Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri
Paradiso Cantos I-VII
A. S. Kline Authored by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002, All Rights Reserved.
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- Introduction to the Paradiso
- Meditation LXVIII: Paradiso Canto I
- Meditation LXIX: Paradiso Canto II
- Meditation LXX: Paradiso Canto III
- Meditation LXXI: Paradiso Canto IV
- Meditation LXXII: Paradiso Canto V
- Meditation LXXIII: Paradiso Canto VI
- Meditation LXXIV: Paradiso Canto VII
Introduction to the Paradiso
The Inferno invokes pity in Dante: Purgatory brings him both the hope and the reality, in his confession to Beatrice, of forgiveness: the Paradiso demands, and explores, his faith. Calliope who sang the myth of Persephone was invoked in Canto I of Purgatorio: Matilda reminded Dante of Persephone gathering flowers near its end. The journey of Purgatorio took Dante from the loss of spiritual life in Inferno and has brought him to the rebirth of spiritual life and of the world that the ancient myth signifies. From the Crucifixion to the Resurrection, and beyond. From sin to confession, and forgiveness. From clouded sight to burgeoning knowledge. From the depths to the heights. From stasis to freedom. From eternal recurrence to the eternal Moment.
The emphasis in Inferno was on the political life, and in Purgatorio on the personal life: Paradiso emphasises the spiritual life, though all three Cantiche vitally interweave the three threads. Inferno leaves lasting images of the hellish city: Purgatorio of Dantes’ own purgation and his meeting again with Beatrice: Paradiso brings sweetness, and the glory of intellectual Light. Here a Neo-platonic vision of universal order unfolds, a hierarchy that leads from the planetary spheres through the heavens to the Empyrean, that still centre and paradoxically that circumference of the universe, from which the Divine Light and Love flows. As Dante ascends with Beatrice through the levels, he acquires knowledge that extends and expands the Vision. The view from here is wide and all embracing. He looks back at the littleness of Earth. The student questions, is questioned, learns and understands. The seven Virtues who accompany Dante, Beatrice, Statius and Matilda at the end of the Purgatorio are the initial key to Paradiso. It is a continuing ethical journey, an exploration of the perfections and imperfections of life according to the seven virtues, theological and cardinal, aligned to the seven ‘planets’, the theological virtues being considered again in the Stellar Heaven where Dante’s understanding is ‘tested’, and it encloses within its intellectual sweep Empire and Church, the active and contemplative life, Love and Justice, and above all Faith. Knowledge increases as Dante ascends, until he is fit to receive the final understanding of Religious Glory, of Universal Love, and the outer (and innermost) heavens.
As Light and Love cascade down through the Universal hierarchy, Dante and Beatrice are conversely drawn upwards by their spiritual desire, towards the greater brightness, joy, and Love. It is intellectual light filled with love: it is love of virtue filled with joy. And Paradise is a virtual space and moment where the will, imprisoned by the Inferno, freed in the Purgatorio, is now paradoxically to be relinquished in the Paradiso. The will, abused and misused by the sinner, and purged by the penitent, is returned to God, the prime mover and source of love, by the free spirit.
Faith and Belief in revealed Truth is the structure that underpins the journey from a spiritual viewpoint, while it is the light of Justice and Order that is turned on the political and religious domains of Empire and Church, and the light of Love that illuminates the personal. Earthly philosophy is transcended by Divine philosophy, but the use of the intellect, the power of the rational mind is exalted throughout, and classical reason is incorporated in Christian learning to the extent that it supports and confirms Christian truth.
Dante, continually disappointed in his hopes of political progress, showed the Earthly Paradise, that realm of sinless innocence, as empty, a place to act as a backcloth for the Pageant of history, to reveal the failure of Empire and Church on earth, not the place yet of its fruition. The great philosophers and poets of the ancient pagan world are in Limbo, not in the Earthly Paradise, that was a Divine creation. The exile, and frustrated believer in the just Empire evoked by Classical Rome, and the apostolic Church of radical poverty evoked by that of the early Church, turned in Paradiso to the inner world, in a Vision of what is beyond this life, that underpins this life. Prefiguring the Renaissance, the beauty of the Vision blends Classical, Christian and Medieval thought together. It is a Revelation, and Dante claimed it as such, fundamentally ‘a thing seen’. When the Vision ends, Dante’s life must still continue. In the silence and the stillness he must prepare for the willed creation of the Commedia, prepare continually to repeat his steps through Purgatory, in order to find Beatrice once more, and, through finding her, to see beyond her, and see with her, the Divine Love, that point from which nature and the heavens hang, and from which flows the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.
