Paradiso 19 is one of my favorite canti in the Commedia. It begins with a dramatization of the one/many problematic, viewed through a linguistic, indeed grammatical, lens: how can the eagle of Justice speak in the first person singular and yet express the thoughts and ideas of a first person plural?
The pilgrim hears the eagle use the words “I” and “mine” when it is in fact articulating the idea (“concetto ) typically indicated by “we” and “ours”:
ch’io vidi e anche udi’ parlar lo rostro, e sonar ne la voce e «io» e «mio», quand’era nel concetto e «noi» e «nostro». (Par. 19.10-12)
for I did see the beak, did hear it speak and utter with its voice both “I” and “mine” when “we” and “ours” were what, in thought, was meant.
The pilgrim then speaks to the eagle and poses his dubbio with a greater urgency than usual, confessing what he calls the “great fast that has kept me hungering so long” (25-26), a fast that has never been relieved by satisfactory intellectual nourishment:
solvetemi, spirando, il gran digiuno che lungamente m’ha tenuto in fame, non trovandoli in terra cibo alcuno. (Par. 19.25-27)
do let your breath deliver me from that great fast which kept me hungering so long, not finding any food for it on earth.
The pilgrim repeats himself, insisting to the eagle on a hunger that has never been sated:
Sapete come attento io m’apparecchio ad ascoltar; sapete qual è quello dubbio che m’è digiun cotanto vecchio. (Par. 19.31-33)
You know how keenly I prepare myself to listen, and you know what is that doubt which caused so old a hungering in me.
And what is this deep hunger, this void that Dante feels so acutely and expresses so insistently?
It is the gnawing need to understand what he perceives as the unjust damnation—alienation from God—of virtuous nonbelievers. To make matters worse, these are unbelievers who are defined in terms that exacerbate Dante’s perplexity, because:
- They are perfectly virtuous, good in everything that they do.
- They had no access to the teachings of Christianity; they were thus geographically disadvantaged.
Is God unjust? How can a just God permit the damnation of a perfectly virtuous soul who was not exposed to the teachings of Scripture or to the knowledge of Christ and who has no way of accessing this knowledge?
We know this problem of yore. Indeed, it has been in front of us through the whole Commedia, from Inferno 1, where Dante encounters a pagan Roman poet who becomes his guide. The focus on this issue tightens in Inferno 4, where we learn that the souls of Dante’s Limbo are adult virtuous non-believers who did not sin (and see the Introduction to Inferno 4 for a discussion of Dante’s radical choice in conceiving Limbo thus):
Or vo’ che sappi, innanzi che più andi, ch’ei non peccaro; e s’elli hanno mercedi, non basta, perché non ebber battesmo, ch’è porta de la fede che tu credi; e s’e’ furon dinanzi al cristianesmo, non adorar debitamente a Dio: e di questi cotai son io medesmo. (Inf. 4.33-39)
I’d have you know, before you go ahead, they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits, that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism, the portal of the faith that you embrace. And if they lived before Christianity, they did not worship God in fitting ways; and of such spirits I myself am one.
The problem that Dante poses to the eagle of justice in paradise is thus what we have been calling the problem of the virtuous pagan. It is an issue that Dante has kept by his side for two-thirds of the Commedia, always present in the figure of Virgilio. However beloved Virgilio is—or, rather, precisely because he is so beloved—his very presence conveys a painful and gnawing concern that Dante has never been able to overcome or resolve.
The issue of the virtuous pagan has invaded our consciousness heretofore in reading the Commedia fundamentally as the problem of those who lived before Christ and consequently did not know Him: the virtuous pagans of antiquity. It has touched us as readers mainly as a problem that affects our beloved Virgilio.
However, if we think back to Dante’s Limbo, we realize that the poet had in fact already conceived the problem of the virtuous pagan in not exclusively temporal terms. He had already conceptualized the problem of exclusion from salvation along a geographical axis as well as a temporal one. We know this because Dante includes selected Muslim moderns among his virtuous pagans of antiquity. His Limbo includes Saladin, the renowned twelfth-century Muslim general and re-conqueror of Jerusalem (1189), as well as the great Muslim philosophers Avicenna (980-1037) and Averroes (1126-1198).
