Violence Versus Platonic Venom

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.

Coordinated Reading

Coordinated Reading: The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 8, “Problems in Paradise: The Mimesis of Time and the Paradox of più e meno”, pp. 183-89.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Paradiso 4: Violence Versus Platonic Venom.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/paradiso/paradiso-4/

About the Commento

1Intra due cibi, distanti e moventi
2d’un modo, prima si morria di fame,
3che liber’ omo l’un recasse ai denti;

4sì si starebbe un agno intra due brame
5di fieri lupi, igualmente temendo;
6sì si starebbe un cane intra due dame:

7per che, s’i’ mi tacea, me non riprendo,
8da li miei dubbi d’un modo sospinto,
9poi ch’era necessario, né commendo.

10Io mi tacea, ma ’l mio disir dipinto
11m’era nel viso, e ’l dimandar con ello,
12più caldo assai che per parlar distinto.

13Fé sì Beatrice qual fé Danïello,
14Nabuccodonosor levando d’ira,
15che l’avea fatto ingiustamente fello;

16e disse: «Io veggio ben come ti tira
17uno e altro disio, sì che tua cura
18sé stessa lega sì che fuor non spira.

19Tu argomenti: “Se ’l buon voler dura,
20la vïolenza altrui per qual ragione
21di meritar mi scema la misura?”.

22Ancor di dubitar ti dà cagione
23parer tornarsi l’anime a le stelle,
24secondo la sentenza di Platone.

25Queste son le question che nel tuo velle
26pontano igualmente; e però pria
27tratterò quella che più ha di felle.

28D’i Serafin colui che più s’india,
29Moïsè, Samuel, e quel Giovanni
30che prender vuoli, io dico, non Maria,

31non hanno in altro cielo i loro scanni
32che questi spirti che mo t’appariro,
33né hanno a l’esser lor più o meno anni;

34ma tutti fanno bello il primo giro,
35e differentemente han dolce vita
36per sentir più e men l’etterno spiro.

37Qui si mostraro, non perché sortita
38sia questa spera lor, ma per far segno
39de la celestïal c’ha men salita.

40Così parlar conviensi al vostro ingegno,
41però che solo da sensato apprende
42ciò che fa poscia d’intelletto degno.

43Per questo la Scrittura condescende
44a vostra facultate, e piedi e mano
45attribuisce a Dio e altro intende;

46e Santa Chiesa con aspetto umano
47Gabrïel e Michel vi rappresenta,
48e l’altro che Tobia rifece sano.

49Quel che Timeo de l’anime argomenta
50non è simile a ciò che qui si vede,
51però che, come dice, par che senta.

52Dice che l’alma a la sua stella riede,
53credendo quella quindi esser decisa
54quando natura per forma la diede;

55e forse sua sentenza è d’altra guisa
56che la voce non suona, ed esser puote
57con intenzion da non esser derisa.

58S’elli intende tornare a queste ruote
59l’onor de la influenza e ’l biasmo, forse
60in alcun vero suo arco percuote.

61Questo principio, male inteso, torse
62già tutto il mondo quasi, sì che Giove,
63Mercurio e Marte a nominar trascorse.

64L’altra dubitazion che ti commove
65ha men velen, però che sua malizia
66non ti poria menar da me altrove.

67Parere ingiusta la nostra giustizia
68ne li occhi d’i mortali, è argomento
69di fede e non d’eretica nequizia.

70Ma perché puote vostro accorgimento
71ben penetrare a questa veritate,
72come disiri, ti farò contento.

73Se vïolenza è quando quel che pate
74nïente conferisce a quel che sforza,
75non fuor quest’ alme per essa scusate:

76ché volontà, se non vuol, non s’ammorza,
77ma fa come natura face in foco,
78se mille volte vïolenza il torza.

79Per che, s’ella si piega assai o poco,
80segue la forza; e così queste fero
81possendo rifuggir nel santo loco.

82Se fosse stato lor volere intero,
83come tenne Lorenzo in su la grada,
84e fece Muzio a la sua man severo,

85così l’avria ripinte per la strada
86ond’ eran tratte, come fuoro sciolte;
87ma così salda voglia è troppo rada.

88E per queste parole, se ricolte
89l’hai come dei, è l’argomento casso
90che t’avria fatto noia ancor più volte.

91Ma or ti s’attraversa un altro passo
92dinanzi a li occhi, tal che per te stesso
93non usciresti: pria saresti lasso.