Meditation LXVIII: Paradiso Canto I
MedLXVIII:1 The Invocation: Paradiso Canto I:1
Paradiso begins with a statement of belief, of faith, of revealed truth as far as Dante is concerned. God is the Aristotelian prime mover, and the source of that Light of Love and Intellect that permeates the Universe, varying in its intensity according to the region. This is a Neoplatonic vision of the descending hierarchy founded on the Deity, though it would be a misunderstanding to consider God as occupying a space or time, being infinite and eternal, or rather beyond space and time all together in the dimensionless eternal Moment. Dante is able to write of his journey towards that final point of the Empyrean, but not to retell the nature of that ultimate experience, as we shall see.
He calls on Apollo for inspiration, the God of poetry and music, importantly of prophecy also, and symbolically equated with Christ, therefore a doubly appropriate power for him to invoke at this entry into Paradise. Dante takes The Muses as inhabiting one peak of Parnassus, their sacred mountain, and Apollo the other, and he needs the inspiration of the Muses now as before and also that of Apollo’s singing in his contest with Marsyas (the god defeating his presumptuous rival, as the Muses defeated the Pierides) so that he might be worthy of those laurel leaves that the god took as his emblem, after his pursuit of Daphne, those with which poets are so seldom crowned, through a failure, Dante says, of will. It is significant that the Paradiso ends with the energising of Dante’s will (to write the Commedia).
MedLXVIII:2 The First Ascent: Paradiso Canto I:37
Dante is about to rise into Heaven at midday on Thursday (in Purgatory: it is midnight at Jerusalem). He then goes round the world with the day, so that, for him, it remains mid-day, and no ‘earth-time’ passes. The sun is in Aries throughout, since it is at the equinox. Dante then uses his astronomical knowledge to point us towards the significance of the seven Virtues in the scheme of Paradiso. At the equinox, at sunrise, the celestial circles of the Ecliptic, and the Equinoctial and Equatorial colures, cross the celestial circle of the Horizon at the same point. Each of the three then forms a cross with the fourth, the Horizon. Allegorically, God most influences the world through the four Cardinal virtues (Temperance, Fortitude, Justice, and Prudence) when they are joined to ‘form’ the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity). The happiest constellation is therefore Aries, the sign in which the Sun was at the Creation, when the spring equinox fell there, making this configuration of four circles and three crosses.
Beatrice, his guide, gazes towards the left, the heart side, like an eagle, staring at the sun, and Dante, is enabled to do so also, without impairing his sight, reflecting Beatrice’s stance like a mirrored ray of light, in its pilgrim desire for return. As God’s light is reflected downwards through the Universe, Dante feeds on Beatrice’s reflected wisdom and love. The power to look at the sun is a gift of the Earthly Paradise, which was made to fit humanity, but whose gifts Adam lost through his original sin. Dante sees the Light redoubled, and, averting his gaze, and looking towards the mirror of Beatrice, he becomes transformed like Glaucus (who was able to inhabit another element). Speech cannot communicate the inward effect of that grace, since ‘To go beyond Humanity is not to be told in words.’
Dante is now lifted into the Heavens at noon (compare Second Corinthians xii 2: ‘the man caught up into paradise’ and its note of proper humility), by the power of Universal Love and its Light. Effectively the desire of the mind and spirit for God draws the soul upwards, and, according to Aristotle’s philosophy, God causes the eternal movement of the celestial spheres through the love and longing he inspires in the universe. The soul is a new creation of God’s, not generated by nature, but breathed into the embryo.
Dante hears the heavenly harmonies (In one Medieval world view the seven planetary spheres produce divine harmonies like the seven strings of a lyre, though this view is expressly rejected by Dante’s authority Aristotle) and sees the increase in light, firing his longing, and before he can question her Beatrice explains that they have risen into the heavens like lightning in reverse, which startles Dante since he is heavier in his earthly and watery body than the spheres of lighter matter above. In the Medieval view of the four elements the sphere of fire surrounds the sphere of air with ‘a second atmosphere’. Air is relatively light, and fire absolutely light. Already we can see the increased intellectual content of Paradiso. We can expect intensive scientific, astronomical, philosophic and theological question and answer in this realm.
MedLXVIII:3 Universal Order: Paradiso Canto I:100
Beatrice anticipates Dante’s first question and sighs (like a mother over her child) in pity of his ignorance at his second. She then expands on the Neoplatonic order of the universe, in which the higher creatures, with intellect, can see the stamp of the Maker, that being the purpose for which the detailed structure of things was created. The whole creation is ordered, structured, and graduated at varying distances from the source. The upward movement of flames, the stirring of the emotions, the gravitational attraction of the component parts of Earth, and so on, are due to forces (‘instincts’) that drive matter and intellect.
