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Why Dante Ditched the Culture War

On the Heavenly Kingdom.

Mehmet Ciftci is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.

If Dante were with us today, I can’t imagine he would be much of a culture warrior. He certainly was in his own day—and the Italian culture war in the thirteenth century was far more vicious than our own—but in his greatest literary achievement, Dante learned to transcend that struggle. How he did so is one of the more important lessons from the Divine Comedy

In the late twelfth century, both central and northern Italy were a melange of city-states divided into two sides: the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Guelphs were the supporters of papal supremacy over political affairs, while the Ghibellines were on the side of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Guelphs wanted the Pope to be able to depose and replace rulers whenever they threatened the spiritual welfare of their subjects. The Ghibellines thought the Pope had no such power because the Emperor possessed authority independently of the papacy; each should keep to his turf, the one to spiritual matters, the other to political affairs. Over time, the reasons for their conflict were forgotten, as often happens in long-running blood feuds. Depending on which side had the upper hand, cities would frequently change allegiances. Some cities would belong to one party and the surrounding region to another. 

Dante was born into a Guelph family in Florence and rose to the city's highest political office before his political career suffered an untimely end. While he was away on a diplomatic mission in 1301, a mob of Black Guelphs (the Guelphs having split into two as a result of infighting) leveled at Dante and other White Guelphs various trumped up accusations of corruption. Dante refused to dignify the mob with his presence, so he was tried in absentia and condemned to death by fire. His banishment from Florence lasted until his death. 

Many people think Dante’s writings in exile reveal him to be switching sides in the Guelph-Ghibelline controversy. De Monarchia, his prolix defense of the Emperor written early in that period, certainly seems to support this view. Eminent scholars, such as the late Robert Hollander of Princeton, also understand the Comedy as a bold restatement of the Ghibelline view. But there are signs that when Dante wrote his last and greatest work, he was moving beyond the controversy altogether. 

Consider just a few examples. In the sixth canto of Paradiso, the Emperor Justinian describes the history of the Roman Empire and criticizes the Guelphs and Ghibellines evenly. While the Guelphs opposed the Empire and the Ghibellines sought to claim it for their own party, Justinian says (one imagines with a sigh) that “it is hard to see who is worse.” He criticizes the Ghibellines for severing the symbol of the Emperor from justice, suggesting that they have an obsession with power, no matter how it is gained or used. Dante’s encounter with Farinata degli Uberti, a Ghibelline politician, in the tenth canto of Inferno seems to support this interpretation, because Farinata’s sin was to seek political glory at the expense of his faith, even to the point of denying the resurrection. 

So if Dante is refusing to take sides in this debate, what is he intending to do? I think a clue to his intentions can be found in canto twenty-five of Paradiso. St. James says to Dante:

our Emperor [Christ], of His grace, 
wills that you come, before your death, 
to meet His nobles in His secret chamber,
So that, having known the reality of this court,
you may then strengthen in yourself and others 
the hope that brings true love to those on earth.

Dante presents his vision of Heaven (and presumably also his vision of the other two realms of Hell and Purgatory) to his readers in order to strengthen their hope, the hope that brings true love. If the papacy is overrun by greed and corruption, and if the Emperor’s supporters no longer unite their cause with justice, then Dante thinks the only solution is in the Church recommitting itself to faith, hope, and to love. Only Christians who truly hope for the heavenly kingdom can reject greed, lust, and pride, and instead act with love. 

The author of the Divine Comedy no longer writes as a politician; he is no longer even the political agitator and propagandist for the Emperor that he was when writing De Monarchia. Now at the end of his life, while working on the poem that would consume him, he is more of a prophet or a reformer, urging his readers to turn back to their hope in God; as St. James says, only that will bring true love to those on earth. Dante refers to Christ using the title of emperor several times in the Comedy, as if to appropriate the imperial title for its true bearer. Heaven is described using plainly political language, such as when Beatrice refers to the host of angels and saints as “our city” in canto thirty of Paradiso, and Dante describes it in the next canto as “this sure and joyful kingdom”. 

Meanwhile, the inscription on the gate of Hell welcomes all new arrivals to the “city of woe,” and the city of Dis sits within it like a mediaeval castle, with Satan described in the final canto of the Inferno as “the emperor of the woeful kingdom”. Christ and Satan, the heavenly kingdom and Hell, it seems, are being contrasted; one of them under a just ruler, while the other is a hellish parody of a human community, driven more by violence and conflict than by friendship. Dante presents these two kingdoms to us and seems to suggest that the choice between these is the important one, not the choice between Guelph or Ghibelline. 

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for our present day culture warriors.