Paradiso 28 is the first of two canti devoted to the Primum Mobile, the heaven that actualizes all being. This property of the Primum Mobile is stated beautifully in the discourse on the heavens of Paradiso 2:
Dentro dal ciel de la divina pace si gira un corpo ne la cui virtute l’esser di tutto suo contento giace. (Par. 2.112-14)
Within the heaven of the godly peace revolves a body in whose power lies the being of all things that it enfolds.
The Primum Mobile is the last heaven before the Empyrean, to which we pass in Paradiso 30.
Paradiso 28 is a metaphysical canto, in which Dante considers the universe from a new perspective. Rather than the earth as a point at the center circled by ever larger heavens, he now imagines the universe inverted, with God as a luminous point at the center:
un punto vidi che raggiava lume acuto sì, che ’l viso ch’elli affoca chiuder conviensi per lo forte acume . . . (Par. 28.16-18)
I saw a point that sent forth so acute a light, that anyone who faced the force with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes . . .
The brilliant God-point is circled by heavens that grow ever slower as they are farther away from the divine point:
Così l’ottavo e ’l nono; e chiascheduno più tardo si movea, secondo ch’era in numero distante più da l’uno; e quello avea la fiamma più sincera cui men distava la favilla pura, credo, però che più di lei s’invera. (Par. 28.34-39)
The eighth and ninth were wider still; and each, even as greater distance lay between it and the first ring, moved with lesser speed; and, I believe, the ring with clearest flame was that which lay least far from the pure spark because it shares most deeply that point’s truth.
In the Old Universe, the earth is at the center of the nine material heavens (although made of special matter, “quintessence”, they are material). In the New Universe, God is at the center of the nine angelic intelligences, who spin faster and faster as they get closer to the transcendent principle. Below you will find attached a chart of New Universe and Old Universe, which, in my necessarily material rendition, appear side by side.
The vision Dante presents in Paradiso 28, where the pilgrim views God as the infinitely bright and infinitely tiny point at the center, and the various angelic intelligences as revolving circles that grow larger and slower as they grow more distant from the point, creates a visual paradox with respect to the notion of the universe we have held thus far.
By forcing us to complement the circumference model of the universe with a centrist one, Dante is trying to make us come to grips with the paradox of a point that is “enclosed by that which It encloses”: “inchiuso da quel ch’elli ’nchiude” (Par. 30.12). This point is both center and circumference, both the deep (Augustinian) within and the great (Aristotelian) without.
This paradox is what the presentation of a second model of the universe is all about: somehow, if we can hold both New Universe and Old Universe together in our minds, we will be able to have some sense of the “unmoved mover”, of the point “that is enclosed by that which It encloses”.
But, in Paradiso 28, Dante does not content himself with simply describing and affirming the paradox of the Enclosed that Encloses/the Enclosing that is Enclosed.
Dante decides to have Beatrice account rationally for the visual paradox that he has launched, rather than simply deploying it without attempting an explanation. Paradiso 28 is therefore a great intellective canto, akin to Paradiso 2 in its reliance on the language of difference.
Beatrice explains the “function” of the point in verses that are close to a literal translation of a passage from Aristotle’s Metaphysics:
La donna mia, che mi vedea in cura forte sospeso, disse: «Da quel punto depende il cielo e tutta la natura». (Par. 28.40-42)
My lady, who saw my perplexity— I was in such suspense—said: “On that Point depend the heavens and the whole of nature.”
Beatrice’s affirmation, “Da quel punto / depende il cielo e tutta la natura” (On that point depend the heavens and the whole of nature), is itself a restatement of the visual paradox of the Two Universes, since it asks us to understand how everything—“tutta la natura”—can depend on one point.
The pilgrim states that his intellectual fulfillment requires an explanation of the discrepancy between the universe as he now perceives it, the New Universe, and the universe as he has perceived it up to now, the Old Universe. He needs to understand the difference between the “essemplo” (the model, the original) and the “essemplare” (the copy) and how the two “go together”:
Onde, se ’l mio disir dee aver fine in questo miro e angelico templo che solo amore e luce ha per confine, udir convienmi ancor come l’essemplo e l’essemplare non vanno d’un modo, ché io per me indarno a ciò contemplo. (Par. 28.52-57)
Thus, if my longing is to gain its end in this amazing and angelic temple that has, as boundaries, only love and light, then I still have to hear just how the model and copy do not share in one same plan— for by myself I think on this in vain.
The scribal terminology (“essemplo” and “essemplare”) reminds us of Dante as scriba Dei in Paradiso 10.27, and goes back in Dante’s practice to the Vita Nuova and before. Dante sees that the essemplo and the essemplare “non vanno d’un modo”: they do not fit together, they are not the same. How then can they then be representations (again, essemplo and essemplare are terms with a definite representational spin) of the same thing?
Dante has chosen to set up two models of the universe: one material, “sensibile” (the “mondo sensibile” of Paradiso 28.49 is the world accessible to the senses), the other spiritual, beyond sense perception. He then poses the question: how can the two models coexist? How can they andare d’un modo? How can they be one? He further chooses to have Beatrice provide a rational answer to the problem.
Before looking at her answer, I would like to point out that Dante has found a way to render dramatically the pilgrim’s transgression of time and space, to literalize the coexistence of the physical and the metaphysical. After all, the pilgrim is somehow in the Primum Mobile of the physical universe, at the same time that he sees the Primum Mobile of the metaphysical universe circling around the fiery point. So, whether or not the two universes can be made to coexist in rational discourse (they cannot), the poet has made them coexist in his fictive reality.
