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Paradise | Quotes


Glory, from Him ... / penetrates the universe and then shines back, / reflected.

Dante, Canto 1

Throughout Paradise Dante imagines God as a brilliant light pervading and illuminating the universe. Too bright to be beheld directly, God will instead appear "reflected" in His creatures, including the angels and saints Dante meets.

Dante's process of spiritual maturation in Paradise is likewise imagined in visual terms. As he progresses through Heaven, his eyes adjust to the light and he can take in more of God's majesty without being blinded.


The waves I ride have never yet been crossed.

Dante, Canto 2

At the beginning of Canto 2, Dante warns readers of the subtle and difficult territory he is entering as he begins to speak of Heaven. He urges readers to "turn back" before they are drawn into error by his—necessarily imperfect—account of the nature of God and Paradise. Dante's humility, his admission that Heaven is more than a match for his poetic and explanatory abilities, is a constant theme of Paradise. Of course he does not want them to turn back or away from what he has to say, but he is bound to acknowledge the pains of his own experiences that may cause them grief as well.


Human intellect / can never be content unless that truth / ... shines down on it.

Dante, Canto 4

The interplay of reason and revelation is another ongoing theme in Paradise. As Dante converses with the saints in Heaven's various spheres, he will often have difficult questions of Christian doctrine on his mind. Some of these will be answered to his satisfaction, but others will remain mysteries. Ultimately Dante will insist on the limits of philosophical speculation when unaided by the "light" of divinely revealed truth.


Twisting your hearts away from that true good, / you strain your brows direct to nothingness.

Dante, Canto 9

Although Paradise is fundamentally a song of joy, it is punctuated by numerous smaller outbursts like this. Such moments serve to contrast the vanity and perversity of Earth with the order and sanity of Heaven. They also defuse the monotony that might arise if Dante focused only on the peace and love surrounding him in Paradise.

In these lines Dante describes sin as a self-defeating impulse that "twists" the sinner away from God. This lament is a continuation of a more elaborate discussion of sin in Purgatory, where the topic is understandably more salient. There sin is analyzed as a failure of love—specifically, a failure to love the right things in the right proportion. Here Dante simplifies further and treats sin as a pursuit of "nothingness," in implicit contrast to the "everything" that is God.


Those idiotic strivings of the human mind!

Dante, Canto 11

Dante begins this canto with a claim that, taken out of context, might seem very strange. After all he has spent the past 11,000 lines of his entire epic poem "striving" to understand theological mysteries, many of which have eluded his grasp. For Dante, however, it is not the search for knowledge itself that counts as "idiotic." Rather, what Dante finds foolish is the pursuit of mere earthly knowledge (law, medicine, etc.) when it is motivated only by personal gain. The souls in the sun, who sought knowledge of God for God's sake, model a wisdom that opposes this foolishness.


How is it, then, that he can have no peer?

Thomas Aquinas, Canto 13

In praising the wisdom of Solomon over that of any philosopher, Thomas Aquinas is making a remarkable claim. Most of Dante's exemplars of wisdom are scholars—like Thomas and his fellow friar Bonaventure—rather than kings or princes. Yet Solomon, perhaps surprisingly, stands above them all. This, as Thomas explains, is because Solomon put his wisdom to use by making just judgments on behalf of his subjects. Solomon, in other words, epitomizes wisdom in action, which is superior to wisdom in theory.


Holy delight is not excluded here. / Rather, in rising it will grow more pure.

Dante, Canto 14

The Divine Comedy is, in part, a record of Dante's attempt to refashion his earthly love for Beatrice into a pious love of God. Her appearance as a saint in Purgatory and Paradise raises a philosophical question Dante is anxious to answer: Is love for created things necessarily a distraction from God? Here Dante gives an enthusiastic no. "Delight" in creation, including the smile of one's beloved, can be a "holy" thing that draws one upward toward God.


Florence ... lived on in modesty, chasteness and peace.

Cacciaguida, Canto 15

Although Dante is frequently enraptured by the sights and sounds of Paradise, he has not forgotten the ongoing turmoil in his hometown of Florence. Neither has his ancestor Cacciaguida, who spends much of Canto 15 recounting the "good old days" before greed and political intermarriages ruined the city. Having been exiled from Florence as a casualty of factional conflicts, Dante may well have seen peace among his fellow Florentines as a thing of the past. It is his hope by the kind of backward prophecy he writes to show how far from goodness the city has come by the time he is writing the poem.


