Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 8 | Summary



Dante now imperceptibly rises toward the third heaven, named for the sweet planet Venus. Here he encounters a group of swirling lights, which represent the next gathering of blessed souls. One soul glides forward and asks what Dante wishes to know. "Who are you?" Dante asks, and the soul describes himself as an old friend. He gradually offers Dante enough geographic clues to identify him as Charles Martel (1271–95), a contemporary European prince who briefly ruled as king of Hungary.

Grateful to see Charles in Heaven, Dante poses him another question: "How can it be that sweet seed leads to sour?" In other words, how can it be that the children of a wise and just ruler fail to follow in his footsteps? Charles is glad to oblige, drawing on his own unfortunate family history of greed and treacheries. Nature, he says, is guided by divine providence in making people vary in their skills and temperaments, so they can form a society in which different roles must be filled. Human beings, however, do not always cooperate with nature and providence. Instead, they often force one another—or themselves—into roles for which they are ill suited. A man with a warlike nature is made to become a monk or bishop, for example, while "someone who should preach" is made a king.


This canto further develops one of Paradise's ongoing themes: the disconnect between divine providence and human expectations. For Dante, the basic aspects of God's nature—His goodness, omnipotence, and omniscience—are axiomatic and not open to dispute. If God seems to fail to live up to those attributes, the fault most likely resides with humanity. Sometimes, the problem is humankind's inability to see God's plan, which can seem chaotic or even cruel from a limited human perspective. At other times the fault consists in an unwillingness to trust or to cooperate with God's plan as it is revealed.

The former explanation is invoked in Cantos 4 and 5, where seemingly innocent victims are shown to be complicit in their own fall from grace. Piccarda and Constance appear blameless to Dante only because he is ignorant of their inward state. If he could look inside their souls, as God can, he would see they failed to resist their forced removal from the convents. By fearing earthly punishment more than the breaking of their promises to God, Piccarda and Constance sinned inwardly, if not outwardly.

Now, in Canto 8, the latter explanation seems to be in play: humanity can see God's will but fails to comply with it. God, acting indirectly through Nature, supplies human society with all the different types of people it needs to flourish. Human error, however, presses individuals, even brothers, even twins, into ill-fitting roles, and disaster often ensues. Thus, from Dante's point of view, the problem is not that the created universe—including humankind—is somehow defective. Rather, humanity fails to make the right use of its God-given gifts. Hence the need for a work such as his Commedia to point the better path to peace and unity.

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