The focus of my talk this evening is the Paradiso, the culminating and most beautiful part of Dante’s Comedy. The Paradiso has much to tell us about happiness, the perfection of the intellect, the nature of true freedom, the flourishing of community, the role of love in education, and the profound connection that the good and the true have to beauty.
The Comedy is one of the greatest works on education. It is the story of Dante’s awakening to the highest and deepest things. The story begins in a dark wood and ends with a vision of God. Dante makes a journey to the three regions of the spiritual world: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each region is defined in terms of the intellect, the part of us that most reveals what it means to be made in God’s image. Hell is the place of those “who have lost the good of intellect” (Inf. 3.18). They have distorted God’s image beyond repair. Purgatory is the mountain “where reason searches us” (Purg. 3.3). It is the place where repentant souls—through purifying torment, reflection, and prayer—undo the distortions of sin. In Paradise souls rejoice in the intellectual vision of God. They see with their most God-like part the Original whose image they are.
Dante’s poem has special relevance for those who have devoted their lives to teaching. Throughout the poem Dante stresses the importance of teachers and guides. Indeed, the Comedy may be regarded as an extended song of gratitude on Dante’s part—a tribute to all his guides and to guidance itself as the work of grace. The poem invites us to commemorate those who have played a guiding role in our own lives: our teachers, friends, and family members, and in addition the authors, poets, philosophers, founders, and heroes who hold a special place in our hearts and nourish us with their wisdom, their beauty, and their example. Dante gives these personal guides theological meaning. As St. Augustine knew better than anyone, grace—the central theme of his Confessions—does not work in a merely general way. It works at particular times in particular ways through particular people and events. This is the miraculous particularity that Dante too confesses.
When we first meet the pilgrim Dante, he is lost in a dark wood. This no doubt refers to the turbulent period in Dante’s life shortly before his exile from his native Florence. But it refers more deeply to his having fallen away from Beatrice, whom he meets again at the top of Mount Purgatory and who becomes his guide through Paradise. Beatrice was Dante’s childhood beloved and personal angel, his link to God. In his first great work, the New Life, Dante recalls how he fell in love with Beatrice when she was nine and he was almost ten. After Beatrice died, Dante came to lose sight of everything she represented. He allowed his love for her to be eclipsed by other, lesser loves. Beatrice is the central figure of the Comedy. She is both a real person and a symbol. She is the beautiful appearance of the Good and the True, and the embodiment of God’s grace. As symbol, she embodies the City of God or the community of the blessed, the providential plan of world-history, the perfection of poetry and rhetoric (beautiful speech that moves the soul from darkness to light), theological wisdom, especially as we find it in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and intellectual perfection as the vision of God. All this is what the pilgrim Dante has lost sight of by the time we see him at the beginning of the Comedy.
Heaven responds to Dante’s dark wood. Moved by compassion for the lost poet, Mary turns to Lucy, the figure of Lux, Light. Lucy in turn implores Beatrice to take pity on her former lover and save him from his impending death. Beatrice responds. She descends into Hell—into Limbo, the place of virtuous pagans—to plead with Vergil, the poet of the Aeneid, to serve as Dante’s teacher and guide (Inf. 2.58 ff.). Thanks to this chain of feminine mediators, grace reaches down to Hell itself in order to turn the pilgrim back to the “straight way,” as Dante calls it, the way of Beatrice.
The journey begins. We follow Dante as he descends into Hell, climbs Mount Purgatory, and ascends through the heavenly spheres. And yet the poem is more than the story of an individual’s redemption. Dante is saved from his personal dark wood. But he also rises to become the author of the Comedy, which he boldly calls “the sacred poem” (Par. 23.62, 25.1). He is commissioned by Heaven to reveal the whole of Time and Eternity. Hence the note of Roman triumph that resounds throughout the poem, especially in its third and most glorious part. Under the guidance of Vergil and Beatrice, both vehicles of grace, Dante himself becomes a vehicle, a means of transport for humanity as a whole. In being saved as a man, he finds his true vocation as a poet. He becomes—Dante, Poet of the Kingdom.
The hero, or rather heroine, of my talk is the first soul Dante meets on his entrance into Paradise. It is the soul of Piccarda Donati, whose family Dante knew very well. Two of her brothers appear in the Comedy: Forese Donati in the Purgatorio (23) and Folco in the Paradiso (9). Piccarda had taken vows as a Poor Clare but was forced by a brutal third brother, Corso, to leave the convent and enter into a marriage that would advance her family’s political prospects. She died soon after the wedding. For her broken vows she is relegated to the least degree of Heaven, symbolized, as we shall see, by the Moon. As we inquire into Piccarda and her heavenly rank, we must bear in mind that she is as much a part of Paradise as any other soul there. When Dante meets Forese in Purgatory and asks him where Piccarda is, the brother responds with glowing words fit for a goddess: “My sister, of whom I know not if she was more fair or good, already triumphs in high Olympus, rejoicing in her crown” (Purg. 24.13-15).
