Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 7 | Summary

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Summary

Justinian's speech breaks off into a song of praise to God. This is soon accompanied by a flourish of light as other souls of the second heaven join in. Confused, Dante calls out for Beatrice, who speaks to him about the nature of original sin, redemption, and Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. She tells him Adam, "the unborn first of men," "damned all born to him" when he first sinned by disobeying God. Eventually, after many generations, God came to Earth in human form to set things right. In dying on the Cross, Christ—as both God and man—settled the debt humankind had incurred through Adam's sin.

Dante, being an educated Christian of his times, already knows all this. What he wants to know is why Christ's sacrifice was necessary. Such an act, Beatrice says, "was right and finest" because the enormity of Adam's sin prevented humankind from ever sufficiently atoning by itself. Thus, God was left to remedy the sin "by His own means." He chose to do so in human form because this not only revealed His humility and generosity but also restored humanity's dignity.

Beatrice now turns to a related point: the apparent temporariness of the created universe. Physical matter, she admits, changes and decays, but neither angels nor human souls do so. These immortal creatures, she says, were made directly by God, whereas plants, animals, and ordinary matter were made indirectly, at His command. Thus, Beatrice maintains, humankind can expect a bodily resurrection prior to the Last Judgment—the end of the world—since Adam and Eve's bodies were formed by God's direct intervention.

Analysis

The issues discussed in the first half of Canto 7 fall under the heading of soteriology—the Christian doctrine relating to the process of salvation. Translator Robin Kirkpatrick identifies the canto as "by reputation ... the most dauntingly doctrinal" in Paradise. This is no small claim, given Dante's fondness for interrupting the cantica with theological questions of all kinds.

The central issue here, as Kirkpatrick proceeds to note, is the manner in which God chose to save humanity from sin. Was the Incarnation (the bodily manifestation of God as Jesus Christ) necessary, and if so, why? Not being a theologian, Dante offers a brief but orthodox answer to these questions. God, he argues, could have canceled humanity's debt in whatever way He chose. In other words, the Incarnation was not necessary in the sense that God was "forced" to take human form. Rather, Dante uses the formulation "right and finest" to cast the Incarnation—and the subsequent Crucifixion and Resurrection—as a uniquely powerful solution to humankind's moral predicament.

On the other major point of this canto, Beatrice's reasoning is a little hard to follow. The logic of bodily resurrection, for her, seems to rest on the book of Genesis, where God is described as commanding the creation of the physical universe. "Let there be light," He says in Genesis 1:3, and then issues similar commands to create the stars, seas, land, and living things. "Let there be X," in Beatrice's interpretation (and thus Dante's), is a command for someone elsethat is, the angels—to do the direct work of creating. These things are thus ultimately doomed to perish because they were not created by God directly. The same cannot be said of the human body, which (again, according to Genesis) was molded by God out of the clay, or of the human soul, which God breathed directly into Adam. Because both body and soul are the direct handiwork of God, Beatrice seems to argue, neither one can be permanently destroyed.
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