Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 14 | Summary

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Summary

Dante is thrilled by Thomas Aquinas's exposition of the wisdom of Solomon. Beatrice poses to Thomas another question:

Tell him: that light in which, as what you are, ...
will that remain eternally with you?

She goes on to ask what will happen to this light when the faithful are resurrected bodily at the Last Judgment. Won't it be blindingly bright? The souls whirl around in joy at this question, and King Solomon himself offers an answer. After the resurrection of the body, he says, the light of the blessed will shine even brighter. In their physically perfect state, however, the blessed will be able to tolerate and even delight in the increased radiance.

Amid a shower of bright sparks, Dante now proceeds to Mars, the fifth level of Paradise and the abode of the courageous. Here, he sees the souls array themselves in the form of a cross—from which, at the center, "blaze[s] out Christ" in a manner Dante cannot quite describe. The song sung here, though still too sublime for Dante to put into words, has an air of conquest and victory to it.

Analysis

The souls in different spheres of Heaven arrange themselves into different shapes, mirroring the virtues they exemplify. The wise souls in the sun (the fourth sphere) form two wheels that move about Dante in an orderly, dancelike manner. This stately and precise arrangement reflects the souls' status as discoverers, proclaimers, and protectors of the divine order. Thomas Aquinas, through his massive treatise Summa Theologiae, sought to unify and systematize the theological principles of his time. Saint Isidore, mentioned in Canto 10, wrote the Etymologies ("Study of Origins"), a work often regarded as a forerunner to modern encyclopedias. In Canto 12 Saint Dominic is praised for defending Christian orthodoxy against the heresies of his age. For Dante, to judge from the examples he chooses, wisdom consists in seeing and communicating the order of things, whether natural or supernatural.

In the fifth sphere, Mars, the souls form a cross. One might expect cruciform imagery to figure more often in a poem about Christian theology, but the symbol's appearance here is unusual enough to be striking. In choosing it Dante sends a message about fortitude, the virtue celebrated in this sphere. Mars, as Dante imagines it, is the sphere of warriors and crusaders, those who triumphed over sin through personal bravery. In a Christian context, however, it is hard to imagine a better example of such self-denying courage than Jesus's sacrifice on the Cross. Thus a cross appears here as a sign of Christ's redemptive act, the prototype of any victory requiring great moral courage.

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