I have chosen to focus on Piccarda for several reasons. One is that she is Dante’s first example of a soul in glory and therefore functions as the herald of Heaven. Another is that from the wisdom of her relatively low condition she introduces us to the fact of levels in Paradise. This is a stumbling block for readers who believe that here in the fullness of bliss we should be beyond all levels and that God’s grace should shine upon all in equal measure. What would it mean, after all, for souls in Paradise to experience more or less of perfect happiness or, to use one of Dante’s invented words, for some souls to be more “imparadised” than others? Finally, I have chosen Piccarda because I stand in her debt and am fond of her. For many years she has been one of the most helpful guides in my effort to understand the Paradiso. She will give us an opportunity to address several key questions. Why does Paradise have levels? Why does Piccarda merit the lowest degree of bliss? And what does this level of Paradise reveal about the condition of the blessed and the community they form?
Let us begin at the beginning, with the opening lines of the Paradiso. They are appropriately grand and set the tone for everything that follows:
The glory of Him who moves all things penetrates the universe and shines in one part more and in another less. I was in the heaven that most receives His light and I saw things which he that descends from it has not the knowledge or the power to tell again; for our intellect, drawing near to its desire, sinks so deep that memory cannot follow. Nevertheless, so much of the holy kingdom as I was able to treasure in my mind shall now be matter of my song. (1.1-12)
The opening image is that of God as the prime mover of the universe, an idea Dante gets from Aristotle. God’s glory, symbolized by light, permeates the whole though not in equal measure. Glory shines forth as hierarchy, an order of higher and lower. This is the first indication in the Paradiso that Heaven, like Hell and Purgatory, has levels.
Hierarchy has a basis in the New Testament. In a passage perfectly suited to Dante’s fusion of Christian teaching and pagan cosmology, St. Paul writes in reference to our resurrected bodies: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41). Aquinas cites this very passage to support the view that among the blessed, who see the essence of God, “one sees more perfectly than another” (ST 1, Q. 12, art. 6). Jesus too signals the presence of heavenly degrees when he tells the disciples: “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).
To follow the Paradiso we must know a little about Dante’s scheme of the visible universe. For Dante, the world is not an infinite expanse but an ordered whole in the shape of a sphere—what the ancient Greeks called a kosmos or adornment. Dante follows the Ptolemaic astronomy of his day. For Ptolemy, the Earth sits motionless at the center of a rotating celestial sphere that makes a complete turn on its axis every twenty-four hours. The Moon, Sun, and planets move in their respective orbits in the opposite direction at much lesser speeds. The Moon is the lowest sphere because it is closest to Earth. Beyond it are Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, in orbits of increasing circumference. Next there is the sphere of the Fixed Stars, and finally the outer shell of the visible universe. This is the so-called Crystalline, the first bodily sphere to be touched and moved by God’s love. Beyond it is the Empyrean or true Heaven. This is the home of spirits, the non-extended “place” of God, the angels, and all the blessed. It is the ultimate point to which Dante ascends and the heaven that most receives God’s light.
Dante aligns these nine levels of the visible heavens with the nine grades of bliss contained in the Empyrean. As we discover along with Dante, the souls among the blessed appear in the visible bodies suited to their rank within the invisible Heaven. The souls do not live there, as Beatrice hastens to point out, but rather condescend for Dante’s sake and accommodate themselves to his as yet imperfect faculties (4.37-60). As Dante rises from sphere to sphere, Beatrice reveals herself with increasing intensity; she becomes more and more resplendent, that is, more and more who she really is. With every step upward Dante too is changed: he comes to shed his human imperfections, as his mind is increasingly “imparadised.” He approaches the divine and comes to be divine himself, as all souls do who love God with all their might. Dante invents a word to capture his transition from earthly to heavenly experience: trasumanar, to pass beyond the human (1.70). This passing beyond the human is what we witness, and are invited to share in through imagination, as we read the Paradiso.
Having sketched the astronomical image of Paradise, I now proceed to “who goes where,” which spiritual ranks appear at which corporeal levels. Throughout the Comedy, Dante may be said to spiritualize place. Place functions as an index and sign of what a thing is. Where a soul is, is the sign of what it is, the sign of that soul’s condition or quality. Dante’s spiritualization of place fits with how we speak. “I’m in a good place right now,” we sometimes say, or “I just don’t know where he is these days,” meaning “I don’t know what condition his mind or his soul is in.”
