Theses Doctoral

Dante as Critic of Medieval Political Economy in Convivio and Monarchia

Hittinger, Francis Russell

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) has traditionally been viewed through the lens of his poetic masterpiece, the Commedia. While his so-called “minor” works, including the overtly political book four of Convivio and the treatise Monarchia, have been studied, much of this work tends to read Dante through the theologized, over-determined hermeneutic of the narrative of his poetic journey through the afterlife. Also, because of the overwhelming temptation to associate Dante’s place in intellectual history with his clerical contemporaries in Paris and Bologna, a similar trend (often combined with the first) reads Dante as merely an idiosyncratic but minor epigone of the scholastics in his non-poetic work. The latter vein of interpretation is very common and tends to generate interpretations of Dante’s political thought which see it as a predominantly abstract encounter with scholastic theology and philosophy in the context of the high medieval church-state conflicts, particularly in the contentious age of Popes Boniface VIII, Clement V, and John XXII and their bloody disputes with claimants to the Holy Roman throne and French and Aragonese monarchies over political control of northern Italian territories.

While this kind of reading is not unwarranted—for Dante’s Monarchia does make strong claims in the late medieval church-state conflict and deploys a philosophical lexicon current with scholastic intellectuals of the time—many scholars have read Dante’s monarchical theory in Convivio and Monarchia exclusively as a response to and dialogue with the major scholastic and juridical writers, particularly of the “mirrors of princes genre,” on both sides of these political conflicts between Church-State claims to authority. This is not completely wrong, but in so doing many have, conversely, failed to understand that Dante is making a coherent and unique normative argument. Such readings fail to read Dante 1) as a real Florentine politician, 2) as an enthusiastic follower of Aristotelian paradigms (not merely a scholastic Aristotelian), 3) as a committed political secularist, and 4) as contextualized within the rich municipal, social, economic, and political histories of Florence and Medieval Italy.

This study thus moves away from previous approaches to Dante’s political thought and does a close re-reading of Convivio and Monarchia in a properly historicized framework, inspired by the work of Ernst Curtius and modern historicist methodology, contextualizing it in 13th and 14th century history. In particular, the study departs from Dante’s denunciation of greed in his lyrics, Commedia, Convivio, and Monarchia to establish the fact —through extensive research in economic history, commercial development, economic thought, political history, social history in medieval Italy etc.— that far from being a merely abstract denunciation of mammon or usury, like that found in the Bible and other theological writings, it is a unique and acerbic response to broad changes that can only be construed, on the basis of historical scholarship, in terms of the emergence of early capitalism in Florentine society around the early to mid 13th century.

Chapter 1 serves as an initial overview of the whole study, also positioning it in relation to debates within the field of Dante studies; chapter 2 examines the international and political situation of Florence and Italy during Dante’s time; chapter 3 proposes a new historiography of this history and examines it as the development of “political economy”; chapter 4 explores the emergence of capitalism in Florence and Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries (also motioning to debates about the nature and definition of “political economy” and “capitalism”); finally, chapter 5 examines Aristotle’s critique of political economy in the Ethics and Politics, then pivots to Dante’s deployment of such Aristotelian paradigms in Convivio and Monarchia to both denounce the injustices generated by the intertwinement of politics and acquisitive monetary wealth-getting and to articulate a monarchical political model for stopping the deleterious effects of greed.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Barolini, Teodolinda
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 4, 2016