Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 5 | Summary



Beatrice now restates Dante's question about broken vows. "You wish to know if, when a vow falls short, / some other service might be rendered up / to keep that soul secure from legal charge." She comes to the answer in a roundabout way. Free will, she first explains, is God's greatest gift to humankind, which makes vows—as sacrifices of one's own will—especially precious to God. To offer up one's will with a vow and then break it is to "steal" from God something that has already been given. Christians should therefore not make vows lightly.

Her speech concluded, Beatrice and Dante "[run] on swiftly to the second realm," traveling almost instantly from the moon to Mercury. Here, as on the moon, numerous souls rush forth to greet Dante and answer his questions. One "holy soul" breaks from the crowd to address Dante and remarks on the rare privilege of visiting Heaven before one's own death. Dante asks who this "honoured soul" might be, but the important answer is not given until Canto 6.


This canto contains some strikingly legalistic language: in describing the nature of sacred vows, Beatrice speaks of charges, liabilities, and recompense. Then, in explaining why certain vows cannot be broken without sinning, she resorts to the metaphor of monetary payment, complete with concepts of interest and penalty. Like the images of stars and planets, these terms are best thought of as allegorical, helping to bring the issue into focus. God does not, as Dante imagines Him, sit at His desk like a bookkeeper or accountant, poring over a ledger of moral obligations. He is not stingy or vindictive, as the emphasis on payment might suggest. Rather, money imagery is a convenient symbol, used to show the exactness with which promises—including vows—must be fulfilled.

Legal and financial metaphors are just some of the tools Dante uses to try to understand God's justice, which operates very differently from earthly justice. The distinction between the two—the seeming unfairness of God's actions when weighed in human terms—is a major preoccupation of the Divine Comedy. In a sense the problem is more acute in Paradise than in Purgatory or Hell because the logic of crime and punishment is less obvious. Those who obtain a smaller share of God's grace in Heaven are not "punished" in the same way as, say, a thief perpetually devoured by serpents earlier in the Commedia was. Nonetheless, Dante is troubled by the notion of a soul losing anything through what appears to be an innocent or involuntary act. He does not, to his credit, give up trying to untangle this problem, even when it leads him into one impenetrable mystery after another. The Florentine society Dante came from was known as a world capital of money and finance, and its citizens were famous for their attachment to money and trade. So in answering this important question about human and divine natures, it is not surprising for the poet to use a monetary metaphor.

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