Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 20 | Summary



The Eagle falls silent, but the individual souls within it join in a song of praise. Dante is enraptured by the song's beauty but cannot recall it in any detail—it "glides like falling leaves from memory." The Eagle (symbol of both Rome and St. John the Evangelist) speaks again, commanding Dante to look it in the eye, where the soul of King David sits at the center of the pupil. Five other rulers make up the Eagle's eyebrow and are named in turn. First to be identified is the Roman emperor Trajan (53–117), followed by Hezekiah, king of Judah, who lived in the late 8th and early 7th centuries BC. Next comes Constantine (280?–337), Rome's first Christian emperor, at the apex of the eyebrow's arch. The remaining two souls are William II of Sicily (1153–89), about whom relatively little is known, and Ripheus, an ancient Trojan hero mentioned in Virgil's Aeneid.

Dante is flabbergasted to see two "pagans"—Trajan and Ripheus—among the blessed in Heaven. "What is all this?" he blurts out before he can stop himself. The Eagle, however, patiently explains both these men were saved by God's will in direct divine intervention. Trajan was brought back to life just long enough to be baptized and therefore saved. God "opened Ripheus's eyes," centuries in advance, to the coming of Christ, and Ripheus was therefore able to convert to Christianity. Both cases illustrate the inscrutable nature of God's will, which does not depend on man.


Why is Dante surprised to see Trajan and Ripheus in Paradise but not surprised to see David and Hezekiah? None of these four men, after all, were Christians—at least during their earthly lifetimes. The answer brings together concepts scattered throughout the Divine Comedy, beginning with the Inferno. Early on in his visit to Hell, Dante travels through Limbo, where the souls of "virtuous pagans"—including many Greek and Roman philosophers—reside. Though "virtuous" in that they exemplified the cardinal virtues—prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—these souls lacked the benefit of divine revelation. They thus could not cultivate the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity and attain the moral perfection required to enter Heaven. This is why Virgil, the Roman poet who leads Dante through Hell and into Purgatory, must turn back rather than proceeding to Paradise.

David and Hezekiah are not "pagans" in this sense, despite having lived before the coming of Christ. They worshipped the monotheistic God of the Hebrew Bible, whom Dante and his fellow Christians identify with God the Father—the first person of the Trinity. The ranks of the heavenly court are later (see Canto 32) revealed to be full of people from the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament in the Christian tradition). In fact, an entire hemisphere of the court is populated with "those who believed in Christ to come." These figures, in Dante's reasoning, are "honorary Christians" because they trust in God's promise of a savior.

Trajan and Ripheus, however, are "pagans" as Dante defines the term. Both—as far as Dante and his contemporaries knew—were polytheists who did not have the chance to embrace the Gospel during their lifetimes. Yet both men were also exemplars of the virtue of justice. Trajan, as Dante indicates in this canto, according to a popular myth once halted his war preparations to pursue justice for a poor widow whose son had been murdered. The episode is commemorated in Purgatory 10, where it appears in a marble relief carved into the mountainside. Centuries later, according to a medieval legend, Pope Gregory the Great was moved to pray for the salvation of Trajan's soul. God, hearing his plea, brought Trajan back to life just long enough for Gregory to baptize him. Thus, his appearance in Paradise is not quite as shocking as it may seem, and finds its place even in Dante's rules.

Ripheus, about whom much less is known, is a minor figure of Virgil cited for his sense of justice in the Aeneid. According to Dante—though it is nowhere mentioned in the pre-Christian Aeneid—God favored Ripheus with foreknowledge of the coming of Christ. He was therefore able to "convert" to Christianity, even though the religion would not exist until 12 centuries after his death. Thus, in each case, a non-Judeo-Christian character who models the virtue of justice is rewarded by God's miraculous intervention, allowing him to participate in the joys of Heaven. God's will may, in Dante's view, be inscrutable, but it isn't random. Yet we recall that Dante himself writes his epic according to his own decisions and plans, not following any specific single work of Church dogma. This humanistic element of the poem moves it past medieval limitations and into a world changing and moving in Dante's own time. He sets the poem considerably before the time he writes it so that he can dramatize his own fate and deal with the punishments and difficulties of his life and cope with them as an artist, knowing what is in store for him. There is thus a "good news" and "bad news" structure of catastrophe and resolution both contained in the poem.
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