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).

more on literature from the online archives

30.2—March/April 2017

Rescuing Cervantes

on Reading Don Quixote in Its Original Christian Context by Luis Cortest

30.5—Sept/Oct 2017

The Unforgotten

on Costly Grace in Breece D'J Pancake's Flyover Country by Casey Chalk

32.2—March/April 2019

The Problem of Pity

Misguided Mercy & Dante's Infernal Purgation by Joshua Hren

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone

• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!

personal subscriptions

Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

RENEW your online subscription

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

RENEW your print/online

gift subscriptions

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!

RENEW your gift subscription

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.

more from the online archives

34.1—January/February 2021

Fighting for Love

What the World Needs Now It Hardly Knows by Anthony Esolen

32.1—January/February 2019

The Life of Sean

on Down Syndrome & the Lives That Matter by David F. Watson

30.6—Nov/Dec 2017

The Great Divorce

Christianity & the Liberal Society by James Hitchcock