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A Backgrounder For Dante’s Paradiso

A reader sends this lengthy but very, very helpful essay by Peter Kalkavage about Dante’s ParadisoIf you aren’t reading it, or even if you are, this is a great overview of the canticle, and a backgrounder for what’s going on in it, symbolically and narratively. Excerpts:

Order is everywhere in the Comedy. It is the permeation of the universe by divine intelligence and love. It is why the poem is a comedy. In the tragic view of life, we are not placed in the world but “thrown.” There is no order, no divine guidance, no proper place of things, no hope. There is only happening, suffering, and death. Dante’s poem seeks to defeat this tragic view by fiercely championing world-order grounded in divine goodness and wisdom. His term for this order is monarchia—monarchy or rule of the One. Order is precise. It must be so in order to be order. This precision is a source of joy. World-order, for Dante, is like a beautiful piece of music, a work by Palestrina or Bach, in which everything has been so perfectly adjusted that it is impossible to change a single note without ruining the whole. The comic victory over the tragic view of life—the triumph, one might say, of music—is signaled in all sorts of ways as we reach higher regions of Paradise. At one point the universe itself appears to smile (27.4-5)


Vergil is Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory, Beatrice through Heaven. How, then, does Beatrice guide? Clearly she guides, as Vergil did, by her enlightened speech. But she also guides because Dante is in love with her. She guides by her adorable aspect. This aspect has its focal point in Beatrice’s eyes. Throughout the Paradiso Dante lays special emphasis on the eyes of Beatrice. Her eyes are an image of the intellect in its highest capacity. They represent insight or the immediate apprehension of truth. This is the intuitive knowledge that angels have. We are not told what the eyes physically look like—their color, shape, and so forth. What is important is that they are firmly fixed, like the eye of an eagle, on God and on that point of the highest Heaven from which Beatrice has descended. Her gaze leads her lover not by a return gaze but by directing his gaze upward and beyond Beatrice herself. The ray of his vision must coalesce with hers. As Beatrice at one point tells Dante: “Not only in my eyes is Paradise” (28.21). The eyes of Beatrice are a corrective to the potentially obsessive character of romantic love. Such love can lead its devotees to seek Heaven in themselves alone, to make a heaven of their private desire and passion. The sad fruit of this kind of love is evident in the second circle of Hell, the circle of lust, where the lovers Paolo and Francesca are whipped around in an eternal storm. The eyes of Beatrice lead Dante away from this fate. They give his mind its proper focus and open him up to the whole of things and to the good of that whole. The eyes of Beatrice are the image of love as education. The image teaches us that to be “in love” is to be aroused by the presence of God in another human being, and that the whole point of love is to see more clearly the source and principle that is the cause of that love.

I love these lines:

The striking image reminds us that Heaven is a depth as well as a height, and that souls here are not so much soberly placed as passionately immersed. They are eternally drunk on the wine of their happiness.

A crucial point:

Weakness of will in the Paradiso is related to the broader theme of spiritual capacity. Souls were not made equal with respect to any of their capacities. No one human being excels at all things. Excellence itself in any one thing varies among its possessors in both degree and kind. Among the greatest composers, for example, one stands out for his beautiful counterpoint, the musical interweaving of individual vocal lines, another for his divinely inspired melodies. Creation is fine-tuned: “star differs from star in glory.” To insist on egalitarian leveling is to wish that Creation be undone. Deficiency in the lowest three degrees of Paradise is therefore different from the deficiency caused by sin. Sin is a distortion of our nature, whereas grades in Heaven manifest nature, that is, the specific nature of each individual among the blessed. Piccarda had only so much lungpower. She could take in only so much of the Holy Spirit—God’s spiritus or breath. So it is with each of us. If you offered Piccarda the chance to be higher up, she would be the first to tell you that this would destroy rather than increase her happiness. In Heaven she has perfect self-knowledge. Her very humility is a form of knowledge. She does not merely believe that she is limited but rather knows and celebrates her limit. She knows, furthermore, that this limit is bound up with the person God made Piccarda to be. If there were no limits, there would be no individual natures, no personality. To want Piccarda to want more is to wish that she did not exist.

Please do read the whole thing. I’m grateful to the reader who sent in the link.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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