Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

Paradiso Cantos XXII-XXVIII

A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved

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Contents


Meditation LXXXIX: Paradiso Canto XXII

MedLXXXIX:1 Saint Benedict: Paradiso Canto XXII:1

Beatrice, in the image of mother and child, reassures Dante that vengeance will be taken on the corrupt Papacy. One of the spirits he can now see comes forward. It is Benedict the Christian Saint (c480-543) and founder of the oldest Western monastic order, the Benedictines. He was born at Nursia in Umbria, and went to Rome to study. He lived as a hermit for several years near Subiaco. He founded the famous monastery at Monte Cassino on a mountain between Rome and Naples, a spur of Monte Cairo, a few miles from Aquino in the north of Campania. It was once crowned by altars to Apollo and Venus-Aphrodite. The Rule of his Order demanded poverty, chastity and obedience, manual labour, and irrevocable vows. He was remembered for his many acts of healing.

Here in the sphere of temperance Benedict signifies the self-control and discipline, obedience and simplicity of the virtue. He in turn indicates Maccarius the Egyptian (301-391), a disciple of Saint Anthony, one of the monks of the Sinaitic desert, and Romoaldus a member of the Onesti family of Ravenna. He was a monk of Camaldoli (see Purgatorio V:85) in the Casentino district, who saw a vision of the heavenly ladder, and founded the Camaldolese Order, a white-robed stricter branch of the Benedictines. He died in 1027.

Dante asks whether he will see the clear form of the Saint and is told to wait until he sees the last sphere of the Empyrean, where all the spirits truly are. The Empyrean is outside space. Benedict then bemoans the state of his own Order, and the monks whose greed is worse than the interest acquired through usury, since they hold their possessions in trust for the faithful. Then he and his companions vanish in a whirlwind.

This simple passage with Benedict shows directly Dante’s affinity with the poverty and purity of the early Church, and the contrast he sees with contemporary religion, and barely conceals an apocalyptic fury under the apparently calm surface.

MedLXXXIX:2 Dante enters the Stellar Heaven: Paradiso Canto XXII:100

Dante and Beatrice now climb the mystic ladder of Contemplation, faster than one can on Earth where nature’s law of gravity applies. They enter the stellar heavens in the constellation of Gemini, Dante’s birth-sign and Dante invokes the power of the sign. Gemini’s astrological associations are with intellect and logic, ability in language and writing, inquisitiveness and energetic restlessness. Beatrice now encourages him to look back at Earth and its littleness, down through all the seven spheres of the ‘planets’, signifying the seven virtues. He sees the unclouded reverse side of the Moon of faith, that seen from Heaven, and the sun of wisdom, with love and hope, Venus and Mercury, close to it: and the measured justice of Jupiter, between warlike Mars and Saturn’s simplicity and discipline, the Church militant and the Church contemplative. He sees the whole structure of their orbits (in the Ptolemaic system), and the ‘threshing-floor’, of Italy and Florence, from the mountains to the mouth of the Arno. Dante is remembering the threshing-floor of Atad beyond the Jordan (see Genesis 50:10) where Joseph and the elders carried the body of his father Jacob, who had seen the vision of the ladder, and wrestled with the Angel, ‘and there they mourned with a great and very sore lamentation.’


Meditation XC: Paradiso Canto XXIII

MedXC:1 Christ, Gabriel, Mary, the Apostles: Paradiso Canto XXIII:1

Beatrice waits like the bird of dawn, turned eastwards from Gemini towards the constellation of Cancer (associated with home, the ‘nest’) the place of the summer solstice, and the heavens are lit by a vision of Christ and his host, brighter than the Sun and Moon and more than Dante can endure, so that he loses awareness and is only recalled by Beatrice who wishes him to look at her smile, of faith, hope and love, more beautiful, which he can now endure, but which is beyond his power to describe, and beyond the singing of Polyhymnia, the Muse of sacred song, and the other Muses.

With his familiar mixture of humility and pride, Dante asks for the reader’s sympathy for his attempts to describe what follows, and Beatrice points him towards the vision of Christ’s garden, the rose of the Virgin Mary, and the lilies of the Apostles. Christ has moved higher towards the Empyrean in order to spare Dante’s powers of sight. The Archangel Gabriel, the Angel of the Annunciation, falls in flame like a coronet to crown the Virgin. He circles her until she follows Christ into the higher sphere of the Primum Mobile, while the saints sing the Easter Antiphon, and their fires stretch upwards towards her like children reaching for their mother. Here the saints have their spiritual treasure earned on earth, the Babylon of Exile, where they rejected earthly treasures. Here Peter triumphs, and holds the key to redemption. The vision is of Christ’s Ascension and Mary’s Assumption. In this sphere of the stellar Heavens Dante, student and pilgrim, will be examined by the Apostles (Saints Peter, James and John) who stand at the threshold to the Primum Mobile of the Angels, concerning his understanding of the theological virtues.