As Dante rises from sphere to sphere, he comes to realize more clearly why Heaven is a hierarchy, a kingdom and not a commune. The first three spheres—the Moon, Mercury, and Venus—form a group. They represent three forms of qualified blessedness. The Moon is the image of faithfulness marred by inconstancy, Mercury of service marred by ambition, and Venus of love marred by wantonness. How Heaven, the place of perfection, can have any imperfection at all is a problem we shall return to later.
The next four spheres represent the four cardinal virtues: the Sun stands for Wisdom, Mars for Courage, Jupiter for Justice, and Saturn for Temperance. The Sun divides the lower from the upper spheres. It is the home, in image form, of theologians, prominent among whom is Aquinas. Mars is the realm of the warrior saints who fought on behalf of their faith, especially in the Crusades. Dante calls this level “higher blessedness” (14.84) because the warrior saint sacrifices his very life and blood. Here Dante meets his ancestor, Cacciaguida, who tells Dante of his coming exile from his beloved Florence. Jupiter is the image-realm of just rulers. It contains, among other souls, that of King David, whose sins of adultery and murder have not apparently kept him from occupying this exalted place. Saturn is the realm of contemplatives and mystics. They appear momentarily in this outermost planet in sign of their “cold” distance from all earthly attachment and their burning desire to focus their minds exclusively on God. The sphere of the fixed stars comes next. Here Dante experiences a ravishing image of the Church Triumphant. He sees Mary, the Archangel Gabriel, and the glorified person of Christ. He also undergoes an examination of his faith by St. Peter, his hope by St. James, and his love by St. John. In the next higher sphere, the Crystalline, Dante sees the angels arranged in a hierarchy consisting of nine levels—three sets of three, in imitation of the Trinity. Finally, Dante rises to the Empyrean. Here he sees the company of the blessed gathered into one glorious image—the Celestial Rose. Ultimately he sees God as the unity of the human and the divine.
Order is everywhere in the Comedy. It is the permeation of the universe by divine intelligence and love. It is why the poem is a comedy. In the tragic view of life, we are not placed in the world but “thrown.” There is no order, no divine guidance, no proper place of things, no hope. There is only happening, suffering, and death. Dante’s poem seeks to defeat this tragic view by fiercely championing world-order grounded in divine goodness and wisdom. His term for this order is monarchia—monarchy or rule of the One. Order is precise. It must be so in order to be order. This precision is a source of joy. World-order, for Dante, is like a beautiful piece of music, a work by Palestrina or Bach, in which everything has been so perfectly adjusted that it is impossible to change a single note without ruining the whole. The comic victory over the tragic view of life—the triumph, one might say, of music—is signaled in all sorts of ways as we reach higher regions of Paradise. At one point the universe itself appears to smile (27.4-5).
Dante’s faith in world-order is not blind to the disasters that would tempt anyone to doubt the workings of divine providence. At crucial moments in his ascent, Dante hears from heavenly souls how the realms of Church and State have gone horribly astray. He hears from St. Peter, for example, how the Church on earth suffers under a corrupt Pope, Boniface VIII, who meddled in the politics of Florence to the neglect of his spiritual obligations. In the face of many discouragements, notably his own exile, Dante continues to hope for a deliverer, a guide who will bring the Kingdom on Earth into greater alignment with the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let us now return to the opening cantos and Dante’s entrance into Paradise. Dante is disoriented in the extreme as he leaves the earth (the top of Mount Purgatory, to be exact) and flies off into the sky with Beatrice. His confusion is understandable since everything is now inverted. Effort is now non-effort, natural tendency to go down has become natural tendency to go up, and opaque body has become diaphanous. Another reason for Dante’s confusion is that the Moon, Sun, and planets are not solid earth-like masses but a refined, heavenly matter that is receptive rather than resistant. Dante does not set foot on the Moon but rather enters its permeable substance. The Moon, like all the other spheres, receives and incorporates Dante. This is a playful imitation of the joyous receptivity of Heaven to newcomers. Dante marvels at his extraordinary entrance into the Moon, which he calls l’etterna margarita, “the eternal pearl” (2.34). His wonder at the interpenetration of substance with substance fills him with the desire to see “how our nature was joined to God.” His desire will be gratified at the end of the poem.
