly peace-encouraging aspects of global markets and the Hegelian end of history. The conflicts we are seeing in the world at this very moment demand a new vision in which peace and rational governance are not simply the expected results of historical evolution. Economic interdependence can create zones of conflict (economic resentment, de-industrialization, inequality, protectionism) as much as it eliminates others. Furthermore, political and economic globalization has gone forward despite much of the world not living under democratic regimes, leading to nationalism and historical revisionism undermining the possibility of rational relations between states.
Going forward, we will likely require a departure from the negative liberty afforded by liberalism, which sees the absence of conflict and oppression as its supreme goal, and towards a more positive form of social progress as enabled by rational politics. In such a system, political freedom and the purposeful building of a better society go hand in hand. World peace must be actively built along with a system of political freedom. Only this will ensure social progress. This was Dante’s vision.
Over hundreds of years, humanity’s experience has given substance to the concept of a free society. “Ordered liberty” lies at the heart of American democracy, and liberal constitutions have become a global benchmark for evaluating free governments. Individual human rights have also become a standardized measure of whether or not a society is grounded in socio-political freedom, and are universally applied as such.
These developments were the result of a slow historical process. They required multiple revolutions, both philosophical and political, and modern democracy constitutes a very recent and still dramatically underdeveloped mode of social organization in the world. To evaluate the political philosophy found in De Monarchia on the basis of measures that were inconceivable at the time of its writing would be anachronistic and unfair. Dante was writing in a pre-democratic era, in which personalistic politics defined politics. Formal constitutional guarantees of an individual’s rights were not even a topic of discussion.
Instead, Dante offers us a proto-federalist path to liberty, one which emphasizes the initial requirement of world peace through unified government to attain the ideal social order. Dante’s monarch represents the need for central government, which must hold final authority because peace requires a final arbiter. The monarch unifies disparate levels of social life, from individuals to larger political bodies, which otherwise exist in a sort of organic and autonomous order. He also protects the freedom of all elements of the social order, and acts as a servant to the cause of rational government.
This leads us to new perspectives going forward in relation to De Monarchia. Dante is not simply another progressive voice in his interpretation of history and human society, but in fact establishes a distinct lineage for world federalists and advocates of world democracy writ large to exploit.
In this version of change, world peace is viewed not as the result of history’s natural evolution, but as an objective structure of liberty, one in which government ensures just peace and allows reason to flourish. And as reason translates into action, Dante’s construct forms the basis for true social progress in all areas of human life.
Finally, progressives of all relevant philosophical traditions should incorporate Dante’s thinking on world peace and world government into their own reasoning. Whatever form such a universal government will take, an issue that must be subject to serious debate and consideration, it is clear that without peace we can have neither freedom nor justice.
Alighieri, D., & Henry, A. (1904). The de Monarchia of Dante Alighieri. Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
Daley, T. “Seven Long Centuries Ago, Dante Imagined the End of War and the Unity of Humankind.” Jewish Journal, August 8, 2022, https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/analysis/350595/seven-long-centuries-ago-dante-imagined-the-end-of-war-and-the-unity-of-humankind/. Accessed March 22, 2023.
Kant, I. (n.d.). Toward perpetual peace - university of hawaiʻi. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from http://www2.hawaii.edu/~freeman/courses/phil320/21.%20Perpetual%20Peace.pdf
Sullivan, M. E. (2018). Is Dante a cosmopolitan? Postmedieval, 9(4), 511–523. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41280-018-0107-1