God orders this structure, and the source is in the unmoving light-filled Empyrean, within which (or round which) the ninth sphere, the Primum Mobile whirls. Beatrice explains the diffusion of the Divine Spirit from the Empyrean where all space is here and time is now, and where God is, and the Angels, and Blessed spirits truly are (as opposed to merely manifesting themselves) down to the lowest sphere of the Moon. The Primum Mobile, or ninth Heaven, where the Angels manifest themselves (in symbolic meeting), contains all Nature. It receives the Divine influence and communicates it downwards to the eighth sphere of the Stellar Heavens, where the Blessed Souls are all manifest. The Stellar Heaven divides it among the stars. Each of the seven lower Heavens (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and Moon, in the Ptolemaic system) likewise receives the influence from the sphere above, and passes it to the sphere below (as in the emanations of medieval mysticism). See the General Structure, Note 1, for the attributes of the spheres. Each of the lower sphere’s virtue and motion derives from an Angelic presence, which is wedded to each planetary body, and the mingled virtue of Angel and planet shines throughout that sphere. The Stellar Heaven is, likewise, animated by the deep spirit of the Cherubim. Each Angel is connected with its sphere, but still distinct within it. The combination is an alloy, a union, a melding. The virtue that shines there is likewise the personality of the Angel mingled with the creative and inspirational power of God. Groups of blessed spirits manifest themselves in the lower spheres as symbolic meeting places with Dante that are appropriate to them. In Hell spirits are fixed in their location, below Limbo, ‘unable to go forward, or to go back’: in Purgatory they progress through time, until the will is free: and in Paradise they are free and timeless, but manifest in the appropriate sphere, ‘all places being Paradise that are in Heaven’. The journey therefore allows increasing degrees of freedom, until freedom itself becomes an irrelevance within God’s will.
The material on which the Light works may be inadequate, Beatrice explains: there is the potential for failure and imperfection. We have seen these imperfections in Inferno and Purgatorio, but even in Paradiso Dante will explore further imperfections in the application of the virtues as he ascends. He and Beatrice (as a manifestation returning to her place in the Stellar Heavens) are lifted upwards naturally, as the source draws the mind and spirit towards it, and this is the natural order. She gazes at Heaven again, indicating the direction of the source, its power to draw her eyes, the divine nature of the truth she is revealing, and the focus of the Divine Philosophy that she represents.
Meditation LXIX: Paradiso Canto II
MedLXIX:1 The Moon: Faith and Inconstancy: Paradiso Canto II:1
Dante warns the Reader, we who are following in our little boat (piccioletta barca) behind his singing keel. In describing the Heavens in epic poetry he is going beyond previous poets, driven by intellect (Minerva), steered by Divine creativity (Apollo), and guided by Poetic inspiration (the Muses). True spiritual yearning is needed to follow in his track.
They ascend swiftly impelled by desire, Beatrice gazing at the Divine source, and Dante gazing at her: she like a mirror that reflects the light, until they enter the sphere of the Moon. Beatrice, ‘joyful as she was lovely’ tells Dante to turn towards God in gratitude for this marvel. They are absorbed, as light in water, into the pearl-like mass. Though Dante is still in the body, and the interpenetration of solid bodies is inconceivable on Earth, the reality of this gives an inkling of the essential place of Light, where God and Man are unified, as in Christ where human and divine co-existed. This sphere of the Moon is that of faith, and the content of faith, which is taken on trust, in this life, will ultimately be revealed, realised, self-evidently, as truth. Dante will also explore imperfections of faith in this sphere. In Medieval astronomy the Earth threw its shadow, i.e. created imperfection, as far as the third sphere of Venus (in the Copernican system it only throws its shadow on the Moon, Mercury and Venus being in inner orbit round the sun).
MedLXIX:2 Variability: Moon-Shadows: Paradiso Canto II:46
A discussion now follows on the question of why there are dark shadows on the Moon, an apparent imperfection. Beatrice’s explanation is designed to illustrate the variability in the natural order, and the differences in quality not just quantity among the gradations and parts of the Universe. Dante believes that density and rarity of matter explain the shadows. Beatrice explains that if that were used to explain the differing appearance of the stars it would imply differences in quantity only and not the differences in quality that actually exist. Equally the Moon would have patches of dense matter right through, or would consist of layers of denser and rarer matter. If the first case were true it would be revealed by the pattern of light from the Sun passing through the Moon to Earth during a solar eclipse which is not what we observe. In the second case sunlight would be reflected back from the denser layers further away from us, and that might explain the darker patches. However brightness is the ratio of the quantity of light reaching the eyes to the apparent size of the object. These both diminish as the square of the distance, so the brightness remains constant, and there would be no dark patches apparent. (This ignores absorption by the medium, and the reflective capability of a coarse surface like the moon.) Dante points to a scientific experiment with the three mirrors that demonstrates the effect. The vital point is that the shadows, and in fact the essential variability in all things, is due to qualitative not merely quantitative difference. Reasoning from experiment and observation is demonstrated here also, as a key method of the scientific intellect.