Vergil is Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory, Beatrice through Heaven. How, then, does Beatrice guide? Clearly she guides, as Vergil did, by her enlightened speech. But she also guides because Dante is in love with her. She guides by her adorable aspect. This aspect has its focal point in Beatrice’s eyes. Throughout the Paradiso Dante lays special emphasis on the eyes of Beatrice. Her eyes are an image of the intellect in its highest capacity. They represent insight or the immediate apprehension of truth. This is the intuitive knowledge that angels have. We are not told what the eyes physically look like—their color, shape, and so forth. What is important is that they are firmly fixed, like the eye of an eagle, on God and on that point of the highest Heaven from which Beatrice has descended. Her gaze leads her lover not by a return gaze but by directing his gaze upward and beyond Beatrice herself. The ray of his vision must coalesce with hers. As Beatrice at one point tells Dante: “Not only in my eyes is Paradise” (28.21). The eyes of Beatrice are a corrective to the potentially obsessive character of romantic love. Such love can lead its devotees to seek Heaven in themselves alone, to make a heaven of their private desire and passion. The sad fruit of this kind of love is evident in the second circle of Hell, the circle of lust, where the lovers Paolo and Francesca are whipped around in an eternal storm. The eyes of Beatrice lead Dante away from this fate. They give his mind its proper focus and open him up to the whole of things and to the good of that whole. The eyes of Beatrice are the image of love as education. The image teaches us that to be “in love” is to be aroused by the presence of God in another human being, and that the whole point of love is to see more clearly the source and principle that is the cause of that love.
As we come to discover, Piccarda dwells in the least degree of Heaven for her broken religious vows. The Moon fits this lowest degree because it is the heavenly body with the slowest speed and smallest orbit. Moreover, the Moon is not pure light but has dark spots or blemishes—a feature well suited to faithfulness marred by inconstancy. When Dante first enters the Moon, he is perplexed at the faces that meet his gaze. They appear so pure and ghostly that “a pearl on a white brow does not come less quickly to our eyes” (3.14-15). Dante mistakenly thinks that these are images or mere reflections and turns to see who is casting them. Beatrice smiles at his “childish thought” and tells him: “these are real beings that thou seest, assigned here for failure in their vows” (29-30). Eager to speak with Dante, the souls long to share their personal stories, condition, and knowledge of Paradise. Dante sees this eagerness and is aroused by it. He is bursting to know the identity of the soul that appears “most desirous of speech” and addresses her in the most gracious terms: “O spirit made for bliss, who in the beams of eternal life knowest the sweetness which, not tasted, never is conceived, it will be a kindness to me if thou satisfy me with thy name and with your lot” (37-41)—where “your” refers to all who occupy this level.
Piccarda, “with smiling eyes,” tells Dante that in the world she was “a virgin sister” and that if he searched his memory he would remember who she was. She then takes up the second part of his question:
Our affections, which are kindled only in the pleasure of the Holy Spirit, rejoice in being conformed to His order, and this lot which seems so low is given us because our vows were neglected and in some part void. (52-7)
The language of being conformed to an order fits Piccarda’s vocation as a nun. But it also points out the larger theme of human affetti, which have been altered in this conformity and in the ascent to Paradise. So long as we are in mortal bodies and in a mortal condition, there is a tension between our will and God’s. In Paradise this tension is gone, not because souls no longer have a will of their own but because their will is perfectly attuned to the will of God. Conformity here is not submission to a tyrant or a matter of mere duty. It is more like the sympathetic vibration between two plucked strings, or better, like letting God lead while one is dancing with him. Conformity in Heaven is the joyous yielding of one’s will to the Being who wills only what is good and who, to continue my comic simile, knows how to dance with impeccable grace. In this joyous conformity, the will finds its freedom of movement. It learns at last how to be eternally unerring and never trip over its own feet.
Dante is at first unable to identify Piccarda because she is suffused by divine light and no longer resembles her former self. This too has a more general meaning. Dante is learning by direct experience that Paradise does not preserve us just as we are, or rather were. On the contrary, to be imparadised is to be transfigured. Heaven preserves but at the same time heightens our personality. In Heaven Piccarda is most herself, and one must learn to see her as she really is.
Dante then poses a question most of us would no doubt ask if we were in his place: “But tell me, do you who are happy here desire a higher place, that you may see more and become more dear (64-6)?” The question is a logical one. If a soul loves God, shouldn’t that soul desire to see God and be loved in return as much as possible? But the question also betrays Dante’s all-too-human perspective and comes close to being an implied criticism of God’s order. If Piccarda and the other souls in this region did in fact desire more, they would be unhappy, and Paradise would be Heaven for some but not for others. Souls lower down in the hierarchy might even envy the souls in higher ranks who see more and are closer to God. If that were the case, Paradise would be like a corrupt city or nation, where those who have less honor and privilege resent and hate those who deservedly have more, and where the lust for an equally high place regardless of merit displaces the love of justice and the common good.
