The Reading Room
Dante’s Paradiso: Illusions and the Sphere of the Moon
In the first Sphere of Paradise, the Moon, we encounter our first cadre of difficult philosophical questions. In addition to those “simple” ones of how one moves in Paradise, and how a body would move in it (it couldn’t—just like a rock’s matter does not enter one’s head, ideally), now we can consider the question of why the Moon appears to have dark spots if it is immaterial in nature.
The pilgrim (Dante in the text) tries some interpretation, but as his reasoning involves material, he is necesse incorrect in his reasoning. Beatrice will then explain, loosely based on Aristotle/Aquinas’ cosmology, that each celestial sphere appears in accordance to the “brightness” or “luminosity” of the pure souls within. The “spots” or “seeming marks of imperfection” (which would have to be material) are actually a human’s misperception of the fact that that which appears dark is only relatively dark due to the brightness of the souls surrounding it. All the souls of the Moon and in Paradise, therefore, are perfect in accordance with their own natures, but some are more perfect than others, and some accepted and lived by their own natures better than others (else there would have been no free-choice, and humans would just be different in quality based on their natures alone, like angels.) So much for that question.
Essentially, the luminosity of the angels can simply be represented by the "brain teaser" above. Though Square A and Square B appear different in coloring, they are the same. Generally this is called an "optical illusion", but that term is a misnomer, because it is not the ops or eye at all which is deceived, but the mind, based on the context in which one views the respective squares. Square A of course is surrounded by white squares and Square B by dark grey. Due to the differing patterns around them, they appear either lighter or darker than they are. It is precisely this same principle of relative light or perception which makes some lights on Dante's Moon appear darker than others.
In the Sphere of the Moon in Dante’s Paradiso, Dante meets two radiant former nuns who at first seem like “reflections in a deep pool.” So faint are they to him that they are much like a vague thought or reflection one has not yet fleshed out. These two “sisters” are Piccarda Donati, sister to Forese whom we met in Purgatorio, and the empress Constance. Both of these sisters took vows to serve as handmaidens to God and brides to Christ (nuns are the brides of Christ as representatives of the feminine nature of the Church), but both were taken from their vows back into the secular world against their wills. For this reason, they are in the lowest heaven, the heaven or sphere of oath-breakers or those with unfulfilled vows. Now, in order to justify her position in heaven (guilty conscience?), Piccarda explains the notion of contingent will vs. absolute will. Essentially, contingent will is the will which one uses to make every-day decisions about temporal things. The absolute Will, however, which appears to be the Will of God, can also be tapped into by a human by aligning their contingent will with it. If one, however, is forced by outside conditions to separate one’s will from the Absolute Will, there is not much blame if one truly does not wish the separation, but there is no blame, if like Laurence or Mucius (Par. 4.82-84), one united one’s contingent will with Absolute Will even under torturous conditions.
Returning to the notion that Paradise is all whole though broken into parts for human perception (just as Aristotle says that the soul is all one though it is logically divided for the intellect), let us consider the following passage:
“They have shown themselves here, notbecause this sphere is allotted to them, but to
signify the celestial one that is least exalted.
To speak thus to your understanding is
necessary, for it takes from sense perception
alone what later it makes worthy of intellection.
For this reason Scripture condescends to
your faculties, attributing feet and hands to God
and meaning something different.
and holy Church represents Gabriel and
Michael to you with human shape, and the other
one who made Tobias whole.
(Par. 4.37-48. Durling tr.)
We see here that part of the project in Paradise will be to take that which we have perceived with our senses or been taught in a sensual way (like God having feet or Gabriel wings) and to teach the pilgrim and therefore us how correctly to dismantle the image through questioning, to analyze the parts, and then put them back together as they were found but with a symbolic understanding of the thing itself. One therefore notices that the process by which one will come truly to understand things is also threefold: (1) learn through senses, (2) analyze the function of each part (dismemberment), and (3) correctly put it back together. If one thinks about this process hard enough, it sounds like the eternally repeated process of education: (1) learn something the first time through belief or by rote. (2) Then truly analyze it and come to know the purpose of each part. (3) Finally, to show mastery, put the concept back together by teaching it to another so that they might do the same. Voila.
Welcome to Paradise.