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Onward & Upward with Dante

Thomas Albert (Tal) Howard on the Paradiso as Light for the Christian Mind

Dorothy Sayers once quipped that attempting to grasp Dante's Divine Comedy only from reading the Inferno would be like understanding Paris only through its sewer system. Unfortunately, if students are even assigned Dante in high school or college these days, it is usually the Inferno, possibly some bits of the Purgatorio, and rarely ever the Paradiso.

This is a pity because Dante reserves some of his richest insights for the Paradiso: it is at once a primer and an advanced course in medieval Christian theology, a lavish commentary on the education and ascent to glory of the Christian mind.

Having left behind his former guide, the poet Virgil, Dante is now led by Beatrice, his adolescent crush transmuted into a symbol of divine love. This "sweet guide" (la dolce guida) skillfully leads him through the heavenly spheres according to Ptolemy's model of the solar system, until he reaches the Empyrean, the abode of God, angels, and all saved souls. There he glimpses, ever so briefly, "eternal Light" itself, the "Goodness that is infinite," "the Love that moves the Sun and all the other stars." Words fail him; the epic ends.

Along the way, Dante, the protagonist, grows in understanding. He is quizzed on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love; he learns about angels' mysterious ways; he ponders free will; he meditates on various doctrines; and he chats with saints such as Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, and Bonaventure. All the while his love of and gratitude for Beatrice/Divine Love waxes and waxes as his longing soul prepares for the beatific vision itself. At one point, Beatrice dares not smile lest her incandescent good looks reduce Dante to ashes, for "my beauty [she says] . . . / flames up more brilliantly the higher we ascend / the stairs of this eternal palace."

Bloated Shepherds & Pestilential Rulers

Dante's well-known criticism of church and state continues in the Paradiso—in spades. In words that would have impressed Martin Luther, Dante assails the avaricious, "bloated" shepherds of the Church; "their fur-lined mantles hang upon their horses' flanks." In Rome, "the Gospels and the lofty doctors are neglected" while the Curia preoccupy themselves with the minutia of canon law: to this preoccupation, "the pope and his cardinals devote themselves, / without a single thought of Nazareth, where Gabriel spread out his wings."

In the realm of Jupiter, symbolic of God's sovereign justice, Dante catalogs the good and bad rulers of his day, listing among the latter a "pestilential dozen," guilty of pride, greed, cowardice, and "utter worthlessness." Awash in political malfeasance and incapable of finding a cure, Italy, in Dante's judgment, was "bewitched by blind cupidity," making it like an "infant, dying of hunger, / who shoves his nurse's breast away." But this debased world—"this little patch of earth that makes us . . . so fierce"—grows fainter and fainter as the poet ascends the heavens.

Piccarda's Story

Some of the most touching moments of the poem, however, occur in the sub-solar realm—the lower spheres of the moon, Mercury, and Venus. Saved souls are present here, to be sure, for these areas, too, constitute part of paradise. But the saintliest of saints these are not. They are Christians who have not always led exemplary lives, who have experienced failures and setbacks, difficulties and frustrations. Most of us can probably identify with them best of all.

The story of Piccarda, a nun who had neglected her vows, is especially poignant. Dante encounters her in the lunar sphere and wonders if she is content there and would not rather "desire to achieve a higher place, where you / might see still more and make yourselves more dear?"

Smiling, as all saved souls do, Piccarda responds that envy and preoccupation with rank and status play no role in paradise: "Brother," she says, "the power of love subdues our will / so that we long for only what we have and thirst for nothing else," adding movingly: "And in His will is our peace."

To Glimpse the Smile

For wounded souls in search of peace, for theological novices and experts alike, Dante's Paradiso instructs and delights, inviting each of us to up our desire for final sanctity, to educate our soul for its true end.

Yes, Paris's sewers might have their own dark charm and important lessons. But ascend from them and take a look at the city itself. At one point, in fact, Dante likens paradise to a "city with its vast expanse." Beholding it all, Dante muses: "It seemed to me I saw the universe smile."

After finishing the Inferno and Purgatorio, do not grow faint; follow Dante's ascent, and you, too, might glimpse this smile. 

Thomas Albert Howard is professor of humanities and holder of the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. He is the editor of The Idea of Tradition in the Late Modern World (Cascade, 2020).

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