Sunday, April 16, 2017

Political Science in the 14th Century

Dante and his Divine Comedy have been read and studied for centuries. However to understand its context and complexities one must have a reasonable understanding of the temporal context of the world Dante wrote in. One key element was the battle between the Franciscans and the Papacy regarding the issue of poverty. The book by Havely, Dante and the Franciscans: Poverty and the Papacy in the 'Commedia', is an excellent introduction to this essential dimension.

The Franciscans in the early 14th century were divided into two camps; the Spirituals and the Conventionals. The Spirituals had a view of poverty which was in the extreme. That is no Franciscan could “own” anything or it was a breach of their vow of poverty. Even to the extent of their tunics, which were communal and limited in number to  what they wore and a possible clean spare. The Conventionals on the other hand limited poverty to actual ownership, such as a horse or even a book. They horses and books were communal and the ownership was in the name of the Pope and not the order per se.

By the late 13th century and early 14th several trends tended to collide, with poverty being a focal point. The major tendency was that of the increasing opulence of the Papacy and its alignment with France and its ultimate move to Avignon from Rome. Too many, and Dante included this was a breach of duty of the Pope and the excesses of these erstwhile Popes were a denial of their prime duty as Bishops of Rome. Pope after Pope were handing out favors for money, and some of these favors were forgiveness of sins. Popes were appointing massive numbers of family members to key positions in the Church, so that what had been a fundamental religious position was not a secular organization taking money for the issuance of religious gifts.

Add to this the city states in Italy, such as Florence from whence Dante came and was expelled, and Bologna, Milan, Venice, Ravenna. Across Italy there were Guelphs and Gibberllines, supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor or Pope.

In a sense these three waves of conflict, poverty and its Christ and Apostle like adherence, the Pope and his legitimacy as Bishop of Rome, and the conflict between Church and State as to secular rule. The contrasts led to massive conflicts in society.

The author then takes the reader through Dante’s Divine Comedy laying out how the three parts of it reflect his view of these conflicts. In the Inferno, home to evil Popes and public figures who have betrayed the trust that people put in them are shown to suffer the pains of Hell.

Chapter 1 is a superb discussion of Franciscan poverty. It is essential to understand some of the elements since Dante came from Florence and Santa Croce in Florence was a Franciscan school which Dante may very well have attended. It was also a hot bed of many of the Spirituals of the time.

Chapter 2 is the core chapter on Inferno. As Virgil takes Dante around the Inferno, he stumbles, literally as well as figuratively, upon Popes whose presence is there as a result of avarice. Pure abject greed and use of the office for personal gain and aggrandizement, which is what Dante relates over and over. The second theme is authority after avarice. This is a key combination. For when Dante ages thinkers like Marsilius of Padua has begun promoting his ideas of leadership and political science. Marsilius sees the Pope as a religious leader, separate from the world, and further see the secular leaders as serving those to whom they lead, and furthermore selected by those very people. Marsilius introduces into the political thought the construct of the individual, the individual as a separate and autonomous agent and not as a subject of any king or Pope. William of Ockham was soon to take this further in his battles with John XXII. One can see many of these ideas starting to come forth in Dante and his Inferno.

Chapter 3 is Purgatorio is driven by the theme of poverty in spirit. Chapter 4 is Paradiso and its theme is poverty and authority. Chapter 4, Epilogue, is a superb summary of all the issues the author considers.

To understand Dante, in my opinion it is essential to understand his time and the issues which drove him. Estranged from Florence, he spends time throughout the city states of northern Italy, writing in his Divine Comedy about the issues of his time, but they are also issues which rise above what he sees. The issue of poverty and the Franciscan Spirituals is truly an issue of authority. It is also an issue of what responsibilities those who rule have, not just what powers they can exert. What one sees in the Inferno are not just evil people being punished, but evil deeds which must be corrected.

This book is an essential reference for anyone studying Dante. Dante can be read as a student in the context of a compulsory exercise or as an educated adult as insight to the cruelties of abused power. Dante, in focusing on the Franciscan issue of poverty, sets a sounding board for the developing change in governance, spiritual as well as temporal. This book is a brilliant light on those issues and is essential not only for understanding Dante but also in understanding the early development of political change. The centuries before Montesquieu, Locke, Mill, were started by the arguments of poverty, and then authority and its source.