On Dante's Paradiso: Venus, Predestination, and Art
In the eighth canto of Dante’s Paradiso, now in the third sphere of Venus, one witnesses a discussion of how Nature, or the embodied Spirit or Will of God, does not actually distinguish between the individuality of people. It sees them simply as living, if it sees them at all. If one were then resurrected over and over again, in the way Virgil’s Anchises suggests one might be in Book Six of the Aeneid, one's identity could be changed over and over again.
This seems particularly true since one would drink from the memory-wiping waters of lethe (contained in Purgatory’s Terrestrial Paradise) before assuming a body again (even before ascending to Heaven).
Thus, the roots from which
your tasks proceed must needs be different:
so, one is born a Solon, one a Xerxes,
and one a Melchizedek, and another,
he who flew through the air and lost his son.
Revolving nature, serving as a seal
for mortal wax, plies well its art, but it
does not distinguish one house from another.
Thus, even from the seed, Esau takes leave
of Jacob; and because he had a father
so base, they said Quirinus was Mars’ son.
Engendered natures would forever take
the path of those who had engendered them,
did not Divine provision intervene.
Now that which stood behind you, stands in front:
but so that you may know the joy you give me,
I now would cloak you with a corollary.
(Par. 8.122-138, Mandelbaum tr.; my emphasis)
The quotation ends with a nod to determinism by echoing Dante's discussion from Purgatorio 16 of the view that the heavens might control one's actions fully (Dante said that they could not do so because man has free will and nothing impinges that).
The end of this quotation, similarly, asserts that nature would never change man, and no generation would differ from the one before it if "divine Providence" or "choice" did not intervene and nothing ever changed. Each person, however, can be absolutely certain that he or she is unique, as divine Providence has assured that one differs from one's progenitors. So by Dante's reasoning, is God more one's father than one's biological father because God “breathes his life” into one? The proximate and remote agents of one’s being seem slightly unclear.
In any case, the sense of the quotation above invites the reader not to focus on the past, for the truth of one's nature does not come from one's worldly parents but the very same God above who breathed life into one. One's ancestry and heredity therefore mean little for one's understanding of himself or herself, and that appears to be the point of this section.
We ought now to consider some connections between the first three spheres of Dante’s Paradiso themselves starting with the Moon. If we then think of the moon with its oath breakers present, its cycle of the month ever changing, and its dark spots, we understand it to represent inconstancy or wavering. What though is inconstancy but an imbalance between one's actions and one's divine nature, or an inability to link one’s contingent will (personal will) to the absolute will (God’s Providential will)?
It is precisely the same in Mercury which, with its mercantile or mercurial nature, represents how one thing transforms into another or transmits from one place to another, or simply changes hands. The "problem" that this can create, opposed to the moon's inconstancy, is an overvaluation of one side of life and therefore an imbalance between one's active pursuits and one's reflective activities.
And then in Venus, the sphere of imperfect love, we find a relationship which is always shared in the romantic sense, and yet can create the perpetual yearning or desire which all humans always feel for the Divine. And in each of the first three spheres, one observes then that there is a sense of balance between one's actions and one's nature which is suggested but not reached. God, then, is being represented as the harmonious balance, or relationship, between one’s destiny and the actions one takes to fulfill it.
We cannot leave Venus without a nod to its first speaker: Charles Martel. After disparaging the practical affairs of the world, he "gets down to business" by discussing that God has not only foreseen and created people in His mind, but he has foreseen their well-being (or how they ought act) and their goals, or rather, their destinies. For, without a goal or destiny in mind:
…whatever this bow shoots must fall
according to a providential end,
just like a shaft directed to its target.
Were this not so, the heavens you traverse
would bring about effects in such a way
that they would not be things of art but shards.
Without destiny, life would not be art but a ruin, an object left without its function. How could there be purpose in life if there were not a goal which one is meant to fulfill? Imagine a canvas where one randomly scribbles without ever generating a coherent form in accordance with one’s mental plan. Would that not be far less glorious, less artistic, than a canvas on which one executed perfectly (or close to) one's wondrous plan?
Such is the difference between a ruin, which was once a purposeful thing or object, which now is "ruined" in that it is matter without sustaining form and can no longer fulfill its end. Art, in contrast, is the imprinting of material with spiritual or mental form in order to represent a thing, emotion, situation, or thought. The form of one's life, insofar as one’s life is a work of art, is one's goal or destiny or the purpose towards which one strives, and the material is the choices or actions which one takes to further one’s goal. Insofar as one chooses against one's nature and one's destiny, one's matter limits the perfection of one's form. One pits one's own brush against the master artist (God).