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Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Divine Origins of the Free Market
Column by Lawrence M. Ludlow.
Exclusive to STR
I last read the Divine Comedy as a medievalist in graduate school. My brother Richard, fueled by wonderful coffees of his own roasting, recently took up the reading of this work with extreme enthusiasm – so much so that he inspired me to revisit the work after nearly 33 years of neglect. So on Good Friday of this year, I began to once again dive into this celebrated work. This was an appropriate date for my adventure since Dante claims to have embarked upon his poetic journey in the dark wood described in the Inferno on that very date 713 years ago.
A Brief Introduction to Historical Revisionism and Its Application to Literary Interpretations
Those of us who study the Austrian School of economics and libertarian theory (especially the American variety of anarcho-capitalism, or voluntaryism) are aware of the need for historical revisionism to correct the pro-state bias that characterizes contemporary historical writing. Many of us have shared our disappointment upon discovering that the majority of modern history writing contains a deep bias that assumes both the inevitability and the “good” of the nation-state as well as centralized economic policy. Furthermore, the discipline of economics is dominated by econometricians that pursue the chimera of central planning. They attempt to “fine tune” the voluntary transactions of the free marketplace by advocating a host of politically imposed interventions that serve only to distort and derail the path of spontaneous human interactions – creating the economic chaos that plagues the “mixed economy” of our times. Ludwig von Mises exposed the psychological roots of the conventional interpretation of historical and economic events in his short work, The Anti-Capitalist Mentality. State control of the education process is another source of this dominant worldview (see State-Run Schools: The New Caesaropapism at the Future of Freedom Foundation website). Scholars rarely dare to bite the hand that feeds them.
But what does this have to do with Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy, and free-market economics? I would like to suggest the need for a new discipline – a new playground – for revisionism. Just as many libertarian scholars are gradually re-writing historical interpretations from a libertarian perspective, it is perhaps time to do the same for literary interpretation. Fortunately for us, there are many examples of historical revisionism before us. In addition to the many essays and books by Professor Ralph Raico, Professor Murray N. Rothbard began his search for the early origins of free market thought many years ago – cutting a wide path for those of us who wish to follow in his footsteps. For example, he identified the 15th Century academic roots of free-market theories in his book, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. In particular, he identified a number of late-Scholastic thinkers whose efforts were centered at the University of Salamanca. Lew Rockwell has provided a brief and valuable introduction to that school in this article. Because it points back to the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century, this late-scholastic link is important for a thorough understanding of the context in which Dante created his Divine Comedy. Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic’s scholastic, is the source of inspiration for the “Salamanca School” of thought. Within the Catholic Church, for example, the eminent status of Aquinas as a theologian and doctor of the Church can be perceived by means of his sobriquet, Angelicus Doctor. His influence on both the Salamanca School and, even earlier, on Dante Alighieri, is reflected throughout the Divine Comedy. Indeed, Dante places Aquinas in the fourth sphere of The Paradiso, the sphere of the sun. From this source, the souls of the wise illuminate the world with their teachings. So as I began to re-read the Divine Comedy, my mind was alert to the possibility that Dante himself may have reflected some exposure to free-market notions as he wrote this famous poem, and as we shall see, I was not disappointed by what I found there.
Literary Revisionism, Anyone?
Dante was born in Florence in the year 1265, only nine years before the death of Thomas Aquinas in 1274. Furthermore, it is important to remember that Dante was busy working on the Divine Comedy during the first two decades of the 1300s, and his work reflects the full influence of Aquinas in addition to the arguments of many other theologians whose writings defined medieval thought. Consequently, I could not help but notice the difference between modern conceptions of ethics and those held by Dante and his peers. Dante’s expansive poem comprises 100 sections, called cantos, and these are grouped into three main parts – the Inferno (the first 34 cantos), the Purgatorio (33 cantos), and the Paradiso (33 cantos). I should not have been surprised to discover – treasured in the very heart of the entire work – an overt message that describes what Dante clearly understands to be the last word – or divine interpretation – of the workings of the marketplace and, in particular, of the free market. It can be found in verses 40 through 78 in Canto XV of the Purgatorio, which is the 49th canto of the entire Divine Comedy. At this location within the poem, it rubs shoulders with the 50th and 51st cantos, which together share the honor of holding the precise central position at the living heart of this work. This is no mere coincidence. It is important to remember that throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante is careful – obsessively so – to create perfect symmetry in the organization of his material – imposing mathematical and literary structure upon the poem in every verse and canto. His encyclopedic poem is as much an example of symmetrical architecture as it is a masterpiece of the written word.