Here we touch on one of the main functions of Dante’s Paradise for us who still live on earth. Paradise is the place of individuals who had faith in Christ and are purged of sin. But it is also the model of an ideal city, a community that has been purged of covetousness, envy, partisan strife, and the indiscriminate desire for more. As Dante rises through the heavenly ranks, he experiences that ideal of perfected fellowship so dismally absent in his native Italy and in the world at large. Later in his journey, he remarks, not without a touch of bitterness, that he has come “to the divine from the human, to the eternal from time, and from Florence to a people sane and just” (31.37-9).
In response to Dante’s question about the desire for more, Piccarda and the other souls “smiled a little.” The phrase “a little,” un po, highlights Dante’s concision, humor, and lightness of touch. It points not so much to the degree of the smile as to its affect. The little smile is a knowing, cat-that-ate-the-canary smile. Piccarda and company must surely find Dante’s question so unthreatening as to be amusing. They smile no doubt at his touching innocence when it comes to the heavenly things they know so well. Piccarda answers the question “with such gladness that she seemed to burn in the first fire of love.” Dante’s question, in other words, gives her an occasion to recollect the earthly beginning of her eternal bliss, the moment she fell in love with God.
Piccarda’s answer is one of the most beautiful moments in the Comedy. I shall cite it in full:
Brother, the power of charity quiets our will and makes us will only what we have and thirst for nothing else. Did we desire to be more exalted, our desire would be in discord with His will who appoints us here, which thou wilt see cannot hold in these circles if to be in charity is here necesse [necessary] and if thou consider well its nature. Nay, it the very quality of this blessed state that we keep ourselves within the divine will, so that our wills are themselves made one; therefore our rank from height to height through this kingdom is pleasing to the whole kingdom, as to our King who wills us to His will. And in His will is our peace. It is that sea to which all things move, both what it creates and what nature makes. (70-87)
The opening “Frate,” “Brother,” is a gesture both affectionate and gracious. It makes Dante one of the blessed, at least for the moment. Piccarda’s great theme is will, as we hear in her litany of will-related words. The repetition is like a musical refrain that runs through her speech. Charity, she tells Dante, “quiets” the will of all here by resolving the human dissonance between wanting and having. It is the power (virtù) that by conforming all wills to the will of the one God also unites them with one another. Piccarda here articulates the very basis of order as monarchia, where all created wills are united by a common desire and love of the whole. Dante invents a word to describe this harmonization of souls: invoglia, “in-wills.” The King “in-wills us to His will.” The neologism fits what Piccarda is trying to convey to Dante—that the mixed or tainted submission to God’s will that these souls experienced in their earthly lives is now gone. Past weakness has been remedied by an infusion of divine power that purges the will of all wavering. Piccarda’s reflection on how charity produces a One-in-Many leads her to the most fondly remembered sentence in the whole Comedy: “in His will is our peace.” It is a variation on what Augustine wrote at the beginning of his Confessions: “Our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.”
Piccarda’s speech combines ardor and intellectual clarity, heat and light. Piccarda stresses, somewhat comically, the rational aspect of her answer to Dante by using the scholastic Latin term necesse, which means logically necessary. Beatrice too often assumes this professorial tone with Dante, when for example she gives a scientific explanation for the dark spots on the Moon (2.64 ff.). The marriage of ardor and clarity is characteristic of the souls in Paradise. Without clarity, ardor would be mere feeling with no anchor in the truth. It would be blind, or at least confused, with respect to the intellectual vision that gives the soul its reason for being on fire. Without ardor, clarity would be joyless—mind without heart. It would also falsify the truth that is seen by the mind, since what is seen is in its nature something meant to arouse love. Clarity without ardor would be like getting the point of a really good joke but not finding it funny.
Piccarda is suffused with heavenly light, the light of knowledge. We must observe that the knowledge she possesses is not confined to her level but extends to all of Paradise. This is made evident when she says that the hierarchical scheme of Heaven “is pleasing to the whole kingdom.” Piccarda speaks on behalf of the entire heavenly community, which is made one and harmonious by the will of the one God. Some souls may be limited in their degree of bliss, but they all have access to God, one another, and the whole of Paradise. Souls at every level, even the lowest, enjoy the unity and happiness of the entire kingdom. They are not spatially confined to their own levels but spiritually connected to all of them. God wills each soul into its proper place, and each rejoices in being where it is because it sees that where it is is pleasing to the whole community and to God. This knowledge sweetened by charity lifts the burden of selfish desire and makes the soul free to love the good of another and of the whole as one’s own good. Piccarda not only rejoices to be where she is; she also rejoices that souls higher up are where they are. For this reason she is not almost but fully imparadised.
