Illustration by Michael Hogue

Illustration by Michael Hogue

In Paradiso, Dante makes brilliant use of both the Ptolemaic ordering of the cosmos and the ancient belief that the planets (“stars”) influence human character to examine dispositions of the blessed. The sphere of the Moon was the place where the saints who were inconstant reside. Erich Auerbach explains that in the Dantean version of Aquinas’s cosmic ordering, diversity of human character is necessary because it reflects God’s nature. How? Because as we know from Beatrice’s last lecture, the greatest gift God gave to man when He created him was free will. Man alone of all the creatures can make rational choices. Men (which is to say, men and women) will of course make different choices, and over time, these choices form their habitus, or way of life. Difference, diversity, is the logical result of individual free will over time. The divine order, then, does not require uniformity, but rather harmony. Earthly status means nothing in the Kingdom of God; you’ll remember in Purgatory, even a pope refuses Dante’s honor. We will see in Canto VI a Roman emperor denying his earthly role as Caesar, while insisting on his individuality. The heavenly hierarchy, which is meant to be a model for us on earth, ranks individuals according to their virtue and their capacities for blessedness. Everyone has been perfected, but the fact that there is a hierarchy in heaven indicates that we are to see difference not as something to be overcome, but rather to be embraced and perfected, according to our diverse natures. There is no way for the nature of God to be expressed in a single creature, only in the totality of all created things. Our task is to work towards harmony, which is to say, unity in diversity.

What is inessential in rank — social prominence, high office, etc. — has been burned away; what differences are essential remain. This is why, in Canto VI, when Dante meets the great Roman (Byzantine) emperor Justinian (d. 565), the man introduces himself by saying, “Caesar I was and am Justinian.” He says that in life, he “pruned from the laws what was superfluous and vain,” indicating that this is what God did for his soul in the afterlife. Justinian is a famed lawgiver, an emperor whose Code regularized and rationalized Roman law; the Justinian Code served as the basis for Western law. His role here, on Mercury, the planet where dwell those who did good on earth but who were imperfect in that they wanted glory a little too much, is to reveal to the pilgrim the source of political strife.

To understand what’s going on here in Paradiso Canto VI, we need to look back at the sixth cantos of the Inferno and Purgatorio. The first canticle discusses the origin of political disunity and civil strife in Florence; the second discusses the same in Italy. Here, in Paradise, the pilgrim confronts the cause of political disorder in what was once the Roman empire.

Dante’s view — the view of the poet, not the pilgrim character in the poem — is that the empire was providentially brought into being by God for the sake of world peace and good government — but that as God’s instrument, empire was deeply flawed. We see this in Justinian’s sweeping, theologized account of Roman history. Because I’m not really interested in talking about the Commedia here in terms of Dante’s politics, but only in terms of how we contemporary readers might make use of Dante’s insights to change our lives for the better, I’m going to skip a lengthy analysis of this canto, in favor of a summary.

Dante believes the Roman empire was capable of violence and injustice, but seen in the breadth of history, was a force for order. Remember, Dante wrote the Commedia in a time of civil war, a conflict that had caused his own exile. We’ve seen his accusation that the Church getting mixed up with the State was a cause of corruption both in the Church and the State. Dante indicates here that both Church and State are necessary for the good of society, but when either violates its own nature, and tries to do the task of the other, we’ve got trouble. Political and civil strife comes about when people — individuals, families, cities, nations — pursue their private goods over the common good. Peace can only come to the secular realm when all nations are ruled by a restored Roman emperor, and the pope is put in his proper place as ruler of the Church.

It hardly needs saying that we’re in a very different place politically, and geopolitically, than Dante. Nobody is waiting for the restoration of the Roman empire. But I think Dante’s point about how selfishness is the source of strife is perpetually relevant. In reading the Rupert Ross book about dealing with aboriginal Canadians in legal disputes, I was struck by his account of how poleaxed the Indians are by our adversarial system of justice. He explains that this is because they are far more consensus-oriented than we are. Ross isn’t saying that their way of handling disputes is always better than our way, and in any case, we’re not going to throw out our legal system and adopt norms based on how aboriginal North Americans handle social conflict within their tribes. That said, it was interesting to read about how the native peoples see justice in terms of restoring social harmony.  Whatever restores harmony to the tribe — and that includes the alleged offender — is intrinsic to the nature of justice. It is a way of thinking about justice that sees justice as healing of the body politic, not the settling of accounts, and punitive measures taken against offenders. It’s an alien concept to our way of thinking, but it’s worth thinking about in the context of Dante, given that Dante, having been one of many victims of civil war, seeks what you might call a more holistic vision of justice.

The Great Courses lectures of Bill Cook & Ron Herzman (downloadable for only $35) make a terrific point about the personal nature of this public-oriented canto. They note that Dante wrote Paradiso while living in Ravenna, where Justinian was (and is) still very much a presence, given that many of the most beautiful churches there were built under his reign, and even have mosaic portraits of him. The figure of Justinian, then, figures into Dante’s personal life. There’s a verse that would have just flown by if the duo hadn’t flagged it:

“Under it [i.e., the Roman standard] triumphed youthful Scipio and Pompey,

and to that hill beneath which you were born

it seemed indeed a bitter sight.”