In Paradiso 19 Dante completely transposes the problem of the virtuous pagan from the temporal axis to which we are accustomed—the problem of those who do not know Christ’s teachings because they lived before He did—to the geographical axis: the problem of those who do not know Christ’s teachings because they are born far away from Him.
Picking up from St. Francis’ preaching at the court of the Sultan from Paradiso 11 (it is worth bearing in mind that Franciscan missionaries were going east in this period), Dante here poses the question of the man born on the banks of the Indus (verses 70-71). This man is defined as perfectly virtuous in all his acts, but living in a place in which no one has ever spoken of Christ, read of Christ, or written of Christ:
Un uom nasce a la riva de l’Indo, e quivi non è chi ragioni di Cristo né chi legga né chi scriva; e tutti suoi voleri e atti buoni sono, quanto ragione umana vede, sanza peccato in vita o in sermoni. (Par. 19.70-75)
A man is born along the shoreline of the Indus River; none is there to speak or teach or write of Christ. And he, as far as human reason sees, in all he seeks and all he does is good: there is no sin within his life or speech.
Dante’s emphasis in this passage is squarely on the transmission of ideas. He offers as his test case the example of someone condemned to an absolute lack of access to information about Christ, for there is no one in the specified geographical location who speaks or reads or writes of Him.
The issue of justice is thus tied up for Dante with the fact that there is no oral or written transmission of Christ’s teaching available on the banks of the Indus: “quivi non è chi ragioni / di Cristo né chi legga né chi scriva” (none is there to speak or teach or write of Christ [Par. 19.71-72]). We remember that Dante conceives his Stazio in ancient Rome as able to learn of Christianity because of both biblical and Vergilian texts that were transmitted and received, as discussed in the Introduction to Purgatorio 22. Dante’s Stazio is thereby materially advantaged with respect to Dante’s man born on the banks of the Indus.
Dante’s sense of the radical importance of access to knowledge is already expressed in the first chapter of Convivio, where Dante describes himself as one who knows firsthand the misery of deprivation and exclusion.
At the beginning of the Convivio Dante stipulates that men can be deprived of knowledge because of material defects in their places of birth, such as the lack of a University:
L’altra è lo difetto del luogo dove la persona è nata e nutrita,che tal ora sarà da ogni Studio non solamente privato, ma da gente studiosa lontano. (Conv. 1.1.4)
The other is the handicap that derives from the place where a person is born and bred, which at times will not only lack a university but be far removed from the company of educated persons. (Richard Lansing translation)
In the above passage Dante demonstrates a profound appreciation for the material causes and circumstances that condition and limit our lives: the significance of where we are born and where we are raised, and the deprivation caused by physical distance from and lack of access to educational resources. Dante is aware of his own good fortune in having been born not “da gente studiosa lontano” (far from the company of educated persons).
Dante’s sensitivity to deprivation caused by limitations in one’s material circumstances is further reflected in his keen awareness of the material transmission of knowledge. The concern that we see in this Convivio passage for the inequities that result from the uneven distribution of access to knowledge reappear in Paradiso 19. Again Dante considers “lo difetto del luogo dove la persona è nata e nudrita” (the handicap that derives from the place where a person is born and bred), this time with respect to a man born outside of the reach of Christian teachings, on the banks of the river Indus.
As in the Convivio passage, what is at stake for Dante is lack of knowledge, lack of access to the sources of knowledge, lack of access to the ragionare di Cristo, leggere di Cristo, and scrivere di Cristo that could produce knowledge.
And this is not just any knowledge: this is the knowledge that produces salvation. When, in Purgatorio 22, Stazio thanks Virgilio for the passage in Book 3 of the Aeneid from which he learned that prodigality is a sin, he states clearly that lack of such knowledge—“ignoranza” in Purg. 22.47—does not protect one from damnation as a prodigal: “Quanti risurgeran coi crini scemi / per ignoranza” (How many are to rise again with heads / cropped close, from ignorance [Purg. 22.46-47]).
In these circumstances, Dante’s concern for justice leads to two searing questions that pose a dramatic challenge to God’s perceived injustice. The pilgrim wants to know “Where is the justice that could condemn such a man?” and “Where is his fault if he does not believe?”