Dante gets the point. “It was clear to me then,” he says, “that everywhere in heaven is Paradise, although the grace of the Supreme Good does not rain there in one measure” (88-90). Satisfied by one food, as Dante puts it, he is hungry for another. He has already been told that this level is reserved for those who were inconstant in their vows and now wants to know how this applies to Piccarda. She replies with a reference to St. Clare, founder of the Franciscan order that Piccarda had entered:
Perfect life and high desert…place in a higher heaven a lady by whose rule in your world below they take the robe and veil, so that till death they may wake and sleep with that Bridegroom who accepts every vow that charity conforms to His pleasure. To follow her I fled, a young girl, from the world and wrapped me in her habit and promised myself to the way of her order. Then men more used to evil than to good snatched me away from the sweet cloister. God knows what my life was then. (97-108)
The reference to Christ as Bridegroom makes Piccarda’s story all the more poignant. She had every intention of leaving the world for the sake of “waking” and “sleeping” with Christ but was forced to break her vow and enter into an ordinary worldly marriage. Piccarda discretely covers over the details of her subsequent misery and early death. As if to draw Dante’s attention back to the high note of eternal bliss she points to “this other splendor that appears to thee on my right and is kindled with all the light of our sphere” (3.109-111). It is the imparadised soul of “the great Constance,” mother of Frederick II—the last head of the Holy Roman Empire who is punished in Hell for his promulgation of the heretical view that the souls dies with the body (Inferno 10). Like Piccarda, Constance was taken from the convent against her will, although “she was never loosed from the veil on the heart”—a fact engraved, as it were, in her very name. With this deference to the glory of another, a gesture repeated throughout Paradise, Piccarda vanishes while singing the Ave Maria. She is said to sink rather than ascend, “like a weight through deep water.” She returns to the source of her joy and her being. The striking image reminds us that Heaven is a depth as well as a height, and that souls here are not so much soberly placed as passionately immersed. They are eternally drunk on the wine of their happiness.
Dante eventually loses sight of Piccarda and turns his gaze back to Beatrice, “the mark of its greater desire” (126). He is baffled by the story he has just heard, and so are we. If Piccarda was forced to leave the convent, how can she be held responsible for her broken vow? How can she justly appear, in Dante’s poetic analogy, at the level of the Moon? Beatrice gives Dante a complex, scholastic explanation that has to do with the nature of the will. According to Beatrice, Piccarda went with the flow of forceful circumstance. Her will, though not sinful, seconded the violence that was being done against her will. She did not freely will to leave the convent after having taken a vow. But she did nothing to oppose the violence against her good will. She remained passive. Beatrice takes a tough stance on this point and argues that Piccarda and those like her “might have fled back to the holy place” (4.81):
If their will had been unbroken, like that which kept Lawrence on the grid and made Mucius stern to his own hand, then, as soon as they were free, it would have driven them back on the path from which they had been dragged; but will so firm is rare indeed. (4.82-7)
Lawrence suffered on behalf of the Christian Church and Mucius for the sake of pagan Rome. Lawrence famously mocked his tormentors (“Turn me over, I’m done on this side!”), and Mucius, in defiance, thrust his own right hand into the fire that his enemies had prepared for him. As Beatrice poetically observes, an unwavering will is itself like fire, which, no matter how much a strong wind may wrench this way and that, always returns to its natural tendency to go up toward the heavens. That is what those who succumbed to external force failed to do: they failed to fight the buffeting winds of life with the heavenly fire that was their faith. It is not sinful under these circumstances to fail in one’s vows. It is, however, a lack of spiritual strength, a weakness of will.
Weakness of will in the Paradiso is related to the broader theme of spiritual capacity. Souls were not made equal with respect to any of their capacities. No one human being excels at all things. Excellence itself in any one thing varies among its possessors in both degree and kind. Among the greatest composers, for example, one stands out for his beautiful counterpoint, the musical interweaving of individual vocal lines, another for his divinely inspired melodies. Creation is fine-tuned: “star differs from star in glory.” To insist on egalitarian leveling is to wish that Creation be undone. Deficiency in the lowest three degrees of Paradise is therefore different from the deficiency caused by sin. Sin is a distortion of our nature, whereas grades in Heaven manifest nature, that is, the specific nature of each individual among the blessed. Piccarda had only so much lungpower. She could take in only so much of the Holy Spirit—God’s spiritus or breath. So it is with each of us. If you offered Piccarda the chance to be higher up, she would be the first to tell you that this would destroy rather than increase her happiness. In Heaven she has perfect self-knowledge. Her very humility is a form of knowledge. She does not merely believe that she is limited but rather knows and celebrates her limit. She knows, furthermore, that this limit is bound up with the person God made Piccarda to be. If there were no limits, there would be no individual natures, no personality. To want Piccarda to want more is to wish that she did not exist.
