Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 4 | Summary

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Summary

Dante's experiences on the moon have raised two questions in his mind, which Beatrice proceeds to answer before he can ask them aloud. He is wondering, first, whether the Greek philosopher Plato is correct in writing that souls "go back to [the] stars" upon death. This is not literally accurate, Beatrice insists, but is partly true if seen metaphorically. Heaven, she explains, is not really a set of concentric spheres like the planetary orbits Dante is traversing. Instead, all souls are enthroned in the same "sphere"—the "highest gyre" that exists outside the physical universe. Thus, souls like Piccarda and Constance in Canto 3 are not physically remote from God. Rather, the stars-and-planets imagery is God's way of relaying divine truth to the limited "human mind," since before being united with God humans still are limited in understanding.

Dante's second, difficult question concerns the justice of punishing souls for acts committed against their will. If Piccarda and Constance were forced to break their vows, why are they held responsible? Beatrice prefaces her explanation with an acknowledgment "that justice in our realm, to mortal eyes" will sometimes "seem unjust." Free will, she continues, is paramount and cannot be defeated even by force. Piccarda and Constance could have resisted those who forced them from their convents, just as early martyrs accepted death rather than betraying their faith. When "will conjoins with violence," Beatrice maintains, "there is no excuse"—even if the consent is granted out of fear for one's life, that is not enough.

Satisfied, Dante thanks Beatrice for her explanation. He then asks a follow-up question: Can souls "make amends" for a broken or "unfulfilled" vow? As Beatrice turns to answer him, the canto ends.

Analysis

Like many other medieval thinkers—including Thomas Aquinas, whom he will meet in Canto 10—Dante is interested in reconciling classical philosophy with Christian theology. His discussion of the "spheres" in which the planets move owes much to Aristotle, whose works also supply the logical underpinnings of Aquinas's major writings. Here, however, Dante cites the beliefs of Plato, a figure then far less well known in medieval Italy.

The greatest Greek philosopher of the early 4th century BCE, Plato was the student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. His most important works are a collection of approximately 30 dialogues, imagined conversations on a wide range of philosophical issues. Only two of these dialogues were available in Europe in Dante's time, though two others were known via fragmentary accounts in the works of other writers. The rest would be rediscovered in the early 16th century. In citing Plato as an authority on the soul, Dante refers to the Timaeus, one of the two partial dialogues.

The "spheres" to which Dante alludes are not the spherical bodies of the planets themselves. Rather, they are much larger invisible spheres in which the planets were thought to be embedded. The movement of these spheres was attributed, in medieval Christianity, to God, whose will was thought to set in motion the fastest and outermost sphere. In Canto 27 Dante will visit this sphere, known as the Primum Mobile ("first moved"). In effect his travels will take him to the edge of the physical universe they could then imagine.

Well before that juncture, however, Dante clues the reader in to the allegorical nature of his poem. Images like stars and planets help Dante to convey the awesomeness of the divine, but he does not imagine God is literally to be found in outer space. Similarly, Dante uses directional terms like "outer/inner" and "higher/lower" to gesture toward spiritual concepts that are impossible to physically map or diagram but must be understood in those terms. Beatrice illustrates this dichotomy between language and reality when she calls the Empyrean the "highest gyre," even though it stands outside time and space entirely. For a fuller discussion of this point, see the Context section.

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