Home/Rod Dreher/Paradiso, Canto I

Paradiso, Canto I

Illustration by Michael Hogue
Illustration by Michael Hogue

So, on to Paradise with Dante and Beatrice. This morning I did a word count of the Lenten Purgatorio blogging I did on this site, thanks to the reader who put all my Purgatorio blogs into a single Word file. Get this: the entire thing came out to 64,000 words. The average book is 90,000 words. If you read all the Purgatorio blogs, you got two thirds of the way through a book. Wild. When I get into the groove, blogging something that makes me passionate, I lose track of how much I write. Nothing in my life as a writer has excited me as much as Dante. This is a warning to you now, at the outset of our Paradiso journey: Abandon all hope of brevity, ye who enter here. 

The story so far: Dante, the pilgrim, rescued from the dark wood of confusion, impotence, and despair by Virgil, sent as an emissary of Heaven, has walked through Hell and climbed the mountain of Purgatory. His trek through Inferno awakened him to the reality of sin: its nature, its effects, and its eternal consequences. His ascent of the mountain taught him humility, repentance, and asceticism as the means through which each penitent must cleanse and strengthen his intellect (or, in Greek, nous) to be capable of receiving the divine light, and ultimately being united with God in Paradise. At the summit of the mountain, Dante entered into the Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden, where he met Beatrice, the woman he had loved in the mortal life. It is she who loved him so much she sent Virgil to save Dante. Now it is she who will lead him through the spheres of Heaven into the very presence of Almighty God.

Here at the outset, there are a couple of things that need saying to make sense of what lies ahead. First, we have to understand the geography of Dante’s heaven. To the medievals, the earth was at the center of a series of concentric spheres. The outermost sphere is the Primum Mobile, which is the border between Creation and the Empyrean, or Heaven. Everything that exists does so surrounded by Heaven, on the other side of the Primum Mobile. In Paradiso, Dante will rise through the heavenly spheres, which correspond to the sun and the planets, until he reaches the Primum Mobile, and crosses over into infinity, where every being is fully united with God.

Second, we need to consider that medieval Christian metaphysics are substantially different from the way we in the West think about metaphysics. In fact, I think most of us never think about metaphysics at all — but if you’re going to understand what Dante is getting at in this poem, you have to understand the way he thought reality is constructed.

In his 2005 book The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, Notre Dame professor Christian Moevs says that the center of all Dante’s concerns is revelation: “the progressive unveiling of truth or being, in or through finite reality, that constitutes salvation history both of the individual and humanity.” The Commedia is both Dante’s imaginative account of how that happened to him, and a means by which he hopes to make it possible for others. I am fond of saying the Commedia is, for Dante, an icon, which is to say it’s a window into the eternal, through which divine light and truth passes. “Like Scripture, or Christ,” Moevs writes, “the Comedy understand itself to be a finite form “transparent” to the reality it embodies, a reality that, in those who have eyes to see, can come to recognize and awaken to itself by reading this text.”

Moevs continues:

A book on Dante’s metaphysics is necessary because his understanding of reality is so foreign to our own. To present Dante’s ideas about the cosmos, God, salvation, history, or poetry within the unquestioned context of widely diffused post-Enlightenment presuppositions (as is usually done) can be self-defeating: those ideas will emerge distorted or diminished, deprived of their force, of the penetrating understanding that formed them.

What’s the bare minimum you need to know about Dante’s metaphysics to get the Commedia, and especially Paradiso? Moevs tells us that these metaphysics are not specifically Christian, that they derive from Plato and Aristotle, and “undergird much of the Western philosophical-theological tradition to his time and frame all later medieval Christian thought.” Here, in Moevs’ words, are the five principles you need to know:

1. The world of space and time does not itself exist in space and time: it exists in Intellect (the Empyrean, pure conscious being).

2. Matter, in medieval hylomorphism [the matter-form analysis of reality], is not something “material”: it is a principle of unintelligibility, of alienation from conscious being.

3. All finite form, that is, all creation, is a self-qualification of Intellect or Being, and only exists insofar as it participates in it.

4. Creator and creation are not two, since the latter has no existence independent of the former; but of course creator and creation are not the same.

5. God, as the ultimate subject of all experience, cannot be an object of experience: to know God is to know oneself as God, or (if the expression seems troubling) as one “with” God or “in God.”

