Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 24 | Summary

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Summary

Beatrice calls out a greeting to the souls in the Fixed Stars and asks them to answer Dante's questions. The souls, as a show of goodwill, whirl about like comets. One, which stands out for its exceptional brightness, is recognized by Beatrice as Peter. She invites him to question Dante about the virtue of faith. "What is this faith?" Saint Peter asks. Dante replies with a quote from Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews: "Faith is substantial to the things we hope, / the evidence of things we do not see."

Peter, however, will not let Dante off so easily. He next asks Dante why Paul used the words substance and evidence to describe faith. Faith, Dante deftly responds, is the substance of things hoped for because it is the sole means by which the living can participate in the "deep mysteries" of Heaven. It is evidence, he adds, inasmuch as it provides the basis for theological reasoning. Peter congratulates Dante on his understanding and then asks where Dante's faith comes from. From the Bible, answers Dante: "The rain ... of the Holy Ghost that flows / between the leathered texts, both old and new."

Why trust the Bible? Peter retorts. Dante cites the miracles recorded there as proof of the strength of the Christian faith. To this Peter objects that the miracles, being asserted in the Bible itself, cannot be cited as proof of its accuracy. Dante replies it would, paradoxically, be even more miraculous if Christianity had flourished without any real miracles to sustain it. As the choir of saints cheers Dante on, Peter tells him: "Say what you believe, / and say what source first gave this faith to you." Dante replies with a brief creed in which he professes belief in "one true God, / sole and eternal" and in the "three eternal persons" of the Trinity. It is his extreme statement of Faith in a canto devoted to that, and certified by Saint Peter himself.

Analysis

In the Gospels, Simon Peter is best known as the subject of two contrasting episodes having to do with his moral character and his importance to the early Church. The first of these, reported in Matthew 16:18, has Christ proclaiming, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church." Since Peter means "rock," (pietro in Italian) this verse is, in the Catholic tradition, generally taken to establish Peter as the de facto leader of the 12 apostles—a principle known as the primacy of Peter. The verse is also, more controversially for some, one of the main supports cited for the Catholic doctrine of papal succession. The saint standing before Dante in this canto is thus, as far as the poet is concerned, the first pope, as in St. Peter's in Rome. His link to the papacy of Dante's time will become clearer in Canto 27, where Peter will have harsh words for his "modern" successor.

The second famous episode is traditionally known as the "denial of Saint Peter." Reported in all four Gospels (see, for example, Matthew 26:69–75), it tells of Peter's fearful and disloyal reaction to the arrest and impending crucifixion of Jesus. When bystanders identify Peter as one of Jesus's followers, Peter denies even knowing Jesus. He does so three times, with increasing vehemence and agitation, before realizing what he has done and bitterly repenting. This, notably, happens after the "Rock of the Church" episode in the one Gospel that records both events.

Peter, as he appears in the Bible, is thus a man of contradictions. Steadfast as a rock at times, he is at other times frightened away from a full expression of his faith. In Paradise, however, there is no such sense of internal conflict: Peter is the "Rock of the Church," through and through. Translator Robin Kirkpatrick describes him as "dignified" and "senatorial," while Dante uses terms that mingle the ideas of soldier, teacher, and judge. Acting in his capacity as the Church's earthly foundation, Peter is the saint best qualified to question Dante about faith.
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