Muore non battezzato e sanza fede: ov’è questa giustizia che ’l condanna? ov’è la colpa sua, se ei non crede? (Par. 19.76-78)
And that man dies unbaptized, without faith. Where is this justice then that would condemn him? Where is his sin if he does not believe?
The eagle of justice responds by shutting down all dissent, and tells the pilgrim categorically that he, like all humans, is incapable of judging divine justice:
Or tu chi se’, che vuo’ sedere a scranna, per giudicar di lungi mille miglia con la veduta corta d’una spanna? (Par. 19.79-81)
Now who are you to sit upon the bench, to judge events a thousand miles away, when your own vision spans so brief a space?
In my opinion, however, Dante’s agonized questioning over this issue should not be dismissed because he is ultimately unable to condemn Christian orthodoxy. He is genuinely agonized, and he deserves credit for posing the questions that he poses.
My view is strengthened by the extraordinary passage at the end of this extraordinary canto. Paradiso 19 ends with an indictment of the kings of Europe who have failed to love justice, an indictment that comes back to the question of “knowing Christ” and turns it on its head.
Here Dante provocatively claims that at the Judgment Day there will be many Christians (those who “now cry ‘Christ, Christ’” in Par. 19.106) who will be less near to Him than “he who does not know Christ” (“tal che non conosce Cristo” [Par. 19.108]), and indeed that the Ethiopian will condemn such a Christian (Par. 19.109). Whether one takes this passage restrictively, to mean that the virtuous but damned heathens will castigate the damned Christians who neglected to hear the gospel and to be saved, or—as I prefer—expansively, to mean that through their meritorious works pagans may yet be saved, in any case Dante’s passage is one that dignifies the Ethiopian.
A personal note. When I accepted the Premio Flaiano in Pescara in 2007 I used my two minutes on Italian television to bring to the Italian public precisely the verses from Paradiso 19 on the Ethiopian who will be closer to God at the Judgment Day than many Christians.
Appendix on Indians and Ethiopians in the Commedia,
Including a Plausible Source in Aristotle
On Indians and Ethiopians—that is, Asians and Africans (“Asyani et Affricani” in Monarchia 3.14.7)—Dante offers interestingly coordinated references in the Commedia, referring three times to India/Indians and three times to Ethiopia/Ethiopians. These references are balanced among the three cantiche: one set of references belongs to Inferno, a second set to Purgatorio, and a third set to Paradiso. You will find a table of the precise references below.
While the Inferno references to Indians and Ethiopians belong to different canti (Inferno 14 and Inferno 24 respectively), the Purgatorio references are not only in the same canto, but indeed in the same verse: Purgatorio 26.21 refers to both Indians and Ethiopians. The Paradiso references to Indians and Ethiopians are both found in Paradiso 19.
Given that the coordination of Indians and Ethiopians—the “Asyani et Affricani” of the Monarchia—is a consistent part of Dante’s program, it is very interesting to discover that Aristotle offers a coordinated reference to Indians and Ethiopians in his On Sophistical Refutations, in a passage that Dante certainly knew. Dante cites On Sophistical Refutations in Monarchia 3.1.4. In Book 3 chapter 4 of Monarchia Dante follows Aristotelian precepts from On Sophistical Refutations to refute his opponents both absolutely and in a certain respect (simpliciter et secundum quid). It is precisely in a discussion of this fallacy, in chapter 5 of On Sophistical Refutations, that Aristotle uses the coordinated examples of Indians and Ethiopians:
In like manner when something is predicated in a certain respect and absolutely; for example, ‘If an Indian, being black all over, is white in respect of his teeth, then he is white and not white.’ Or if both attributes belong in a certain respect, they say that the contrary attributes belong simultaneously. In some cases this sort of fallacy can be easily perceived by anyone; if, for example, after securing an admission that the Ethiopian is black, one were to ask whether he is white in respect of his teeth, and then, if he be white in this respect, were to think that he had finished the interrogation and had proved dialectically that he was both black and not black. (On Sophistical Refutations, ch. 5, translation of E. S. Forster in the Loeb Classical Library edition [London: Heinemann and Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1955])
The examples of the secundum quid fallacy that Aristotle offers in On Sophistical Refutations chapter 5 are examples based on the blackness of both Indians and Ethiopians: “If an Indian, being black all over, is white in respect of his teeth . . . if, for example, after securing an admission that the Ethiopian is black, one were to ask whether he is white in respect of his teeth” (On Sophistical Refutations, 5 166b 29). Aristotle here coordinates references to Indians and Ethiopians, as Dante always does in the Commedia.