94Io t’ho per certo ne la mente messo
95ch’alma beata non poria mentire,
96però ch’è sempre al primo vero appresso;

97e poi potesti da Piccarda udire
98che l’affezion del vel Costanza tenne;
99sì ch’ella par qui meco contradire.

100Molte fïate già, frate, addivenne
101che, per fuggir periglio, contra grato
102si fé di quel che far non si convenne;

103come Almeone, che, di ciò pregato
104dal padre suo, la propria madre spense,
105per non perder pietà si fé spietato.

106A questo punto voglio che tu pense
107che la forza al voler si mischia, e fanno
108sì che scusar non si posson l’offense.

109Voglia assoluta non consente al danno;
110ma consentevi in tanto in quanto teme,
111se si ritrae, cadere in più affanno.

112Però, quando Piccarda quello spreme,
113de la voglia assoluta intende, e io
114de l’altra; sì che ver diciamo insieme».

115Cotal fu l’ondeggiar del santo rio
116ch’uscì del fonte ond’ ogne ver deriva;
117tal puose in pace uno e altro disio.

118«O amanza del primo amante, o diva»,
119diss’ io appresso, «il cui parlar m’inonda
120e scalda sì, che più e più m’avviva,

121non è l’affezion mia tanto profonda,
122che basti a render voi grazia per grazia;
123ma quei che vede e puote a ciò risponda.

124Io veggio ben che già mai non si sazia
125nostro intelletto, se ’l ver non lo illustra
126di fuor dal qual nessun vero si spazia.

127Posasi in esso, come fera in lustra,
128tosto che giunto l’ha; e giugner puollo:
129se non, ciascun disio sarebbe frustra.

130Nasce per quello, a guisa di rampollo,
131a piè del vero il dubbio; ed è natura
132ch’al sommo pinge noi di collo in collo.

133Questo m’invita, questo m’assicura
134con reverenza, donna, a dimandarvi
135d’un’altra verità che m’è oscura.

136Io vo’ saper se l’uom può sodisfarvi
137ai voti manchi sì con altri beni,
138ch’a la vostra statera non sien parvi».

139Beatrice mi guardò con li occhi pieni
140di faville d’amor così divini,
141che, vinta, mia virtute diè le reni,

142e quasi mi perdei con li occhi chini.

Before a man bit into one of two
foods equally removed and tempting, he
would die of hunger if his choice were free;

so would a lamb stand motionless between
the cravings of two savage wolves, in fear
of both; so would a dog between two deer;

thus, I need neither blame nor praise myself
when both my doubts compelled me equally:
what kept me silent was necessity.

I did not speak, but in my face were seen
longing and questioning, more ardent than
if spoken words had made them evident.

Then Beatrice did just as Daniel did,
when he appeased Nebuchadnezzar’s anger,
the rage that made the king unjustly fierce.

She said: “I see how both desires draw you,
so that your anxiousness to know is self—
entangled and cannot express itself.

You reason: ‘If my will to good persists,
why should the violence of others cause
the measure of my merit to be less?’

And you are also led to doubt because
the doctrine Plato taught would find support
by souls’ appearing to return to the stars.

These are the questions that, within your will,
press equally for answers; therefore, I
shall treat the most insidious question first.

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.

They showed themselves to you here not because
this is their sphere, but as a sign for you
that in the Empyrean their place is lowest.

Such signs are suited to your mind, since from
the senses only can it apprehend
what then becomes fit for the intellect.

And this is why the Bible condescends
to human powers, assigning feet and hands
to God, but meaning something else instead.

And Gabriel and Michael and the angel
who healed the eyes of Tobit are portrayed
by Holy Church with human visages.

That which Timaeus said in reasoning
of souls does not describe what you have seen,
since it would seem that as he speaks he thinks.

He says the soul returns to that same star
from which—so he believes—it had been taken
when nature sent that soul as form to body;

but his opinion is, perhaps, to be
taken in other guise than his words speak,
intending something not to be derided.

If to these spheres he wanted to attribute
honor and blame for what they influence,
perhaps his arrow reaches something true.

This principle, ill—understood, misled
almost all of the world once, so that Jove
and Mercury and Mars gave names to stars.

The other doubt that agitates you is
less poisonous; for its insidiousness
is not such as to lead you far from me.

To mortal eyes our justice seems unjust;
that this is so, should serve as evidence
for faith—not heresy’s depravity.

