Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

Paradiso Cantos XXIX-XXXIII

A. S. Kline Authored by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002, All Rights Reserved.

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Meditation XCVI: Paradiso Canto XXIX

MedXCVI:1 The Angels: Paradiso Canto XXIX:1

Beatrice is silent for as along as it takes the sun to set and the opposing full moon to rise or vice versa. She then explains that God, out of love, created his creatures so that they might know existence. Time was created in the triple creation, of form, matter and being, out of the timeless, like three arrows from a bow. Light in Aristotelian science requires no time to travel through a translucent medium: its speed is infinite.

Order and substance were created instantaneously in the form of the Angelic presences, contradicting Jerome. (Eusebius Hieronymous Sophronius (342-420), born at Stridon in Dalmatia. With Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory he is one of the four Latin (western) Fathers of the Church. He retired into the Syrian desert for four years where he studied Hebrew. He settled in Bethlehem in 386. His translation of the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate, was eventually declared the official version at the Council of Trent. He spoke of the Angels being created long before the rest of the universe, which was contradicted by Aquinas.)

The Angels are actualised and complete, the lower creatures and matter are potential, and the material heavens and human beings are a binding together of act and potential. So human intellect can know in actuality things which it did not know, that is knew potentially: and create what it has not created. Similarly creatures are born and develop, as Genesis claims the world developed, over time, whereas the Angels were created in that first fiat.

Having explained the triple where and when and how of the Angelic creation, Beatrice explains that unlike Satan who fell through pride the other Angels opened themselves to God, and understood their place humbly, and that it is a virtue to open oneself to grace likewise. The Angels have understanding and free will, as was taught, but do not require memory since they see past, present and future, as human beings claim to do in true or false prophecy.

Beatrice then condemns the vain displays of philosophy but more so the misuse of scripture, or its neglect. The fraudulent preachers obtain wealth that goes to feed more than just Saint Anthony’s pigs. Saint Anthony’s (251-356) symbol was the pig, and he was therefore the patron of the pigs that infested Florence, and its neighbourhood, belonging to the monks. They were fed on the fraudulent gain made from selling remissions (indulgences).

The Angels are of too great a number for human conception, as in Daniel vii:10. God’s Light is reflected in all the elements of creation, the splendors, which vary in their qualities, says Beatrice, as she and Dante prepare to enter the Empyrean.

Meditation XCVII: Paradiso Canto XXX

MedXCVII:1 The Empyrean: Paradiso Canto XXX:1

The Angelic display fades like stars at dawn, and Dante turns to Beatrice with love. In the Empyrean her beauty exceeds all measure, and Dante ceases to be able to describe her further. Here in the Empyrean Dante will see the redeemed spirits and the angels in their forms as at the Last Judgement. The Empyrean is the pure light of Truth, that intellectual light, which is filled with love. That Love, full of transcendent joy, is the love of true Goodness. Again we see how Dante unites Truth and Goodness, to be known by the intellect, out of which flows the transcendent joy of Love. Though Truth and Love coexist in God, intellect and knowledge in Man is the cause of human love.

Dante is greeted by a light that bathes him. His vision increases, and he sees a River of Light (see Revelation 22:1, and Psalm 46:4, the river of the water of life, symbolising the flow of divine grace), which gradually changes into a vision of the courts of Heaven. The light there is formed from light reflected back by the Primum Mobile below, making the Creator visible to the creature. The spirits are ranked in hierarchy and themselves reflect the light upwards and outwards. The eye can see an indefinite distance there since the laws of nature do not apply.

Beatrice draws Dante into the glow of the Rose, where Beatrice says that the empty throne Dante sees with a crown above it is reserved for Henry VII (died August 1313). Italy will not be ready for his attempt to renew the Empire, and Clement will work against him. But as we saw in Inferno XIX Clement, dying in April 1314, is destined for Hell.

Meditation XCVIII: Paradiso Canto XXXI

MedXCVIII:1 Saint Bernard: Paradiso Canto XXXI:1

The Angels fly like bees between the redeemed, in the form of a white rose, and God. Their faces are flame, their wings golden, and the rest white, the three colours symbolising love, knowledge and purity. They fly without obscuring vision or the divine light.

Dante is struck dumb, as the barbarians were on seeing Rome, having made the triple journey from the human to the divine, from time to eternity, and from Florentine chaos to Heavenly order. He gazes at the multitude so as to remember it all, then turns to Beatrice but finds Saint Bernard there instead, representing loving contemplation, standing at the threshold of the Divine. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) the Cistercian monk and theologian, son of a noble Burgundian family, who founded the great monastery at Clairvaux in France was Abbot there till his death. He had a particular devotion to the Virgin, expressed in his De Laudibus Virginis matris and his nine sermons for the feasts of the Purification, Assumption, Nativity etc. He opposed the celebration of her Immaculate Conception. He dedicated all the monasteries of the Cistercian Order to her, and here calls himself her ‘loyal’ Bernard.

