Dante has two pressing doubts (“dubbi”) that he needs to have resolved. Beatrice begins by prioritizing them, indicating which one is more dangerous and must therefore be removed first. The two dubbi both derive from Paradiso 3.
It is typical of the narrative progress of Paradiso to have the discussion spurred by the pilgrim’s doubts and concerns, and in this way be linked to the discussions of previous canti. This narrative rhythm creates a kind of terza rima writ large: in the same way that the rhyme scheme that Dante invented, terza rima, features backward glances interwoven into forward motion, in a similar fashion the content both reflects back and then moves on. We saw a similar technique in Purgatorio 15 and Purgatorio 16, in both of which a dubbio remaining in the pilgrim’s mind from Purgatorio 14 takes center stage.
The dubbi that fuel Paradiso 4 are:
- Why are the souls of the heaven of the moon held responsible for their broken vows when they were the victims of violence? The question is first posed thus:
Tu argomenti: “Se ’l buon voler dura, la violenza altrui per qual ragione di meritar mi scema la misura?” (Par. 4.19-21)
You reason: “If my will to good persists, why should the violence of others cause the measure of my merit to be less?”
Later in the canto Beatrice elaborates on Dante’s concern, which also involves an apparent contradiction between her words and Piccarda’s. Piccarda had indicated that the Empress Costanza always remained faithful to her monastic vows, while Beatrice observed that the commitment of the souls in the heaven of the moon was not total. Which of these two ladies—Piccarda or Beatrice—is lying? (The strong verb, “mentire”, is Dante’s own, in Paradiso 4.95.)
- Is Plato’s doctrine true?
Ancor di dubitar ti dà cagione parer tornarsi l’anime a le stelle, secondo la sentenza di Platone. (Par. 4.22-24)
And you are also led to doubt because the doctrine Plato taught would find support by souls’ appearing to return to the stars.
Here Dante is referring to the doctrine from the Timaeus (the only Platonic work that was, partially, available in Dante’s time), according to which souls are governed by their natal stars, to which they return in between earthly incarnations. Having seen souls “relegated to the slowest sphere,” Dante has naturally jumped to the conclusion that souls return to the stars that determined their earthly inclinations: thus, he suspects that inconstant souls return to the moon, erotically inclined souls to Venus, martially inclined souls to Mars, and so forth.
Beatrice answers the second question first because, she says, it has more venom in it: Plato’s doctrine, if taken literally, could lead to the dangerous and heretical belief in astral determinism. To offer some context with respect to the willingness of the authorities to condemn as heretics those who believe that the stars determine our choices, I give the example of the astrologer and medical doctor Cecco d’Ascoli, who was burned for heresy in Florence in 1327 (six years after Dante’s death). Although Cecco repeatedly states that he does not hold with astral determinism, the inquisitors found that he did (or pretended to find that he did), and sentenced him.
Beatrice’s answer to the second dubbio is fascinating in many ways. Again, as with the discourse on the order of the universe in Paradiso 1, Beatrice’s reply begins with a question that is local and specific, then moves to a conceptual place that much precedes it, back to first principles. And, as she did in the discussion of moon spots in Paradiso 2, Beatrice begins by shifting from the material to the immaterial, from the physical heavens to the metaphysical state of being beyond space-time that is eternity with God.
She explains that Plato’s doctrine is only true as a kind of metaphor for the influence that our natal stars can have upon us (Par. 4.58-60), while stipulating that of course the stars cannot possibly determine our choices, because then we would have no free will (a lesson we already learned from Marco Lombardo in Purgatorio 16).
In fact, to make the lack of causal linkage between souls and stars crystal clear, she explains that the souls are not really in these material heavens. They only appear in the various heavens for the sake of the pilgrim. In reality, all the souls of paradise—from Piccarda to the highest Seraph—are together in the Empyrean:
D’i Serafin colui che più s’india, Moisè, Samuel, e quel Giovanni che prender vuoli, io dico, non Maria, non hanno in altro cielo i loro scanni che questi spirti che mo t’appariro, né hanno a l’esser lor più o meno anni; ma tutti fanno bello il primo giro, e differentemente han dolce vita per sentir più e men l’etterno spiro. (Par. 4.28-36)
Neither the Seraph closest unto God, nor Moses, Samuel, nor either John— whichever one you will—nor Mary has, I say, their place in any other heaven than that which houses those souls you just saw, nor will their blessedness last any longer. But all those souls grace the Empyrean; and each of them has gentle life—though some sense the Eternal Spirit more, some less.
