Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 10 | Summary

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Summary

Dante begins this canto with a rapturous meditation on the "clear order" of the created universe. He marvels at "the skill / the Master [i.e., God] demonstrates" in ordering all things, from the orbits of planets to the meanderings of thought. Then, turning abruptly back to his narrative, he describes his ascent to the sphere of the sun, out of Earth's shadow, the fourth level of Paradise. The souls here array themselves around Dante and Beatrice in a ring or halo, singing a song Dante lacks the words to describe.

The first soul to address Dante in this sphere is Thomas Aquinas (1224–74), the Dominican priest best known as the author of Summa Theologiae ("Summation of Theology"). Thomas proceeds to identify several philosophers, theologians, and historians from among the other souls present, briefly noting the achievements of each. The roster is impressive and wide ranging, including figures from the 4th century and through Dante's own time.

Analysis

As with other "roll call" passages in the Divine Comedy, the general picture painted by Thomas Aquinas is more important than any individual figure. The sun, as will become clear in subsequent cantos, is the sphere of the wise; accordingly, Thomas and his companions embody the concept of Christian wisdom as Dante understands it. While some of the saints gathered here—including Thomas himself—are best known for their theological writings, others might be classed as knowledge seekers more generally. Isidore of Seville (d. 636), for example, was not only a bishop but also a grammarian who assembled a "proto-encyclopedia" called the Etymologies. In 1997 Isidore's dedication to collecting and organizing human knowledge led Pope John Paul II to declare him the patron saint of the Internet!

Although Thomas's list spans about a thousand years of European history, it is not a mere "who's who" of the wise and saintly. Rather, Dante makes at least a tentative effort to place his philosophers within a lineage, relating their works and ideas to one another. Thomas himself cites Albertus Magnus (1193–1280) as both "master" (mentor) and "brother." Another soul—historian Paulus Orosius (c. 385420)—is a minor figure, but he is notable, Thomas points out, as an influence on the famous Augustine of Hippo (354430). Pre-Christian Greek and Roman philosophers are an important part of this lineage as well, and Dante elsewhere shows he held them in high regard. Because they died without a chance to embrace the Christian faith, however, Dante relegates them to Limbo, the highest level in his imaginative scheme of life after death that they can achieve. They thus appear early in the Inferno, not in Paradise. There is a "vision of spiritual harmony among these figures ... a pantheon of medieval thinkers whose brilliance surpasses that of the sun. Their contemplation of the mysteries of the Trinity satisfies all their needs."

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