He explains that Beatrice has brought him to Dante, and he shows her to him, now seated on the third level. Dante offers her, as his guide to virtue, his sublime prayer and receives her smile. This is charged with the real woman as well as any symbolism of Divine Philosophy. And Dante in gratitude celebrates her goodness, and her grace that has led him to freedom and the hope of salvation, and asks for her protection. She then turns towards the Divine Light.

Dante gazes at Bernard like a pilgrim gazing at Christ’s image on the cloth of Veronica. Saint Veronica gave her handkerchief to Christ to wipe his brow as he carried the Cross, and when he returned it to her it was said to carry the imprint of his features. It was exhibited at Rome each year at New Year and Easter. Bernard tells him to look higher towards the Virgin, at whom he looks with adoration. She shines out like the rising Sun, and there a thousand Angels each of a different species in Medieval angelology, are dancing and singing, beyond Dante’s ability to relate. Bernard has brought Dante to gaze at the Virgin, the essential feminine aspect of God’s universe, its grace and kindness.

Meditation XCIX: Paradiso Canto XXXII

MedXCIX:1 The Heavenly Ranks: Paradiso Canto XXXII:1

Bernard now explains the ranks of the blessed, with all their examples. The ranks are separated on either side of the Virgin into those before Christ’s coming, on the left, and those after, on the right. Those before, in the first seven ranks descending, she being in the first rank herself, are Eve, Rachel (Jacob’s wife, with Beatrice, signifying contemplation, and therefore higher than the two following), Sarah (Abraham’s wife), Rebeccah (Isaac’s wife), Judith (The Jewish patriotic heroine and a symbol of The Jewish struggle against oppression She is usually shown holding the head of Holofernes the Assyrian general whom she decapitated with a sword. See Apocrypha.) and Ruth (the wife of Boaz, and great grandmother of David.)

On the Virgin’s right side, those who came with or after Christ, we have John the Baptist, and below him Francis (who carried the stigmata), Benedict (opposite that other contemplative Rachel) and Augustine, this being Dante’s view of their relative nearness to God. Lower down and running across the ranks is the division of the children who died before they had time to acquire merit, ranked there according to God’s justice. They have differing qualities according to God’s breathing of their spirits into them at birth, and were saved by their parents’ merit in ancient times, first their parents’ faith and innocence, then the Jewish rite of circumcision. Once Christ had come baptism became necessary, and the unbaptised are condemned to Limbo. Note that Bernardis made to express this orthodox view that the unbaptised child must remain in Limbo (See Inferno IV), where spirits live ‘without hope, in longing’. However Bernard himself in his treatise addressed to Hugh of Saint Victor, holds back from this terrible conclusion. ‘We must suppose that the ancient sacraments were efficacious as long as it can be shown that they were not notoriously prohibited. And after that? It is in God’s hands. Not mine be it to set the limit.’

Gabriel now celebrates Mary, singing the ‘Ave Maria’, and Bernard answers Dante’s question about him.

Bernard now points out the souls on the right and left of Mary in the first rank. On the left are Adam, then Moses, on the right Peter and John. Saint Anne, Mary’s mother, is opposite Peter, Saint Lucy, Dante’s patron saint, who appears three times in the Commedia, is opposite Adam. (It is possible that Dante was born on Saint Lucy’s day as celebrated at the end of May in ancient Florence.).

Bernard now turns, as in life, to the Virgin, and exhorts Dante to pray to her with him, so that he might obtain her grace and assistance.

Meditation C: Paradiso Canto XXXIII

MedC:1 The Prayer and the Final Vision: Paradiso Canto XXXIII:1

Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin follows, and Dante associates her with Love, Hope, Grace, Kindness, Pity, Generosity, and other human excellences. She is an embodiment of nurturing, empathetic, and loving humanity, taking on many of the positive and benign attributes of the ancient goddesses. Bernard asks the Virgin for her grace towards Dante so that he might see the final vision, and his protection afterwards. The prayer touches on the incarnation and redemption, the hope of salvation, the end of Dante’s mission, the grace he needs to achieve it and be true to it, the sympathy of the blessed, and Bernard’s own praise and devotion. This prayer on behalf of another is an essentially loving act. Beatrice prays for Dante also. The Virgin turns her eyes towards Bernard and then towards God.

