Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Themes


The Cosmic Order

Each cantica of the Divine Comedy ends with an allusion to the "stars"—the physical cosmos that, for Dante, contains and delimits human experience. In the Inferno the stars are an upliftingly familiar sight at the end of a harrowing sojourn through Hell. Seeing them fills Dante with relief as he breaches the surface of Earth after days in the underworld. In Purgatory, which takes place on a vast terraced mountain, the stars serve as a means of marking time and thus of tying the souls' penance to the physical workings of the universe. Finally, at the end of Paradise Dante describes God's presence as a "love that moves the sun and other stars." God's providence, in other words, is the force setting all the stars in motion—or, put another way, the orderly turnings of the stars are a visible sign of that providence. Visiting the stars, as Dante does in Paradise, is thus a profoundly reassuring experience for the poet. He leaves behind Earth, a place in which God is sometimes hard to find, and enters a realm where God's handiwork is—to Dante—unmistakable.

Throughout the first 27 cantos of Paradise, Dante's allegorical visit to Heaven is mapped onto the familiar physical structure of the solar system. Medieval astronomy (see the Context section) tended to assume a geocentric model of the universe, with the moon, sun, planets, and stars all orbiting Earth. In Dante's worldview, humankind is thus at the center of the physical universe, which has been providentially laid out for humanity's benefit by God. It thus makes sense for Dante to think of the outer bodies in this system as "higher" or in some sense "more divine" than those nearest Earth. Saturn is remote and mysterious, a suitable home for religious contemplatives, whereas the moon is familiar and commonplace—at least by comparison.

Early on, however, Dante warns this celestial "map" is a mere metaphor for the order God has imprinted on the universe. Souls in Heaven, as Dante sees it, do not really live in the moon or the sun. Rather these concrete realities are presented to Dante so he may contemplate, one by one, the virtues that make a saint. The planets and stars with their regular motion may indeed, for Dante, be a marvel too great to explain without recourse to a divine Mover. The real wonder, however, is the moral reality underlying the physical one. Planetary orbits are, in Dante's view, crude and mechanical when compared with the mysterious workings of fate in the lives of humankind.

In the Primum Mobile, Dante beholds a different vision of the divine order, this time with God rather than humankind at the center. Again, however, Dante shows himself capable of understanding the points and circles—physical images—as a metaphor for a metaphysical reality. God is not "really" a point of light, as far as Dante is concerned; nor do angels "really" spend eternity whooshing around in circles. Rather this neatly diagrammatic view of the angelic hierarchy allows Dante to express a spiritual truth. Physical motion—in this case, angular motion—reflects the keenness of the angels' intellect and the zeal with which God has endowed them. Distance serves to separate the angels into readily discernible groups.

In the Empyrean, Dante experiences an even more intense version of the dichotomy between apparent reality and underlying truth. Again, he sees God at the center of a set of concentric rings, this time fancifully depicted as the petals of a rose. Yet the Empyrean—the real Heaven, from Dante's point of view—stands entirely outside normal constraints of time and space. Any attempt to orient its inhabitants in space is thus an analogy, meant to move Dante's visionary experiences into the limited channels of language. Throughout the Comedy—but particularly in Paradise, and most of all in the Empyrean—order, symmetry, and hierarchy are construed as evidence of God's presence. Notions of physical distance and proximity merely serve to make those concepts more concrete.

The Ineffable

Dante employs a rich vocabulary of physical metaphors to communicate his vision of Heaven. The flip side of this coin is that Dante's words can only do so much. At numerous points in Paradise, Dante is forced to acknowledge the insufficiency of language. He can say what Heaven is like but not what Heaven is. In the very first lines of the cantica, he warns the reader to accept this shortcoming as, in essence, the price of admission. As the soul draws nearer to God, he cautions, "our intellect so sinks into the deep / no memory can follow it that far."

