Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 18 | Summary



Beatrice chides Dante for worrying about his earthly fate when he has been brought so close to God, "who lifts all wrongs away." Turning to face her, Dante the man is enraptured by her beauty and gazes into her eyes, unable to look away. Beatrice gently rebukes Dante and urges him to pay attention to his ancestor Cacciaguida. Resuming his speech, Cacciaguida points out several of the notable inhabitants of this, the fifth sphere of Heaven. As he calls out their names, the souls blaze brightly and whirl about like shooting stars. Those named include biblical heroes Joshua and [Judas] Maccabeus, along with such medieval worthies as Roland (d. 778) and Charlemagne (747?–814). Dante beholds the display with joy and admiration as Beatrice, too, looks on approvingly.

Now, however, it's time to ascend to Jupiter, the sixth sphere of Paradise. Here, the souls "wing around" like birds, forming the shapes of Latin letters. Diligite iustitiam, their skywriting reads, qui iudicatis terram: "Love justice, you rulers of the earth." The "M" of iustitiam then morphs into the outline of an eagle's head and neck. Rejoicing in this latest marvel, Dante utters a prayer for justice on Earth, where the corrupt Church is leading the laity (the people of the Church) astray.


Dante's time in the sphere of Mars ends with another "roll call" of exemplarily virtuous lives. The logic of who belongs in Heaven versus Limbo is getting a little fuzzy at this point, as neither Joshua nor Judas Maccabeus lived during the time of Christ. The exact criteria for salvation are, however, less important to this canto than are Dante's efforts to elaborate the virtue of courage in this realm of Jupiter. To the crusaders of previous cantos he adds Hebrews, a warrior-priest (Judas Maccabeus), an ancient military leader (Joshua), a medieval paladin (Roland), and an emperor (Charlemagne)—just to name a few. Chronologically, Dante's examples stretch across two and a half millennia; geographically, they reach from the Levant (eastern Mediterranean countries) to southwestern Europe. This is, by medieval literary standards, a truly cosmopolitan group of heroes.

On Jupiter, as previously in the spheres of Mars and the sun, the souls form a shape that underscores their distinctive virtue. Jupiter is the sphere of justice, populated mainly by rulers known for their fairness and composure. For Dante, the paragon of earthly justice must be Rome—specifically, the Roman Empire, which is traditionally symbolized by an eagle. In Purgatory 32 Dante used eagle imagery to connote the rise of the Empire and its role in establishing, and then corrupting, the Church. Here, he seems to revisit Rome in a more uniformly positive light, as the archetype of just rulership.

The limitations of Dante's astronomy also become a little clearer in this canto. He imagines Jupiter not as the now-familiar whorled and spotted giant planet, but as a silvery, starlike body. The telescope would not be invented until three centuries after Dante's lifetime, and details such as the Great Red Spot would first be observed only in the late 17th century. Perhaps this is just as well, since a "temperate," evenly colored star fits well with Dante's image of justice—better, anyway, than the roiling, planet-sized storm we now know Jupiter to be. There will be more to say about Dante's astronomical views in later cantos, as his theories on the very structure of the solar system become clear.

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