Dante now looks into the Divine Light. His power of vision is beyond speech and memory, and like a dreamer he retains only the impression and the sweetness. He asks for the power to reveal a little of what he saw and felt, and dared to endure. His Vision, in the moment of supreme stillness, beyond time, is of a universal unity, bound together by Love in a simplicity of Light. Within it is the concentrated and perfect Good, the object of will and desire, which the eye cannot turn away from to another sight. Outside it all things are in some way defective in their goodness. Dante is therefore consistent in treating God as the essential Good, and the intellectual Light of Truth, which is desired by Man, Love as the desire for the Good binding all together.

His speech is inadequate like a babe’s, but as his power of vision increases he sees a triple rainbow in the deep light, symbolising the Trinity, and within it the human form, symbolising Man’s unity with God in his essential nature. Dante is left like the geometer who cannot exactly measure a circle’s circumference in radii (the equation contains the irrational and transcendental number pi: though he can create a square equal in area to a given circle so ‘squaring the circle’) and cannot see how the image is fitted and set there.

Finally his mind is struck as if by lightning, and his will is empowered. The Vision itself loses power in his imagination, but his desire and will to achieve salvation and to create the Commedia are set in motion by Divine Love that moves the sun and the other stars. So the Paradiso ends on the same word as all three Cantiche, stelle.

Meditation C:2 Coda to the Paradiso

Dante set out to re-create an ethical and spiritual journey in a poetic work. That journey was rooted in his self-consciousness of his own life and position in history, and in his critical view of the religious and secular politics of his age. He may have believed that he was divinely inspired. Equally he makes conscious use of motifs and patterns established by the writers of Classical epic and verse-forms. He was aware of his own quality as a poet, and always sure of his own lasting fame, in the manner of Ovid.

He was a fundamental believer in form and structure, to the extent that the whole Commedia is tightly controlled, and carefully organised to reflect a Neo-platonic vision of a hierarchical Universe centred on God. He saw his work as a mission: that he was called, that he possessed a historic role as Aeneas did or Paul did. That mission was to propound a view of the role on Earth of the Church and the Empire, each to have authority in its proper sphere, and in so doing to expose the inadequacies of the Papacy and the secular rulers of Europe: and his mission was also to show the end of ethical and spiritual striving as embodied in the Catholic religion, for the Christian pilgrim. The mission was therefore both personal, and social, reflecting the concern of Catholicism with both the one and the many, the individual and the community of believers.

He drew on a number of areas of knowledge and experience in order to create the Commedia. Firstly there was his own life and development as a love poet in the tradition of the schools of Courtly Love, his personal relationship with Beatrice, and his spiritualization of her both as an inner guide to his own journey in this life and the next, and as a symbol of divine philosophy and grace. Secondly he drew on his Classical studies of poetry and myth, particularly Virgil and Ovid. Virgil specifically provided both compelling inspiration, and a mythology of Empire. Thirdly he made extensive study of Medieval philosophy, and of rudimentary science, both strongly influenced by the works of Aristotle. Fourthly came his study of theology, via the Scriptures and the Christian Commentators, including Aquinas. Fifthly he had knowledge of the Mendicant Orders and practical religion, including the Franciscan ideas of radical poverty, and the prophetic utterances of some of their extreme thinkers. Sixthly he absorbed the political experience of Florence and Rome, Italy and Europe, leading to his lasting exile from Florence, and his long and complex relationship with the Ghibelline cause. Lastly was the rapidly altering city environment, with is new industry, commerce and wealth, and its strong sense of individual life, personality and destiny.

Out of all this he wove the three great strands of the Commedia, the personal, the spiritual and the political, all three tightly wound together in his life, and with ethics at the root of his response to all three. The question was how to live in order to reach the intellectual and spiritual good that was the aim of earthly life, and the guarantee of salvation and redemption in the afterlife.

In that sense though he is a savage critic of the state of earthly institutions, his solutions are radical only in the sense of looking back to earlier models of Empire and Church, and desiring a cleansing of institutions in order to achieve a return to those models. He is an Imperialist and monarchist, desiring authoritarian rule of separate Church and State based on justice and law, just as he saw God ruling the Neo-platonic universe. The most difficult questions he faced, and agonised over, in addressing the political and social arena, were the extent of human reason and free will, the extent to which human affairs and history are pre-ordained, and the relationship between human and divine justice.

His spiritual challenge was to reconcile the potentially conflicting elements of religion, the active and contemplative life, religious practice and theology, free will and the divine plan. His solution was to endorse a mainly conservative ethical framework, based around the concept of the right exercise of free will. He explores this through exhibiting the results of incontinence, malice and fraud in the Inferno, showing the purgation of the seven sins in Purgatory, and reviewing the meaning of the three theological and four cardinal virtues in the Paradiso. Free will is misused in Hell, re-aligned in Purgatory, and correctly applied to earthly and heavenly existence in Paradise.

