Series Index

John Ciardi’s Translation of the Commedia

Analogy and Allegory

More than in the first two Canticles, Dante spends a great share of his lines in Paradiso telling us, the readers, that he has no business writing this poem.  In the opening canto Dante denies that he has the knowledge to make sense of what happens among the blessed or the power even to see what’s actually happening in Heaven, and if those deficiencies aren’t enough, Dante notes that he may or may not have been experiencing Paradise in an out-of-body vision.  He’s just not sure.

Once again I’m noticing these things across Cantos that I didn’t necessarily pay heed to before: rarely does the pilgrim say that his descriptions in the Inferno are mere approximations, though he does note more than once that the horror of the scene overwhelms his ability to communicate the emotional experience.  Likewise, in Purgatorio, the pilgrim stops to remind the reader that this is an allegory a few times, but only in Paradiso does Dante work so hard to distance the words on the page from the reality beyond the page.

I imagine a good deal of Paradiso‘s particular reticence is philosophical in character.  After all, Dante is a careful disciple of Boethius, and the notoriously brain-melting fourth and fifth books of Consolation of Philosophy articulate in loving detail all the ways in which notions of evil, of fate, of free will, and of divine knowledge are contradictory in nature.  And the glory of Boethius (as opposed to some of his latter-day popularizers) is that he doesn’t take the edge off of one pole of the contradiction in order to make things more palatable.  Divine knowledge must be entirely comprehensive, and free will must remain totally intact, and both of those cannot be true at the same time, and both of those must be true.  And they must be so at the same time.  The same holds for the real effects and the non-existent causes of evil, the simultaneous goodness and badness of every human event, and the nonsensical necessity of prayer.  Since Dante is a worthy heir of the Consolation, he’s careful to note that, where Inferno is merely subhuman and thus intelligible but unpleasant, and where Purgatorio is a well-ordered extension of mortal existence, Paradiso must by definition fly beyond the reach of the very-human epic genre or even the philosophical dialogue.

And the contradictions fly in the early run of the Paradiso: the souls there are all equally close to God, yet they exist in a hierarchy of zeal and capacity for divine love.  Each is aware that others receive greater or lesser shares of divine radiance, yet none could imagine receiving more or less divine radiance than she or he does.  Rome had to punish Jerusalem for killing Jesus, yet God ordained Jesus’s death in Jerusalem.  And so on.  Beatrice and the other blessed souls offer explanations of the contradictions to Dante as the poem rolls on, but the fact remains that the explanations do not render the reality non-contradictory so much as they show with greater clarity the particular form of each contradiction.

The Radiance of the Intellect

Following a medieval, post-Ptolemaic cosmology, Dante presents the realm of unchanging divine glory in terms of spheres, one for each planet, starting with the moon and including the sun, and one for the fixed spheres, the stars that do not wander relative to each other.  And although the saved exist in eternal relationship to God and to each other in a reality where spatial interval does not translate into temporal delay (more on that later), for the sake of his soul, the redeemed do present themselves differentiated by sphere as he travels away from earth, the zealous in the sphere of Mercury and those most ardent in divine love in Venus.  When Dante reaches the sun, the sphere in which the poem spends the most time, the souls there are the heroes of the intellect, the writers and the thinkers who Dante recognizes as his masters in the life of the mind.

For me, and I imagine for most modern readers, this is the sphere of Paradise where we recognize the most people.  After all, few of us could name more than one commander of the Crusaders or more than a handful of medieval mystics (and I’m sure one of those few will try to correct me on this point), but in the twenty-first century, if one reads Dante, odds are one has at least passing familiarity with Thomas Aquinas, John Chrysostom, the Venerable Bede, and other such writers.  After all, there’s a fair chance that these folks, the teachers of the Church, showed up alongside Dante in some sort of Great-Books curriculum some time in our past.  So the grand assembly of philosophers and theologians and lawyers and historians and preachers in this heavenly display is fun to behold for us, the late-arriving bookish sorts.

What I notice more than I did before, here at the outset of my seventh year as a professor, is the appreciation that Thomas and Bonaventure have for scholars who differed greatly from themselves in the world of the living.  Tribal enmity between intellectuals showed up long before universities did, and part of the vision of Paradise that Dante sets forth is an appreciation for the goodness of those thinkers who think differently.  My sense is that, for Dante, the mere alterity is not the point the way it might be for certain postmodern temperaments: entities that differ might well differ because one is good and the other is bad, after all, and Dante is far too careful to praise the bad as if it were good.  But the sphere of the sun reminds us that goodness, as an infinite God gives goodness, has the potential to unfold into great arrays of radiant difference, the sort that makes both Dominicans and Franciscans good and faithful servants without necessarily granting that every possible intellectual tradition is likewise good (remember the materialists in the Inferno?).

So once again Dante presents his readers with another grand contradiction, not to solve as if this were algebra class but to narrate and appreciate and meditate and articulate.  Because divine love always desires goodness, not the privation of goodness, not every way of thinking is going to be good thinking.  And because divine love is infinite, the possible forms of good thinking are infinite.

Yes, both of those cannot be true at the same time.

Yes, both must be true at the same time.

You’re welcome.

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