Professing Faith: Dante’s vision of paradise grounded in early study of the stars – Redlands Daily Facts

In my previous two articles, I have considered the first two parts of the “Divine Comedy” of Dante Alighieri, the “Inferno” and the “Purgatorio.”  We must now turn to the final and least appreciated part of that magisterial work, the “Paradiso,” or the vision of heaven.
In order to understand Dante’s vision of paradise, it is first necessary to call to mind his astronomy. Just as the “Inferno” consisted of a series of descending concentric circles, and the “Purgatorio” was a mountain ringed with concentric terraces, “Paradiso” also has its circles, or to be more specific, spheres, whose levels Dante uses to tell his story.
People had known since the days of the ancient Greeks that the world was round. What was harder to grasp was to explain without a knowledge of gravity or physics how the sun, moon and other planets orbited. It appeared clear to the ancient mind that the sun and moon circled the Earth simply by observation of sunrise and sunset and the cycles of the moon.
But without the concepts of the laws of physics, what made things fly around in a circle around the earth? An early answer to this was by Eudoxus of Cnidus in Asia Minor in the fourth century B.C., who postulated that the Earth was surrounded by a series of increasingly larger transparent spheres. The sun and other planets were embedded in these revolving crystalline spheres, which is how the planets got across the sky. What made them move is a question we shall yet consider. Eudoxus’ ideas were modified by later astronomers, reaching their final refinement in the works of Claudius Ptolemy in the second century A.D. This was the cosmos that Dante and the medieval period inherited.
Previously, we left Dante off at the top of Mount Purgatory, where Virgil left him and Beatrice came to rescue him and the pair passed through a sphere of fire to behold the spheres of heaven. While the Greeks had been concerned with the movement of the spheres, Dante populated them with various classes of saints and angels, with the least blessed close to the Earth and the most holy saints near God out there in the heights. As he and Beatrice progress upwards through the spheres, they meet ever more holy people from the Bible and history. Dante has seven spheres for the known planets, one for the fixed stars and one where Almighty God resides in glory.
The lowest of the seven spheres is that of the Moon, which because of its waxing and waning, suggests inconstancy. Here reside those who had broken some vow, and later repented of it, but their love was shown to be defective. The second sphere Dante passes through is that of Mercury, which because the planet is hard to see from the earth because of the glare of the sun, represents those who desired goodness for the sake of fame, rather than for the love of God. There we meet the Christian emperor Justinian, who grants Dante a recitation of ancient Rome. The Romans hold some pride of place for Dante because it was in their empire that Christ came to the Earth.
The third sphere is that of Venus, a name which implies those who were deficient in matters of temperance, since she was the goddess of love. These include a woman whom Dante had known in life, and whose brother we previously met in hell, as well as a troubadour who was a good musician but whose music tempted people to lust.
The next sphere is that of the sun, which obviously represents illumination. Here are the great theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, Bede, Richard of St. Victor, and King Solomon. In life, St. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican, meaning that he had dedicated his life to the study of theology. But Aquinas pauses to sing the praise of Francis of Assisi, who had dedicated his own life to poverty. The Franciscan, St. Bonaventure appears to sing the glories of St. Dominic, the founder of Aquinas’ Dominicans. This is significant because it provides an elegant contrast with hell. In the “Inferno” everyone was mad at each other and cursed their rivals, but in Heaven the two rival orders of friars sing the other’s praises.
The next sphere is that of Mars, which as the name of the Roman war god suggests, is for those who were heroic but still somehow deficient in courage. There we meet Joshua, Charlemagne, Judas Maccabaeus, and others. He also meets his ancestor, the Crusader Cacciaguida, who tells Dante the hideous news that on his return to the Earth, the poet will be banished from his beloved Florence. He says, “Thou shalt abandon all that thou hast loved with greatest tenderness; and of its shafts this is the one which exile’s bow shoots first. Thou shalt find out how salt another’s bread is wont to taste, and what a painful thing is going up and down another’s stairs.” Yet the reader knows that this perpetual exile will be the time when Dante can write his masterpiece, for beauty can be wrought out of suffering.
In the sixth sphere of Jupiter we meet those who were just rulers, such as Constantine, King David and even the pagan Emperor Trajan, whom medieval legend said had been raised from the dead only to be baptized. But higher than the active rulers are the contemplatives in the sphere of Saturn, who had given their lives to meditation and reflection on God. But higher still in the eighth sphere, we meet the souls of those who had perfected love. These include John the Apostle, the Virgin Mary and St. Peter, whom Dante regards as the first pope. But Peter is very irritated and pauses to denounce Pope Boniface VIII, whom Dante on Earth had loathed for his political machinations. We meet also St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a leader whose holiness in the medieval period was unchallenged, in spite of his raising the Second Crusade.
And higher still is the ninth sphere called the Primum Mobile, or the “first moved.” This is where the immortal angels dwell. The ancient Greeks had said that this sphere was the one whose motion moved all the other spheres. But for Dante, it is the radiant love of God that moves both the “Primum Mobile” and all the other spheres together. It is here that Dante begins to behold God above them, shown by – as one might guess – a series of three concentric circles, representing the three persons of the Holy Trinity. From here Dante is taken up to the Empyrean, the very abode of God. He begins to ponder this mystery of the Trinity, and then beholding Christ he wonders on the exact relationship between his human and divine natures. But in the end, this is a mystery that the human mind cannot comprehend. Dante exclaims, in words which resemble a hymn, “O Light Eternal, that alone dost dwell within Thyself, alone dost understand, Thyself, and love and smile upon Thyself, Self-understanding and Self-understood!”
The epic poem ends with the words, “Here power failed my high imagining; but, like a smoothly moving wheel, that Love was now revolving my desire and will, which moves the sun and all the other stars.”
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