His own personal challenges given his political and spiritual solutions were spiritually to free himself from those sins of pride and lust which he saw most clearly in his own life, and to spiritualise the tradition of Courtly Love and his own love for Beatrice by applying reason and intellect to emotional and erotic love, and by extending human love to touch the divine: and inn the political sphere to become a prophet of a secular saviour to come, who would re-establish the Empire according to Roman law, and return the Papacy to Rome. He confines himself to prophecies regarding the Empire. The Papacy is a matter for God.

The schools of Courtly Love, and the Classical poets, inspired part of the style and content of the Commedia, but its sublime execution is his own. He borrowed crucial content from Virgil in particular, and from a wide range of ethical, mythical and scriptural sources, but the precise construction of the three realms is truly his own imaginative achievement. As a poet he has few true precedents, and fewer successors. The combination of lyrical expression, epic structure, and brilliant use of appropriate simile and metaphor is unmatched. Always measured, lucid and concise, Dante convinces imaginatively, and moves the emotions. If he did not believe in some aspects of what he wrote, if he is guilty of mere artistic licence, there is no way of telling so. The assumption has to be that he did so believe, and that his Vision was to him divinely inspired, and his relationship with Beatrice in life and death as he declares it. That the ethical, spiritual and political purposes of the Commedia were pure, and were his overriding concern, the power of his poetry being a tool towards achieving those ends.

To what extent did he succeed, and does he succeed, in convincing us? I take the stance of the non-Catholic citizen of a secular society in addressing the question. I am not qualified to discuss the orthodoxy of Dante’s theology, nor the extent to which a practising Catholic might endorse his view of this life and the next.

His ethical vision I find still relevant, and still compelling. That the right and good life should be moved by the centrality of love, of which empathy and courage, compassion and fortitude are crucial components, is wholly relevant, and a source of modern ethics. Out of emotional and intellectual empathy and courage come hope and trust, justice and moderation, and what practical wisdom we have. The Neo-platonic and Catholic detail may no longer persuade, the true sources of our ethical feelings may be in the nurturing and protective basis of our species, our social structures and behaviour may be the result of the historical development of ideas and our education, but that does not invalidate a view of the good individual as being one who is true, sensitive and kind. What Dante’s ethics do not do is address the increasing number of moral conflicts that our world presents to us, issues where we are forced to choose between evils, or balance goods, such that we are forced to turn to other concepts, for example that of the ‘natural’: the ‘good of the greatest number’: the ‘rights’ of individuals and the other creatures we share the world with: the continuance of the Earth, ourselves and its species: the applications of science and technology that will change the nature of society, the individual, the environment and the species. Nevertheless the Neo-platonic ideas of the Good, of Truth, Love and of Beauty must continue to be a starting point for and an essential component of ethics and aesthetics. Dante’s work besides being poetically and structurally beautiful, also succeeds in carrying forward ethical meaning into our own age and the future.

His political and religious views have been overtaken by history. The separation of secular state and religious authority has effectively been settled and much in line with his views. Religion concentrates on spiritual affairs, the state on temporal power. Dante’s concept of the single Imperial authority in the narrow sense was dead soon after Dante’s own death, though there was a remarkable revival of the concept, I would almost call it a parody, in Napoleon’s ‘Empire’ short-lived though it was, his Imperial Eagle once more creating a wide authority under a single basic and fundamentally benign legal code. Just as in Dante’s day it was shattered by nationalist striving and temporal rivalry, and by the very clamour for republican and democratic ‘rights’ that Napoleon himself long supported. Dante’s concept survived for longer in Europe in the more restricted sense of kingship or authoritarian rule, and religious authority within the Churches in Europe still remains though shorn of most of its temporal powers.

The deep challenge to both divine and secular authority, in the sense of the monarchical ruler whether king, Emperor or God, was stimulated by economic pressures and that intellectual freedom that led to the debate over the rights of Man. Dante’s own argument for the right use of the intellect and free-will, and his difficulties over the inscrutability of God’s justice and the extent to which human life was pre-ordained, were at the root of the dissent. That dissent is visible before his times, as well as after. Dante answers doubts with unquestioning faith: ‘ours not to question, ours to obey’. His compelling need to make order out of chaos, his response to the destructiveness of Italian and European politics in his age, and the corruption around him, led him to assert ancient authority, ancient law, and the imperatives of his faith. The expansion of knowledge, geographical, scientific, and historical forced an ever-increasing reappraisal. What if man were free: what if life and the future were not pre-ordained: what if justice was man-made and there to be re-made?