We already are familiar with the Marxian social gospel that is so popular among many current theologians and their followers. In the verses I will cite, Dante himself voices an understanding of the marketplace that shares this erroneous communitarian view of economics. In particular, he describes his adherence to what is known among libertarians as the fallacy of zero-sum economics. Those who hold the zero-sum view claim that in a free marketplace, the gains of one participant are exactly balanced by the losses of another. If the total of the gains and losses are added up, the sum will be zero. In other words, if the sum total of all wealth were embodied in a single chocolate cake, one person’s share of cake would be another’s loss. Furthermore, the addition of each new market participant requires the slicing of thinner and thinner pieces of this cake. We libertarians, of course, despise this theory. If it were correct, the seven billion inhabitants of planet Earth would now be sharing and dividing infinitesimally small pieces of the very same chocolate cake that was first made available in the mists of Mexican pre-history. If such were true, I frankly wonder if there would be so much as a single calorie available to any of us – and very stale calories at that. Furthermore, the current spectacle of American obesity appears to belie this interpretation without my assistance.
But as soon as Dante expresses his zero-sum analysis of marketplace economics, Virgil – who acts as Dante’s divinely appointed guide throughout his journey down into the Inferno and during his wonderful ascent of the Purgatorio – immediately upbraids him and provides the correct alternative, an unabashed free-market perspective. In Dante’s poem, this perspective is a reflection of the divine perspective of God. Let’s now examine the text itself.
Revising Dante’s Zero-Sum Economics: 39 Verses Encapsulate a Divine Economic Theory
To provide the context for this analysis, it is important to remember that Dante has just completed his visit to the second cornice (or ledge) of Purgatory, a ledge inhabited by the souls of those who must purge themselves of the sin of envy. Envy is one of the seven deadly sins of Catholic theology, and the souls of the envious lean against each other for support – mutually helping each other in a loving way that they refused to exhibit while on Earth because of their resentment of the good fortune of others. Furthermore, the eyelids of these repentant sinners are sewn shut because in life, they were in the habit of casting their envious eyes upon the goods of their brothers and sisters, resenting others for their good fortune. It is important to understand that for Dante, acting as poet-physician, the proper antidote for the sin of envy is nothing less than love – or caritas. And we will see that the doctrine of love will provide the concluding lesson of my essay as well.
Once again, Dante has just departed from the second cornice of Purgatory and is climbing the stairs to the third cornice. As he climbs, he makes a conscious effort to consolidate his understanding of the lessons learned during his visit to the ledge inhabited by the souls of the envious. He turns to his guide, Virgil, and begins to question him about the words of a “spirit from Romagna” who had spoken briefly to Dante. Knowing this, we are prepared for the relevant passages. I have provided them here in their entirety using John Ciardi’s translation throughout, which reflects the terza rima of Dante’s Italian. It is available through Kindle Books; Dante Alighieri (2003-05-27). The Divine Comedy (412-414). NAL Trade. Kindle Edition).
Dante Learns a New Way to Think About Sharing
Let’s begin our exploration by focusing on verses 40 through 51:
My Guide and I were going up the stair— (Verse 40)
we two alone— and I, thinking to profit
from his wise words as we were climbing there,
questioned him thus: “What deep intent lay hidden (Verse 43)
in what the spirit from Romagna said?
He spoke of ‘sharing’ and said it was ‘forbidden.’ ”
And he: “He knows the sad cost of his own (Verse 46)
besetting sin: small wonder he reviles it
in hope that you may have less to atone.
It is because you focus on the prize (Verse 49)
of worldly goods, which every sharing lessens
that Envy pumps the bellows for your sighs.
By “sharing,” Dante’s Virgil means the envious type of sharing – i.e., taking from another person what is not yours to possess and forcibly imposing a “sharing” that is forbidden, a confiscatory type of “sharing” by means of forced redistribution. This is a zero-sum type of sharing in which one person’s good fortune comes at an equal cost to another. The following verses constitute Virgil’s reply and critique:
But if, in true love for the Highest Sphere, (Verse 52)
your longing were turned upward, then your hearts
would never be consumed by such a fear;
for the more there are there who say ‘ours’— not ‘mine’— (Verse 55)
by that much is each richer, and the brighter
within that cloister burns the Love Divine.”