Meditation XCI: Paradiso Canto XXIV

MedXCI:1 Saint Peter, Faith: Paradiso Canto XXIV:1

Beatrice calls on the company of Saints, and Saint Peter descends in flame, sweeping three times round Beatrice. She asks him to examine Dante on the subject of faith, despite his prior knowledge of Dante’s powers of faith, hope and love. Christ entrusted the keys of the Church, the faith, to Peter ‘the fisherman’, the ‘rock’ on which the Church would be built (Matthew xvi:18). Peter died at Rome as a martyr in the persecutions under Nero. His memorial monument at the cemetery on the Vatican Hill was built about AD160-170. The Bishops of Rome (from Stephen onwards, bishop AD 254-256), and the Popes, were his successors. Dante now prepares, like a student, to be questioned.

Dante when asked what faith is quotes Saint Paul, Saul of Tarsus, born about 10AD, Jewish by birth but a Roman citizen. He underwent conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts ix 1-9). He preached at Paphos, Philippi, Athens, Ephesus and elsewhere, and was martyred in Rome with Saint Peter on the same day. Faith is an intellectual virtue to the Catholic Church, and Dante here quotes Saint Paul’s definition (in Hebrews xi:1) ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ Aquinas commented that faith is not a substance but rather a quality, whereas a substance exists in itself. Dante effectively responds to that philosophical point here by pointing out that what are realities in heaven are only belief below, and that is their substance on earth, and that we have to reason from that faith without any further knowledge, and so it falls under the definition of evidence of those unseen realities also. In other words on Earth faith is the substance of, and the evidence for, what will be seen as substance in heaven, and there require no evidence.

Dante confirms that he believes fully in the words he has spoken, and when asked for his sources for his belief he cites the Old and New Testaments, substantiated by miracles. When Peter comments that only the scriptures themselves attest to the reality of those miracles, Dante echoes Augustine, that the conversion of the world without miracles, would have been a greater miracle than any recorded, attesting to their reality. With that the spirits sing in praise of God.

Peter sanctions Dante’s answers, filled with divine grace, and now, with the nature of faith and its basis having been defined, asks him to make a statement of what it is he believes. Dante replies that God, himself unmoving, moves the universe with love and desire, and derives this not only from physical and metaphysical knowledge but also from the Scriptural truth that flows from it. In the Metaphysics Aristotle shows that the prime Mover, which causes motion but is not itself moved, must be eternal, must be substantial, and actual, the prime object of desire, and of intellectual apprehension. From these five attributes Aquinas builds his five proofs of the existence of God.

Dante asserts his belief in the Trinity, for which the sources in the Testaments are chiefly: in the Old Testament the plural form of the word for God, the use of the plural in Genesis i:26, the threefold cry in Isaiah vi:3: and in the New Testament the baptism formula in Matthew xviii:19, the text of the three heavenly witnesses in First Epistles of John v:7 (Vulgate and AV), and the threefold formula in Romans xi:36: but the Unity of the Trinity is the breath behind the word throughout according to Petrus Lombardus and others. Saint Peter then circles round Dante three times, singing.


Meditation XCII: Paradiso Canto XXV

MedXCII:1 Saint James, Hope: Paradiso Canto XXV:1

Dante dreams in hope of returning to his native city, the ‘lovely fold’ in triumph. He refused to accept a laurel crown at Bologna in 1318, invited to do so by Giovanni del Virgilio, hoping still to return to Florence, and be crowned there. Now that lady, whose face he had hoped to see again, in whom he had faith, so much so that it is not so much that Beatrice is a symbol of Divine Philosophy as that Divine Philosophy becomes the form of Beatrice, turns to him in love and joy. She announces the arrival of Saint James, and the two Saints rest there like spiritual doves. James represents Hope. The disciple of Christ, James the Greater, was the son of Zebedee, a fisherman of Galilee, and the brother of John the Evangelist. He was tried in Jerusalem in 44 AD by Herod Agrippa and executed. His supposed tomb at Santiago de Compostella in Galicia, discovered in the 9th century, became a place of worship, by the 11th century, next in importance to Jerusalem and Rome, and he became the patron saint of Spain. The pilgrimage is a journey of hope.