The coordination of Indians and Ethiopians in a passage of Aristotle’s work that Dante uses in Monarchia—a text where he refers, moreover, to “Asyani et Affricani” (3.14.7)—plausibly provides a model and a source for Dante’s program of coordinated references to Indians and Ethiopians throughout the Commedia.
TABLE OF REFERENCES TO INDIANS
AND ETHIOPIANS IN THE COMMEDIA
Below is a table, organized by cantica, of the coordinated references to Indians and Ethiopians in the Commedia. I exclude the Commedia’s many references in astronomical periphrases to the river Ganges. In my view, Dante seems to use the river Ganges as a spatial marker, and the river Indus as an ethnic marker.
|Inf. 14.32||d’India vide sopra ’l suo stuolo||Inf. 24.89||mostrò già mai con tutta l’Etiopia|
|Purg. 26.21||che d’acqua fredda Indo o Etiopo||Purg. 26.21||che d’acqua fredda Indo o Etiopo|
|Par. 19.71||de l’Indo, e quivi non è chi ragioni||Par. 19.109||e tai Cristian dannerà l’Etiòpe|
The above references can be synthesized as follows:
- Dante refers to the places “India” and “Ethiopia” in Inferno, in Inferno 14 and Inferno 24 respectively
- Dante refers to the people “Indians” and “Ethiopians” in Purgatorio 26.21, where both populations are cited for their desire for cold water, in other words, as denizens of torrid lands
- Dante refers to the people again in Paradiso 19, where we find coordinated references to both groups as examples of non-Christians who may well be more virtuous than Christians
Since I have emphasized the dignity accorded to Ethiopians in Paradiso 19, I should mention as well the negative invocation of black people in Inferno 34. The blackness of one of Lucifer’s three faces is indicated by a periphrasis, designating the color black by conjuring “those / who come from where the Nile, descending, flows”: “quali / vegnon di là onde ’l Nilo s’avvalla” (Inf. 34.44-5).
The place referred to through the periphrasis about the Nile is the area from which Ethiopians come. Chiavacci Leonardi glosses the periphrasis thus: “cioè di tal colore, quali sono coloro che provengono dalla regione (l’Etiopia) dove il Nilo scende dai monti in pianura (s’avvalla): quindi di colore nero” (of such a color as those who come from the region, Ethiopia, where the Nile descends from the mountains to the plain: thus the color black).
Although the periphrasis of Inferno 34 is not a negative remark about Ethiopians per se, the use of the Ethiopians’ color to describe Lucifer’s face can hardly be viewed as positive. Similarly, there is no negative comment about Jews in Inferno 34, but the use of the name “Giudecca” for the zone of the ninth circle that encompasses Lucifer cannot be taken as a positive indicator.
In her 2007 commentary to Othello, Kim Hall notes that “in early modern Europe ‘Ethiopian’ frequently referred to black peoples in general”; see Othello, the Moor of Venice: Texts and Contexts, ed. Kim F. Hall (Boston 2007, p. 185). For the man on the banks of the Indus, the Bosco-Reggio commentary notes: “Si designa inoltre, in modo generico l’Oriente” (p. 324); see Paradiso, ed. Umberto Bosco and Giovanni Reggio (Florence 1979). And note the similarly generic word “Perse” or “Persians”, used in the same canto that contains the Ethiopians and the man on the banks of the Indus: “Che poran dir li Perse a’ vostri regi” (What shall the Persians say to your kings [Par. 19.112]).
 The restrictive interpretation may be found in the commentary of Robert Hollander, while the expansive interpretation may be found in the commentary of Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi, with whose position I wholeheartedly agree.