And once blind faith was questioned, and the power of those with most to gain from freedoms and rights was exercised, then the institutions were torn apart, and the modern world came into being. Dante anticipates the questions, and shores up the building. But in the end it is only a tower of the imagination, no more solid than any other. The detail, the fanaticism almost, displayed in the Commedia’s structure indicates the sense of real and impending chaos that Dante tries to allay. Ironically he is obsessed with building, because the foundations were ultimately flawed. It is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s later obsession with order and monarchy, and for much the same reason. Renaissance doubt and science: the empirical method to which Dante alludes: intellect and reason, the philosopher’s tool kit: and the very need for blind faith at various points in the religious and political argument, eroded that faith and that social order. Dante’s concern with and delight in individuals, the means by which he brings the Commedia to life, their creativity, originality and reasoning powers, passed on into the Renaissance and the efforts of great individuals eventually undermined what Dante stood for politically and religiously. Republicanism and Democracy, the rights and freedoms of the individual, and the new perspectives on the purpose of the state and religion, as being for the betterment of the individual, of statesmen and churchmen as being the servants and not the masters of the public good, destroyed the authority of arbitrary individuals selected by exercise of naked power, or heredity. That questioning aided by scientific progress brought religion itself into question. The most difficult parts of the Commedia to find interest in for a modern mind, are certain sections of Paradiso, where the poetry alone and its great beauty carries the secular reader through some of the more tedious and outmoded elements of history and theology. Only the delights of structure, lyrical cadence, superlative imagery and simile, make it possible to gain genuine enjoyment from occasionally unpalatable material. I would only say that I find the effort worthwhile even in those sections, if only for their historical and intellectual interest.

What of Dante’s personal quest? We cannot know his own spiritual state at the end of his life, nor his emotions concerning the memory of the real Beatrice or his created symbolic form of her, but she is certainly the glory of the Commedia. Around her the beauty, love and intelligence gathers, as a promise and a distant goal in Inferno (Virgil being her loving proxy), as a strong hope and an emotional striving in Purgatorio, and as a present magnificence in Paradiso. The Commedia could have existed without her, but not with the same power and effect. She is the embodiment of Love, Virgil and the spirits her reflection. Does Dante get beyond her, in the final Vision, substituting the Virgin Mary for her almost at the last, and then gazing onwards into a final sublimity? He hangs on for a very long time before that moment: Beatrice is not easily relinquished!

At times he is overpowered by her presence, and almost makes an end there and then, though we know he will and must finish building the tower! Did he get beyond the erotic, the spiritualised and intellectual erotic but still the erotic, of her meaning to him, of her physical context, her eyes and smile? I have argued that the Medieval mind more easily merged the physical with the spiritual, Christ as blood and flesh in wafer and wine, the Resurrection of souls being in the body, which Dante stresses. There is no erotic as such for Medieval thought, no such category. The body is the seat of the feelings and carries the soul breathed into it by God. Flesh and emotions and spirit are one. Love takes on a human form. Dante often seems to me to be on the verge of heresy, but never quite heretical. His immense tact leaves many things unsaid, many questions un-attempted and unanswered. He stepped back perhaps from difficult issues, since his purpose was to build the perfect and consistent tower of authority.

While rejecting that authority and the structure’s objective truth, I take delight in the poetic and imaginative beauty of it. I find the ethical thrust of the work, so expressive of the thrust of European society, grounded in Love and its attendant virtues, moral and social, as informing and challenging. To go beyond Dante one must first read him and answer him. The history, the situations and individuals, the thought and the emotions are always fascinating. The figure of Beatrice not only charms us but still makes a demand of the modern mind and heart, if we are to understand what Love is and means for human beings. The intellectual and the spiritual is still in tension with the physical and the emotional. The depth of that tension in Dante communicates itself throughout the Commedia. A real man moves through a real landscape with real responses even though the towers are constructed in imagination. History is swept together in the timeless Moment in question and answer, in vision and thought, and against that background of Energies, the Individual comes face to face with his or her own self-examination, asks of his or her own self what the purpose of being in this age might be, how one should live a life of creative love and virtue, and what the full dimensions of that life might be.

I see Dante turning away from writing down his ‘memories’ of the Vision, as he had to finally in his own life, turning back towards the world, away from the long journey of question and examination, turning towards his readers, so many generations later, to challenge us, to ask us to examine the state of our age, of our society, the state of our own spirits and ethics, and to answer, if we can, what we will build greater than his tower of the poetic imagination.