Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 29 | Summary

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Summary

Beatrice now gives an account of the Creation. God, she declares, created the universe in an act of pure expansive joy, not to meet a need or satisfy a preexisting desire. Angels were created at the same time as the physical universe, but the Fall began with a rebel angel (Lucifer), humankind becoming involved only later. Then, weighing in on a contemporary theological dispute, Beatrice describes some aspects of angelic consciousness. Angels, she says, have intelligence and free will—but not memory, which would be superfluous since they live in eternal contemplation of God.

Having shed light on these mysteries, Beatrice speaks out against theologians and preachers who are "swept / along by show and love of showy thoughts." These would-be philosophers, she charges, are so preoccupied with trivial theological issues that they neglect the message of the Gospels. Worse, they turn their sermons into performances designed to amuse or impress, perverting Christian preaching from its true purpose. She closes her speech with some remarks on the innumerability of the angels.

Analysis

This canto "doubles down" on the discussion of angelology begun in Canto 28. Here, as before, Beatrice clarifies for Dante some common but harmless misconceptions about angels. To a modern reader, the questions addressed here might seem trivial and sophomoric, akin to asking how many can fit on the head of a pin. In the Middle Ages, however, doctrinal issues surrounding angels engaged many of the keenest theological minds. Thomas Aquinas, whom Dante meets in the fourth sphere of Paradise, discussed their nature and existence at length in his masterwork Summa Theologiae.

Beatrice, however, is quite critical of those who spend their time perpetuating mistaken notions about angels. The problem with these pedantic preachers is not their ignorance—in studying angels, even a saint like Gregory the Great can get in over his head. Rather, Beatrice accuses them of missing the point of their ministry, which is to provide moral and doctrinal guidance to their congregations of humans on Earth. Angelology is a "showy" subject, full of grand-sounding words and abstract concepts, as seen in Heaven, but it has little bearing on Christian morality for the lay believer. Such negligent pastoral care is just one of the faults with which Dante charges the clergy of his time.

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