Literary Essays

The Divine Comedy as a Bias Allegory

Emerson College:

by Evan McKenna

The Divine Comedy as a Bias Allegory

During his years away from Florence, Dante Alighieri published various works that addressed his opinion on government, both in treatise and allegory. An opposing Florentine faction, the Black Guelphs, led by the ruthless Corso Donati and Pope Boniface the VIII, had exiled Dante and the White Guelphs, leaving Florence a city that would unify papacy and state. During this time, Dante wrote his renowned text, The Divine Comedy, where he reveals his animosity for the Black Guelph principle: marriage of papacy and state. Dante believed that temporal world rule must come from the nature of God, and not from the reign of a pope or influence of religious institution (De Monarchia 23). The Roman Empire system was ideal to Dante, since it was built and operated by secular judgment and lacked influence of a papacy. Dante’s political convictions manifest themselves in The Divine Comedy, where Dante encounters the souls of many political figures from the papacy and state. While The Divine Comedy is remembered for its portrayal of divine love and historical significance, I argue that it is chiefly a political allegory. Although the text takes place in the afterlife to describe to the judgments of God, it ironically focuses on the mortal realm. Dante’s afterlife does not deal with sins from the traditional Roman Catholic viewpoint, but instead from his own political biases. His critical allusions to the Roman Empire and city of Florence discredit the theological aesthetic of the text, making it a bias, political allegory.

 The advocacy of secular government, which drives the aesthetic of Dante’s afterlife, is rooted in his veneration of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire. Dante’s veneration of Caesar causes theological inconsistency in The Divine Comedy, specifically evident in the end of the Inferno. At the very bottom of Hell, Dante sees the betrayers of the Roman Empire, in person of King Caesar, being chewed on by Satan (Inf. 34.58). Between Cassius and Brutus is Judas Iscariot. The punishment of Judas is rational of Dante, in regard to the Catholic consequence of betraying the Son of God. However, by placing Cassius and Brutus with equal punishment to Judas, there is theological inconsistency, since Roman Catholic doctrine states that sinning against God results in harsher punishment than mortal affairs. By placing the murderers of Caesar next to the betrayer of God, Dante as an author manifests his admiration of the Roman Empire and Caesar. Dante, however, did not irrationally worship Caesar as a Christ-like figure. In Joan Ferrante’s critical text, Political Vision of the Divine Comedy, she writes, “The objects of betrayal in the final section of all creatures, Christ, who died to redeem mankind, the founder of the empire, which exists to restore mankind to paradise. In sinning against any of them, the implication is, we commit the worst of all sins and ultimately betray ourselves” (194). Dante believes that Caesar played the largest role of mortal men in the coming of Jesus, since he founded a society that had the conditions necessary for the divine process to occur. Still, this only makes rational sense to Dante’s belief in government, not to theology and judgment by God. Consider the placement of Cato, who also attacked Caesar, being sent to Purgatory instead of Hell. “Cato fought Caesar as an enemy of the Roman State but remained true to his principles, and Brutus and Cassius, who changed sides and whose allegiance should have been to the empire once it was established as well as to the emperor who had befriended them” (Ferrante 194). While Cassius, Brutus, and Cato each took part in the attack; Dante wants the reader to believe that God punished them separately, punishing Cassius and Brutus, and forgiving Cato. The explanation behind their separation is not based on their sins towards God, but what they did to the Roman Empire, which reveals Dante mode of writing to be political allegory.

Though his biases also manifest themselves in brief references to political enemies, Dante can also be read as theologically rational, depending on the enemy. Corso Donati, the ruthless leader of the Black Guelphs, is mentioned in Purgatory by his brother, Forese, “He, whose guilt is most/Passes before my vision dragg’d at heels? Of an infuriate beast. Toward the vale, / Where guilt hath no redemption (Pur. 24.81-4). Since Corso has historical opposition with Dante’s brutal placement of him can be read as a political comment. However, Dante is also theologically rational here. Corso Donati is remembered for many sins, from causing great evil by unleashing unprecedented violence and anarchy on Florence, to forcing a widowed sister out of the convent in order to take control of her wealth and her children’s inheritance (Encyclopedia Dantesca, 2.559). Dante also had theological rationale to provide a pre-destined throne for Pope Boniface VIII in Hell. Though he had personal animosity towards Boniface VIII over his exile, Pope Boniface VIII had been accused of various heresies and blasphemies, of fornication, simony, idolatry, demon-worship, war mongering, sodomy, assassination, violation of the confessional, political intrigue, embezzlement of crusade funds and slandering the French souls (Ferrante 82). The overlapping of being intrinsically evil as well as an enemy of Dante allows Corso and Boniface to be read in two different allegorical perspectives: the theological and the political. This shows that the text does make an effort to rightfully punish sinners through divine judgment. However, it asks the questions why Dante meets only his political enemies to encounter in Hell, and not sinners he supports politically. This question leaves the structure of the afterlife appeared skewed in Dante’s bias, bringing the text back to a main focus of highly subjective, political allegory.