What is Virgil saying? He is instructing Dante to adopt the perspective of the “highest sphere” (i.e., the Empyrean). For Dante, the Empyrean is the highest heaven, beyond the physically delimited universe, the abode of God. He is instructing Dante to abandon his envious fear that the marketplace will not provide sufficiently for everyone. He even goes so far as to re-define the possessive pronoun “ours” – asking Dante to abandon the envious desire to make something “mine” and to realize that in the marketplace, “our” wealth is much “richer.” Like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes (the feeding of the 5,000) reported in all four Gospels of the New Testament, the marketplace is able to multiply wealth itself – baking more and better cakes that can subsequently become “ours” to “share” in a positive and divine way. But in this divine sense of sharing, there is no coercion or forced redistribution. Instead, the market functions as a creative engine that produces wealth that the envious method of sharing cannot possibly replicate.
Upon hearing of this new way of thinking about “ours” and of “sharing,” Dante voices his confusion:
“I am left hungrier being thus fed, (Verse 58)
and my mind is more in doubt being thus answered,
than if I had not asked at all,” I said.
“How can each one of many who divide (Verse 61)
a single good have more of it, so shared,
than if a few had kept it?” He replied:
The Limitless Bounty of the Marketplace
We can see that Dante is persisting in his zero-sum analysis. He simply cannot believe the divine message. Then, as if he were an anachronistic follower of Ludwig von Mises and a spokesman for the Austrian School (via his birthplace near Mantua, which is at least partway to Austria compared to Florence) the long suffering Virgil replies to Dante with the following gentle words of reproof:
“Because within the habit of mankind (Verse 64)
you set your whole intent on earthly things,
the true light falls as darkness on your mind.
The infinite and inexpressible Grace (Verse 67)
which is in Heaven, gives itself to Love
as a sunbeam gives itself to a bright surface.
In short, Virgil asks Dante to abandon his outmoded economic paradigm of command-and-control economics, where the Diktat of economic viziers can only derail the spontaneous order of things and undermine the natural benefits of a free market. Virgil is telling Dante that the wealth created by the free and spontaneous order is as abundant as the divine light emanating from the sun. One person’s enjoyment of it does not subtract from the enjoyment of another. And please, let’s not over-extend the metaphor by talking about shadows cast by individuals positioned more closely to the sun! We must assume that Dante is referring to a divine sunlight that probably does not cause cancer either! In an analogous way, Stephan Kinsella’s path-breaking work “Against Intellectual Property,” demonstrated that the concept of intellectual property (IP) is inappropriate for a similar reason.
Divine Sunlight, Intellectual Property, and Love
The shared understanding of a concept among more than one person merely expands with the number of people who share that concept. When greater numbers of people appreciate the concept of a wheel and the advantages that a wheel brings to the art of transportation, the sharing of this concept among many minds does not dislodge it from the mind of the person who originally conceived it. One person’s grasp of a concept does not subtract from another’s. In other words, there is no scarcity in the realm of understanding just as there is no scarcity in the availability of divine sunlight to all who are illuminated by it. That is why the concept of IP is an anti-concept and quite destructive. As Kinsella has shown, the concept of property rights was developed to resolve conflicts of ownership that apply to real, or physical, property – not intellectual concepts. Only physical property is afflicted by the burden of scarcity because the limitations of its physical nature imply that it cannot be simultaneously employed by more than one person. In other words, one cannot have one’s cake and eat it, too. But this concept does not apply to intellectual knowledge – which like the sunlight described by Virgil, shares a quality in which “the blaze of Love is spread more widely, the greater the Eternal Glory grows.”
As much light as it finds there, it bestows; (Verse 70)
thus, as the blaze of Love is spread more widely,
the greater the Eternal Glory grows.
As mirror reflects mirror, so, above, (Verse 73)
the more there are who join their souls, the more
Love learns perfection, and the more they love.
In addition, we can perceive here the overwhelming importance of love in Dante’s exposition. Just as the divine sunlight described by Dante’s Virgil is not diminished by its ability to illuminate many darkened minds, and just as Kinsella’s rejection of intellectual property and replacement of that anti-concept by the concept of shared knowledge demonstrates the undiminished capacity of a shared idea to transform countless lives for the better, love itself does not diminish in proportion to its being shared. Instead, it increases and grows tremendously in its impact. This is a powerful message, and it is one we should all consider deeply. From an anarcho-libertarian perspective, the writer Glen Allport has explored the importance of love as a means of emotional connection in his many valuable essays at Strike The Root – most particularly in The Doctrine of Love and Freedom. While I frequently fail in my attempts to incorporate Glen Allport’s approach in my sometimes-snarky essays, these failures cannot diminish the intrinsic value of the important message of free markets or the equally valuable message of love. I hope that this essay does much to make up for the deficit – shortening my own future journey through Purgatory.