MedLXIX:3 Diffusion of the Divine Spirit: Paradiso Canto II:106
Beatrice now extends the point made about variability and qualities. The existence of the lower spheres in this Neo-platonic scheme depends on the Primum Mobile, the ninth sphere, which whirls within the Empyrean, the outermost circle (or paradoxically the innermost centre) of the Universe. The power of the Primum Mobile cascades down through the Stellar Heaven, the eighth sphere, varying in quality and quantity as it creates different forms containing different essences, and so down to the seven ‘planetary’ spheres (treating the Sun as a planet rather than the star it is) with their diverse qualities. The power that flows is mediated by the Cherubim in the Stellar Heavens, and by separate Angelic presences in the planetary spheres, which merge with and imprint their respective spheres, like the soul within the body powering the members (Dante refers to ‘the organs of the Universe). The planets then shine with the virtue of their Angel due to the joyful nature of the source, like the light shining in the eye. This is presented by Dante (through Beatrice) as the truth behind the differences in qualities and virtues within the universe, a matter of trust (an aspect of faith) to be realised self-evidently hereafter. ‘It is a formal principle.’
Meditation LXX: Paradiso Canto III
MedLXX:1 The Spirits in the Moon: Paradiso Canto III:1
The Moon is the sphere of Faith, the first of the theological virtues, and that virtue and its imperfections will be illuminated here, a pattern repeated for the virtues in the three lower planetary spheres, where the orbiting earth casts its shadow. Dante makes use of accepted associations of the planets also: inconstancy or variability being a traditional association of the Moon, from its cycle of waxing and waning. It is also associated in our culture with Woman, with the virginity and chastity of Artemis-Diana, with the myth of ‘Pearl’ and the return of the soul to the stars, and we would expect to meet female characters in this sphere.
Beatrice, Dante’s ‘sun’, has satisfied his questioning using an intellectual method, proof and refutation, and Dante is about to express his belief, when he sees faces faintly apparent within the Moon’s ‘eternal pearl’. Unlike Narcissus who believed his own image was a real other whom he fell in love with, Dante is attracted to these faces that he thinks are reflected images, and turns again to Beatrice puzzled. Beatrice smiles at Dante’s misunderstanding, his lack of trust in what he sees, her holy eyes glowing. This is truth. The faces are real, and these spirits manifest themselves in this appropriate sphere because they failed in an aspect of faith, by breaking their vows.
MedLXX:2 Piccarda Donati: Paradiso Canto III:34
Dante courteously seeks information from the most eager of the spirits, who is Piccarda Donati The daughter of Simone Donati, and the sister of Forese Donati, Dante’s friend, and of Corso Donati. In Purgatorio Canto XXIV, Forese mentioned her as being in Paradise, and now she is in the sphere of the Moon, appearing to Dante here because of her neglect of her vows. She had taken the habit of the Poor Clares in the convent at Florence, and was forcibly abducted from there by Corso her brother in 1288 or thereabouts, and compelled to marry Rosselino della Tosa, a turbulent noble of the Black faction. She died shortly afterwards. She stresses that she was a ‘virgin’ sister, echoing that Moon association, and is now blessed by being in the slowest sphere, one of the brides of Christ, pleased and informed by Him. Dante recognises her now, transformed as she is by her blessedness, the first individual spirit he has met in Paradiso, as her brother Forese was the last major contemporary of Dante’s in Purgatory.
Piccarda explains in answer to Dante’s question, that the spirits have no will to change their station because the power of love makes them desire what they have. By necessity the blessed spirits have their being in Love, and so cannot be at odds with God’s greater will. ‘His will is our peace’ she says, and Dante realises that every part of Heaven is Paradise despite the variability of its qualities, since every spirit is drawn towards the source, and joyful at being in its assigned state and station.
Dante reveals that great love of and desire for intellectual and social order that characterises his age and the Renaissance that followed. His stress on courtesy, which is an aspect of order and respect, is only one telltale sign of this. Out of political, spiritual and moral chaos men like him sought the authoritarian but benign powers of uncorrupted Emperor, Pope and Saint. The craving for order is in tension with the craving for freedom even in the thirteenth century, but the backcloth of warfare, violence, evil and corruption led to a massive yearning for peace, love, virtue and the cleansing of the social fabric. The Commedia in the end is orthodox, because it supports the traditional establishment of Church and State, Pope and Emperor, even if in his reaction to their corrupted reality Dante can seem at times like a revolutionary, full of radical enthusiasms. It is purgation and reform he longs for, not abolition. He is a believer, whose questioning is aimed at confirming and clarifying his belief. His writing of Monarchia is only one example of Dante’s faith in the concept of centralised power, kingship, and authoritarian rule. However much qualified by the need for the rule of Law, of Love, of Peace, he nevertheless embraces a social system as his ideal that is always vulnerable to the flawed will of the leader. Though he never stopped hoping for an Augustus to run the Empire, and a Peter to uphold the Church, the Commedia turns in reality to the unseen, and perfect deity, and to the afterlife and Paradise as the only sure hope.
