Dante's Argument for the Roman Empire and American Destiny

November 4, 1993

by Howard Fienberg

Intellectually, I know that America is no better than any other country; emotionally I know she is better than every country.
Sinclair Lewis (Bolander, 13)

America ... a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.
Herbert Hoover (14)

Introduction

One manner of examining the United States is through an idealistic analysis of American exceptionalism. The exceptionalism is often linked to American leadership in human rights, freedom and democracy, as well as the religious heritage of the US. This argument of American destiny bears similarities in form and content to the argument made by Dante, in his book Monarchy , in his discussion of the Roman Empire's right to rule, particularly in terms of their basic flaws in pretensions, and their use of reason through religion.

The Flaws in the Discourses

Dante's rational analysis of the Roman Empire is predicated on Catholic beliefs; a flaw in his discourse here is that one who does not buy into his understandings of Christianity would reject his positions. When he claims that Christ was just, and that he could not have been unjust, he is excluding non-Catholics from his entire argument. Because his entire argument is based on one religious outlook, it is inherently limited to an exclusive audience, making it incapable of direct usage in the world at large. Thus, Dante limits the audience he may reach and may, in turn, explain why this classic work of reason is so widely unknown in the modern era.

As Dante's discourse is grounded in Catholic tenets, so is the idealist's argument in favor of American exceptionalism grounded in the general tenets of Western liberal democracy. One who does not accept that American values are universally desired, would have difficulty in finding the US a vanguard for the rest of the world. Thus does a member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood find it difficult to accept the US as a vanguard for the world when he does not believe in American values. He fights for a return to a more orderly and traditional society, run by Islamic principles, and is opposed to the attempts of the Egyptian government to emulate the West's, and America's, liberal democratic ideals. He would not find America as some exceptional power leading the world towards a truer and more just society, a utopia or heaven, but as an evil demon leading the peoples of the world to its fiery hell.

The Argument From the Bible

Dante's argument is based upon solid reasoning, rather than emotion and fancy rhetoric. However, his logic is of a religious nature, and presupposes that the Bible is right. From this point, he easily runs through a complex series of twists of rational thought that prove, to him, that the Roman Empire was founded upon right:

I say, therefore, that if the Roman Empire was not founded upon right then Christ, by his birth, assented to an injustice. The consequent is false: therefore the contradictory of the antecedent is true... (Dante 56)

He then continues along these lines, tracing the justice to Tiberius Caesar, who obviously had "jurisdiction over the whole of mankind" because it was the sins of all humanity which were to be punished through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. (58) This he justifies by claiming that punishment can only be meted out by "one with the right to punish," and that any harm brought to bear on the wrong-doer by one without that right will be regarded as mere injury, rather than punishment. (58) Hence, since Tiberius held such jurisdiction, and it was his representative, Pilate, who passed judgment upon Jesus and sentenced him to death, then that must imply for all that the Roman Empire was founded upon right.

Part of the exceptionalist view of the United States follows a religious course and links it to America's religious heritage. The most obvious examples of religion being pervasive are "one nation, under God," in the pledge of allegiance, and "in God We Trust," which is printed on all money. However, there is a deeper connection with religion that delves into grandiose metaphor and simile. Some authors of popular history have taken to viewing the United States as the New Israel. At base, one finds the Hebrews that fled oppression in Egypt and were guided by God to Palestine. This translates easily into immigrants and pilgrims that fled oppression in Great Britain and were guided by God to America. Herman Melville commented that America "bears the ark of the liberties of the world"; (Neufeld) not only was America destined to be a vanguard for the remainder of humanity, it was born of right and divine providence. This is derived from Dante's argument that right makes might; how else could either Rome or America come to world dominance if not by divine intervention.

Conclusion

Perhaps the greatest flaw in both arguments, left unadressed, is the decline of both the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana. They are merely two examples of imperial over-stretch, and as such, their divinity, or right, saves them not from the usual cycle of empire found throughout history. Both have decayed from within due to general corruption.

Dante's arguments for the rightness of the Roman Empire in the face of the Church are convoluted, but overall they serve his purpose, as long as one can read the book with an understanding of the times and his point of view. Dante would have similar difficulties dealing with an American Empire, but certainly the interplay with religion would be more difficult in an age of stratified religion and overarching moral decay.

Works Cited

Bolander, Donald O. The New Webster Quotation Dictionary . Lexicon Publications, Inc., 1987.
Dante. Monarchy and Three Political Letters . Westport, Connecticut: Hyperion Press, Inc., 1979.
Neufeld, Marc. "American Destiny." Politics 320 lecture. Sept. 29, 1993.


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