Dante’s Vision of a United Europe
There is a rather naive notion that the vision of a politically United Europe was born ex nihilo in 1950. The notion is naive because it loses sight of the fact that there is no such thing in history as creations ex nihilo. We stand on the shoulders of giants. It is therefore both proper and fitting to remember and celebrate those European cultural giants who, after the fall of the Roman Empire, began envisioning a United Europe.
As a Christian humanist, Dante exemplifies the synthesis of Antiquity (i.e., Greco-Roman civilization) with Christianity. The mere fact that he chose Virgil, the poet of Latinity, as his guide in the Commedia, hints at it. With that synthesis Dante becomes the poet of the Italians just as Virgil had been the poet of the Romans. By giving them a written literature (The Divine Comedy) he gives them a national language and a cultural identity.
There is a passage in The Divine Comedy where Dante is transported in spirit above the vicissitudes of men and flies higher and higher in the blue sky till he sees the earth just as 20th century astronauts saw it from the moon. I suppose that makes Dante the first global space walker, albeit via imagination. Two intriguing characteristics in this passage are worthy of notice: in the first place Dante does not discern any geographical or political borders on the earth: he sees the whole earth, holistically, so to speak, just as the astronauts saw it from the moon in 1969. Thereafter Dante comments that “vidi quell’aiuola che ci fa tanto selvaggi” which translates loosely as “I saw that puny garden that makes us so vicious.” He is addressing not just the Florentines or the Italians, or the Europeans but the whole of humankind.
In effect Dante with this contrast of good/bad, ugly/beautiful, true/false, puny/precious, is saying that this unique earth which is Man’s only home within time and space is meant to be beautiful as a garden at the outset, but the sad ugly present reality is that in this garden brother kills brother; it is one of general viciousness and incessant warfare. Dante is pointing out that this garden is a garden of exile and humankind’s journey is a journey back to the future, a journey of a return toward that utopist garden it originally left behind. Later in his imaginary journey Dante will enter the earthly garden of Eden on top of the mountain of Purgatory, but his journey transcends even that beautiful earthly garden.
It is crucial to remember here that Dante, as he writes the Commedia, is himself in exile. He has been expelled from his beloved Florence because there too brother is fighting brother; Ghibellines are fighting Guelfs. Dante used to be a Guelf; they were divided in the Blacks who saw in the Pope an ally against the Emperor (Henry VII of Germany at the time), and the Whites who were determined to remain fiercely independent of both Pope and Emperor. When the Blacks, supported by Pope Boniface VIII (later placed in hell by Dante for politicizing his spiritual mission) seize power, Dante, as a White, is sent into exile.
It is this condition of exile, of constant frustration of having “to eat the hard bread of others’ homes,” of constant hardship and uneasiness and dissatisfaction, that propels Dante into a spiritual quest aptly depicted in the Commedia and ending with his famous “tua volont‡, nostra pace” (your will, our peace). Had he stayed in Florence he would have remained just another self-complacent mediocre politician. The experience of exile transform Dante’s political views; he ends up embracing the cause of the Ghibellines and begins to champion the unification of Europe under an enlightened Emperor. He writes a Latin political tract titled “De Monarchia” where this vision is set forth. Dante has now come full circle, from the particularity of his city of Florence he is now envisioning a Europe unified by universal ideals such as justice, peace, the common good, the True, the Good, the Beautiful; ideals to be privileged above and beyond mere Machiavellian power considerations. His is a Humanistic political ethic founded on universal Christian principles.
The Europe that Dante envisions in De Monarchia is one that keeps a strict separation between Church and State (what Italians now call “lo Stato laico”) so that which is Caesar’s will be given to Caesar and that which is God’s will be given to God. That means religious freedom and tolerance for other faiths and traditions such as the Moslem, fully welcomed at the Court of Frederick II in Palermo and which greatly influenced Italian culture. Italy will be just another country among European countries and its preeminence will consist less on its militaristic Roman heritage, and more on its Humanistic foundations.
Dante is therefore one of the grandfathers of this vision of a United Europe. As the consummate poet he is, he reminds all Europeans that, in the words of the Dante scholar, the British-American poet T.S. Eliot, “…The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started from and know the place for the first time.” At that place we shall rediscover “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” [The love that moves the sun and the other stars]—Paradiso XXXIII, 145.