Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 28 | Summary

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Summary

Dante gazes upon the Primum Mobile. A point of light, impossibly fine and bright, sits at its center, surrounded by nine concentric, halolike rings. These, Beatrice explains, are the nine choirs of angels, with the innermost ring representing the highest rank (the seraphim). Dante is confused: Shouldn't the outermost and largest circle be the highest ranking? In the celestial heavens, which Dante has only recently left behind, the outermost orbits are "more divine" than the inner ones.

Beatrice offers to "untie" the "knot" of Dante's perplexity. In the physical universe, she concedes, greatness is associated with physical extent, so bigger often means better. Here, however, the ranks of angels are ordered in the opposite way. Those closest to God (the center point) are those who "know" God the most intensely and therefore show the greatest love for Him. Satisfied—indeed, elated—with this answer, Dante looks back at the rings and sees how numerous they are. The individual angels, which appear as "glints" and "sparks," "outnumbered far / progressive doubling of the chessboard squares."

Beatrice proceeds to name the ranks of angels in descending order: seraphim, cherubim, and thrones in the first and innermost triad, followed by dominations, virtues, and powers. In the third and outermost grouping are the principalities, archangels, and a ninth rank known simply as the angels. In between, Beatrice elaborates on the significance of the different choirs: all ranks of angels "have their delight / according to how deep their sight goes down / into the truth that calms all intellect." In other words, seeing God more clearly is a prerequisite to loving Him more deeply and thus enjoying His presence more fully.

Analysis

The nine ranks of angels are an essentially Christian concept, albeit one with biblical roots. Two epistles of Paul—those to the Ephesians and the Colossians, respectively—contain references to a heavenly hierarchy with God at its apex. In Ephesians 1:21, Paul speaks of God as "far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion." Similar language occurs in Colossians 1:16, where Paul names "thrones," "dominions," "principalities," and "powers" as among the earthly things "created by [God], and for him." These terms—principality, dominion, and so forth—could be construed as corresponding to either earthly or spiritual jurisdictions, but early Christian writers favored the latter interpretation. Other types of angels, including cherubim, seraphim, and archangels, are mentioned in both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures. From these different pieces, early medieval Christian thinkers assembled a hierarchy consisting of three "triads" of angelic choirs.

As Beatrice implies at the end of this canto, different orderings of the angelic ranks have been proposed over time. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a Christian thinker who lived and wrote around the year 500, promoted the order used by Dante. Pope Gregory the Great later advanced a slightly different ordering. The distinction is noted in Canto 28, and Gregory's version is declared to be mistaken. Unusually for Dante, however, the discrepancy is laughed off as something not worth fretting over. Getting one's angels mixed up—as Gregory does—is not a sin or a crime, but the sort of honest misunderstanding that has no bearing on one's salvation. What is important to Dante is that an order exists, with creatures responding to God's love in accordance with their varying degrees of perfection. Human knowledge is always in question, as becomes clearer and clearer in Paradise.
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