A review of Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Dante and His Precursors, by Ernest L. Fortin

The late Ernest L. Fortin was a priest in the Assumptionist order who taught for many years at Assumption College and Boston College. This book is a translation of the original edition, published in French in 1981. It is the work of a man not solely a medieval specialist but very learned in the history of Christian (and other) theology and in the history of philosophy from Plato to Heidegger. Yet of all the things he knew—for Ernest Fortin did not specialize by closing his mind to distractions—it was Dante whom he chose for his first love among thinkers. Fortin's book is not a textual study and instead rather takes for granted an acquaintance with the Divine Comedy and the Monarchy as if his primary audience were our contemporary Dante scholars. Those scholars are instructed by him in an elementary point of which they know nothing and yet need to know before anything else. The rest of us, with less at stake in the way of published opinions, read with growing fascination as a master leads us to the riddles of Dante (and through some of them). All of Dante's riddles, we are promised, have an answer.

The elementary point is the "political mode" in which Dante wrote. The mode is political not in content so much as in manner, the politic manner of one who, while not adopting the opinions his fellow citizens live by, does not confront or challenge those opinions and thus induce those citizens to defend them by attacking him. The influence of Leo Strauss is easy to recognize in this point, and Fortin was indeed an unabashed Straussian. But he introduces the political mode with more intellectual history than Strauss was wont to provide in his published works. 

Three chapters at the beginning of the book set forth, first, a survey of the political mode among ancients, medievals, and moderns; second, a discussion of its use by Al-Farabi and Maimonides; and third, a description of the "crisis of the 13th century" in the Christian world. In the latter chapter, Fortin contrasts the Condemnation of Philosophy (1277) by Etienne Tempier, bishop of Paris (recommended for inspection by Fortin), and the over-enthusiastic Aristotelianism of Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia; and takes a glance at St. Thomas Aquinas (not much interested in the politics of his time), before finally reaching Dante. All this is intellectual history of the right kind because it recognizes the permanent problem of speaking truth to power and does not assume (as does the historicism of our day) that opinions contrary to those in power at any historical period are not capable of being thought or held merely because they are not stated blatantly or shouted from rooftops. 

Fortin takes a dim view of the boast he quotes from the 19th-century historian Ernest Renan: "I am the first to recognize that we have nothing or almost nothing to learn either from Averroes or the Arabs or the Middle Ages." (He means he was the first competent person to hold that view.) But the political mode Fortin presents offers a distinctively medieval view of the permanent question as to what is politics. Today we might look to Carl Schmitt, who on the model of Hobbes (he believed) defines politics as the conflict between friends and enemies: politics is division. This opinion is also expressed by Polemarchus in Plato's Republic, where it is received by Socrates at first with skepticism and later with agreement in some part. Machiavelli, at the beginning of his Discourses on Livy, applies the politics of division to parties within the city and concludes, contrary to Plato, that internal party divisions can within limits be tolerable and even healthy. 

Dante takes a different view, even though he was not naïve (he was called prudent by no lesser judge than Machiavelli) and had had experience with parties in Florence. A member of the Signoria (the governing body in Florence), he lived through the bitter enmities of the Whites and the Blacks in the course of which he was exiled from his native city, never to return. The politics he adopted was not the acceptance of permanent division as with Schmitt, but the contrary. In hisMonarchy he promoted the cause of a world empire to serve as a model for regimes that would be governed freely and loosely under the principle of unity. Fortin is at pains to show, as against most other scholars, that the same model is to be found in the Divine Comedy, which was written later. These scholars were misled by the Christian symbolism of theComedy into the belief that Dante had abandoned his stand for empire (or the Holy Roman Emperor) in favor of the Church, but Fortin with his grand interpretive skill and in his gentle but authoritative manner is able to propose that Dante wrote his book "in the political mode" more as an accommodation to the Church than as a partisan embrace.

Philosophy in the political mode looks calmly and not with hostility at the nomos or law or religion that gives unity through rule to a regime. It does not rush to enlighten society with a new plan, like Dr. Strangelove, as if proclaiming: From now on, everything according to nature! No, philosophy takes the time to consider the nomos, and to begin with, what it sees is a whole. The nomos presents itself as a whole with an answer to every question and a solution to every problem, a whole that is accurate and coherent—and in its rulers, all-knowing. In this regard the philosopher is identical in his pretensions to the prophet and the king and the legislator. Thus the philosopher can write as if he held those other offices in such a way as to make them be performed as they ought to be and to enable himself to be what he needs to be (in order to continue as philosopher). The philosopher respects the nomos because he can very well see that men cannot live by abstract truth but need the particular conventions of their homeland and the particular beliefs of their religion, confirmed by the personal god who pays attention and gives sanction to those conventions and beliefs. 

We know that Strauss came to his discovery of esoteric and exoteric writing through reflection on the identity of philosopher and prophet in Al-Farabi, and Fortin elaborates that discovery in this study of Dante. Dante's accommodation spanned the division of his time between the temporal and the spiritual powers, allowing for both and thus further accommodating them to each other, teaching inspiration to the one and political necessity to the other. Dante reminds us that politics wants to be the whole of our concern. Fortin introduces Dante's politics of the whole—his strange and wonderful imperialism—through his manner of writing, the political mode that accommodates the philosopher's teaching to the politics of the non-philosophers, the multitude. Here is the value of the study of medieval political philosophy. It enables you to learn about the permanent nature of politics by a route that is not so obvious today, when politics seems rudely divisive. Either we make a virtue of fighting, thus forsaking the blessings of peace, or we follow a policy of peace and forget virtue. Neither way is in accord with our nature, which we can ignore but cannot escape. Our nature wants us to be respectful of our conventions but not too respectful. The right degree of respect is politic or political.

If this argument does not persuade you to follow Ernest Fortin to the study of medieval political philosophy and Dante in particular, let me entice you with some small tastes of the delizie in his book. These are some of the important questions to which he supplies answers:

  • Do you know what neutral angels are and how they might differ from lukewarm ones?
  • Have you considered that "just as one can err without contradicting oneself, so one can contradict oneself without erring"?
  • Have you ever read that "freedom is the power to not allow oneself to be seduced by the mere appearance of good"?
  • What is the "economy of truth"?
  • What is the difference between philosophical allegory and the kabbala?
  • Have you an inkling of "the art of returning," by which an exile can return to his homeland without setting foot in the place?
  • Can you explain the vices of avarice and prodigality as they apply to words, not to money?
  • Have you ever heard of Ripheus, the Trojan who disguised himself as a Greek in order to fight against the Greeks?
  • Did you know that according to the best calculations Adam spent less than seven hours in Eden, and yet that Dante is a "new Adam"?
  • Are you surprised to learn that dolce vita comes from Dante, not Federico Fellini, except that Dante said questa dolce vita?
  • Will you continue to waste your time doing crosswords when you could be deciphering the cryptograms in the Divine Comedy?

The first words of Fortin's book are these: "This modest work does not pretend to be exhaustive." When you read it you will see that there are other ways to be ambitious than by being exhaustive, namely: essential, magisterial, and path-breaking.