De Monarchia By Dante Alighieri Book II: Chapter VIII: The Decree of God Showed That Empire Belonged To The Roman People.

BOUTS, Dieric the Elder 
c. 1445

And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled. This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David, To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child. And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. Lk


The decree of God showed that Empire belonged to the Roman people.

1. For hunting down adequately the truth of our inquiry, it is essential to know that Divine judgment in human affairs is sometimes manifest to men, and sometimes hidden. And it may be manifested in two ways, namely, by reason and by faith.1 To certain of the judgments of God human reason can climb on its own feet, as to this one, that a man should endanger himself for his country’s safety. For if a part should endanger itself for the safety of the whole, man, being a part of the state according to the Philosopher in his Politics, ought to endanger himself for the sake of his fatherland, as a less good for a better.2 Hence the Philosopher to Nicomachus: “To act in behalf of one alone is admirable; but it is better and more nearly divine to act in behalf of nation and state.”3 And this is the judgment of God; in any other case human reason in its rectitude would not follow the intention of nature, which is impossible.

2. But to certain of the judgments of God, to which human reason cannot climb on its own feet, it may be lifted by the aid of faith in those things which are related to us in the Holy Scriptures. Such is this one, that no man without faith can be saved, though he had never heard of Christ, and yet was perfect in moral and intellectual virtues, both in thought and act.4 While human reason by itself cannot recognize this as just, aided by faith it can do so. It is written to the Hebrews: “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”5 And in Leviticus: “What man soever there be of the house of Israel that killeth an ox, or lamb, or goat in the camp, or out of the camp, and bringeth it not to the door of the tabernacle, an offering unto the Lord, blood shall be imputed to that man.”6 The door of the tabernacle is a figure for Christ, who is the entrance-way to the eternal mansions,7 as can be learned from the Gospel; the slaying of animals is a figure for human deeds.8

3. Now that judgment of God is hidden to which human reason cannot attain either by laws of nature or scripture, but to which it may sometimes attain by special grace. This grace is gained in various ways, at times by simple revelation, at times by revelation through the medium of judicial award. Simple revelation comes to pass in two ways, either as the spontaneous act of God, or as an answer to prayer. The spontaneous act of God may be expressed directly or by a sign. It was expressed directly, for instance, in the judgment against Saul revealed to Samuel;9 it was expressed by signs in the revelation to Pharaoh of God’s will concerning the liberation of the children of Israel.10 It came as an answer to prayer, as he knew who said in Second Chronicles: “When we know not what we ought to do, this alone we have left, to raise our eyes to thee.”11

4. Revelation through the medium of judicial award may be first by lot, and secondly by contest (certamen). Indeed, “to contend” (certare) is derived from “to make certain” (certum facere). That the judgment of God is revealed sometimes by lot is obvious from the substitution of Matthias in the Acts of the Apostles.12

5. And the judgment of God is made known by contests of two sorts—either the trial of strength between champions in duels,13 or the struggle of many to come first to a mark, as in contests run by athletes for a prize. The first of these modes was represented among the Gentiles in the strife of Hercules and Antaeus, which Lucan recalls in the fourth book of the Pharsalia,14 and Ovid in the ninth of the Metamorphoses.15 The second was represented among them by Atalanta and Hippomenes, in the tenth book of the Metamorphoses.16

6. Likewise, the fact must not be disregarded that in the former of these two sorts of contests the combatants—for instance, champions in a duel—may impede each other without injustice, but in the latter they may not. Indeed, athletes must put no impediment in one another’s way, although our poet seems to think otherwise in his fifth book, when he causes Euryalus to be rewarded.17 Tully, following the opinion of Chrysippus, does better to forbid this in the third book of Moral Duties, where he says: “Chrysippus, wise in this as in most matters, declares that ‘Whoever runs a race should endeavor with most strenuous effort to come off victor, but in no way should he trip up the one with whom he contends.’ ”18

7. From the distinction drawn in this chapter we may grant two effective modes by which the hidden decree of God is revealed: one, a contest of athletes; the other, a contest of champions. Both of these modes I will discuss in the chapter immediately following.

[1. ] Dante in various places dwells on the two means of knowledge given to man. Conv. 4. 9 concerns itself with the functions of reason. In Par. 24 St. Peter questions Dante as to the nature of faith, of its matter, and he calls it “This precious jewel whereon every virtue is founded.” In one aspect the Divine Comedy may be interpreted as the picture of a man climbing by the help of reason and faith to a sight and knowledge of God. Reason and faith; Virgil and Beatrice; philosophy and theology. Cf. De Mon. 3. 16. 5.

[2. ]Pol. 1. 2. 14.

[3. ]Eth. 1. 2. 8: “To discover the good of an individual is satisfactory, but to discover that of a state or a nation is more noble and divine.”

[4. ]Par. 4. 67: “That our justice should appear unjust in the eyes of mortals is argument of faith, and pertains not to heretic pravity.”

Par. 19. 70: “A man is born on the banks of the Indus, and none is there to talk of Christ, nor to read, nor to write; and all his volitions and acts are good, so far as human reason sees, without sin in life or in converse. He dies unbaptized and without fault; where is this justice which condemns him?”

[5. ]Heb. 11. 6.

[6. ]Lev. 17. 3, 4.

[7. ]John 10. 7, 9: “I am the door of the sheep.”

[8. ] Witte quotes from Isidore: “With a moral significance, we sacrifice a calf, when we overcome pride of the flesh; a lamb, when we correct irrational impulses; a kid, when we conquer lust; a dove, when we preserve purity of morals; unleavened bread, ‘when we keep the feast, not in the leaven of malice, but in the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.’ ”

[9. ]1 Sam. 15. 10, 11.

[10. ]Exod. 7. 9.

[11. ]2 Chron. 20. 12 (Vulg.).

[12. ]Acts 1. 23-26.

[13. ] The word “duellum” is translated by Wicksteed as “ordeal,” and by Church as “duel.” To prevent misunderstanding, I have thought best to translate the word by “single combat,” or “combat man to man,” in almost every case.

[14. ] Lucan, Phar. 4. 609 ff.

[15. ] Ovid, Met. 9. 183. The Metamorphoses are generally called by Dante as here, de Rerum Transmutatione. For Ovidian references in Dante see Moore, Studies, Vol. 1. pp. 206-228.

[16. ]Met. 10. 560.

[17. ]Aen. 5. 335 ff.

[18. ]De Off. 3. 10. 42.


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