But that your intellect may penetrate
more carefully into your other query,
I shall—as you desire—explain it clearly.

If violence means that the one who suffers
has not abetted force in any way,
then there is no excuse these souls can claim:

for will, if it resists, is never spent,
but acts as nature acts when fire ascends,
though force—a thousand times—tries to compel.

So that, when will has yielded much or little,
it has abetted force—as these souls did:
they could have fled back to their holy shelter.

Had their will been as whole as that which held
Lawrence fast to the grate and that which made
of Mucius one who judged his own hand, then

once freed, they would have willed to find the faith
from which they had been dragged; but it is all
too seldom that a will is so intact.

And through these words, if you have grasped their bent,
you can eliminate the argument
that would have troubled you again—and often.

But now another obstacle obstructs
your sight; you cannot overcome it by
yourself—it is too wearying to try.

I’ve set it in your mind as something certain
that souls in blessedness can never lie,
since they are always near the Primal Truth.

But from Piccarda you were also able
to hear how Constance kept her love of the veil:
and here Piccarda seems to contradict me.

Before this—brother—it has often happened
that, to flee menace, men unwillingly
did what should not be done; so did Alcmaeon,

to meet the wishes of his father, kill
his mother—not to fail in filial
piety, he acted ruthlessly.

At that point—I would have you see—the forcea
to which one yielded mingles with one’s will;
and no excuse can pardon their joint act.

Absolute will does not concur in wrong;
but the contingent will, through fear that its
resistance might bring greater harm, consents.

Therefore, Piccarda means the absolute
will when she speaks, and I the relative;
so that the two of us have spoken truth.”

Such was the rippling of the holy stream
issuing from the fountain from which springs
all truth: it set to rest both of my longings.

Then I said: “O beloved of the First
Lover, o you—divine—whose speech so floods
and warms me that I feel more and more life,

however deep my gratefulness, it can
not match your grace with grace enough; but He
who sees and can—may He grant recompense.

I now see well: we cannot satisfy
our mind unless it is enlightened by
the truth beyond whose boundary no truth lies.

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.

Therefore, our doubting blossoms like a shoot
out from the root of truth; this natural
urge spurs us toward the peak, from height to height.

Lady, my knowing why we doubt, invites,
sustains, my reverent asking you about
another truth that is obscure to me.

I want to know if, in your eyes, one can
amend for unkept vows with other acts—
good works your balance will not find too scant.”

Then Beatrice looked at me with eyes so full
of sparks of love, eyes so divine that my
own force of sight was overcome, took flight,

and, eyes downcast, I almost lost my senses.

BETWEEN two viands, equally removed
And tempting, a free man would die of hunger
Ere either he could bring unto his teeth.

So would a lamb between the ravenings
Of two fierce wolves stand fearing both alike;
And so would stand a dog between two does.

Hence, if I held my peace, myself I blame not,
Impelled in equal measure by my doubts,
Since it must be so, nor do I commend.

I held my peace; but my desire was painted
Upon my face, and questioning with that
More fervent far than by articulate speech.

Beatrice did as Daniel had done
Relieving Nebuchadnezzar from the wrath
Which rendered him unjustly merciless,

And said: “Well see I how attracteth thee
One and the other wish, so that thy care
Binds itself so that forth it does not breathe.

Thou arguest, if good will be permanent,
The violence of others, for what reason
Doth it decrease the measure of my merit?

Again for doubting furnish thee occasion
Souls seeming to return unto the stars,
According to the sentiment of Plato.

These are the questions which upon thy wish
Are thrusting equally; and therefore first
Will I treat that which hath the most of gall.

He of the Seraphim most absorbed in God,
Moses, and Samuel, and whichever John
Thou mayst select, I say, and even Mary,

Have not in any other heaven their seats,
Than have those spirits that just appeared to thee,
Nor of existence more or fewer years;

But all make beautiful the primal circle,
And have sweet life in different degrees,
By feeling more or less the eternal breath.

They showed themselves here, not because allotted
This sphere has been to them, but to give sign
Of the celestial which is least exalted.

To speak thus is adapted to your mind,
Since only through the sense it apprehendeth
What then it worthy makes of intellect.

On this account the Scripture condescends
Unto your faculties, and feet and hands
To God attributes, and means something else;

And Holy Church under an aspect human
Gabriel and Michael represent to you,
And him who made Tobias whole again.

That which Timceus argues of the soul
Doth not resemble that which here is seen,
Because it seems that as he speaks he thinks.

