illustration of a human covered in a starry sky walking from the sky and plains toward a fiery opening to hell

The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri

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Edmund G. Gardner (essay date 1913)

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SOURCE: Gardner, Edmund G. “The Science of Love.” In Dante and the Mystics, pp. 298-323. Reprint. 1913. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1968.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1913, Gardner examines mystical symbolism and concepts in the Paradiso in the context of medieval Catholic theological writings.]


“Man,” writes Aquinas, “has three kinds of knowledge of divine things. The first of these is according as man, by the natural light of reason, ascends through creatures into the knowledge of God; the second is in so far as the divine truth, exceeding human understanding, descends to us by way of revelation, not however as though demonstrated to our sight, but as set forth in words to be believed; the third is according as the human mind is elevated to the perfect intuition of the things that are revealed.”1

We have something analogous to these three kinds of knowledge of divine things in the Divina Commedia: Dante is led by the natural light of reason in Vergil through the Inferno and the Purgatorio, thus ascending to the knowledge of God through creatures; the divine truth descends to him in the Earthly Paradise by way of revelation in Beatrice, and is set forth in the allegorical pageants; then, in the Paradiso, his mind is uplifted by stages to the perfect intuition of the things revealed.

Thus, too, Bonaventura writes of the soul's ascent to God:—

This is the three days' journey into the wilderness (that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, Exod. iii. 18); this is the threefold illumination of one day, whereof the first is as evening, the second as morning, the third as noon; this represents the threefold existence of things, to wit, in matter, in intelligence, and in eternal act; as it is said: Let there be, he made, and it was so (Gen. i.); this likewise represents the threefold substance in Christ, who is our ladder: to wit, bodily, spiritual, and divine.2

It is noon in the Earthly Paradise when Dante drinks of the waters of Eunoë:—

“E più corrusco, e con più lenti passi,
          Teneva il sole il cerchio di merigge”;(3)

and, where he stands, the southern hemisphere is tutto bianco, all illuminated by the midday rays, when Beatrice turns to gaze upon the sun, and Dante is uplifted with her into Heaven.4 His ascent is thus at noon, not merely because that hour, as he tells us in the Convivio, “is the most noble of all the day and has the most virtue”;5 but also because noon has a special significance for the mystics, as representing celestial desire, or divine illumination, or eternity.

We read in the book of Genesis (xviii. 1-2) that the Lord appeared unto Abraham, as he sat in the tent-door in the heat of the day; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent-door. Commenting upon this passage, Richard of St. Victor says:—

If by the tent we understand the habitation of the human mind, what is that going out, through which he ran to meet the Lord, save the excess of the human mind, through which it is rapt above itself into the mysteries of divine contemplation? … What, I ask, is that midday heat, save the heat of burning desire? What is it, save fervid love of truth, desire of the true and supreme Good? … Two things, therefore, combined to furnish the occasion...

(This entire section contains 7219 words.)

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of that going out: the excess of spiritual heat and the wonder of the vision. In this wise doth it often happen in the mind of man, that, whilst it burns in the surpassing fire of celestial desire, it merits to behold something from the divine revelation, whereby it is aided to those contemplative excesses.6

The Bride cries in the Song of Solomon: Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon; or, as the Vulgate has it: where thou liest in the midday (Cant. i. 6). This noon, according to Bernard, is the revelation of the glory of God, the noon of a day which dawned when the Sun of Justice, announced on earth by Gabriel and born of a Virgin, lived obscured in the world; a day of which the women found the sun already risen, when they came to the sepulchre (the Vulgate reads orto jam sole in Mark xvi. 2); a day which knows not an evening:—

Verily, from then the Sun had risen, and at length, sensibly diffusing its rays over the earth, it began gradually to appear everywhere more brightly and to be felt more fervidly. But however it may wax in heat and in power, may multiply and dilate its rays through all the course of this our mortality (for He will be with us alway, even to the end of the world), the Light will nevertheless not come to the meridian, nor be seen yet in that its own fulness, in which it is to be seen afterwards, by those at least to whom He will be vouchsafed in this vision. O very noon, fulness of fervour and of light, abiding of sun, extermination of shadows, drying up of wet places, expulsion of imperfection! O perennial solstice, when day will no longer wear to evening! O noon-day light, O spring mildness, O summer beauty, O autumn richness; yea, too, O winter rest and quiet! Or, if thou likest it better, then only the winter is past and gone (Cant. ii. 11). Tell me, I say, where is this place of so great brightness and peace and fulness; that even as Jacob, while still in the body, saw God face to face, and his life was preserved (Gen. xxxii. 30); or surely as Moses saw Him, not through figures and darkly, nor in dreams, like the other prophets, but in a fashion excelling and unexperienced by others, known to himself and to God; or even as Paul was caught up into Paradise and heard unspeakable words, and saw the Lord Jesus Christ with his own eyes: so may I, too, merit through excess of mind to contemplate Thee in Thy light and in Thy beauty, feeding more copiously, resting more securely. For here, too, Thou feedest, but not in saturity, nor may one lie, but needs must abide and watch on account of the fears of the night. Alas! neither clear light, nor full refection, nor safe dwelling; and therefore tell me where thou feedest, where thou liest in the midday.7

Similarly, St. John of the Cross interprets this noon, meridies, as “the midday which is Eternity, where the Father is ever begetting, and the Son ever begotten.”8

It is noteworthy that Dante's mysticism, especially in the latter cantos of the Paradiso, at several points anticipates, or, at least, is illustrated by, that of this great Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century.

On the poet's arrival in the seventh sphere, the sphere in which the contemplatives descend the celestial ladder to meet him, the sweet harmony of Paradise, that had hitherto increased in melody from heaven to heaven, is silent, and Beatrice does not smile:—

“Già eran gli occhi miei rifissi al volto
          Della mia donna, e l'animo con essi,
          E da ogni altro intento s'era tolto;
E quella non ridea, ma: ‘S'io ridessi,’
          Mi cominciò, ‘tu ti faresti quale
          Fu Semelè, quando di cener fêssi;
Chè la bellezza mia, che per le scale
          Dell'eterno palazzo più s'accende,
          Com' hai veduto, quanto più si sale,
Se non si temperasse, tanto splende,
          Che il tuo mortal potere al suo fulgore
          Sarebbe fronda che tuono scoscende.’”(9)

Benvenuto da Imola aptly refers to the Vulgate version of Proverbs (xxv. 27): He that is a searcher of majesty, shall be overwhelmed by glory. According to John of the Cross, there is a stage in the mystic's upward progress in which the body is said to be unable to bear as yet any further revelation of the Divine. Thus the Bride in the Song of Solomon: Turn away thine eyes from me, for they have overcome me; or, as the Vulgate has it: for they have made me flee away (Cant. vi. 5, or 4):—

Amid fervent affections of love, the Beloved is wont to visit His bride, tenderly, lovingly, and with great strength of love. … And, as the soul has so anxiously longed for the divine eyes, the Beloved reveals to her some glimpses of His Majesty and Godhead, according to her desires. These divine rays strike the soul so profoundly and so vividly, that it is rapt into an ecstasy, which in the beginning is attended with great suffering and natural fear. … For such is the wretchedness of our mortal nature, that we cannot bear, even when it is offered to us, but at the cost of our life, that which is the very life of the soul, and the object of her earnest desires, namely the knowledge of the Beloved. Thus the soul is compelled to say, with regard to the eyes so earnestly, so anxiously sought for, and in so many ways, when they become visible: Turn them away. So great, at times, is the suffering of the soul during these ecstatic visitations that, were it not for the special interference of God, death would ensue.10

We have, too, in John of the Cross, the mystical interpretation of the ladder that Dante now sees in this sphere of Saturn:—

“Dentro al cristallo, che il vocabol porta,
          Cerchiando il mondo, del suo chiaro duce,
          Sotto cui giacque ogni malizia morta,
Di color d'oro in che raggio traluce,
          Vid'io uno scaleo eretto in suso
          Tanto, che nol seguiva la mia luce.
Vidi anche per li gradi scender giuso
          Tanti splendor, ch'io pensai ch'ogni lume
          Che par nel ciel quindi fosse diffuso.”(11)

John of the Cross shows how secret contemplation is a ladder by which, without knowing how, the soul ascends, and mounts upward to the knowledge and possession of the goods and treasures of Heaven. “We may also call it a ladder,” he says, “for as the steps of one and the same ladder serve to descend as well as to ascend by, so, too, those very communications, which the soul receives in secret contemplation, raise her up to God and make her humble.” And again: “The chief reason why it is called a ladder is that contemplation is the science of love, which is an infused loving knowledge of God, and which enlightens the soul, and at the same time kindles within her the fire of love, till she shall ascend upwards step by step unto God, her Creator; for it is love only that unites the soul and God.”12

It is thus by this “science of love” that Beatrice impels Dante to follow the contemplatives upward to the eighth heaven:—

“La dolce donna dietro a lor mi pinse
          Con un sol cenno su per quella scala,
          Sì sua virtù la mia natura vinse;
Nè mai quaggiù, dove si monta e cala
          Naturalmente, fu sì ratto moto,
          Ch'agguagliar si potesse alla mia ala.”(13)

Aquinas teaches that the human mind is divinely caught up to contemplate divine truth in three ways: first, that it may contemplate it by kinds of likenesses in the imagination; secondly, that it may contemplate it through effects apprehended by the understanding; thirdly, that it may contemplate it in its essence. To contemplate divine truth in this last fashion, St. Paul was caught up to the third heaven. In one sense, this third heaven may be taken as meaning the Empyrean Heaven, “the spiritual heaven where Angels and holy souls enjoy the contemplation of God”; it is called “the third heaven,” with respect to the aerial heaven and the stellar heaven, or with respect to the crystalline; Paul's being caught up into it signifying “that God showed him the life in which He is to be seen in Eternity.” In another way, by the third heaven can be understood some supermundane vision; whether “according to the order of the cognitive powers,” in which the first heaven is the supermundane corporeal vision which is received through sense, the second heaven is an imaginary vision, and the third heaven is intellectual vision; or “according to the order of things knowable,” in which the first heaven means the knowledge of celestial bodies, the second heaven, knowledge of celestial spirits, and the third heaven, knowledge of God Himself.14

It has recently been argued that Dante's three grades of knowledge of heavenly things in the Paradiso are based upon this distinction of the three heavens by Aquinas; the eight lower spheres representing the first heaven, supermundane corporeal vision, the knowledge of the celestial bodies; the ninth sphere, the crystalline or primum mobile, corresponding to the second heaven, imaginary vision, the knowledge of the celestial spirits; and the Empyrean being the third heaven, intellectual vision, the knowledge of God Himself.15 After being rapt up the sacred ladder of contemplation, Dante completes his knowledge of the celestial bodies, when, at Beatrice's bidding, he looks down upon the universe, turning back with his sight “through all and each of the seven spheres,” and all the seven are displayed to him, “how great they are, and how swift they are, and how far apart they are in orbits”;16 he perfects this knowledge, when he realises the spiritual nature of their work, beholding “the hosts of Christ's triumph, and all the fruit gathered by the circling of these spheres.”17 In this eighth sphere, corporeal vision may be said to end, as it is the highest visible part of the heavens. Then, in the ninth sphere, which is invisible, he gains by imaginary vision the knowledge of the angelic hierarchies. Finally, in the Empyrean, the knowledge of God Himself in His essence is vouchsafed to his intellectual vision.


Dante's examination on Faith, Hope, and Charity, in the Stellar Heaven, is an essential part of his mystical system. “By these three virtues,” he says, “we ascend to philosophise in that celestial Athens, where Stoics and Peripatetics and Epicureans, by the art of the eternal Truth, harmoniously concur in one will.”18 And, again, he states that to the blessedness of eternal life, which consists in the fruition of the countenance of God, man can only arrive by spiritual teaching transcending human reason, to be followed in accordance with Faith, Hope, and Charity.19 These virtues are a gift of God, involving a certain participation in the Deity, to put man on the way to the happiness which exceeds his nature, but for which he is nevertheless made.20

But there is a fuller mystical significance in the poet's examination as the necessary preparation for the fruition of God: especially in this eighth sphere, which is the celestial counterpart of the Earthly Paradise,21 and in which he has just seen the first vision of Christ as the Sun from which the saints receive their light. Thus Bonaventura:—

It is necessary, if we would enter Paradise and the fruition of the Truth, that we should advance by Faith, Hope, and Charity respecting the mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ, who is as the tree of life in the midst of paradise (Gen. ii. 9, Prov. iii. 18). The image of our mind must therefore be clothed with the three theological virtues, whereby the mind is purified, illumined, and rendered perfect, and thus the image is reformed and made fitted for the Jerusalem which is above, and a part of the Church militant, which is the child, according to the Apostle, of the heavenly Jerusalem. For he says: Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all (Gal. iv. 26).

And the Seraphical Doctor continues that, when the soul believes in, hopes in, and loves Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life (John xiv. 6), she recovers all her spiritual senses: spiritual hearing and sight, by Faith; spiritual smell, by Hope; spiritual taste and touch, by Charity; and so attains the bliss of that degree of contemplation, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it (Rev. ii. 17).22

The interaction of the three powers of the soul in contemplation is emphasised by the mystics. Thus St. Catherine of Siena:—

Love harmonises the three powers of our soul, and binds them together. The will, with ineffable love, follows what the eye of the understanding has beheld; and, with its strong hand, it stores up in the memory the treasure that it draws from this love.23

And again, she represents God speaking to the soul of the after-effects of the momentary divine union:—

Then is the memory found full of nought but Me; the understanding uplifted to contemplate My truth as object; the will, that follows the understanding, loves and unites itself to what the eye of the understanding sees.24

Now St. John of the Cross teaches that, for this divine union, the three powers of the soul—understanding, memory, and will—must be rendered empty by the three theological virtues, each in its own power; Faith in the understanding, Hope in the memory, and Charity in the will:—

It is necessary for the soul, if she will travel securely along the spiritual road, to journey in the dark night, leaning on these three virtues, which make her empty of all things and blind. For the soul is not united to God in this life by the understanding or feeling or imagination, or any other sense whatever; but only by Faith, in the understanding; by Hope, which may be referred to the memory, in so far as Hope relates to that emptiness and forgetfulness of every temporal and perishable thing which it causes, the soul preserving herself entire for the Supreme Good for which she hopes; and by Love, in the will. These three virtues render empty all the powers of the soul; Faith makes the understanding empty and blind; Hope takes everything away from the memory; and Charity detaches the will from every pleasure and affection which is not God.25

We have to lead these three powers of the soul unto these three virtues; informing the understanding by Faith, stripping the memory of all that it possesses by Hope, and informing the will by Charity, detaching them from, and making them blind to, all that is beside these three virtues.26

Thus, Dante represents himself as temporarily blinded during his examination: a blindness which he is bidden to compensate by discoursing upon love, and which the eyes of Beatrice have power to heal:—

“Quale è colui ch'adocchia, e s'argomenta
          Di vedere eclissar lo sole un poco,
          Che per veder non vedente diventa;
Tal mi fec'io a quell'ultimo foco.
.....Ahi quanto nella mente mi commossi,
          Quando mi volsi per veder Beatrice,
          Per non poter vedere, ben ch'io fossi
Presso di lei, e nel mondo felice!
.....Mentr'io dubbiava per lo viso spento,
          Della fulgida fiamma che lo spense
          Uscì un spiro che mi fece attento,
Dicendo: ‘In tanto che tu ti risense
          Della vista che hai in me consunta,
          Ben è che ragionando la compense.
Comincia dunque, e di' ove s'appunta
          L'anima tua, e fa' ragion che sia
          La vista in te smarrita e non defunta;
Perchè la donna, che per questa dia
          Region ti conduce, ha nello sguardo
          La virtù ch'ebbe la man d'Anania.’
Io dissi: ‘Al suo piacere e tosto e tardo
          Vegna rimedio agli occhi, che fûr porte,
          Quand'ella entrò col foco ond'io sempr'ardo.’”(27)

“To suffer darkness is the way to great light,” writes John of the Cross. “The soul draws nearer and nearer to the divine union in darkness. If the soul will see, she thereby becomes instantly more blind as to God than he who should attempt to gaze upon the sun shining in its strength.” This blindness of Dante corresponds with what the great Spanish mystic calls “the dark night through which the soul passes, on her way to the divine light of the perfect union of the love of God.” In this dark night of the soul, “God secretly teaches the soul and instructs her in the perfection of love, without efforts on her own part beyond a loving attention to God, listening to His voice and admitting the light He sends.”28

As he enters the Empyrean, Dante, in preparation for the divine union, is again momentarily blinded by the divine light that shines round him and overpowers him with its glow:—

“Come subito lampo che discetti
          Gli spiriti visivi, sì che priva
          Dell'atto l'occhio di più forti obbietti;
Così mi circonfulse luce viva,
          E lasciommi fasciato di tal velo
          Del suo fulgor, che nulla m'appariva.
‘Sempre l'amor che queta questo cielo,
          Accoglie in sè con sì fatta salute,
          Per far disposto a sua fiamma il candelo.’
Non fûr più tosto dentro a me venute
          Queste parole brevi, ch'io compresi
          Me sormentar di sopra a mia virtute;
E di novella vista mi raccesi,
          Tale che nulla luce è tanto mera,
          Che gli occhi miei non si fosser difesi.
E vidi lume in forma di riviera,
          Fulvido di fulgore, intra due rive
          Dipinte di mirabil primavera.”(29)

The image of a river or torrent is one employed by the mystics to represent the first apprehension of the Divine by the soul in the stage of union. Thus, John of the Cross makes the soul say that her Beloved is “the sonorous rivers.” The soul, he writes, “feels herself to be so overpowered with the torrent of the spirit of God, and so overwhelmingly possessed by it, that all the waters in the world seem to her to have surrounded her, and to have drowned all her former actions and passions. And, though overwhelming, yet there is nothing painful in it, for these rivers are rivers of peace, as God gives us to understand through Isaiah, saying: I will bring upon her as it were a river of peace, and glory as an overflowing torrent (lxvi. 12). Thus this divine overpowering, like sonorous rivers, fills the soul with peace and glory.”30


In the Empyrean, Dante has reached the last, the tenth step of the mystical ladder according to John of the Cross, the step on which “the soul becomes wholly assimilated unto God because of the clear vision which she then enjoys; for having come in this life to the ninth step, she goeth forth out of the body. Love works in such souls—they are few and perfectly purified in this life—that which Purgatory works in others in the next.” In this state, he says, the soul not only becomes like unto God, but is, by participation, God.31

Discussing the question, “whether Paul, when caught up, saw the essence of God,” Aquinas says:—

The Divine Essence cannot be seen by a created intellect, save through the light of glory, concerning which it is said in the Psalm (xxxv. 10, or xxxvi. 9): In thy light shall we see light. This, however, can be participated in two ways: in the one, by way of it becoming the immanent form (of the intellect); and thus it makes the saints blessed in Paradise; in the other, by way of a certain passing passion, as we have said concerning the light of prophecy; and, in this latter way, that light was in Paul when he was caught up. And, therefore, by such a vision he was not blessed absolutely, so that it overflowed to his body, but only relatively; and therefore such a being caught up pertains in some sort to prophecy.32

Now although, in the literal sense, the subject of the Paradiso is “the state of blessed souls after death,” status animarum beatarum post mortem,33 the consummation of the poet's own vision, as far as he himself is concerned, is something different. His vision of the Divine Essence, through the light of glory, is what Aquinas calls “by way of a certain passing passion,” and “pertains in some sort to prophecy.” It does not represent the final condition of the soul in Paradise (in patria) awaiting the resurrection of the body, but the anticipation of the Beatific Vision mystically granted to contemplative spirits while still in the flesh on earth; a state in which the soul, in mystical fashion, through the purification wrought by love, is spoken of as going forth out of the body; a state to which she has been led by love alone; a state in which she has become so flooded and so utterly permeated by her realisation of the Divine, that, by an intellectual vision within herself, she becomes actually one with God, united to His Word in spiritual marriage or in the anticipation of the vision of His Essence.34 Although we naturally speak of “ecstatic” contemplation in connection with the close of the poet's pilgrimage, it need not be supposed that he regards “ecstasy” as the normal state of souls who possess the Beatific Vision. When, in the course of the poem, we find Dante passing into what may be called the ecstatic condition, it is (in a way) the penalty of the flesh; it is a condition only applicable to the soul of the contemplative while he is still in this life. The complete absorption of the soul into God, in which is found the blessedness of Heaven, brings with it a consciousness of its own, in virtue of which the saints in the Paradiso, while possessing for ever that vision of the Divine Essence which, for a brief moment, will be Dante's at the close of the poem, are realising their own blessedness and the perfect fulfilment of their true nature, and are not for an instant turning their spiritual gaze from that Beatific Vision, albeit they speak with the poet and even descend to meet him in the lower spheres.35 But with Dante himself it is necessarily different, by reason of lo mortal pondo, “the mortal weight through which thou shalt again return below.”36 It is not by this complete absorption into God, attended by perfect spiritual consciousness, that he attains to “the end of all desires,” but by that supreme grade of contemplation described by Richard of St. Victor as alienation of mind, “when the memory of things present falls from the mind, and, being transfigured by the working of divine grace, the soul passes into a certain wondrous state inaccessible to human powers”:—

When the soul has begun through pure understanding to pass out of herself, and entirely to enter into that brightness of incorporeal light, and to draw some taste of intimate sweetness from what she sees in its depths, then, indeed, in this excess of mind that peace is found and obtained which is without disturbance or fear; and there is silence in heaven, as it were for half an hour; so that the soul of the contemplative may be disturbed by no tumult of discordant thoughts.37

For this “flight of the alone to the Alone,” in this mystical “half-hour” of silence, this “moment of understanding,” guidance is no longer needed by the purified soul:—

“Ed io ch'al fine di tutti i disii
          M'appropinquava, sì com'io dovea,
          L'ardor del desiderio in me finii.
Bernardo m'accennava, e sorridea,
          Perch'io guardassi suso; ma io era
          Già per me stesso tal qual ei volea;
Chè la mia vista, venendo sincera,
          E più entrava per lo raggio
          Dell'alta luce, che da sè è vera.”(38)

The “end of all desires,” the realising of the soul's entire capacity of knowledge and of love, is attained in that moment when the poet can say of himself: Io giunsi l'aspetto mio col valor infinito, “I united my gaze with the infinite Worth”:—

“O abbondante grazia, ond'io presunsi
          Ficcar lo viso per la luce eterna
          Tanto, che la veduta vi consunsi!
Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna,
          Legato con amore in un volume,
          Ciò che per l'universo si squaderna;
Sustanzia ed accidenti e lor costume,
          Quasi conflati insieme per tal modo,
          Che ciò ch'io dico è un semplice lume.
La forma universal di questo nodo
          Credo ch'io vidi, perchè più di largo,
          Dicendo questo, mi sento ch'io godo.
.....A quella luce cotal si diventa,
          Che volgersi da lei per altro aspetto
          È impossibil che mai si consenta;
Però che il ben, ch'è del volere obbietto,
          Tutto s'accoglie in lei, e fuor di quella
          È difettivo ciò che lì è perfetto.”(39)

Thus, in the Dionysian phrase, “ascending from obscure images to the Cause of all, and contemplating, with supermundane eyes, all things in the Cause of all,” this Cause itself, in a flash of supernatural intuition, becomes revealed as the Blessed Trinity, of which the second Person (the “reflected,” “understood,” light, that is, the begotten Word) took human flesh: the supreme mystery of the Catholic Faith:—

“Non perchè più ch'un semplice sembiante
          Fosse nel vivo lume ch'io mirava,
          Che tal è sempre qual era davante;
Ma per la vista che s'avvalorava
          In me guardando, una sola parvenza,
          Mutandom'io, a me si travagliava;
Nell profonda e chiara sussistenza
          Dell'alto lume parvemi tre giri
          Di tre colori e d'una continenza;
E l'un dall'altro, come Iri da Iri,
          Parea riflesso, e il terzo parea foco
          Che quinci e quindi egualmente si spiri.
O quanto è corto il dire, e come fioco
          Al mio concetto, e questo a quel ch'io vidi
          È tanto, che non basta a dicer poco!
O luce eterna, che sola in te sidi,
          Sola t'intendi, e, da te intelletta
          Ed intendente te, ami ed arridi!
Quella circulazion, che sì concetta
          Pareva in te come lume riflesso,
          Dagli occhi miei alquanto circonspetta,
Dentro da sè del suo colore stesso
          Mi parve pinta della nostra effige,
          Per che il mio viso in lei tutto era messo.
Qual è 'l geometra che tutto s'affige
          Per misurar lo cerchio, e non ritrova
          Pensando quel principio ond'egli indige;
Tale era io a quella vista nuova:
          Veder voleva, come si convenne
          L'imago al cerchio, e come vi s'indova;
Ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne,
          Se non che la mia mente fu percossa
          Da un fulgore, in che sua voglia venne.
All'alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
          Ma già volgeva il mio disiro e il velle,
          Sì come rota ch'egualmente è mossa,
L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle.”(40)

The ultimate source of this image of the wheel, as picturing the soul's relations with God, is probably to be found in Ezekiel's vision of the four living creatures and the wheels of the divine chariot. Cumque ambularent animalia, ambulabant pariter et rotae juxta ea; et cum elevarentur animalia de terra, elevabantur simul et rotae. Quocumque ibat spiritus, illuc eunte spiritu, et rotae pariter elevabantur sequentes eum, spiritus enim vitae erat in rotis(Ezek. i. 19-20).41 With Dante, it symbolises the spiritual harmony attained in perfect correspondence with the working of divine grace, the absolute assimilation of the powers of the soul with the Divine Will. We have found a similar image in the book of Mechthild of Hackeborn; so, too, the later, fourteenth-century writer, Walter Hilton, mystically interprets the Prophet's words: “By wheels are understood the true lovers of Jesus, for they are round in virtue, without angle of frowardness; and lightly whirling through readiness of will after the stirrings of grace; for according as grace stirreth and teacheth, so they follow and work.”42

Here is symbolism still, inevitably, with imagery in which fantasia, the imagination, still asserts its claim, though but as servant, upon the pure understanding. But never, before or since, in poetry has finite human language come so near to the adequate expression of the divine, the infinite, the eternal, as in this closing canto of the Paradiso. And yet, when all is said, the fact remains that, if (as has been assumed throughout these pages) the Letter to Can Grande is really his, Dante himself would lay less stress upon the mystical aspect of the poem than upon its direct bearing on life and conduct: non ad speculandum, sed ad opus incoeptum est totum; “not for speculation, but for practical effect was the whole work undertaken”—for “the end of the whole and of the part is to remove those living in this life from the state of misery, and to lead them to the state of felicity.”43

With St. Catherine of Siena, the immediate object of the mystical life is spiritual virility; and “there can be no perfect virtue, none that bears fruit, unless it be exercised by means of our neighbour.”44 Similarly, the aim of Dante's mysticism is to make spiritual experience a force for the reformation of mankind. Depicting man and nature in their eternal aspect, he would speak in their own language to those subjected to things of time on “the threshing-floor that maketh us so fierce,” l'aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci, and assailed by “our tempest,” nostra procella, of succession;45 he would interpret for them the meaning of that Eternity, of which the last of the Roman philosophers dreamed in his dungeon as “the complete and perfect simultaneous possession of unlimited life.”


  1. Summa contra Gentiles, iv. 1.

  2. Itinerarium, i. § 3.

  3. “Both more resplendent, and with slower paces, the sun was holding the meridian circle.”—Purg. xxxiii. 103-104.

  4. Par. i. 43-48.

  5. Conv. iv. 23, 145-147.

  6. Benjamin major, v. 8.

  7. Sermones in Cantica Canticorum, xxxiii. §§ 6-7.

  8. Cántico espiritual entre el Alma y Cristo, cancion i., declaracion (trans. David Lewis).

  9. “Already were mine eyes fixed again upon the face of my lady, and my mind with them, and from all other intent was it withdrawn;

    And she smiled not, but: ‘If I smiled,’ she began, ‘thou wouldst become such as did Semele when she turned to ashes;

    For my beauty, which along the stairs of the eternal palace enkindles more, as thou hast seen, the more we ascend,

    If it were not tempered, gloweth so, that thy mortal power at its effulgence would be a leaf that thunder shatters.’”

    Par. xxi. 1-12

  10. Declaracion del Cántico espiritual, cancion xiii. (Lewis).

  11. “Within the crystal, that bears the name, as it wheels round the world, of its famed ruler under whom all wickedness lay dead,

    Of colour of gold on which a ray is glowing, I saw a ladder uplifted on high, so far that my sight followed it not.

    I saw, too, descending downward by the steps so many splendours, that I thought that every star that shines in heaven had been thence diffused.”

    Par. xxi. 25-33

  12. Noche escura del Alma, lib. ii. cap. 18 (Lewis).

  13. “The sweet lady impelled me after them with a single sign up by that stairway, so did her power surpass my nature;

    Nor ever here below, where one mounts and descends naturally, was so swift a motion that it could be equalled to my flight.”

    Par. xxii. 100-105

  14. Summa Theologica, II. ii., q. 175, a. 3, ad 1 and ad 4. Cf. Augustine, De Genesi ad Litteram, xii. 28.

  15. Cf. L. Filomusi-Guelfi, Studi su Dante, pp. 142 et seq.; Umberto Cosmo, in Giornale Storico della Letteratura Italiana, vol. lviii., pp. 165-170.

  16. Par. xxii. 133-150.

  17. Par. xxiii. 19-21.

  18. Conv. iii. 14, 136-141.

  19. Mon. iii. 16, 48-52, 58-63.

  20. Summa Theologica, I. ii., q. 62, a. 1.

  21. Cf. my Dante's Ten Heavens, pp. 189 et seq.

  22. Itinerarium, iv. §§ 2-3.

  23. Letter 172.

  24. Dialogo, cap. lxxix.

  25. Subida del Monte Carmelo, lib. ii. cap. 6 (Lewis).

  26. Ibid.

  27. “As is he who fixes his eyes and strives to see the sun eclipsed a while, and by gazing becomes bereft of sight;

    Such became I at this last flame (St. John) …

    Ah, how much was I disturbed in mind, when I turned me to see Beatrice, for that I could not see her, albeit I was near unto her and in the blessed world! …

    Whilst I was in suspense because of my quenched sight, from the glowing flame that quenched it issued a breath that made me give heed,

    Saying: ‘Until thou dost regain the sense of sight that thou hast consumed in me, it is well that thou compensate it by discourse.

    ‘Begin then, and say to what thy soul doth tend, and be assured tht the sight in thee is confounded and not dead;

    ‘For the lady, who is leading thee through this divine realm, hath in her look the virtue that the hand of Ananias had.’

    I said: ‘At her pleasure, or soon or late, may healing come to the eyes, which were the gates, when she entered with the fire wherewith I ever burn.’”

    Par. xxv. 118-121, 136-139, xxvi. 1-15

  28. Carta i.; Subida del Monte Carmelo, lib. ii. cap. 4; Noche escura del Alma, lib. ii. cap. 5 (Lewis).

  29. “As sudden lightning-flash that scatters the visual spirits, so that it deprives the eye of action towards the strongest objects;

    So shined round about me a living light, and left me swathed with such a veil of its effulgence, that nought appeared unto me.

    ‘Ever the Love that quieteth this heaven welcomes into itself with such a salutation, to make the candle apt unto its flame.’

    No sooner had these brief words entered in me, than I perceived that I was surpassing my own power;

    And with so new a faculty of sight was I enkindled, that no light is so resplendent that mine eyes could not have sustained it.

    And I saw light in form of a river, glowing with radiance, between two banks adorned with wondrous flowers of spring.”

    Par. xxx. 46-63

  30. Declaracion del Cántico espiritual, cancion xiv.

  31. Noche escura del Alma, lib. ii. cap. 20.

  32. Summa Theologica, II. ii., q. 175, a. 3, ad 2. Cf. q. 171, a. 2.

  33. Epist. x. 11.

  34. Cf. St. Teresa, El Castillo interior, Moradas sétimas, cap. ii.

  35. Cf. Tyrrell, op. cit., pp. 306-309.

  36. Par. xxvii. 64-65.

  37. Benjamin major, v. 2; De exterminatione mali, iii. 18.

  38. “And I who to the end of all desires was drawing near, even as I was bound, fulfilled the ardour of desire within me.

    Bernard signed to me, and smiled, that I should look above; but I was already of myself even as he did wish;

    For my sight, becoming pure, was entering more and more through the ray of that high Light, which in itself is true.”

    Par. xxxiii. 46-54

  39. “O grace abundant, by which I presumed to fix my gaze through the eternal Light so far that I consumed my power of vision therein!

    Within its depths I saw contained, bound by love into one volume, what is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe;

    Substance and accidents and their relation, as it were fused together in such fashion that what I speak of is one simple light.

    The universal form of this union I believe that I saw, because more copiously, in saying this, I feel that I rejoice. …

    At that light such doth one become that to turn from it, to behold ought else, it is impossible that ever one consent;

    Because the Good, which is object of the will, is all contained therein, and, outside of that, all is defective which there is perfect.”

    Par. xxxiii. 82-93, 100-105

    The last two terzine are a poetical paraphrase of Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I. ii., q. 5, a. 4.

  40. “Not because more than one simple semblance was in the living Light upon which I gazed, which is ever such as it was before;

    But through my sight gaining strength in me as I looked, one sole appearance, even as I changed, was changing unto me;

    Within the deep and clear subsistence of the high Light appeared to me three circles, of three colours and of one dimension;

    And the one by the other, as rainbow by rainbow, seemed reflected, and the third seemed fire which from one and the other equally is breathed.

    O how scanty is my speech, and how feeble to my conception, and this to what I saw is such that it suffices not to call it little!

    O Light Eternal, that only in Thyself abidest, only understandest Thyself (begetting the Word), and, understood by Thyself (the Son) and understanding Thyself (the Father), dost love and smile (the Holy Ghost proceeding from both)!

    That circle, which seemed begotten in Thee as a reflected light, when contemplated by mine eyes a while,

    Within itself of its own colour appeared to me depicted with our likeness, wherefore my gaze was utterly fixed thereon.

    As is the geometrician who concentrates his mind to square the circle, and finds not in his thought that principle which he needs,

    Such was I at this new vision: fain would I see how the image (our humanity) was united to the circle (the divinity), and how it findeth place therein;

    But unequal to that were mine own wings, were it not that my mind was smitten by a flash, in which its will was fulfilled.

    To my high fantasy here power failed; but already my desire and my will were being turned, even as a wheel that is moved equally, by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

    Par. xxxiii. 109-145

  41. And when the living creatures went, the wheels also went together by them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels also were lifted up with them. Whithersoever the spirit went, thither, as the spirit went, the wheels also were lifted up withal, and followed it; for the spirit of life was in the wheels (Vulgate).

  42. The Ladder of Perfection, II. part iii. cap. 14. Cf. St. Gregory, Homiliarum in Ezechielem, i. 7.

  43. Epist. x. 15-16.

  44. Dialogo, cap. i.-cap. viii., cap. xi.

  45. Par. xxii. 151, xxxi. 30.

Works and Editions Cited

St. Thomas Aquinas, Opera omnia, 25 vols, Parma, 1852-72; Summa Theologica, 6 vols, Rome (ex typographia Forzani), 1886-87; Summa contra Gentiles, Rome (ibid.), 1894.

St. Augustine, Opera omnia, ed. Migne, Pat. Lat. tomm. xxxii.-xlvii.; Confessionum libri xiii, ed. Wangnereck, Turin, 1878.

St. Bernard, Opera omnia, ed. Migne, Pat. Lat. tomm. clxxxii.-clxxxv.; Sermones in Cantica Canticorum, ed. Hurter, Innsbruck, 1888; De Consideratione et tractatus de moribus et officio Episcoporum, ibid., 1885.

Benvenuto da Imola, Comentum super Dantis Aldigherii Comoediam, ed. W. W. Vernon and J. Lacaita, 5 vols, Florence, 1887.

Boëthius, De Consolatione Philosophiae, ed. T. Obbarius, Jena, 1843.

St. Bonaventura, Opera omnia, 10 vols, ed. P. P. Collegii S. Bonaventurae, Quaracchi, 1882-1902; Legendae due de vita S. Francisci Seraphici, ibid., 1898; Tria opuscula (Breviloquium, Itinerarium mentis in Deum, et De reductione Artium ad Theologiam), ibid., 3rd. ed., 1911.

St. Catherine of Siena, Opere, ed. G. Gigli, 5 vols, Siena and Lucca, 1707-1754; Legenda (Fra Raimondo da Capua), Acta Sanctorum, April, tom. iii.

U. Cosmo, Le mistiche nozze di frate Francesco con madonna Povertà, in Giornale Dantesco, anno vi., Florence, 1898.

Dante Alighieri, Tutte le opere nuovamente rivedute nel testo, ed. E. Moore, 3rd ed., Oxford, 1904; La Divina Commedia con il commento di T. Casini, 5th ed., Florence, 1903; La Vita Nuova per cura di Michele Barbi, Florence, 1907.

L. Filomusi-Guelfi, Studi su Dante, Città di Castello, 1908.

E. G. Gardner, Dante's Ten Heavens, 2nd. ed., London, 1900; Saint Catherine of Siena, London, 1907; The Cell of Self-Knowledge, London, 1910.

St. Gregory the Great, Opera Omnia, ed. Migne, Pat. Lat. tomm. lxxv.-lxxix.

St. John of the Cross, Obras del beato padre san Juan de la Cruz, in Rivadeneyra, Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, tomo xxvii, Madrid, 1853; The Complete Works translated by David Lewis, 2 vols, 2nd ed., London, 1889-90.

Mechthild of Hackeborn and Mechthild of Magdeburg, Sanctae Mechtildis liber specialis gratiae, accedit Sororis Mechtildis Lux Divinitatis, ed. the Benedictines of Solesmes, in Revelationes Gertrudianae ac Mechtildianae, vol. ii., Paris, 1877.

Richard of St. Victor, Opera omnia, ed. Migne, Pat. Lat. tom. cxcvi.

George Tyrrell, The Faith of the Millions, first series, 2nd ed., London, 1902.


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Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

The following entry presents criticism of the Paradiso (c.1318-21), the third cantica of Dante's Commedia (1306-21; The Divine Comedy). For coverage of Dante's other works, see CMLC, Volumes 3, 18, and 39.

The third and concluding part of Dante's Divine Comedy, the Paradiso, has been extolled as one of the most magnificent achievements in world literature. The first cantica of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno, describes the torments of hell, while the second, the Purgatorio, delineates the painful travails souls undergo in purgatory. In both of these works, the poet describes fantastic realms in highly visual terms. In the Paradiso, however, Dante relies on suggestion rather than concrete description to present the reader with a vision of Paradise. As Marguerite Mills Chiarenza has observed, the foundation of Dante's poem is intellectual vision, which contradicts the traditional concept of poetry as an art that relies on images and symbols. “Intellectual vision,” Mills Chiarenza writes, “is by its nature incongruent with poetry, for it is the denial of that of which poetry is made. … Therefore, I would like to … suggest that the basic position of the poet in the Paradiso is revealed by his struggle to express a vision which is imageless from the start.” Dante's poem, which opens with the idea of God's glory shining throughout the universe, closes with the poet's ecstatic vision of God—a vision, as far as Dante is concerned, as indescribable as it is true.

Textual History

Scholars agree that the Paradiso was written after the death of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII (c. 1275-1313), whom Dante venerated as the God-given king destined to unify Italy and conduct a reign of justice and peace—a terrestrial Paradise. In the view of some commentators, Henry's death, which spelled the end of Dante's hopes for Italy's political future, may have moved the poet to translate his worldly vision into a poetic dream of celestial perfection. There is evidence to suggest that Dante started writing his poem in 1318 and the general consensus among scholars is that the Paradiso was completed in 1321, the year of Dante's death. The period between 1318 and 1321 was an extremely difficult time for Dante, as Ravenna (the city to which he was exiled by his political enemies in Florence) and Venice were preparing for war. During 1321 Dante was in fact part of an attempt, which was ultimately unsuccessful, to establish a Ravennese embassy in Florence. Returning to Ravenna through the marshes of Cimacchio, Dante contracted malaria and died on September 14, 1321.

Plot and Major Characters

A journey through the realms of Paradise culminating in a vision of God, Dante's poem also portrays the individual's struggle to attain spiritual illumination. The protagonist is the poet himself, who describes his voyage as a pilgrimage. While the intellectual and philosophical foundation of this pilgrimage is quite orthodox from the point of view of medieval Christianity, Dante, in radical departure from theological and biblical tradition, introduces the figure of Beatrice, his guide to the heavens. Neither angel nor saint, Beatrice, who may have been a historical figure, represents a force that may be viewed as divine, despite the obvious heretical implications of such a claim.

Major Themes

In the Paradiso Beatrice represents the dazzling incarnation of faith, wisdom, justice, beauty, and love—a tangible connection to the ineffable mystery of God. While Beatrice is an expression of the deepest level of the poem, which is spiritual, the reader also finds, as a negative reflection of Paradise, Dante's meticulous disquisitions on the sorry state of Florence and Italy. These passages emphasize what Dante viewed as the sin, evil, and political corruption that ruled the world around him. The poet himself, in his famous letter to his patron Can Grande della Scala, explained that the Divine Comedy depicts “the state of souls after death” and had four levels of meaning: literal, allegorical, moral, and mystical (or anagogical, after the Greek term anagoge, which can be translated as “upward movement”). “The three allegorical meanings, in the Comedy,” John Saly has written, “reveal to us first the state of human society and the way to the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth, secondly the progress of the individual soul in this life from sin to purification and to the life of grace and, finally, a series of inner states through which a human being passes from complete isolation to unity with all that is.”

Critical Reception

Dante's contemporaries were aware of his greatness, and commentators of the time recognized the Paradiso not only as a sublime poem but also as an encyclopedic synthesis of science, astrology, mysticism, theology, and mythology. The most famous Renaissance champion of Dante's work was Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), writer and humanist, who was the first to offer public lectures on the Divine Comedy. In the fifteenth century, as Saly observes, thinkers related Dante's description of the soul's ascent toward God to the Neoplatonic conception of a union with God, an idea which, according to scholars, can also be found in the medieval mystical traditions that inspired Dante. According to Saly, the Neoplatonists, who “gathered around Lorenzo de'Medici in what came to be known as the Medici circle, recognized in Dante a kindred spirit.” For example, the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) regarded his Theologia Platonica, (1482), an attempted synthesis of Christianity and Neoplatonism, as a philosophical equivalent of the Paradiso. Later studies focused on the mystical and philosophical aspects of Dante's poem. In the early twentieth century, this approach is exemplified by the work of Edmund G. Gardner. In 1929, Erich Auerbach published a seminal study of the historical and political context of the Paradiso. Complementing the work of such scholarly writers as Etienne Gilson, who described the vast range of sources of Dante's inspiration, T. S. Eliot focused, in an eloquent and compelling fashion, on Dante's poetic genius, defining the Paradiso as a work in which the immense power of great poetry overshadows any strictly thematic or historical considerations. Later in the twentieth century, scholars such as Barbara Reynolds and Rachel Jacoff have offered perspectives on the text that contribute to the widely held view that Dante's great poem is, like its subject, a source of endless interpretation.

T. S. Eliot (essay date 1932)

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SOURCE: Eliot, T. S. “Dante.” In Selected Essays, pp. 199-237. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950.

[In this excerpt from an essay originally published in 1932, Eliot praises the Paradiso as a masterpiece by the greatest poet in the Western tradition.]

The Paradiso is not monotonous. It is as various as any poem. And take the Comedy as a whole, you can compare it to nothing but the entire dramatic work of Shakespeare. The comparison of the Vita Nuova with the Sonnets is another, and interesting, occupation. Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.

We should begin by thinking of Dante fixing his gaze on Beatrice:

Nel suo aspetto tal dentro mi fei,
          qual si fe' Glauco nel gustar dell' erba,
          che il fe' consorto in mar degli altri dei.
Trasumanar significar per verba
          non si poria; pero l'esemplo basti
          a cui esperienza grazia serba.

Gazing on her, so I became within, as did Glaucus, on tasting of the grass which made him sea-fellow of the other gods. To transcend humanity may not be told in words, wherefore let the instance suffice for him for whom that experience is reserved by Grace.

And as Beatrice says to Dante: “You make yourself dull with false fancy”; warns him, that here there are divers sorts of blessedness, as settled by Providence.

If this is not enough, Dante is informed by Piccarda (Canto III) in words which even those who know no Dante know:

la sua voluntade è nostra pace.

His will is our peace.

It is the mystery of the inequality, and of the indifference of that inequality, in blessedness, of the blessed. It is all the same, and yet each degree differs.

Shakespeare gives the greatest width of human passion; Dante the greatest altitude and greatest depth. They complement each other. It is futile to ask which undertook the more difficult job. But certainly the “difficult passages” in the Paradiso are Dante's difficulties rather than ours: his difficulty in making us apprehend sensuously the various states and stages of blessedness. Thus the long oration of Beatrice about the Will (Canto IV) is really directed at making us feel the reality of the condition of Piccarda; Dante has to educate our senses as he goes along. The insistence throughout is upon states of feeling; the reasoning takes only its proper place as a means of reaching these states. We get constantly verses like

Beatrice mi guardò con gli occhi pieni
          di faville d' amor cosi divini,
          che, vinta, mia virtù diedi le reni,
e quasi mi perdei con gli occhi chini.

Beatrice looked on me with eyes so divine filled with sparks of love, that my vanquished power turned away, and I became as lost, with downcast eyes.

The whole difficulty is in admitting that this is something that we are meant to feel, not merely decorative verbiage. Dante gives us every aid of images, as when

Come in peschiera, ch' è tranquilla e pura,
          traggonsi i pesci a ciò che vien di fuori
          per modo che lo stiman lor pastura;
sì vid' io ben più di mille splendori
          trarsi ver noi, ed in ciascun s'udia:
          Ecco che crescerà li nostri amori.

As in a fishpond still and clear, the fishes draw near to anything that falls from without in such a way as to make them think it something to eat, so I saw more than a thousand splendours draw towards us, and in each was heard: Lo! here is one that shall increase our loves.

About the persons whom Dante meets in the several spheres, we need only to enquire enough to consider why Dante placed them where he did.

When we have grasped the strict utility of the minor images, such as the one given above, or even the simple comparison admired by Landor:

Quale alledetta che in aere si spazia
          primo cantando, e poi tace contenta
          dell' ultima dolcezza che la sazia,

Like the lark which soars in the air, first singing, and then ceases, content with the last sweetness that sates her,

we may study with respect the more elaborate imagery, such as that of the figure of the Eagle composed by the spirits of the just, which extends from Canto XVIII onwards for some space. Such figures are not merely antiquated rhetorical devices, but serious and practical means of making the spiritual visible. An understanding of the rightness of such imagery is a preparation for apprehending the last and greatest canto, the most tenuous and most intense. Nowhere in poetry has experience so remote from ordinary experience been expressed so concretely, by a masterly use of that imagery of light which is the form of certain types of mystical experience.

Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna,
          legato con amore in un volume,
          ciò che per l'universo si squaderna;
sustanzia ed accidenti, e lor costume,
          quasi conflati insieme per tal modo,
          che ciò ch' io dico è un semplice lume.
La forma universal di questo nodo
          credo ch' io vidi, perchè più di largo,
          dicendo questo, mi sento ch' io godo.
Un punto solo m'è maggior letargo,
          che venticinque secoli alla impresa,
          che fé Nettuno ammirar l'ombra d'Argo.

Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one mass, the scattered leaves of the universe: substance and accidents and their relations, as though together fused, so that what I speak of is one simple flame. The universal form of this complex I think I saw, because, as I say this, more largely I feel myself rejoice. One single moment to me is more lethargy than twenty-five centuries upon the enterprise which made Neptune wonder at the shadow of the Argo (passing over him).

One can feel only awe at the power of the master who could thus at every moment realize the inapprehensible in visual images. And I do not know anywhere in poetry more authentic sign of greatness than the power of association which could in the last line, when the poet is speaking of the Divine vision, yet introduce the Argo passing over the head of wondering Neptune. Such association is utterly different from that of Marino speaking in one breath of the beauty of the Magdalen and the opulence of Cleopatra (so that you are not quite sure what adjectives apply to which). It is the real right thing, the power of establishing relations between beauty of the most diverse sorts; it is the utmost power of the poet.

O quanto è corto il dire, e come fioco
          al mio concetto!

How scant the speech, and how faint, for my conception!

In writing of the Divine Comedy I have tried to keep to a few very simple points of which I am convinced. First that the poetry of Dante is the one universal school of style for the writing of poetry in any language. There is much, naturally, which can profit only those who write Dante's own Tuscan language; but there is no poet in any tongue—not even in Latin or Greek—who stands so firmly as a model for all poets. I tried to illustrate his universal mastery in the use of images. In the actual writing I went so far as to say that he is safer to follow, even for us, than any English poet, including Shakespeare. My second point is that Dante's “allegorical” method has great advantages for the writing of poetry: it simplifies the diction, and makes clear and precise the images. That in good allegory, like Dante's, it is not necessary to understand the meaning first to enjoy the poetry, but that our enjoyment of the poetry makes us want to understand the meaning. And the third point is that the Divine Comedy is a complete scale of the depths and heights of human emotion; that the Purgatorio and Paradiso are to be read as extensions of the ordinarily very limited human range. Every degree of the feeling of humanity, from lowest to highest, has, moreover, an intimate relation to the next above and below, and all fit together according to the logic of sensibility.

Principal Works

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Vita nuova (prose and poetry) c. 1292

Convivio (prose) 1304-07

De vulgari eloquentia (treatise) 1304-07

*Commedia (poetry) 1306-21

De monarchia (treatise) c. 1313

Prose antiche di Dante, Petrarcha, et Boccaccio, etc. (letters) 1547

The Inferno of Dante Alighieri (translated by Henry Francis Cary) 1805

Vita Nuova (translated by Theodore Martin) 1862

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) 1865-67

The Paradise of Dante Alighieri (translated by Arthur John Butler) 1885

Inferno (translated by Thomas G. Bergin) 1948

The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine (translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds) 1949-62

Inferno (translated by Dorothy L. Sayers) 1950

The Inferno (translated by John Ciardi) 1954

The Purgatorio (translated by John Ciardi) 1961

Vita Nuova: Poems of Youth (translated by Barbara Reynolds) 1969

The Divine Comedy (translated by Charles S. Singleton) 1970

Paradiso (translated by John Ciardi) 1970

Dante's Purgatory (translated by Mark Musa) 1981

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. 3 vols. (translated by Allen Mandelbaum) 1981

Vita Nuova (translated by Mark Musa) 1992

Vita Nuova (translated by Dino S. Cervigni and Edward Vasta) 1995

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (translated by Robert M. Durling) 1996

The Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Heaven (translated by Peter Dale) 1997

Divine Comedy: Selected Cantos= La divina comedia: canti selecti; A Dual Language Book (translated and edited by Stanley Appelbaum) 2000

Divine Comedy (translated by John Ciardi) 2003

Irma Brandeis (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: Brandeis, Irma. “The Ladder of Vision.” In The Ladder of Vision: A Study of Dante's Comedy, pp. 185-227. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1962.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1960, Brandeis describes the Paradiso as “the supreme test of Dante's poetic power,” since this work presented the formidable challenge of conveying transcendent experience using worldly language and conventional poetic devices.]

The third canticle [of The Divine Comedy] is the supreme test of Dante's poetic power, since here he faces the virtually impossible task of making the concrete world of images suggest an experience which is totally foreign to almost every reader, and which, by its very nature, would seem untranslatable into words. It is a supreme test of the reader, too: if he is honest, he will see that the book has no easy charm; he must give it the severest attention before he can come to its severe and radiant beauty. He must lay aside altogether the comforting vain little joke about the boredom of the eternal hosannas of Heaven as compared with the liveliness of Hell. Lastly, if he have not yet lifted up his neck for bread of angels, he must wish to try.

As for the critic, all persons who write or talk about the Paradiso must not merely take heed of Dante's perfectly serious warning to those who try to follow him in little skiffs1—which is warning with regard to the high sense of the poem—but must, whatever the size of their craft, beware of pursuing a poetic effect as though it were a murderer at large. For it is one thing to shoot a desperado, and another to make an interesting corpse of so living and resistant a work of art. I give notice that I am aware of these dangers; and, being perhaps about to fall into the trap (when all I mean to do is to report certain facts), I warn the reader duly. Let him keep the text of the Paradiso in his hand; it has for over six hundred years successfully protected itself against critical shrinkage and deformation.

The pilgrim's voyage in the Paradiso is in its simplest sense an effortless rising from sphere to sphere of a concentric, ten-sphered universe, with the earth at centre and the unmoving Empyrean outmost. It is at the same time the travelling of an immaterial path of intellectual light, educating him in the relation of human life to eternal being, and of human judgment to absolute truth; leading him finally to a momentary glimpse of the ordering and limiting principle of all existence, the totally immaterial Goal and Source of all thought and all matter.

But this is far easier to state neatly than truly, for a precision of ideas, if one can reach it, is no more the ideal key to the final poetic experience than to the spiritual transformation Dante is attempting to render. The lovely verb trasumanar, a key-word to the canticle, opening and locking at the same time, epitomizes our difficulty: if the poet speaks as one transhumanized, he must borrow and patch up human language to express this state; while the reader, as he grasps the notion of transhumanization, grasps also the fact of his own remoteness from it.

By its imaging process the poem develops this necessary sense of remoteness, with its implicit insights. The literal journey does not, as in the earlier canticles, form a concrete and easily grasped starting point for the steps of the figurative journey. In the Paradiso as the goal of the whole action is more and more closely approximated to light, the field of the literal journey thins away into the airiest remnant of concreteness; the travellers enter into the body of the moon; they halt on the body of the sun, unscorched; there is no visible landscape whatever on the planets, and nothing meets the eye but souls and soul-formations. Furthermore, nothing that is witnessed in Heaven—neither the appearances of souls nor their motions—corresponds to any familiar experience. The souls are sparks and torches; they move in garlands, in cross-form, in eagle-outline. There is no anchorage in the home world of solid things for these strange sights. We are lifted from firm ground and set down on, surrounded by, discoursed to by light. Too much of it? More variations, embellishments and contradictions of experience than the reader can take in? But surely nobody ever knew better than Dante what he risked, as well as what he stood to gain. Surely he meant to press the reader beyond the commonplace, saturate him with light, force him to struggle with it in difficult symbols and interlocked analogies, to feel it as energy and delight in the innumerable splendours, sparklings, whirlings, brightenings, with their musical quality and their dancing motion. He meant to inundate the reader with images of light until the incandescence, increased beyond anything that might be mistaken for mere visibilia—the outrageous incandescence—together with all the things seen which could not possibly be seen by eyes, suggest what they are intended to mean, and precipitate an intellectual atmosphere filled with the exultancy of understanding and its consequent love. We are supposed to understand Beatrice well when she describes the Empyrean as composed of

“luce intellettüal, piena d'amore;
          amor di vero ben, pien di letizia;
          letizia che trascende ogni dolzore.”

“light intellectual full-charged with love, love of true good full-charged with gladness, gladness which transcendeth every sweetness.”

XXX, 40-42

By the time we reach the final three heavens with their increasingly extraordinary sights, Dante has led us to feel suspended between two kinds of being: cut away from the almost familiar variety in which ideas are couched in matter, and craning forward towards the ideal, where they exist in total independence. Deliberately and gradually he has undone our sense of an abiding metaphor under whose terms we have been able to view alternately two sorts of reality, two sorts of brightness—the one sensible, the other ideal—and has left us with a peculiar new awareness of the two as integrated, absolute, as one thing, perfectly real, but of which we cannot say what thing it is. This entity is what the transhumanized eyes see. It is what the reader is left craning forward towards, with the feeling that the very slightest additional push would precipitate him, too, into it. Dante has led us as close as he could to an approximation of what he understands to be at the heart of existence. How close, how worth following, each reader determines for himself.

Two images based on light—one at the beginning, one close to the end of the canticle—gather up between them and summarize the great theme of God's action, both creative and resumptive, as an eternal shattering of his light into the universe and a gathering back of its reflections from every member of the creation. The first of these images describes the primal issuing of the One into the Many, and governs all the analyses of the poem. It is extremely brief:

La gloria di colui che tutto move
          per l'universo penetra e risplende
          in una parte più e meno altrove.

The glory of him who moves all things penetrates throughout the universe and reglows in one place more and in another less.2

I, 1-3

The second describes the essential interrelationship of all created things and their attributes, celebrating the consummation of universal wholeness in God. It governs the syntheses of the poem, and is their final statement. The pilgrim, looking into the absolute light, records this:

Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna,
          legato con amore in un volume,
          ciò che per l'universo si squaderna;
sustanze e accidenti e lor costume,
          quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo
          che ciò ch'i' dico è un semplice lume.
La forma universal di questo nodo
          credo ch'i' vidi …

Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe: substance and accidents and their relations, as though together fused, after such fashion that what I tell of is one simple flame.

The universal form of this complex I think that I beheld …

XXXIII, 85-92

If one reads the opening triplet in the popular mood suggested by Dante's reputation as a “beautiful” poet, it is quite likely that one will pass it with no more than a vague impression that something grand and vaguely pious has been uttered. If, however, one expects something more precise of the terms, they will, without losing the grandeur they possess (in Italian), show that they are clearly chosen and distinguished in a carefully balanced statement, meaningful down to the very order in which the words appear. The glory comes first—the radiance of God as logical subject of the whole passage. The all-mover occupies a stirring, yet merely descriptive, attributive clause. The two actions of the glory—penetrates and reglows—seem at first to balance one another perfectly, each with its modifying phrase, the one expressing the outgoing, the other the return of light; reglows, however, is weighted by its position at the end of the line, stopping us for a moment as though the train of thought were completed. The final phrase, which does complete the thought, surprises and challenges, and invites us to ask: why, in what way, by what cause does the reflection from the creation differentiate the light which comes to it without distinction of kind or quantity?

The canticle will be at work above all to answer this. It will revert again and again to all these terms, developing each in a variety of instances; but it will be a poem chiefly concerned with the reflected splendour of the universe. Eventually this opening image will expand over the whole range of the canticle until all its terms and their relations are as acutely felt as they are articulated. They will be felt as celebratory of what is and must remain a mystery, yet, as always with Dante, they themselves will be unfolded with utter lucidity and exquisite precision.

The first simple statement of the glory is clarified in the traditional matter of the canticle dealing with the divine mystery by which God produces the plurality of the creation. He who moves all things is shown to be in essence Absolute Truth (that truth … beyond which no truth hath range3); in manifestation Absolute Light (that deep light which in itself is true4); and in action glory or radiance. The glory is shown penetrating equably throughout the universe, distinct and yet not separate from God (the living light issues in such a way from its source that it departeth not therefrom5), and emerges more and more clearly as signifying Christ, the Logos or Word of God (the splendour of that idea which our Sire begets in loving6), until the full radiance of creative energy becomes synonymous with the Son of God.

But the second statement of the opening image is of more than equal weight and of greater expansion in the poem. The reglow is the testimony, by light, of God's presence in creatures. It is the reverberation of light from the creation's mirroring of God. The most superb poetry of the Paradiso arises from Dante's concern with this response of the universe to the light that forms and informs it. That every least creature furnishes a gleam or a splendour according to its kind and capacity—so that a blade of wheat and a king testify to the same formative Intelligence and the same ultimate goal, while their excellence or failure results from the conditions of their receptivity—this is what the poet feels wherever his eye falls on the pursuit each creature so painstakingly makes of its own entelechy; this is what he unfolds in instance after instance, full of love, pity, wonder and awe. This is the subject he is in love with. The world points to God, instructs him in God; and God sends him back again, with certain lessons learned, into the world.

The whole hierarchy of created things, from angels to clods, lies somewhere in the light-path, unequally open to it, according as their substance is of one kind or another, and, within kinds, of one degree or another of receptivity:

Nell'ordine ch'io dico sono accline
          tutte nature, per diverse sorti,
          più al principio loro e men vicine;
onde si muovono a diversi porti
          per lo gran mar dell'essere, …

In the order of which I speak all things incline by diverse lots more near and less unto their principle; wherefore all move to diverse ports o'er the great sea of being …

I, 109-113

The angelic host receive the light directly, divide it piecemeal among themselves, and in their reglow shed it downward and outward into the creation as from so many mirrors wherein it breaketh.7 And mirrors they are, of the periscope variety, receiving from above and reflecting into the world below. Intent forever upon God, the angels are pure receptacles of light; they contain nothing else, no medium intervenes between them and their object of contemplation, they are aware of none of the differentiations of time or space.8 Indifferent in the same sense as God to where the light falls in its reflection from them, they make no distinction between one or other tenement9 that may be open to receive it.

The souls of the blest, too, stand in the direct path of the light, and reglow to the point where nothing else of them but their light is visible: in the seven planetary heavens they are perceptible to the pilgrim's eye only as sparks, torches, splendours. But whereas the angels are composed of light, these are swathed with it, each according to its greater or lesser capacity sharing sweet life, with difference, by feeling more and less the eternal breath.10 And while direct intelligence of God is in the angelic being, the souls perceive God as external to themselves, however close, and everywhere deeper and wider than their capacity to scan or plumb. Turned directly towards him, they look into him as into the veracious mirror which doth make itself reflector of all other things,11 and read there accurately whatever the scope of their own vision permits. This is what the soul of St Thomas means when he says to the pilgrim:

“Così com'io del suo raggio resplendo,
          sì, riguardando nella luce etterna,
          li tuoi pensieri onde cagioni apprendo.”

“Even as I glow within its ray, so gazing into the eternal light I apprehend whence thou dost take occasion for thy thoughts.”

XI, 19-21

And similarly Cacciaguida to the pilgrim:

“… i minori e' grandi
          di questa vita miran nello speglio
          in che, prima che pensi, il pensier pandi.”

“… less and great in this life gaze on the mirror whereon, ere thou thinkest, thou dost outspread thy thought.”

XV, 61-63

The God-light when it enters the world, as we have seen, is indirect, reflected down from the angelic receivers, and thus tempered to weak receptacles. Each creature, well-made or poorly such as Nature furnishes it—takes what it can of the proffered light; each makes a fresh alloy with it, and reglows accordingly. Let men not complain of this differentiation of individuals, for it is not the amount of light he may be able to receive that determines how well a man may live, but his clear or sullied use of it.12 Great and small minds are found in Hell and Heaven. Further, this differentiation is man's collective boon: because of it man may live diversely and with diverse offices,13 and from the varied human membership create the ordered unity of the state.

Differentiation that resolves itself in unity, unity that gives birth to plurality—this is the way of God (as the two great images beginning and ending the Paradiso indicate), and the model followed as nearly as possible by man. The human intelligence divides its single light among the several faculties with which it explores experience; but, too, it strives to unify its perceptions in speculation. Now speculation, as we have already observed, is in Dante's view the supreme function of the human race. And, whether he judges entirely by the distinction this ability confers on man, or in part by the value he, himself, sets on it, Dante's strong sense of order is also pleased to observe that speculation has its divine archetype. How this may be we can see by examining the word speculation which proves, like its counterpart, reflection, to be a metaphor, and to mean in its literal sense, mirroring. Thus the human speculator who begins by mirroring such bits of truth as he may, copies the mirror of all mirrors which captures everything.14

Some mortal mirrors are darkened, as we have noted in Hell; but however faint or falsely coloured the light which reglows from these, it is one with that which illuminates the saints. For if aught else than the eternal good seduce your love, naught is it save some vestige of this light, ill understood, that shineth through therein.15

Actually the notion of this single light, everywhere given and everywhere sought after, running along so many strands of thought and action throughout the Comedy, is at the heart of the poem's deep life, so that one is false to it to some extent in every schematic or localized discussion. It yields, for example, an acute and profound approach to the tragic quality of man's existence, nowhere stated but built into the whole poem, hint by hint, from the earliest cantos. For we see that man's supreme objective is that unqualified absolute Light which is his source. We see that it was desire for this that engendered his first disobedience and brought about his Fall. In the world he is cut off from it, striving for it. In his notion of truth, which he holds to in his dispossession, and even in pagan ignorance, lies his guarantee that it exists. After long ages of bridgeless remoteness, it has again been made accessible by the Redemption. Yet it is still distant; and man is born with fallible senses and no knowledge of the roads. Material things lure him into their comfortable shadow; they generate the Dark Wood of desire into which he is virtually sure to stumble; they generate the three Beasts who, if he cannot circumvent them, will press him by their own paths into the darkest region of all, where he can no longer distinguish the cause of his suffering nor, therefore, cure it. But should he escape the Beasts, he must still pass through Hell and face its dangers in almost naked ignorance, in order to get the first glimmering of the light he so intensely desires and cannot yet locate. And if he emerges (the risk is very great), he must face the arduous purgatorial journey into that submission of self to a power greater than self, which Adam refused, and at which the Old Adam still rebels.

Between the downpouring of the light described in the first lines of the canticle and the gathering of the whole created universe into God at the end, lies the path travelled by Dante's pilgrim, from the condition of moral enlightenment in which he left Purgatory to the instant of transcendent illumination that completes the narrative. His moral education occurred under the light of the natural sun, the greatest minister of nature, who with the worth of heaven stampeth the world,16 displaying to him the practical good—the achievements of making and doing, witnessed in the things done and made there on the mountain. But doing and making are paths; they are undertaken for the sake of something else. If this is so they must come to an end when their goal is reached. And Dante takes this goal to be the perfect understanding that transcends all phenomena, together with its natural consequence of love for that which is understood. The souls of the elect in Paradise have come to the natural end of action, the natural end of their craving for things, and into the possession of them all in flawless contemplation.

The light that fills these souls they reflect willingly upon the living pilgrim. They shower him with discursive lessons, they teach him by their altered and still altering appearances, by their audible harmony and visible grace and ardour, until he begins to know how to winnow the phenomena of space and time for their concealed truths and how to value these on an eternal scale.

Beatrice, too, reflects her light on him. It is by gazing into her eyes and imitating her glance that he rises into the first heaven. With every lesson he masters, because he can see better, more brilliance is made manifest to him in her. She explains this to him in the first sphere:

“S'io ti fianmeggio nel caldo d'amore
          di là dal modo che 'n terra si vede,
          sì che delli occhi tuoi vinco il valore,
non ti maravigliar; che ciò procede
          da perfetto veder …”

“If I flame on thee in the warmth of love, beyond the measure witnessed upon earth, and so vanquish the power of thine eyes,

marvel not; for this proceedeth from perfect vision …”

V, 1-5

and adds:

“Io veggio ben sì come già resplende
          nell' intelletto tuo l'etterna luce …”

“Well do I note how in thine intellect already doth reglow the eternal light …”

V, 7-8

More and more refulgent until her beauty, which is a transcript of her light, is beyond the poet's ability to describe, Beatrice leads him from sphere to sphere of insight. With every apparent brightening we know that some further film of the human limitation has been lifted from his eyes. In the upper heavens he is blinded three times. The first of these seizures follows his seeing Christ as a sun surrounded by the lamps of the elect, in the Starry Heaven. Recovering, he records only that he now saw Beatrice with new clarity. Next blinded during his catechism by St John, he is restored by Beatrice and better than before I saw thereafter.17 Finally his vision is dazzled out by the living web of light that surrounds him when he enters the Empyrean; and, recovering, he notes that there is no such brightness unalloyed that mine eyes might not hold their own with it.18

There comes to his view at once a new sort of vision: a river of light from which emerge living sparks that drop into the cups of flowers along the banks. The sparks are angels; the flowers the redeemed. In this beguiling and surprising figure—which shows the One as a stream, always yet never the same, divided among its own drops and the flowers which these drops beget and nourish—Dante intends a thinning of the already tenuous symbolic mask that separates the pilgrim's mind from essential reality. Yet these appearances, however they enter his new eyes, are still, Beatrice warns, merely the shadowy prefaces of their reality.19 The pilgrim drinks the river with his eyes20; at once it changes into a rose of light bearing on its petals the hosts of the redeemed visible in yet one more new way. It is impossible for the poet to convey how he beheld them. But as folk under masks seem other than before, if they do off the semblance not their own wherein they hid them,21 both angels and the elect are now truly visible.

One must assume that the last of the progressively thinner sensuous appearances of things has here been removed, and that the pilgrim now sees essences without veil. I say we must assume this because, while everything points to this, it is a change we cannot be asked to follow with our own eyes. And indeed, the poet's language still contradicts it, speaking of the appearance of the rose, its colour and breadth, the faces of angels and the countenances of the blest. But such language continues to appear for somewhat the same reason Dante invokes to explain why the Scriptures assign a human-like body to God22: it is a language of accommodation, permitting the reader to grasp at least the nature, at least the direction, of the experience which—as experience—lies outside his reach.

Recognizing that the poem must either become silent at this point or else adopt the language of common reality, Dante makes the only choice possible to him. But we know that the faces and the petals of the rose which we imagine under sensuous form are not there at all in such form. They are in the pilgrim's mind. They are akin perhaps to what Kant calls intellectual or original perceptions, unmediated by time or space. The strongest proof that this is what Dante intends lies less in his repeated protests that he cannot tell what he saw than in the sudden, astonishing re-emergence of simple recognizability in the appearances of the blest. Heretofore all had been dazzling sparks of light. But St Bernard, appearing in Beatrice's place at the pilgrim's side as the rose comes to view, is an elder clad like the folk in glory. His eyes and cheeks were overpoured with benign gladness, in kindly gesture as befits a tender father.23 And from here on each member of the host is recognized at a glance.

It follows that God, too, if seen at all, must be seen by direct intellectual perception, without sensuous intermediation. And what else can be meant by such language as: my sight, becoming purged, now more and more was entering through the ray of the deep light which in itself is true24? What else (when the pilgrim fixes his eyes on the supreme light) can be meant by: Thenceforward was my vision mightier than our discourse, which faileth at such sight, and faileth memory at so great outrage25? God is witnessed as light, yes—but light shorn of every physical attribute, light as an intellectual percept, and thus in a way quite unavailable to mortal minds. And yet—the poem can do what no reasoning could do. It has crammed and crowded the reader's mind with images of light, dazzled him out of sensuous response; so that what remains is the idea of light without specific form, and he can by the analogy of this experience move towards some fleeting sense of what it might be to be suffused with truth, yet not to see, feel, taste, touch or smell.

We come at this point in the narrative of the Comedy to the second of the two great images which divide the Paradiso's theme between them, and which begin and end the canticle. In it the poet records the final and culminating vision of pure light and of the totality and unity of being. Bound in the volume of that light are the contents of universal creation: the scattered leaves of all the universe, substance and accidents and their relations as though together fused, the universal form of this complex. What are we to understand by this miraculous summary? The light, we know, is God; and God, according to Dante's theology, is an unmoved mover, receiving nothing whatsoever from without. But Dante's image does not contradict this. God is an eternal mirror of his own radiance reflected back from every member of the creation. He is the point whereto all times are present.26 Since his being is outside the dimension of time, there is no before or after in him, therefore his creative act and the response of his creatures throughout all time are, in his eternal dimension, simultaneous. Since his being is not in space, there is no place in him, and he is in no place; therefore all created things are, in his spaceless dimension, real yet without concrete form, and coexistent. He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, both as men conceive these—in a series—and as he himself does, with no lapse whatever between. As light he sends forth the creative ray that sets up the temporal-spatial universe and illumines it. As light he mirrors eternally the totality of the result.

The stress in the whole final canto falls clearly on the mystery of the many in the one, as in the earlier parts of the canticle it fell on the issuing of the one into multiplicity. In the flame of the final vision the pilgrim sees gathered the scattered leaves of all the universe, the total record of all that tends towards being and all that achieves it, fused into a flawless, simple whole. In the flame the universe is resumed without seam or break, freed of its delusive extensions in time and space; the strewn puzzle is assembled, the harmony of all its fragments established. If the flame is God in his totality and simplicity, the gathered leaves are the presence in him of that Idea which he expatiates in the creation. The pilgrim, gazing at the one in the other, stands in the presence of that towards which the whole cure of his eyes has been directed: that good of the intellect which those in Hell have lost, the primal Truth from which all men's splinter truths derive and by which in turn they must be measured. He comes to this vision of wholeness, as the story has told us, after the bitterest experience of wrong seeing, loss of way, miraculous aid, and a journey that regenerates the mind's eyes. A glimpse is all he gets—or needs. The vision breaks. He is returned to the world as a homing pilgrim in whom desire and will are now rolled by divine love even as a wheel that moveth equally.

Thus the pilgrim becomes again the poet; the poet who was the pilgrim is ready to write down the story and the sense of his journey; and the wheel-shaped Comedy of Dante Alighieri begins again.


  1. Par. II, 1-15

  2. The Carlyle-Wicksteed translation has here been altered to follow the original more exactly.

  3. IV, 125-126

  4. XXXIII, 54

  5. XIII, 55-57

  6. XIII, 53-54

  7. XXIX, 143-144

  8. Dante follows Aquinas in his definition of angels: they are, according to the Convivio, “substances sejunct from matter, to wit Intelligences.” In the same book Dante supposes that Plato had the angels in mind when he postulated his Ideas. Plato, he says (II, V, 20 ff.), “laid down not only as many Intelligences as there are movements of heaven, but just as many as there are kinds of things … And Plato called them Ideas”. If one follows the lead of this reasoning, one will see something of the rationale of angels, and will understand the importance they had for Dante as filling a place which would otherwise have been left vacant in the hierarchy of substances—namely that of pure act, free of any potentiality (see Par. XXIX, 13-36). I do not mean, however, to overstress the logic of these beings. Their gleaming presences express something further, namely that Truth is otherwise to be perceived as beauty.

  9. VIII, 129

  10. IV, 35-36

  11. XXVI, 103-108

  12. See Piccarda's remarks in III, 70-87.

  13. VIII, 118

  14. It follows that eyes capable of looking at God must see the total contents of all the minor, differently angled mirrors of the creation—and among these the whole history of every mortal mind. So says the great image at the end of the poem.

  15. V, 10-12

  16. Par. X, 28-29

  17. XXVI, 79

  18. XXX, 58

  19. XXX, 78

  20. XXX, 88-89

  21. XXX, 91-92

  22. Cf. IV, 40 ff.

  23. XXXI, 59-63

  24. XXXIII, 52-54

  25. XXXIII, 55-57

  26. XVII, 17-18


I. Works by Dante

La Divina Commedia: the best standard Italian edition is that of the Società Dantesca Italiana, with copious notes and commentary by Scartazzini and Vandelli. This is revised and reissued at frequent intervals by Hoepli at Milan.

Le Opere: testo critico della Società Dantesca Italiana. Florence, 1921.

Le Rime (ed. Gianfranco Contini). Turin, 1946.

Complete works in English translation, with the original printed on facing pages, except in the case of the Latin works; in five volumes, Temple Classics edition. London and New York.

II. Criticism and Aids to Criticism

Auerbach, Erich: Dante, Poet of the Secular World, transl. by R. Manheim. University of Chicago Press, 1961.

———. “Figura” in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, transl. by R. Manheim. Meridian Books, New York, 1959.

———. Mimesis, transl. by W. Trask. Princeton University Press, 1953.

Bodkin, Maude: Archetypal Patterns in Poetry. Vintage Books, New York, 1958.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K.: “Figures of Speech or Figures of Thought?” in volume of the same title. Luzac & Co., Ltd., London, 1946.

Croce, Benedetto: The Poetry of Dante, transl. by D. Ainslee. Henry Holt, New York, 1922.

De Sanctis, Francesco: Esposizione Critica della Divina Commedia. Naples, 1921.

Di Pino, Guido: La Figurazione della Luce nella Divina Commedia. Florence, 1952.

Dunbar, H. Flanders: Symbolism in Medieval Thought. Yale University Press, 1929.

Eliot, T. S.: “Dante” in Selected Essays. Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1932.

Fergusson, Francis: Dante's Drama of the Mind. Princeton University Press, 1953.

Fletcher, Jefferson B.: Symbolism of the Divine Comedy. Columbia University Press, 1921.

Gardner, Edmund: Dante's Ten Heavens. Constable & Co., Ltd., London, 1900.

———. Dante and the Mystics. Dutton, New York, 1913.

Malagoli, Luigi: Linguaggio e poesia nella Divina Commedia. Genoa, 1949.

Maritain, Jacques: “Dante's Innocence and Luck” in Kenyon Review. Gambier, Ohio, Spring, 1952.

Moore, Edward: Studies in Dante (in four series). Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1896-1917.

Santayana, George: Three Philosophical Poets. Harvard University Press, 1910.

Singleton, Charles: An Essay on the Vita Nuova. Harvard University Press, 1949.

———. Commedia: Elements of Structure. Harvard University Press, 1954.

———. Journey to Beatrice. Harvard University Press, 1958.

Stambler, Bernard: Dante's Other World. New York University Press, 1957.

Toynbee, Paget: Dante Studies and Researches. Milford, Oxford, 1921.

Wicksteed, Philip: Dante and Aquinas. Dutton, New York, 1913.

———. From Vita Nuova to Paradiso. Longmans & Co., Ltd., London, 1922.

Barbara Reynolds (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: Reynolds, Barbara. Introduction to The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine, Cantica III, Paradise (Il Paradiso), translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, pp. 13-52. London: Penguin Books, 1962.

[In the following essay, Reynolds describes the Paradiso as a work of timeless aesthetic and intellectual validity.]

It has been said1 that the joys of Heaven would be for most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste. In a sense, Dante's Paradise is a story about the acquisition of that taste. The Dante who has been down to the uttermost depths of Hell and has climbed the Mount of Purgatory, to behold on its summit the wonder and enchantment of the Earthly Paradise, is no more prepared, after all these tremendous and unique experiences, than we should be ourselves for what he finds in Heaven. He is bewildered by his ascent from earth and totally at a loss to describe how he enters the Moon; when souls first approach him, he mistakes them for reflections of people behind him; when Piccarda speaks to him of the hierarchy of bliss, he shows, by the question he asks, how much he has to learn about the nature of heavenly life; when the contemplatives in the Heaven of Saturn utter their cry of execration at the degeneracy of monastic life, he momentarily loses his wits and has to turn to Beatrice for reassurance, as a child runs to its mother; problems of grace and predestination trouble him, the very purpose of his whole experience eludes him; wonder, fear, amazement, and, at one point, even reprehensible curiosity characterize his state of mind. There is only one phase of his journey during which he may be said to feel reasonably certain of himself and that is when he undergoes the examination in faith, hope, and love, conducted, respectively, by St Peter, St James, and St John; though even then he commits the blunder of peering too inquisitively into the radiant deeps of the light of St John, hoping to glimpse the body in which, it was rumoured, the saint had been taken up into Heaven. Yet, as he mounts ever higher through the circling spheres and beyond them to the still centre of infinity which is the abode of God, his vision strengthens and he grows in understanding and love until, at last, in the unveiled presence of the Deity, his will and desire are integrated with the divine love. Although we may feel we are strangers in Heaven, Dante at least is known to us; he is our very selves.

He is, at the same time, most personally and intimately himself. Much has been written of an illuminating and edifying nature regarding the relevance of the Divine Comedy to life as lived by mankind in general, but the really tantalizing problem which the Paradiso presents is the extent to which it symbolizes Dante's own intellectual and spiritual development. Does the Beatific Vision in the last Canto represent a mystical experience which Dante himself underwent, or is it only a symbol, intellectually arrived at, of the relationship between man's understanding and divine revelation? What are we to make of the silences, the omissions, the confessions of inadequacy or downright inability to describe what he saw? Are these merely technical devices for suggesting the inexpressible, or do they represent some incommunicable phase of Dante's own intuition of the ineffable? How far, in other words, is the Paradiso a record of personal experience as well as a communication, in imagined form, of personal convictions?

Such questions as these, and many others akin to them, can never, perhaps, be answered, but they constitute a perennial challenge to readers of every generation and make the story of Dante's progress through Heaven one of the most fascinating and enigmatic autobiographies ever written. Yet the Paradiso has probably lost more readers than it has held. Many, taking Dante's warning to heart, must have turned back to “seek the safety of the shore.”2 These words by an early-nineteenth-century scholar and critic3 have still some truth today: “Few, even among the warmest admirers of Dante, have had the enthusiasm to follow him, step by step, through the last division of his stupendous edifice.” Macaulay, an ardent enthusiast for the narrative power of the poem as a whole,4 considered the Paradiso by no means equal to the two preceding parts, except in regard to its style. His reasons for considering it “far inferior to the Hell or the Purgatory” stem from a misunderstanding of the very quality in Dante which he so much admired, namely, his narrative skill. “Among the beatified he appears,” says Macaulay, “as one who has nothing in common with them—as one who is incapable of comprehending, not only the degree, but the nature of their enjoyment.” This is a striking instance of the mistake which readers have often made of confounding the character Dante (who in the story is bewildered when he first ascends to Heaven and, throughout his progress, in need of enlightenment and guidance) with the poet or creator Dante, whose mind and soul have comprehended the nature of heavenly joy as conveyed in the dialogues and descriptions devised for our understanding. For a still more surprising reason, Schiller thought the Paradiso boring—because it was all praise and no blame.5 He must have turned back early in the voyage—if he set out at all. Shelley, on the other hand, was profoundly and sensitively appreciative of the Paradiso, which he preferred to Inferno and Purgatorio, calling it “a perpetual hymn of everlasting love” and “the most glorious imagination of modern poetry.” Mr T. S. Eliot, for whom the Paradiso is “never dry”, but “either incomprehensible or intensely exciting” has lucidly perceived and indicated the relationship of the third cantica to the Commedia as a whole, and anyone wishing to be rightly orientated in this respect would do well to read his essay entitled “A Reading on the Purgatorio and Paradiso”, if he has not already done so.6

It has long been considered impossible for any commentator to enlist the general reader's interest in this third and last section of the Commedia and retain it to the end. On the whole, recent studies on the Paradiso have shown little sign of recanting this opinion, in that they are almost exclusively intended for specialists.7 It is often urged by scholars that the only way of understanding Dante is to put aside all knowledge and prejudice derived from the wisdom of a later age and to try to grasp the principles of his thought in the spirit of the fourteenth century, interpreting his mind in its totality by reference to the general intellectual and spiritual outlook of his time. There is much wisdom in such advice, although it is a counsel of perfection. Even so, to stop there is to remain in the realm of the relative and historical. It is perhaps the business of the commentator and critic to point to resemblances, as well as to differences, between the form of thought of a poet of the past, and our own, for it seems that unless this is done, and done repeatedly from generation to generation, works of the past cease to have significance for the ordinary reader, which is tantamount to saying that they cease to live.

Heaven has, of course, always been inconceivable, “passing man's understanding”. Of the few poets or prophets who have undertaken to describe it, even fewer have dared to keep us there for long. The angel comes, the river is passed and all the trumpets sound on the other side, but we do not enter the City. Milton's heaven is so distracted with wars and tumults that, except in a few isolated and magnificent lines, he is never really called upon to present us with the picture of changeless and inexhaustible bliss, and the same may perhaps be not unfairly said of the author of the Apocalypse. Of all the poets of fulfilment, Dante alone has had the astonishing courage to take us into Heaven and keep us there for thirty-three long cantos, building it to his ecstatic climax without introducing any grandiose events, any scenery, or any incantatory dreaminess which suspends disbelief by lulling the wits to sleep. His Heaven is at first sight almost disconcertingly lucid; it is only as it piles up, line upon line, dogma upon dogma, sphere upon sphere to the exquisite and mathematical exactitude of the final vision, that we realise how much of its power to convince lies precisely in its lucidity. Of the light of Heaven he says:

“Pure intellectual light, fulfilled with love,
          Love of the true Good, filled with all delight,
          Transcending sweet delight, all sweets above.”(8)

The word “intellectual” is significant; the light is that of reality.

It is in the Paradiso that we find affirmed with the utmost clarity and consistency the fundamental Christian proposition that the journey to God is the journey into reality. To know all things in God is to know them as they really are, for God is the only absolute and unconditioned Reality, of whose being all contingent realities are at best the types and mirrors, at worst the shadows and distortions—at best, the created universe, at worst the deliberately willed delusion which we call Hell.

When Dante and his poem venture, as best they may, into the world of Reality, his guide is Beatrice, who represents his own personal experience of the immanence of the Creator in the creature.9 In her he had seen, in those moments of revelation which he describes in the Vita Nuova, the eternal Beauty shining through the created beauty, the reality of Beatrice as God knew her. Apart from this personal image, Dante has restricted himself to only a very few simple and traditional symbols. For the physical structure of his ascent, he has taken the accepted system of the Ptolemaic heavens and has peopled them with souls representing the stages of spiritual attainment both in the active and contemplative life. But he is careful to insist that all these spirits really inhabit only one Heaven, which is God's presence, and is not in time or space at all, but contains within itself “every where and every when”.10 Except for Dante and Beatrice themselves, no human form appears between the second Heaven and the tenth. The dwellers in the Moon appear faint as reflections in clear water; those in Mercury only gleam out for a moment from the light of joy which partly shrouds them and in which all the dwellers in the heavens above them are wholly hidden. All the variety is provided by the changing colour and intensity of the lights and by the abstract patterns which they trace against a background, itself of pure light. From heaven to heaven Dante is conducted, beholding in each the reality of what each soul was in the earthly counterpart of the Heavenly City. In Venus he enters the Heaven of the Lovers, in Mars the Heaven of the Warriors who figure with Christ in a cross formed of two bands of white light constellated with radiances like rubies. He enters the intellectual Heaven of the Sun, where the great doctors of the Church, some of whom had disagreed upon earth, find all their partial truths reconciled in the One Truth and lead their shining and joyous dance in an ecstasy of mutual courtesy. In the Heaven of Jupiter, he beholds the form of the perfect Empire. There the souls gather in the shape of an Eagle and when the Eagle speaks, Dante says:

What I must now relate was ne'er with ink
          Written, nor told in speech, nor by the powers
          Of mind e'er grasped, to imagine it or think;
For I beheld and heard the beak discourse,
          And utter with its voice both Mine and Me,
          When in conception still 'twas Us and Ours.(11)

The spirits are one with another in love and will, and when that is so, then there is perfect Empire and perfect Justice. Above that is the Heaven of the Contemplatives, and above that, the Heaven of the Friends of Christ, where Dante sees Adam and the Apostles and the Virgin Mary. Above that, beyond the visible spheres, is the Primum Mobile or the Heaven of the Angels. At last Dante is taken to bathe his eyes in the River of Light, which is also the River of Time, and the flowing of time is turned into the circle of Eternity, the mystic Rose. He sees the ranks of the Blessed, rising up about him, tier upon tier, into the light of God; from the Heaven of Venus until now, he has seen them only as bright radiances, but now they are shown to him in their true shapes, wearing the body of glory which they will put on at the Resurrection.

Here Beatrice leaves him, her mission fulfilled. And now, at the prayer of Beatrice herself, of St Bernard the Great Contemplative, of the Virgin and of all the Saints, his eyes are opened to the ultimate realities. At first, he sees the universe, as God sees it. The entire created universe and everything in it: its substance (that is, the true being of the thing as it is in itself), its accidents (that is, its qualities, whatever they may be) and the mode or relationship which connects one thing with another, are seen as co-inhering in one simultaneous whole, so that what to us is an immeasurable and unimaginable succession of multiple events is revealed to him as a single and perfectly lucid unity. This, says Dante, is what he saw, and knows he saw, though the vision was gone in a flash and he cannot now recapture it. The “five-and-twenty centuries” which have passed since Jason's quest of the Golden Fleece could not bury it in deeper oblivion, yet he knows he saw it, for the joy and rapture of the vision are still realities to him.

Then, as he gazes into the light, it becomes the vision of God Himself in His Tri-Unity, the Father, and the Son eternally begotten of Him, and the Holy Ghost proceeding from Father and Son, wholly distinct in Person and wholly indivisible in Substance (that is, in essential being). This, of course, the poem can only convey by an image; and it is characteristic of Dante that he chooses an image of pure geometrical form, the famous image of the three distinct spheres occupying a single multidimensional space.

But there is one thing still to come. All his life he had known that the key to reality was somehow connected with that God-bearing image which was Beatrice, and yet not she, but which shone through and made her, as the vision of God shines through and makes the vision of the universe. So now he searches the Godhead for sight of the Master-Image, the Reality of which Beatrice was the figure, the union of Creator and created in the person of Christ. He sees it, but cannot understand it, and then in a flash it comes to him, beyond all understanding and yet known. In that supreme moment, “high fantasy” reaches its limit and leaves him, but in that moment he feels his whole being re-orientated and turning upon God as its true centre, as the heavens turn upon their poles.

As this visual music proceeds through its shimmering variations upon the theme of light, to resolve itself finally into one great harmony of recovered form,12 we begin to see the outline of a single over-riding pattern impressed on the whole poem, which is the pattern of salvation. In Dante's personal revelation, it stretches from the first image of the earthly Beatrice, through the loss of that image, to the recovery of the image in the heavenly Beatrice. In the ascent to contemplation, which is the Paradiso, it stretches from the faint lunar images of the first Heaven, through the overwhelming of the images, to the return of the images in the Celestial Rose, clear and distinct in the light without addition or substraction by distance. In the life of man, it stretches from the birth of the flesh, through the death of the flesh and the luminous persistence of the substantial form, to the triumphant resurrection of the flesh. The pattern is defined by Solomon in Canto xiv:

“Long as shall last the feast of Paradise,
          Even so long,” it said, “our love shall lace
          This radiance round us for our festal guise.
Its brightness with our fervour shall keep pace,
          Fervour with sight, sight so enlarge the mesh
          Of its own worth as it hath more of grace;
And when we put completeness on afresh,
          All the more gracious shall our person be,
          Reclothèd in the holy and glorious flesh; …
But, as the living coal which shoots forth fire
          Outgoes it in candescence, and is found
          Whole at the heart of it with shape entire,
The lustre which already swathes us round
          Shall be outlustred by the flesh, which long
          Day after day now moulders underground;
Nor shall that light have power to do us wrong,
          Since for all joys that shall delight us then
          The body's organs will be rendered strong.”(13)

It would be difficult to assert more emphatically that fundamental earthiness and particularity, that sanctity of the individual creature and of the “holy and glorious flesh”, which marks Christianity off so sharply from the Gnostic heresies. The body, by its very nature, implies difference—the Many over against the One. The heavenly life is not absorption into, but union with, the Absolute, for the creation of the Many is a deliberate divine act.

An act, moreover, of pure love, for the sake of the creature, giving to every created thing the joy of existing, of being, so far as it may, aware of its existence, and of responding to its Creator, after its own manner, by mirroring back to Him the glory of being which it derives from Him:

“Not to increase His good, which cannot be,
          But that His splendour, shining back, might say:
          Behold I am, in His eternity,
Beyond the measurement of night and day,
          Beyond all boundary, as He did please,
          New loves Eternal Love shed from His ray.”(14)

It is sometimes supposed that Dante and his contemporaries, living in an earth-centred cosmos so much smaller than that to which modern science has introduced us, had an over-weening sense of man's importance in the scheme of things. The truth is quite the contrary. For Dante, the earth was indeed at the centre of the universe, but the centre was the lowest and meanest point in the scale of creation. The cosmos as he conceived it was physically smaller than ours, but its range was greater, for it included vast orders of beings of which our statistical frame of reference can take no note. As mediaeval man stood upon the surface of his central earth, and gazed beyond it towards that august infinitude by Whom and in Whom and for Whom all things exist, his spiritual eye beheld, imaged by the concentric circlings of the heavenly spheres, the ninefold order, rank above rank, of the celestial Intelligences, his absolute superiors. Pure love, pure mind, pure will, pure spirit, these are the Angels, the “primal creatures”, the “first effects of God”. Living in perpetual contemplation of the final Reality, their wills perfectly conjoined to His, they, by His delegated authority, move and order the whole visible universe in obedience to eternal law. They and their operations include everything that we understand by the forces and operations of Nature. They are the Movers, controlling not only the motions of the spheres but all natural change throughout the universe—change being, for the mediaeval Aristotelian, simply a particular kind of motion. It is the Intelligences who (in Dante's metaphor) imprint upon the wax of matter the seal of form. Although they are the instruments of change, they are themselves by nature changeless, living in the mode of instantaneousness or (which is the same thing) of eternity. They know what they know, not by a process of learning, but by direct intuition as they contemplate the divine fountain of light and wisdom. Their only “proper motion”, so to call it, is the perpetual motion of love by which they circle about God, the Prime Mover, whom Dante sees as the point from which the heavens and all nature hang.15 By love, each order is attracted to the orders above and attracts the orders below it, so that “all are drawn to God and to Him draw”. And in its circling, each order sweeps its own celestial sphere along with it, so that the motions of the heavens are a reflection, an analogy, an allegory, of the loves of the angels. “Love”, said Dante, “moves the sun and the other stars.” “They are moved”, said Kepler, “by mutual attraction.” “The stars”, said Hegel, “are not pulled this way and that by mechanical forces; theirs is a free motion. They go their way, as the ancients said, like the blessed gods.” According to Dante, they move indeed “by attraction”, but theirs is also a “free motion”, for their movers are “the blessed gods”, who of their own free will perpetually move to the love that draws them.

Turning his eyes from the great celestial wheels, and looking downward at the earth, mediaeval man was aware of another section of the ladder of being, which dropped away below his feet. Immediately beneath him were the brutes, creatures endowed with an animal-sensitive soul, in addition to life and form and matter. Below them was the vegetable kingdom, whose matter had only life and form. Below this again was inorganic matter, having form only without life. And, underlying the whole, was the prime matter itself, mere being without form and as such unintelligible, scarcely being at all, but only the potentiality of being.16 Lower than this one could not go, except to the “dreadful centre” of Hell, which was the privation of being and the contradiction of reality, a number, as it were, on the minus side of the graph and possessing only that spurious and derived shadow of real being which minus numbers have.

Between these two hierarchies, and linking them, stood man himself, like the angels an eternal spirit, and like the brutes a compound of informed matter with a vegetative and an animal soul. His unique characteristic was the possession of a rational soul. He was not, like the Angels, wholly intuitive, nor, like the brutes, wholly instinctive; he could reason and learn. And like the angels he had a will that was by nature free in both the Augustinian senses: he had a minor liberty of being able to choose between means to an end (whether between good and evil, or between two goods which are alternative means to a good end); this was the liberum arbitrium; he had also a major liberty which consists in a total love-conformity of the will to God.

This was man's glory, as it was his shame, for he was the broken rung in the ladder of created being. He alone, rejecting the manner of knowledge appropriate to his place in the hierarchy, had desired to know “as God”, or at least, “as the gods”, disregarding the warning that no material being could know in that way without grievous damage to himself and his operations. This rebellion of the human will, of which the consequences are handed down subconsciously from generation to generation in the very act of generation, meant that man could not fulfil his functions spontaneously like the Intelligences and the lower creation. His work had to be redeemed by being incorporated into the Humanity of the Incarnate Godhead. The Incarnation is a new glory given to mankind; but that glory belongs to the act of God and not to the nature of man. The proper function of man, whether in his original or in his redeemed perfection, was, like that of the Intelligences, to draw up by love all the grades of the hierarchy below him, so that the whole material universe—organic and inorganic—might, in the Resurrection of the Body, be restored and transformed into the new heaven and new earth.

Modern science has not superseded mediaeval thought about the nature of creation, but only the physical picture which accompanied and illustrated it. In Dante's Divine Comedy, the form of the literal story is, of course, as much dictated by contemporary science as is that of any story of planetary adventure by Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, or C. S. Lewis. The pit of Hell, running down to the “great fundament of the universe, on which all weights downweigh”; the southern hemisphere, uninhabited and completely covered with water, in which Dante's fantasy has situated the island and the mountain of Purgatory; the nine concentric celestial spheres with their motions—all these things belonged to the accepted current cosmology; and Dante, like all writers on similar subjects, embellishes his tale with a multitude of astronomical and geographical details, so as to lend an air of conviction to his narrative. But this conventional picture is in no way necessary to his thought, or to the significance of his allegory. He could, for instance, have managed very well with a Copernican universe centred about the sun; in some ways it would have accommodated itself better to his ideas than the earth-centred universe he knew. For he has a picture of the angelic hierarchy circling about God as their centre—the nearest the swiftest, as Kepler's law demands; and Beatrice has to furnish quite an elaborate explanation of why this arrangement differs from that of the spheres themselves, of which (since they are regarded as wheeling daily about the earth) the farthest from the centre must obviously be accorded the highest velocity.17 The sun is frequently used as a type of God; consequently a universe revolving about a central sun would have offered great convenience to poetry. An Einsteinian ten-dimensional universe18 with no recognized centre might be supposed less appropriate for allegory, but if Dante had now to re-write his poem in conformity with twentieth-century physics he would probably seize on the interesting numerical correspondence between the ten heavens of his cosmology and the ten dimensions of ours, and find little difficulty in adapting his picture accordingly. Nor would a centreless universe disconcert him; it would fit in conveniently enough with the famous dictum of the Schoolmen that “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and its circumference nowhere.”

Dante's thought, then, while closely associated with the cosmology of his period, was in no way dependent on it. Philosophy in his day was the dominant branch of learning and what we now call science tended to conform its findings to the requirements of philosophy. This had long been the case. Aristarchus in the third century before Christ had suggested that the earth might revolve round the sun, but this theory was rejected on philosophic grounds. Or again, the movements of heavenly bodies were held to be circular because the circle was philosophically the perfect figure; it was not until Kepler's time that observation, fortified by improved instruments, was able to free itself from the constraints of an idealist philosophy of mathematics. But as experimental science gradually obtained the upper hand and became in its turn dominant, the ability to interpret poetic allegory and to distinguish the figure from the thing figured was lost. The poetic statements of the Bible, for instance, were mistaken for the factual statements which they were never intended to be; and it came to be felt that if the cosmic picture which they conveyed were false to fact, then the thought behind that picture must be false too. It does not follow that because Dante's schematic arrangement of circling spheres is an inexact picture of the physical heavens, and the southern hemisphere, on being explored, is found to contain no Mountain of Purgatory, that the religious and moral ideas which his cosmos allegorizes must, logically, be discarded. It would be as though a horticulturist reading:

There is a garden in her face
Where roses and white lilies blow

and proving by careful experiment that flower-gardens cannot be cultivated upon the human countenance, were to conclude that Thomas Campion's lady never existed, nor his love for her either. Similarly, when Darwin's theory of evolution was made known, honest-minded Christians saw themselves faced with a choice between intellectual integrity and religious belief. Darwinism would scarcely have worried Dante, whose system of delegated creation was flexible enough to allow considerable variation in the functioning of secondary causes.

Two other obstacles, more formidable by far than an outdated cosmology, stand in the way of the modern reader's enjoyment of Paradiso. One is the timelessness of Heaven;19 the other is the variation in the degrees of celestial bliss. The two are interdependent as concepts and both may be expressed in terms of a third, namely the absence of progress. This, to the twentieth-century mind, is perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of all, for one of the results of having substituted a philosophy of becoming for a philosophy of being is that the very notion of an achieved happiness has become not merely inconceivable but actually repugnant to us. Timelessness, or eternity, like Heaven itself, passes man's understanding. Like the concept of infinity, of which it is an aspect, it can only be suggested to man's intelligence by means of mathematical symbols or poetic imagery.

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
          All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years,
          Driv'n by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow mov'd; in which the world
          And all her train were hurl'd.(20)

These lines by a seventeenth-century poet express, by means of an image very similar to Dante's, the relationship of eternity to time. It is only as a negation of, or as something beyond or outside, time and space that we can apprehend eternity at all. “Beyond the measurement of night and day, beyond all boundary”, Dante says,21 God created the universe and, with it, time. But however we express it, the experience of timelessness eludes most of us. Indeed, if and when we grasp it, we experience beatitude. That is what happens to Dante during the vision in the last Canto of Paradiso. “Eternity”, said Boethius, “is the perfect and simultaneous possession of unending life”—unending, not in the sense of endless prolonging, but in the sense that a sphere in three-dimensional space has neither end nor beginning—and the entering into this eternity is beatitude.22

If Heaven is unconfined by time and space, it follows that all the Blessed are as they are, and can be no other, for eternity. Yet each spirit is content to be its true self, which now it knows, for what God wills, they also will, and His will is their peace.23 The knowledge that other souls exceed them in beatitude in no way diminishes their own meed of joy, and the very blemishes or imperfections of character which led them in their earthly life to merit lowlier celestial grace than others are now a matter for rejoicing. Thus the notorious Cunizza, speaking to Dante in the Heaven of Venus, gaily forgives herself the influence which love had over her life, since it is now her joy to will what God wills for her:

                                                            “… I was by name
Cunizza; and I glitter here because
I was o'ermastered by this planet's flame;
Yet gaily I forgive myself the cause
          Of this my lot, for here (though minds of clay
          May think this strange) 'tis gain to me, not loss.”(24)

Against the timeless, changeless beatitude of the Blessed, which, like eternity, we can conceive of intellectually but cannot experience, Dante has set the progression of his story, which moves in time and space like the hands of a clock across the motionless dial. Within the space-time continuum of the story, the souls appear to Dante in the various spheres as he ascends, though in the timeless and unchanging fulfilment of their bliss they never leave the Empyrean. Because Dante is still in the first life, impeded by the limitations of mortality, he cannot see things in their essence, as the Blessed do, but only in their sequence, which is how he is shown them; and though, in the final vision, he does for an instant glimpse the whole of life, by love “held bound into one volume”,25 he bears in mind the limitations of his mortal readers and tells the story of his approach to that instant, page by page, from the beginning to the end.26

If Heaven is beyond time and change, life on earth is a progression upward or downward according to man's choice. The souls in Heaven, who see all things in God, know every choice that man will ever make, but this foreknowledge, pertaining to the instantaneousness of their beatitude, does not in the least affect the freedom of man's will. As Cacciaguida, Dante's ancestor, explains:

“Contingence, which doth exercise no right
          Beyond that frame of matter where you lie,
          Stands all depicted in the Eternal Sight,
Though suffering thence no more necessity
          Than doth the vessel down the river gliding
          From its reflection in the watcher's eye.”(27)

Since man's will is free, it follows that the choice of good must be an occasion of rejoicing in Heaven and the choice of evil an occasion of wrath. And this we find to be the case. Against the ecstatic perfection of utter bliss experienced by the souls “beyond the frame of matter” is traced the crescendo or diminuendo of their joys in measure as they participate in the triumph or defeats of human life. It is difficult to grasp that the Blessed, remaining as they do untroubled in their ecstasy, are nevertheless closely and intimately concerned with the affairs of earth. The apparent contradiction is resolved if we regard the undiminished perfection of their beatitude, like their foreknowledge of contingence, as pertaining to the timelessness of Heaven, and the increase or clouding of their joy as a sign of their share in the experience of time which will continue until the Last Judgement. By means of the imagery of his story, Dante describes the souls as experiencing an ever-mounting ecstasy of joy as he himself ascends and grows in understanding. As the souls in the Moon draw near, they exclaim in delight:

“Lo! here is one that shall increase our loves”.28 Foulquet of Marseilles, in his joy at beholding Dante,

                    … flashed forth in brilliance clad
Like a fine ruby smitten by the sun.(29)

Cacciaguida, in his foreknowledge of the event, has awaited his descendant with “a long sweet eagerness” and bids him speak, that the sound of his voice may “slake the sweet thirst and longing” of his love.30

Perhaps more striking even than the enhancement of celestial joy by human fulfilment is the wrath of Heaven at wrong-doing upon earth. In the Heaven of the Contemplatives, a loud cry of execration greets St Peter Damian's denouncement of the corruption of monastic life; when St Peter proclaims the Holy See vacant in the eyes of Christ, all Heaven is veiled in shame as though by the darkness which shrouded the earth at the Crucifixion; in the Primum Mobile itself, on the very threshold of the abode of God, Beatrice rebukes the covetousness of mankind and pours scorn upon petty-minded and unworthy preachers who misrepresent or neglect the Gospel in their sermons. Her very last words to Dante are a reproach to the Italians who will resist the Emperor and a prophecy of the damnation of Pope Clement V who will join Boniface among the Simoniacs in the Third Bolgia:

“Him in the Holy Office no long term
          Will God endure, but thrust him down below
          Where Simon Magus pays his score, to squirm
Behind the Anagni man, who'll deeper go.”(31)

The more gladsome the rejoicing and the more vehement the wrath, the more emphatic is the assertion that man's will is free, for both emotions are meaningless if we are puppets of necessity. This, no doubt, is why the questions of astral determinism and free will were discussed on the Cornice of Wrath in Purgatory,32 and why Beatrice, whose expositions on the freedom of the will are among the great imperatives of the Paradiso, leaves Dante with this final image of judgement.

There is, of course, an important difference between celestial and earthly passions. In Heaven, the emotion of wrath is experienced with an utter detachment from all sense of guilt. In this the saints display an attitude that is in keeping with Catholic Christianity, which must always simultaneously affirm and deny the value and importance of the things of this world, being at once concerned with them and wholly detached from them. When loved in themselves and for the sake of the self they are, however intrinsically innocent, pomps and vanities, pitfalls and impediments, “falso piacer”, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes, the Siren who is the false Beatrice, the mere projection of the ego upon the surface of phenomena.33 But when they are loved for God's sake, because He makes and loves them, they are vehicles of His glory and sacraments of Himself, the teeth by which love grips the soul, the leaves of the Gardener's garden, the beauty of Beatrice, the eyes of Mary, the Incarnate God and the inmost mystery of the Godhead. This Dante has learnt, and the stages by which he has learnt it are the story of the Divine Comedy. When St John questions him concerning the secondary objects of his love (being satisfied that his highest love is directed to God), Dante replies:

 … “All ratchets which can severally
Revolve the heart towards God co-operate
And are indented with my charity:
The being of the world and my own state,
          The death He died that I might live the more,
          The hope in which I, by faith, participate,
The living truth which I conveyed before,
          Have dredged me from the sea of wrongful love,
          And of the right have set me on the shore.
And through the garden of the world I rove,
          Enamoured of its leaves in measure solely
          As God the Gardener nurtures them above.”(34)

As he concludes, the whole of Heaven fills with a song of praise, and Dante's sight, temporarily lost, is restored to him. His love, like that of the Blessed, has been set in order, so that concern for secondary good cannot disturb his love for God. That is why, beside every line of the Divine Comedy that repudiates the world one can place another that eagerly exalts it; that is why the Blessed are as joyously interested in the living Dante as they are indignantly interested in the living Boniface, and why, at the same time, not even the knowledge that Hell co-exists with Heaven can make the least wound in their eternal and unchanging beatitude.

The Relevance of Paradiso

The relevance of Dante's allegory of heavenly life to orthodox Christianity is not far to seek. What seems more difficult to establish is any connection between it and modern conceptions of the cosmos. Since the Renaissance and the Reformation, a rift, widening inexorably year by year, century by century, has divided the facts of religious experience from those of natural science. No comparable chasm existed in Dante's time; yet he, no less than modern man, was driven, by an intellectual and spiritual urge, to seek a synthesis between—what? Between matter and spirit, causation and free will, human justice and divine providence, merit and grace, time and eternity, earthly and heavenly life, man and God. This dual pattern still runs through all existence as it appears to man, and modern science, far from showing that a synthesis is irrelevant to our intellectual and spiritual condition, makes the need for it seem all the more urgent, while rendering it more and more difficult of achievement. How, then, can Dante's synthesis meet the requirements of modern man? The very suggestion that it could do so seems almost laughable. Those narrow circles revolving with the seven planets and the fixed stars—what a tight, suffocating little universe he imagines! What has it to do with the inconceivable dimensions of our expanding cosmos, with its receding galaxies, its primeval matter which draws ever nearer to the infinitesimal the further we pursue it along the scale of time, its immensity of space and duration which mathematics can symbolize but not measure, the inexpressible complexity and multiplicity of its evolution? How can the Divine Comedy, above all the third cantica, Paradise, lay claim to the serious attention of any but historians of literature and thought?

Anyone who undertakes to interpret Dante's Paradise for the general reader in the mid twentieth century must, in all honesty, ask himself these questions. He may, of course, attempt to evade them by seeking refuge in the values and criteria of poetry, but even there the same questions will eventually obtrude themselves. This is a poem about the universe; if the poet's data are no longer valid in relation to our present knowledge of the cosmos, does the work move us by its verbal beauty alone? Or has the poet's intuition seized and communicated transcendant truths to which we are now returning by another route?

It is beginning to look as though this may be the case. The synthesis achieved by Teilhard de Chardin in his remarkable work The Phenomenon of Man35 would have delighted Dante, as it must indeed delight all Dantists, renewing as it does an awareness of the enduring validity of his poem. There can be little doubt that if Dante were writing the Paradiso today, Teilhard de Chardin would shine forth among that double circle of lights which are the souls of those who sought to reconcile the truth of man with that of God.

Like Dante, Teilhard de Chardin had a strong visual imagination. With all the means of verification which modern science commands, man is still, for Teilhard, at the stage of picture language, or allegory, at least as regards communication with his fellows. Speaking of the phases of life which ran their course before the appearance of thought on earth, he says: “I do not pretend to describe them as they really were, but rather as we must picture them to ourselves so that the world may be true for us at this moment.36 What is remarkable is not so much that man still uses pictures to convey his thought, for metaphor is the very stuff of language, but that the same pictures keep recurring. The image of the circle is particularly persistent. This may have something to do with the roundness of the earth, the sphericity of man's environment, to which Teilhard attributes the intensification of man's psychosocial activity, and to which Sir Julian Huxley traces ultimately what he calls “the bounding structure of evolving man, marking him off from the rest of the universe and yet facilitating exchange with it.”37 Whatever the ultimate cause may be, it is remarkable that a poet and a scientist, separated by over 600 years and approaching the subject from what would seem to be totally opposed points of view, should both use the sphere as the image of the universe and the “Point Beyond” as the image of God or Omega. The All towards which the universe, in Teilhard's interpretation of phenomena, is shown to be converging, is imaged by him as a Point38 beyond the sphere of the world, “which only exists and is finally perceptible (however immense its sphere) in the directions in which its radii meet—even if it were beyond space and time altogether”.39 Dante would be perfectly at home with such imagery; and the modern reader who concerns himself with these immense and challenging considerations—and, in our present-day dilemma and bewilderment, how can any of us fail to do so?—will find in Dante's Prime Mover existing in a spaceless and timeless Empyrean an image no more remote and no less relevant than the cogitations of a twentieth-century scientist.

On the relation of the Ego with the All, Teilhard, again resorting to the image of the circle, speaks of the three-fold property possessed by every consciousness:

  • (1) of centring everything partially on itself;
  • (2) of being able to centre itself upon itself constantly and increasingly;
  • (3) of being brought by this very super-centration into association with all the other centres surrounding it. Each consciousness exists for ever as itself, but can only be fully realized as itself by integration with the Whole; or, to express it as Sir Julian Huxley has done, “persons are individuals who transcend their merely organic individuality in conscious participation.”40 For the scientist, then, no less than for the theologian, personality exists; and, further, for the scientist, no less than for the theologian, it participates in, but cannot be absorbed by, the Absolute. “In and by means of each one of us,” says Teilhard, “an absolutely original centre is established in which the universe is reflected in a unique and inimitable way.” These centres are our very selves and personalities, which, he goes on to show, in terms of the reasoning which sustains his whole book, grow conscious of themselves the more fully they evolve, becoming more clearly distinct from others the closer they draw to the All or Omega.41

In both Dante and Teilhard the relationship of the Many to the One is perceived as the persistence of the personal consciousness (i.e. the soul) and the centring of the consciousness upon the centre of all centres (i.e. God).

On the subject of love, also, the poet and the scientist are basically in perfect agreement.42 This is not so surprising as it might seem, for both are concerned with the dynamism of love rather than its passive or sentimental aspect. According to Teilhard: “Love in all its subtleties is nothing more, and nothing less, than the more or less direct trace marked on the heart of the element by the psychical convergence of the universe upon itself.43 This statement, for all its modern connotations, would have been, with certain reservations, acceptable to the thirteenth-century poet, Guido Guinizelli, whose famous poem on the nature of love44 conveys much the same conviction. It could stand, without alteration, as an explanation of Dante's vision of love at the end of the Vita Nuova.45 He does not there describe that vision to us, but from the Divine Comedy, which is the fulfilment of the pledge he there makes, we may reconstruct something of its nature and of the route by which he came to see that the love he experienced was something he shared with all creation. “If there were no internal propensity to unite”, says Teilhard, “even at a prodigiously rudimentary level—indeed in the molecule itself—it would be physically impossible for love to appear higher up, with us, in ‘hominized’ form. By rights, to be certain of its presence in ourselves, we should assume its presence, at least in an inchoate form, in everything that is. And in fact if we look around us at the confluent ascent of consciousness, we see it is not lacking anywhere.”46 Dante, in the Convivio, says very much the same, all due allowance being made for the different data which were available to him,47 and he says it again, in a more condensed form and in a different context, through the mouth of Virgil in Purgatory.48

If consciousness persists and is truly realized only on being integrated with the All, it follows that “a universal love is not only psychologically possible; it is the only complete and final way in which we are able to love.”49 Here, expressed in terms of scientific reasoning, is Dante's Celestial Rose. “Universal love” may seem much vaguer than Dante's precise and symmetrical picture of the souls seated on thrones and all visible to him in human form despite the measureless dimensions of time and space; but Teilhard, though he speaks in the abstract, is no less specific and personalized than Dante on this question. “Love,” he says, “dies in contact with the impersonal and anonymous. With equal infallibility it becomes impoverished with remoteness in space—and still more, much more, with difference in time. For love to be possible there must be co-existence.”50 Therefore, Omega, or, to use Teilhard's, no less than Dante's, image, the Prime Mover ahead, must be supremely present and the consciousness converging towards it must at the same time draw further and further away from anonymity, becoming increasingly actual and personal the nearer it approaches to the personalizing action of the centre of centres.

At every essential point, the image or allegory which Dante's intuition has constructed upon the basis of his admittedly limited knowledge of the material world touches and joins hands with this recent structure assembled from the disparate elements of modern scientific discovery and thought. Even the scholastic division of substance and accident has its counterpart in Teilhard's “without” and “within” of things; and the reconciliation of causation with the freedom inherent in consciousness is tentatively essayed when he asks:

Determinate without and “free” within—would the two aspects of things be irreducible and incommensurable? If so, what is your solution?51

Of unity-in-multiplicity, he shows three different views. The first, looking downwards, so to speak, scrutinizes the infinitesimal being of ultimate matter:

It is almost as if the stuff of which all stuff is made were reducible in the end to some simple and unique kind of substance.52

The second is an intermediate view, showing the conjunction of plurality with identity:

We do not get what we call matter as a result of the simple aggregation and juxtaposition of atoms. For that, a mysterious identity must absorb and cement them, an influence at which our mind rebels in bewilderment at first but which in the end it must perforce accept.53

The “upwards” view, of the universe as a total aggregate within an immeasurable and unimaginable element or being, is expressed as follows:

The history of consciousness and its place in the world remain incomprehensible to anyone who has not seen first of all that the cosmos in which man finds himself caught up constitutes, by reason of the unimpeachable wholeness of its whole, a system, a totum and a quantum: a system by its plurality, a totum by its unity, a quantum by its energy; all three within a boundless contour.54

If relevance to modern life and thought is conceded to such considerations as these, then relevance must also be conceded to Dante's Paradise, and relevance of the same kind. Both writers are talking about the same things, though in different ways and on different scales. In comparison with our cosmos, the universe of Dante seems a very miniature model indeed; but if Teilhard de Chardin has rightly described the phenomena of the universe as we now know it, he has shown that the same principles are valid, ultimately, for both.

The Allegory of Paradise

As regards the discrepancies which are said to exist between the Epistle [to Can Grande] and other works by Dante, the most important is that which relates to his discussion of allegory. As this is a crucial matter, not only for the genuineness or otherwise of the Epistle, but also for every reader's understanding of the Divine Comedy, it must be examined at some length. At the beginning of the first tractate of the Convivio, Dante expresses his intention of explaining fourteen of his odes “by means of allegorical interpretation after the literal narrative has been discussed.”55 In the first chapter of the second tractate, he explains what he means by the terms “literal” and “allegorical”:

I say that, as is affirmed in the first chapter, it is meet for this exposition to be both literal and allegorical. And to make this intelligible, it should be known that writings can be understood and ought to be expounded chiefly in four senses. The first is called literal [and this is that sense which does not go beyond the strict limits of the letter; the second is called allegorical], and this is disguised under the cloak of such stories, and is a truth hidden under a beautiful fiction. Thus Ovid says that Orpheus with his lyre made beasts tame, and trees and stones move towards himself; that is to say that the wise man by the instrument of his voice makes cruel hearts grow mild and humble, and those who have not the life of science and of art move to his will, while they who have no rational life are as it were like stones. And why this disguise was invented by the wise will be shown in the last tractate but one. Theologians indeed do not apprehend this sense in the same fashion as poets; but, inasmuch as my intention is to follow here the custom of poets, I will take the allegorical sense after the manner which poets use.

The third sense is called moral; and this sense is that for which teachers ought as they go through writings intently to watch for their own profit and that of their hearers; as in the Gospel when Christ ascended the Mount to be transfigured, we may be watchful of His taking with Himself the three Apostles out of the twelve; whereby morally it may be understood that for the most secret affairs we ought to have few companions.

The fourth sense is called anagogic, that is, above the senses; and this occurs when a writing is spiritually expounded, which even in the literal sense by the things signified likewise gives intimation of higher matters belonging to the eternal glory; as can be seen in that song of the prophet which says that, when the people of Israel went out of Egypt, Judaea was made holy and free. And although it be plain that this is true according to the letter, that which is spiritually understood is not less true, namely, that when the soul issues forth from sin she is made holy and free as mistress of herself.56

It will be seen that, in this passage, Dante regards the three figurative senses as three possible interpretations of the literal, but does not say whether any one text could be susceptible of all three interpretations. The fact that he uses a different text to illustrate each of the three implies that he did not regard them as “layers” of meaning underlying a single text, nor even as alternatives, but as possible meanings which were relevant according to the nature of the literal sense.

In the Epistle to Can Grande, Dante discusses the four meanings as follows:

For the elucidation, therefore, of what we have to say, it must be understood that the meaning of this work57 is not of one kind only; rather the work may be described as “polysemous”, that is, having several meanings; for the first meaning is that which is conveyed by the letter, and the next is that which is conveyed by what the letter signifies; the former of which is called literal, while the latter is called allegorical or moral or anagogical.58 And for the better illustration of this method of exposition we may apply it to the following verses: “When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion.” For if we consider the letter alone, the thing signified to us is the going out of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption through Christ is signified; if the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace is signified; if the anagogical, the passing of the sanctified soul from the bondage of the corruption of this world to the liberty of everlasting glory is signified. And although these mystical meanings are called by various names, they may one and all in a general sense be termed allegorical, inasmuch as they are different from the literal or historical.59

It will be seen that in this passage there is a two-fold generic division between the literal and the allegorical sense, and under the latter are listed three “species” of meaning, allegorical (in its second sense), moral and anagogical. …

How does this difference affect the question of the authenticity of the Epistle? According to Moore, it is an argument in support of it, since anyone forging the letter and hoping to pass it off as authentic would have been careful to make this passage tally exactly with the corresponding passage in the Convivio, the contents of which would be well known. If we consider that Dante wrote both passages, we have only to suppose that after eleven or twelve years of writing allegory (from 1307 to 1318), he had altered his view of it. The surprising thing is that he altered it so little. What he has done is to reinforce the two-fold division into literal and allegorical, a division which is in any case the one selected by him in the Convivio to serve as the framework for the exposition of his own odes.

The new emphasis in the Epistle on the basically two-fold pattern of meaning is of paramount importance as regards the Commedia.60 In the Convivio Dante was concerned with distinguishing the allegorical from the literal sense of certain love poems he had written previously. At the time of writing the Epistle, he has been constructing an allegory for many years, and an allegory, moreover, of sublime and universal significance. One might have expected that in the process his distinctions between the possible interpretations of the literal sense would have become more numerous and complicated. On the contrary, he has reduced them from three to one:

… it is clear that the subject, with regard to which the alternative meanings are brought into play, must be twofold (“duplex”). And therefore the subject of this work must be considered in the first place from the point of view of the literal meaning, and next from that of the allegorical interpretation. The subject, then, of the whole work, taken in the literal sense only, is the state of the souls after death, pure and simple.61 For on and about that the argument of the whole work turns. If, however, the work be regarded from the allegorical point of view, the subject is man, according as by his merits or demerits in the exercise of his free will he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice.62

Dante's intention is perfectly clear. If confusion arises it is because allegory, by its very nature, cannot be limited to a two-fold interpretation. A lily can signify Florence, or France, or the Ghibelline party, or the Virgin Mary, or Christ, or all these things together, in various combinations of inter-related meaning. Dante saw these possible complications, which is why he tried to clarify the matter, warning us, in the Monarchia, against looking for allegory “where it is not, or taking it as it ought not to be taken”,63 and firmly restricting the allegorical significance of the Commedia to one, and one only, in the Epistle.

This, however, is all very well. Dante chose, for the literal and the allegorical meanings of his work, a subject which by the universality of its significance and application embraces the whole of life, namely, in the literal sense, “the state of souls after death”, and, in the allegorical sense, “man, according as by his merits and demerits in the exercise of his free will he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice”. How are we to understand “man” (“homo”) in this context? As mankind in history, as man in society, or as man's individual soul, or as all three? And if all three, are we to look for the meanings separately or in combination? As soon as we examine it, the very stuff of allegory divides and sub-divides before our eyes, despite Dante's determined attempt to bind it together. If we add to its inherent complexities the multiple connotations of language, and, still more, of the highly associative and emotive form of language which is poetry, we begin to understand why Dante insisted that his work was two-fold in meaning, and two-fold only. He was no doubt anxious to prevent readers (perhaps the Inferno and Purgatorio were already suffering in this way) from reducing his orderly and coherent structure to elemental chaos.

Nevertheless, as Dante himself perfectly well perceived, and as he demonstrates in the Epistle in relation to the psalm, “When Israel went out of Egypt”, the two-fold significance (literal and allegorical) can be unfolded into a four-fold interpretation,64 and commentators who avail themselves of its range are not departing from what Dante has laid down. Beyond these boundaries, however, anything can happen. The American scholar, H. Flanders Dunbar, perceived no fewer than nine levels of allegory in the Commedia and could no doubt have found more, for she concludes: “It is only through multiplicity of interpretation that approach to the truth is gained.”65 To this, Dante would no doubt have replied by quoting again from St Augustine, as he does in the Monarchia:66 “It is the same mistake as is made by someone who, leaving the right path, comes by a circuitous route to the place to which the road leads … his error should be pointed out to him for fear lest his habit of leaving the path should carry him into cross roads and wrong ones.”

It is a relief to turn from the complex systems of interpretation erected by some commentators to the austere words of Umberto Cosmo: “The supremely important thing is that we should not lose sight of the poetic reality through being too meticulous in our search for the right interpretation.”67 As Dante himself said, “the literal sense ought always to come first, as being that sense in the expression of which the others are all included, and without which it would be impossible and irrational to give attention to the other meanings, and most of all to the allegorical … I therefore will first discuss the literal meaning, and after that will speak of its allegory, that is, of the hidden truth contained in it, and sometimes I shall touch incidentally on the other meanings (i.e. the moral and the anagogical) as place and time shall permit.”68 He shows no sign of having changed his mind about this, for in the Epistle he likewise begins his commentary with an exposition of the literal meaning of the beginning of Paradiso.

Accordingly, in the Notes which accompany the present translation, attention has been paid first and foremost to the literal sense. The allegorical sense, in relation to the literal, is discussed chiefly in the sections entitled “Images”. When the literal and the allegorical expositions have been considered, it will be found that the other meanings (the moral and anagogical) are either implied or, as Dante puts it, are touched on incidentally as place and time have permitted.

Beatrice in Paradiso

It is perhaps necessary to add something to what has already been said concerning Beatrice in the first volume in this series.69 As in the Inferno and Purgatorio, so also in Paradiso, Beatrice in the story is what she was in real life. Like Piccarda or Cunizza or Cacciaguida, or like Dante himself, she is, first of all, a person. There can be no doubt about this, for in the Celestial Rose she returns to the place among all the other saints, all of whom are persons. For Dante, Beatrice is actively present, since like all the Blessed in Heaven, she knows clearly what happens on earth. It is quite in accordance with Catholic orthodoxy for Dante to believe that Beatrice intervened for his salvation, as it is for him to offer thanks to her for what she has done and pray to her that she may continue to watch over him:

“O thou in whom my hopes securely dwell,
          And who, to bring my soul to Paradise,
          Didst leave the imprint of thy steps in Hell,
Of all that I have looked on with these eyes
          Thy goodness and thy power have fitted me
          The holiness and grace to recognize.
Thou hast led me, a slave, to liberty,
          By every path, and using every means
          Which to fulfil this task were granted thee,
Keep turned towards me thy munificence
          So that my soul which thou hast remedied
          May please thee when it quits the bonds of sense.”
Such was my prayer and she, so distant fled,
          It seemed, did smile and look on me once more,
          Then to the eternal fountain turned her head.(70)

The last glimpse we have of her is as she folds her hands in prayer, with all the thronging multitude of the heavenly host, that the Virgin Mary may intercede for Dante that he may behold God.

What Dante tells us is that in real life Beatrice and his love for her were the medium of his moral reform and of his religious salvation. In the story, or poetic reality, he represents the influence she had on him by, in the Inferno, her visit to Virgil in the Limbo, in the Purgatorio, her accusation and reproaches, his confession and repentance and the ensuing reconciliation, and, in the Paradiso, by the power of her beauty to uplift him and of her knowledge and understanding to enlighten him.

In the allegory, Beatrice does not exclusively or specifically “stand for” theology, the Christian revelation, heavenly beatitude, the light of glory or any of the abstractions which, in the course of centuries, have been put forward by critics and scholars. She is the image by which Dante perceives such things and her function in the poem is to bring him to that state in which he is able to perceive them directly. To quote the great mediaevalist and Dantist, Étienne Gilson, “It is right to mark them and associate them with the figure of Beatrice, but we cannot, without being presumptuous, infer that she actually is the Light of Glory, or Theology, or the Contemplative Life, or, broadly speaking, any of these ideas. We have not even the right to infer that she is the Christian Life regarded as a whole. The sanctity of this member of the elect does not entitle us to equate her to this any more than that of St Francis, St Dominic and St Bernard entitles us to identify them with similar abstractions.”71 The role of Beatrice in the Comedy is, however, more prolonged and implicated than that of any other saint and, though she is never wholly an abstraction, there are moments when the allegorical significance of her reality (or, literal sense) can be unfolded into a multiple interpretation, as, for instance, in Canto xxxi of Purgatory, when in the mirror of Revelation (the eyes of Beatrice) Dante sees the double Nature of the Incarnate Love—now as wholly divine, now as wholly human, or in Canto xxviii of Paradise, when her eyes image the theological demonstrations of the Church concerning the unity of God. The important thing is to avoid defining her too narrowly, in either her literal or her allegorical meaning. Perhaps the most comprehensive thing one might say concerning Beatrice is that she is for Dante the embodiment of his experience of love.

The Ideal of Justice in Paradiso

For an understanding of Dante's ideal of justice, it is necessary to read his treatise on world monarchy. The issue is one on which he held the most passionate and blazing convictions and, though it is not the chief, it is a dominant theme in the Divine Comedy. Justice, as Dante conceived it philosophically, is an absolute standard of righteousness. In the world, in which nothing can be perfect, a maximum of justice can be found where there is a minimum of injustice. The antithesis of justice, which provokes injustice, is greed or covetousness. The sharpener and enlightener of justice is charity, which is incompatible with covetousness. The establishment, therefore, of universal love is a necessary condition of the reign of justice. How can this be brought about? Only by a universal Monarch, a single world Emperor, who alone, of all temporal rulers, would be free from covetousness and disposed, therefore, to act in accordance with the maximum justice possible on earth.

Since these are his convictions, we can understand why Dante lashes out with such vehement invective against the enemies of justice, namely, greed and rivalry for wealth and power, particularly as manifested in the temporal ambitions of the Church and clergy, whose betrayal of their divine function he attacks with an implacable hatred.

The betrayal of his great ideal of justice Dante condemns and despises more than any other sin. Judas, the betrayer of Christ, and Cassius and Brutus, the betrayers of Caesar, are in the ultimate depths of Hell, in the very mouths of Satan. Hell itself is chiefly filled with sins of injustice in its widest sense. What he esteems and exalts above all virtues is loyalty to the ideal of justice, to the temporal powers appointed by God for its establishment on earth, to the great authorities whose origins are sacred, the Church and the Empire; for justice is rendering what is due to God as well as to man.

These are the basic conceptions underlying the cantos in Paradise which are an apotheosis of Roman or Imperial justice (i.e. the canto of Justinian and the cantos of the Eagle) and those in which resistance to this ideal or a falling away from it is condemned, as for instance, in Cacciaguida's denigration of contemporary Florence, or St Peter's denunciation of Pope Boniface. The whole of Paradise is poignant with the thought of what might have been if Henry of Luxemburg had succeeded, and exultant with the poet's faith that one day justice will triumph over greed:

“Ere January be unwintered, through
          The hundredth of a day which men neglect,
          These lofty circles shall give vent unto
Such roaring, that the storm we long expect
          Shall whirl the vessels round upon their route,
          Setting the fleet to sail a course direct;
And from the blossom shall come forth true fruit.”(72)


  1. by C. S. Lewis.

  2. Canto ii. 4.

  3. Robert Bland, 1779–1825.

  4. He called it “the finest narrative poem of modern times” and said: “The great source, as it appears to me, of the power of the Divine Comedy is the strong belief with which the story seems to be told. In this respect, the only books which approach to its excellence are Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe.” (Miscellaneous Writings, ed. 1875, pp. 21–32.) It is interesting to compare with this the emphasis laid by Dorothy L. Sayers on the compelling power of the Divine Comedy as a narrative, an aspect of the work which has tended since the time of Macaulay to become overlaid by allegorical interpretations. (See her article “… And Telling You a Story” in Further Papers on Dante, Methuen, 1957.)

  5. Goethe-Schiller Correspondence, letter to Goethe, 27 August 1799.

  6. Dante, Faber and Faber, 1929.

  7. An exception to this is the article by Dorothy L. Sayers, originally given as an expository lecture to a non-specialized audience, entitled “The Meaning of Heaven and Hell” (Introductory Papers on Dante, Methuen, 1954, pp. 44–72).

  8. Canto xxx. 40–42.

  9. For a discussion of the significance of Beatrice in Paradise, see below [in Reynolds, Barbara. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, The Florentine, Cantica III, Paradise (Il Paradiso). London: Penguin, 1962.], pp. 49–51.

  10. Canto xxix. 12.

  11. Canto xix. 7–12.

  12. i.e. the Blessed in bodily form in the Celestial Rose.

  13. Canto xiv. 37–45, 52–60.

  14. Canto xxix. 13-18.

  15. Canto xxviii. 42.

  16. Compare with this conception the following passage from J. B. S. Haldane's The Inequality of Man (Chatto, 1932), p. 113: “We do not find obvious evidence of life or mind in so-called inert matter, and we naturally study them most easily where they are most completely manifested; but if the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them, at least in rudimentary forms, all through the universe.”

  17. See Canto xxviii.

  18. According to Einstein's law of gravitation, there are ten principal measures or coefficients of curvature of the world. “Space-time is a four-dimensional manifold embedded in … as many dimensions as it can find new ways to twist about in; … its invention is not exhausted until it has been provided with six extra dimensions, making ten dimensions in all.” (See A. S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, Cambridge University Press, 1928, p. 120.)

  19. The concept of timelessness, or eternity, is of course inherent in Christianity and not particular to the concepts of Paradiso.

  20. Henry Vaughan, The World.

  21. Canto xxix. 16–17.

  22. Consolatio Philosophiae, V, vi, and ii.

  23. Canto iii, 85. From the last Canto, xxxiii, 109–14, we learn that, for Dante, the perfected life, which is the eternal vision of God, does not mean that further progress is impossible; on the contrary, eternal life means an endlessly deepening vision of the inexhaustible.

  24. Canto ix. 32–6.

  25. Canto xxxiii. 85–6.

  26. Readers interested in the theological implications of the gradualness of Dante's approach to the Beatific Vision will find an illuminating treatment of the subject in the article by Kenelm Foster, “Dante's Vision of God”, Italian Studies, 1959, pp. 21–39.

  27. Canto xvii. 37–42.

  28. Canto v. 105.

  29. Canto ix. 68–9.

  30. Canto xv. 49, 64.

  31. Canto xxx. 145–8.

  32. Purg. Canto xvi.

  33. This is the substance of the doctrine of Purgatory. See especially Cantos xvii and xviii.

  34. Canto xxvi. 55–66.

  35. English translation by Bernard Wall and others, Collins, 1959. All quotations are from this edition.

  36. op. cit., p. 35; italics mine, B. R.

  37. ibid., Introduction, pp. 17–18.

  38. Strictly speaking, Teilhard places it beyond, though in line with, that ultimate Point which man's mind can conceive. “This is in deference to the theological concept of the ‘supernatural’ according to which the binding contact between God and the world, hic et nunc inchoate, attains to a superintimacy (which is thus outside all logic) of which man can have no inkling and to which he can lay no claim by virtue of his ‘nature’ alone.” (p. 298.)

  39. p. 259. My italics, B. R.

  40. op. cit. Introduction, p. 20.

  41. For a full discussion of this, see Teilhard, op. cit., pp. 261–2.

  42. It is perhaps necessary to make clear that there is here no intention of indicating the “influence” of Dante on Teilhard, who makes no mention of him in The Phenomenon of Man and gives no indication of having read him. Some points of contact between them are traceable, ultimately, to a common Catholic heritage; but this does not account for them all.

  43. p. 265. Italics are mine, B. R.

  44. Al cor gentil ripara sempre amor”. It would have been less acceptable to Dante's friend and fellow poet, Guido Cavalcanti, whose Averrhoistic concept of love was in conflict with his soul's awareness. Dante quotes Guinizelli's poem in the Vita Nuova and by the conversation he holds with him in the Purgatorio shows how much he regarded himself as indebted to him (see Purg., Canto XXVI).

  45. See xliii.

  46. p. 264.

  47. Tractate III, Ch. ii and iii.

  48. Cantos xvii-xviii.

  49. Teilhard, op. cit., p. 267.

  50. p. 269.

  51. p. 57.

  52. p. 41. Compare with this, Paradise, Canto ii. 112–20 and note.

  53. p. 42. Compare with this, Paradise, Canto xxix. 28–36 and note.

  54. p. 43. Compare with this the Vision of the Universe in God, Paradise, Canto xxxiii.

  55. W. W. Jackson's translation (Oxford, Clarendon, 1909), p. 34.

  56. pp. 73–4. The passage between brackets is a reconstruction (here translated from the Italian) of a lacuna in the text. “But no one who knows the general argument of the whole work will, I think, make serious objection to the way the editors of the accepted text have filled the lacuna.” (C. S. Singleton, Dante Studies I, Harvard University Press, 1954, p. 84.)

  57. i.e. the Commedia.

  58. I follow here the accepted text of the Società Dantesca.

  59. ed. cit., p. 199.

  60. This new emphasis has been recognized by Professor C. S. Singleton as a shift from the allegory of poets (cf. Convivio II, 1, 4) to the allegory of theologians. He ingeniously defines it as “not an allegory of ‘this for that’, but an allegory of ‘this and that’, of this sense plus that sense.” For his illuminating discussion of this question, see Dante Studies, I, Harvard University Press, 1954, pp. 84—98.

  61. The original Latin which has been translated by Toynbee as “pure and simple” is simpliciter sumptus. The truth, as Algernon Moncrieff said, is rarely pure and never simple. What Dante probably means is that this is the simplest and most concise way of summing up the literal meaning.

  62. ed. cit., pp. 199–200.

  63. Book III, Ch. 4, 50.

  64. Or application. In speaking of “two-fold” and “four-fold” meaning, the literal sense is counted as the first.

  65. Symbolism in Medieval Thought and its Consummation in the Divine Comedy, Yale University Press, 1929.

  66. Book III, Ch. 4, 60.

  67. Handbook to Dante Studies, p. 153.

  68. Convivio, II, 1, Jackson's translation, p. 75.

  69. Hell, pp. 67–8.

  70. Canto xxxi. 79-93.

  71. Dante the Philosopher, translated by David Moore, Sheed and Ward, 1948, p. 297.

  72. Canto xxvii. 142–8.

Books to Read

Edmund Gardner, Dante's Ten Heavens (Constable, 1900).

P. H. Wicksteed, From Vita Nuova to Paradiso (Longmans, 1922).

Sheila Ralphs, Etterno Spiro, a Study in the Nature of Dante's Paradise (Manchester University Press, 1959).

Further Reading

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Auerbach, Erich. “The Structure of the Comedy.” In Dante: Poet of the Secular World, translated by Ralph Manheim, pp. 101-33. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Interprets the Paradiso as an expression of Dante's passionate involvement in the political struggles of his time.

Bodkin, Maud. “The Archetype of Paradise-Hades, or of Heaven and Hell.” In Archetypal Patterns in Poetry, pp. 90-152. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Explains the psychological origin of Dante's light imagery in the Paradiso.

Botterill, Steven. “From deificari to trasumanar? Dante's Paradiso and Bernard's De diligendo Deo.” In Dante and the Mystical Tradition: Bernard of Clairvaux in the Commedia, pp. 194-253. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Provides a linguistic and philosophical context for Dante's experience of transcending the human condition.

Di Scipio, Giuseppe C. The Symbolic Rose in Dante's Paradiso. Ravenna, Italy: Longo, 1984, 125 p.

Discusses the complex symbolism of the Celestial Rose, introduced in Canto XXX of the Paradiso, which Dante presents as a constellation of blessed souls.

Dunbar, Helen Flanders. “Symbolism Basic in the Divina Commedia: Its Roots in the Paradiso.” In Symbolism in Medieval Thought and Its Consummation in the Divine Comedy, pp. 27-102. New York: Russell and Russell, 1961.

Explains that the Paradiso, as a description of a spiritual realm beyond time and space, constitutes the foundation of the entire Divine Comedy, “since for the Middle Ages the beginning was in eternity, not in time and space.”

Gardner, Edmund G. “Dante's Paradise.” In Dante's Ten Heavens: A Study of the Paradiso, pp. 3-30. Westminster, Eng.: Archibald Constable, 1900.

Discusses Dante's comprehensive vision of humankind's spiritual potential, observing that “the Paradiso represents the ideal life whether passed in action of contemplation.”

Gilson, Etienne. “Philosophy in the Divine Comedy.” In Dante and Philosophy, translated by David Moore, pp. 225-81. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1968.

Illuminates the intricate web of Dante's philosophical, theological, and scientific sources, concluding that the poet's “work does not constitute a system, but is the dialectical and lyrical expression of all his loyalties.”

Mazzeo, Joseph Antony. “Dante's Sun Symbolism and the Visions of the Blessed.” In Structure and Thought in the Paradiso, pp. 141-66. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968.

Analyzes Dante's masterful use of light symbolism, with particular emphasis on the poet's ability to convincingly describe spiritual realities.

Mazzotta, Giuseppe. “Language and Vision.” In Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge, pp. 225-81. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Focuses on Dante's synthesis of knowledge and poetry, explaining that by “making poetry the founding mode of knowledge, Dante makes epistemology the path to vision.”

Mirsky, Mark Jay. Dante, Eros, and Kabbalah. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003, 234 p.

Analysis of the Paradiso that draws upon a wide range of spiritual, literary, and philosophical traditions, including Catholic theology, classical literature, and the Kabbalah.

Musa, Mark. Introduction to Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy: Volume III: Paradise, translated by Mark Musa, pp. ix-xxix. London: Penguin Books, 1986.

Describes the Paradiso as a miraculous reminder of God's presence.

Pertile, Lino. “A Desire of Paradise and a Paradise of Desire: Dante and Mysticism.” In Dante, edited by Amilcare A. Iannucci, pp. 148-66. Toronto, Can.: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Defines Dante's description of contemplation “as desire for God” as crucial to an understanding of the Paradiso.

Rubin, Harriet. “What the Bread God Wished.” In Dante in Love: The World's Greatest Poem and How It Made History, pp. 209-36. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Provides historical, cultural, and biographical context for the Paradiso.

Schnapp, Jeffrey T. The Transfiguration of History at the Center of Dante's Paradise. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986, 268 p.

Defines the concept of the transfiguration of history—whereby a believer escapes the prison-house of history by following Christ—as the intellectual foundation of Dante's poem.

Additional coverage of Dante's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vols. 3, 18, 39; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules MST, POET; Epics for Students, Vol. 1; European Writers (Charles Scribner's Sons, an imprint of Gale), Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times,Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 21; Reference Guide to World Literature (St. James Press, an imprint of Gale), Eds. 2, 3; Twayne's World Authors (Twayne Publishers, an imprint of Gale); World Literature Criticism Supplement; World Poets (Charles Scribner's Sons, an imprint of Gale).

Marguerite Mills Chiarenza (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: Mills Chiarenza, Marguerite. “The Imageless Vision and Dante's Paradiso. In Dante, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 83-95. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1972, Mills Chiarenza explains how Dante's exquisite poetic imagery mysteriously leads the reader to an imageless vision of spiritual realms.]

In interpreting St. Paul's claim to have been rapt to the third heaven, St. Augustine developed a theory of knowledge which influenced the entire Middle Ages. For St. Augustine the problem was to define the third heaven and this involved discovering what was meant by the other two as well. He concluded that the three heavens are to be taken in a spiritual sense and represent three modes of vision. Briefly, the first mode is visio corporalis, knowledge through the senses of material objects; the second, visio spiritualis, is knowledge through the imagination in which, as in dreams, the senses are inactive but forms of physical objects are the means of representation; the third and highest, visio intellectualis, is intuition of spiritual substances facie ad faciem, without direct or indirect participation of the senses. Both spiritual and intellectual vision are immaterial but while intellectual vision is emphatically direct, spiritual vision is mediated by images.

Francis X. Newman, to whom I refer the reader for a fuller discussion of St. Augustine's doctrine, has suggested most convincingly that the Augustinian modes of vision are a governing principle in Dante's imagery, that each of the cantiche tends toward a vision of God in one of the Augustinian modes and that the imagery of each reflects this tendency. Lucifer, the most corporeal object in the universe, parodies God in Inferno; the reflected image of the griffon in the Purgatorio is Dante's spiritual vision of Christ and, finally, in the Paradiso Dante sees God directly. Newman's suggestion is of particular significance for the Paradiso where Dante makes the unique claim to have followed in St. Paul's footsteps and to have seen God face to face. And yet, except for the last cantos, Newman seems hesitant in his application of the concept of intellectual vision to the Paradiso:

At the start of his flight, and, in fact, until its very conclusion, the pilgrim is still seeing (that is, knowing) with a mind conditioned to corporeal forms. For this reason, although the inhabitants of Paradise are properly incorporeal, they are given a perceptible shape of light—now not ombre, but luci—in order that the pilgrim may be prepared gradually for the final truly incorporeal vision.

Intellectual vision is by its very nature incongruent with poetry, for it is the denial of that of which poetry is made, images, and perhaps this is what leads Newman to imply that such an experience does not occur until the end of the voyage. However, what Dante claims in the Paradiso, to have seen God and lived, is as inconceivable as representing or mediating that which is by definition unmediated. Therefore, I would like to go further than Newman and suggest that the basic position of the poet in the Paradiso is revealed by his struggle to express a vision which was imageless from the start.

The Paradiso is possibly the greatest paradox in the history of poetry and it is small wonder that we are often distressed by a certain ambiguity found in the descriptions of its poetics. Nonetheless, if certain basic problems are clarified it is easier to arrive at some degree of precise statement. The two aspects of the Paradiso which lead to most confusion are, I think, the hierarchy represented there and the fact that the pilgrim's ultimate vision is of God. Both of these can lead the critic to distinguish stages in such a way as to imply that the poetics proper to the Paradiso are to be found only in the last cantos. If too much emphasis is placed on the division of the cantica in preparatory vision in the heavens and final vision in the Empyrean and if this division is then extended to the poetics of the Paradiso, the end of the poem becomes the true Paradiso and we are left with some thirty cantos which are not the Purgatorio and are not the Paradiso. To avoid this we must stress the declared superhuman quality of vision in these cantos and do away with the definitions, such as per speculum or in aenigmate, which make of it nothing more than a rarefied version of human experience.

The division of the Paradiso in vision in the heavens and vision in the Empyrean is partially false. Clearly, the vision of God's face is to be distinguished from all other vision. But this vision transcends the poem, it does not end it. In the last verses Dante tells us that he did penetrate God's face and he tells us something of the effect it had on him, but he also tells us that this experience is lost to him as a man in whom memory fails and as a poet in whom fantasia fails—indeed failed already in the moment that vision was granted him. These last verses, not all of the Empyrean, are perhaps to be distinguished in that they represent the little that can be said of the ultimate vision. But all other vision in Paradise ends in the sum total of its parts, leaving only the mystery of God's nature to be known. What the poet can say of God's face is possible only because all conceivable vision has been exhausted. Vision in heaven is universal vision of truth which becomes a totality only when its separateness is transcended. This transcending of separateness is foreshadowed in the Empyrean but becomes a reality only as the pilgrim turns to God's face and, just before all experience, superhuman as well as human, is left behind, sees the unity implicit in the nature of truth, only to transcend even that unity in the vision of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

In its depth I saw that it contained, bound by love in one volume, that which is scattered in leaves through the universe.

(Par. XXXIII, 85-87)

This image not only clarifies the content of Dante's vision but also, because he uses the book as his metaphor, it is a clue to his poetics as well. God's face is not the universe but in it is contained the universe in its truest form. In Medieval doctrine every creature has its truest existence in the mind of God, although its natural existence is external. … St. Augustine compares the difference between the natural existence of creatures and their existence in God to the difference between night and day and tells us that knowledge of a creature in itself compares to knowledge of it in God in the same way that no knowledge at all compares to knowledge in the creature. … Dante's terzina is inspired by the doctrine of the double existence of creation, separate in the universe and unified in its Creator's conception. The unity of creation in God's mind is the pilgrim's final vision of the universe and represents the point at which the poem begins to be transcended. The pilgrim sees again all that he has hitherto seen, in its truest form. Dante tells us that he saw a repetition of his entire vision but does not describe it, for he has only human tools and to describe it would be literally a repetition. However, the image is far from being simply a statement of the whereabouts of the universe's conception, precisely because Dante chooses the book as his metaphor. When the universe is transcended, what was separate becomes unified just as all the pages when bound become the book. Dante does not represent the vision of always greater things ending in a thing greater still but the vision of all things followed and transcended by the vision of their unity. Vision of unity and totality are not a part of the poem but a result of it. The mind, the pilgrim's and the reader's, absorbs totality in its separate parts but is destined to transcend that separation. This principle is true of the poem also. The pilgrim does not see the last page of the book in God's face, he sees the book bound together, for when the poem is complete it is no longer a sequence but a unity. The reader transcends the pages to retain in his mind the poem, which was conceived by the author before it was written and is now transcended by him much the same as creation is conceived and transcended by God.

As the pilgrim turns to God's face all that is left to be seen of the universe is its unity. If vision until this moment is of spiritual substances, such as souls, and is defective only in its lack of unity, then it is intellectual in the Augustinian sense. It is direct intuition of spiritual substances even though not yet intuition of them in God. The notion that the highest form of vision is only to be found in the Empyrean seems, however, to be supported by the hierarchy represented throughout the heavens. Because of this some discussion of hierarchy will be necessary if we are to maintain that St. Augustine's highest mode of vision is the mode of all of the Paradiso.

Hierarchy, whose incongruous presence in the Paradiso is the source of some equivocation, is itself presented as an equivocation. It is presented, in fact, as an artificial structure which does not exist outside of the momentary need for it. The saints descend to various spheres which dramatize their place in a harmonious world of beatitude where the greater and the lesser are equally perfected, where qualitative difference does not diminish quantitative completeness, for “ogni dove in cielo è paradiso” and each position is unlimited. They stage this hierarchy because the pilgrim is not ready for a vision of totality. He must see the parts in order to see the whole. Because this hierarchy is not temporal in nature, time is so underplayed in the Paradiso that there is no way of accurately measuring it. The various entities must all appear to the pilgrim to give him the whole vision but their ordering is not a sequential phenomenon. They do not have to follow one another in taking their place, they simply must all be there. The poem, on the other hand, is constrained in a sequential form and, if it is to be read, verse must follow verse. In fact, while the pilgrim is speeding through the heavens at a velocity inconceivable to the human mind, time for the poet, the length of the third cantica, is the same as it was in the other two. This consideration leads us to confront the new relation between the pilgrim and the poet.

In the Inferno and the Purgatorio the poet's struggle is secondary to the pilgrim's and the danger is essentially in the voyage. In the Paradiso it is the poet who struggles while the pilgrim is safe. This is because the pilgrim was in possession of transhuman powers while the poet, who has returned to the human, is not. The pilgrim transcended time in Paradise, which from the start of his flight approached deletion. Human categories of perception were left behind with Purgatory. His vision was essentially “in un ponto solo,” which punto substituted and annulled a kind of paraphrase which led up to it. The poet, however, must work exclusively with human categories and make the paraphrase take the place of the essential vision, that is, spend thirty three cantos telling us that he approached the vision which he uses only a few verses to tell us he has forgotten. The pilgrim should not be seen as one who is passing from one stage to another in order to acquire his highest faculties but as one in whom these faculties are already activated and who is growing, through the accumulation of vision, not toward a new kind of vision but toward the supreme object of vision. If this growth appears to occur in stages it is because the poet is representing it. Whatever the pilgrim's limitations, which made certain concessions from heaven necessary, the poet's are far greater and his concessions to the reader greatly exceed those of heaven to him. We must not attribute all of the characteristics of the representation to the vision itself but must remember that what we read is twice mediated, first through memory for the poet and then through words for the reader. This mediation must not be confused with any mediation in the experience itself. My purpose is (1) to show that Dante denies mediation in the experience and (2) to illustrate partially how he copes with its necessity in the poem.

Just as Dante gives us a hierarchy but at the same time undercuts its value by denying its independent reality, so he makes the limitations to which he (who has returned to the human) is subject work in his favor. These limitations are memory and words. From the start he tells us that the vision is no longer accessible to him and that memory must take its place. If intellectual vision—unmediated, imageless knowledge of spiritual substances—is the subject of the Paradiso and memory which, like the imagination, functions through images is the source, then we should expect to find universal infidelity in the representation. … Dante is counting on us to know that memory will introduce images where there were no images. He tells us that we are reading only what his memory could retain:

I was in the heaven that most receives His light and I saw things which he that descends from it has not the knowledge or the power to tell again; for our intellect, drawing near to its desire, sinks so deep that memory cannot follow it. Nevertheless, so much of the holy kingdom as I was able to treasure in my mind shall now be matter of my song.

(Par. I, 4-12)

Thus, we are warned to look beyond what we are offered. Dante warns us and reminds us constantly of the limitations of the source, because if these limitations are forgotten, it will lose its truthfulness as a source.

What we have said of memory can also be said of words. Their insufficiency is declared from the beginning:

The passing beyond humanity cannot be set forth in words; let the example suffice, therefore, for him to whom grace reserves the experience.

(Par. I, 70-72)

Indeed words are one step further removed from the experience than memory itself. The poet can only communicate through verbal reference to experience derived from the senses, the denial of intellectual vision. Again, Hugh of St. Cher tells us, in terms very like Dante's, what happens when an attempt is made to communicate intellectual vision. He compares it to trying to describe the taste of wine to one who has never tasted it and can only refer the description to something else which he has tasted. … As with memory, Dante uses the obviousness of the insufficiency of his means to his advantage, and creates his most revolutionary technique, that of using words and images not merely to point beyond themselves but to point against themselves as well.

As I will show, Dante tells us that his vision was intellectual throughout the journey in Paradise and, therefore, to acquire such vision is not a goal of the pilgrim. The representation of such vision is, however, a goal for the poet. He is human and must cope gradually with the elimination of mediatory images and will completely do away with them only when he is silent. Vision of God by a man in the flesh is parallel to the paradox of a poet attempting through images, which are incorporeal only in that they have no corporeal—or spiritual—substance but which are based on reference to the senses, to represent that which is by definition spiritually substantial and void of any reference to the senses. And yet Dante's imagery in the Paradiso is developed in two directions which tend precisely toward the fulfillment of the two attributes of intellectual vision, incorporeality and substantiality.

Light metaphysics is not the subject of this discussion, but since light plays a role in the representation of intellectual vision it will be necessary to make a few remarks, however general, on its function in the Paradiso. The pilgrim sees everything in Paradise in the form of light which is gradually intensified to the point of blindness. Light has the unique attribute of being the source of all vision though itself shapeless and invisible outside the objects it illuminates. In the Paradiso, however, it does not illuminate objects but shines forth from subjects. These are lights themselves, not shining on objects but reflecting their own vision. Everything in the Paradiso is a reflecting light and it is this light which Dante uses to represent substances, which light is not a passive reflection of an external source but an active reflection of internal vision. The souls are not represented as inferior versions of something else but as spiritual centers of energy and truths in themselves. In fact, the pilgrim does not see God indirectly in the souls but beatitude directly. The souls are, of course, dependent on God for their vision and their beatitude but this dependence in no way diminishes their substantiality, for God is reflected by the entire universe which could not exist without Him. For the souls not to reflect God would be to cease to exist.

The reflecting light characteristic of the Paradiso represents substantiality in Dante's imagery. To represent substantiality is a challenge for a poet, but for him to attempt to represent the other essential quality of intellectual vision—absence of reference to experience derived from the senses—is more than a challenge, it is a contradiction in terms. It means, in effect, to represent through images that which is by definition incompatible with images. Nevertheless, this is a theme of Dante's imagery already evident in the pilgrim's first encounter with the inhabitants of the heavens.

As through smooth and transparent glass, or through limpid and still water not so deep that the bottom is lost, the outlines of our faces return so faint that a pearl on a white brow does not come less quickly to our eyes, many such faces I saw, eager to speak. …

(Par. III, 10-17)

These souls are compared to mirrors but, immediately, the traditional mirror, that of Narcissus, is negated:

… at which I ran into the opposite error to that which kindled love between the man and the spring.


Most interesting is the way in which these images stress immateriality in their very reference to material objects. They are calculated to suggest incorporeality, even imperceptibility. Their visibility is described only through their near invisibility: reflections not in a mirror but in glass or shallow water so clear as to offer virtually no reflection at all; a pearl whose color so blends into the forehead on which it is worn that it cannot even be seen at first glance. Dante tells the reader what he saw in terms of visual experience in which the eye fails. I will return to this passage to show how directly it introduces the concept of intellectual vision, but first I would like to illustrate briefly, through a few other images, how what is already present here at the beginning is developed in the rest of the Paradiso.

When the pilgrim enters the heaven of Mars the souls arrange themselves in the pattern of the cross. Dante's images at this point (Par. XIV, 91ff.) are extremely complex and deserve a fuller analysis. For our present purpose, we should notice that now Dante does not describe the lights in terms of their individual visibility but only of the collective shape they form. It is as if, on the one hand, only the cross not the souls were visible; on the other hand, there is no material cross to be seen but only the souls in the shape of the cross. That of which the cross is formed is not described, all that we are told is that it is formed. We are given a shape formed of shapeless parts. Neither the cross nor the souls are directly more visible than light itself; what the pilgrim sees is the meaning which the souls wish to show him, the “venerabil segno” (v.101). That this cross is not a material shape but the spiritual shape it signifies, is reinforced by the fact that as the pilgrim looks at it, he no longer sees it but the mystery from which it is inseparable:

Here my memory defeats my skill, for that cross so flamed forth Christ that I can find for it no fit comparison. …


The spiritual value of his vision is further enhanced by his use immediately afterward of the metaphor, not so metaphorical for Dante, of the cross in each man's life:

… but he that takes up his cross and follows Christ shall yet forgive me for what I leave untold. …


The same can be said of the souls in the heaven of Jupiter who form the sign of the eagle (XVIII, 74ff.), but here Dante has progressed one step further beyond the material form. The eagle is the final shape in a series of metamorphic images which remain visible only until they have been comprehended. Furthermore, these images represent letters, shapes indeed but as inseparable from their collective meaning as they are individually meaningless. This inseparability is all the more evident because the letters are not seen together but one by one so that when their meaning is read they have already disappeared leaving only their message, a verse from the Bible, whose author is God. When they have disappeared, their meaning, now in the form of the symbolic eagle, emerges, and again Dante could say he saw no eagle but only the meaning of justice shining forth from the formless souls of the just.

The cross and the eagle are images taken from the middle cantos of the Paradiso and show an obvious development from the first images of the cantica. Turning to the last canto of the poem and necessarily skipping countless other equally significant images, we find the famous image with which Dante ends his series of “anti-images”:

Like the geometer who sets all his mind to the squaring of the circle and for all his thinking does not discover the principle he needs, such was I at that strange sight.

(XXXIII, 133-135)

The squaring of the circle crowns a series of abstract geometrical shapes describing the mystery of God's nature and is the one shape in the universe which can be defined but cannot be seen. We, like Hugh of St. Cher's caecus natus, can “say much of it because we have heard much about it,” but we have no experience of it.

There are, then, stages in the development of Dante's imagery in the Paradiso. Three of them are those mentioned, in which we find, first, concrete shapes which can barely be perceived, then shapes in which symbolic meaning overshadows concrete form, and at last purely conceptual shape not found in the material universe. These stages lead the poet to the point at which he can go no further but must end his poem in order that it become literally imageless. This does not mean that the pilgrim's vision was not imageless from the start. His vision was peripheral at the beginning as he tended toward “un punto solo” at the spiritual center of the universe. But that it was peripheral does not mean that it was not direct spiritual intuition. In describing the impenetrable depth of God's mind Dante uses an image which becomes very eloquent if we remember that the souls in the moon, the first encountered in Paradise, were compared to shallow water in which the bottom is still visible:

Therefore the sight that is granted to your world penetrates within the Eternal Justice as the eye into the sea; for though from the shore it sees the bottom, in the open sea it does not, and yet the bottom is there but the depth conceals it.

(Par. XIX, 58-63)

The difference between the pilgrim and the man whose faculties have not been elevated beyond the human is that the pilgrim approaches the spiritual creatures of the “gran mar dell'essere” without ever losing sight of the sea's bottom.

All of this might seem pure speculation if Dante did not make it explicit from the start, from that first encounter with the souls in the moon to which I must now return. In the moon the pilgrim is faced with a vision which seems designed to discourage the senses. The human mind knows incorporeality through spiritual and therefore unsubstantial vision. So incorporeal is the pilgrim's vision that, since his mind is still conditioned to human experience, he falls into the error of thinking it also unsubstantial and turns away looking for what he has taken to be an image. Beatrice corrects him with the words: “These are real beings that thou seest.” Surely, by “real beings” Beatrice does not mean corporeal substances, for she is speaking of souls, not bodies. She means spiritual substances. But it is not through Beatrice's words, unequivocable as they are, that we first realize the nature of what the pilgrim sees, it is through the image with which Dante describes the pilgrim's error:

… at which I ran into the opposite error to that which kindled love between the man and the spring.

(III, 18-19)

The allusion is of course to the myth of Narcissus.

Twice already Hugh of St. Cher's discussion of intellectual vision has seemed relevant to Dante's poetic position in the Paradiso. It is perhaps most revealing with regard to the image of Narcissus which appears in Hugh's text as the image of the man, perhaps a philosopher or a mystic, who is so carried away with the flight of his imagination that he thinks he has transcended the senses altogether and does not realize that his vision is still mediated by images. Hugh is discussing the difference between spiritual and intellectual vision and poses the problem whether any man could so abstract himself from the senses as to see God as St. Paul did. The answer is that he could not, but he might think he had. … When Dante describes his error as the opposite of Narcissus' there can be no doubt that his Narcissus is the same as Hugh of St. Cher's, the man who mistakes an abstraction of the imagination for direct intuition or, what is the same, spiritual vision for intellectual vision. The pilgrim, who has been prepared on all levels of human experience, but only of human experience, when confronted with incorporeal vision assumes that it is also unsubstantial. His error is indeed the opposite of that of Narcissus for, while Narcissus mistook spiritual vision for intellectual vision, he mistakes intellectual vision for spiritual vision. While Narcissus failed to turn away from an image which he thought was substance, the pilgrim turns away from substance thinking it an image.

It is worthwhile comparing this episode to that of Casella in the Purgatorio:

I saw one of them come forward with so much affection to embrace me that it moved me to do the same. O empty shades, except in semblance! Three times I clasped my hands behind him and as often brought them back to my breast. Wonder, I think, was painted in my looks. …

(Purg. II, 76-82)

Like the souls in the moon, Casella is the first soul the pilgrim meets in the new realm. Newman has pointed out that the encounter with Casella represents a kind of introduction of the pilgrim to spiritual vision, for the pilgrim, who has just come from the realm of corporeal vision, does not realize at first that Casella is but an “ombra vana fuor che nell'aspetto,” almost a technical definition of an image. In the Paradiso the situation is similar, for the pilgrim has just arrived from Purgatory and again misjudges his new vision which is again described in terms which seem almost a definition, “vere sustanze.”

There is a further relation between the episode of Casella and its counterpart in the Paradiso for, while the pilgrim's error in the Paradiso is described as the opposite of Narcissus' error, with Casella it is strikingly reminiscent of the myth as it appeared in the classics. Like the classical Narcissus the pilgrim sees an image which appears to be a man and, like Narcissus, he attempts to embrace it. His error is identical to the one Ovid described: “corpus putat esse quod umbra est.” Had the pilgrim, or Narcissus, turned away from the image before him, there would have been no error. Perhaps the pilgrim's very caution in the Paradiso (“sovra il ver lo piè non fida” v. 27), which causes him to turn from the souls, is a manifestation of his fear, when confronted with what does not even appear to have corporeal substance, of falling into his previous error. Yet, in the Purgatorio, the poet avoids any direct allusion to the myth of Narcissus. Had Dante's Narcissus been simply the one found in Ovid the image would have been appropriate to the Purgatorio. But this Narcissus has undergone a transformation in a tradition which treated him as the man who fails to turn away from an inferior experience toward the truth, a truth which has long since ceased to be the truth of the senses. As Narcissus appears in Hugh of St. Cher's version his error is clearly that of mistaking an image for spiritual, not corporeal substance and such an error has little to do with the passage from corporeal to spiritual vision.

The encounter with the souls in the moon is clearly an introduction of the concept of intellectual vision. And yet there is one aspect of it which, on the surface at least, seems to go against such an interpretation, encouraging the reader to suppose the pilgrim is not yet ready for a truly incorporeal experience. This is the presence of faces in the description of the souls. In no other part of the Paradiso do souls bear any resemblance to the human form. This corporeality is mitigated by the fact that only faces, not bodies proper, are present and by the fact that they are barely visible. However, in speaking of outlines (“postille”), Dante is using terms inapplicable to spiritual substance. …

Of course, as we have had occasion to say, the poet deals in images and shows us only conceptually what he can have no hope of showing us directly. Still, the form of the human face, in this instance, cannot be understood merely as a necessary imperfection in the representation. It could if there were no emphasis on it, but it is the key image of the passage. Dante compares what he saw, a group of faces, to the reflection of faces in water or glass, and he speaks of a pearl worn on the forehead. The image of Narcissus is the image of a reflected face. Finally, the pilgrim's error consists, dramatically, in his turning his face away from the vision.

Dante's vision could be purely incorporeal but, if it were not direct it would not be intellectual. The whole passage is intended to introduce into the poem the experience of direct spiritual intuition and the image of the face is no exception. It represents the dramatization of the Pauline phrase which was commonplace in describing the directness of intellectual vision, “facie ad faciem,” and which was inseparable from its association with the phrase that described all other vision, “per speculum in aenigmate.” Everything in the episode works to replace the mirror by the face. In fact, the pilgrim does not yet understand the nature of his vision and consequently puts himself in such a position as to reject it. With the help of Beatrice he corrects his error so that he can then receive the vision granted him. In order to see face to face he must turn face to face.

Somehow the pilgrim's error and its correction do not seem vital to his development. Surely, once granted his vision, he should be able to recognize it. But sometimes the pilgrim must show the reader the pitfalls to be avoided by himself failing to avoid them. If recognition should be fairly simple for the pilgrim, it is not simple for the reader. On the one hand, the reader sees what might be described as images of images; on the other hand, he finds the concept of images strongly denied. Different from the pilgrim, no matter how much the images tend to negate their nature as images, the reader will have them before him for the entire duration of the poem. Because of this it is necessary that he understand from the beginning that they were not there for the pilgrim, that the vision the poet describes was imageless. Dante could have followed St. Paul and resorted to silence, for of such things “it is not lawful for men to speak” and a poet cannot speak without images. Instead of this he chose to testify to his experience despite the fact that he could only offer an “essemplo,” an imperfect rendering and a substitute for the experience itself. From the beginning of the Paradiso he confesses that it will be but an “ombra del beato regno,” a shadow, a reflection, even an image. Yet from the very first heaven he shows us, through the pilgrim's initial error, that, though we shall see only images, he saw only substances. If he can make us accept this, then perhaps we will accept the climax of his claimed vision, substantial knowledge of God.


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M. B. Crowe (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Crowe, M. B. “Paradiso X: Siger of Brabant.” In Dante Soundings: Eight Literary and Historical Essays, edited by David Nolan, pp. 146-62. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Crowe provides intellectual and philosophical context for the Paradiso, suggesting that Siger of Brabant, a controversial thinker whose ideas St. Thomas Aquinas vigorously disputed, is the “philosopher” to whom the poet often refers.]

Who is the philosopher in the Paradiso? Is it, perhaps, Dante himself? To say so would demand an investigation far beyond the scope of this paper; for it would mean a study of Dante's philosophical opinions and all their far-reaching applications in the Divine Comedy. The scope of this study is the more modest, but still difficult one of identifying “the philosopher” among the great variety of personalities that people Dante's Paradiso. Is it Thomas Aquinas, for whom he had such a regard? Or Bonaventure? Or Albert the Great? Boethius or Dionysius? Or Siger of Brabant, whose appearance in the Paradiso reflects so exactly the enigmas of his career at Paris?1

But is philosophy not out of place in the Paradiso? Practically all the great names in philosophy, from the ancient Greeks down to Dante's own day, are in the Divine Comedy. The greatest of them, however, are in the Inferno; Socrates, Plato, Anaxagoras, Thales, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Cicero, Seneca, Avicenna, Averroes and many others together with the one who was, in Dante's eyes, the greatest of them all, Aristotle:

Poi ch'innalzai in poco più le ciglia,
          vidi 'l maestro di color che sanno
          seder tra filosofica famiglia.
Tutti lo miran, tutti onor li fanno


Surely the Paradiso is the place for the theologian, not the philosopher. When theology, the queen of the sciences, appears on the scene what function remains for the handmaiden, the ancilla, philosophy? Is not the exclusion of philosophy suggested by the fact that Virgil, who has guided Dante for most of his journey in the other world, gives way to Beatrice in the Paradiso? And Beatrice, in her turn, gives way to Bernard, the doctor of mystical theology. The medievals, including Dante, took Virgil for a philosopher in the broad sense, a man possessed of wisdom. This wisdom, however, pales by comparison with faith and, above all, vision. It is not by chance that Dante's epitaph by Giovanni del Virgilio begins: Theologus Dantes nullius dogmatis expers. For his contemporaries he was not Dante the philosopher.

Yet one has the feeling that the question is more complex. For Dante was a philosopher and thought of himself as such. In the exordium to his Quaestio de aqua et terra he described himself, in a phrase reminiscent of St Paul's self-identification as the “least of all the saints”, as “inter vere philosophantes minimus”. No consideration of Dante can omit his constant preoccupation with philosophy. He is after all not merely the poet of the Divine Comedy, although it is to that masterpiece he owes his immortality. The Convivio and the De Monarchia, to go no further, are works remarkable for their philosophical content and they are literally stuffed with authorities cited in support by Dante the scholar. It is not too much to say that Dante was obsessed with philosophy. No part of the Divine Comedy, certainly not the Paradiso, can be really intelligible without some knowledge of the background to Dante's philosophical view of the universe. The medieval imprint of his thought was fundamentally philosophical. The image of man and the world with which he worked was laced with philosophical conceptions, astronomical, cosmological, anthropological. We cannot easily today enter into these conceptions (the image is now properly described by C. S. Lewis as “the discarded image”),2 but they are nonetheless philosophical. Nor were they simply picked up by Dante in a sort of osmosis from his environment. They were the result of deep study by one who must be counted one of the most learned men of his age. Between the Vita nuova, which is already packed with philosophical allusions, and the Convivio, Dante went through some sort of intellectual crisis. What precisely it was cannot be certainly known. But it may not be altogether fanciful to see it as his feeling the need, in some personal and dramatic way, for a principle of unity, an intellectual point of vantage from which to survey and order his experiences, his knowledge, his observations. It is the traditional role of philosophy to offer an answer to such a need. And the fact is that Dante, when he comes to write the Convivio, eulogizes the Lady Philosophy, in a way that reminds the reader of the vision of philosophy in the golden book that so influenced Dante and the entire Middle Ages, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy: “veramente è donna piena di dolcezza, ornata d'onestade, mirabile di savere, gloriosa di libertade” (Conv.II.xv.3).

We can, then, scarcely hope to discover the philosopher in the Paradiso, if there be one, without knowing something of Dante's philosophy and of the manner of his acquiring it. As to his formal initiation in philosophy, one's thoughts turn naturally to the Dominican studium at Santa Maria Novella. This Florentine studium became a studium generale in 1295; but even before the separation of Florence from the Roman province of the Dominicans in 1288, it was a well-known school. Beatrice died in 1290; and it is perfectly plausible to think of Dante, in great need of consolation, betaking himself to the school of the friars, shortly to receive the accolade of recognition as a fully-formed school of philosophy and theology. Here he could have heard the lectures of Fra Remigio de' Girolami, a pupil of Thomas Aquinas. Fra Remigio was the son of a Florentine merchant, Chiaro Girolami, and may even have been a friend of Dante as a layman before he set off for Paris to study law. It was in Paris that Remigio turned to the study of philosophy and took the Dominican habit—in both matters acting, quite probably, under the spell of Thomas Aquinas, then (1269-1272) in his second period as master-regent in the University. This was the period when the Averroistic crisis was threatening to tear the University apart, so that Fra Remigio, returning to his native Florence, could bring the most vivid recollections of the philosophy of St Thomas locked in ferocious combat with the speculations of the Aristotelians in the Arts Faculty led by Siger of Brabant. Made lector at Santa Maria Novella even before his ordination as a priest, Fra Remigio taught at Florence for forty-two years until his death in 1319, two years before Dante. From his writings Fra Remigio appears not merely as a fine speculative mind, at home in the most difficult questions of philosophy and theology, but also as a thinker with a practical cast of mind, one capable, in a phrase of Martin Grabmann's, of connecting the Thomistic world of thought with the storms of life.3

Another friar whom Dante may possibly have heard at Santa Maria Novella was Fra Nicola Brunacci. Fra Nicola seems to have become lector only in 1299, by which time Dante was well launched in public life. There must be some doubt whether he can be counted among Dante's teachers. But the two must certainly have met in the Florence of the turn of the century. If so, Fra Nicola provides another connection with Aquinas; for he seems to have travelled to Paris with Aquinas in 1268-69.

Whatever of these historical relationships, what is undoubted is Dante's high appreciation of the thought-synthesis of St Thomas, a synthesis that included not merely the Fathers and Christian theologians but, and more particularly, the philosophy of Aristotle. The major controversies in the intellectual life of the thirteenth century centred precisely upon the reception of Aristotle, whose works had become progressively available to the Latin West since the late twelfth century. Up to then Western Europe knew Aristotle only for his logic and that due to the happy circumstance of his logical works having been translated and commented upon by Boethius in the sixth century. When the rest of Aristotle became known, at first in corrupt Latin versions of Arabic versions of Syriac versions of the original Greek, the impact was enormous. Here was a thinker who, without the benefit of Christianity, had evolved a powerful system of thought in which there were answered the great questions of man and the world, of life and destiny. Some of the answers were, on their face, inconsistent with Christianity—the assertion of the eternity of the world, for instance, or the denial of a personal immortality of the soul. For some this may simply have added spice to the enterprise of interpreting Aristotle; to some it suggested the idea that a proposition might be provable in philosophy and yet false by comparison with theological certainties; to still others, the inconsistency simply confirmed their view that Aristotle was a pagan burning in Hell, whose opinions need not be taken into account.

Nowadays we may tend to take the Aristotelianism of Aquinas for granted. His contemporaries did not take it for granted and the series of condemnations of Aristotle at Paris and at Oxford in the thirteenth century, in which Aquinas was not untouched, shows it. When Dante described Aristotle as the “maestro di color che sanno”, this was more than an academic judgment; it was the brandishing of a banner.

What was it to be an Aristotelian? That, for Dante as for his predecessors in the thirteenth century, was the question. What Paris said, as the uncontested intellectual centre of Europe, should be decisive. But what did Paris say? Paris, unfortunately, spoke with many voices. It took the white heat of controversy, notably that between Siger of Brabant and Thomas of Aquin, to refine and purify the notion of a Christian Aristotelianism of the kind that Dante could embrace half a century after the drama of Aristotle had been fought out at Paris. These are matters to which we must return.

But first it is time to put the question more insistently: Who is the philosopher in the Paradiso? Let us, so to speak, interrogate Dante himself. In the Paradiso alone—neglecting the “filosofica famiglia” of the Inferno and thinkers like Cato of Utica in the Purgatorio—there are about thirty personalities who might in some sense be called philosophers. It is clear that nearly all the shapers of the medieval mind are here; and it is equally clear that few, if any of them are in Paradise for their philosophy. They include Albert the Great, Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine, Bernard, Boethius, Bonaventure, Dionysius, Hugh of St Victor, Isidore, Peter Lombard, Peter of Spain (the logician, later Pope John XXI), Richard of St Victor and Siger of Brabant. Does this short list, in alphabetical order, contain “the philosopher”? The question may, for the moment, be turned by asking another. Is there any claimant to the title who has escaped Dante's net? Is there any notable omission in the list?

If one were to ask a contemporary to name the philosopher par excellence of the Middle Ages the answer might very well come: Peter Abelard. The extraordinary influence of Abelard in the first half of the twelfth century, when students flocked from all parts of Europe to sit at his feet, is a factor in explaining the intellectual hegemony of Paris in the latter half of that century and thereafter. It was as a dialectician—a logician—that Abelard made his reputation and his moderate realist solution to the “universals” problem became a commonplace of thirteenth-century dialectics. He turned later, less successfully, to theology where his suspect opinions and his provocative exposition of them, led to his eventual condemnation at the Council of Sens in 1141. This condemnation was largely the work of St Bernard, whose place in Dante's Paradiso could scarcely be higher. Why, one may ask, does Abelard not appear at all, not even in the Inferno? If not as a heterodox theologian, then surely as a superb dialectician, he had claims. Indeed one would not have been surprised to find the story of Heloise and Abelard immortalized in the manner of the story of Paolo and Francesca in the Inferno.4 It is true that the story of Heloise and Abelard is better known to us than that of Paolo and Francesca; and this is not entirely due to the romantic embellishments of the nineteenth century. Abelard's Historia calamitatum mearum and the Correspondence with Heloise constitute a document as moving and personal as, say, the Confessions of St Augustine. But there is no echo of this in the Divine Comedy. The reason cannot be just the ecclesiastical condemnation; for that reason, as we shall see, should also exclude Siger of Brabant who, on the contrary, enjoys a position of considerable distinction in the Paradiso. This, too, is a matter to which we must return.

In the interim may we continue to circle about our main question by looking again at the philosophy of Dante. Rather it will be useful to look at two broad themes within that philosophy. First let us take the cosmogonia dantesca which has been the object of so many studies.

It is evident that the understanding of the Divine Comedy is much impaired unless the reader has an adequate conception of the geography of the Inferno,Purgatorio and Paradiso. But the phrase cosmogonia dantesca means much more than the three-dimensional image of the after-world. It includes the mental structure, imagery and speculation, through which medieval man understood his world and his own place in it. The discarding of this image, under pressure from the advances of science more than philosophy, presents the greatest obstacle to our understanding of the medieval world. The abandonment of geocentrism for heliocentrism is only one, although important, detail in which our universe differs from that of Dante's contemporaries. Space and time are problems for the post-Einsteinian culture of our day; but space and time have always been philosophical problems and, despite all our advances, what Plato and Aristotle said about time and place cannot be dismissed as simply irrelevant. When the medievals thought about God or angels, or separated souls or the after-life—and how much of the Divine Comedy is taken up with such themes—they inevitably speculated about time, eternity and aevum. Dante is no exception. On such matters he turned, like many of his contemporaries, to Aristotle and even to the Arabic commentators on Aristotle. So too, for the complicated astronomical system in which the heavenly bodies are carried around the earth on crystalline spheres and where their relative positions are explained by a system of cycles and epicycles; Aristotelian suggestions, one might say, but greatly overlaid by the explanations and refinements of Ptolemy and the Hellenistic and Arab calculators. Our space-conscious age has to make a deliberate effort to recapture such details and their implications.

The more directly philosophical matters, like creation, or the pure being of God, or the status of separated souls, do not present the same opaqueness to modern minds, because they are still philosophical problems. In these areas, too, Dante's debt to Aristotle and to Aristotle's Arab interpreters, Avicenna and Averroes, is well-documented. The point is that Dante looked to the science of his day to inform him on such matters. Already in the thirteenth century that science was bursting the bonds of the liberal arts. The arts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic) could scarcely contain philosophy; and those of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) were quite inadequate to contain all that was beginning to be known about the universe. The autonomy of the positive sciences, claimed against philosophy, was still a thing of the future and no distinction can be made between Dante the philosopher and Dante the scientist. Questions about prime matter, the totally indeterminate substrate of all being outside of God, creation, the soul, its parts and functions, the freedom of the will, these and many other topics, many of them exceedingly complex and technical, are despite their abstractness given a local habitation and a name in the Divine Comedy. They all point to the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover which, as final cause, is the source of all movement in the universe and becomes the Christian God of love:

l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle.


These highly abstract notions can be expressed in the superb imagery of a consummate artist only because he has taken the trouble to understand what he is talking about. He has gone to the sources, to the Aristotelians of his time and notably to St Thomas Aquinas. For these were matters upon which Aristotelian philosophy, particularly in the interpretation of the Arabs, had much to say and much of it controversial.

A similar situation obtains in a second area of Dante's thought, that concerned with the relationship between philosophy and theology or, we may say, between reason and faith. Once again it is a broad theme which one cannot do much more than outline. It is, no less than the cosmogonia dantesca, part of the framework of the Divine Comedy, providing not the material images of the poem but an important part of the intellectual context in which it was written. The distinction between theology and philosophy is one that we may be tempted to take for granted. We may be more cautious when we reflect that one of the first to expound it clearly and unambiguously was St Thomas Aquinas who tells us that theology relies upon data of divine revelation whereas philosophy has to do with the objects of human rational investigation.5 The distinction was to be a critical one in the Averroistic controversies that involved St Thomas with Siger of Brabant at Paris 1269-1272. For the moment we may be content to note that Dante's inclinations were strongly on the side of an independent philosophy. There seems to be no evidence that he would accept the description of philosophy as the ancilla theologiae; he saw the function of philosophy as that of “a collaborator far prouder and far more independent. It is through its splendour and magnificence as a daughter of God, by virtue of the miracle of its own existence and of the effects which it produces on man through its special quality, that philosophy, a miracle to be seen every day, helps us to deem possible the miracles of Christ which we did not see”.6

The experience of truth described early in the Paradiso connects truth with the vision of God:

Io veggio ben che già mai non si sazia
          nostro intelletto, se 'l ver non lo illustra
          di fuor dal qual nessun vero si spazia.


The presence of Beatrice, recalling here the Lady Philosophy of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, encourages Dante:

Questo m'invita, questo m'assicura
          con reverenza, donna, dimandarvi
          d'un'altra verità che m'è oscura.


There are, of course, matters beyond the grasp of philosophy; but even here philosophy helps greatly towards the ultimate understanding.

Not unconnected with the distinction of faith and reason is Dante's view of the relation of Church and State. He made no secret of his conviction of the necessity of a separation of Church and State or, in the concrete terms of his time, Papacy and Empire. His De Monarchia is sufficient testimony of his views, views by no means shared by most of his contemporaries and stayed by arguments which many found less than cogent, but views, nevertheless, that were in the long run of history to gain acceptance. These were views for which Dante suffered much, including exile. It is little wonder that the papalist side of the argument fared badly in the Divine Comedy and it is no accident that Popes like Boniface VIII and Nicholas III appear in the Inferno. The independence claimed by Dante for State against Church may parallel the autonomy claimed for philosophy vis-à-vis theology. How could Dante not sympathize with one—is it Siger of Brabant?—who suffered for that autonomy?

It is time to begin to draw together the seemingly disparate threads of the argument of this paper. The process may be introduced by a brief chronicle of events at Paris half a century before the writing of the Divine Comedy. These cast long shadows, reaching right into Dante's Paradiso. The events in question took place in the early 1270's and to situate them we may conveniently contrast the earlier (1255-1259) and the later (1269-1272) sojourn of St Thomas Aquinas as master-regent in the Faculty of Theology at Paris. First time around, the laurels of the magister in sacra pagina fresh on his brow, Aquinas launched into his incomparable teaching career. He had published, as the regulations demanded, his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard and was about to embark upon his Summa contra gentiles. Aristotelianism was already causing ripples on the surface of academic calm. The condemnations of Aristotle's “natural philosophy” (in practice, his metaphysics and his psychology) of 1210, 1215, and 1231 had fallen into desuetude and the cultivation of Aristotle in the Faculty of Arts was being viewed with increasing suspicion by the Faculty of Theology. The texts of Aristotle were unsatisfactory by reason of the tortuous nature of their transmission, in a centuries-long process, through Syria and the Arab world to Spain, where they were finally translated into Latin. The help of the great Arab commentators, Avicenna and Averroes, was welcomed, and the danger posed by Aristotelianism to orthodox theology was compounded.

In all this affair the position of Aquinas was delicate. That he was a sound theologian goes, today, without saying. But not all of his fellows in the Faculty of Theology were sure. Some thought he went too far in the direction of Aristotle. As a young man he had, after all, early learnt of Aristotle and Averroes when, before becoming a Dominican, he studied under Master Peter of Ireland at Naples. He later studied at Cologne under Albert the Great, in the period of Albert's Aristotelian paraphrases. Could he be relied upon against the Aristotelians in the Arts Faculty? It seems that he could; here again the long perspective of history allows us to see more clearly than his contemporaries. Indeed, there is good reason to think that the “gentiles”, against whom the Summa contra gentiles was written, were the arabizing Aristotelians in the University.

Be that as it may, the situation had radically changed for the worse by the time of Aquinas's second Paris sojourn. It was unusual for a master to be invited to a chair of theology for a second time; and the reason for this invitation lay precisely in the crisis that faced the University of Paris. The enthusiasm of the young masters of arts for Aristotle had gone beyond all bounds and left little room for deference to theological orthodoxy. The crux was in Aristotle's views about the eternity of the world and the difficulties about personal immortality. The difficulties were exacerbated by the interpretations of the “Arabs”, i.e. Avicenna and Averroes, leaning towards the denial of creation, the extinction of personal responsibility, the abandonment of the notion of Divine Providence and the unicity of the intellectual soul. The leader of these Aristotelian masters of arts was Siger of Brabant; and it was to meet the danger presented by Siger and his followers that Aquinas returned to Paris. His strength was that, as he himself was an Aristotelian but an orthodox one, he could meet the masters of arts, and indeed Avicenna and Averroes, on their own ground. His work De unitate intellectus, usually called contra Averroistas, was the academic coup-de-grâce for the Paris Aristotelians. But, needless to say, the matter did not end there, nor for long afterwards. We shall see more presently of the riots and the disturbances, and the condemnations in which Thomas himself did not escape unscathed. For the moment we may simply note that, during his stay in Italy between the Paris periods, St Thomas had met, at the court of Urban IV in Orvieto, a Dominican confrère, William of Moerbeke, whose help was invaluable. Moerbeke was a missionary in the East, an excellent Greek scholar, and he provided the West, and Aquinas in particular, with a series of accurate translations of the Greek texts of Aristotle to replace the faulty and defective versions current until then.

The question must finally be put: Who is the philosopher in the Paradiso? Virgil, representing human reason at its best, who has guided Dante through the Inferno and the Purgatorio as far as the Earthly Paradise, has disappeared. Beatrice enters this terrestrial Paradise in the chariot of the church and represents revelation, faith. When, later, Dante penetrates the empyrean it is Bernard, the doctor of contemplation, who undertakes his guidance. But what of the theologian-philosophers in Paradiso x and xii? Surely amongst these we may hope to find the philosopher of the Paradiso? And here we meet the enigma of Siger, which has exercised generations of Dante scholars.

Entering the fourth Heaven, that of the sun or light, Dante and Beatrice meet a group of twelve spirits who, by their brightness, stand out against the sun. They form a crown or garland and circle about Dante and Beatrice in a kind of ballet. When Dante wishes to know who they are, St Thomas does the honours:

Io fui de li agni de la santa greggia
          che Domenico mena per cammino
          u' ben s'impingua se non si vaneggia.


He introduces his neighbour on the right, his old teacher, Albert the Great:

Questi che m'è a destra più vicino,
          frate e maestro fummi, ed esso Alberto
          è di Cologna, e io Thomas d'Aquino.


St Thomas then points out in turn the lawyer, Gratian, who helped in both civil and canon law: “che l'uno e l'altro foro aiutò”; then Peter Lombard, the author of the Book of Sentences upon which every medieval master of theology had to write his commentary; then the wise king Solomon, followed by Dionysius the Areopagite or rather the author of the neo-Platonic treatises that went under the name of that distinguished man converted by St Paul. Then comes Orosius, who wrote a complement to St Augustine's City of God. He is followed by Boethius, Isidore of Seville, the Venerable Bede and Richard of St Victor. Last of all, completing the circle and consequently flanking St Thomas on the left as Albert does on the right, comes Siger of Brabant. The puzzle is not merely the presence of Siger in such company, given that he was the defeated opponent of Aquinas, but the quite unusual deference shown to him. He is introduced in two tercets; of the others only Solomon and Boethius get such full treatment:

Questi onde a me ritorna il tuo riguardo,
          è 'l lume d'uno spirto che 'n pensieri
          gravi a morir li parve venir tardo:
essa è la luce etterna di Sigieri,
          che, leggendo nel Vico de li Strami,
          silogizzò invidiosi veri.


Who was this Siger who, thinking grave thoughts, longed for death and had formerly taught “invidiosi veri” in the Street of Straw? Little enough was known about him in the centuries between Dante and the nineteenth century. And when modern scholarship began to lift the veil the riddle of his appearance in such distinguished company in the Paradiso was only increased. He was known to have been condemned for his part in the Averroistic controversies in Paris in 1270 and it was clear that he was the person mainly aimed at in the Great Condemnation of 219 Propositions by the Bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, on 7 March 1277. He was thought to have fled the University and for long Dante's reference was the only indication of his manner of death. Then there came to light a letter of John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury, addressed to the University of Oxford and dated 10 November 1284. In it Peckham, speaking of the unicity of the substantial form in every corporeal individual (a view defended by St Thomas among others), said that the two principal defenders of this opinion perished miserably beyond the Alps although they did not belong to that region.7 It is now clear beyond reasonable doubt that the reference is to Siger of Brabant and his companion Gosvin of La Chapelle.

What was this miserable death? In 1881 Ferdinand Castets published the text of a thirteenth-century Italian poem entitled Il Fiore, attributing it to Dante. It is possible that the author was another Florentine, a doctor of medicine, called Durante, who died in 1305.8 The poem is modelled on Jean de Meung's Roman de la Rose and consists of 232 sonnets. In sonnet 92 Falsembiante (the Faux-semblant or personification of hypocrisy of the Roman de la Rose) speaks:

Mastro Sighier non andò guari lieto.
A ghiado il fe' morire a gran dolore,
nella corte di Roma, ad Orbivieto.

Was Siger executed, put to the sword? At the Papal Court at Orvieto? The question was, as might have been expected, keenly debated, amongst others by Pierre Mandonnet, whose epoch-making Siger de Brabant et l'averroisme latin au XIIIe siècle first appeared in 1899. Just at this time came another dramatic discovery, in this case a passing reference in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Here the writer, apropos of the Emperor Rudolph in whose reign Albert the Great engaged in controversy with Siger of Brabant, describes how Siger, having to leave Paris, went to the Roman Curia where shortly afterwards he was stabbed by his cleric in a fit of madness.9

“Curiouser and curiouser!” It is difficult to see in the subject of this story the honoured colleague of St Thomas Aquinas in the fourth Heaven of Dante. Nevertheless it does now appear, in the light of three quarters of a century of research since Mandonnet first turned his attention to the Avveroist controversies at Paris, that Siger has far and away the best title to be called “the philosopher of the Paradiso”. A simple rehearsal of the conclusions of that research should convince all but the most sceptical.10

There can be no doubt that Siger was the leader of the “Averroist party” among the masters of arts in the University of Paris. Nothing is known of the origins of Siger, except that he came from the Duchy of Brabant. He first appears in a document drawn up by the Papal Legate, Simon de Brion, who had been called in to settle disturbances in the University of Paris in 1266 and it appears that he was a canon of the Church of St Paul at Liège. Brabant belonged to the diocese of Liège; and the canonry was certainly a sort of scholarship enabling Siger, who must have shown promise, to go to Paris to study. At Paris he lived up to that promise intellectually in becoming a master of arts and an influential teacher. But he was also a strong character with more than a touch of flamboyance and in fact, a faction leader. The Arts Faculty was divided into four nations, French, Normans, Picards and English, the French at this time outnumbering the other three nations. Once a month the nations elected a Rector of the University—an office that was to grow in importance and finally eclipse that of Chancellor, which belonged to the Faculty of Theology. The quarrel that Cardinal Simon de Brion was called in to settle was the result of a series of rather discreditable episodes in the relations between the nations. The French, in a majority, elected a Rector whom the other nations refused to acknowledge; Siger, who was named as a leader of the anti-French party, may even have been elected Rector by his supporters. There followed riotous behaviour, the kidnapping of rivals and even the assault on the Church of Saint-Jacques and the attempt to prevent the Dead Office being sung in the memory of William of Auxerre, a former professor in the Faculty of Theology. Simon de Brion took the affair firmly in hand, named the culprits, including Siger, decreed that the Rector should be elected only four times a year and laid down a system of resolving disputed elections. Siger's first appearance was not a happy one.

Much more significant, however, than the faction-fighting of the nations was the polarization of the University between the Aristotelians in the Faculty of Arts, led by Siger, and the conservatives in the Faculty of Theology. The intensity of the quarrel and the enormity of its implications brought about, as we have seen, the recall of Thomas Aquinas to Paris in 1269. The battle lines are drawn. St Thomas's opuscule on the Unity of the Intellect was clearly directed against Siger and against the authority of Averroes which he claimed. This indeed, of all the suspect teachings of Siger and his followers, was the most destructive; for to assert that there is only one intellect (however qualified) for the entire human race is to make nonsense of individuality, responsibility and immortality. Siger replied. It was not in his character to remain silent and he throve on controversy. But the inevitable ecclesiastical intervention took place; Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris, a former master in the Faculty of Theology and former Chancellor of the University, issued a condemnation of 13 propositions in 1270. This condemnation, clearly directed against Siger and his followers, was a dress rehearsal for the Great Condemnation of 1277.

Between the first and the second of these condemnations there was a lull followed by more riots and tumults that need not be detailed here. What was not appreciated until comparatively recently, and a result of the better knowledge of Siger's works, is that Siger seems to have changed his mind. It would be too much to say that he became a Thomist, even if one could pin an exact meaning on that term in the thirteenth century. But his later writings do manifest an Aristotelianism that is no longer irreconcilable with Christian thought. He still appeals to exclusively philosophical sources; he is not a theologian; and Aristotle is still the authority par excellence; but the synthesis now resembles that of St Thomas. There is no need to postulate a dramatic conversion; that would surely not have gone unrecorded in the case of so outstanding a figure on the University scene. But a gradual development in the direction of orthodoxy, stimulated it may be by the powerful argument of Aquinas's De unitate intellectus, can plausibly be read into Siger's later writings. He is beginning to look a much more presentable candidate for the task of representing philosophy in the Paradiso.

Have we proved too much? How explain Dante's curious and cautious references to Siger in the Paradiso, his grave thoughts, the death slow in coming and, above all, those “invidiosi veri” which he taught in the Street of Straw? The answer lies in the reconstruction now possible of the last years of Siger's life.

Even before the condemnation of 1277 Siger, with two of his associates, Bernier of Nivelles and Gosvin of La Chapelle (all three with Liège connections), was summoned before Simon de Val, Inquisitor of France, charged with heresy. Despite his apparent change of heart and the fact that, over the previous six or so years, he had not taught truths contrary to the faith, Siger was vulnerable because of his past and his writings. He could hardly expect a sympathetic hearing in France—Bishop, Chancellor, Legate and Inquisitor, not to speak of the Faculty of Theology, all seemed ranged against him and all had good reasons for distrusting him. Siger may well have despaired of getting a fair trial in the court of the Inquisitor. On the other hand, if he had a clear conscience in the matter of heresy, he would easily appeal to the Papal Curia, the more so as the reigning Pope was John XXI who, as Peter of Spain, had taught logic (and was consequently in the Faculty of Arts) at the University of Paris. What happened in the event is mainly conjecture, for no evidence has come to light concerning any process at the Curia. John XXI died on May 20, 1277, killed accidentally in the collapse of a ceiling in the Papal Palace at Viterbo. The Curia was subsequently transferred to Rome and later to Orvieto, under Martin IV elected in 1281. Here, some time before 1284 (the date of Peckham's letter already mentioned) Siger died, assassinated by a demented cleric. Peckham's letter is likely to be well-informed on the matter, for he was at Paris 1269-1271 when the controversies about Siger raged; and he was lector at the Papal Curia 1276-1279 when the trial of Siger may very well have taken place.

Was Siger found guilty of heresy? Hardly; for contumacious heretics were burnt. If he was guilty and recanted the penalty would have been perpetual imprisonment. It seems more likely that he was absolved of the formal charge of heresy but possibly detained in a kind of house-arrest and, because of his former career and influence, refused permission by the Curia to take up his teaching career again. The fact that he could have had the services of a clericus, a scribe or secretary presumably, is an indication that whatever the imprisonment it was not of the stricter kind. But such a detention, with close censorship of what he might write and close surveillance of all his activities, would have severely restricted a fiery and impetuous spirit like Siger's to a miserable existence in which death was welcomed as a release. Siger was not much over forty years of age when he met his tragic end.

We have in this question as much certainty as we are likely to get. It is always possible that future research will throw up further revelations about Siger of Brabant; but they are unlikely to alter the present picture in any substantial way. Dante was probably aware of the drama of Siger's career and he cannot but have been impressed by Siger's suffering for his philosophical opinions. As himself a rather eclectic and easy-going, although devoted, follower of St Thomas, Dante would not have worried unduly about differences between Thomas and Siger, above all if he knew that those differences had been mended before Siger's death. He would have been more impressed by the common fidelity to Aristotle in Siger and Thomas. It must not be forgotten that St Thomas was suspected, and even condemned, by those whose views about the hegemony of theology Dante could not accept.

Finally, a significant and important detail, Siger was and always remained a philosopher, a master of arts. He never proceeded to theology or taught in a Faculty of Theology. What better or more appropriate representative of philosophy in the Paradiso?


  1. C. Vasoli, “Sigieri (Sighieri) di Brabante”, [Enciclopedia dantesca] V, 238-42.

  2. C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge, 1964).

  3. M. Grabmann, “Die Wege van Thomas von Aquin zu Dante: Fra Remigio de' Girolami O.Pr.”, Deutsches Dante-Jahrbuch 9 (1925), 1-35, reprinted in Dante Alighieri: Aufsätze zur Divina Commedia ed. H. Friedrich (Darmstadt, 1968) pp. 201-35; Charles T. Davis, “An Early Florentine Political Theorist: Fra Remigio De' Girolami”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 104 (1960) 662-76. For him and for his contemporary Fra Nicola Brunacci, who follows in the text, see also: P. Mandonnet, Dante le théologien (Paris, 1935); and C.T. Davis, “Education in Dante's Florence,” Speculum 40 (1965) 415-35.

  4. See note10 in the essay by C. Ryan above.

  5. Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 1, a. 1. The distinction elaborated by St Thomas and ever since accepted was foreshadowed in the Jewish translators from the Arabic working at the courts of Frederick II and Manfred in Sicily. See J. Sermoneta, “Pour une histoire du thomisme juif”, Aquinas and the Problems of his Time (Louvain, 1967) pp. 130-1.

  6. E. Gilson, Dante the Philosopher (London, 1948) p. 119.

  7. Charles T. Martin, Registrum Epistolarum Fratris Joannis Peckham, Volume III (London, 1885) p.842, “dicuntur conclusisse dies suos in partibus transalpinis, cum tamen non essent di illis partibus oriundi”.

  8. For the text I have used F. Castets ed., Il fiore: poeme italien du XIII siècle en CCXXXII sonnets, limite du Roman de la Rose par Durante (Paris, 1881). For a survey of opinions see G. F. Contini on the Fiore in Enc. d. II, 895-901.

  9. Martin of Troppau's Chronicle “Continuatio Brabantina”, Monumenta Germaniae Historica 27, Scriptorum Tomus XXIV (Hanover, 1879) p. 263: “Qui Sygerus, natione Brabantinus, eo quod quasdam opiniones contra fidem tenuerat, Parisius subsistere non valens, Romanam Curiam adiit ibique post parvum tempus a clerico suo quasi dementi perfossus periit”. See C. C. J. Webb, “Some Notes on the Problem of Siger”, Medieval and Renaissance Studies 2 (1950) 121-7.

  10. The fullest and most recent account is F. Van Steenberghen, Maitre Siger de Brabant (Louvain, 1977). See also R. Hissette, Enquête sur les 219 Articles condamnès à Paris le 7 mars 1277 (Louvain, 1977).

Allen Mandelbaum (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: Mandelbaum, Allen. Introduction to The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Paradiso, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, pp. viii-xxi. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1982, Mandelbaum praises Dante's “poem of spectacle,” commenting on the poet's ability to traverse, in his mind, dizzying cosmic expanses and deep recesses of his soul.]

Paradiso is a poem of spectacle, of wheeling shapes that enter and exit, form, re-form, and dis-form; of voices that discourse out of their faceless flames; of letters and words spelled out across the heavens by living lights in flight; of flames that shape the remarkable Eagle; of the vast amphitheater of the Celestial Rose in the tenth and final heaven, the Empyrean, where the blessed range in carefully orchestrated ranks.

That expanse is such that when, some two-thirds of the way through Paradise, the voyager turns his gaze back and downward toward the earth, he sees (XXII, 134-135 and 148-152):

… this globe in such a way that I
smiled at its scrawny image …


          And all the seven heavens showed to me
their magnitudes, their speeds, the distances
of each from each. The little threshing floor
          that so incites our savagery was all—
from hills to river mouths—revealed to me …

Such cosmic expanse and order does admit of likeness to spacious waters (I, 112-117):

          Therefore, these natures move to different ports
across the mighty sea of being, each
given the impulse that will bear it on.
          This impulse carries fire to the moon;
this is the motive force in mortal creatures;
this binds the earth together, makes it one.

But that expanse does not allow us solitude or intimacy—with one exception: our intimate entry into the making of the poem, into the atelier, forge, foundry, workshop, mind and heart, of the maker-orchestrator.

Here we find the exilic despair that was so imperative a source of the energies and exhilaration of a work unlike anything Dante had completed before. That despair forms the bitter part of the burden of the prophecy he hears from his ancestor, Cacciaguida, at the center of Paradiso (XVII, 55-60):

          “You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
          of others' bread, how salt it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
descending and ascending others' stairs.”

And here we find the pride that this terminal cantica engenders, Dante's sense of the uniqueness of this work as against any wrought prior to him (II, 7-9 and XIX, 7-9):

          The waves I take were never sailed before;
Minerva breathes, Apollo pilots me,
and the nine Muses show to me the Bears.
          And what I now must tell has never been
reported by a voice, inscribed by ink,
never conceived by the imagination …

There is pride—and there is the nakedly buoyant, joyous presumption, and even fleeting complacency, of one who contemplates not only from the heights (as in XXII, 148-152, above) but also savors the height itself (XI, 1-12):

          O senseless cares of mortals, how deceiving
are syllogistic reasonings that bring
your wings to flight so low, to earthly things!
          One studied law and one the Aphorisms
of the physicians; one was set on priesthood
and one, through force or fraud, on rulership;
          one meant to plunder, one to politick;
one labored, tangled in delights of flesh,
and one was fully bent on indolence;
          while I, delivered from our servitude
to all these things, was in the height of heaven
with Beatrice, so gloriously welcomed.

And in Dante's envisioning of this ever-widening expanse—so unlike the ever-narrowing hellish voyage to the deepest pit, and the hopeful, ever-narrowing voyage to the Mount of Purgatory's summit—we are asked to share the travail of the writer, the constraints and limits of speech and memory, as he struggles with magnitudes. Time and time again, the very scribe who tells us (X, 22-27):

          Now, reader, do not leave your bench, but stay
to think on that of which you have foretaste;
you will have much delight before you tire.
          I have prepared your fare; now feed yourself,
because that matter of which I am made
the scribe calls all my care unto itself.

also asks us to enter—intimately—into his cares and concerns at his own bench. But each of the chimings on obstacles and barriers, on the immensity of the task, on its impossibility, only serves to magnify the dimensions and intensity of the vision—whether it be the vision of the smile of Beatrice, or of the happiness of St. Peter coming to greet Beatrice, or of the mystery of the Incarnation.

The full force of these visions rests in and rises from the temporal shapes and duration of fabulation in the Comedy, a long poem, long in the time of its making (“this work so shared by heaven and by earth / that it has made me lean through these long years,” XXV, 2-3). But Dante's leaps and lapses in the making of Paradiso, the gyres and wheelings of his dervishing desk, do offer, in themselves, another “strange sight” (XXXIII, 136), an extraordinary spectacle, a vision of the cunning yet transparent place of Dante's own incarnating (I, 4-9; XXIII, 55-63; XXIV, 25-27; XXX, 22-33; XXXIII, 55-57, 58-63, 106-108, 121-123):

          I was within the heaven that receives
more of His light; and I saw things that he
who from that height descends, forgets or can
          not speak; for nearing its desired end,
our intellect sinks into an abyss
so deep that memory fails to follow it.
          If all the tongues that Polyhymnia
together with her sisters made most rich
with sweetest milk, should come now to assist
          my singing of the holy smile that lit
the holy face of Beatrice, the truth
would not be reached—not its one-thousandth part.
          And thus, in representing Paradise,
the sacred poem has to leap across,
as does a man who finds his path cut off.
          My pen leaps over it; I do not write:
our fantasy and, all the more so, speech
are far too gross for painting folds so deep.
          I yield: I am defeated at this passage
more than a comic or a tragic poet
has ever been by a barrier in his theme;
          for like the sun that strikes the frailest eyes,
so does the memory of her sweet smile
deprive me of the use of my own mind.
          From that first day when, in this life, I saw
her face, until I had this vision, no
thing ever cut the sequence of my song,
          but now I must desist from this pursuit,
in verses, of her loveliness, just as
each artist who has reached his limit must.
          From that point on, what I could see was greater
than speech can show: at such a sight, it fails—
and memory fails when faced with such excess.
          As one who sees within a dream, and, later,
the passion that had been imprinted stays,
but nothing of the rest returns to mind,
          such am I, for my vision almost fades
completely, yet it still distills within
my heart the sweetness that was born of it.
          What little I recall is to be told,
from this point on, in words more weak than those
of one whose infant tongue still bathes at the breast.
          How incomplete is speech, how weak, when set
against my thought! And this, to what I saw
is such—to call it little is too much.

Much, of course, is tellable, is chartable. We, seated at our benches, intent on Dante's dervishing, may have at hand both the Paradiso and a gazetteer for sedentaries therefor, a gazetteer with seven entries for the seven heavenly bodies that were considered planets (and Dante will also call the planets stars)—Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Three additional entries would cover the Eighth Heaven or Sphere of the Fixed Stars, those stars that are invariant in their position in relation to each other; the Ninth Heaven, the “swiftest of the spheres” (I, 123) and “matter's largest sphere” (XXX, 38), the Primum Mobile, the primal source of motion for all the eight spheres that lie below and within it; and the Tenth Heaven, the Empyrean, a Christian addition to the gazetteer, a heaven not envisioned by Ptolemy, Alfraganus, or Alpetragius. This gazetteer—except for the entry under the Empyrean—may well be subject to the cavil muttered by another exile, Osip Mandelstam: “The Middle Ages … did not fit into the Ptolemaic system: they took refuge there.”

But Dante's refuge is also ours: a way to scan his journey in space, riprap or calculated scaffold, a frame of composition in which he and we can rest, as he labors at the fundamental, experimental, scribal trial and task: invention. We can see the invented becoming memory as it is made, and we can also see Dante outreading readers, conjuring his being remembered in a future. The energy of his invention informs the words of Mandelstam:

Dante is an antimodernist. His contemporaneity is inexhaustible, measureless, and unending. … It is unthinkable to read the cantos of Dante without aiming them in the direction of the present day. They were made for that. They are missiles for capturing the future. They demand the commentary of the futurum.

We, bruised by this incredibly cruel century, are part, a small part of that future, and Dante is concerned for his place among us. That concern and desire are momentarily shadowed by his fear that too much truth may offend the readers of his own age. But that shadow is quickly dispelled; for Dante to compromise his words would lose, for him, fame, honor, audience, in the future (XVII, 118-120):

          “Yet if I am a timid friend of truth,
I fear that I may lose my life among
those who will call this present, ancient times.”

Thus, he holds fast to Cacciaguida's injunction (XVII, 127-134):

          “Nevertheless, all falsehood set aside,
let all that you have seen be manifest,
and let them scratch wherever it may itch.
          For if, at the first taste, your words molest,
they will, when they have been digested, end
as living nourishment. As does the wind,
          so shall your outcry do—the wind that sends
its roughest blows against the highest peaks …”

We, too, as part of the future, are asked by Dante to measure our fitness as readers, to measure our hungering for the fare that he calls the “bread of angels” (II, 1-6 and 10-15):

          O you who are within your little bark,
eager to listen, following behind
my ship that, singing, crosses to deep seas,
          turn back to see your shores again: do not
attempt to sail the seas I sail; you may,
by losing sight of me, be left astray.
          You other few who turned your minds in time
unto the bread of angels, which provides
men here with life—but hungering for more—
          you may indeed commit your vessel to
the deep salt-sea, keeping your course within
my wake, ahead of where waves smooth again.

In a literal sense, we may fall short. For to have turned to the “bread of angels” means, in the most probable “translation” of Dante's metaphorical use of biblical manna, to have begun the study of speculative theology. Such study is less than frequent today, such disciplined recognition and schooling of a hungering that can only be fully appeased with the enlightenment found in the beatific vision proper to the angels—and perhaps not even to them.

But the “bread of angels” as object of the hungering of the mind for meaning involves “a reachless goal,” a search that must for us, here—and even for the Seraphim there—collide with mystery (XXI, 91-99):

          “But even Heaven's most enlightened soul,
that Seraph with his eye most set on God,
could not provide the why, not satisfy
          what you have asked; for deep in the abyss
of the Eternal Ordinance, it is
cut off from all created beings' vision.
          And to the mortal world, when you return,
tell this, lest men continue to trespass
and set their steps toward such a reachless goal.”

And if “we cannot satisfy / our mind unless it is enlightened by / the truth beyond whose boundary no truth lies” (IV, 124-126), then Dante would accord with Stevens's assessment of our earthly situation: “It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.”

That collision with mystery, that dissatisfaction of the mind—we do know. It is from this earth that we turn to the “bread of angels,” and upon this earth that Dante envisions. That “bread” is also the bread of desire and of the forms that longing engenders. It is the manna that all of us receive in act and memory, the manna of days and nights of grace that lies beyond any algebra of merits.

Now we can set aside the gazetteer. Now we can share the hungering. We, in this future, may lack the resolution and independence of Dante, but we certainly share his metamorphic vicissitudes, the mutabilities of a man who defines himself as one “who by my very nature am / given to every sort of change” (V, 98-99). And when the changing Dante appropriates, it is not only the mediators of antiquity, the gods and muses of his invocations, whom he calls upon; he also appropriates our age, the future angels of Rilke and of Stevens; and he even appropriates the still nameless poets of the future (I, 34-36):

          Great fire can follow a small spark: there may
be better voices after me to pray
to Cyrrha's god for aid—that he may answer.

That future also includes the future of the poet after the completion of the poem. For though Dante's Paradiso is completed near the end of his life, his poem is not equatable with his life. And in the opening of the final canto we are to share the sense of poetry as prayer—as vocative that pleads not only for the present need to reach, to see, but also for help in persevering, in living after the envisioning. The prayer of Bernard of Clairvaux to Mary, “Virgin mother, daughter of your Son,” after fixing her place as centerpoint in universal time, turns to the needs of “this man,” Dante (XXXIII, 19-36):

          “In you compassion is, in you is pity,
in you is generosity, in you
is every goodness found in any creature.
          This man—who from the deepest hollow in
the universe, up to this height, has seen
the lives of spirits, one by one—now pleads
          with you, through grace, to grant him so much virtue
that he may lift his vision higher still—
may lift it toward the ultimate salvation.
          And I, who never burned for my own vision
more than I burn for his, do offer you
all of my prayers—and pray that they may not
          fall short—that, with your prayers, you may disperse
all of the clouds of his mortality
so that the Highest Joy be his to see.
          This, too, o Queen, who can do what you would,
I ask of you: that after such a vision,
his sentiments preserve their perseverance.”

That Saint Bernard should be the speaker here, and that this prayer should occupy so privileged a place in Paradiso—these attest to the complex conjoining in Dante of two often diverging paths: the path of intellect and the path of love.

Dante inhabits and inherits the extraordinary intellectual edifice, foreshadowed a century earlier by Abelard, that finds its culmination in the university life and institutions of thirteenth-century Paris. His Ulysses in the Inferno may indeed represent Dante's recoiling from the very limits that the ultimate exaltation of intellect may reach, extend, transgress.

Against Abelard and that nascent reason-able tradition stood his ferocious adversary Bernard, emblem of the rich expansion of the language of God-directed love, in which the theologians outdo all poets before—and often including—Dante. That line exalts affection, the ardor of God-seeking.

Aquinas had already charted the erotics of knowing with enduring precision; he had already wed intellect and affect. But in Aquinas, Dante could never have found so central a place for the feminine protagonist of affect: Mary. And in Aquinas, he could certainly not have found his incarnate Beatrice. Beatrice, of course, also shares the modes of argumentation, the instruments of the “other”—intellectual—tradition. If not Theology or Sacred Science itself, she is a confident theologian. But she is, too, a feminine apparition—yet not an icon or idol. She is the living daughter of Memory and Affection.

Mary herself, before Bernard's prayer, had been evoked by Dante in the present tense of the writer writing of his life on our earth, outside the poem of Paradise, in lines that are no less memorable than Bernard's prayer to Mary: “The name of that fair flower which I always / invoke, at morning and at evening …” (XXIII, 88-89), where that fair flower is Mary, the Rosa Mystica, the Mary of the Rosary and “the Rose in which the Word of God became / flesh” (XXIII, 73-74).

And when Dante evokes Beatrice in Canto XXIII, he finally brings to bear on her two earthly likenesses most dear to him, the maternal and the ornithological, here joined to his stupendous string of dawn and pre-dawn scenes (XXIII, 1-15):

          As does the bird, among beloved branches,
when, through the night that hides things from us, she
has rested near the nest of her sweet fledglings
          and, on an open branch, anticipates
the time when she can see their longed-for faces
and find the food with which to feed them—chore
          that pleases her, however hard her labors—
as she awaits the sun with warm affection,
steadfastly watching for the dawn to break:
          so did my lady stand, erect, intent,
turned toward that part of heaven under which
the sun is given to less haste; so that,
          as I saw her in longing and suspense,
I grew to be as one who, while he wants
what is not his, is satisfied with hope.

Along the way to Beatrice as bird among “beloved branches,” along the way to Bernard's prayer, we are asked to share the work of a maker who is ever conscious that the praise and enactment of music or dance are auto-celebrations of the movement of verse itself (even as Milton was in praising Harry Lawes, or Hopkins in praising the “colossal smile” of Henry Purcell, or Fray Luis in praising Salinas). A maker conscious, too, that verse can mime the movement of the soul in joyous love (XIV, 19-24):

          As dancers in a ring, when drawn and driven
by greater gladness, lift at times their voices
and dance their dance with more exuberance,
          so, when they heard that prompt, devout request,
the blessed circles showed new joyousness
in wheeling dance and in amazing song.

That “amazing song” is sung in a poem that, may, in program, claim to be a timeless poem. Paradiso may be intent on the vision of the everlasting, a poem that sees—apparently—what are the simultaneous presences of the blessed in the Empyrean stretched out over time and space only to accommodate Dante's earthly eyes (IV, 37-45):

          “They showed themselves to you here not because
this is their sphere, but as a sign for you
that in the Empyrean their place is lowest.
          Such signs are suited to your mind, since from
the senses only can it apprehend
what then becomes fit for the intellect.
          And this is why the Bible condescends
to human powers, assigning feet and hands
to God, but meaning something else instead.”

Yet Dante does not hesitate to glory in the timing mechanism of the clock and in seeing in its machinery the movement of music, of dance, of the time-borne verse line itself, and of the spirit's growth in love (X, 139-148 and XXIV, 13-18):

          Then, like a clock that calls us at the hour
in which the bride of God, on waking, sings
matins to her Bridegroom, encouraging
          His love (when each clock-part both drives and draws),
chiming the sounds with notes so sweet that those
with spirit well-disposed feel their love grow;
          so did I see the wheel that moved in glory
go round and render voice to voice with such
sweetness and such accord that they can not
          be known except where joy is everlasting.
          And just as, in a clock's machinery,
to one who watches them, the wheels turn so
that, while the first wheel seems to rest, the last
          wheel flies; so did those circling dancers—as
they danced to different measures, swift and slow—
make me a judge of what their riches were.

And on the way to Bernard's prayer we will also find that our sympathy with Dante's metamorphic nature has been instructed in one specific way of change within his book of changes: the use of multiple possibilities as instruments and way stations in the conversion of the self to an integral presence (not unakin to Saint Augustine's: “Love made me what I am, that I may be what I was not before”). Variety and vicissitude—even exile—may be the apprenticeship and bondage needed before the freedom of oneness can be reached. (And perhaps this mode of metamorphosis is not that un-Ovidian. Did not Ovid himself beseech a “seamless” way in his incipit?

          My soul would sing of metamorphoses,
but since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe
your breath into my book of changes: may
the song I sing be seamless as its way
weaves from the world's beginning to our day.)

To that end, the “io sol uno,” “I myself / alone,” of Inferno (II, 3-4) extends through “I crown and miter you over yourself” of Purgatorio (XXVII, 142) to—now in a political context—Dante's best party as his own “self” at the end of the prophecy by Cacciaguida, Dante's ancestor (XVII, 61-69):

          “And what will be most hard for you to bear
will be the scheming, senseless company
that is to share your fall into this valley;
          against you they will be insane, completely
ungrateful and profane; and yet, soon after,
not you but they will have their brows bloodred.
          Of their insensate acts, the proof will be
in the effects; and thus, your honor will
be best kept if your party is your self.”

That self finds an almost obsessively narcissistic model in the image of the Three-in-One of the Trinity toward the end of Canto XXXIII (124-126):

          Eternal Light, You only dwell within
Yourself, and only You know You; Self-knowing,
Self-known, You love and smile upon Yourself!

But the vast population of the Comedy is proof against the claustrophobia of that model, as is Dante's gratefulness in the Paradiso to the otherness of Beatrice. Her otherness made possible his engendering the Paradiso, even as the otherness of Virgil nurtured the making of Inferno and Purgatorio. The Paradisiac gratitude of Dante to Beatrice stands in a diptych with his valediction to Virgil (Purg. XXX, 43-54), even as her silent smile complements the silent smile of Virgil in the Earthly Paradise, in Purgatorio, XXVIII, 147 (Par. XXXI, 79-93):

          “O lady, you in whom my hope gains strength,
you who, for my salvation, have allowed
your footsteps to be left in Hell, in all
          the things that I have seen, I recognize
the grace and benefit that I, depending
upon your power and goodness, have received.
          You drew me out from slavery to freedom
by all those paths, by all those means that were
within your power. Do, in me, preserve
          your generosity, so that my soul,
which you have healed, when it is set loose from
my body, be a soul that you will welcome.”
          So did I pray. And she, however far
away she seemed, smiled, and she looked at me.
Then she turned back to the eternal fountain.

Even as the smile of Beatrice and Dante's gratitude were—earlier—condensed in one of the rare passages in Paradiso where Dante is likened to a dreamer (XXIII, 49-54):

          I was as one who, waking from a dream
he has forgotten, tries in vain to bring
that vision back into his memory,
          when I heard what she offered me, deserving
of so much gratitude that it can never
be canceled from the book that tells the past.

Bibliographical Note

Essays on the individual cantos of the Paradiso are to be found far beyond the range of the principal collective volumes—or pamphlet collections—of Paradiso readings. But the following compilations (with their separate essays on each canto, in the Lectura Dantis format that the California Lectura Dantis volumes, now in progress, will follow) have been both convenient and particularly helpful:

Letture dantesche: Paradiso, ed. Giovanni Getto, Florence, 1958 (now in the 1965 single-volume edition of the three cantiche); Lectura Dantis Scaligera: Paradiso, ed. Mario Marcazzan, Florence, 1967; the separate pamphlets of the Lectura Dantis Romana, ed. Giovanni Fallani, Turin, 1959-1967; the third, fourth, and fifth volumes of the Nuove letture dantesche of the Casa di Dante di Roma, Florence, 1969-1972; Letture del Paradiso, ed. Vittorio Vettori, Milan, 1970; and readings of Paradiso cantos scattered through Vols. I-III, V, VII, and IX of the Letture Classensi, Ravenna, 1969-1979.

John Saly (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Saly, John. “The Eternal Now: Union with Being” and “Dante, Poet of the Future.” In Dante's Paradiso: The Flowering of the Self: An Interpretation of the Anagogical Meaning, pp. 175-99. New York: Pace University Press, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Saly explores the third level of meaning of Paradiso, which Dante calls “anagogical” and which theologians, as Saly explains, define as mystical or spiritual.]

The Eternal Now: Union with Being

Dentro all' ampiezza di questo reame
casual punto non puote aver sito,
se non come tristizia, o sete, o fame;
chè per eterna legge è stabilito
quantunque vedi, sì che giustamente
ci si risponde dall' anello al dito.

[XXXII. 52-57]

(In all the breadth of this kingdom nothing of chance can find a place any more than sorrow or thirst or hunger, for all thou seest is ordained by eternal law, so that here the ring exactly fits the finger.)

Canto XXX

As we contemplate the great paradox that being unites the supremely individual with the supremely universal, we are overtaken by the dawn of ultimate reality. We have so far been looking for being itself in entities which derived the light of their existence from it. We were gazing at the starry sky which reflected the light of the sun,1 but now the sun itself is rising and the shadow of the earth must leave the sky. Being will no longer appear to us as reflected in its creations; we will stand in the direct light [XXX. 109].

Our vision of the exulting play that constitutes the pure activity of free energy fades away gradually [XXX. 10-13]. When vision leaves us we turn again to our guide, the revelation of the love given to us early in life. As we leave the ninth state of paradise, she appears more harmonious than ever before on our journey. We realize here that we can never grasp the full beauty of the experience which overpowered us so long ago. Only He Who created the beloved and Whose power shines out in every such experience can know its fullness [XXX. 13-21]. But here we see as much of the splendor of our love as the finiteness of our own being permits. Once this love was our only token of the existence of some reality beyond the reach of the senses [XXX. 28]; now total actuality opens up before us with the blinding realization of what our love really is:

Dal primo giorno ch' io vidi il suo viso
in questa vita, infino a questa vista,
non m' è il seguire al mio cantar preciso;
ma or convien che mio seguir desista
più retro a sua bellezza, poetando,
come all' ultimo suo ciascuno artista.

[XXX. 28-33]

(From the first day I saw her face in this life until this sight the pursuit in my song has not been cut off; but now must my pursuit cease from following longer after her beauty in my verse, as with every artist who has reached his limit.)

When we return to our everyday life we will not be able to remember the full meaning of this experience [XXX. 25-27]. But now the voice of love within continues to guide us and, after our amazement has subsided, tells us where we have arrived [XXX. 37-38].

The last eternal state through which the pilgrims of paradise pass in time has now been left behind [XXX. 39]. We are in the eternal present, in the full light of being; the radiance is complete understanding, the heat the energy of love. Whoever is touched by this light lives in unceasing joy [XXX. 40-42].

For further progress our capacity of vision must be strengthened again by the living light which now surrounds us on every side. But to sharpen our sight we must first lose it; this has happened again and again in paradise. In every new state whose light overpowers our inward eye we have to first accept our inadequacy, admit our blindness. Only when we have consented to lose our sight in order to gain it is our power of vision restored and intensified. This, too, is a general law. No creative vision is possible without a humble acceptance of one's real shortcomings [XXX. 46-51].

Here it is not enough to have keen inward sight; we must go beyond understanding and make ourselves ready to burn with the flame of love, for in this eternal present all entities become eternal candles ceaselessly burning and never consumed [XXX. 52-54]. As we hear this truth revealed to us we surpass our proper powers and our last and deepest inward vision opens within us. A new sight has been kindled in us, strong enough to support the intensest light that reveals whatever truly is [XXX. 55-60].

Our first vision here shows us the nature of the overpowering light itself. This light is a river of illuminative power which increases our understanding continually. Now we see sparks rising from the river of light and entering, like bees, the eternal ruby-red flowers on the banks. Then sated with odors, they plunge back into the river again [XXX. 61-69].

By the free flow of illumination, in response to our desire for enlightenment, we were lifted up from state to state in paradise. Now we desire to understand more than ever [XXX. 70-72]. We have to drink of illuminative grace to comprehend the meaning of a vision, to penetrate behind the last symbol-mask that hides the final truth [XXX. 73-78].2 In spite of our new vision we still see “through a glass, darkly,” for we cannot penetrate through the symbols into what they symbolize [XXX. 79-81]. But we follow the motherly command of the voice of love and bathe our eyes in the river of grace with greater eagerness than any child who, awaking late, rushes to his mother's breast for milk [XXX. 82-87].3

The last symbol-mask of reality falls off and we become aware of an even greater joy than what the symbols promised [XXX. 91-95]. As grace is added to our already perfected visionary power, we understand the perfection of grace itself [XXX. 88-90]. We see all that truly is in the light of illuminating grace, which, as we now see, is none other than the manifest splendor of being itself.4 To those who come to realize that they can find no rest and fulfillment except in the contemplation of being, this light makes visible being itself [XXX. 96-102]. Though the light of being is intellectual light because it reveals to our understanding whatever truly exists, we cannot identify it with human reason. It encompasses reason but extends far beyond it on every side [XXX. 103-105]. The life and power of the whole created universe comes from this light [XXX. 107-108], which reveals to us the world of the eternal now. Such complete awareness is the actuality underlying all the states of development which we have traversed on our journey so far. Like the sun that calls forth the plant from the seed, it draws and raises the soul from the moment of awakening through all the stages of inner growth.

This eternal present is reflected on the outermost layer of all existence that is still bound in its movement to a determined course.5 What we see in this reflection is the free order of being and, within it, all those beings who, having once been estranged from being itself, have found their way back to their true home:

E come clivo in acqua di suo imo
si specchia, quasi per vedersi adorno,
quando è nell' erbe e nei fioretti opimo,
sì soprastando al lume intorno intorno
vidi specchiarsi in più di mille soglie,
quanto di noi lassù fatto ha ritorno.(6)

[XXX. 109-114]

(and as a hillside is mirrored in water at its foot as if to see itself adorned when it is rich with grass and flowers, I saw, rising above the light all round in more than a thousand tiers, as many of us as have returned there above.)

As in the chalice of a white rose of innumerable petals, we see perfect order and beauty unfold before us. Our vision can now take it all in without failing. Nothing stands here between the light of being and our intellectual eye; the supreme reality is open to our fully developed understanding, for here no distance is interposed between desire and fulfillment [XXX. 118-123].

While total reality opens up in all its perfection, the voice of love within us points out how leadership is exalted here. All true leadership in history is an attempt to mold the world of temporal human existence into a likeness of this eternal order. But such attempts are foiled by man's greed. By clinging to their greed, people in the temporal world are fighting against their own salvation. Thus our revelation warns us for the last time against greed, the urge to possess illusory goods for ourselves alone. This is the basic error which even those dedicated to the service of the eternal order commit. Insisting on separateness and material possessions, they fall willing victims to illusion and are estranged from the splendor of reality.

Canto XXXI

Having understood the nature of the light which reveals everything as it truly is, our vision now takes in the forces that work within total reality [XXXI. 4-15]. Between the source of the light and the beings who are, like flowers, brought into existence and nourished by the light, there is a constant stream of messengers hurrying to and fro. But such a multitude of intermediaries cannot obscure being from the vision of men because the light reaches all who are ready to receive it [XXXI. 19-24]. These messengers of being offer peace and burning energy together, for the two by no means exclude each other here. Both peace and ardor come from free activity [XXXI. 16-18] which is no toil but pure delight [XXXI. 9].

All entities who have attained the ultimate goal turn toward being itself and are secure and joyful in their vision [XXXI. 25-27]. As we stand here at the end of our pilgrimage in silent contemplation, our inquiring intellect is stilled for a while [XXXI. 43-48]. In every face we see charity and joy, in every gesture the full dignity of complete existence [XXXI. 49-51].

When our will turns again to questioning, we can no longer receive enlightenment from the revelation of our personal experience of love. That experience reaches its full stature here in the eternal present and, having become one part of the total vision, it can no longer give us more than itself. It cannot take us to the comprehension of the whole. Therefore from the motherly care of our personal revelation—which was, after all, something given from without—we pass under the fatherly guidance of direct intuition [XXXI. 55-63].7 The guide to the final union with being is therefore the authority that resides in our own heart; but to discover this authority we had to pass through the fearful way of self-knowledge (Inferno) and the painful path of purification (Purgatorio); we had to ascend the ladder of development led by a revelation given to us through another person. Yet now all that has come from without must take its place where it truly belongs [XXXI. 65-69]. However high above us she may be on the scale of closeness to being, we now see clearly the person through whom this revelation had come to us and turn to her for the last time with gratitude. Before we found the way that has led us so far, it was the thought of our experience of love which kept our hope alive and prevented us from becoming utterly enmeshed in the forest of confusion and ignorance. That spark of light burning in our darkness was a promise that we may yet come to stand in the light of what truly is. The greatness and excellence of the love kindled in us by another has enabled us to see with the inward eye of vision and recognize the nourishing and sustaining power in all that we saw on our journey [XXXI. 73-84]. Precisely because ours was a personal revelation, it could guide us into full freedom from the bondage of illusion by ways and means most suited to our individual needs [XXXI. 85-87]. Our guide has made our soul whole and we ask her help now to preserve that wholeness in the future [XXXI. 88-90].

Intuition urges us now to think of the short stretch of our path [cammino, XXXI. 95] that still lies ahead. To ascend through the light of being, our eye should first get accustomed to the eternal now [XXXI. 94-99]. In the voice of intuition we recognize the voice of the human incarnation of being itself [XXXI. 103-108] and know that intuition leads us both to active love and contemplative peace [XXXI. 109-111].

We also understand intuitively that we will not come to know fully this joyous existence [XXXI. 112] if we restrict our vision to what is on our own level. Spiritual reality must be explored fully, to the highest reaches, where we discover what is closest to being. Where the light is most intense, on the uppermost boundary of created reality, we see the peaceful glow [XXXI. 127] of beauty itself [XXXI. 134], the feminine principle, without whose help we can never attain the final union with being [XXXI. 112-135]. We can unite with being only if we become both active and peaceful, if we are in motion and in rest simultaneously, in other words if we recognize and accept the feminine part within us as well as the active, masculine tendency. By completing our own being in this way we may become more like being itself and advance to the final union.

Fully developed spirits serve beauty by creative activity that unites the freedom of play with the harmony of music. As we look on the beauty that is a source of heat as well as of light, of energy as well as of understanding [XXXI. 140], our intuition infuses passionate love into our gaze [XXXI. 130-142].


With our love fixed on the beauty of the Eternal Feminine, we take in the vision of total reality. The first truth we understand here is the role the principle of beauty played in our fall and redemption. As it was the cause of our estrangement from being, it was also instrumental in the closing of the wound of our separateness [XXXII. 1-6]. Without her we could neither feel our separateness and estrangement in this world nor could we find our way back, enriched by experience, to the unity we have lost.

The ultimate reality of all Creation—the chalice of the rose—appears to us in two equal halves. These show that one may reach union with being by following the eternal law in hope or by living in the freedom of perfect love, according to one or the other aspect of the faith [XXXII. 38]. We also recognize the equality of the female and the male aspect of the total being; women who have followed the way of the law [XXXII. 7-18] take their places next to those whose life was love, whereas men who followed love are next to the people of the law [XXXII. 31-36]. Their position symbolizes the truth that although total reality is reached by individual paths, these paths have to unite somehow the two basic principles of love and the law as well as the male and female aspects of the soul [XXXII. 38-39].

We wonder next at the presence of beings who, though fallen, apparently had no opportunity to walk the paths that would lead them back to being. If they did not choose freely to return to eternity, how can they be part of it now? This seems far too difficult a question for our intellect [XXXII. 40-51]. But the infallible voice of intuition assures us that chance has no place to operate in ultimate reality. Perfect justice creates a perfect order within which all find their proper place, although we sometimes fail to understand how. The truth is that nothing happens without sufficient cause [XXXII. 52-60]. Here we behold the effect and this must suffice. For all beings fulfill the eternal plan in their diversity and all contribute to the love, the pleasure, and the peace that make ultimate reality into what it must be [XXXII. 61-66]. Those not elected to walk their own way toward being in a series of free choices will take their places (i.e., their appearance within ultimate reality is a direct manifestation of their being) according to their “primal keenness,” i.e., the power of vision proper to them from the beginning [XXXII. 73-75]. (The allocation of “places” in the ultimate vision of what is remains a mystery; we can never fully understand why the reality of one person is different from that of another. We have touched here again [see XXI. 91-96] upon the mystery of individuality and thus upon the essence of being which we can never penetrate with our intellect, for the intellect itself is already a differentiated part of this essence and the part can never comprehend the whole. But one thing is certain: the real differences between beings are not measured in superiority and inferiority, strength and weakness. These measurements belong to the world of illusion, not to the full reality of the spirit.)

To achieve the final unification of our own divided being which is the end of life, men have to recognize and contemplate the feminine principle.8 Only if our vision has wholly grasped the splendor of that aspect of being [XXXII. 93] of which women are the living representatives on earth, are we ready to look upon the perfect embodiment of being itself [XXXII. 85-87]. The feminine aspect of being is full of the vision-nourishing light which is the source of serenity. As we contemplate her we also understand the true relationship of the male principle to the female. We “see” how the male, driven by burning love [XXXII. 105], gazes with delight into the female mirror of being [XXXII. 94-105]. Intuition, which is directly connected with the feminine principle, drawing the beauty of its truths from her, also enlightens us about the characteristics of the male principle. It has vigor, energy above all, but manifested with gracefulness [leggiadria, XXXII. 109], not brute force [XXXII. 106-111]. Perfection of being—as exemplified by Christ—comes from the cooperation of these two principles without which no creation can take place [XXXII. 112-114].

Having understood these essential truths, we now turn to the contemplation of the individuals who make up total reality. Each of them is the type of a path to being. The man who fell, though he issued out into life with greater powers and greater freedom than any man after him, has finally come home and so has another who was born in infirmity, but enlightened and redeemed by the perfection of being in Christ. We have them both in ourselves; they are the beginnings of paradise [XXXII. 118-126]. The visionary poet belongs here, too, and also the leader of men who works for the realization of an eternal purpose in history. The world disregards the revelations of the first and is ungrateful to the second, but here they come into their own [XXXII. 127-132]. (If one of these paths is allotted to us we must remember their example and not seek the world's praise.)

Here is the woman who is so content to gaze at the perfect form of the feminine principle which she herself has brought into the world that she refuses any activity which might interrupt contemplation.9 Another type of womanly perfection is she who brings illumination to men when they fix their eyes on the earth to avoid vision and rush into their destruction [XXXII. 133-138]. She has also saved us repeatedly when we have lost our way.

Now intuition urges us to enter the final stretch of our pilgrimage and approach with our visionary eye being itself. To penetrate as much as we can into the truth, into the unveiled reality of being,10 we must here ask for more illuminative power. Without it all our efforts would only thrust us backward into ignorance instead of carrying us to the final union. It is from the Eternal Feminine, the most perfect mirror of being, that we receive the aid which increases our power of vision.11 To obtain this grace we must follow our intuition most scrupulously, not only with our mind but also with our heart [XXXII. 139-150].


Our intuition now turns to the Eternal Feminine who unites in her relationship to being the three essential roles of woman, that of mother, wife, and daughter. She ennobles human nature so that the union of being and man can take place at last. Because in the perfection of womanhood the concern for the self ceases altogether (no man can be as self-forgetting as a mother) she is, in her humility, more exalted than any created being [XXXIII. 1-6]. In this total reality she is an ever-burning torch of love while in time-bound existence she is the source of man's hope. Through her the illuminative power comes to men; it is his love for woman that nourishes man's vision [XXXIII. 10-15]. Her kindness does not wait for men's asking; she takes them toward their fulfillment even before they pray. She overflows with compassion, piety, generosity, uniting all the goodness of created beings within herself [XXXIII. 19-21].

The inward eye of those who, like ourselves, have toiled upwards from the deepest abyss of self-knowledge, understanding all the states of the human being's development until they could behold the fullness of reality, must be strengthened by her for the last time. She has to remove the last veil of illusion and error from our eyes so that we may lift them to the saving and liberating truth as it unfolds itself to fill us with unsurpassable pleasure [XXXIII. 22-33]. We depend upon her even after our direct vision of being; she must then help us to keep our affections whole, our lives in harmony, for the overpowering experience might disrupt the balance of our weak humanity [XXXIII. 34-39].12 Not only intuition prompts us to turn to the feminine principle for help but our revelation, too, [XXXIII. 38] though she no longer guides us here.

Now our vision is fully intent on the eyes of the Eternal Feminine which sink into the light of being more deeply and clearly than the eyes of any other creature. And, following her eyes, we arrive at the end of our journey: we gaze at the source of the light and approach union with being through direct vision. The burning intellectual desire for understanding that has brought us so far is now stilled [XXXIII. 40-48]. We not only follow intuition, but, as intuition would have us be, we become one with intuition as our completely cleansed sight penetrates into the full light of truth [XXXIII. 49-54]. The greatness of our vision then transcends absolutely the powers of speech and memory.13 What remains is the sweetness of an emotion only, at the deepest core of the heart:

Qual è colui che somniando vede,
chè dopo il sogno il passione impressa
rimane, e l' altro alla mente non riede;
cotal son io, chè quasi tutta cessa
mia visione, ed ancor mi distilla
nel cor lo dolce che nacque da essa.(14)

[XXXIII. 58-63]

(Like him that sees in a dream and after the dream the passion wrought by it remains and the rest returns not to his mind, such am I; for my vision almost wholly fades, and still there drops within my heart the sweetness that was born of it.)

But while we are looking into the living light [XXXIII. 77] it holds our vision with such brilliance that we cannot turn away; if we did, we would be lost in dazed darkness. Immersed completely in the abounding stream of light, our sight attains at last the ultimate good, being itself, from which everything that is derives its worth [XXXIII. 76-84]. Here we find all the signatures of being collected in one, all that exists in separation throughout the universe fused together by the burning of infinite love into one simple flame [XXXIII. 85-90]. We arrive at an understanding of all that is by grasping the final principle or form, but when the vision leaves us no rational proof remains to testify to the truth of what we saw. All that is left is an emotion of joy [XXXIII. 91-93]. Even one single moment of time carries us almost infinitely far from this vision which can be attained only in timelessness. Yet we can recall how our mind, fixed in this intellectual vision of the truth, was totally absorbed in being, and our will would not turn away from all goodness gathered into unity.15 For whatever the will desires can be found in its perfection only in being; if we seek it outside of being we will possess it only in imperfection [XXXIII. 94-105].

Strengthened by its immersion into the living light which is forever unchanging, our sight discerns the appearance of threefold nature within the “profound and shining being of the deep light.” This being is forever itself but we cannot comprehend it as such. Only through appearances (which, however, do not obscure but reveal and manifest being) can we come closer to the ever unreachable core. And as our power of vision grows, as we change ourselves, so we discern new appearances changing in the living light of being. The three natures which we now behold are all perfect, all aspects of the same being and manifest by their continual interplay; they are the light of power, of wisdom, and of love [XXXIII. 109-120]. The eternal light which is being abides in itself alone; it understands itself, wills itself, and loves itself rejoicing. (Thus being manifests the supreme integration of those forces which we call reason, will, and emotion. The perfection of these is the unified, unceasing activity of being [XXXIII. 124-126].)

With a last effort at understanding we glimpse in the threefold appearance the unity of man with being [XXXIII. 127-131]. We are being; but we cannot grasp with the intellect this truth of the coincidence of a finite being with infinite Being; it cannot be expressed in thought-symbols just as the circumference of the circle—an infinite number—cannot be given exactly in the terms of its radius that is finite. The wings of understanding that carried us through paradise were not made to lift us into this truth [XXXIII. 133-139]. But the vision's final purpose is—as always—by understanding to awaken the will to love. In a lightning flash we find our own will and find that our desire and will have entered the fullness of existence moved in perfect accord by the love that rules all that is [XXXIII. 140-145].


                    vidi che s' interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l' universo si squaderna;

[XXXIII. 85-87]

(I saw that it contained, bound by love in one volume, that which is scattered in leaves through the universe.)

In the last three cantos the recurring images and image-themes of the Paradiso are all “gathered in one volume” and several of them come to a splendid climax in the great similes of the Empyrean. This integration of the imagery embodies the anagogical meaning of the highest heaven; humanity's latent powers which Dante saw gradually unfolding in heaven after heaven are all gathered together here in the fullness of existence given by the direct vision of being.

The diction also indicates the anagogical meaning at many points. I take only two outstanding examples. The threefold repetition of vidi in XXX. 95, 97, 99 marks the coming of the most penetrating sight to the pilgrim as the last symbol-veil of reality is withdrawn. In the same canto the words riflesso, si specchia, and specchiarsi occur in rhythmical repetition in lines 107, 110, and 113. This emphasis on reflection or mirroring warns the reader that the ultimate reality of Creation as it opens up in the white rose of the Empyrean is only the reflected light of being and not being itself. Even Beatrice, as she leaves Dante and takes her place in the rose, does not radiate light, only reflects the eternal beams:

e vidi lei che si facea corona,
riflettendo da sè gli eterni rai.

[XXXI. 71-72]

(and saw her where she made for herself a crown, reflecting from her the eternal beams.)

What are the image-themes which have accompanied us through the Paradiso and are recapitulated here, as if the partial reality of all that we have seen in the individual heavens were now collected in the total reality of whatever truly is? Some of these themes have been leitmotifs of the whole Comedy: the theme of pilgrimage comes to a climax in the pilgrim's arrival to the shrine of his vow:

E quasi peregrin, che si ricrea
nel tempio del suo voto riguardando,
e spera già ridir com' ello stea,
sì per la viva luce passeggiando,
menava io gli occhi per li gradi,
mo su, mo giù, e mo ricirculando.

[XXXI. 43-48]

(And like a pilgrim who is refreshed in the temple of his vow as he looks round it and hopes some time to tell of it again, so, taking my way up through the living light, I carried my eyes through the ranks, now up, now down, and now looking round again.)

In another simile the end of a concrete earthly pilgrimage is described [XXXI. 103-108].

The theme of dreaming, awaking, and recollecting the vanished vision is recapitulated in XXXIII. 58-63. Dante, as so often in the Comedy, again likens himself to a child in XXX. 82-85, 139-140, and XXXIII. 107-108. After seeing so many imprints of perfect forms in imperfect matter, the last imprint is finally blotted out by the sun of being as if it had been stamped on snow:

Così la neve il sol si disigilla,

[XXXIII. 64]

(Thus the snow loses its imprint in the sun).

From the city of Florence and the City of Dis the way was long to the eternal city [XXX. 130]. But Florence, though only in retrospect, haunts Dante even here [XXXI. 39]. And we remind ourselves that all the astronomy and star-imagery of the Comedy culminates in the last line, where love is said to move “the sun and the other stars.”

Taking now certain recurrent images of the Paradiso only, we see how light and fire are everywhere in the last three cantos. The whole Empyrean is bathed in the “living light” which unites in itself heat and brilliance, love and intellect. The geography of the earth appears once more in XXXI. 31-36 and 103, the cloudy sky in XXXI. 73, the sea in XXXI. 75. A suggestion of the element of flight in XXXII. 146 and XXXIII. 139 brings to a close the imagery of air and of birds.

The eternal garden of the Empyrean [XXXI. 97; XXXII. 39] brings forth plants, flowers, and fruit.

All the circling harmonies of paradise point to the final vision of the three reflecting circles in XXXIII. 116. At the end of the poem Dante himself is caught up in the circular dance which he had observed in the lower heavens.

Similes taken from geometry culminate in the image of the insufficiency of the geometer to measure the final mystery of man's union with God [XXXIII. 133-135].

The theme of warfare against the “erring world” echoes again in the “soldiery of paradise” [XXX. 43-44] and in “holy soldiery” [XXXI. 2].

Even one of those similes Dante takes from the common life of trades appears in the highest heaven when St. Bernard says to him:

Ma perchè il tempo fugge, che t' assonna,
qui farem punto, come buon sartore
che, com' egli ha del panno, fa la gonna;

[XXXII. 139-140]

(But since the time flies that holds thee sleeping we shall stop here, like a good tailor that cuts his coat according to his cloth).

Heeding St. Bernard's words, I, too, feel that it is time to end the recapitulation of image themes and turn to the great images themselves that overarch, in these last cantos, the entire structure of the Paradiso. Here we see the imagery of paradise not only juxtaposed but organically integrated. Two of these complex images describe total reality. One shows the last symbolic disguise:

E vidi lume in forma di riviera
fulvido di fulgore, intra due rive
dipinte di mirabil primavera.
Di tal fiumana uscian faville vive,
e d' ogni parte si mettean nei fiori,
quasi rubin che oro circonscrive.
Poi, come inebriate dagli odori,
riprofondavan sè nel miro gurge,
e, s' una entrava, un' altra n' uscia fuori.

[XXX. 61-69]

(And I saw light in the form of a river pouring its splendour between two banks painted with marvellous spring. From that torrent came forth living sparks and they settled on the flowers on either side, like rubies set in gold; then, as if intoxicated with the odours, they plunged again into the wondrous flood, and as one entered another came forth.)

Light, fire, water, blossoming nature, gems, and the artefacts of jewelry are the integral parts of this symbolic landscape. The other complex image is, of course, the picture of undisguised eternity, the rose of the redeemed which rises up in the shape of an immense amphitheatre from the pool of reflected light on the top of the Primum Mobile [XXX. 106-117]. The rose itself is the crowning image of all the images that suggest perfection: of the garlands, reels, and circles of paradise. It is also the emblem of emblems and sums up within itself the triple ring of the Sun, the cross of Mars, the eagle of Jupiter, and the ladder of Saturn.

The great simile of sunrise in XXXI. 118-129 fuses earth, sky, and fire with the mythological allusion to Phaeton and with the oriflamme, the battle standard of the ancient kings of France.

All three complex images span several terzinas like immense arches, opening vistas into final reality. Then vision ceases while the pilgrim gathers strength for the final plunge into the Source. Canto XXXII is scarce of images and has no great similes to be compared to those we have already mentioned or those that are to come. It is a final respite for the reader before the last burst of a superhuman imagination.

From line 58 of Canto XXXIII to the end of the poem an uninterrupted flight of the highest poetry conveys something of the ecstasy that the direct vision of being is. Images follow one another as in the Greek choral odes, with a dithyrambic fervor. Like the Sybil's leaves, they are carried higher and higher in the wind of inspiration which invisibly links them together. They rise up rhythmically, as if the feverish mind shot them out with volcanic violence, between two prayers.

The vision of the ineffable can be conveyed only gropingly: one dreams and wakes, the sun melts all shapes from the surface of the snow, the leaves of the Sybil—all fragmentary human wisdom—are lost in the wind. The interval of prayer is bridged by the memory of leaves flying in the storm—and of those human souls on the banks of Acheron falling like autumn leaves—leaves which are found again and bound into one volume where all may read them who come to look upon being. All that is, the entire complex, incomprehensible fabric of reality, fuses into one simple flame. And with this most daring exploit the boldest enterprise of the human intellect is over; Argo reaches the fabulous shore and Neptune, deep in his green water-world, gazes at man's triumph. The ship we have followed right through paradise has arrived at last. Another long-drawn breath follows, while imagination gathers strength to advance yet deeper into the center. But this interval is also spanned by a mysterious kinship between the image of a god looking on human handiwork and the second circle of the last vision where man's image is painted upon the Form of God. Then imagination falls back, as the geometrician draws circles and is vainly trying to measure them:

All' alta fantasia qui mancò possa;

[XXXIII. 142]

(Here power failed the high fantasy).

But with the last effort imagination has reached beyond itself: it has become a will and a desire, a whole. And now, after our ascent through mountain steeps and heavenly spheres, we, integrated into the whole human race as it existed from the beginning, are swept along by love in unimpeded movement with the sun and the stars.

Dante, Poet of the Future

The theological formulation of the truths and laws toward which the Paradiso is leading us is well documented but is in the deepest sense meaningless to many of us today. I have tried to give them another formulation in my interpretation of the poem and would now like to indicate, very sketchily and provisionally, some implications of this approach. For truth is like an object in space: one can walk around it and look at it from all angles, and the more one has seen of it the better one knows it.

The structure of meaning in the poem can be described in various ways; we talked of it as an approach to union with being, and, since this also means a union with our selves, as integration. Thus the gradual ascent through the heavens is also an inward journey from our periphery to our center.

If we think about the Paradiso as a “journey to the interior,” a new light is thrown on those truths which we understand through the anagogical interpretation. In hell and purgatory Dante had to learn how to shed the many layers of illusion which covered his real personality. In hell he saw the reality of what had appeared desirable to his perverted will. In purgatory he understood how one suffers by having to follow the habits that slavery to illusion implants in the soul, long after one has recognized the original error, for purgatorial suffering lasts until the will is completely liberated from bondage to a self-centered view of reality. When on the top of Mount Purgatory Beatrice calls the poet by his name [Purg. XXX. 55 and 62-63], the necessity of registering the word Dante for the first and last time in the Comedy is a deeper necessity than would first appear. For at this point he has again become the real Dante whom Beatrice had known and is no longer the man wandering lost in the forest of error. Thus here Dante recovers his real personality which a life, in the world and of the world, had covered over with layers of falsehood.

But the true journey to the interior starts only from this point. Leaving the earth is the true beginning of the voyage of self-discovery, for it represents the turning of attention from the outward to the inward, from illusions and encrustations to the substance. Immersion in the water-world of the moon sphere is the penetration into the secret world of the self, the unconscious. What comes after the meeting with one's “shadow”—which may perhaps be equated with the self-knowledge given by the Inferno—is, Jung says, “the world of water, where all life floats in suspension; where the realm of the sympathetic system, the soul of everything living, begins. … ‘Lost in oneself’ is a good way of describing this state. But this self is the world if only consciousness could see it.”16 Whether we call this boundless and floating world into which we have plunged here the collective unconscious as Jung does, or an inner, spiritual reality where our psyches interconnect, depends largely on our choice of terminology.

In the sphere of Venus inward progress is marked by the knowledge of the real self in others and, consequently, an increased knowledge of our own real self. In Mars, the meeting with Cacciaguida suggests the finding within ourselves of a self deeper, nobler than we had hitherto suspected. The ascent into the natal constellation in the Heaven of the Fixed Stars marks the point in the inward journey where one begins to feel one's identity with what one might call an eternal or higher self. Yet development does not stop here; the meeting with Christ symbolizes the moment when the divine part begins to live and work within us. The final union is the arrival at the center and true home, where one always is but does not know it, where one is not separate and yet is most one's self.

Thus, as we have said before, all the figures Dante meets in paradise are but reflections of his own yet unrecognized potentialities, and in seeing them he increases the knowledge of his own self.

Progress in paradise is not linear but has its own oscillating rhythm. … First of all, the method of advance, as Dante outlines it, consists always of the same steps, which are the application of spiritual understanding to the process of self-development. …

  • (1) awareness of what one sees
  • (2) desire to understand it completely
  • (3) precise formulation of one's doubts
  • (4) enlightenment coming from revelation or intuition
  • (5) increased vision as a result of intellectual enlightenment

—and then the whole process is repeated on the next level. But in addition to the rhythm of intellectual advance, the structure of the successive states—or heavens—shows a larger and more complex oscillation which one might call psychological.

The psychological law of progress in the Paradiso appears to be an oscillation between introspection and outward turning, between a penetration in depth—into another's self as well as into one's own—and an expansion of energies on a wide surface. The expansion of energies is at the same time a gathering of strength for the next thrust into the unknown. The last advance into the source of eternal light absolves Dante from this fluctuation; nourished by the final vision his energies expand and, simultaneously, he gains ever-renewed insight into the inexhaustible depths of the divine.

But would not such a psychologizing approach make the Paradiso into an imitation of the Poimandres of Hermes Trismegistus? Would this not be altogether false to the spirit of the poem? After all, the Comedy is usually thought of as embodying Thomist philosophy, and nothing can be further from Thomism than the doctrines of the Poimandres. The point is worth examining.

Though Dante quotes freely from Aristotle and from St. Thomas Aquinas, the philosophy embodied in the Comedy could not be called either Thomist or Aristotelian. It has become almost a commonplace to say that, in spite of his calling Aristotle Il Filosofo, Dante's way of thinking has really much more in common with Plato. The work of Bruno Nardi has made it abundantly clear that the Paradiso is thoroughly imbued not so much with the spirit of Plato as with Neoplatonism. The return of man to the One through intellectual knowledge in which light and love are inseparably fused, is the way of the Paradiso, and it is a distinctly Plotinian idea. The great passage on the creation and emanation of all that exists by the divine idea, breathes the pure spirit of Neoplatonism, in spite of the words being spoken by Aquinas.

Ciò che non more e ciò che può morire
non è se non splendor di quella idea
che partorisce, amando, il nostro sire;
chè quella viva luce che sì mea
dal suo lucente, che non si disuna
da lui, nè dall' amor che a lor s' intrea,
per sua bontate il suo raggiare aduna,
quasi specchiato, in nove sussistenze,
eternalmente rimanendosi una.
Quindi discende all' ultime potenze
giù d' atto in atto tanto divenendo,
che più non fa che brevi contingenze;
e queste contingenze essere intendo
le cose generate, che produce
con seme e senza seme il ciel movendo.
La cera di costoro, e chi la duce,
non sta d' un modo, e però sotto il segno
ideale poi più e men traluce:
ond' egli avvien ch' un medesimo legno,
secondo specie, meglio e peggio frutta;
e voi nascete con diverso ingegno.
Se fosse a punto la cera dedutta,
e fosse il cielo in sua virtù suprema,
la luce del suggel parrebbe tutta;
ma la natura la dà sempre scema,
similemente operando all' artista,
ch' ha l' abito dell' arte e man che trema.
Però se il caldo amor, la chiara vista
della prima virtù dispone e segna,
tutta la perfezion quivi s' acquista.

[XIII. 52-81]

(That which does not die and that which is capable of dying is nothing else but the reflected splendor of the idea which our Father in loving begets, and this living light pours from its shining source so that it is not divided from him nor from the love that makes three-in-one of them, does out of its goodness unite its radiance in nine existences as if it were being mirrored back, while eternally abiding as one.

From thence it descends down to the lowest lying potencies becoming such from act to act so that it now makes only short-lived contingencies by which I mean the generated things produced by the moving heavens from seed and without seed.

The wax of these ephemeral beings and that which molds them do not always stay in the same condition and therefore the wax under the ideal stamp becomes now more, now less, transparent: from which it comes that the same tree bears better and worse fruit according to its kind, and that you are born with different talents.

If the wax were prepared perfectly for the stamping, and the heaven [that imprints the stamp] would be at the perfection of its power, the image of the signet would be all shining clear; but nature [the operation of the heavens] is always faulty in the execution like the artist who is well-versed in his art but has a trembling hand.17

Therefore, if the warm Love, the clear Vision of the Primal Power prepares and stamps [the wax] all perfection is acquired there.)

Before I would try to indicate in a few words the general tradition which I think includes the Paradiso, I wish to make one thing clear. I do not believe that a great poet has to take all his ideas from other thinkers; more often than not great poets find the truth in their own hearts. Therefore in what follows I do not wish to imply that Dante has actually read all the authors and consciously incorporated their ideas into his opus; but I would like to make the point that there is a religious and philosophical tradition which was partly known to Dante and to which the Paradiso naturally belongs.

First of all, the writings of Aristotle reached Dante not only through St. Thomas but also through Arab translators and commentators. Now the Arab philosophers and their translators in Spain who transmitted the writings of Aristotle to the Western world were often unable to distinguish the works of the Philosopher from the later works of neoplatonists. An instance of this is the Liber de Causis often quoted by Dante, which was for a time attributed to Aristotle, but was later discovered to have been largely the work of Proclus. Or, to take another instance of neoplatonic influence through the Arabs, we see Dante adopting the doctrine on the movement of the spheres from Alpetragius [Conv. III, Cap.2]. This theory, as Nardi has pointed out,18 is of neoplatonic origin, deriving multiplicity from the One. The great Arab philosophers Alfarabi, Avicenna, Algazel and Averroes were all profoundly influenced by Neoplatonism. Ibn Arabi of Murcia, mystic and poet-philosopher, whether Dante had read him or not,19 expressed this Arab Neoplatonism succinctly: “The aim of the soul, from the day on which the Creator unites it with the body, is to acquire the knowledge of its principle, God.”

But apart from the influence of writings which Dante might have thought Aristotelian and which in reality were neoplatonic, many other links can be found between the Paradiso and what might loosely be called the neoplatonic tradition. The figure of Dante's last guide, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, is perhaps the strongest of these links. He knew and used the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite (or the unknown author whom the Middle Ages knew under this name) who, in turn, “often resorts to the terminology of Plotinus and Proclus.”20 One might almost say that it was the strong neoplatonic strain in his mystical theology that had made him fit to stand as the figure of intuition, Dante's guide to the direct vision of God. But Dante himself knew the Corpus Dionysiacum either directly or through the works of St. Thomas and Albertus Magnus. His doctrine of emanations [Par. XIII. 52-78] derives either from Dionysius himself or from his follower and translator, the Christian neoplatonist Johannes Scotus Erigena. Another link is Boethius, one of Dante's favorite authors, who believed in the platonic and neoplatonic doctrine of pre-existence. It was Boethius who inspired Dante with his first passion for philosophy. The abbot Joachim of Fiore (“di spirito profetico dotato” [Par. XII. 141]) has also held doctrines akin to those of Plotinus and Proclus, especially about the role of understanding (intellectus), which the neoplatonists would call [noēsis]

The ascent toward union with God through the successive celestial spheres is used in the Poimandres. Macrobius in his commentary on the Somnium Scipionis applies the principle in the opposite direction. According to him souls who fall from the One into bodies acquire in each of the heavenly spheres the powers which they will exercise in their bodies. It is quite likely that Dante knew some of the Hermetic writings through Albertus Magnus who often quotes Hermes Trismegistus. Macrobius' commentary was also widely known in the Middle Ages. Some passages of the Paradiso recall another neoplatonic work, the commentary on Plato's Timaeus by Chalcidius. I am thinking here in particular of Par. XXIX. 22-36, especially in its treatment of matter as pure potentiality and of the corporeal heavens as the union of pure form to pure matter. Since the spirit of the Timaeus itself is Pythagorean, it might well be that through Chalcidius Dante obtained an indirect glimpse of Pythagoreanism which must have been quite congenial to his mind. A passage like Par. XV. 55-57 can certainly be clarified by remembering the Pythagorean concept of the monad.

I do not wish to insist that Dante drew on all these sources, though he almost certainly drew on some of them. Nor are all the similarities between some ideas in the Paradiso and the ideas of Plotinus and Proclus in any way conclusive. Yet the use of the circle as a symbol for God certainly occurs in Plotinus [Enn. VI. viii. 18] and Dante's constant use of the number three, his unceasing reminders of the doctrine of the Trinity recall Proclus' obsession with triads. Plotinus' [noēsis] which unites subject and object into one is the kind of knowledge which Dante teaches in the Paradiso, where the pilgrim has to be united to a sphere in order to comprehend it [Par. II. 29-30]. “I rejoice to hear that your soul has set sail, like the returning Ulysses, for its native land—that glorious, that only real country—the world of unseen truth,” writes Plotinus to Flaccus. He uses the same metaphor to describe a spiritual voyage of discovery which Dante uses persistently in the Paradiso: the metaphor of the ship and the soul.

Later neoplatonists, especially those who gathered around Lorenzo de' Medici in what came to be known as the Medici circle, recognized in Dante a kindred spirit. Their master, Marsilio Ficino, born a little more than a century after Dante's death, attempted to bring together ancient Neoplatonism and the Christian religion in his Theologia Platonica, a philosophical work to which, in Ficino's opinion, the Comedy supplied the poetical equivalent. One of the members of this circle, Cristoforo Landino, wrote the most popular and extensive commentary on the Comedy, which set the direction for many commentaries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.21 Neoplatonist poets in the same circle, like Matteo Palmieri, Giovanni Nesi, and Ugolino Verino attempted to combine the manner of Dante with the exposition of neoplatonic doctrines.22

Insofar as Dante's way is intellectual and spiritual, a way of the understanding, he is in the neoplatonic tradition in the Paradiso, and, to a lesser degree, in the entire Comedy. This comes into particular focus when we follow the anagogy where the goal is to understand the Divine Principle which permeates the universe as the first terzina of the Paradiso clearly says. Plotinus called it the Good or the One; “It is by the One that all beings are beings,” he said.

It has, I think, become evident to the reader in my explication of the anagogical sense of the third cantica that, in my opinion, Dante believes understanding—not merely rational but also spiritual—is the key to the soul's growth. Or, to put it differently, it is through the workings of the spiritual intellect that the divine aspect within the human being comes to fruition. This approach to God is Neoplatonism pure and simple. It resembles the Plotinian intellectual pilgrimage that ends in the flight of the alone to the Alone. Especially as the teacher of the way of understanding through an introspective approach that poses questions and then waits patiently for the moment of revelation when the knower and the known become one, Dante is Plotinus' pupil.

This “dialectic of the way” however, is only one half of his method. The other is his figural symbolism that presents the reader with flesh and blood characters, each of whom embodies a certain state of soul concretely. When he is more of a poet than a philosophic teacher, he is not looking for the universal vital principle as much as for the personal aspect of God, toward Whom all the people he encounters in paradise rise up on tier upon tier of the heavenly rose. The God of the Judeo-Christian religion to whom we relate personally as children to their father has an equally real existence for Dante as the Divine Principle. How God can be both principle and person as intimated in his final vision of a human face in the three interlocking circles throws him into the despair of the geometrician trying vainly to square the circle. But in that moment of perplexity Dante's mind is struck by a lightning-like illumination that persuades his desire and will to unite with the Love that moves the whole Creation.

His journey then should be looked upon not only as a philanthropic venture in understanding, but also as the path of one living in the world whose way of self-finding is through relationships with others, cooperating with and helping them as well as receiving from them support and enlightenment.

That the combination of these two approaches makes the Comedy particularly relevant to our time appears most clearly in the anagogy. More and more individuals who are relatively free of the pressure of material needs choose some form of self-actualizing, self-developing activity through which they hope to acquire an enlarged sense of self, first perhaps more on the material level and later psychologically and spiritually. Depth psychology and spirituality are not separate realms: they touch and intermingle. There is a steady movement away from some traditional attitudes and beliefs which are felt increasingly as constricting and limiting; much of this endeavor is about getting to know and fulfill one's potentials. When this movement becomes more balanced by a growth of interest in, and love and compassion for, fellow humans, it begins to resemble Dante's journey through paradise. Then will the Paradiso be seen for what Dante intended it to be: a prophetic book about the future of humanity.


  1. Dante shared the medieval belief that all stars receive their light from the sun.

  2. Though Dante does not interpret these images which he calls the “shadowy prefaces” of the truth, we can meditate upon their significance. They obviously represent life in ultimate reality and therefore I would suggest that the sparks arising from and plunging into the river of light are created entities who are absorbed in their contemplation of being itself and emerge from this state only to spend the love they gained through their vision upon other created beings. When they have expressed in loving acts the understanding which they gained in contemplation, they are absorbed once more in their vision. To suggest time sequence in this process is, of course, very much out of place; but our language to which we are necessarily restricted is itself only a very “shadowy preface” of the things of eternity.

  3. Cf. “As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile, that thereby you may grow unto salvation.” I. Peter, II. 2. Dante's simile throws an interesting light upon this somewhat obscure passage.

  4. [doxa theou]—Gloria Dei.

  5. Dante, in accordance with the Ptolemaic system, saw the limit of the determinism, that is an aspect of matter, in the Primum Mobile, the widest outer sphere of a universe of concentric spheres. Beyond that fastest circling sphere nothing was determined; the Empyrean was itself the perfect freedom of the spirit. The free “order” of the Empyrean reflected most in the swiftest and largest physical sphere on which it bordered. Going downward from sphere to sphere freedom grew less and less, until we reached Lucifer in the center of the determined world, frozen in ice, da tutti i pesi del mondo costretto. Today, speculating along similar lines, we might see the limit of determinism not in the largest but in the smallest unit of the physical world, where Heisenberg's principle of indeterminacy begins to operate. There we seem to reach the realm of freedom which Dante and his contemporaries put beyond the most distant stars.

  6. The use of the word ritorno is somewhat perplexing here if we recall the doctrine of the soul's creation in Purg. XXV. 67-75, which is in accordance with the teachings of the Church. The soul is created by God when the brain of the embryo is complete. Then:

    Lo motor primo a lui si volge lieto
    Sopra tanta arte di natura, e spira
    Spirito nuovo di virtù repleto

    [italics mine]

    Che ciò che trova attivo quivi tira
    in sua sustanzia, e fassi un alma sola,
    che vive e sente e sè in sè rigira.


    (The First Mover turns him to it, rejoicing over such handiwork of nature, and breathes into it a new spirit with virtue filled, which draws into its substance that which it finds active there, and becomes one single soul, that lives, and feels, and turns round upon itself.)

    Dante here says that each individual's soul is created when he is born by a special act of God. In any case no soul can possibly return to heaven since it had never been there. We could, of course, say that when God creates the soul, the soul comes from Him and when it gains heaven it returns. But this is to equate God and heaven which Dante certainly does not do in his description of the Empyrean.

    Though our main concern is not to find out what Dante's own beliefs were, we might remember Bruno Nardi's conclusion about the role of the Empyrean in the Comedy. “L'Empireo, in Dante, coincide coll' anima del mondo dei neo-platonici, ed è anello di congiunzione fra Dio e il mondo sensibile.” Saggi di filosofia dantesca, Milano, 1930. p. 189.

  7. How much we may accept the doctrine given in the Purgatorio as Dante's own belief is another question. The verses quoted above are spoken by Statius, newly liberated from purgatory (symbolizing perhaps Christian Reason against Virgil's unbaptized Reason) who has not yet reached paradise and obviously has much to learn.

  8. A possible solution seems to be—if we must find a “source” or an “influence”—that we meet here a trace of the influence of Scotus Erigena, whose doctrine on the return of the soul to God might have made an impression on Dante.

  9. St. Bernard of Clairvaux—the figure of intuition—was a speculative mystic who called God the causal being of all that is. He taught that man attains ultimate knowledge when in ecstasy his soul is united to God and enjoys deification. To reach this union man has to ascend the steps of humility and truth and unite his will with God's. See E. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. New York, 1955. pp. 164-167, and The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard, London, 1940.

  10. Cf. these lines from the last scene of Goethe's Faust:

    Höchste Herrscherin der Welt,
    Lasse mich im blauen,
    Ausgespannten Himmelszelt
    Dein Geheimnis schauen!
    Billige, was des Mannes Brust
    Ernst und zart beweget
    Und mit heiliger Liebeslust
    Dir entgegenträget.
  11. Rachel gazing into her mirror [Purg. XXVII. 104-108] typifies the same attitude beside representing allegorically the contemplative life. Though Dante does not describe the face of St. Anne, we know her expression from Leonardo's picture in the Louvre.

  12. Truth in the literal sense of [alētheia].

  13. Cf. the last lines in Goethe's Faust:

    Alles Vergängliche
    Ist nur ein Gleichnis;
    Das Unzulängliche,
    Hier wirds Ereignis;
    Das Unbeschreibliche,
    Hier ists getan;
    Das Ewig-Weibliche
    Zieht uns hinan.
  14. Hölderlin, who of all modern minds was perhaps closest to being, lacked the saving influence of the Eternal Feminine after he had lost his Diotima. Without her to anchor his affections, Hölderlin was completely overpowered by being and never found his way back to the human world.

  15. Vision is the full perception of reality which we, in our limited condition, cannot retain. Speech and memory are merely imperfect channels for Platonic recollection. Dante says here that our closest approximation to the vision is not in speech or memory, both of which are under the control of reason, but in feeling. Proust, with his method of evoking the essence of the past by feeling linked to sense experience, might agree.

  16. Cf.

    Was it vision, or a waking dream?
    Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

    Keats: “Ode to A Nightingale.”

    But where Keats is unsure of the reality of his vision, Dante is supremely certain of his.

  17. Cf. Proclus' saying that the movement of life is toward the good, of thought toward being. Dante says here that the ultimate aims of intellect and will are reached together in the union with being.

  18. C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Bollingen Series, New York, 1959. pp. 21-22.

  19. Nature here means the operation of the moving heavens which stamp human lives with their influences.

  20. See Saggi di filosofia dantesca. Milano, 1930. pp. 155-185.

  21. As M. Asin tries to prove without much success in his Islam and the Divine Comedy (trans. by H. Sunderland). London, 1926.

  22. E. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. New York, 1955. p. 84.

  23. Nesca A. Robb, Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance. London, 1935. pp. 135-141.

  24. Robb, pp. 136-161.

Select Bibliography


The Vita Nuova and Canzoniere, Temple Classics. London, 1948.

The Inferno, Temple Classics. London, 1936.

The Purgatorio, Temple Classics, London, 1937.

The Paradiso, Temple Classics. London, 1954.

A Translation of the Latin Works of Dante, Temple Classics. London, 1904.

Il Convivio, ed. G. Busnelli and G. Vandelli. Florence, 1934.

Dantis Alighieri Epistolae, The Letters of Dante, trans. and ed. Paget Toynbee. Oxford, 1920.

The Paradiso, trans., with a Commentary, by Charles Singleton. Princeton, N.J., 1977.

Tutte le opere nuovamente rivedute del testo da Dr. E. Moore. Oxford, 1894.

La Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri, ed. C. H. Grandgent. Boston and New York, 1933.

Historical and Critical Works

Auerbach, Erich. Dante, Poet of the Secular World, trans. Ralph Mannheim. Chicago, 1961.

———. “Figura” in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature. New York, 1959.

Barbi, Michele. Life of Dante, trans. P. G. Ruggiers. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1954 and 1960.

Bergin, Thomas G. Dante: New York, 1965, Boston, 1965.

———. ed. From Time to Eternity: Essays on Dante's Divine Comedy. New Haven, 1967.

Boccaccio, Giovanni, and Leonardo Bruni Aretino. The Earliest Lives of Dante (“Milestones of Thought”). New York, 1963, 1965.

Brandeis, Irma. The Ladder of Vision: A Study of Dante's Comedy. London, 1960, New York, 1961.

———. ed. Discussions of theDivine Comedy.” Boston, 1961.

Carroll, J. S. Exiles of Eternity: An Exposition of Dante's Inferno. 2d ed., 1904; Prisoners of Hope: An Exposition of Dante's Purgatorio, 1906; and In Patria: An Exposition of Dante's Paradiso, 1911. London.

Cosmo, Umberto. “Rassegna dantesca,” Giornale storico della letteratura Italiana, LXIII (1914) pp. 362 sq.: L'ultima ascesa, Chaps. 2, 19, 20, 21.

———. A Handbook to Dante Studies. New York, 1947.

Eliot, T. S. Dante. London, 1929. Also reprinted in his Selected Essays, New York, 1932.

Fergusson, Francis. Dante's Drama of the Mind: A Modern Reading of thePurgatorio.” Princeton, 1953.

———. Dante. New York, 1966.

Flamini, Francesco. Introduction to the Study of the Divine Comedy, trans. Freeman M. Josselyn. Boston, 1910.

Freccero, John, ed. Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, 1965.

Gardner, E. G. Dante's Ten Heavens: A Study of the Paradiso. New York, 1900.

Gilson, Etienne. Dante the Philosopher, trans. David Moore. New York, 1949. Paperback reprint as Dante and Philosophy, New York, 1963.

———. History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. New York, 1955.

———. The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard. London, 1940.

Hollander, Robert. Allegory in Dante's Commedia. Princeton, 1969.

Mazzeo, Joseph Anthony. Medieval Cultural Tradition in Dante'sComedy.” Ithaca, 1960.

———. Structure and Thought in the Paradiso. New York, 1958.

Moore, E. Studies in Dante, Vol. I. pp. 140-141. Oxford, 1889.

Musa, Mark, ed. Essays on Dante. Bloomington, 1964.

Nardi, Bruno. Saggi di filosofia dantesca. Milano, 1930.

Passerin D'Entrèves, A. Dante as a Political Thinker. Oxford, 1962.

Reade, W. H. V. The Moral System of Dante's Inferno. Oxford, 1909.

Reeves, Marjorie. Joachim of Fiore and the Prophetic Future. New York, 1977.

Robb, Nesca A. Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance. London, 1935.

Santayana, George. Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe. Garden City, N.Y., 1953. Originally published in 1910 by Harvard University Press.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Further Papers on Dante. London, 1957. Also, New York, 1957.

———. Introductory Papers on Dante. London, 1954. Also, New York, 1954.

Singleton, Charles. “Dante's Allegory.” Speculum XXV (1950).

———. “The Pattern of the Center” in Dante Studies I—Commedia: Elements of Structure. Cambridge, Mass., 1954.

Stambler, Bernard. Dante's Other World: The Purgatorio as Guide to theDivine Comedy.” New York, 1957.

Tondelli, Leone. Da Gioachino a Dante. Torino, 1944.

———. Il libro delle figure dell Abate Gioachino da Fiore. Torino, 1953.

Toynbee, Paget. Dante Alighieri: His Life and Works. Edited, with an Introduction, Notes, and Bibliography by Charles Singleton. New York, 1965.

———. A Dictionary of Proper Names and Notable Matters in the Works of Dante. Oxford, 1898.

Vernon, W. W. Readings on the Paradiso, Vols. I and II. London, 1900-1909.

Vossler, Karl. Mediaeval Culture: An Introduction to Dante and His Times. Trans. W. C. Lawton. New York, 1929 and 1958.

Whitfield, John H. Dante and Virgil. Oxford, 1949.

Wicksteed, P. H. From Vita Nuova to Paradiso. New York, 1922.

Williams, Charles. The Figure of Beatrice. New York, 1961.

Wood, Charles T. Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII. New York, 1967.

Jaroslav Pelikan (lecture date 1989)

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SOURCE: Pelikan, Jaroslav. “The Otherwordly World of the Paradiso.” In Eternal Feminines: Three Theological Allegories in Dante's Paradiso, pp. 11-31. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally delivered as a lecture in 1989, Pelikan discusses the theological foundations of the Paradiso, concluding that Dante closely followed St. Augustine's insistence on surrendering to God's will.]

As even the cursory examination of a bibliography on Dante or of a library card catalog will suggest, the third and final cantica of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, the Paradiso, has, for whatever reason, received considerably less attention than the other two. On the other hand, the Inferno is the most prominent—perhaps because it is the first, or possibly because it is the most vividly dramatic, or probably because it is existentially the most accessible to the reader. Yet the Paradiso is in many ways the cantica of most interest to the history of Christian theology and dogma. Thomas Bergin has trenchantly summarized its doctrinal import: “For Dante, paradise was clearly the place where one learned things, so that there is more overt didactic matter in the Paradiso than in the other cantiche. It is not entirely fanciful to find significance in the fact that the word ‘dottrina’ occurs twice in the Inferno, four times in the Purgatorio, and six times in the Paradiso; nor to note that the Inferno begins with a straightforward narrative statement, the Purgatorio with a metaphor, and the Paradiso with a statement of dogma. And with dogma, clearly and forcefully put, the Paradiso is replete.”1 It is, then, with that cantica that the present study in the history of theology deals—surely an ambitious undertaking, if not indeed a presumptuous one.

For a scholar, there is some consolation to be derived from the awareness that any presumption involved in this assignment falls far short of that entailed by the composition of a work of literature whose author dares to assert, already in its second sentence and its second tercet:

I was within the heaven that receives
more of His light; and I saw things that he
who from that height descends, forgets or can
not speak.(2)

In those lines the poet is echoing, no doubt consciously,3 the words of another visionary. As most interpreters ancient and modern would agree, the apostle Paul was speaking about himself when he wrote to the Corinthians: “I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth); such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth); how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”4 (Of course, although Saint Paul, at any rate most of the time, leaves such “unspeakable words [arrēta hrēmata]” unspoken, Dante does go on for the next thirty-three cantos of the Paradiso to describe, from among the things he saw, at least all those which he that descended from the light does have both the knowledge and the power to tell again.) It is, fortunately, not the task of the scholar to reenact, or to participate in, the visions of an ancient seer—be it Saint Paul in the third heaven or Saint John the Divine in the Apocalypse, or Virgil in hell and purgatory, or Dante in paradise—but only to give a faithful account of the text of the Paradiso and to put it into context, specifically its broader historical context in the theology and piety of the late Middle Ages, or what we are calling in this chapter “the otherworldly world of the Paradiso.” The Paradiso belongs to the late Middle Ages first of all, of course, because that is when its author lived.5 Dante Alighieri was born in Florence sometime between 21 May and 21 June6 in 1265—thus, exactly fifty years after the greatest church council of the Middle Ages, the Fourth Lateran held in 1215. Dante's birth came just one year after Roger Bacon's composition of the De Computo Naturali [On Natural Computation], one year after Thomas Aquinas's Summa contra Gentiles, and two years after the founding of Balliol College. And he died in exile, at Ravenna, in 1321, nineteen years before the birth of Geoffrey Chaucer. Thus, it was during Dante's lifetime that Pope Boniface VIII, indelibly pictured in Canto XXVII of the Inferno7 (as well as in other passages, though he is named only once),8 ascended the throne of Saint Peter in 1294, and during his lifetime that Pope Clement V moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon. John Wycliffe, moreover, was born only seven years after Dante died. In anyone's chronology, therefore, Dante belongs to the Middle Ages, much as he is connected also to the Renaissance.9

Yet it is in far more than a literal chronological sense that Dante's Divine Comedy, and specifically the Paradiso, belongs to the Middle Ages. As Thomas Bergin has said, the images of the poem “cover all kinds of human activities, giving us such a richness of objective correlatives as to bring into the great ‘hall of the Comedy’ all forms and features of the medieval world.” At the same time, Bergin observes, “Dante's great work is concerned with matters not of this world; his subject is the afterlife, his pilgrimage takes him into realms which cannot be charted on physical maps, and his interests are in things eternal and not temporal.”10 For that is the world of the Divine Comedy, even and especially of the Paradiso: the otherworldly world view of Western Christendom at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century. “World view” here does refer, of course, to cosmology, and from time to time we shall have occasion to examine Dante's universe. But “world view,” Weltanschauung, includes as well the vision of life and of reality with which the entire poem is suffused. For the Paradiso, that means first and foremost a view of this world in the light of the world to come, of Terra in the light of Inferno and Purgatorio and Paradiso, of time in the light of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis. To read the poem intelligently, it is not necessary to share, but it is necessary to try to imagine and thus to understand, a conception of reality in which the very definition of being, the “is-ness” of what “is,” has been set by the Ultimate Reality and Ultimate Being that is God. Thus when Dante, addressing the apostle Peter, paraphrases the Nicene Creed and quotes its opening words, “Io credo in uno Dio,” he declares:

For this belief I have not only proofs
both physical and metaphysical;
I also have the truth that here rains down
through Moses

and others of the Old and the New Testament.11 As his earlier reference to “your dear brother,” the apostle Paul, makes clear, Dante is referring to the celebrated definition of faith in the Epistle to the Hebrews (regarded as having been written by Paul): “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”12 The “proofs both physical and metaphysical” should probably be taken as more or less equivalent to the familiar “five ways” of proving the existence of God set down by Saint Thomas Aquinas on almost the first page of the Summa.13 But the reference to “Moses” is an echo of the saying of God quoted by Thomas in that discussion and addressed to Moses from the burning bush, “I am that I am,”14 which Dante, together with the consensus of thinkers Jewish and Christian, takes to mean that God is Being itself, while all other “being,” whether visible or invisible, angelic or inanimate, as the same Creed affirms, is the creation of that God and hence possesses its being derivatively and dependently.

The “world of the Paradiso,” however, must mean even more specifically what cannot be called anything except its “otherworldly world.” As the striking epigram of Shirley Jackson Case put it, “The sky hung low in the ancient world,”15 and it continued to do so in Dante's medieval world. For not only does Dante present the Being of God as the Ultimate Reality in relation to which all other “being” has a secondary reality, thus providing what Arthur Lovejoy has called “a fairly unequivocal expression of the principle of plenitude”;16 but the primacy of the divine reality of God the Creator is, in a mysterious fashion, shared with all the creaturely dwellers of paradise as well, transforming their very existence into another order of being. That applies in a special way to the angels, but perhaps the most dramatic (and almost certainly the most enigmatic) case of such transformation is Beatrice. Whatever may be the status of “the quest of the historical Beatrice,” she is, here in the Paradiso and above all in its closing cantos, beyond time and space and almost (though not quite) beyond creatureliness itself. “If that which has been said of her so far,” Dante summarizes,

were all contained within a single praise [in una loda],
it would be too scant to serve me now.
The loveliness I saw surpassed not only
our human measure—and I think that, surely,
only its Maker can enjoy it fully.(17)

Therefore, the intuition of Gertrud Bäumer is correct when she relates Dante to the closing lines of Goethe's Faust.18 Its final line, “Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan [The Eternal Feminine draws us above],” unforgettably set to music by Gustav Mahler in his Eighth Symphony, does echo Dante's apotheosis of Beatrice; and it was therefore natural for it to provide the title for this book. In present-day English usage, however, the term “otherworldly” usually means “spectral” (or “spooky”) and therefore suggests something “unreal,” while in the Paradiso it is precisely the “otherworldliness” that is “really real.” As A. Bartlett Giamatti put it, “all the landscapes of Hell and Purgatory are either defective or incomplete versions of the terrestrial paradise. But the terrestrial paradise is itself only an image of the celestial paradise. The garden of Eden simply reflects the City of God.”19

At the same time, this “otherworldliness” of the Paradiso must not be taken to mean that Dante's consideration of this world of time and space, the world of politics and of human history, is confined to the Inferno and the Purgatorio, in both of which (as even the most casual reader can recognize) it is so prominent. On the contrary, it is possible to argue that in those first two cantiche Dante could treat politics and history as incisively and as severely as he did for the very reason that even then he had his eye on a rule of measurement beyond the here and now. That becomes strikingly evident, for example, in the portrait of the emperor Justinian which occupies all of Canto VI of the Paradiso, with a prelude at the conclusion of Canto V and a curious liturgical cadenza (employing a mixture of Latin and quasi-Hebrew words) in the opening three lines of Canto VII.20 Justinian introduces himself to the poet as the lawgiver of Rome, the one

who, through the will of the Primal Love I feel,
removed the vain and needless from the laws.(21)

According to this definition of jurisprudence, what the law expresses is not the harsh reality of moral ambiguity in the world of politics (an ambiguity that Dante knew well from his own Florentine experience, and about which he repeatedly speaks with great bitterness in the Divine Comedy), but the will and purpose of the primo Amor, which embodies itself in natural and positive law, even though, as in the empyrean,

where God governs with no mediator [sanza mezzo],
no thing depends upon the laws of nature,(22)

much less upon the positive legislation of human societies. Justinian's introduction is followed by a remarkable survey of the history of Rome, in which one Caesar after another passes in review, from the original Caesar, Julius, to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. “Caesar I was and am Justinian [Cesare fui e son Iustiniano],” the emperor declares,23 setting the criterion of law and justice as an absolute standard by which to measure all his predecessors—and all his successors as well, up to and including the political parties and partisans of Dante's own time in the empire. “Let Ghibellines,” the emperor Justinian asserts as, speaking from the sixth century, he addresses himself to the problems of the fourteenth,

                    pursue their undertakings
beneath another sign, for those who sever
this sign and justice are bad followers.(24)

It is this medieval otherworldliness of the Paradiso that, far from having abstracted Dante out of the real world of politics and concrete choice, enables him to pass specific judgment on conditions in the empire past and present.

That applies a fortiori to his treatment of the Church, to which we shall be returning in greater detail but which is appropriate here as a prime illustration of the otherworldly world that is the context of the Paradiso. The century of the Paradiso is also the century of Boniface VIII and of the “Babylonian captivity” of the Church under the Avignon papacy and, on the other hand, the century of John Wycliffe at Oxford and then (beginning in the fourteenth century but continuing into the fifteenth) of Jan Hus in Prague. Dante was caught up passionately in the agitation for the reform of the Church, of its hierarchy, and of the papacy itself. This is evident from Dante's other writings, above all from the De Monarchia, which it is a mistake to read only as a treatise on secular politics, as though there were no difference between Dante's De Monarchia and the Defensor Pacis of Marsilius of Padua; for, as a leading student of Marsilius has pointed out, “even Dante, despite his dedication of the ‘temporal monarchy’ to intellectual activity, also finally apportions the papal function to caring for man's incorruptible soul, and the temporal imperial function to man's corruptible body.”25 The passage cited earlier from the Inferno indicates what Dante thought of Pope Boniface VIII. But all of that denunciation of corruption in the Church and in the papacy does not, as one might have expected, come to its crescendo in the hell or in the purgatory to which so many of the past occupants of the throne of Saint Peter have been consigned by Dante (and, presumably, by God), but here in heaven, where it is Saint Peter himself,

that ancient father
of Holy Church, into whose care the keys
of this fair flower were consigned by Christ,(26)

who pronounces their judgment upon them—just as it is from the vantage point of heaven that its former inhabitant, “the first proud being ['l primo superbo]” who was “the highest of all creatures,”27 Satan the fallen angel, must be judged. Beginning with an Italian metric version of the Latin Gloria Patri, Canto XXVII goes on to these stinging words from Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. Three times Saint Peter plaintively cries out “my place [il luogo mio],” just as, fulfilling Christ's grim prophecy, he had denied his Lord three times:28

He who on earth usurps my place, my place,
my place that in the sight of God's own Son
is vacant now, has made my burial ground
a sewer of blood, a sewer of stench, so that
the perverse one who fell from Heaven, here
above, can find contentment there below.(29)

Apparently, as the Church is viewed by none other than Saint Peter himself in the light of the other world, such a corrupt Church could provide a more comfortable domicile for Satan than it could—or, at any rate, than it should—for any legitimate successor of Peter.

The “otherworldly” criterion in the Paradiso's treatment of the Church and its reform makes itself visible also in the prominent role that the Paradiso assigns to monks and to monasticism. For, in the vocabulary of the Middle Ages, the monastic life was often called “the angelic life [vita angelica].” In the Gospel, Christ had said that “in the resurrection [human beings] neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.”30 Saint Gregory of Nyssa used the saying from the Gospel to argue that since “the resurrection promises us nothing else than the restoration of the fallen to their ancient state,” virginity was characteristic of “the life before the transgression” of Adam and Eve, which for that reason was “a kind of angelic life.”31 On that basis, virginity and therefore monasticism had been referred to as “angelic” by Gregory's brother, the father of Eastern monasticism, Saint Basil of Caesarea, as well as by Saint John Chrysostom.32 Perhaps from such Greek sources, Rufinus of Aquileia, who knew the Greek Christian authors well and translated some of them into Latin, spoke of monasticism as the vita angelica, as did other Latin writers.33 And in the supplement to Part III of the Summa Theologica the term is explained this way: “Virginity is said to be an ‘angelic life,’ insofar as virgins imitate by grace what angels have by nature. For it is not owing to a virtue that angels abstain altogether from pleasures of the flesh, since they are incapable of such pleasures.”34 It seems plausible that “the bread of angels” of which Dante speaks in the Paradiso35 refers to the wisdom of the angels who, because they did not fall from grace with their fellows,

                              were modestly aware
that they were ready for intelligence
so vast, because of that Good which had made them.(36)

But the “angelic life” in the usage of his time is a way of speaking about monasticism, a usage that Dante does reflect here in the Paradiso when—alluding to the traditional distinction according to which “the cherubim have the excellence of knowledge and the seraphim the excellence of ardor” in their charity37—he says that Saint Dominic was “cherubic” whereas Saint Francis was “seraphic.”38

Even without running a detailed and precise statistical analysis, moreover, it is striking to note how often monastic figures and monastic themes appear throughout the entire third cantica of the Divine Comedy.39 For example, the words of Piccarda Donati in Canto III, “We have neglected vows,”40 are followed by the poet's question at the end of Canto IV:

I want to know if, in your eyes, one can
amend for unkept vows with other acts.(41)

This is followed in turn by Beatrice's response about vows at the beginning of Canto V.42 All of this carries echoes of the most extensive discussions of vows in medieval thought, which were addressed to monastic vows. Therefore, the interpreters who have detected a note of irony in Beatrice's explanation that “the Holy Church gives dispensations”43 are probably correct. For a vow, in Beatrice's (and Dante's) view, is not merely an agreement between two human beings, even if one of them is a priest or prelate, but ultimately a sacred contract between creature and Creator. That vertical dimension is what makes the betrayal of a vow such a crime, as can be seen also in the various cases of marital infidelity, “the force of Venus' poison,”44 that appear in the Inferno and the Purgatorio. Here in the Paradiso the crime of betraying monastic vows evokes from the eleventh-century reformer of monasticism and of the Church, Saint Peter Damian, this lament:

That cloister used to offer souls to Heaven,
a fertile harvest, but it now is barren—
as Heaven's punishment will soon make plain.(45)

For throughout the Middle Ages, as R. W. Southern has put it, “those who set themselves a standard higher than the ordinary looked to the monasteries for their examples,”46 because the monasteries were the outposts of the other world here in this world, the models of authentic community, the seedbeds of holiness, and the sources of renewal. If they themselves became corrupt, as they did with such depressing regularity—

The flesh of mortals yields so easily;
on earth a good beginning does not run
from when the oak is born until the acorn

is Dante's one-sentence lament47—the result was that not only the monks but everyone would suffer. In the familiar maxim of the Roman poet Juvenal, “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? [But who is to guard the guards themselves?]”48

Or, in the complaint that Dante puts into the mouth of the sixth-century founder of Western monasticism, Saint Benedict of Nursia,

                              my Rule is left
to waste the paper it was written on.(49)

But that complaint is voiced by one who is already in heaven, as Beatrice is obliged to remind Dante about himself.50 Indeed, he is not only in heaven, but (as she also reminds him) Dante has, at the point of encountering Benedict, come very “near the final blessedness.”51 At that exalted position, moreover, Benedict speaks as “the largest and most radiant”52 of the hundred pearls or “little spheres [sperule]” to which Beatrice directs Dante's gaze. With the kind of spiritual boasting of which the apostle Paul speaks,53 Benedict describes the achievements of his monastic foundation on Monte Cassino, built on the site of a pagan temple: “Such abundant grace had brought me light,” he says,

that, from corrupted worship that seduced
the world, I won away the nearby sites.(54)

In so doing, Benedict established a pattern that was to become an essential component of monastic life throughout the rest of Christian history, as over and over the monks in both East and West were to be the shock troops of the Catholic and Christian faith, in the vanguard of its march across the continents. It was for this reason, among others, that in the twentieth century Saint Benedict and Saints Cyril and Methodius, the apostles to the Slavs, have been designated co-patron saints of Europe. From Dante's celebration of monastic heroism and from his lament over monastic vice, it is clear that in Dante's eyes the history of monasticism since the age of Benedict contained some of the most glorious chapters of Christian heroism, and some of the most degenerate chapters of Christian betrayal. Yet it is undeniable that for Dante the monks were among the leading citizens of both the Church on earth and the Church in paradise.

Despite the high praise for Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, the pride of place among the monks in the Paradiso is reserved for another monk who was not a Benedictine but a Cistercian, the monastic reformer who was also a reformer of the Church, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.55 In the final three cantos, which may well be the most powerful hymn ever written in praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the speaker is Bernard the “holy elder [santo sene].”56 He describes himself as “Mary's faithful Bernard [suo fedel Bernardo].”57 As Masseron has suggested, that title applies to Dante as well as to Bernard.58 In this closing scene Bernard has left

                              the sweet
place where eternal lot assigns [his] seat,(59)

in order to expound to Dante the historical typology of Eve the mother of humankind and Mary the Second Eve. The speeches about Mary that Dante places into the mouth of Bernard are in fact a compendium of his rich and varied works devoted to her praises. Other works of Bernard of Clairvaux, particularly his letters and his treatise On Consideration, written for his pupil Pope Eugenius III, were likewise a source upon which Dante and his fellow reformers of church and empire drew for their denunciation of the Church's corruption.60 In addressing such an essay as On Consideration to the pope, Bernard had clearly risen above the corruption of his time to carry out the historic responsibility of the monks as the conscience of the medieval Church.61

In Dante's own time it was neither the Benedictines nor the Cistercians, but the Franciscans and the Dominicans who had assumed much of the responsibility for the spiritual life of the Church—and who had, yet again, manifested the universal tendency to corruption through “their decadence, and sudden passion for the material goods their masters had taught them to abandon, [which] destroyed many of the spiritual gains made by Francis and Dominic, and reduced the Orders to a state little better than that of the Church their founders had begun to rebuild.”62 The founders of these two orders are the subject of Canto XI of the Paradiso:

                              two princes, one
on this side, one on that [quinci e quindi], as her [the Church's] guides(63)—

one of them, as noted earlier, “all seraphic in his ardor” and the other “the splendor of cherubic light on earth.”64 In his miniature biography of Francis, in which scholars have found a remarkably “symmetrical construction,”65 Dante describes how Francis had, after an interval of “some eleven hundred years,”66 restored the primitive Christian ideal of poverty when he took Lady Poverty as his spiritual bride. Although this bizarre act brought upon him the “scorn and wonder [maraviglia]”67 of most of his contemporaries, he did manage to extract from Pope Innocent III the approval of the Rule of the Franciscans, or, as Dante calls it, “the first seal of his order.”68 What Dante then goes on to call “the final seal [l'ultimo sigillo],” which “his limbs bore for two years,”69 came in the form of the stigmata, the marks of the Passion of Christ on the body of Saint Francis. Francis was and still is a controversial figure, indeed a revolutionary one. The implications of his doctrine and practice of poverty came to be seen by many of his followers, particularly the Spiritual Franciscans, as a radical attack upon the institutional Church as such, earning for them the condemnation of the Church's leaders. Nevertheless at his death this “second Christ,” as he came to be known, issued a Testament (now generally acknowledged to be genuine) to his Franciscan brethren, in which

Francis commended his most precious lady,
and he bade them to love her faithfully.(70)

The official biographer of Saint Francis and the most eminent theological mind of the Franciscan Order (at least until Duns Scotus, who was born in the same year as Dante, 1265) was Bonaventure, who speaks in Canto XII of the Paradiso.

But it is one of the most striking of the many transpositions in the entire Divine Comedy, as many readers have noted and as a Dominican scholar has recently explained in some detail, that Bonaventure speaks not about Saint Francis but about Saint Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers, just as it is the Dominican Thomas Aquinas who speaks in such glowing terms about Francis, founder of the Order of Friars Minor.71 Writing at a time when the rivalry between the two orders and the general state of the monastic life had become a scandal throughout Western Christendom,72 Dante employs this device to remind his readers—and any Franciscans or Dominicans who might be listening—that the two emphases, the “seraphic” celebration of the supremacy of love associated with the Franciscans and the “cherubic” cultivation of wisdom and scholarship identified with the Dominicans, are by no means mutually exclusive, but in fact need each other to be rescued from exaggeration. They are like two wheels of the chariot of Holy Church,73 both of them indispensable to her journey on this earthly pilgrimage to the otherworldly paradise. Therefore, after Aquinas has begun by pointing to Dominic as “our patriarch [il nostro patriarca],”74 it is Bonaventure who takes over to draw a vivid portrait of Dominic as “the holy athlete,” whose valiant efforts as a formidable champion in defense of the truth of the Catholic faith made him “kind to his own and harsh to enemies.”75 In Dominic, it was above all the power of his intellect76 that equipped him for his special ministry:

Then he, with both his learning and his zeal,
and with his apostolic office, like
a torrent hurtled from a mountain source,
coursed, and his impetus, with greatest force,
struck where the thickets of the heretics
offered the most resistance.(77)

For an appreciation of “the otherworldly world of the Paradiso,” the angelic world of cherubim and seraphim, the most important accent in Dante's treatment of the Franciscans and the Dominicans here in the Paradiso is his use of angelic metaphors for both: Francis “was all seraphic in his ardor,” Dominic was endowed with “the splendor of cherubic light on earth”78—“on earth,” because such light and such ardor were ordinarily part of the other world, but in these two “princes” they had appeared in this world as well.

In this connection, however, it is necessary to examine one suggestion of a possible historical connection of Dante with the Franciscan Order, and to evaluate the suggestion of another historical connection between Dante and the Dominican Order. It is clear from the presentation in Cantos XI and XII just summarized that Dante was striving to be evenhanded in his treatment of the two orders, of their two founders, and of the shameful condition into which both of the orders had fallen by his own time. Yet that evenhandedness, which was apparently quite sincere and surely quite successful, must not be permitted to obscure Dante's special personal bond with the Franciscans. For like many late medieval figures—it should be noted, for example, that in June 1496, upon arriving in Cádiz, Spain, at the end of his second voyage, Christopher Columbus “assumed the coarse brown habit of a Franciscan, as evidence of repentance and humility”79—Dante had identified himself with Saint Francis. In Canto XVI of the Inferno Dante says of himself: “Around my waist I had a cord as girdle [una corda intorno cinta],”80 a cord that Virgil borrows to use as an enormous fishing line for catching the monster Geryon.81 Although this could be a purely symbolic allusion—for which there is a parallel, for example, in the words of the Purgatorio about Charles of Aragon as one who “wore the cord of every virtue [ogne valor portò cinta la corda]”82—the Franciscan cord did have a special significance for Dante, which some scholars have seen expressed by his reference, here in the description of Francis and his retinue in the Paradiso, to “the lowly cord already round their waists.”83 The reference to the “cord” in Canto XVI of the Inferno has given rise to the theory that Dante had once, as a young man, briefly joined the Franciscan Order.84 John D. Sinclair thinks it “may well be true,”85 while Charles S. Singleton insists that “these speculations are without documentary evidence” and that “it is in no way certain that D[ante] ever joined the Order, even as a tertiary.”86 Whatever may be the truth of such reports about Dante's early life, it does seem certain that when he died on the night of 13 September 1321, after a journey to Venice, he was buried at Ravenna in a small chapel near San Piero Maggiore (which is now, appropriately enough, called San Francesco)—and that he was “buried with honors, and in the costume of the Franciscan order.”87

On the other hand, the intellectual content of the Divine Comedy has often been identified (in perhaps too hasty and facile a conclusion on the basis of evidence that is at best tenuous) not with the Franciscans at all, but with the Dominicans and specifically with Saint Thomas Aquinas. This issue was brought to the fore in the book Dante le théologien, published in 1935 by the Dominican scholar and distinguished editor of the Commentary on the Sentences of Thomas Aquinas, Pierre Mandonnet, who is perhaps best known to students of the history of philosophy for his pioneering research on Siger of Brabant and Latin Averroist philosophy.88 The most important response to Mandonnet's thesis is that of Etienne Gilson, whom many would regard as the most eminent historian of medieval thought in the past hundred years.89 In addition to many incisive comments on the standing issues of Dante interpretation, above all on the tangled problem of whether Beatrice has become more than human by the time Dante gets to the final cantos of the Paradiso, Gilson reviews the alleged dependence of Dante on Thomas in a section entitled “Dante's Thomism.”90 And despite his own standing as a Thomist scholar and despite the prominent place occupied by Saint Thomas in the Paradiso,91 Gilson concludes that it is a mistake to read Dante as a partisan and disciple of Thomas in any but the most general sense.

He must rather be seen as a disciple of Saint Augustine—which is, after all, how Thomas also saw himself even when he was criticizing Augustine.92 Many of the phrases and tropes that a student of Aquinas seems to recognize as Thomistic upon reading the Divine Comedy are in fact Augustinian.93 Thomas Aquinas and Dante Alighieri were drawing upon a common source, who was likewise the source for most of medieval theology, and for much if not most of medieval philosophy as well. It is rather curious, then, that Augustine himself occupies a relatively small place in the Comedy.94 He appears together with Saint Francis and Saint Benedict in the Tenth Heaven,95 but he does not function as one of the dramatis personae in the way that Thomas and Bonaventure and, above all, Bernard of Clairvaux do; nor does the narrative of his life story receive any special place in the poem. Yet that very obscurity can be taken to mean that the presence and influence of Augustine are so pervasive throughout the Purgatorio, especially throughout the Paradiso, that he does not have to be one of the characters in the play, since he has provided so many of its lines—including what may well be the most familiar line in the entire work, the words of Piccarda Donati, “And in His will there is our peace [E ‘n la sua volontade è nostra pace],”96 words that seem to be an unmistakable echo of the words of Augustine in the Confessions, “In Thy good will is our peace.”97 Similar parallels abound throughout the Divine Comedy, above all perhaps in the Paradiso. All of these Augustinian, medieval, and “otherworldly” qualities of the world of the Paradiso come together in its employment of allegory, especially of theological allegory.


  1. Bergin 1965, 274.

  2. Par.I.4-6.

  3. Mazzeo 1958, 84-110.

  4. 2 [Corinthians] 12:1-4.

  5. Vossler 1929 continues to be an indispensable introduction to the entire world of Dante.

  6. That is the conclusion most scholars draw from Dante's words (Par.XXII.111-120) about “the sign that follows Taurus,” that is to say, Gemini, the “constellation steeped in mighty force [gran virtù],” as his “fated point of entry,” to which all of his genius looks as its source.

  7. Inf.XXVII.67-129.

  8. Inf.XIX.53.

  9. On this latter connection, it is instructive to note that throughout The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy Jacob Burckhardt celebrated Dante as the embodiment of his major themes. What he said in chapter 3 of Part II could have been said of each part: “Here, again, as in all essential points, the first witness to be called is Dante” (Burckhardt 1958, 1:151).

  10. Bergin 1965, 286 and 1.

  11. Par.XXIV.130-141.

  12. Par.XXIV.61-66, quoting [Hebrews] 11:1.

  13. [Summa Theologica] I.2.3.

  14. [Exodus] 3:14.

  15. Case 1946, 1.

  16. Lovejoy 1936, 68-69.

  17. Par.XXX.16-21.

  18. Bäumer 1949, 149; also Newman 1987, 262.

  19. Giamatti 1966, 116.

  20. [Enciclopedia Dantesca] 3:231-233.

  21. Par.VI.10-12.

  22. Par.XXX.122-123.

  23. Par.VI.10.

  24. Par.VI.103-105.

  25. Gewirth 1951, 100, n. 54.

  26. Par.XXXII.124-126.

  27. Par.XIX.46-48.

  28. [Matthew] 26:34, 69-75.

  29. Par.XXVII.22-27.

  30. Matt. 22:30.

  31. Gregory of Nyssa On the Making of Man xvii.2.

  32. Lampe 1961, 9; on “Chrysostom the metropolitan,” see Par.XII.136-137.

  33. Blaise and Chirat 1954, 81.

  34. S.T.III, Sup.96.9. ad 1.

  35. For example, Par.II.11.

  36. Par.XXIX.58-60; see also the Epilogue below.

  37. S.T.I.108.5. ad 6.

  38. Par.XI.37-39.

  39. As Palgen 1940, 66-67, has noted, the only two souls who speak to Dante in the Heaven of Saturn are both monks, Saint Benedict and Saint Peter Damian.

  40. Par.III.56.

  41. Par.IV.136-137.

  42. Par.V.13-15.

  43. Par.V.35-36.

  44. Purg.XXV.132.

  45. Par.XXI.118-120; see the discussion of Dante's use of medieval legends about Peter Damian in Capetti 1906.

  46. Southern 1953, 158.

  47. Par.XXII.85-87.

  48. Juvenal Satires VI.347-348.

  49. Par.XXII.74-75.

  50. Par.XXII.7-8.

  51. Par.XXII.124.

  52. Par.XXII.28.

  53. 2 Cor. 11:16-33.

  54. Par.XXII.43-45.

  55. See the long footnote discussing the question “Why Saint Bernard?” in Rabuse 1972, 59-61.

  56. Par.XXXI.94.

  57. Par.XXXI.102.

  58. Masseron 1953, 71-143.

  59. Par.XXXII.101-102.

  60. [Epistles] X.28.

  61. Kennan 1967.

  62. Needler 1969, 21.

  63. Par.XI.36.

  64. Par.XI.37-39.

  65. Santarelli 1969, 37.

  66. Par.XI.65.

  67. Par.XI.90.

  68. Par.XI.93.

  69. Par.XI.107-108.

  70. Par.XI.113-114. Although some interpreters have taken this “most precious lady” to be Poverty, the tenor of my argument here seems to point to the conclusion that she is the Catholic Church.

  71. Foster 1987, 229-249.

  72. On the state of monastic life and monastic reform in the later Middle Ages, see the helpful summary of Oakley 1979, 231-238.

  73. Par.XII.106-107.

  74. Par.XI.121.

  75. Par.XII.57.

  76. Par.XII.59: “la sua mente di viva virtute.”

  77. Par.XII.97-102.

  78. Par.XI.37-39.

  79. Morison 1955, 102.

  80. Inf.XVI.106.

  81. See the review of recent critical scholarship on this passage in D'Amato 1972.

  82. Purg.VII.114, apparently a reference to [Isaiah] 11:5.

  83. Par.XI.85-87.

  84. On the entire question of Dante and the Franciscans, see the studies of Needler 1969, Santarelli 1969, and Foster 1987.

  85. Sinclair 1961, 1:213.

  86. Singleton in Toynbee 1965, 48.

  87. Bergin 1965, 44.

  88. Mandonnet 1935.

  89. Gilson 1949.

  90. Gilson 1949, 226-242.

  91. Par.X.82-138. XI.16-XII.2, XII.110-111, 141, XIII.32-XIV.8.

  92. Gilson 1926.

  93. Mazzotta 1979, 147-191.

  94. Enc.Dant.1:80-82.

  95. Par.XXXII.35.

  96. Par.III.85.

  97. Augustine Confessions XIII.ix.10.


Cons.: Boethius Consolation of Philosophy

Conv.: Dante Convivio [Convito]

Enc. Dant.: Enciclopedia Dantesca

Ep.: Dante Epistolae

Inf.: Dante Inferno

Mon.: Dante De Monarchia

OED: Oxford English Dictionary

Par.: Dante Paradiso

Purg.: Dante Purgatorio

S.T.: Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica

V.N.: Dante Vita Nuova


Bäumer, Gertrud. Die drei göttlichen Komödien des Abendlandes: Wolframs Parsifal, Dantes Divina Commedia, Goethes Faust. Münster: Regensberg, 1949.

Bergin, Thomas Goddard. Il canto IX del Paradiso. Rome: A. Signorelli, 1959.

———. Dante. New York: Orion Press, 1965.

———. Boccaccio. New York: Viking Press, 1981.

Blaise, Albert, and Henri Chirat. Dictionnaire latin-français des auteurs chrétiens. Strasbourg: Le Latin Chrétien, 1954.

Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Translated by S. G. C. Middlemore; introductions by Benjamin Nelson and Charles Trinkaus. 2 vols. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958.

Capetti, Vittorio. Studi di Paradiso dantesco. Con un'appendice: Dante e le legende di S. Pier Damiani. Bologna: Biblioteca Storico-Critica della Letteratura Dantesca, 1906.

Case, Shirley Jackson. The Origins of Christian Supernaturalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946.

D'Amato, Juliana. “La corde e Gerione: un'altra interpretazione della famosa corda.” In Studies in Honor of Tatiana Fotitch, 191-201. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1972.

Foster, Kenelm. “Gli elogi danteschi di S. Francesco e di S. Domenico.” In Dante e il Francescanesimo, 229-249. Cava dei Tirreni: Avagliano, 1987.

Gewirth, Alan. Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Political Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.

Giamatti, Angelo Bartlett. The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Gilson, Etienne. “Pourquoi saint Thomas a critiqué saint Augustin.” Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Age 1 (1926): 5-127.

———. The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard. Translated by A. H. C. Downes. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1940.

———. Dante the Philosopher. Translated by David Moore. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1949.

———. A Gilson Reader. Edited by Anton C. Pegis. Garden City, N.Y.: Hanover House, 1957.

Kennan, Elizabeth T. “The ‘De Consideratione’ of St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the Mid-Twelfth Century: A Review of Scholarship. Traditio 23 (1967): 73–115.

Lampe, Geoffrey. A Patristic Greek Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being. A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Mandelbaum, Allen. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: A Verse Translation with Introduction and Commentary. 3 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980-1984.

Mandonnet, Pierre. Dante le théologien: Introduction à l'intelligence de la vie, des œuvres et de l'art de Dante Alighieri. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1935.

Masseron, Alexandre. Dante et Saint Bernard. Paris: A. Michel, 1953.

Mazzeo, Joseph Anthony. Structure and Thought in the “Paradiso.” Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958.

Mazzotta, Giuseppe. Dante: Poet of the Desert. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. Christopher Columbus, Mariner. New York: New American Library, 1955.

Needler, Howard. Saint Francis and Saint Dominic in the “Divine Comedy.” Krefeld: Scherpe Verlag, 1969.

Newman, Barbara. “Sergius Bulgakov and the Theology of Divine Wisdom.” St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 22 (1978): 39–73.

———. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Oakley, Francis. The Western Church in the Later Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979.

Palgen, Rudolf. Dantes Sternglaube: Beiträge zur Erklärung des Paradiso. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1940.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. 5 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971-1989.

———. “Mary—Exemplar of the Development of Christian Doctrine.” In Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective, 79-91. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

———. The Mystery of Continuity: Time and History, Memory and Eternity in the Thought of Saint Augustine. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1986.

Rabuse, Georg. Die goldene Leiter in Dantes Saturnhimmel. Krefeld: Scherpe Verlag, 1972.

Santarelli, Giuseppe. S. Francesco in Dante: Sintesi storico-critica. Milan: Edizioni Francescane Cammino, 1969.

Sinclair, John D. The “Divine Comedy” of Dante Alighieri: Italian Text with English Translation and Comment. 3 vols. Galaxy Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Singleton, Charles S. An Essay on the “Vita Nuova.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949.

———, ed. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. 3 vols. Bollingen Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Southern, Richard William. The Making of the Middle Ages. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953.

Toynbee, Paget. Dante Alighieri: His Life and Works. Edited by Charles S. Singleton. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965.

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Rachel Jacoff (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Jacoff, Rachel. “‘Shadowy Prefaces’: An Introduction to Paradiso.” In The Cambridge Companion to Dante, edited by Rachel Jacoff, pp. 208-23. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Jacoff defines the Paradiso as an admirable and powerfully suggestive attempt to stretch poetical imagination beyond the conventional limits of language.]

The God Invented and gave us vision in order that we might observe the circuits of intelligence in the heaven and profit by them for the revolutions of our own thought, which are akin to them, though ours be troubled and they are unperturbed; and that, by learning to know them and acquiring the power to compute them rightly according to nature, we might reproduce the perfectly unerring revolutions of the god and reduce to settled order the wandering motions in ourselves.

(Plato, Timaeus 46c)

The Paradiso is the continuation and culmination of the earlier canticles, and at the same time a new departure. Refiguring themes, issues, images, and episodes from Inferno and Purgatorio, it nonetheless establishes a new set of conditions for both the poet and the reader. While the poet's memory has hitherto been sufficient to his task, the Paradiso acknowledges the gap between memory and experience in its opening lines, and, even more, the gap between both psychological categories and language itself. The agon of the poet in his attempt to negotiate this space beyond memory and speech is ever more insistently foregrounded as the poem progresses. But the poem also provides a series of investitures by figures of increasing authority, calling attention to its progressive definition as a “poema sacro,” a sacred text “to which both heaven and earth have set their hand.” The reader, too, is repositioned. A series of direct addresses, as well as a number of “tasks” which actively engage imaginative collaboration, implicate the reader in the work of the poem.

This strategy is clear from the opening of the second canto, with its striking challenge:

O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,
          desiderosi d'ascoltar, seguiti
          dietro al mio legno, che cantando varca,
tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
          non vi mettete in pelago, ché forse,
          perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.
L'acqua ch'io prendo già mai non si corse.

(Paradiso 2, 1–7)

(O you that are in your little bark, eager to hear, following behind my ship that singing makes her way, turn back to see again your shores. Do not commit yourselves to the open sea, for perchance, if you lost me, you would remain astray. The water which I take was never coursed before.)

To those few who have sought the “bread of angels,” those readers properly equipped by their theological and philosophical learning for the voyage, Dante promises “amazement” if they follow in his wake, “holding to [his] furrow ahead of the water that turns smooth again.” This mesmerizing address is rich in implications, not the least of which is the moment of self-doubt it is designed to trigger. Only a few cantos later, Dante reverses this strategy of seeming discouragement by exclaiming, “Think, reader, if this beginning went no further, how you would feel an anguished craving to know more” (Paradiso 5, 109–11). The very contradictoriness of these two addresses points to the simultaneous difficulty and appeal of the Paradiso. Indeed, none of us ever knows quite enough about Dante's sources, about his theological and philosophical learning, about the poem's historical and political positioning, to feel fully adequate to interpret it; despite centuries of glossing, conundrums remain. At the same time, the poetic vitality and imaginative beauty of the Paradiso are dazzling; its magisterial interlacing of themes and images, its conceptual and metaphorical interplay, its dialectic of constraint and freedom, offer an inexhaustible challenge and a “craving to know more.” Although the Paradiso contains more didactic and doctrinal materials than the preceding canticles, it manifests—as many of the best contemporary readings insist—the Commedia's most innovative poetry. The sheer range of Dante's conceptual and poetic arsenal, and his ability to weave together disparate traditions of thought and language, work both to clarify and to complicate every subject he touches.

The trajectory of the Paradiso leads through the visible heavens to the invisible heaven (or Empyrean) in which the pilgrim will at last be granted the transformative visionary experience posited as the poem's goal. Throughout the journey Dante invites the reader to a glimpse or foretaste of blessedness, reminding us repeatedly that only our own experience can properly gloss his words: “this passing beyond humanity [‘trasumanar’] cannot be set forth in words [‘per verba’]: therefore let the example suffice any for whom grace reserves that experience” (1, 70–72). That irrecoverable experience is a promise to which the poem often alludes in its attempt to generate a desire for the condition of blessedness.

The cosmology of the Paradiso provides both its structural and its esthetic principle, an orderliness that reflects the nature of its Creator. “All things have order among themselves, and this is the form that makes the universe like God,” announces Beatrice in the first (1, 103–26) of several cosmological discourses melding neoplatonic, Aristotelian, and Christian themes into a metaphorically powerful synthesis. The Aristotelian—Ptolomeic heavenscape of the Paradiso consists of nine nested concentric spheres of increasing velocity; beyond the last of these material spheres, the diaphanous and undifferentiated Primum Mobile, is the Empyrean, the heaven of pure light and love which is the true home of both God and the blessed. Before Dante reaches this immaterial heaven (in canto 30), he and Beatrice traverse the seven planetary spheres, the heaven of the fixed stars, and the Primum Mobile. Each sphere is distinguished by its astronomical particularities, and these in turn are correlated with the categories of the blessed that Dante encounters within them. Since Dante attributes certain limited power to astral influence, this linkage must be understood not only as metaphorical, but also as literal.

The souls are not literally assigned to the spheres, but, as Beatrice explains, they “show themselves” in the hierarchy of the spheres in order to “far segno,” to signify the nature and grade of their beatitude. Their appearances are compared by Beatrice to the anthropomorphic language of Scripture, an accommodation to our perceptual limits: “It is needful to speak thus to your faculty, since only through sense perception does it apprehend that which it afterwards makes fit for the intellect” (4, 40–42). The “condescension” of the blessed in the spheres, like the “condescension” of Scripture that “attributes hands and feet to God, having other meaning,” justifies the poet's own procedures as well. Paradise is imaged in a series of “umbriferi prefazi,” shadowy prefaces of its imageless reality. The impossibility of directly rendering that reality turns out to have its positive value in the ways that it liberates the poet for “making signs” with increasing freedom from any purely mimetic imperative. What we have instead, to borrow St. Bonaventure's apt terminology, are “shadows, echoes, and pictures … vestiges, images, and displays presented to us for the contuition of God.”1

The cosmological organization of Paradiso, although different from the topography of the earlier canticles, allows for structural analogies to them. In both Inferno and Purgatorio, for example, the first nine cantos present a prefatory space before the entrance to the City of Dis and the first terrace of Purgatory, both of which occur respectively in the tenth canto. Dante contrives a comparable partitioning in Paradiso by making its first nine cantos treat the three planetary spheres (Moon, Mercury, and Venus) still touched by earth's conical shadow, an astronomical fact given spiritual significance by the imperfections of the souls who appear in them. The final cantos of each canticle are similarly set apart, with the icy circle of the traitors, the Earthly Paradise, and the Empyrean each comprising a special “set” for the climactic encounters of each section. These divisions give each canticle a tripartite structure which replicates both the macro-structure of the whole Commedia and the micro-structure of the three-line verse unit (terzina) in which the poem is composed. These large structural homologies are combined with other more subtle and various principles of connection which we shall explore as we chart the major episodes of Paradiso.

The first three planetary spheres are associated, as we have seen, by their “shadowing” by the earth. Each of them is furthermore associated with particular “defects” in relation to its own astronomical qualities. These defects (inconstancy of will, vainglory, and lust) have been seen by some critics as defects of the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity), later extolled in the stellar heaven. In the circle of the Moon, Dante treats the phenomena of the Moon's inconstancy and its spotted surface as pretexts for larger subjects. Piccarda Donati and the empress Constanza are the two souls Dante sees in this sphere; the reluctant inconstancy of these nuns, forcibly removed from the convent, motivates a long discourse on the nature of the vow and on the constancy of human will. Dante's extended discussion of the vow as a sacrifice of the will, the greatest of God's gifts to humans, introduces the themes of sacrifice and martyrdom which will be developed later. The “dark signs” of the Moon's differentiated surface are the source of an interlocking sequence of discourses on the subject of difference itself. The markings or spots on the Moon were a standard subject in medieval cosmology, since their very presence seemed to call into question the commonplace demarcation of the unstable sublunar world from the changelessness of the heavenly spheres. Although it is common to think of Dante as reflecting a coherent “medieval world view,” the Paradiso frequently engages issues on which there were a variety of conflicting views. Dante's decision to discuss the moon spots at length shows his characteristic eagerness to enter into debated arenas and to take a stand on them, sometimes even a stand that he had opposed in an earlier work.

Dante begins the moon spot discussion by reiterating the position he had taken in the Convivio, that the rarity or density of its matter would explain the difference in the quality of light reflected through and by the Moon. Beatrice's correction of Dante takes the moon spots as the occasion to explain the idea that diverse formal principles, rather than material causation, are the true source of difference. She begins by pointing to the variegated influences of the stellar sphere, taking as axiomatic their qualitative uniqueness. Size or brightness alone cannot determine the nature or quality of astral influence, since “different virtues must needs be fruits of formal principles” (2, 70). Beatrice further argues that rarity and density of moon-matter could not by themselves account for the marks on the Moon by reference to experience and experiment. The lesson that physical phenomena require a metaphysical explanation is one that sets the agenda for the whole of the Paradiso. Although the discussion of the moon spots might seem otiose on first reading, it is crucial to understanding Dante's assumptions about the ways the heavens mediate the unitary light of the divine; it also establishes the proper relationship between formal and material causation, as well as that between natural philosophy and theology.

The uneven distribution of light and shadow in the Moon finds yet another correlative in the subsequent canto's discussion of the different degrees of beatitude enjoyed by the saints. Just as the spheres of the cosmos proceed “from grade to grade” (2, 122) in hierarchical order, so the souls are ordered “from threshold to threshold” (3, 82). Because gradation itself seems incompatible with the fullness of beatitude, Dante asks the first soul he meets whether the souls in the Moon desire to be in “a more exalted place, to see more, and to make yourselves more dear” (3, 65–66). The paradox of equality and hierarchy is “resolved” by the idea of the soul's conformity to divine will; “in His will is our peace,” says the soul of Piccarda Donati in the lowest of the spheres. The hierarchical arrangement which assumes some souls capable of greater receptivity than others is one in which all souls are said to rejoice, with each experiencing as much beatitude as is proper to his or her merit and capacity to receive grace. Both throughout the spheres and in the final configuration of souls in the Empyrean (where they are once again envisioned hierarchically), the necessity of representation may seem in tension with the theoretical completeness of beatitude. This is not, however, the experience of the blessed themselves: “Diverse voices make sweet music, so diverse ranks in our life render sweet harmony among these wheels” (6, 124–26). Beatrice had analyzed diversity in relation to the Moon (and, by analogy, to the human body) in comparable terms: “diverse virtue makes diverse alloy with the precious body it quickens” (2, 139–40). Piccarda extends the meaning of diversity to the “social construct” of heaven itself.

The souls in the sphere of Mercury did good deeds, but did them to acquire fame rather than for their own sake. The emperor Justinian dominates this sphere, his importance to the poem signalled by being the sole speaker for an entire canto. Justinian is Dante's idealized emperor as law-giver, the presenter of the idea of empire embodied in the “sacred sign” of the eagle. Canto 6 is the culmination of a progressively widening and authoritative political discourse which evolves across the three canticles in the sixth canto of each. Justinian's over-arching discussion of empire is glossed by canto 7, which inscribes it within the drama of salvation history. Following St. Anselm's Cur deus homo (Why God Became Man), Dante defines the Incarnation as the event which fills the void created between man and God as a consequence of original sin. The play on the word voto (meaning both “void” and “vow”) earlier in Paradiso 3 (28–30, and 56–57) receives retrospective meaning from this canto's unfolding of Christ's sacrifice as the paradigm for all such acts. This most doctrinal of cantos concludes with an argument for the resurrection of the flesh based on the “direct creation” (by God) of the bodies of our first parents, pointing ahead to the discussion of the glorified body in canto 14, and to the majestic analysis of Creation in canto 29.

In the sphere of Venus, Dante first encounters the soul of Charles Martel, heir to the thrones of Naples, Provence, and Hungary, who had died young before fulfilling his promise. The contrast between Charles and his brother Robert prompts a discussion of heredity, the role of stellar influence, and the diversity of roles necessary to civic society. The theme of “diversity,” which we saw proposed in the discussion first of moon spots and then of degrees of beatitude, reappears here in an argument that “men below live in diverse ways for diverse duties.” Since Venus is the planet which appears both “before and after” in relation to the sun, it fittingly contains a sequence of “before and after” conversion stories: Cunizza, a wife of Bath become oracular; Folco de Marseille, a poet and lover who renounced both poetry and earthly love to become a militant bishop; and Rahab the harlot, who was saved for her role in aiding Joshua, a type of Christ, and became herself a type of the church. Cunizza and Folco recall their former erotic errancy without pain, for their blessedness is beyond guilt: “Here we do not repent, we smile.”

Throughout these opening cantos there is a gradual effacement of the human form. In the circle of the Moon, Dante sees faint outlines of the human form, first taking them for mirror images (“specchiati semibianti”). In Mercury and Venus the souls are concealed by their own luminosity, nesting in their light and signalling their joy by increasing radiance. Once Dante and Beatrice pass beyond the earth's shadow into the upper planetary spheres, the souls remain pure effulgences, “sempiternal flames,” but they are constellated in choral cultural emblems: the wise in the circle of the Sun form two circles, making a double crown around Dante and Beatrice; in Mars, the holy warriors form a Greek Cross on the ruddy ground of the planet; in Jupiter, the just rulers reconfigure themselves to form a heraldic eagle; and in Saturn, the contemplatives appear as lights moving up and down upon a golden ladder.

In the double circles of the sapienti, the teachers of the church, Dante predominantly honors two kinds of theologians, those most associated with intellective theology, led by St. Thomas, and those associated with affective theology, led by St. Bonaventure. Yet these circles also include unexpected figures. Thomas closes his circular catalogue with Siger of Brabant, a noted Latin Averroist whose work he had attacked in life, while Bonaventure concludes his with Joachim of Flora, to whom he likewise had been opposed. The presence of Siger and Joachim argues for Dante's breadth of theological sympathies and curiosity; they remind us, as does much else in the poem, that medieval theology was as much a site of contest as of concord. These catalogues of sapienti also contain two biblical figures: Solomon, celebrated as one who asked for pertinent kingly wisdom, and Nathan, a prophet whose major act was the disciplining of a king. Solomon anticipates the kings in the heaven of Justice, and signals Dante's determination to valorize wisdom in relation to the active as well as the speculative life. Nathan and Joachim (“who was endowed with prophetic spirit”) are figures suggestive of the poet's own increasingly prophetic voice.

The two groupings of sapienti in the circle of the Sun are one component of a series of “doublings” that inform these cantos. The sun's double motion on its daily and its yearly path becomes the model for other pairs in equipoise, with the repetition of the phrase “l'uno e l'altro” underlining the theme of reciprocity. Canto 10 opens with a densely compact astronomical incipit celebrating the double motion of the Trinity (procession and spiration) and the equinoctal crossing that marks the signature of its triune creator. The intricately analogical construction of these cantos operates on several levels, from the lexical to the thematic, with the parallel narratives of St. Francis and St. Dominic also structured to conform to the pattern of equipoise. The Dominican Thomas praises Francis who was “seraphic in ardor,” while the Franciscan Bonaventure praises Dominic who was “cherubic in splendor.” The complexity of these remarkable cantos has been the subject of some of the best recent work on Dante.

The striking chiastic opening figure of canto 14, “Dal centro al cerchio, e sì dal cerchio al centro” (“From the center to the rim and so from the rim to the center”), is echoed in subsequent chiastic constructions such as “Quell'uno e due e tre che sempre vive / e regna sempre in tre e 'n due e 'n uno” (“That One and Two and Three which ever lives and ever reigns in Three and Two and One,” 14, 28–29). In its symmetrical inversion of sequence (ab:ba) chiasmus is a figure which mimes circularity. Although it pervades the Paradiso, it features prominently in this canto where it also informs Solomon's speech on the condition of the glorified body at the end of time. Solomon analyzes the condition of the lucent blessed in a causal sequence that moves from brightness to ardor, vision, and grace, and then reverses the sequence in his description of the coming metamorphosis of the blessed when they will be reunited with their glorified bodies. This discussion recapitulates a theme dear to St. Bernard, the longing of the blessed for their bodies. The eruption of this longing reaches its apogee in the exclamation of the blessed in response to Solomon's speech, and in the claim that their desire is “perhaps not only for themselves, but also for their mothers, for their fathers, and for the others who were dear before they became sempiternal flames.” The profoundly endearing “domesticity” of this moment, to use Umberto Bosco's word,2 not only humanizes an abstract discourse, but also prepares us for the next episode.

Dante's own parents never appear in the poem, but its next speaker is the poem's consummate father-figure, Dante's great-great-grandfather, his “root,” Cacciaguida: crusader, knight, and martyr. Dante's meeting with his heroic ancestor rewrites Aeneas' underworld encounter with Anchises in the key of Christian comedy. The cantos of Mars contain the apotheosis of the Florentine theme that began with Dante's encounter with Ciacco in Inferno 6; Cacciaguida speaks of the city's idyllic phase and of its degeneration into factionalism, finally and clearly announcing its impending perfidy to Dante. Although the Inferno is filled with garbled and ominous prophecies of Dante's exile, Cacciaguida's definitive version spells out its devastating consequences: “You shall leave everything beloved most dearly” (Paradiso 17, 55–56). This fearful event of Dante's “future life,” however, becomes the precondition for a greater future as Cacciaguida solemnly invests Dante with the task of writing the poem that will “infuture” (“s'infutura,” 17, 98) him for those, like ourselves, “who shall call these times ancient” (17, 120). Cacciaguida's injunction to “make manifest all that you have seen” endows the poem as well as the journey with sacral authority. The consequences of this investiture scene are evident in the change in generic terminology with which Dante subsequently refers to his poem. While the poem is called a comedía twice in Inferno, it will be called a “sacred poem” in cantos 23 and 25. Dante's “staging” of his own authority in the Cacciaguida episode is based on the precedents of St. Paul and Aeneas, both of whom are invoked here, reminding us that Dante began his journey asking how he would be allowed to go to the underworld since he was neither Aeneas nor Paul (Inferno 2, 32). Virgil's narration of the “three blessed ladies” in Inferno 2 established the journey's divine sanction. Only here in Paradiso 17 does the poem itself receive comparable legitimacy.

The holy warriors of the circle of Mars give way to the just rulers of the circle of Jupiter. Here the souls first configure themselves in a divine skywriting that spells out a sentence of Scripture (“Love Justice, you who rule the earth”). They proceed to form an “M” which turns into a heraldic eagle, refiguring the “sacrosancto segno” of Justinian's earlier narrative of empire. This circle is the setting for a nagging question about God's justice: how can those who have no access to Christian truth be punished for their invincible ignorance? This question haunts the poem, particularly with relation to Virgil who is excluded from its system of salvation despite his efficacy as Dante's guide. The eagle puts the question in spatial terms, asking how the “man born on the banks of the Indus” can be held responsible for not knowing Christ, given the geographical impossibility of Christ's salvific message reaching him. The poem, of course, has always put the question in temporal terms, making us ask how those, like Virgil, born before Christ can be punished for not having known him. Having raised it so directly, the eagle surprises us by its refusal to respond to the question. Dante seems to be side-stepping an issue that his poem has accentuated—until the following canto where a real surprise awaits us. Among the six rulers in the eye and eyebrow of the eagle, is Ripheus, a character briefly named in the Aeneid. Dante asks, as indeed any reader would, “How can this be?” Like the improbable presence of Cato on the shores of Purgatory, the startling presence of Ripheus in the heaven of Justice makes us think about how Dante read his classical sources and how he rewrites them. Ripheus is a sign of God's inscrutability, but also of the poet's freedom. Virgil had called Ripheus “most just,” but Dante's tale of Ripheus abhorring the “stench of paganism” is pure invention. Catholic theology did allow for “baptism by desire,” but no one other than Dante would have selected Ripheus as an example of it.

In the highest of the planetary spheres, Saturn, Dante varies the customary entrance ritual of remarking on Beatrice's smile and the music of the spheres. Beatrice withholds her smile and the music of the spheres is silent since Dante is not yet “ready” for such overpowering experiences. The contemplatives Dante meets here are the reformer Peter Damian, who inveighs against clerical corruption, and the founder of Western monasticism, St. Benedict, who decries the degeneration of his order. The golden ladder which marks this sphere is a traditional symbol of the contemplative life; Dante follows it upward in an instantaneous transition to the following sphere, the circle of the fixed stars, where he enters into the “glorious stars” of his natal constellation of Gemini.

Dante's extensive stay in the stellar heaven (from the end of canto 22 to the end of canto 27) is framed by two glances back to earth, the “little threshing floor that makes us all so fierce.” Canto 23 presents the symbolic “triumph” of Christ and Mary with all the blessed in one of the most metaphorically dense sequences in the poem. The affective language and kaleidoscopic images of this canto create the first of several prefaces to the final vision. Dante sees a symbolic version of Christ's Advent and Ascension, followed by a version of Mary's Annunciation, Assumption, and Coronation. The intensely maternal language of this canto, with its opening extended simile of Beatrice as a nurturing mother-bird and its concluding images of the blessed flames reaching towards Mary as infants reach out after they have been fed, reinforces the importance of Mary in particular, and female mediation in general, in the poem.

Dante's interlocutors in the starry heaven are the three apostles (Peter, James, and John) who were privileged witnesses to the Transfiguration. Each apostle examines Dante on one of the three theological virtues; Dante's dense answers to the apostles compress theology, Scripture, philosophy, and experience into a set of responses that are both unique and generic. This heaven is also the site of the poem's climactic denunciation of the corrupt papacy, a thunderous invective delivered by none other than the first pope, St. Peter:

Quelli ch'usurpa in terra il luogo mio,
          il luogo mio, il luogo mio che vaca
          ne la presenza del Figliuol di Dio,
fatt'ha del cimitero mio cloaca
          del sangue e de la puzza.

(Paradiso 27, 22–26)

(He who usurps my place, my place, my place, which in the sight of the Son of God is vacant, has made my burial-ground a sewer of blood and of stench.)

The apostles, the founding fathers of Christianity, give way to the last soul Dante encounters, the first man and father of us all. Adam defines the Fall as the primal act of transgression (“trapassar il segno”), and explains the nature of Edenic language in terms that significantly revise Dante's earlier theories about the subject in the De vulgari eloquentia.

The next sphere, the Primum Mobile, offers no human interlocutors. Instead of encountering radiant souls, Dante sees a hypnotic geometrical figure, an infinitesimally small and infinitely bright point of light surrounded by nine whirling circles representing the angelic hierarchies. The relationship between this vision and the structure of the nine earth-centered spheres through which Dante has just passed is one of “model” (“l'essemplo”) and “copy” (“l'essemplare”). Dante strains to understand how the two figures relate; if we were to diagram them, they would look identical, although in the model (the vision of the angelic hierarchies) the smallest circle would be the one closest to God, while in the geocentric “copy” the opposite would be true. Beatrice substitutes the variable of velocity for that of size in order to account for the relationship between the innermost angelic choir and the outermost material sphere. In Dante's cosmology the angels are the movers of the spheres, their velocity a sign of their vision of God and the love that attends their intellection. The two universes, model and copy, are both governed by the “point on which the heavens and nature depend” (28, 41–42). This sequence has recently been a particular favorite of physicists and poets, for some of whom it seems to take precedence over the final vision as the poem's quintessential epiphanic moment. James Merrill, for example, has spoken of “the hallucinatory wonder of this little point,” imagining it “partly as a model of electrons whirling round the atomic nucleus … partly an abstracted solar system.”3

The Primum Mobile is the “maggior corpo” (“greatest body”) of the material heavens, its velocity a function of its desire for the Empyrean which itself is immaterial, a heaven of “pure light, light intellectual full of love, love of true good full of joy, joy that transcends every sweetness” (30, 40–42). Dante's entrance into the Empyrean is presented as a transition from time to eternity. After a temporary blinding by a swath of light prepares him for a new order of vision, his first sight is of a river flowing between two banks “painted with marvelous spring,” with “living sparks” coming and going between the river and its blossoming banks. This jewel-like spring landscape is an adumbration, a “shadowy preface of its truth.” It turns into its “reality” as Dante undergoes an occular baptism, drinking with his eyes from the linear river of light; as he does so, the line (“sua lunghezza”) becomes a circle (“tonda”), and the flowers and sparks become the sight of the blessed and the angels ministering to them. This unveiling (Dante speaks of it as an unmasking) is the first of several climactic moments in the final cantos. It is accompanied by a triple rhyme on the word “vidi” (“I saw,” 30, 95, 97, 99), the only word in the whole poem other than “Cristo” which Dante rhymes on itself.

Dante sees the blessed here not as effulgences or sempiternal flames, but in their “white robes,” in their glorified bodies “as they will be at the Last Judgment.” This vision was promised to him by St. Benedict when Dante asked if he could see the saint concealed by his own radiance in the lineaments of his human form “con imagine scoverta” (“with your uncovered shape”): “Brother, your high desire shall be fullfilled” (“s'adempierà”) where are fulfilled (“s'adempion”) all others and my own.” The repeated verb in Benedict's response almost contains the word “empireo” within itself. The vision of “the assembly of the white robes” also recalls Dante's definition of his profoundest hope in canto 25, where he speaks of the resurrection in the Book of Revelation's language of the “white robes” of the blessed. Dante's claim to see the blessed as they will be at the end of time is not only heterodox, but also problematic within the coordinates of his fiction; since the ampitheatre of the blessed is envisioned as awaiting completion (“few souls are now wanted there”), he both does and does not see it as it will be at the Last Judgment. The reappearance of the body in its particularity (old and young, male and female) and implied historicity at this most ethereal point in the poem is an extraordinary sign of Dante's incarnational intuitions and desires.

The Empyrean is also the site of Dante's farewell to Beatrice, who returns to the “throne her merits have allotted to her” (31, 69), giving way to St. Bernard as Dante's final guide. Although Virgil had prepared Dante for Beatrice's coming, there had been no warning that she herself would be replaced. Dante's praise of Beatrice, “she who imparadises [his] mind,” has been extravagant throughout the Paradiso. His ascent through the spheres is coordinate with her increasing radiance and beauty, until at last hyperbole defeats itself: “The beauty I behold transcends measure not only beyond our reach, but I truly believe that He alone who made it can enjoy it all” (30, 19–21). Dante's last address to Beatrice, his first to her in the familiar “tu” form, is a prayer of thanksgiving for her salvific role in his life. There is no single allegorical equivalent that can serve as an adequate gloss for Beatrice. She is a type of Christ, but also of Mary and of the church. She is Dante's instructor, guide, and lure. Her beauty, and the emotions it generates, create a powerful link between love and knowledge, an eroticization of knowledge that energizes the poet's enamored mind (“mente innamorata,” 27, 88).

There are many reasons why St. Bernard serves as Dante's final guide. The miraculous prayer to the Virgin in canto 33 reminds us of Bernard's own intense Marian piety, while his role in assisting Dante's final vision clearly relates to his own eminence as theologian of mystic union. There are other reasons, too, for Dante to turn to Bernard. His writings offer a counter motion to Dante's, insofar as he finds an erotic language to render theological experience while Dante, in his treatment of Beatrice, theologizes what began as an erotic experience. Dante's commitment to scholastic intellectuality, his insistence that intellection precedes love, is balanced by the presence of Bernard, one of the great poets of the affective tradition. Dante also shared Bernard's conviction of the soul's incomplete beatitude before reunion with the body. Furthermore, Bernard's tender meditation on Christ's humanity as a lure for man's love for God offers a Christological gloss on Dante's construction of the figure of Beatrice. In the twentieth sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard says: “Whatever form it takes this image [of Christ's humanity] must bind the soul with the love of virtue and expel carnal vices, eliminate temptations and quiet desires.” God became man “to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity and then gradually raising them to a spiritual love.”4 It is precisely in this function that Beatrice is most Christlike.

Dante's approach to the final vision is staged sequentially, with the pilgrim gradually becoming a more adequate perceiver. While the object of his perception remains the same, it appears under different aspects: “Not because more than one simple semblance was in the Living Light wherein I was gazing, which ever is such as it was before; but through my sight, which was growing strong in me as I looked, one sole appearance, even as I changed, was altering itself to me” (33, 109–13). The philosophical vision of the totum simul, binding together “substance and accidents and their relations,” gives way to a geometrical and Trinitarian image of “three circles of three colors and one magnitude.” Dante's Trinity is seen in its inner relation, with the marvelous addition to orthodoxy of its “smiling upon itself” (33, 126). The pilgrim strains to perceive the mystery of Incarnation, how the image is fitted to the circle, the mystery celebrated in the canto's opening prayer to the Virgin and now yearned for. As Dante tells us what he cannot do, comparing himself to a geometer attempting to square a circle, a syntactical sleight suggests that he has already done so. What cannot happen has already happened: his mind has been smitten by a flash, and “already” his desire and will are revolving in the circular motion of the cosmic dance. Whatever the vision was, it takes place between the lines.

The last canto points in a number of directions, allowing readers to respond to its claims in different ways. Some critics focus on the lines preparatory to Dante's description of the vision which communicate the evanescence and fragility of the experience. “As he who dreaming sees, after the dream the passion remains imprinted and the rest returns not to the mind; such am I, for my vision almost wholly fades away, yet does the sweetness that was born of it still drop within my heart. Thus is the snow unsealed by the sun; thus in the wind, on the light leaves, the Sibyl's oracle was lost.” This sequence of images (which includes the last, and in some ways the most potent, of the poem's many Virgilian allusions) communicates the limits of language as well as of memory. It is the culmination, too, of a whole series of images of erasure and impermanence characteristic of the Paradiso. Others are drawn to the initial bookish vision of all that is scattered throughout the universe “bound with love in one volume,” finding it an inevitable correlative of the poem's own synthesizing achievement. The oscillation between these two compelling figures—one of dissolution and the other of preserved inclusion—constitutes the Paradiso's particular and paradoxical beauty.

Paradox, in fact, is constitutive of the Paradiso both theologically and poetically. Dante gravitates towards the central paradoxical formulations of Christian theology and explores them in a variety of ways. For example, two crucial questions raised in the opening cantos create fictional equivalents or versions of central theological concerns. Dante, following St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, wonders whether his journey is “in the body or out of it.” Upon entering the Moon he reformulates this doubt in more scholastic terms, “answering” the question of whether two bodies can occupy the same space by appealing to the principle of the Incarnation as another oxymoron which will ultimately be understood axiomatically, however incomprehensible or illogical it may be: “If I was body (and here we conceive not how one bulk [the moon] could brook another [Dante in the body] which must be if body enters body), the more should longing enkindle us to see that Essence wherein we behold how our nature and God united themselves. There that which we hold by faith shall be seen, not demonstrated, but known of itself like the first truth that man believes” (Paradiso 2, 31–43). Dante participates here in the tradition which celebrated the “incomprehensible” and “incredible” nature of the central paradoxical mysteries of Christian faith. If the question of how two bodies can occupy one space links Dante's journey with the theology of the Incarnation, the second question, whether one body can occupy more than one space, also has both representational and theological import. Dante's fiction that the souls appear in the spheres and yet are in the Empyrean recalls a persistent theological debate about how Christ can be both in heaven and present in the consecrated Host. Just as with the blessed, both things were said to be true in a suspension of natural law. When Dante enters the Empyrean, he defines it as the site of just such suspension: “where God governs without intermediary, natural law in no way prevails” (30, 122–23).

The suspension of natural law informs not only the theology, but also the linguistic practices and poetic freedoms of the Paradiso. These freedoms are evident in a variety of “effects,” such as Dante's increasingly arbitrary manipulation of natural imagery in supernatural terms. Natural phenomena are invoked, but often in unnatural ways. We are asked to imagine birds molting and exchanging feathers, or a snow storm in which the flakes drift upward, or a perpetual springtime “which nightly Aries does not despoil” (28, 116); we are invited to rearrange the stars in order to create new constellations (13, 1–21). The transformation of the natural into the supernatural is related to other freedoms that distinguish the verbal texture of this canticle with its abundant play on sounds, repetitions, puns, rhymes, and etymologies. “Much is granted to our faculties there that is not granted here” (1, 55–56), says Beatrice as she and Dante are about to begin their ascent. Just as the pilgrim is empowered by and moved towards the visionary experience, so the poet—despite all protestations of inadequacy—is unusually experimental and daring with language itself. The unprecedented number of neologisms gives the impression of the poet shaping, even sculpting, his language. Many of the neologisms proclaim the poet's freedom to refigure grammar: nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and even numbers are converted into verbs that stretch to communicate extraordinary states of being or of activity appropriate to the paradisal condition or to the divine. Many of these verbs use the prefix “in” to suggest the permeability of normal boundaries; others use the prefix “tras” (hapaxes such as “trasumanar,” “trasmodare,” “trasvolare”) as a marker of the excess, the going beyond, associated with paradisal privilege.

But the prefix “tras” also has an in malo aspect, insofar as transgression or its threat is always a possibility. “Trapassar il segno,” “going beyond the mark,” is, as we have seen, Adam's marvelously generic term for the Fall. Many times we are reminded of the potential for trespass in the poet's activity as well. The potentially transgressive nature of Dante's claims has become a major topic in contemporary readings of the poem, perhaps as a way to complicate and energize a discourse that had become monolithically pious in the wake of dominant theologizing readings. But there is no doubt that Dante is aware of the dangers inherent in his ambitions and claims, and that he would have to communicate that awareness in order to avoid the truly transgressive potential of claiming to speak for God.

If we look back from the Paradiso's conclusion to its opening terzina, we notice it posits the end point of the journey that it inaugurates, proclaiming the divine glory that both shines through and is reflected back through the universe.

La gloria di colui che tutto move
          per l'universo penetra, e resplende
          in una parte più e meno altrove.

(1, 1-3)

(The glory of the All-Mover penetrates through the universe and reglows in one part more, and in another less.)

The two verbs “penetra” and “risplende” imply the contrapuntal movements of Creator and creature, the outpouring of the unitary divine light into the multiplicity of creation, and the return of the creature to its Creator. The pilgrim's ascent to the divine is therefore a return to his origins, and origins are a recurrent subject throughout the Paradiso. The origins of empire are presented in Justinian's overview in canto 6, while those of Florence and of Dante himself are treated in the sphere of Mars. The heaven of the fixed stars treats the origins of the church and of man, while in the Primum Mobile, the place where time originates, the subject is the universe itself. This preoccupation with beginnings is also reflected in the way the origins of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, Benedictine monasticism, and the church itself are treated. Dante creates a sense of moving backward in time by presenting the key figures of the church and human history in reverse chronology: Francis and Dominic, Peter Damian, Benedict, Peter, the other apostles, and finally Adam.

We can observe a second contrapuntal feature in the poem's juxtaposition of cosmology and history. While the cosmological orderliness informs the journey with increasing beauty and joyfulness, the Paradiso is not only an exercise in harmonious celebration. The cosmic order is continuously traversed by the realities of historical violence, even historical despair, which flash before us in anecdotes, biographies, diatribes, and reflections. Saintly lives such as those of Francis, Dominic, Peter Damian, and Benedict are invoked as emblems of reformative energies, only to give way to stories of their ultimate inability to transform permanently the structures by which the world might be set aright. The cumulative effect of these and other similar declamations of failure and degeneration provides a negative counter thrust to the pilgrim's increasingly elating ascent. The two charges, positive and negative, alternate with compressed manic-depressive power in canto 27, where St. Peter's thunderous explosion against the corrupt papacy that has turned his seat into a sewer follows upon a rapturous description of the “smile of the universe.” Although Dante's theology of history insists on redemption in and through time, the Paradiso makes us aware of the corrosive effects of time in its narratives of good origins turning to bad effects, or of failed efforts such as that of Henry VII, “who will come to set Italy straight before she is ready” (30, 137–38).

Writing about the Paradiso it is tempting to list all the moments when the poem engages us in its process of making meaning. Space prevents such a catalogue, but let me close with an example of the poem's invitation to our own imaginative collaboration. Several times we are asked to envision the great patterns formed by the movements of the heavenly bodies across time and in “outer space.” In the first canto, Dante delineates the equinoctal setting of the action by translating it into a geometrical pattern (four circles and three crosses) that our notes may diagram, but that none of us could ever actually see. We are asked to perform a mental version of time-lapse photography in order to translate these temporal motions into spatial forms. Similarly, Dante invites us later to look up at the point where the ecliptic crosses the celestial equator at the equinox, the Chi in the sky that is its Creator's stamp. Like so many of the Paradiso's sights, this one can only be seen in the mind's eye. Dante not only asks the reader to look up at this point, but to “gaze lovingly [“vagheggiar”] at that Master's art who within Himself so loves it that His eye never turns from it.” The beautiful verb “vagheggiar” is the same one Dante uses to describe the fond gaze of the joyful Creator (“lieto fattore,” Purgatorio 16, 89) of the human soul. Dante's idea of the Creator is suffused by the sense of the happiness of the act of creation (repeatedly associated with the adjective “lieto”) and with the loving contemplation of its result. Something of this joyful energy also suffuses the poet's creation as well.

The Paradiso oscillates between statements of its daring originality and confessions of its impossibility, of the ineffability of its vision and of the inadequacies of language to render it. The simultaneous sense of victory and defeat within which the poem comes into being contributes to its paradoxical effects, generating the haunting pathos that subtends the poem's astonishing accomplishment.


  1. Itinerarium mentis in Deum, trans. Philotheus Boehner, Journey of the Mind to God (St. Bonavenure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1956), 2, 13, p. 61.

  2. Umberto Bosco and Giovanni Reggio, La Divina Commedia, Paradiso (Florence: Le Monnier, 1979), commentary to canto 14, p. 225.

  3. James Merrill, “Divine Poem,” in J. D. McClatchy, ed., Recitative: Prose by James Merrill (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), p. 91. Cf. Mark A. Peterson, “Dante and the 3-sphere,” American Journal of Physics 47, no. 12 (December 1979): 1031–35.

  4. “On the Song of Songs I,” in The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, II, trans. Kilian Walsh (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977), p. 152.

Reading List

Barolini, Teodolinda, “Dante's Heaven of the Sun as Meditation on Narrative,” Lettere italiane 40 (1988): 3–36.

Brownlee, Kevin, “Dante's Poetics of Transfiguration: The Case of Ovid,” Literature and Belief 5 (1985): 13–29.

Chiarenza, Marguerite, “The Imageless Vision,” Dante Studies 90 (1972): 77–92.

Chiavacci Leonardi, Anna, “‘Le bianche stole’: il tema della resurrezione nel Paradiso,” in Giovanni Barblan, ed., Dante e la Bibbia (Florence: Olschki, 1988).

Durling, Robert M., and Ronald L. Martinez, Time and the Crystal: Studies in Dante's Rime Petrose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), esp. pp. 224–58.

Ferrante, Joan M., “Word and Images in Dante's Paradiso: Reflections of the Divine,” in Aldo S. Bernardo and Anthony L. Pellegrini, eds., Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio (Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1983), pp. 115–32.

Foster, Kenelm, “The Celebration of Order: Paradiso X,” Dante Studies 90 (1972): 109–24.

———. “Dante's Vision of God,” in The Two Dantes and Other Studies (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977).

Freccero, John, “An Introduction to the Paradiso,” in Rachel Jacoff, ed., Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 209–20.

———. “Paradiso X: The Dance of the Stars,” in ibid., pp. 221–44.

Hawkins, Peter, “‘By Gradual Scale Sublimed’: Dante's Benedict and Contemplative Ascent,” in Timothy Gregory Verdon, ed., Monasticism and the Arts (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1984), pp. 255–69.

Jacoff, Rachel, “The Post-Palinodic Smile: Paradiso VIII and IX,” Dante Studies 98 (1980): 111–22.

———. “Sacrifice and Empire: Thematic Analogies in San Vitale and the Paradiso,” in Renaissance Studies in Honor of Craig Hugh Smyth (Florence: Giunti, 1985).

Kleiner, John, “The Eclipses in the Paradiso,Stanford Italian Review 9 (1991): 5–32.

Lansing, Richard, “Piccarda and the Poetics of Paradox: A Reading of Paradiso III,” Dante Studies 105 (1987): 63–74.

Mazzeo, Joseph Anthony, Structure and Thought in the Paradiso (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1958).

Mazzotta, Giuseppe, “Order and Transgression in the Divine Comedy,” in W. Ginsberg, ed., Ideas of Order in the Middle Ages (Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1990), pp. 1–21.

Merrill, James, “Divine Poem,” in J. D. McClatchy, ed., Recitative: Prose by James Merrill (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), pp. 87–95.

Murtagh, Daniel, “‘Figurando il Paradiso’: The Signs that Render Dante's Heaven,” PMLA 90 (March 1975): 277–84.

Schnapp, Jeffrey T., The Transfiguration of History at the Center of Dante's Paradise (Princeton University Press, 1986).


Essays and Criticism