The Reading Room
Welcome to Paradise: Dante’s Paradiso
Welcome to Celestial Paradise, otherwise known as the Heaven in Dante’s Paradiso. Yes, that heaven; the heaven, even, for medieval Catholics.
Unsurprisingly, Paradiso is both similarly and differently structured from the canticles (Inferno, Purgatorio) which precede it. Rather than being modeled on concentric circles heading downwards, or terraces winding upwards, Celestial Paradise comprises spheres at least seven of which are well known to the modern mind: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Fixed Stars, The Primum Mobile, and the Empyrean.
In the metaphysical world of Dante’s Paradiso, no soul or body is actually moving through physical space. Unlike Hell and Purgatory, there is no material, bodily admixture in this realm. In Hell, sin had physical weight which dragged souls down to hell through its gravitas. In Purgatory, though the souls/shades are immaterial, they inhabit a hidden place on Earth and still are purging their sins. Dante moves downwards in Hell, and he spirals upwards in Purgatory, actually moving his physical body through Hell and Purgatory. Here in Paradise, however, though it is apparently split into the spheres of the heavens, all souls ultimately are together in the celestial rose (Par. 30-32), and not separated as they will appear to be for the sake of Dante’s still human and thus limited perception (Par. 4.37-39). And ours. This means that the only “motions” which occur in heaven are intellectual or representational in nature. There will be a little bit of imagination, but a lot of intellect necessary “to move” through Dante’s Paradiso. This means that there will be limited dramatic elements in this realm as it is not subject to passion but only intellect and will. Dante’s heaven, differently from most, is a place of philosophical argumentation.
A feature of each canticle is the unique “door-ways” which connect its parts together. Just as gateways to the next circle of Hell were easily found with Virgil alone guiding (though with some trouble at the Gate of Dis), and terrace-gates were found only through a gracious Angel whispering their locations in Purgatorio, so here the pilgrim will immediately be transmitted from one sphere to the next. This process is compared to the speed “in which a crossbow bolt comes to rest, and flies, and leaves the nut” or instantaneously when he looks into Beatrice’s eyes. This is an instance of hysteron-proteron, and means that the final action is represented as happening first rather than last. The crossbow bolt leaves the nut before it comes to rest, but that is not how Dante states the case. This flipping of the sequence of actions suggests that Paradise is not subject to the rules of physical place, but rather is subject to the immaterial laws governing an immaterial “place” like the soul, and specifically within the intellect, the highest faculty of the soul in medieval philosophy. If we follow the clues, this makes sense. Beatrice first sent Virgil down to help Dante/the pilgrim through Earth and then Hell and then Purgatory in order to reach a state which would be capable of revelation. Beatrice, therefore, could only appear to Dante when he was ready for her to be revealed from Paradise, or within himself, where of course he kept her form and not her matter.
When one adds to this the idea that it is unclear even to Dante whether his body moves and is therefore in Paradise (Par. 2.37-39), the evidence, from three different angles (Beatrice’s eyes, Location of Beatrice’s form, and the instantaneous transmission between spheres), the hypothesis that Paradise lies within, where human nature and Divine nature intersect (Par. 2.40-42), becomes clear.
If I was a body--and down here it cannot beconceived how one dimension could accept an
other, as must occur, if body coincide with body--
it should kindle within us more desire to see
that Essence where is seen how our nature and
God became one.
Since the celestial experience is essentially the pilgrim taking a trip up the maze (Purgatory) to its center, or where the divine and human nature within connect, the majority of the text focuses on the right interpretation of difficult philosophical and theological matters, which, philosophically, find their roots in the rational intellect or soul, and on the proper method by which one (1) doubts, (2) questions, and (3) resolves one’s doubt due to correct investigation of a subject. So, though the souls in Paradise all correctly understand that which they know, it is their task to help the Pilgrim, still full of doubt, to relieve his doubt through correct understanding of the Truth.
Welcome to Paradise!