He says the soul unto its star returns,
Believing it to have been severed thence
Whenever nature gave it as a form

Perhaps his doctrine is of other guise
Than the words sound, and possibly may be
With meaning that is not to be derided.

If he doth mean that to these wheels return
The honour of their influence and the blame,
Perhaps his bow doth hit upon some truth.

This principle ill understood once warped
The whole world nearly, till it went astray
Invoking Jove and Mercury and Mars.

The other doubt which doth disquiet thee
Less venom has, for its malevolence
Could never lead thee otherwhere from me.

That as unjust our justice should appear
In eyes of mortals, is an argument
Of faith, and not of sin heretical.

But still, that your perception may be able
To thoroughly penetrate this verity,
As thou desirest, I will satisfy thee.

If it be violence when he who suffers
Co—operates not with him who uses force,
These souls were not on that account excused;

For will is never quenched unless it will,
But operates as nature doth in fire
If violence a thousand times distort it.

Hence, if it yieldeth more or less, it seconds
The force; and these have done so, having power
Of turning back unto the holy place.

If their will had been perfect, like to that
Which Lawrence fast upon his gridiron held,
And Mutius made severe to his own hand,

It would have urged them back along the road
tab Whence they were dragged, as soon as they were free;
But such a solid will is all too rare.

And by these words, if thou hast gathered them
As thou shouldst do, the argument is refuted
That would have still annoyed thee many times.

But now another passage runs accross
Before thine eyes, and such that by thyself
Thou couldst not thread it ere thou wouldst be weary.

I have for certain put into thy mind
That soul beatified could never lie.
For it is near the primal Truth,

And then thou from Piccarda might’st have heard
Costanza kept affection for the veil,
So that she seemeth here to contradict me.

Many times, brother, has it come to pass,
That, to escape from peril, with reluctance
That has been done it was not right to do,

E’en as Alcaemon (who, being by his father
Thereto entreated, his own mother slew)
Not to lose pity pitiless became.

At this point I desire thee to remember
That force with will commingles, and they cause
That the offences cannot be excused.

Will absolute consenteth not to evil;
But in so far consenteth as it fears,
If it refrain, to fall into more harm

Hence when Piccarda uses this expression,
She meaneth the will absolute, and I
The other, so that both of us speak truth.”

Such was the flowing of the holy river
That issued from the fount whence springs all truth;
This put to rest my wishes one and all.

“O love of the first lover, O divine,”
Said I forthwith, “whose speech inundates me
And warms me so, it more and more revives me,

My own affection is not so profound
As to suffice in rendering grace for grace;
Let Him, who sees and can, thereto respond.

Well I perceive that never sated is
Our intellect unless the Truth illume it,
Beyond which nothing true expands itself.

It rests therein, as wild beast in his lair,
When it attains it; and it can attain it;
If not, then each desire would frustrate be.

Therefore springs up, in fashion of a shoot,
Doubt at the foot of truth; and this is nature,
Which to the top from height to height impels us.

This doth invite me, this assurance give me
With reverence, Lady, to inquire of you
Another true, which is obscure to me.

I wish to know if man can satisfy you
For broken vows with other good deeds, so
That in your balance they will not be light.”

Beatrice gazed upon me with her eyes
Full of the sparks of love, and so divine,
That, overcome my power, I turned my back

And almost lost myself with eyes downcast.

Before a man bit into one of two
foods equally removed and tempting, he
would die of hunger if his choice were free;

so would a lamb stand motionless between
the cravings of two savage wolves, in fear
of both; so would a dog between two deer;

thus, I need neither blame nor praise myself
when both my doubts compelled me equally:
what kept me silent was necessity.

I did not speak, but in my face were seen
longing and questioning, more ardent than
if spoken words had made them evident.

Then Beatrice did just as Daniel did,
when he appeased Nebuchadnezzar’s anger,
the rage that made the king unjustly fierce.

She said: “I see how both desires draw you,
so that your anxiousness to know is self—
entangled and cannot express itself.

You reason: ‘If my will to good persists,
why should the violence of others cause
the measure of my merit to be less?’

And you are also led to doubt because
the doctrine Plato taught would find support
by souls’ appearing to return to the stars.

These are the questions that, within your will,
press equally for answers; therefore, I
shall treat the most insidious question first.

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.

They showed themselves to you here not because
this is their sphere, but as a sign for you
that in the Empyrean their place is lowest.