Let’s boil this down. Forgive me if I oversimplify; I’m an amateur, and I welcome correction from academics. We don’t need to spell it all out here — we can and will get into it in more detail as we go along in Paradiso. For now, it is sufficient to know that for Dante and the medieval thinkers, salvation consists in achieving unity with God. It is the end goal of all our striving: to return to unity with our Creator. The Greek fathers have a word for it: theosis, which is to say, being so filled with the presence of God that one becomes fully united with Him. This is not a symbol of something; it is something real. The Latinate term is “deification,” a word that’s frightening because it implies that we can become gods. It does not mean this. Rather, it means that we only find ourselves by yielding our own egos to the will of God, and being gradually filled with the Holy Spirit. We reach our final end when we have let go of everything that separates us from God, which will mean by definition letting go of everything that separates us from each other.

Though the Orthodox East and the Catholic West would diverge substantially, for our purposes I think it sufficient to acknowledge that for both, salvation was not obtained merely by assenting to theological propositions, but by going through a process of initiation, through which one’s soul becomes purified and better able to accept the transformative truths of God. Again, this is not about acquiring knowledge in the sense that a man comes to learn more about a thing. This is about being united to God, the Source of all existence, and in that process coming to perceive reality as it truly is, and to be united to it through Him. This belief depended on what is called “metaphysical realism,” which is the idea that there exists beyond what we can clearly perceive a hidden structure of reality, one whose existence does not depend on our ability to perceive it.

We saw in Purgatorio how all the penitents were working out their salvation on the holy mountain. Salvation was (and is) a free gift of God, to be sure, but they had all accepted it imperfectly in their earthly lives. Their time on the mountain deepened their repentance and purification, thus making them, in time, strong enough to withstand being in the presence of the all-holy God. Yesterday I said that this clip from Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder is a kind of summation of Paradiso. What I meant by that is that for Father Quintana, who does the voiceover, the entire universe is filled with God’s love and His presence. We long for true communion with Him, but we can only achieve it imperfectly, owing to our own finitude. His presence is constantly; we always dwell in the Light, but we remain more or less blind to it, because of our own rebellious natures, or because something prevents us from seeing through the veil. Man’s life is a search for that connection to the wonder that is God. Sin keeps us blind. There’s a great short scene in To The Wonder in which Fr. Quintana meets with a prison inmate, whose hands are bound. He’s a spindly, greasy, rough, broken mess. They are together in a room, with two guards present. Sunlight is blasting through the window. The prisoner is shifting and squirrelly, and says to the priest:

“If I done this … I’m not gone say I did, but if I did … I might’ve, I could’ve … I just want, I ask for forgiveness, Father, I can’t … I can’t, I can’t help myself … I’m gonna kneel down … I wanna be free. … It’s just that sun, it’s right in my eyes, and you know …”

The inmate falls to his knees to receive absolution, physically shivering over the presence of the light. See what’s happening here? The more the light falls upon the inmate, the more he is moved to repent, and open himself to grace. The light, symbolized by the light coming through the window, but metaphysically speaking, through the character of the priest, forces him to be honest with himself, to recognize the condition of his spiritual imprisonment, and to ask for forgiveness — a process that opens his soul up to receive more light, to move closer to God, and, ultimately, in the next life, to being absorbed into God. The ultimate goal of the spiritual life is direct experience of God.

Don’t worry; all of this will become more clear as we make our way through Paradiso. I wanted to give you a simple framework for what Dante is up to before we start.

Charles Williams writes that Paradiso‘s point is “to exhibit beatitude; that is — proper relationship between men and men and men and God.” Remember that Hell, for Dante, is a place of total separation from God, total separation of men from each other, and the total annihilation of hope. Purgatory, for Dante, corresponds to the life of repentance, of turning away from sin and moving toward God. Paradise, then, is meant to reveal to us what life perfected in God looks like. That is, if we all lived like God intends us to live, and like He made us to live before the fall, this is what we would be like.

Here are the opening lines of Paradiso, in the Hollanders’ translation:

The glory of Him who moves all things

pervades the universe and shines

in one part more an in another less.


I was in that heaven which receives

more of His light. He who comes down from there

can neither know nor tell what he has seen,


for, drawing near to its desire,

so deeply is our intellect immersed

that memory cannot follow after it.

Such luminous lines! We see here two main themes Dante will bring out in this last canticle of the Commedia. First, he tells us that the glory of God, which is to say, His light, is everywhere in the universe (the Hollanders use “pervades;” Mark Musa says “penetrates”; Alan Mandelbaum says “permeates”). Dante tells us that he was in the part of the universe that receives more of God’s light, which is to say, He is more directly perceptible, as opposed to being perceived in reflection. The point here is that in Paradise, the veils are finally lifted.

The second theme is the impossibility of conveying all that he saw there. Memory is simply unable to contain reality. And, as he will soon tell us, language is inadequate to convey the fullness of the beatific vision. In his previous two books, the poet has been able to make use of matter in constructing his images and narrative. This time, he is in an immaterial world, which is by its nature vastly more abstract. Plus, he has to make intelligible for us an experience that is essentially indescribable. Throughout Paradiso, Dante keeps telling us that he lacks the words to truly describe what he experiences.