You'll leave behind you all you hold most dear.

Cacciaguida, Canto 17

With this line Dante hears his own exile "predicted" by his ancestor Cacciaguida. Since the poem is set in 1300, Cacciaguida can speak of a 1302 event as though it had yet to happen. Dante, however, was still writing Paradise in 1320. The exile "prophecy" is thus news to Dante the pilgrim (the first-person character in the poem). But it is familiar to Dante the poet and to his readers—those of his own time and any time following. He uses what he has learned since 1300 to cope with the life he's lived and to produce his poem as both a warning and a call for bettering spiritual and political lives.


For all those lights ... began a song / that glides like falling leaves from memory.

Dante, Canto 20

In previous spheres of Heaven, Dante has been able to discern and remember the words (or at least the gist) of the hymns he hears. As he ascends through the sphere of Jupiter, however, he finds his memory inadequate to retain the music. This is part of a more general pattern seen throughout Paradise: the further Dante ascends, the more the beauties of Heaven overwhelm his mortal mind. This gives rise to a sort of poetic "resources or arms race," as Dante continually tries to find adequate words to capture his increasingly sublime experiences.


Seeing there the globe, / I smiled to find how small and cheap it seemed.

Dante, Canto 22

Here, as in Canto 9, Dante ventures a comparison between Heaven and Earth. As usual the latter comes off looking rather dismal and trivial. It's important to remember, however, that Dante's imagined voyage to Paradise is only a temporary reprieve, not a permanent escape from Earth. His exultant tone here is tempered by the realization he will be returning to the "small," "cheap" world of the living, where his problems and conditions of life will be unaltered. The most he can hope for is to be recognized as the supreme poet of his time, and for that he must go back and resume the struggle.


He ... has made / of my own burial ground a shit hole / reeking of blood.

Peter, Canto 27

These are startlingly ugly words to hear from a saint—particularly a saint who is already experiencing the beautiful vision of Heaven. Dante uses this coarse language to underscore Saint Peter's contempt for the "modern" papacy.

Peter's "place" in Catholic tradition is the papal throne, and his "burial ground" is Rome. His withering criticism is directed not at popes in general, but at Boniface VIII, the incumbent pope during the year 1300. In lashing out against Boniface, Peter is endorsing Dante's personal grudge against the pontiff, who was instrumental in getting Dante exiled from Florence.


I'm overwhelmed, / defeated worse than all before ... by what my theme demands.

Dante, Canto 30

As the Divine Comedy approaches its finale, Dante doubles down on his claim to be "overwhelmed" by the attempt to communicate God through language. This has been a continual, half-apologetic refrain of Dante's throughout Paradise and, to a lesser extent, in Purgatory and the Inferno. The closer Dante gets to God's presence, the more glaring the problem becomes since physical images become less and less helpful. Ultimately, in Canto 33 Dante will abandon his descriptive mission and submit to a state of divinely induced rapture in which he repeats the same final word as before. Originality is not sought, but truth.


All that you may see is here decreed / by God's eternal law.

Bernard, Canto 32

In the last few cantos of Paradise, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux takes over for Beatrice as Dante's guide. Bernard, like Beatrice, is aware of the philosophical problems perplexing Dante—including issues of justice, predestination, and free will.

Like Beatrice, Bernard largely "answers" Dante's questions by appealing to the unknowable nature of God's will. For him, as for the other saints Dante meets, the justness of God's law is self-evident.


My will and my desire were turned / ... by love that moves the sun and other stars.

Dante, Canto 33

With these, the last lines of the Divine Comedy, Dante yokes together some central themes of Paradise. By imagining his own "will" and "desire" as wheels, Dante connects himself to the planetary spheres that served as the setting of most of his sojourn through Heaven. He also underscores his poem's status as an allegory, or symbolic story. The physical images of planets and stars and of wheels and spheres are mere symbols of deeper spiritual realities. God, as the "love that moves" things, is the point of connection between image and reality. In Dante's view God literally sets the universe in motion. By concluding with the image of "stars," Dante also links Paradise to the Inferno and Purgatory, which end on the same word.

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