Piccarda tells her story, that she was a follower of Clare, Chiari Scifi of Assisi, now known as Santa Clara, Saint Clare (c1194-1253), the friend and disciple of Saint Francis of Assisi, she who founded the order of Franciscan nuns known as the ‘Poor Clares’ (The Order wore a grey habit, with white coif covered with black veil) and is an example of perfect faith. Piccarda turned her back on the world but was dragged back into it.
By her side is Constance, the wife of Frederick II, and grandmother of Manfred. She was the daughter of King Roger II, and heiress of the Norman House of Tancred that conquered Sicily and Southern Italy from the Saracens in the eleventh century, and so of the crown of ‘the Two Sicilies’ (Naples and Sicily). She married Henry son of Frederick Barbarossa in 1186, who was afterwards Emperor Henry VI, and bore him Frederick, later Emperor Frederick II. Frederick Barbarossa, Henry and Frederick II were the three ‘stormwinds of Suabia’. She assumed the regency for her son, after Henry’s death at the early age of 32. She died in 1198. Dante follows the tradition that she had been a nun, and had been forced to make a political marriage against her will. Her name itself no doubt attracted him, as he looked for an example of constancy within inconstancy.
Piccarda stresses that Constance, though forced to leave the religious life, had remained true to her heart’s belief and commitment. Singing the ‘Ave Maria’, Piccarda vanishes like a heavy weight through water. From hereon the singing in Paradise is such that though Dante hears it he cannot remember or describe it, until he reaches the Stellar Heaven, when Mary is again the theme, and where the theological virtue of faith, which she embodies, is again addressed. Dante now turns back to Beatrice full of further questions.
Meditation LXXI: Paradiso Canto IV
MedLXXI:1 Dante’s Questions: Paradiso Canto IV:1
Dante is caught between doubts, in this sphere of faith, and he piles on the similes to indicate so. Like Daniel, divining and interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, Beatrice divines and answers Dante’s pair of unspoken questions: how can a violent disruption of Piccarda’s and Constance’s lives, causing them to break their vows, lessen their virtue: and have the spirits here returned after death to the stars they originated from as Plato taught?
Beatrice takes the second question first. The blessed spirits, including Piccarda, all inhabit the Empyrean along with other great souls, though they differ in the degree to which they experience God’s power. Piccarda for example does not inhabit the sphere of the Moon but has manifested here in human semblance to allow Dante’s intellect to receive information through the senses, just as God, Christ, and the Archangels are depicted with human forms symbolically in scripture and elsewhere. If Plato intended the Timaeus to say that the stars influence human qualities at birth, then that is partially acceptable, but if he intended to say that souls are split from a star at birth and return to it at death, then he was wrong. Dante, through Beatrice, while acknowledging stellar influence, as we have seen previously, insists on human free will, without which ethics and human life itself is robbed of meaning. Dante condemns the confusion of pagan Gods with planetary influences in Pagan Religion and Astrology. It is noticeable that while Dante does employ some of the traditional attributes of the planets in Paradiso, he does not systematically employ their supposed qualities and virtues as used in Astrology.
The first of Dante’s questions is less dangerous to his spiritual life. Beatrice concedes that Divine Justice is a matter for faith, and may appear unjust to human beings. Piccarda and Constance could have willed not to break their vows indefinitely, but could have attempted to return to the religious life. Since they did not, they wavered in their faith, and are less virtuous for so doing. Dante quotes Saint Lawrence and Mucius Scaevola as two extreme (male!) examples of loyalty to an ideal regardless of suffering, and of the strong will. If Piccarda and Constance and the others who broke their vows had possessed that strength of will they would have found their way back to the religious life. Was then Piccarda lying, which is impossible for a blessed spirit, when she said that Constance remained devoted in her heart. Well, the vows were broken to avoid danger, and life may force actions like Alcmaeon’s that are morally wrong in one context but unavoidable in another. The Modern world is familiar with this concept of (sometimes invidious) moral choice. Dante follows Aristotle’s theory of the dual will, an absolute will that does not consent to evil coupled with a practical will that chooses the lesser of two evils. The former may remain intent on its goal, while the latter compromises, and that is a failing. See Aristotle’s Ethics III, where the example of Alcmaeon is also mentioned. Inasmuch as the practical will allows violence to succeed, it aids and abets it, and is culpable. The absolute will may continue though to adhere to its ideal, which was the case with Constance, according to Piccarda.
