Dante Summary Part 3: Paradiso
The Divine Comedy is much more than just an interesting medieval text about Christianity. It’s really, really well-written. Dante’s poetry still feels intense and immediate, even after seven hundred years, even when it’s talking about the planets in a way that seems strange to modern readers. In Paradiso, for example, Dante and Beatrice ascend through the nine spheres of the Universe and then pass into the Empyrean beyond the boundary of time and space – and Dante makes every sphere feel more joyful and radiant than the previous one. Every time Dante seems to have reached his limit, he finds a way to make his next description even more extraordinary. Dante’s joy is his reward for the hardships of his journey up to this point. And at the same time, Beatrice explains more and more about the workings of God and the Universe, so everything that Dante has seen makes more and more sense, and the reader is gripped by the idea that they are receiving the same revelation as Dante. After the horrors of Hell and the hardships of Purgatory, we finally understand the secrets of the Christian Universe.
In Dante’s theology, the Earth is at the centre of the Universe, surrounded by a series of heavenly spheres like the layers of an onion. Dante, with Beatrice, must visit each of the ten Heavens in turn, from lowest to highest, as his comprehension expands and he passes through each stage of revelation. This is continuously symbolised by Dante’s increasing ability, in each sphere, to see yet more of Beatrice’s beauty and the ever-more-pervading light of the Lord, as he is successively prepared for higher visions. As Dante is still mortal, he has limitations: he perceives the souls in Paradise to be on different spheres according to their rank, only at the end seeing them united in fellowship with God in the Empyrean; he lacks the omniscience and the ability to read minds of the other souls; and his memory cannot cope and struggles to recall reflections of divine splendour that surpass earthly understanding.
On each sphere as his comprehension is widened and he moves closer to God, this is partly achieved through knowledge and theological understanding: Dante is educated about the fundamental nature of Creation, and the reader is instructed as well, as this is the most important part of the prophetic message which Dante must spread on Earth. There are regular denunciations of earthly corruption by heavenly figures, continuing Dante’s original theme of the rotten state of Italy, but such blinkered concerns are largely transcended in Paradise. Dante stresses that individuality is not lost in Heaven, but perfected, and therein lies the glory of the salvation of humanity: every soul in Paradise offers a love which is unique and wonderful.
Beatrice gazes into the sun, and Dante does too. Because of his enhanced faculties, he seems to see the sky filled with the sun’s fire, and he hears the heavenly music of the spheres. Seeing his amazement, Beatrice says they have left the earth and are rising towards the heavens at incredible speed. Dante asks how this is possible, and says that the soul naturally tends towards God, and now that Dante is unshackled from his earthly preoccupations, his soul is free to soar.
Dante finds that he and Beatrice have ascended into the First Sphere, that of the moon, and they are inside the moon itself. Dante takes the opportunity to ask the explanation for the spots on the moon which can be seen from earth. Beatrice shows the errors of his earthly understanding, rebutting his ideas with scientific analysis. Then she unveils an aspect of the workings of Providence: Space can only be understood in spiritual terms. God and Paradise exist in the Empyrean, outside the spheres of the universe but enveloping it. The outer sphere, the Crystalline, presses against the Empyrean and is infused by God’s love. This love, as it soaks through the Crystalline, is directed and given various qualities by the penultimate sphere, that of the stars. From the stars to the centre of the universe – the earth – the heavenly qualities filter down as determined by the stars. Thanks to the will of the angels, this imbues each of the seven other heavenly spheres with their particular celestial qualities, and all these spheres and divine impulses influence earthly existence.
Dante sees spirits nearby, as faint as reflections. They are on the lowest sphere of the heavens because they lapsed in their vows during life. Dante speaks with Piccarda Donati, sister of Forese and Corso (see Purgatorio XXIV). Dante asks whether she is content to be on this lowest sphere, and Piccarda says that her will is one with God’s and so she is joyful of her place. She explains that she ended up here after being removed from her nunnery by evil men – implicitly Corso.
Beatrice clears up two areas of confusion for Dante. Firstly, all saved souls are in the Empyrean for all eternity, and none of them have greater or lesser access to the fruits of Paradise. But because the human faculties are limited that they perceive divine things imperfectly. Secondly, just because Piccarda was reluctant to leave the nunnery, and did so because of the evil of others, was not enough to pardon her fault: ultimately, she let it happen to her rather than fully resisting.
Mercury and Venus
In response to Dante’s question about whether a broken vow can be compensated for by other good deeds, Beatrice says that free will is the supreme gift to humanity, so a vow – a voluntary suspension of free will – is a supreme sacrifice, worth more in God’s eyes than alternative offerings. The actual matter of the vow may be changed by remittances, but the new form of the vow must be weightier than the original vow. However, it’s better to break a vow than to commit a worse crime – such as killing one’s daughter – to keep it. After this, they zoom up to the Second Sphere, that of Mercury, and as its souls approach Dante asks them questions.
