Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 11 | Summary

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Summary

Moved by these examples of wisdom and piety, Dante lashes out against the "idiotic strivings of the human mind." It is vain, Dante argues, to seek only secular knowledge, or to seek it merely for the sake of personal gain. Resuming his speech, Thomas Aquinas tells of two saints who were sent by God to guide the Church on Earth—to keep the "Ship of [Saint] Peter" on a steady course. He recounts, in terms full of admiration, the life of Saint Francis, whom he describes allegorically as a "groom" wooing the "bride" Poverty. Other saints, he notes, have since been moved by Francis's example. Aquinas then much more briefly discusses Saint Dominic, the founder of the Dominican order. He complains of the laxness of the order's present-day members, whom he likens to sheep straying from a shepherd.

Analysis

Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican friar in life, is being extremely modest here. He lavishes praise on Saint Francis of Assisi (c. 1181–1226), founder of the Franciscan order, but leaves Saint Dominic's (c. 1170–1221) story mostly for others to tell. Moreover, he stresses the illustrious line of saints who have come from the Franciscan order and then criticizes his own Dominican order for its latter-day lack of discipline. In Canto 12 a Franciscan saint—Bonaventure (c. 1217–74)—will return the favor by praising Dominic and his followers. This exchange of compliments helps to establish the collegial ambiance of the sphere of the philosophers whose presences complement each other.

Thomas's description of the life of Francis is also notable for its emphasis on poverty as something to be willingly sought out. He tells of Francis's followers racing after him because they are inspired by the beauty of Francis's "bride" Lady Poverty. Francis and his friars are not gloomy, withdrawn monks—they are wooers and athletes. These energetic images help to capture the sense of liberation (they throw off their sandals with pleasure) that, for Dante's friars, results from casting off earthly concerns and embracing a strict life. Translator Robin Kirkpatrick aptly describes this as "the joy that comes, paradoxically, in the acceptance of limit and self-abandonment."

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