Dante ascribes to him the authorship of the Epistle more usually attributed to the apostle James the Less, the ‘brother of the Lord’, which talks of God giving liberally in i:5. He was of the group with Peter and John whom Christ allowed nearer his presence on three occasions: at the Transfiguration, the raising of the daughter of Jairus, and the Agony at Gethsemane.

Dante is now examined as to what Hope is, and its source. He replies in words closely resembling Peter Lombard’s ‘Hope is the certain expectation of future bliss, coming from the grace of God and preceding merit.’ The divine song he refers to is Psalm ix:10 in the Vulgate ix:11 where it has ‘sperent: let them hope’. And his other source is James’s own first epistle.

James asks what hope promises and Dante refers to the Testaments. Firstly Isaiah lxi 7,10 where the prophecy that the redeemed shall possess double things implies joy of the body as well as joy of the soul and then John the Evangelist in Revelation vii:9 where the redeemed are robed in white, and Dante links this to Isaiah’s statement. His hope then is of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body.

Note how Dante continually links faith, hope and love as an indivisible trinity within the text. Love is the driving force behind all this faith, and the messenger of hope.

MedXCII:2 Saint John, Love: Paradiso Canto XXV:97

A light flashes out so brightly that if the midwinter night sky in Cancer had such a star there would be no darkness just continuous daylight. Saint John joins the other two Apostles making a triplet signifying the three virtues of faith, hope and love, and Dante uses images of the virgin and the bride to heighten the emotion.

Saint John, the disciple of Christ, son of Zebedee, and brother of James. was the presumed author of the Fourth Gospel and, by tradition, of the Apocalypse, and therefore identified by Dante with John the Divine. His emblem in art is an eagle. (See Revelation iv:7. The four beasts are identified with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the fourth beast being a flying eagle.) At the Last Supper he was ‘leaning on Jesus’s bosom’. (See John xiii 23). Christ, on the cross, committed Mary to his charge. (See John xix 26-27). The Pelican, supposed to feed its young with its own blood, is a symbol of Christ and he with the Virgin alone ascended to Heaven in body as well as in spirit. Enoch and Elijah were only elevated to the Earthly Paradise.

Dante is temporarily blinded by the dazzle of Saint John’s splendour, like a man who gazes at the sun’s eclipse.


Meditation XCIII: Paradiso Canto XXVI

MedXCIII:1 Dante on Love: Paradiso Canto XXVI:1

John reassures Dante that he will regain his sight, since Beatrice will restore it as Ananias of Damascus restored the sight of the blind Saul of Tarsus (Paul, see Acts ix 10-18). At John’s prompting Dante asserts his continuing Love for Beatrice. It is worth considering the nature of that love. Has it passed beyond the physical, those eyes, the gates through which it entered, and become wholly spiritualised? On the contrary, Dante maintains the physical intensity of his love for her, throughout the Commedia. Yet, he says, the beginning and end, the Alpha and Omega, of all the scriptures that Love in all its forms reads to him, is Divine Love, the Good, God Himself. Love is one continuum, from the Divine to the earthly. All Love is one.

John presses him further. Dante relies on three authorities, firstly Aristotle, who taught that God is the supreme object towards whom the Heavens yearn. In the Metaphysics the Prime Mover is the object of longing or of intellectual apprehension. The good is the object of love, and since God is the supreme good He is the supreme object of love, and the more a mind sees the good the more it must focus on that supreme object, with love. The scripture regarding Moses is the next authority, where the Lord says to Moses ‘I will make all my goodness pass before thee’ in Exodus xxxiii:19. The Vulgate says ego ostendam omne bonum tibi. The third authority is John the Evangelist (Christ’s ‘Eagle’) himself in Revelation i:8. ‘I am Alpha and Omega the beginning and the ending.’

John tells Dante to keep his highest Love for God. But on being questioned further Dante confesses that all things which share in the Divine Good inspire love in him, including the world’s creation, his own being, the redemption, and Man’s hope of paradise. Goodness inspires love, and love yearns for goodness.