So all the blessed are united in the Empyrean: “ma tutti fanno bello il primo giro.” Is there then no difference between them? Has difference been truly eliminated? Of course not. As I wrote in The Undivine Comedy: “There is no difference in paradise, but then again, as wonderfully signified by the conquering adverb ‘differentemente’, whose six syllables (five with elision) spread over most of the pivotal verse in which it is situated, there is” (p. 186).
Difference still exists; it has moved from the external to the internal, from the physical to the metaphysical. The heavens are a fiction that allows Dante to grasp what he would otherwise not be able to understand, namely the difference in spiritual attainment of each individual soul:
e differentemente han dolce vita per sentir più e men l’etterno spiro. (Par. 4.35-36)
and differently each has gentle life: some sense the Eternal Spirit more, some less.
In other words, the physical differentiation that he sees is not real, but the spiritual differentiation that he cannot see, and which the heavens signify, is real.
Beatrice now moves in a “meta” direction, tackling representation itself. In the same way, she says, that the Bible condescends to our lowly human faculties, attributing hands and feet to God when it really is signifying something altogether different, so the Church similarly represents angels with human faces, when really angels are pure spirit:
e Santa Chiesa con aspetto umano Gabriel e Michel vi rappresenta, e l’altro che Tobia rifece sano. (Par. 4.46-48)
And Gabriel and Michael and the angel who healed the eyes of Tobit are portrayed by Holy Church with human visages.
This is a remarkable passage, because it is the straight truth: angels don’t really have human faces, but painters represent them as though they do. Similarly, a poet who has the task of representing paradise is able, for representational purposes, to take recourse to the convenient fiction of the heavens.
The second dubbio, the one about compulsion and the will, leads Beatrice to make a logical distinction. This turns out to be a frequent move in paradise: when faced with an insoluble problem, she will frequently introduce a distinction in order to “solve” it. Here the distinction is between absolute will and conditioned will (a will that is conditioned by circumstances): absolute will never consents to coercive force (and it was to absolute will that Piccarda referred when she said that Costanza never wavered in her vows), while conditioned will does consent (and it is to conditioned will that Beatrice referred when she claimed that the souls in the heaven of the moon faltered). As a result of the distinction between absolute and conditioned will, there is no contradiction between the claims of Piccarda and Beatrice after all. Both ladies are telling the truth: “sì che ver diciamo insieme” (Par. 4.114).
Just like the heavens in which the souls were only apparently arranged in a hierarchy, but really are all together and unified in the Empyrean, so the contradictory statements of Piccarda and Beatrice are revealed to be only apparently in contradiction. Conflict is avoided.
And yet conflict is a constant presence in these canti, through the issue of violence, present in the tales of violent abduction told by Piccarda in Paradiso 3 and reinforced in Paradiso 4 by the examples of those who were able to stay absolutely constant: St. Lawrence on the grill and Mucius who cut off his own hand (Par. 4.83-84; note the alternating biblical and classical examples as in Purgatorio).
Fewer themes are of deeper ethical and social consequence than that of violence. Dante’s position, as staked in Paradiso 4, is unnervingly absolute, unacceptable from a modern perspective, as it is unacceptable to hold Piccarda in any way to blame for the violence inflicted upon her by her brother. Beatrice instructs the pilgrim that a will that does not wish to be overcome will never give in: “volontà, se non vuol, non s’ammorza” (Par. 4.76). While Dante in no way condones the violent, he refuses to accept the status of victim.
There are many absolutes in this canto, and in conclusion let us pass from the harsh absolute of “volontà, se non vuol, non s’ammorza” to the great epistemological affirmation that we find at the end of Paradiso 4.
Dante insists on the capacity of the intellect to comprehend ontological reality, the “great sea of being” (“lo gran mar dell’essere” [Par. 1.113]). In the beautiful metaphor that he adopts at the end of Paradiso 4, he insists that we can “repose in the truth”, in other words, that we can indeed arrive at the comprehension of reality. The intellect reposes in the truth like the wild beast that returns to its lair:
Posasi in esso, come fera in lustra, tosto che giunto l’ha; e giugner puollo: se non, ciascun disio sarebbe frustra. (Par. 4.127-129)
Mind, reaching that truth, rests within it as a beast within its lair; mind can attain that truth—if not, all our desires were vain.