The limits of spiritual lungpower lead us to Beatrice’s disquisition on vows. Her main point is that taking vows is perilous. The danger is rooted in our tendency to overestimate what we are capable of. We tend, in the words of Jesus, not to count the cost before building the tower. Another danger is that of unforeseen consequences. In the heat of the moment we vow to do something and learn only later that to be true to this vow results in great evil. Beatrice cites as examples Jephtha and Agamemnon (5.65-72). In the Book of Judges Jephtha vowed to sacrifice to the Lord the first person that walked through his doors. This person turned out to be his daughter. Agamemnon was true to his vow to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia so that the Greek ships could sail against Troy. Piccarda is imperfect in her faith because she was passive and inconsistent. Jephtha shows the opposite problem, that of being stubbornly faithful to a foolish vow. According to Beatrice, he “ought rather to have said ‘I did ill’ than, keeping faith, to do worse” (5.67-68).
The problem of vows is rooted in the nature of free will. To take a vow is freely to sacrifice one’s free will, which Beatrice calls “the greatest gift that God in His bounty made in creation, the most conformable to His goodness and the one He accounts the most precious…with which the creatures with intelligence, and only these, were and are endowed” (5.19-24). Once a vow is made, this greatest of gifts is given away and cannot be taken back. Beatrice’s lesson is clear: “Let not mortals take vows lightly” (64). The lesson is aimed especially at those of Christian faith: “Be graver, Christians, in your undertakings. Be not like feathers in every wind, and think not that every water will wash you clean” (73-75).
Having learned from Piccarda that Paradise is the perfected community of wills under a good King, Dante moves up to the next two levels. Here he meets more souls who occupy the lower triad of Heaven. At the level of service marred by ambition—symbolized by the planet Mercury—he meets Justinian, the Roman emperor who codified Roman law and made it simpler and more unified. It is something of a shock to move from the gentle unassuming Piccarda to this exalted world-historical figure, although the soul of Constance serves as a sort of transition and a reminder of the realm of political history. Justinian recapitulates the wisdom of Piccarda regarding the whole in which all souls rejoice. He uses a musical image to convey why Heaven needs souls of every level and every kind: “Diverse voices make sweet music” (6.124). The line itself is music: Diverse voci fanno dolci note, literally “Diverse voices make sweet notes.” At the next higher level, that of love marred by wantonness, Dante meets various souls, among them Piccarda’s brother Folco, the famous troubadour and poet who later in life became a Cistercian monk, and Rahab, the harlot in the Book of Joshua who concealed and gave aid to the two men Joshua had sent into Jericho as spies. Folco’s enraptured soul is described as “a fine ruby on which the sun is striking” (9.69), and Rahab’s as “a sunbeam in clear water” (114). The wantonness to which these souls yielded in life is of course no longer present in Paradise. But surely we are meant to imagine that something of their former temperament remains. This temperament adds a certain intensity of feeling, an ardor, which, though different in character from that of Piccarda, is equally necessary to the ensemble of diverse voices in Paradise. Heaven welcomes the hot-blooded, just as it shuns the lukewarm.
Earlier I observed that the three spiritual regions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise are defined with respect to the intellect. I also emphasized in my discussion of Piccarda that her being in accord with God’s will and her contentment with her “place” in Paradise are firmly grounded in her intellectual vision of the whole and her clear self-knowledge. The eyes of Beatrice, the image of love as education, further support the primacy of intellect in the Paradiso and in the entire Comedy. As Dante moves higher up the heavenly hierarchy and closer to God, the role of intellect and vision becomes increasingly intense. It is especially prominent when Dante enters the Crystalline and sees the hierarchy of angels. It is fitting that he begins this canto on angelic intelligence by calling Beatrice, his personal angel, “she who imparadises my mind” (28.1).
Later in the canto Beatrice utters one of the central teachings of the whole poem:
And thou must know that all have delight in the measure of the depth to which their sight penetrates the truth in which every intellect finds rest; from which it may be seen that the state of blessedness rests on the act of vision, not on that of love, which follows after, and the measure of their vision is merit, which grace begets and right will. (109-113)
The immediate context has to do with the angels, who are identified with their keenness of intellectual vision, but the teaching applies to all the blessed. The “truth in which every intellect finds rest” is God himself as the First Truth, and it is our highest end to know this Truth. Beatrice emphasizes that love follows rather than leads. The reason is that love is both aroused and directed by the thing seen, the Beloved. If love were primary, it would be cut off from the truth. It would degenerate into mere feeling and cease to be educative. The primacy of intellect came home to Dante in the moment when, a mere boy, he fell in love with a girl on the streets of Florence. He loved her because he caught sight of her and was struck by the light that shone in her person. Even then, as Dante reports in the New Life, Beatrice was “the Lady of my mind” (2).
