The Reading Room
Will and Blame in Dante’s Paradiso
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 against their wills from their vows back into the secular world. For this reason, they are in the lowest heaven, the heaven or sphere of oath-breakers or those with unfulfilled vows.
In order to justify her position in heaven (or perhaps assuage a 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 did not wish for the separation. And there is no blame at all, 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 to put them back together as they were found--but with a new 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.