At several points in subsequent cantos, Dante will again apologize for the limitations of his verse, but always with the understanding he is setting out to describe the indescribable—and thus, in a sense, doomed to failure from the start. The problem is worsened by the fact that Dante is attempting to report his experiences here on Earth, where the joys of Heaven are only fleetingly and imperfectly recaptured. Memory becomes the poet's sole, unreliable tool for conjuring up those former states of mind. Yet Dante is able to find a kind of beauty even in his failures, inasmuch as these remind him of realities too great to capture with a pen. In one particularly fresh and lyrical line (Canto 20), he tries to recall a song heard in Heaven but finds it "glides like falling leaves from memory."

Sometimes, Dante's appeals to the ineffable are almost romantic, as when he writes of Beatrice's smile in Canto 23. He says even if he had the help of the Muses, he would "still not reach one thousandth of the truth."

At other times, however, Dante's gestures of surrender effectively convey the sublimity of what he has glimpsed. Dante is, one might say, intoxicated by the divine as he grasps about for an image to hold on to. Saints become flowers, torches, thunderbolts—anything that might give Dante's reader the merest idea of the beauty, brightness, and power of the real thing.

In the Empyrean, as Dante approaches the divine presence and finally dares to behold it directly, these confrontations with the inexpressible get ever more frequent. With the blessing of the Virgin Mary, Dante enjoys a privilege rarely granted to humans—that of looking upon God without perishing on the spot into ashes. Near the end of Canto 33, he even begins to report what he sees in Heaven's luminous center. Ultimately, however, Dante is forced to give up even trying to express his visions in words. Overwhelmed, he surrenders his very intellect to God. Thus Paradise ends as it began, with Dante's powers of imagination happily defeated by the greatness of his subject.

Divine Justice

Of the seven virtues discussed in Paradise, justice seems to be the one that preoccupies Dante the most. In the Heaven of Jupiter, where the just reside, Dante is naturally concerned with issues of fairness and equanimity, especially as they apply to human political life. He uses the symbol of the Justice Eagle (see the Symbols section) to include an illustrious lineup of rulers from ages past, all of whom in some way embodied the virtue of justice. The Eagle also gives a "roll call" of unjust rulers, including many figures from Dante's own time.

Yet concerns of justice are not limited to Cantos 18–20, where Jupiter and the Eagle appear. Indeed, Dante's questions about the workings of divine justice pervade the poem, from the Heaven of the moon (Canto 4) to the Empyrean (Canto 32). Dante wants to know why God's justice so often seems unfair from a human viewpoint—why the virtuous appear to be punished and the wicked rewarded. The answers he receives are often so abstract as to be frustrating—at least to a modern reader. Dante himself generally seems satisfied with the saints' explanations. In the sphere of the moon, for example, he learns those who break vows "against their will" are still considered guilty, inasmuch as they failed to take the vows seriously enough. In the sphere of Jupiter, he hears of "pagans" who were admitted to Heaven on a miraculous technicality while their fellow non-Christians were assigned to Hell. In the Empyrean, he is told God creates children whose moral predispositions differ, just like their hair color or other visible traits. If those children die before the age of reason, God assigns them a rank in Heaven based on the moral differences He himself has created.

For Dante, the lesson in all this is not that God is unjust, even though it may often seem so from the outside. Rather, Dante surmises, God's justice is inscrutable—impossible, like His glory or mercy, for a human mind to make sense of. In Canto 19 the Justice Eagle encourages Dante in this line of thinking by emphasizing the limitations of human reasoning:

Well, who are you to sit there on your throne,
acting the judge a thousand miles away[?]
Although Dante accepts this sort of browbeating, he does not give up on his attempts to understand divine justice. Rather he continues to raise issues of fairness and unfairness, right and wrong, up through the penultimate canto of the poem. The answers may often be disappointing, but the questions themselves reveal much about Dante as both poet and pilgrim. Indeed, Dante's quest for justice throughout theDivine Comedyparallels one of his deepest lifelong preoccupations as a writer. As a Florentine politician and, later, a refugee, Dante remained firmly convinced of the injustices committed by his enemies. He longed to see those wrongs avenged—if not on Earth, then in the hereafter.

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