The Comedy ends with Dante’s vision of God, the source of all Light. As he ascends to the Empyrean, Dante leaves behind the astronomical image of Heaven and sees Heaven anew in a River of Light and the Celestial Rose. Dante’s salvation began with a chain of heavenly women who interceded for him. The links in this chain now appear in reverse order. Beatrice returns to her heavenly seat and to her true self. And though she is at this point far beyond Dante’s mortal gaze, her image reaches her lover with undiminished clarity (31.70-8). Now under the guidance of St. Bernard, who replaces Beatrice as Dante’s guide, Dante sees Lucy, “who sent thy Lady when thou didst bend thy brow downward to destruction” (32.137-8). Then he sees Mary, the ray of whose eyes leads him to the threshold of his final vision. Bernard of Clairvaux was the great medieval saint known for his devotion to Mary. His presence serves to enhance rather than qualify the distinctly feminine operation of grace. Bernard prays fervently to Mary that Dante be allowed to see God: “I, who never burned for my own vision more than do I for his, offer to thee all my prayers.” He adds: “This too I pray of thee, Queen, who canst what thou wilt, that thou keep his affections pure after so great a vision” (33.28-36). Bernard’s reference to affetti recalls Piccarda’s use of the word in answer to Dante’s question about contentment with one’s heavenly lot.
The twofold aspect of Bernard’s prayer is worth noting. Bernard prays that Dante be granted the highest bliss, the vision of God. This vision is “the end of all desires” (46). But Bernard also acknowledges that Dante will not be out of danger when he returns to his mortal life. He must remain true to the unity of which Mary is the figure, the unity of clear vision and purity of heart, which is the precondition for the vision of God (Matthew 5:8). Dante sees the effect of Bernard’s prayer in Mary’s eyes, which are “beloved and reverenced by God” (40). Her eyes, like those of Beatrice before her, provide the ray that will direct the eye of Dante’s mind to the ultimate vision. As the eyes of Mary turn to God, Dante’s eyes follow. The poet is now lifted into the region where sight outstrips speech. Nevertheless he soldiers on, praying that the power of his tongue “may leave but a gleam of thy glory to the people yet to come” (71-2).
The final moments of the Comedy are rich in images, as Dante describes the transformation of his sight and his very being—the final stage of his “passing beyond the human.” He sees “three circles of three colors,” a geometric symbol of the Trinity (115 ff.). Each circle, each divine Person, reflects the others, “as rainbow by rainbow.” Dante focuses on the circle that appears to be “painted with our likeness.” He is drawn to the second Person of the Trinity, to the human face of God. He strains to see more clearly how this human aspect is united to the divine and compares himself to a geometer who is trying with all his might to square the circle. This famous problem, which has haunted mankind for ages, is that of constructing a square with the same area as a given circle. It is in effect the problem of grasping the unity of the straight and the curved—two opposed geometric natures that defy unification. Squaring the circle is more than a geometric problem. It is the symbol and summation of all intellectual desire. According to Aristotle, all human beings by nature desire to know. This is true for each individual. But as Dante affirms in his Monarchia, it is also true of the human species, which in the course of history seeks the full realization of its intellectual potential (1.3). In comparing himself to one who wants to square the circle, Dante personifies the whole human race in its relentless desire to know—ultimately to know and experience the nature of God.
In the end Dante’s longing to know is satisfied, but not through his own efforts. His wings “were not sufficient for that.” Grace intervenes, this time violently, as Dante’s mind is struck (percossa), as if by a lightning bolt: “Here power failed the high phantasy, but now my desire and will, like a wheel that spins with even motion, were revolved by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (142-5). With these lines the Paradiso, and with it the “sacred poem” as a whole, reaches its end.
Dante’s vision of God is a flash of insight that cannot be put into words. But there is something the poet can tell us. He can report that he reached his longed for end, and that the fruit of his vision was a desire and will that were conformed to the graceful movements of Love. These movements find their image in the visible heavens, whose quick circular motion resembles rest. Through the conformity of desire and will, Dante experiences first-hand the truth of what someone told him when he first entered Paradise: “In His will is our peace.”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally given as a O’Donovan Humanities Lecture at Oakcrest School in McClean, Virginia.
 All translations of the Comedy are from the edition by John D. Sinclair (Oxford, 1939).