This is the only canto narrated entirely by one speaker – in this case Justinian, the Roman/Byzantine Emperor who oversaw the sixth-century reconquest of Italy. He talks about the glorious history of the Roman Empire and its great Christian destiny. This is an opportunity to condemn the pro- and anti-Imperial factions in Dante’s Italy, because they are all subverting this destiny. The Sphere of Mercury, Justinian explains, is for souls who did good but whose motives were too self-interested.
Anticipating Dante’s next question, Beatrice explains how the Crucifixion was simultaneously a just penalty against humanity’s sin, and a crime against Christ which itself deserved punishment. Beatrice goes on to explain how only sin can cut off an immortal soul from its direct link to God. Because humanity used its fee will to fall into sin, it could only be saved by God pardoning it – and undermining our free will – or by humanity saving itself. Since it was impossible for humanity on its own to give satisfaction for original sin, God gave Himself, in the form of Christ, to enable us to save ourselves. So the Resurrection lets us keep our free will and also attain redemption.
The Third Sphere is Venus, where Dante encounters Charles Martel – whom Dante believed would have brought harmony to Italy if he had not died prematurely. The rest of his royal family has caused disorder and disaster, and Charles Martel explains that human nature and destiny is determined by Providence rather than by one’s family.
The souls in Venus are the third-lowest rank in Heaven because their love was marred by wantonness. Two of them – Cunizza and Folco – speak to Dante. They no longer repent of their errors because their fault is already cleansed – instead they joyfully contemplate God. There are more digs at the terrible state of Florence and Italy.
Thomas Aquinas and the Sun
Dante and Beatrice appear in the Fourth Sphere, that of the sun. Dante emphasises the joy, light and love which are interchangeable symbols of each other and which have been increasing with each sphere. Thomas Aquinas is there, and he lists to Dante the wise scholars, religious leaders and theologians who inhabit this sphere.
Aquinas, a Dominican, tells Dante the story of St Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans, presenting it as a love story between Francis and Poverty. He describes St Francis as a font of love, the founder of a brilliant order and a worthy prince of the Church. Then he ends by criticising the modern decadence of his fellow Dominicans.
To repay Aquinas’s compliments, St Bonaventura, a Franciscan, tells the story of St Dominic, who founded the Dominican order to which Aquinas belonged. The Franciscans and the Dominicans were the twin orders that changed the face of Catholicism in Italy in the thirteenth century. The story of St Dominic emphasises his vigour, his service to the cause of truth, and his zeal – a different, complementary character to St Francis’s love and humility. Bonaventura ends by criticising the modern errors of his fellow Franciscans.
Dante emphasises how far beyond earthly comprehension the joy and splendour of Heaven is. Thomas Aquinas had earlier referred to King Solomon as being granted vision of no equal, but he detects that Dante is puzzled by this claim. Aquinas explains how all Creation is varied and imperfect because of the way it is made of matter that is filtered down from the higher spheres. The only exceptions are Christ and Adam, whose creations were direct from God and therefore perfect. Aquinas explains, rather pedantically, that he meant Solomon had his vision granted rather than being inherent to his Creation. He follows up with a warning about rushing to hasty conclusions.
Solomon explains to Dante that when, on Judgement Day, the souls are reunited with their bodies, this will increase their joy and splendour, and their faculties will be strong enough not to be dazzled by each other’s light as Dante’s mortal eyes currently are. Then Beatrice and Dante ascend into the Fifth Sphere, Mars, where they see souls forming the shape of a fiery cross.
One of the souls approaches like a meteor and reveals himself to be Dante’s great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida. Caccciaguida tells Dante about the ideal Florence of his day, of modesty and virtue, contrasting it with the moral ruin of Florence in 1300. The sphere of Mars is for the warrior-saints, and Cacciaguida tells of how he was martyred while on crusade.
Dante cannot resist feeling proud of his ancestor, even though he acknowledges that family greatness can quickly decline. Cacciaguida says that most of Florence’s problems stem from the influx of new citizens from nearby villages as Florence’s population swelled, so that the population became an unhealthy mixture and the city became characterised by a new vulgarity. Then Cacciaguida lists the great Florentine families of his day, many of whom have indeed declined or brought evil upon Dante’s Florence.
Dante asks what his future holds. Cacciaguida tells him about his exile and the hardships that will come with it. He tells Dante he will find refuge with the della Scala family in Verona, and that Cangrande della Scala will become a great hero for the cause of good in Italy. Dante’s prophetic mission – to write about his journey and deliver its truth to his contemporaries – is emphasised.
Cacciaguida points out prominent warrior-saints among the spirits making up the cross. Then Beatrice and Dante ascend to the Sixth Sphere, Jupiter, for the just rulers. The spirits up here collectively form the letters that spell, in Latin, “Love Justice, ye that judge the earth.” Then they gather together to make the shape of an eagle.