Goodness is not Love, but its object. Love is not Goodness but a longing for it, and yet in some sense, for Dante and others, God, Goodness, is Love. Ambiguity lies in the word Love itself, which denotes both the yearning and the commitment it engenders to actions that are intended for good. Likewise there is an ambiguity in the word Goodness (used in the moral sense), which signifies both a desired state or outcome (say Virtue, moral excellence) and the commitment to actions that cause it. Seen as empathy in action, reflected in mutual love and gratitude, Love is in some sense the object of its own yearning. Out of empathy, the desire to protect and nurture flows, and the adherence to truth and steadfastness that reveals openness and empathy. To be true, sensitive and kind (benevolent, benign etc) can therefore be seen as effects of primal empathy and love, and from those qualities other cardinal virtues including justice, moderation, self-control and practical wisdom take their life. We might say Love arises with Virtue, since the desire and the actions are both rooted in primal empathy. Man’s love in Dante’s scheme is a desire for God: God’s love is empathy towards His creation. If Goodness in action is represented in the earthly life by the Virtues, the question boils down to whether Love is a consequence or the root of Virtue, whether it is initially passive or active. If the latter God might then be seen as an external projection of internal empathy, and active empathy as the root of all manifestations of ‘goodness’. (See Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Hume’s ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’, Wittgenstein on the usage of words, the modern neo-Darwinian scientific debates et al.)

Dante’s orthodox view is that God is Truth and ultimate Goodness, rather than specifically Love, though he is Love also, and that love for His creation is fundamental. As we shall see later Human blessedness, according to Dante derives from a vision of the truth, and the extent of that vision depends on grace and right exercise of the free will, according to the virtues, only one of which is love. Love is a consequence of vision, not the other way round.

MedXCIII:2 Adam: Paradiso Canto XXVI:70

Beatrice clears Dante’s sight so that he sees even more clearly, and the spirit of Adam appears. Dante raises his head like a bowed branch after the wind has gone by. Adam sees all things including Dante’s hidden questions reflected in the Divine mirror where every created thing is perfectly reflected, though none of those created things perfectly reflect God.

Adam answers Dante’s questions. His original sin lay in disobedience, (according to Aquinas pride in desiring spiritual good beyond what was owed him), rather than the eating of the fruit of the tree. His Life in the Earthly Paradise endured only to the seventh hour. His existence on Earth, in exile, and in Limbo was more than five thousand years. According to Eusebius, Adam was on earth for 930 years and in Limbo for 4302 years.

Dante makes the point that, while nature allows human speech, languages like other products of the mind, vary, and decay. Adam’s language had vanished before Babel was built.


Meditation XCIV: Paradiso Canto XXVII

MedXCIV:1 Saint Peter and the Popes: Paradiso Canto XXVII:1

The whole of Paradise, singing, celebrates the Trinity: Dante seems to see the Universe’s smile: the three Apostles and Adam burn with light in front of Dante’s eyes: and Peter glows red with righteous wrath.

With a triple repetition, of ‘my place’, Peter speaks about the Pope (Boniface in 1300) who usurps that place as head of the Church. Beatrice, though herself innocent, blushes as a modest woman at hearing the denunciation. He gives examples of the great and good Popes Linus (66-76AD) and Cletus (76-88AD), Sixtus, Saint Sixtus or Sextus I (115-125), Pius (140-155AD), Calixtus (217-222AD) and Urban (222-230 AD) who according to tradition died for the faith. He condemns factionalism, the use of the keys as a battle standard, or the use of his figure as a seal on corrupt Papal documents. He anticipates the Papacies of the Gascon Clement V (1305-1314), and John XXII from Cahors (1316-1334). Dante then links the workings of Divine Providence that supported Rome against Carthage under Scipio, with the unspecified retribution that will overtake the Papacy.

MedXCIV:2 The Primum Mobile: Paradiso Canto XXVII:67

The ether fills with the spirits like snowflakes travelling upwards. Dante the successful examinee, looks down towards Earth. In Gemini, he is separated from the sun, in Aries, by the sign of Taurus. It is now sunset over Jerusalem. (Jupiter snatched Europa from Phoenician Tyre, the modern Lebanon, at the longitude of Jerusalem) Dante looking down sees from the dark of sunset at Jerusalem to sunlit Gibraltar (where Ulysses that symbol of restless self-will sailed to the West between the Pillars of Hercules). Dante turns his eyes to Beatrice whose smiling face exceeds in beauty whatever art or nature could create.