Such signs are suited to your mind, since from
the senses only can it apprehend
what then becomes fit for the intellect.

And this is why the Bible condescends
to human powers, assigning feet and hands
to God, but meaning something else instead.

And Gabriel and Michael and the angel
who healed the eyes of Tobit are portrayed
by Holy Church with human visages.

That which Timaeus said in reasoning
of souls does not describe what you have seen,
since it would seem that as he speaks he thinks.

He says the soul returns to that same star
from which—so he believes—it had been taken
when nature sent that soul as form to body;

but his opinion is, perhaps, to be
taken in other guise than his words speak,
intending something not to be derided.

If to these spheres he wanted to attribute
honor and blame for what they influence,
perhaps his arrow reaches something true.

This principle, ill—understood, misled
almost all of the world once, so that Jove
and Mercury and Mars gave names to stars.

The other doubt that agitates you is
less poisonous; for its insidiousness
is not such as to lead you far from me.

To mortal eyes our justice seems unjust;
that this is so, should serve as evidence
for faith—not heresy’s depravity.

But that your intellect may penetrate
more carefully into your other query,
I shall—as you desire—explain it clearly.

If violence means that the one who suffers
has not abetted force in any way,
then there is no excuse these souls can claim:

for will, if it resists, is never spent,
but acts as nature acts when fire ascends,
though force—a thousand times—tries to compel.

So that, when will has yielded much or little,
it has abetted force—as these souls did:
they could have fled back to their holy shelter.

Had their will been as whole as that which held
Lawrence fast to the grate and that which made
of Mucius one who judged his own hand, then

once freed, they would have willed to find the faith
from which they had been dragged; but it is all
too seldom that a will is so intact.

And through these words, if you have grasped their bent,
you can eliminate the argument
that would have troubled you again—and often.

But now another obstacle obstructs
your sight; you cannot overcome it by
yourself—it is too wearying to try.

I’ve set it in your mind as something certain
that souls in blessedness can never lie,
since they are always near the Primal Truth.

But from Piccarda you were also able
to hear how Constance kept her love of the veil:
and here Piccarda seems to contradict me.

Before this—brother—it has often happened
that, to flee menace, men unwillingly
did what should not be done; so did Alcmaeon,

to meet the wishes of his father, kill
his mother—not to fail in filial
piety, he acted ruthlessly.

At that point—I would have you see—the forcea
to which one yielded mingles with one’s will;
and no excuse can pardon their joint act.

Absolute will does not concur in wrong;
but the contingent will, through fear that its
resistance might bring greater harm, consents.

Therefore, Piccarda means the absolute
will when she speaks, and I the relative;
so that the two of us have spoken truth.”

Such was the rippling of the holy stream
issuing from the fountain from which springs
all truth: it set to rest both of my longings.

Then I said: “O beloved of the First
Lover, o you—divine—whose speech so floods
and warms me that I feel more and more life,

however deep my gratefulness, it can
not match your grace with grace enough; but He
who sees and can—may He grant recompense.

I now see well: we cannot satisfy
our mind unless it is enlightened by
the truth beyond whose boundary no truth lies.

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.

Therefore, our doubting blossoms like a shoot
out from the root of truth; this natural
urge spurs us toward the peak, from height to height.

Lady, my knowing why we doubt, invites,
sustains, my reverent asking you about
another truth that is obscure to me.

I want to know if, in your eyes, one can
amend for unkept vows with other acts—
good works your balance will not find too scant.”

Then Beatrice looked at me with eyes so full
of sparks of love, eyes so divine that my
own force of sight was overcome, took flight,

and, eyes downcast, I almost lost my senses.

BETWEEN two viands, equally removed
And tempting, a free man would die of hunger
Ere either he could bring unto his teeth.

So would a lamb between the ravenings
Of two fierce wolves stand fearing both alike;
And so would stand a dog between two does.

Hence, if I held my peace, myself I blame not,
Impelled in equal measure by my doubts,
Since it must be so, nor do I commend.

I held my peace; but my desire was painted
Upon my face, and questioning with that
More fervent far than by articulate speech.

Beatrice did as Daniel had done
Relieving Nebuchadnezzar from the wrath
Which rendered him unjustly merciless,

And said: “Well see I how attracteth thee
One and the other wish, so that thy care
Binds itself so that forth it does not breathe.

Thou arguest, if good will be permanent,
The violence of others, for what reason
Doth it decrease the measure of my merit?

