Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 25 | Summary

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Summary

Dante begins this canto by wistfully reflecting on the possibility that the Divine Comedy will win him enough fame to be welcomed back to Florence. Should this happen, he says, he will accept his laurels (the poet's badge of honor) at the baptismal font of his Church. A new light moves toward Dante and is readily identified by Beatrice as "for whom the pilgrims travel to Galicia (in Spain)": James (Saint James the Greater). Turning to face Dante, James asks him to "say what hope is, and how, within your mind, / it comes to flower, and how it came to you."

Beatrice answers the second question on Dante's behalf, vouching for his status as a "child ... full of hope." She then leaves Dante to answer the first and third of James's questions. "Hope," Dante begins, "is that sure expectation ... of glory that will come." He then cites the psalms of King David, "that highest singer of the highest Lord," as the source of his own Christian hope.

Pleased with these answers, James next asks what Dante hopes for. What promises does he hope to see fulfilled? Citing the prophet Isaiah, Dante expresses his hope for eternal "friendship" with God and bodily resurrection after death. As the souls surrounding Dante join in a hymn of praise, a third bright light approaches. This is John (Saint John the Evangelist), who comes as a representative of love—the last and greatest of the three theological virtues.

Analysis

The role of hope in Dante's life is made evident in this canto's opening lines. There, as scholar Teodolinda Barolini notes, Dante expresses the "forlorn hope that [he] might one day return home to Florence, to the sheepfold where he was once a lamb." He wants to reenter his home city, not as a contrite convert who has made peace with his enemies, but as a Christian epic poet who has compelled their admiration. Thus, a connection is forged right away between Dante's immediate hopes for his earthly future and his hope of eternal happiness in Heaven. Less clear is the connection between Saint James and the virtue of hope, particularly in contrast to the strong biblical precedent linking Saint Peter to faith. In the Gospels, little is said that might seem to associate James with one virtue instead of another.

The Christian traditions surrounding James the Greater do, however, offer some hints as to why Dante might have chosen this saint for this purpose. The first clue comes in Dante's identification of James the Greater as the author of the Epistle of James, one of the letters collected in the Christian scriptures. Modern scholars tend to doubt this identification, but Dante alludes to both the apostle and epistolist as if they were the same person.

James's letter, however, does not directly address the virtue of hope. Instead, it offers wisdom and encouragement on various issues of interest to the early Christian faithful. The first chapter of the letter primarily speaks of patience, urging readers to "endure temptation" peacefully and to see earthly trials as a form of spiritual refinement. These qualities would, perhaps, have appealed to Dante and helped to galvanize his own religious hope during two decades of exile. Moreover, James himself was traditionally held to be the first apostle to suffer martyrdom. The act of dying for one's faith may, to Dante, have signified a strong hope in a better life to come.

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