The eagle speaks to Dante as a single unity, even though it is composed of all the souls of the just kings: Justice is a single, divine concept which subsumes them all. Dante asks why it is that virtuous non-Christians can deserve to be cut off from God’s love in the afterlife. The eagle responds that Dante must trust Divine Justice, even when its workings are beyond comprehension: since it is the only true standard of justice, it cannot be faulty. Then the eagle condemns the injustices under Europe’s current rulers.
The eagle speaks with one voice again, to say that the souls that comprise its eye are the best of all. They are David, Hezekiah, Constantine, King William the Good… and the Emperor Trajan and a Trojan called Ripheus. The eagle explains that Trajan was brought back to life and converted to Christianity. Meanwhile Ripheus was so worthy that by divine grace he perceived the coming redemption of humanity and became a Christian a thousand years early.
Saturn and the Stars
Dante and Beatrice ascend into the Seventh Sphere, which houses Saturn and the Contemplatives. In this sphere, souls go up and down a golden ladder. They are getting close to God: here Beatrice does not smile, and the souls do not sing, because the radiant power and beauty would be too much for Dante’s faculties to handle. Peter Damian, a monk, comes to converse with Dante. Then a great cry overwhelms Dante’s senses.
Beatrice reassures Dante and he speaks to St Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order. Dante asks to see his face unveiled by the splendour of its dazzling lights, and Benedict says this will only be possible in the Empyrean, the true heaven. Benedict rails against the degeneracy of monks in Dante’s day. Beatrice encourages Dante to climb the great stairway and then to look down on earth, which seems tiny and insignificant far below.
Dante and Beatrice rise to the Eighth Sphere, which contains the stars. Dante has been strengthened by what he has seen so that he is now strong enough to bear Beatrice’s wondrous smile. The light of the Virgin Mary appears and overawes Dante.
St Peter the Apostle comes forth to examine Dante on the subject of faith. The test take a the form of an oral university exam. First Peter asks the nature of faith, then whether Dante has it, and why he has it. Dante answers confidently, as his journey has reinforced his Christian faith, and he passes St Peter’s exam.
St James appears in order to examine Dante on the subject of hope. Once again Dante is able to answer all of the questions, and he passes the test. His place is taken by St John, and in his dazzling presence Dante loses the power of sight.
St John examines Dante on the subject of love. Armed with the reason and revelation he has acquired through his journey, Dante passes this third and final exam with flying colours, and his sight is restored even better than before. Adam appears and converses with Dante.
The Edge of the Universe
St Peter denounces the sin and corruption of the modern Church. Dante takes another look at the earth far below, and then he is whisked into the Ninth Sphere, the Crystalline, the edge of the universe. From here, the movements of the other spheres – and even time itself – originate. Beatrice says that currently mortals are filled with degeneracy as soon as they leave childhood, but the day is coming when the forces of love emanating from the Crystalline will set the world to rights.
Dante sees a piercing point of light, with nine circles of fire around it. Beatrice explains that these represent the nine ranks of angel, orbiting God’s love. The innermost circle, the Seraphim, belongs to the largest of the spheres, the Crystalline, because the sphere needs to be bigger to hold more love and joy. The vision of the angels, therefore, is an inversion of the shape of the universe, where the outermost layers are the most holy.
Beatrice tells Dante more about the angels, and about their creation at the same time as the Universe. She makes a digression to criticise preachers’ tales which contribute nothing except entertainment to the truth of scripture.
The True Paradise
Beatrice and Dante pass out of the universe, beyond the bounds of time and space itself, to the Empyrean, the true paradise, which envelops the world. Dante drinks from a river of light, which enables his faculties to fully comprehend the staggering, dazzling sight of the final heaven. All the spirits are gathered in a vast white rose-shape, infinitely happy and immortal, and their shining light bathes Dante with its intense power. Even here, Beatrice manages to get in a dig at the corrupt popes who will soon be in Hell.
Dante gazes at the rose of souls and the host of angels flying around them. He turns to discover that Beatrice’s place by his side has been taken by St Bernard. Bernard points out where Beatrice is now, amidst the holy throng. He prepares Dante for the next sight, then guides Dante’s eyes to it: the Virgin Mary herself, outshining all the other spirits.
Bernard points out some of the most esteemed souls in the white rose. He explains that different souls have earned different ranks, and we must trust to the divine justice of this.
Bernard prays to Mary to give Dante strength to gaze into the light of God Himself. Finally Dante is ready for this climactic moment of his journey, and he looks into the light. This light is so powerful it overwhelms Dante’s memory and his ability to express the wonder of what he sees; but he perceives three shining circles, representing the Trinity, and feels himself consumed utterly by “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”