Before, Dante called on the Muses to help him do poetic justice to what he saw in Inferno and Purgatory. Now, though, he invokes Apollo, the god of poetry, to help him tell what he saw in Paradise. “Enter my breast and breathe in me as when you drew our Marsyas,” says Dante to Apollo; Mandelbaum says this is Dante asking to be emptied out so that the power of poetry can fully manifest. Interesting, this; Dante is asking for poetic theosis for the sake of being able to convey the experience of actual theosis.

Giuseppe Mazzotta points out in his Reading Dante that the language of the Commedia shifts in this third and final canticle. Both Inferno and Purgatorio began with Dante referencing himself as the subject of what is about to follow. In Paradiso, though, the focus from the first lines onward is God. Mazzotta also says that Paradiso is the canticle in which Dante tries to understand what beauty really is, beneath the surface appearance. We will return to that as we go on.

Finally, Mazzotta points out that in the first tercet, Dante describes God’s glory as both penetrating the universe, and shining in it. That is, He is both active in the universe as the (Aristotetelian) Prime Mover, and reflected in the universe as the (Neoplatonic) principle of light. The key principle: in Dantean metaphysics, there is no separation between the natural and the supernatural. 

When Paradiso begins, Dante and Beatrice are still on earth, in the Earthly Paradise. Beatrice looks up at the sun — a sign that she is more than human — and Dante is inspired to glance directly at it himself. This is a foreshadowing of his transformation ahead in Paradise; he cannot bear staring at the sun directly for long in this state.

“Much that our powers here cannot sustain is there,” says Dante, of heaven. This is an important clue to the metaphysical nature of heaven. We in this mortal life are simply unprepared to live with the unmediated reality of God. Beatrice continues to stare into the heavens, and Dante fixes his stare on her; at this point, he can only handle as much of God’s reality as shines through Beatrice.

As I gazed on her, I was changed within,

as Glaucus was on tasting of the grass

that made him consort of the gods in the sea.

According to Ovid, Glaucus was a fisherman who tasted a magic herb that turned him into a sea-god. The fisherman, in other words, was deified, changed from mortal man to a god. Similarly, Dante now begins the final leg of the journey of all the saved: to become filled with the Holy Spirit and made transparent to the Divine Light. Dante says what happened to him cannot be described, so the simile of Glaucus has to suffice.

Dante doesn’t understand what’s happening to him now. Beatrice tells him he can’t understand it because he is trying to comprehend based on old categories that are inadequate to his new reality. If you want to know what’s going on, she says, you’re going to have to cast aside your misperceptions. She tells him that he has left the earth, and is shooting like lightning through the heavens. Dante replies:

If I was stripped of my earlier confusion

by her brief and smiling words,

I was the more entangled in new doubt

This pattern will recur in Paradiso. The poem is about Dante learning to see what Is. As his sight improves and his understanding expands, he has deeper questions, and puzzles over new things. Patiently Beatrice will explain to him how things work. Here, she tells him how the order of things explains his shooting upward into heaven. I won’t write all the verses here, but will rather sum up her explanation.

All things are ordered within themselves, and that’s how they resemble God. In heaven, all beauty and order corresponds to the divine nature, in ultimate harmony. Everything has a different destiny, according to their natures, moving “toward different harbors upon the vastness of the sea of being, each imbued with an instinct that impels it on its course.” This instinct moves all matter, and it moves we humans, who “have both intellect and love.” Men have free will, though, and can remain “deaf and unresponsive to the craftsman’s plan.” We can, in pursuit of “false pleasure,” turn from moving toward heaven to moving back towards the earth. Concludes Beatrice:

“If I am correct, you should no more wonder

at your rising than at a stream’s descent

from a mountain’s peak down to its foot.


“It would be as astounding if you, set free

from every hindrance, had remained below,

as if on earth a living flame held still.”

Then she turned her face up to the heavens.

Translation: Dante, you have been purified of all your false pleasures, of all your mortal blindness. You are naturally rising upward toward God.

Think of it: Those in Hell may move, but they never get anywhere. They are stuck, forever. Those in Purgatory are making progress toward heaven, but they move with agonizing slowness. But those who have been purified of all earthly ties ascend with the speed of lightning. The lesson seems to be that the more we persevere in the pursuit of holiness, the faster will our velocity towards God grow.

It is worth considering here who Christ said he saw fall from heaven like lightning. It is also worth considering here that Christ Himself, the second person of the Trinity, followed that same path from heaven to earth, to make it possible for us to return to Him. The early Church father, St. Athanasius, said, of the Incarnation, “God became man that man might become God.” This is theosis, straight up.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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