MedLXXI:2 Dante’s Next Question: Paradiso Canto IV:115
Dante pursues the theme of imperfect faith, and broken vows. He addresses Beatrice with tactful courtesy, acknowledging her speech that vivifies him. The intellect is never satisfied with anything less than the truth, and Truth can be attained or longing would be worthless (!), so that question leads on to question. In this case Dante wishes to know whether reparation can be made for broken vows. He is thinking of his own personal case, no doubt considering his promise made at the end of the Vita Nuova to dedicate himself to her and the higher ideal, and from which he had strayed. In return Beatrice gives him such a look of love, indicating his spiritual progress, that Dante is confused and overcome by the sparks of that love in her eyes. The personal feeling here is intense, but implicit.
Meditation LXXII: Paradiso Canto V
MedLXXII:1 Dispensation: Paradiso Canto V:1
The overpowering effect of her eyes Beatrice attributes to increased understanding of love, that itself generates greater love. She sees the progress of understanding in Dante since the eternal light of love and truth is reflected by his intellect (in asking the question he has asked). The teacher is praising the pupil.
Beatrice now extols free will as the greatest gift of God, most matched to Him, and most valued by Him. It is possessed by intelligent creatures. A vow is a pact between God and the self, made freely, and therefore breaking the vow is an abuse of freewill and a severance of the pact made, an act of self-sacrifice and self-dedication. As such no recompense is possible, no more than it is right to abuse a consecrated item, in this case the self, by putting it to other purposes. However the Church grants dispensations, says Beatrice, and employs a metaphor of eating to impress on Dante the need to inwardly digest this understanding so that it becomes firm knowledge in the memory.
The vow cannot be cancelled, but its content can be altered, though not at one’s own discretion, only under the control of knowledge and authority (the judgement that the guilty party is fit for absolution, and the authority of the confessor to absolve). The new content must be half as great again as the old (does Dante hint here at his efforts on the Paradiso, and in revising or re-writing the Inferno and Purgatorio?). Since the religious vow made by Piccarda was of the complete self that nothing exceeds in value there can be no recompense for the breaking of such a vow. (For the regulations regarding ‘substitution’ see Exodus xiii:13, xxiv:20, Numbers xviii:15-18, and the last chapter of Leviticus)
Vows should be serious and well-considered, and not perverse in execution, and Beatrice gives Jepthah and Agamemnon who both cruelly sacrificed their daughters, as examples of ill-considered perversity. Dispensation should be accepted only from a proper authority. Dante is arguing against the ‘pardoners’ and the selling of remissions and dispensations.
MedLXXII:2 Mercury, and Hope: Paradiso Canto V:85
Beatrice turns towards the region where the universe is most alive, towards the Sun at the equinox on the celestial equator, the swiftest circle of the life-giving local star as spring livens the world. And its close companion on the ecliptic is the planet Mercury, within the orbit of Earth and therefore never seen far from the Sun.
Together Dante and Beatrice ascend like arrows to the sphere of Mercury, that of Hope, the second of the theological virtues. Beatrice is delighted by her entry into Hope, and the planet itself brightens, as does Dante, changeable in nature. He is referring here to his birth-sign Gemini, and its traditional association with Mercury, its ruling planet in Astrology. Astrological characteristics of those born in Gemini are the mercurial intellect, versatility, a flair for language and literature, changeability and restlessness. Hope itself is a desire for and expectation of change: as Dante hoped for a saviour for Italy, a just and strong ‘Roman’ Empire, a purified Church and Papacy, his own redemption.
Radiant spirits flock towards them like fish rising to feed (a counter image to those previous similes of fish and heavy weights sinking through water, here everything is light) and, as in Purgatorio XV, love increases love, so that these spirits delight in the addition of loving spirits to the sphere where they themselves are made manifest. Dante turns to the reader to stimulate our expectation of further revelations!
A spirit speaks to Dante, and Beatrice tells Dante to ‘speak, speak’ in true Gemini fashion. Mercury is the planet of communication, and the messenger god in Greek mythology. The spirits here are ‘nested’ in the Divine light, fired by it, as Mercury is lost to our eyes in the Sun’s rays due to the closeness of its ‘internal’ orbit to the Sun. The spirit that spoke, having shown itself, conceals itself in the glow as it speaks, becoming the last spirit whose features are at all described in the spheres, and implying that as Dante ascends higher the light grows brighter to obscure all individual features.
