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Dante’s Political Theology

Wednesday, December 6, 2023, 5:40 pm – 7:00 pm

This lecture surveys three fundamental issues on which Dante’s political thinking necessarily pivots and on whose interpretation any claim to consistency in his argumentation relies.

[1] The first is perhaps the most straightforward - what to make of the final paragraph of Monarchia, where Dante observes that the argument of his treatise should not be interpreted so strictly that the temporal power is not, ‘in some sense’ (quodammodo), subject to the spiritual power. [2] The second is how to interpret the providential function of the Roman Empire in Monarchia, both as a historical reality under the emperor Augustus and as a paradigm of ideal universal monarchy, and the impact this then has on the relationship, in Paradiso, between the historical narrative provided by Justinian in Mercury and the collective eagle of ‘justice’ in Jupiter. [3] The third, and perhaps most divisive, question is how to relate the argumentation of Monarchia with the eschatological register of Purgatorio - an apocalypticism which evokes connections between political thought and prophecy that the more secular-minded of Dante’s modern commentators often find disconcerting.


M. S. Kempshall is the Cliff Davies Fellow and Clarendon Associate Professor in History at Wadham College in the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Common Good in Medieval Political Thought (Oxford, 1999), and Rhetoric and the Writing of History c.400-c.1500 (Manchester, 2011), in addition to three articles on Dante’s political thought: ‘Accidental Perfection – Ecclesiology and Political Thought in Monarchia’ (eds. P. Acquaviva and J. Petrie, Dante and the Church – Literary and Political Essays, Dublin 2007); ‘The Utility of Peace in Monarchia’ (eds. J. C. Barnes and D. O’Connell, War and Peace in Dante, Dublin 2015); ‘Dante’s Lamentations – the History of Exile and the Politics of Restoration’ (eds. R. Cooper, N. Havely and R. Katz, Dante Beyond Borders, Legenda 2021). The latter now form the basis for a forthcoming book, Dante’s Political Theology (Oxford, 2024), made possible by the grant of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship.