The Divine Comedy: Paradiso, by Dante Alighieri
After Purgatory, Dante and his new guide, Beatrice, ascend into Heaven. According to Dante, Heaven exists in the cosmos and begins with the Moon. Heaven is arranged in concentric circles, or spheres, with earth in the center. At the time, this was the most prominent theory regarding the structure of the universe. The 9 Heavenly Spheres in Paradiso are structured around the 3 theological virtues and 4 cardinal virtues. The tenth “sphere” of heaven is God himself.
Moon: souls who were inconsistent with their faith
Mercury: souls that struggled with ambitiously meting out justice
Venus: souls that lacked temperance
Sun: souls who exemplified wisdom
Mars: souls who exemplified courage
Jupiter: sphere that embodies justice
Saturn: souls who practiced temperance (the ascetics)
Fixed Stars: characterized by the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity
Primum Mobile: The Angel’s sphere
Empyrean: God’s sphere
Paradiso is filled with discussions about theology, based exclusively on the work by the Italian philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. Like most great works of literature that survive the test of time, Dante’s Paradiso was completed just before his death.
Overall, I found Paradiso to be the most difficult of the 3 poems in Dante’s Divine Comedy to read. For me, it approached being cloy. A majority of the cantos contained challenging philosophical discussions, archaic interpretations about the structure of the universe, and contemporary figures that I was unfamiliar with. Therefore, it was difficult to finish. Despite the difficulty, I thought the ending was good, and I thought that it was worth reading.
Dante invokes Apollo, the chief Muse, to help write his poetry and explain the things that he sees. Despite invoking help from the gods, Dante still struggles to explain many of the sights in Paradiso. Dante and Beatrice supernaturally float above Earthly Paradise and enter Heaven. They float because, through Purgatory, the heaviness of sin was removed, so their bodies are light. Furthermore, there is a natural inclination for purified souls to gravitate towards God. The most sinful souls sink to the bottom of Hell, whereas the most pure rise towards God.
Dante and Beatrice rise “into” the first star, the Moon. Beatrice offers some theories about the moon, which we know today were incorrect. However, these theories demonstrate Dante’s thirst for knowledge and understanding, which are two of the Virtues.
Dante meets his first denizen of Heaven, Piccarda, who was a nun. She is in the first sphere of Heaven, and Dante inquires if she wishes to be in higher heavenly sphere. Piccarda replies that she is content right where she is, because her will is aligned with God’s will. Nevertheless, the souls in this sphere are fuzzy and difficult to discern, because these souls were inconsistent with their faith.
Beatrice anticipates two questions that Dante has, and she answers them before Dante is even able to speak. First, Dante wonders if Plato was correct by asserting that souls return to the stars after they die. He is trying to reconcile Christian and classical theology (theology established by Aristotle, Plato, Thomas, Socrates, etc.). Beatrice explains that Plato was not correct; the stars are just a way for mortal minds, which are severely limited, to envision heaven. All of the stars are actually in Heaven and part of God’s Kingdom. Heaven is a not a physical realm, which is how we picture it.
Dante wonders if it is possible for souls to atone for a broken vow. Beatrice answers by explaining that free will is the greatest gift God gave man, and that vows are only possible because of free will. She warns against breaking vows, because a vow is a covenant with God. After this discussion, Dante transcends to Mercury, the second Heavenly sphere. The souls in this sphere are eager to speak with Dante.
This canto is spoken entirely by the emperor Justinian, who speaks of Rome’s political history.
Dante has another question, but before he states the question, Beatrice already knows what he is going to ask. Dante wants to know about divine justice. Beatrice explains that the first man, Adam, sinned, and that God sent His Son, Jesus, to die on earth so that mankind could receive atonement for sin.
Dante travels to the third heavenly sphere, Venus. He asks one of the souls, “How from sweet seed can bitter issue forth?” In other words, why do people raised by good and kingly parents sometimes decline into poor behaviors. Charles, the soul, explains that every person is gifted with a unique and innate set of skills. However, people rebel against their innate abilities, and this leads them into unfavorable roles in society.
Still on Venus, Dante speaks with more souls. All of them are filled with joy.
Dante and Beatrice ascend to the fourth sphere, the sun, where they meet Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was a Roman Catholic Theologian. The sun contains souls that are wise.
At the beginning of this canto, Dante criticizes the silly things that our minds strive for, such as secular knowledge. Thomas Aquinas continues talking.
There are two circles of light surrounding Beatrice and Dante. Another soul, Bonaventure, emerges from the circle and speaks to Dante.
Thomas Aquinas speaks again and explains to Dante that King Solomon was the wisest king that ever lived, but not the wisest person. Adam and Jesus, who were created directly by God, were the wisest people that ever lived. The difference is that Adam and Jesus were created by God to be perfect, and that since Solomon was born as a sinful human, his wisdom was not as great as the wisdom in Adam and Jesus since they were born without sin.
King Solomon emerges to answer Beatrice’s next question, which ponders how souls are able to bear the radian light emitted by heaven and redeemed souls. Solomon argues that when a soul is resurrected, it’s tolerance for light increases. After this, Beatrice and Dante ascend to Mars, the fifth heavenly sphere.
On Mars, there are images and songs that Dante is unable to describe. One of Dante’s ancestors, Cacciaguida, speaks to Dante and discusses the decline of Florence. One of the themes in “The Divine Comedy” is the decline of Italy and the church.
Cacciaguida speaks more about his family and Italy.
While descending through Hell, Virgil alluded to Dante’s misfortunes when he returned to earth. Therefore, Dante inquires of Cacciaguida about his future. Cacciaguida explains that Dante will be exiled from Florence, but he will find refuge with Lombard. Cacciaguida also encourages Dante to write about his experiences in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise exactly as they happened.
Finally, Cacciaguida concludes by naming many of the figures that form the cross-shaped lights in this heavenly sphere. Dante and Beatrice ascend suddenly to the sixth sphere, Jupiter. Jupiter is the sphere of justice, and the souls here shape themselves into an eagle’s head.
The eagle speaks as a single voice, responding to Dante’s question before he is even able to ask it. The eagle explains that humankind should not be concerned about injustice in the world. God will punish all of the wicked and evil men. We cannot fathom God’s plans, but we can be assured that God will mete out justice to the wicked.
Inside the eagle’s eye, Dante sees King David. Dante also sees other figures in the eagle’s face, two of which are unsaved. The eagle explains that these two figures were actually redeemed by God. God is ultimately good, and His will does not depend on men.
Beatrice is so beautiful that she cannot smile. If she smiled and Dante looked at her, then Dante would burn to ashes. They ascend to the seventh heavenly sphere, Saturn, which holds the ascetics. On Saturn, there is a ladder that reaches upwards, and souls are descending from the ladder. One of the souls speaks to Dante and explains that the topic of predestination is to difficult for human minds to understand. Not only can Dante not see Beatrice smile, but he also can’t understand predestination, he can’t see the top of the ladder, and he can’t hear the beautiful music. Although he is nearly at the top of heaven, he is still unable to see and understand the light that is God.
In this canto, Dante meets the soul of Benedict. After Benedict briefly speaks, Dante and Beatrice climb the latter to the eighth heavenly sphere, the Fixed Stars. Beatrice encourages Dante to look down at the earth and see how far he’s come. He obliges and is amazed by how small and insignificant earth looks.
Dante sees a blindingly bright light, who is Christ. He also sees the star that holds Mary. The stars in this sphere are so bright that they have the effect of enabling Dante to look upon Beatrice’s smile without turning to ashes. Also, the Angel Gabriel also introduces himself to Dante.
Beatrice gives permission to one of the souls to quiz Dante regarding his faith. St. Peter asks Dante, “What is faith?” Dante responds with a quote from Paul, “Faith is substantial to the things we hope, the evidence of things we do not see.” Next, St. Peter asks Dante what evidence of faith do we have? Dante responds that our evidence exists in the Holy Spirit and the Bible, and that we can believe the Bible because it is based on miracles, and that any argument other than the Bible, is more unbelievable than the Bible itself. In other words, is the best worse answer we have.
Dante recognizes that his poem, The Divine Comedy, will be preserved for eternity, and he hopes that it is sufficient for him to be welcomed back into Florence. Next, another light, James, questions Dante about hope. Dante answers that, “Hope is that sure expectation of glory that will come.”
Next, John questions Dante regarding love. Dante responds that love is the thing that your heart is pointing at, and for him, God is the aim of all his desires. After John, the first Man, Adam, speaks to Dante about his expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Peter, like others in Heaven, laments about the deterioration of the Catholic church. Then, Dante and Beatrice ascend to the ninth heavenly sphere, the Primum Mobile. Beatrice explains that the Primum Mobile is the most outer sphere of heaven, and it controls the spinning motion of all the other spheres. In classical astronomy, Ptolemy espoused the theory that the earth was the center of the universe and that all other planets rotated around the earth. In this Ptolemaic system, the Primum Mobile was the outer most concentric sphere. Obviously, modern astronomy has proved that the geocentric model proposed by Ptolemy is incorrect, and the earth is not actually the center of the universe. However, it reflects Dante’s understanding of the universe in 1300.
In the Primum Mobile, Dante sees a blindingly bright light that is surrounded by nine concentric circles. Beatrice explains that the bright light in the center is God, and that is each of the concentric circles is a rank of angels. The angels in the inner circles can see God more clearly and have closer relationships with God. The angels are organized as:
God, who is in the center
There are many theories regarding the hierarchy of heaven, most Biblical scholars agree that a hierarchy exists. Dante’s interpretation of the hierarchy comes partly from Ephesians 1:21 and Colossians 1:16.
Beatrice speaks about Creation and the Fall. Then, she warns against earthly preachers and philosophers who are more focused on putting on a good show, rather than the true message of the Gospel. It is dangerous to speculate about the Bible’s meaning on particular theological issues, because this can lead to perverting the truth of Christianity. I think this is so true! I think that people too easily get confused on irrelevant theological issues. They spend too much energy speculating about matters that are irrelevant, when they should instead focus on how to live a life that pleases God.
Dante and Beatrice arrive at the highest level of Heaven, the Empyrean, which is pure light. When Dante’s vision adjusts, he sees verdant hills, ruby red flowers, and a brilliant river. Beatrice explains that these images are not real; they are the only way that God can communicate the beauty of Heaven to a mortal man. Beatrice instructs Dante to drink from the river in order to improve his vision. He sees thousands and thousands of angels.
Beatrice takes her seat among the angels, and Dante is introduced to Bernard, who will guide Dante through the remaining cantos. Dante is extremely grateful that Beatrice saved him from sin and guided him through Heaven and Hell. Then, Dante looks upon the Virgin Mary, who is the Queen of Heaven.
Bernard introduces many of the figures that exist in the Empyrean, including Eve, Rachel, Leah, Ruth, Moses, and John the Baptist.
In the final canto, Dante sees God. Bernard asks the Virgin Mary to allow Dante to see into the light that is God. Dante peers into the bright light, and as his vision adjusts, he is able to discern three circles and supposedly sees a human figure. The three circles represent God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All of Dante’s desire is for “The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” In other words, once a person sees God, that person is fully consumed by Him.