Meditation LXXIII: Paradiso Canto VI
MedLXXIII:1 Justinian: The Empire: Paradiso Canto VI:1
Dante’s themes in this sphere of Mercury are earthly hope, namely that of the just Empire, at peace under the law, itself recognising the Church’s spiritual ascendancy: and spiritual hope, given by the promise of redemption through Christ. The imperfections of hope in this sphere are those of its worldly equivalent, earthly ambition.
Firstly Justinian, the Lawgiver, explains who he is, and his revised belief in the dual nature of Christ, which he now realises as clearly as Aristotelian logic would suggest (where the propositions that this is so, and this is not so, cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. Related propositions are termed contradictories e.g. if ‘some swans are not white’ is true, then ‘all swans are white’ is false, since a black swan would be white, and not white, if both statements were true simultaneously).
He then gives a swift summary of Imperial history leading to Augustan peace throughout the Empire, and to the justice of the sin of the Fall being ‘avenged’ by the Crucifixion and the Crucifixion being ‘avenged’ by the destruction of the Temple.
Aeneas, coming from Troy, landed in Italy, took Lavinia as his bride, and fought Turnus. Aeneas was allied with Evander, whose kingdom was based on the seven hills of the site of Rome. Evander’s son and heir Pallas led these allies and was killed by Turnus, and avenged by Aeneas.
Aeneas founded his kingdom at Lavinium, and it was transferred by his son Ascanius (Iulus) to Alba Longa where it remained for more than three hundred years till in the reign of Tullus Hostilius (670-638BC) Alba fell to Rome, when the three Curiatii, the Alban champions, were defeated by the survivor of the three Horatii, the Roman champions. Rome had been founded by Romulus, an Alban outcast, on the Palatine, one of the seven hills, and the Romans made wives of the Sabine women.
Under Romulus and his six successors Rome’s power grew until Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last king, raped Lucretia, and the monarchy was ended in 510BC. Rome then became supreme in Italy. Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus (from cincinnus, a curl) called from the plough to the dictatorship conquered the Aequiana in 458BC. One of the Fabii, and Titus Manlius Torquatus, distinguished themselves against Brennus and his Gauls (390BC etc). The Decii, three generations, died fighting against the Latins in 340BC, the Samnites in 295BC and Pyrrhus the Greek invader in 280BC. The greatest of the Fabii, Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator, defeated Hannibal, who crossed the Alps in 218BC, and Scipio Africanus the Elder, a boy of seventeen, saved his father’s life, at the defeat of Ticinus. He forced Hannibal’s withdrawal from Italy. (Dante calls the northern Africans Arabs)
Pompey who conquered the east and defeated Marius celebrated a triumph, when not yet twenty-five, in 81BC. The Romans reduced Fiesole, which overhangs Florence, and was the refuge of Catiline.
Julius Caesar campaigned in Gaul (58-50BC), crossed the Rubicon, between Ravenna and Rimini, in 49BC, leaving his province, without the Senate’s permission, and precipitating a Civil War. He overcame opposition in Spain, and besieged Pompey at Dyrrachium, defeating him at Pharsalia in Thessaly. Pompey escaped to Egypt where he was murdered by Ptolemy. Caesar crossed the Hellespont, took Egypt from Ptolemy and gave it to Cleopatra, subdued Juba, King of Numidia, who had protected his opponents after Pharsalia, and returned to Spain in 45BC to fight Pompey’s sons.
Caesar was assassinated, and Octavian (later Augustus) his adopted son defeated Mark Antony at Modena in 43BC. He then defeated Brutus and Cassius, the leaders of the assassination plot, with Antony’s help, at Philippi in 42 BC, and Lucius, Antony’s brother at Perugia in 41BC. At Actium in 31BC he defeated Antony, who committed suicide, Cleopatra his consort dying by the sting of a viper (asp).
Augustus was master of the Empire to the remotest ends of Egypt and the gates of the Temple of Janus were closed for the third time in Roman history to signal the Empire at peace.
Christ was born, and crucified in the reign of Tiberius, Augustus’s successor, and the sin of the Fall thereby avenged. Jerusalem fell to Titus and the sin of killing Christ was avenged on the Jews, with the destruction of the Temple.
The Church was defended by Charlemagne against the Lombard king Desiderius whom he dethroned in 774AD.
After this long succession of triumphs of the Imperial eagle, demonstrating its nobility, Justinian comments on the current state of Italy and those who oppose the Imperial banners. The Guelphs, as Papal supporters, are allies of the French against the German Empire and Italy, while the Ghibellines, though nominally Imperialists, appropriate the name of the Empire for merely factional purposes. Justinian expresses the hope that Charles II of Naples, head of the Guelphs in Italy, will fail to destroy the Ghibellines, who should fight under their own banner. Peace in Italy depends on an end to factionalism and support for the Emperor. The Empire has witnessed and destroyed many worthier opponents.