Justinian here refers to the fate of Fiesole, a hilltop town overlooking Florence, when it was defeated and brought under the rule of the Roman republic. Bill Cook says he thinks the meaning of this reference, in this context, is to reinforce a point Dante makes throughout the Commedia:

“That things that seem very private to us, whether we’re talking about love, or gluttony, or whatever it might be, are in fact things that have public consequences. This is the other side of that. That this great big story, Dante, you’re a piece of it. Your city’s story, and therefore your story, are a part of it. One of the things this allows Dante the poet to do is, later on, about 10 cantos later, … when Dante hears the history of Florence told, by his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida, that too is a continuation of the Aeneid, that too is a continuation and rewriting of Justinian’s story, because what’s personal to Dante is public, and what’s public in this great history of the Roman empire, Dante, you and your city are a part.”

In the order of God’s cosmos, nobody is meaningless. The fate of your family, your community, your city, your country, your civilization, depends on the choices you make. Similarly, things that go on in the world far beyond our daily lives affect them, as any family or community who saw their people go off to war in Iraq because of what happened in 9/11 well understand. This is an exhortation to be vigilant in rightly ordering your own heart, because as Marco the Lombard counseled in Purgatorio XVI, the disorder of the world begins with disorder in our own hearts. It is also an exhortation to civic responsibility. As the saying goes, you might not pay attention to politics, but sooner or later, politics is going to pay attention to you. You’ll recall from our reading of Purgatorio VI that Dante condemns the Italy of his day, saying that

any dolt who plays the role

of partisan can pass for a Marcellus

That is, people are so debased that they’ll follow anybody who whips up passions for their own side, and call him a noble Roman. Overall, Dante is telling us that at some level, we are responsible for the rulers we have. If our rulers are corrupt, then we should look into our own hearts and question ourselves as to why we allow them to rule. As ever, the Commedia is about free will and moral responsibility.

Canto VII is a theological canto, rather dry, I think. In it, Beatrice answers Dante’s questions about divine justice. First, she says that there is a double effect to God’s decrees; they may appear unjust to some, but just to others. Second, she explains why God’s justice could only be satisfied with God’s on death on the Cross. Jesus’s death was the just punishment for Adam’s sin, so the only way God could satisfy the divine law was to become a man and experience death. This is what Christ’s human nature demanded.

But Jesus Christ was without guilt; how can justice require the death of an innocent man? According to Beatrice, because it shows the immense love God has for us. Man never could have made satisfaction sufficient to make up for his sins. God could have simply pardoned mankind, but that would have been Mercy without Justice. By humbling Himself to become a man, to suffer and die as a man, though He did not have to do that, God both fulfilled Justice and demonstrated the greatest Mercy. In so doing, God showed us what perfect Love really is.

I write these lines, and suddenly my priest’s words come back to me: “Who are you to expect justice?” He did not say that injustice is right; it cannot be right, by definition. What he is saying is that true love does not see injustice, but rather seeks mercy. If God so loved the world that He would become man and willingly lay down His life for us, though innocent, is it really too much for me, who is saved by Him and through Him, to bear ill treatment by others for the sake of uniting myself to Him?

Not all of us can or should do that. My priest knows that, and there have been times when he has advised me to withdraw from certain situations because he knew I wasn’t spiritually strong enough to deal with the circumstances. In the long run, though, we should be working towards such a perfect union with God that we react as He did: loving those who did him wrong, even to the point of forgiving them as He died.

If all of us loved each other with that kind of love, there would be no need for justice. We don’t, so God has given us government. But if we want our government to be well-ordered and virtuous, we must make our hearts well-ordered and virtuous. When I think about Rupert Ross’s account in Dancing With A Ghost of how the Native peoples view justice, it strikes me that they are in important ways closer to the mark set by Christ than we are. Ross quotes from a proposal a band of Indians from Sandy Lake made to the Ontario government, regarding court procedures:

Probably one of the most serious gaps in the system is the different perception of wrongdoing and how to treat it. In the non-Native society, committing a crime seems to mean that the individual is a bad person and must be punished. … The Indian communities view wrongdoing as a misbehaviour which requires teaching, or an illness which requires healing.

This, Ross asserts, comes from their very different spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, in which they see themselves not as standing apart from Nature, but as one with it, and in community together. To suffer the loss of a single individual to crime is to suffer a wound to the entire body within the community. Thinking this morning about these Indians, and about these cantos in Dante, and about my priest’s recent counsel, I tell you that I’m changing my thinking about some people I’ve been struggling with. What if I saw these neighbors (“neighbors” in the Biblical sense) not as separate from me, but as in some real, metaphysical way, part of me, and I of them? After all, the Bible tells us that the stranger we see broken in the ditch on the side of the road is our brother. I’ve written before here how hard I struggle with anger at my dead sister over the judgments she passed on me while she was alive, and the way her pride denied us the opportunity to heal that division. Well, I don’t have to imagine that she was my brother, or sister; she really was. What if I thought about her not in the sense of someone who committed injustice against me, but as someone who was suffering from a kind of sickness (we call it sin, and I have it too), and that the only way I could be healed of its effects on me is to forgive her as someone who was sick, in this way — and, in so doing, treat my own sickness, in the same way I would bandage a cut on my leg?

What if I emptied myself out like Christ did, and expected no justice, but rather accepted injustice, absorbed it, and denied it power over me, because I want to love like Christ loved? I don’t want to do it because I don’t want to submit to injustice. Yet there’s power in that weakness. Saving power.

I realized this last fall when I first read Dante, but it’s so easy to forget. I’m learning again.