They are drawn up into the Primum Mobile, the sphere ‘below’ the Empyrean, and Beatrice explains that this is the sphere from which all the other circling of Dante’s Neo-platonic Universe derives. The Light and Love of God clasp it, as it clasps the other lower spheres. Time has its origin here, below the timeless Empyrean. And Beatrice then condemns the greed of the human race, and its lack of good government in Empire or Papacy. But she gives promise of improvement before long, referring to the Julian calendar (rectified in 1752) which made the year 11 minutes 14 seconds too long, roughly a hundredth of a day. In Dante’s time January began a little later in the real year each time, and so eventually it would fall outside winter altogether.


Meditation XCV: Paradiso Canto XXVIII

MedXCV:1 The Angelic Circles: Paradiso Canto XXVIII:1

Dante now sees something reflected in Beatrice’s eyes as in a mirror, and turns to see a single intense point of light un punto, around which nine concentric circles wheel, turning faster and brighter the nearer they are to the inner point, through their closeness to the ultimate truth. As in Aristotle (Metaphysics xxx), Heaven and all Nature hang from this point, the Prime Mover, which is without magnitude but without parts and indivisible. The circles are those of the Intelligences, the Angelic Orders. Dante is puzzled as to why these circles reverse the arrangement of the heavenly spheres, where that sphere nearest to God, the Primum Mobile, is the widest and fastest.

Beatrice explains that the heavenly spheres are arranged in this Neo-platonic structure to produce maximum benefit, so the outermost sphere the Primum Mobile which contains all the others must be the most excellent since it contains the most virtue, and therefore corresponds to the like angelic circle closest to God. There is therefore a spiritual rather than a spatial correspondence between the two arrangements, the concentric spheres centred on Earth, and the concentric Angelic Orders centred on God. God is both centre and circumference. Dante sees the truth of this, and the circles glitter with sparks like molten iron, and sing Hosanna. The quantity of sparks is compared to the old chessboard tale which has a reward being demanded of an amount of corn equal to that obtained by placing one ear on the first of the sixty-four squares of the chessboard, and then doubling the amount of the previous square, at each new square. The number obtained is 2 to the power 63 plus one, which is about 18.5 million million million.

Beatrice then explains the nine Orders, arranged in three triplets. Beatrice makes a crucial point here that blessedness depends on sublimity of seeing, on the vision of the truth ‘where every mind is stilled’, rather than primarily on love, which is in fact a consequence of that vision. The extent of vision is dependent on grace and the right exercise of the will. Dante therefore, ultimately, pins his life and work to the rightness of his faith and vision, rather than the degree of his love that follows from it. (God is ultimately Truth, the partially undefined Good. The Love flows from the truth, both God’s Love for his creation, and Man’s love for God. Dante is not denying Man’s love in any way, merely seeing it as a consequence rather than a cause, a desire for the good, rather than the good itself. Love is only one of the seven virtues demanding right use of free will, though the greatest of the three theological virtues. Despite many commentators denying that Dante makes knowledge and intellect superior to love, I disagree. He follows Aquinas ‘the knowledge (by that above) of what is below exceeds the love thereof, but the love of what is above us, and especially God, exceeds the knowledge of the same.’ God, through Love, may move ‘the sun and the other stars’, but absolute Truth is above Love and contains it. Here one might dispute the need for greater and lesser, above and below. Truth and Love co-exist.)

The Angels are divided in three Hierarchies, each of three Orders, here they are three triplets of circles. In the first triplet, Seraphs with their wings, and Cherubs with their eyes emphasise movement towards God (Love) and insight into His being (Knowledge). Thrones signify the Power of God, manifested through the Angels and drawing them towards Him, they are the mirrors of his judgments, and also represent his steadfastness. Joy is connected with the Seraphim, and trust in God’s power with the Thrones. In the second triplet, the Dominions are an image of God’s dominion, the Virtues indicate Divine strength and fortitude, while the Powers represent Divine power and majesty. In the third, outermost triplet, Principalities, or Princedoms, Archangels and Angels are concerned with the things of this world, love of the Holy Spirit, and communication of the gifts of God to man. The Angels is a term applied collectively to all the nine Hierarchies, signifying ‘messengers’ and the higher Angels can execute the functions of the lower, while having their special additional qualities. So Christ is the Angel of the Great Counsel.

Dionysius and Gregory had different arrangements of the Orders, Gregory realising the truth of the former when he arrived in heaven. The mystical sixth century writings of the pseudo-Dionysius were ascribed to the Aeropagite, Saint Paul’s convert on Mars’s hill. Dionysius was supposed to have learned of the hierarchies and other matters from Saint Paul, who had seen them when rapt up into the third heaven.