Again for doubting furnish thee occasion
Souls seeming to return unto the stars,
According to the sentiment of Plato.

These are the questions which upon thy wish
Are thrusting equally; and therefore first
Will I treat that which hath the most of gall.

He of the Seraphim most absorbed in God,
Moses, and Samuel, and whichever John
Thou mayst select, I say, and even Mary,

Have not in any other heaven their seats,
Than have those spirits that just appeared to thee,
Nor of existence more or fewer years;

But all make beautiful the primal circle,
And have sweet life in different degrees,
By feeling more or less the eternal breath.

They showed themselves here, not because allotted
This sphere has been to them, but to give sign
Of the celestial which is least exalted.

To speak thus is adapted to your mind,
Since only through the sense it apprehendeth
What then it worthy makes of intellect.

On this account the Scripture condescends
Unto your faculties, and feet and hands
To God attributes, and means something else;

And Holy Church under an aspect human
Gabriel and Michael represent to you,
And him who made Tobias whole again.

That which Timceus argues of the soul
Doth not resemble that which here is seen,
Because it seems that as he speaks he thinks.

He says the soul unto its star returns,
Believing it to have been severed thence
Whenever nature gave it as a form

Perhaps his doctrine is of other guise
Than the words sound, and possibly may be
With meaning that is not to be derided.

If he doth mean that to these wheels return
The honour of their influence and the blame,
Perhaps his bow doth hit upon some truth.

This principle ill understood once warped
The whole world nearly, till it went astray
Invoking Jove and Mercury and Mars.

The other doubt which doth disquiet thee
Less venom has, for its malevolence
Could never lead thee otherwhere from me.

That as unjust our justice should appear
In eyes of mortals, is an argument
Of faith, and not of sin heretical.

But still, that your perception may be able
To thoroughly penetrate this verity,
As thou desirest, I will satisfy thee.

If it be violence when he who suffers
Co—operates not with him who uses force,
These souls were not on that account excused;

For will is never quenched unless it will,
But operates as nature doth in fire
If violence a thousand times distort it.

Hence, if it yieldeth more or less, it seconds
The force; and these have done so, having power
Of turning back unto the holy place.

If their will had been perfect, like to that
Which Lawrence fast upon his gridiron held,
And Mutius made severe to his own hand,

It would have urged them back along the road
tab Whence they were dragged, as soon as they were free;
But such a solid will is all too rare.

And by these words, if thou hast gathered them
As thou shouldst do, the argument is refuted
That would have still annoyed thee many times.

But now another passage runs accross
Before thine eyes, and such that by thyself
Thou couldst not thread it ere thou wouldst be weary.

I have for certain put into thy mind
That soul beatified could never lie.
For it is near the primal Truth,

And then thou from Piccarda might’st have heard
Costanza kept affection for the veil,
So that she seemeth here to contradict me.

Many times, brother, has it come to pass,
That, to escape from peril, with reluctance
That has been done it was not right to do,

E’en as Alcaemon (who, being by his father
Thereto entreated, his own mother slew)
Not to lose pity pitiless became.

At this point I desire thee to remember
That force with will commingles, and they cause
That the offences cannot be excused.

Will absolute consenteth not to evil;
But in so far consenteth as it fears,
If it refrain, to fall into more harm

Hence when Piccarda uses this expression,
She meaneth the will absolute, and I
The other, so that both of us speak truth.”

Such was the flowing of the holy river
That issued from the fount whence springs all truth;
This put to rest my wishes one and all.

“O love of the first lover, O divine,”
Said I forthwith, “whose speech inundates me
And warms me so, it more and more revives me,

My own affection is not so profound
As to suffice in rendering grace for grace;
Let Him, who sees and can, thereto respond.

Well I perceive that never sated is
Our intellect unless the Truth illume it,
Beyond which nothing true expands itself.

It rests therein, as wild beast in his lair,
When it attains it; and it can attain it;
If not, then each desire would frustrate be.

Therefore springs up, in fashion of a shoot,
Doubt at the foot of truth; and this is nature,
Which to the top from height to height impels us.

This doth invite me, this assurance give me
With reverence, Lady, to inquire of you
Another true, which is obscure to me.

I wish to know if man can satisfy you
For broken vows with other good deeds, so
That in your balance they will not be light.”

Beatrice gazed upon me with her eyes
Full of the sparks of love, and so divine,
That, overcome my power, I turned my back

And almost lost myself with eyes downcast.