The question of theological or political allegory also occurs with the destined fates of King Henry VII, who Dante supported, and Pope Clement V, who Dante utterly despised. Towards the end of Paradise, Beatrice tells Dante that there is a seat in God’s Rose–the highest level of heaven–for Henry VII after death (Par. 30.135-7). Though Henry was objectively a leader of good faith and heart, Dante explicitly places him at the highest good. This exclusive placement in paradise is unnecessarily extreme in regard to Christian theology, since Henry VII was not particularly saintly. However, Dante believed he would restore the State through separate papacy and state policy, which he reflects not only in the Divine Comedy, but also in his treatise, De Monarchia (Havley 42). Although Dante’s bias deals with salvation instead of damnation, it still gives the impression that the story is chiefly a political allegory. It is no surprise that the betrayer of Dante’s favored Henry VII, Pope Clement V, has a seat reserved in Hell. This is another case, however, where the text can be read as both a theological and political allegory. Pope Clement V, who was lobbied into position by King Phillip the IV of France, is mentioned following the comment of Henry VII, as Beatrice says, “God will not endure/ I’ the holy office long; but thrust him down/To Simon Magus, where Alagna’s priest/ Will sink beneath him: such will be his meed“ (Par. 30. 143-5). Clement V, “Alagna’s priest” is destined to end up in Hell, sinking below Pope Nicholas III and Pope Boniface for his unforgivable fraud and destruction. Dante, like the common man, abhorred Clement V for moving the Papal See (the promise Clement made to King Phillip) from Rome to Avignon, France in 1309, which caused the Great Schism. Though Dante exhibits his political biases in the text, this can be read in a theological perspective, since Clement’s fraud and betrayal disrupted the order of Christianity in Rome and was objectively corrupt and sinful.

However, it seems that Dante’s political bias of government ultimately outweighs his theological focus. This is shown when heretic Farinata mentions the presence of Frederick II in the Circle of Heresy (Inf. 10.119). Though a brief reference, this is perhaps Dante’s most complex, discreet, yet compelling example of political bias in the entire comedy. Seeing that Frederick II dwells in eternal Hell, it appears that Dante, who has already in the text attacked the concept of papacy and state, is showing that he is not blind to the sins of emperors. But Dante admired Frederick as the notably strong, successful, emperor he was. He revered Frederick’s ability to develop an efficient state in Italy, and was fond of the leader’s scholarly writings. Critic Ernst Kantorowicz states this is a puzzling fact in some ways because Frederick was a significant force against the political ambitions of the papacy in Italy” (Frederick II). Though puzzling, it should be noted that Frederick II had a strict policy against heresy, as he persecuted any level of the sin, and extended an anti-heresy legislation all the way to the German State. “Perhaps what troubled Dante is that Fredrick treated Heresy as a crime against the state as treason and assumed all responsibility for it” (Ferrente 123). Frederick’s placement in hell represents Dante’s unwillingness to relent with political bias, and discredits the rational of theological judgment in the text.

G.R. Sarolli sees the Divine Comedy as a secularized prophecy, a visionary allegory which irrupts into a concrete historical crisis with the confessed intent to reshape the moral order of the world and reconcile its two providential structures, Empire and Church” (Prolegomena alla). This is clear in the fact that Dante constantly recoils from theological reasoning to take shots at those who opposed him personally and politically. In his oscillation from theological allegory to political allegory, the political not only eclipses the theological, but also discredits it. By claiming that God sent respective souls to damnation, purgatory, or salvation, Dante would need to focus on sin from the Roman Catholic view. Because his shots at the papacy and personal enemies exist in the text, the story can be chiefly read as a political allegory.



Works Cited

Cary, Henry Francis. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Roseville, CA: Dry Bones, 2000. Print.

Ernst Kantorowicz, Frederick II, trans. E.O. Lorimer (1931:reprint, New York: Ungary, 1957).

Ferrante, Joan. The Political Vision of the Divine Comedy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 19884. Print.

Gian Roberto Saroli, Prolegomena alla Divina Commedia (Florence: Olschki, 1971),

Havley, Nick. “Landscapes from Exile.” Dante. Wiley-Blackwell, 2007. Print.

Schneider, Herbert W. On World Government = De Monarchia. Middle Village, N.Y.: Published by Griffon House Publications for the Bagehot Council, 2008. Print.

 Sestan, Ernesto. “Corso Donati.” Encyclopedia Dantesca. Ed. Umberto Osco. 559. Print.