At the level of the Commedia’s plot, the phenomenon that Beatrice now ventures to explain has already occurred.
The great discourse that follows is both philosophically cogent and also self-aware with respect to the ways in which language both addresses and creates the problem of the “essemplo” and the “essemplare”.
Dante presents Old Universe and New Universe as a paradox that is at the heart of the Christian explanation of everything there is: the Point that is enclosed by that which It encloses (Par. 30.12). He does so with the utmost seriousness and conviction. And, at the same time, he suggests awareness that the explanation will necessarily incur a linguistic sleight of hand: necessarily, because paradoxes are not susceptible of verbal explanation.
Beatrice’s explanation hinges on the verb corrispondere and the noun consequenza, both hapaxes in the Commedia. These terms are the key to her dilemma. She can set up correspondences—proportionally harmonious relations—between the two universes, but she cannot coalesce them, cannot in words collapse the physical and the metaphysical into one.
But she performs her explanation with complete confidence, and the narrator will refer after her explanation to her “risponder chiaro” (clear response ), which leaves him feeling—in a magnificent simile—like a sky that has been cleansed by a north-west wind (personified as Boreas, with his cheek puffed up, as in old maps) of all its mists and imperfections and is now “splendid and serene” (79-87). It is worth noting that Dante breaks up the intellective texture of Paradiso 28 with this baroque mixture of classical allusion and natural description. I think for instance also of the remarkable natural metaphor plus astronomical allusion of verses 115-18, in which heaven is “eternal springtime that the nightly Ram does not despoil” and in which the angelic hierarchies “perpetually unwinter themselves in Hosannas” (115-20).
Coming back to Beatrice’s explanation of how the two universes can “go together”, she unpacks the enigma as follows. The larger the material heaven the more blessedness it must contain, so that the largest material heaven perforce corresponds to the most blessed of the spiritual heavens: to the one that loves most, knows most, is closest to God, and hence the smallest.
If the pilgrim will readjust his perspective, looking not at the appearance of things (“la parvenza / de le sustanze” [74-75]) but at their inherent worth (“a la virtù” ), he will see a proportional correspondence between the most worthy of the material heavens (the largest and the fastest) and the most worthy of the spiritual heavens (the smallest and the fastest):
Li cerchi corporai sono ampi e arti secondo il più e ’l men de la virtute che si distende per tutte lor parti. Maggior bontà vuol far maggior salute; maggior salute maggior corpo cape, s’elli ha le parti igualmente compiute. Dunque costui che tutto quanto rape l’altro universo seco, corrisponde al cerchio che più ama e che più sape: per che, se tu a la virtù circonde la tua misura, non a la parvenza de le sustanze che t’appaion tonde, tu vederai mirabil consequenza di maggio a più e di minore a meno, in ciascun cielo, a süa intelligenza. (Par. 28.64-78)
The size of spheres of matter—large or small— depends upon the power—more and less— that spreads throughout their parts. More excellence yields greater blessedness; more blessedness must comprehend a greater body when that body’s parts are equally complete. And thus this sphere, which sweeps along with it the rest of all the universe, must match the circle that loves most and knows the most, so that, if you but draw your measure round the power within—and not the semblance of— the angels that appear to you as circles, you will discern a wonderful accord between each sphere and its Intelligence: greater accords with more, smaller with less.
Beatrice’s linguistic substitution provides an elegant solution to the problem, but is it a verbal sleight of hand? The correspondence of “maggio” to “più” and of “minore” to “meno” may be mirabile, but it does not succeed in collapsing the two universes into one on the page.
Paradiso 2 presents an analogous situation. The philosophical explanation of moon spot replaces the material cause for spots on the moon (espoused in the Convivio) with an immaterial cause, and at the same time also suggests an understanding of the linguistic bind incurred by the explanation: an understanding that, at some level, we are merely replacing one set of adjectives, “raro e denso” (on the material side of the equation), with another set of adjectives, “turbo e chiaro” (on the immaterial side).
There is another connection between Paradiso 2 and Paradiso 28; both canti provide corrections of earlier Dantean positions expressed in the Convivio. The latter part of Paradiso 28 discusses the angelic intelligences, and arranges them in a hierarchy: the only use in the Commedia of “gerarcia”—“hierarchy”—occurs in Paradiso 28.121. Whereas in the Convivio Dante had followed the angelic hierarchy of Gregory the Great, here he revises his earlier opinion, accepting instead the order of angels presented by Dionysius the Areopagite.
Another point that merits mention is the question of the primacy of love versus intellect in approaching the divine. Throughout Paradiso Dante has used chiasmus and other means to keep the two approaches in exquisite balance, but in Paradiso 28 he declares straight-out that vision—i.e. intellect—comes first:
Quinci si può veder come si fonda l’essere beato ne l’atto che vede, non in quel ch’ama, che poscia seconda; e del vedere è misura mercede, che grazia partorisce e buona voglia: così di grado in grado si procede. (Par. 28.109-14)
From this you see that blessedness depends upon the act of vision, not upon the act of love—which is a consequence; the measure of their vision lies in merit, produced by grace and then by will to goodness: and this is the progression, step by step.
The bald affirmation of the primacy of intellect, which will be balanced again (after all the last verse of the poem refers to God as “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle”) is a hallmark of this intellective canto.