Justinian then explains that the little sphere of Mercury is filled with spirits who hoped for earthly fame and honour, so that they impaired the force of their spiritual hopes. Nevertheless the spirits are satisfied because reward is matched with merit and they are free of any envy. Romeo of Villeneuve is one of them, an example of a saintly man distracted by his application to earthly ambitions, and subsequently wronged through envy.
Romeo of Villeneuve (1170-1250) was the seneschal, or chamberlain of Count Raymond Berenger IV of Provence, who died in 1245 leaving his lands to his youngest daughter Beatrice, whom he had made heiress under Romeo’s guardianship. According to the legend Romeo (which simply means pilgrim) came to Raymond’s court, managed his business, and arranged the marriages of Raymond’s four daughters. The Provençal Barons persuaded Raymond to demand account of Romeo, at which he asked for his mule, staff and scrip, and vanished, as poor as he had come. The story is probably fable.
The eldest daughter Margaret married Louis IX of France, Eleanor married Henry III of England, Sancha married Richard of Cornwall, titular King of the Romans, and Beatrice, who inherited, married Charles of Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily, and, through her inheritance, King of Provence, in Dante’s view a fitting revenge on the Provençal barons!
Dante has used Justinian, himself an individual who sought honour and fame, to point to the imperfection of earthly ambition compared with spiritual hope, as he has pointed to the imperfection of the existing Empire compared with the hope for a return of the Empire of Augustus or Charlemagne.
Meditation LXXIV: Paradiso Canto VII
MedLXXIV:1 Incarnation and Redemption: Paradiso Canto VII:1
Dante’s second great theme in this sphere is that of the hope of redemption represented by the Incarnation. Justinian, representative of Law and Empire the great earthly hopes, sings the Hosanna and then like dancing sparks he and the other spirits veil themselves in distance. Dante urges himself to speak to Beatrice with a three times repeated ‘dille’, appropriate to Mercury’s sphere of communication. The love he feels is expressed in the beauty of the verse, in the tremor of reverence and joy, and Beatrice is again more than a symbolic presence, she carries an erotic charge that is transmuted here to awe and gratitude rather than desire.
Beatrice expands on Justinian’s reference to the justice of the Crucifixion. Adam condemned the race with his original sin, which was an abuse of his free will through a failure of restraint. God in an act of love for Mankind sent Christ his Word, his bringer of the eternal message, incarnated as Man (Dante’s text links Word, Creator and Love in an expression of the Trinity). In that incarnated being Man was pure and good as he had been in Paradise, Christ representing the whole race, exiled from the Garden of Eden that, we remember, was designed for humankind. As a punishment, a ‘revenge’, for Adam’s sin inflicted on Mankind therefore the Crucifixion was an act of supreme and divine justice. As a punishment inflicted on Christ, the epitome of divine goodness, it was at the same time in human terms wholly unjust.
Dante is now troubled. Why did God will this method of redeeming Adam’s original sin, and thereby the sins of Mankind, bringing hope to the world?
Beatrice explains. Divine Good creates beings that are signs of divine beauty, eternal in spirit, and with free will. What is least in the thrall of transient things is closest to the good since it resembles it most. Sin mars this and can only be atoned for by just punishment. The only solution for Adam’s sin was for God to absolve Man, or for Man to make reparation. Beatrice refutes the second possibility. (Her argument follows Anselm’s Cur Deus homo. Adam’s disobedience injured himself not God, and what was demanded was not a propitiation, but restoration. Man was required to give back what he owed, to match what he had taken that he did not own, but could not since he owes everything and owns nothing. Therefore God who owes nothing and owns everything had to become Man to achieve restoration. See Cur Deus homo passim, and specifically Bk i, chapter 15.) There was nothing Man could do sufficient to match the original crime. So God adopted the first course, and displayed His divine goodness by acting with maximum grace to reveal the maximum goodness, employing both mercy and justice.
God in this showed generosity higher than mere remission of the sin, by wedding Himself to human nature in the Incarnation, and suffering just punishment in that nature, so mercifully making Man capable of redeeming his fault, to bring the hope of redemption to all humankind.
MedLXXIV:2 The Hope of Resurrection: Paradiso Canto VII:121
Beatrice now reassures Dante that while composed of the four elements and therefore subject to corruption human beings are nevertheless eternal. The Angels and Paradise itself were directly created, while all other things are formed indirectly by creative power from created matter. Plants and Animals gain their limited life from the influence of the sun and planets that are combined, as we have heard, with Angelic presences, acting on matter, but human life is breathed directly into it by God and so is drawn automatically towards God by the love instilled in it. Anselm’s argument is then used: that since God made Adam and Eve in the flesh directly, man’s body will be restored at the Last Judgement when redemption is complete. Dante ends the canto on this hope of resurrection.