Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 2 | Summary

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Summary

Dante warns his readers of the challenging territory that lies ahead. They will be "wonder-struck," he says, by the sights and sounds he is about to relate. Rising through the heavens as swiftly as an arrow, he and Beatrice arrive at the moon, which Dante imagines as a "cloud ... shining and solid, dense and burnished clean."

Enveloped in this cloud, Dante asks Beatrice why the moon appears to have dark spots when viewed from Earth. He has heard various explanations, some of them based on folklore and others on (medieval) astronomy. One explanation attributes the spots to variations in the density of the matter that makes up the moon: where the moon matter is "rarer" (i.e., less dense), the dark spots appear.

This, says Beatrice, is inaccurate. If the moon varied in density throughout, she explains, the sun would shine through the less dense regions during an eclipse. Or, if only a portion of the moon varied in density, the dense portion would reflect the sunlight back uniformly, just as mirrors at various distances reflect a flame with equal clarity. Instead, Beatrice describes the uneven appearance of the moon as a reflection of the variety with which God has endowed the physical universe.

Analysis

Dante's ideas about the moon reflect the contrast, sometimes subtle and sometimes glaring, between medieval and modern views of the cosmos. Both his hypothesis of varying densities and Beatrice's hypothesis of different materials were current in 14th-century Europe. At the time tools for learning about the moon's surface were quite limited; even rudimentary telescopes were not available until three centuries after Dante's death.

We now know, however, that Beatrice's explanation—setting aside its supernatural elements—is closer to the mark than Dante's. The light and dark portions of the moon, known respectively as the highlands and maria (Latin: "seas"), do consist of different types of surface rock. The color difference results from lava cooling at different rates in the moon's geologic history. The dark rock of the maria cooled faster, and later, than the whitish-hued highland rock. Yet although the physical makeup of the moon's crust is now well understood, hypotheses about the moon's formation remain diverse. As of 2017 no single theory has been universally accepted by astronomers.

What's essential here is not the inaccuracy of Dante's science from a modern viewpoint but his commitment to achieving understanding through both faith and reason. These, for Dante, are essentially complementary ways of learning about the world and humankind's place within it. Although Dante regards some mysteries as impenetrable to human reason, he is generally optimistic about humanity's ability to understand the natural world through observation and reflection. This is one way in which Dante's writing has been said to herald the rise of humanism and the beginning of the Renaissance. Remembering the level of physical knowledge at Dante's time, a modern reader can still credit the attempt to find the truth according to serious inquiry resembling a scientific lesson and make it consistent with his time as part of God's creation. Other Christian poets have also praised the bounty of beauties in God's making (Gerard Manley Hopkins in the early twentieth century, for example).

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