Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 25 – dappled splendours

Beatrice explaining scientific theories to Dante. By Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia via Public Domain Review

The opening cantos of Paradiso contain an extended and complex argument about how we gain new knowledge and how we can trust what we perceive. The challenge, for Dante, is to understand that spiritual reality works differently to the physical world he is leaving behind him.

Dante begins Canto 2 with a challenge to his readers:

This is a parting of the ways, a separation of sheep from goats. The poet divides those who have read him thus far into two groups – “ordinary” readers, whose motivation is worldly curiosity, and readers with a deeper, divinely inspired thirst for knowledge – an insatiable appetite for the “bread of the angels”. This is a reference to the manna from heaven rained down on the Israelites when they wandered in the desert (Exodus 16: 8-15), which, in Catholic thinking, prefigures the sacramental bread of the Eucharist, “the body of Christ”. Only readers in this second group should continue on this dangerous quest, Dante says. We are in uncharted waters and, if we lose sight of our leader, we might be lost for ever.

Dante here assumes a great responsibility: one that demands a new confidence in his powers. If he is to guide us rightly, he must see rightly himself, then set down what he sees “as it is dictated within” ‒ that is, truthfully. What is more, reading this third cantica requires a different attitude on the part of us, his followers – a thirst for new knowledge, a desire to understand the spiritual dimensions of reality that, under Beatrice’s tuition, the poet will unfold to us. We must trust him in this – and adjust our thinking accordingly, becoming more humble, more receptive.

That same thirst for knowledge is the motive power of Dante and Beatrice’s ascent to the sphere of the Moon. Spiritual reality works by different rules from those governing physical reality:

There follows a beautiful passage in which Dante deploys the poetry of light to express the dappled splendours of the vaporous, silvery moon, spotted and part-shadowed by the earth. As Sinclair puts it, Dante’s interpenetration with the moon’s body is a “strange and happy dream”, an experience “at once supernatural and natural,” in which he does not know whether he is in the body or out of it. He interprets this as a promise that the mystery of the Word made flesh – the Christ child born to Mary – will be revealed to him. Faith will give way to veder, the act of seeing:

Dante’s first encounter with the spirits of the saved is equally confusing and amazing. He takes them for reflections in water, turns to see them for real – and sees nothing! He is still assessing heavenly things by earthly standards, says Beatrice:

Dante and Beatrice meet Piccarda Donati. By Scaramuzza via Wikimedia

They meet Piccarda Donati, the sister of Dante’s friend Forese Donati. A nun who was forced to break her vows and marry against her will, Piccarda now appears more beautiful than she was on earth and so at first is not recognized by Dante. He asks her whether she is happy in the sphere of the Moon or whether she desires a higher place in heaven. She replies that, in paradise, “the power of charity quiets our will and makes us will only what we have, and thirst for nothing else.” Were she to desire a higher status, she says, her desire would clash with God’s will:

In his will is our peace. By Gustav Dorė via Wikimedia

The spiritual reality, which Dante is only just beginning to understand, is that there is no hierarchy, no relativity, in paradise. This we will see for ourselves when we reach the Empyrean. But in this first heaven our vision is still clouded.

All this and more is explained by Beatrice in Canto 4. Pleased with his increased understanding, Dante celebrates with an outpouring of praise for Beatrice and an affirmation of the intellect’s ability to reach the truth:

The capitals and exclamation mark are my styling, not Dante’s. But they seem right! For in asserting the triumph of the rational intellect, our poet leaves the mediaeval world and enters the Renaissance. The human mind is muscular, powerful, always thrusting ahead, assailing new questions and doubts on its route from one summit to the next.

The God-given light of the rational intellect will eventually dispel all clouds, revealing truths clearly, come stella in cielo, “like a star in heaven”. Even those truths that lie hidden deep in the divine essence? Hmm… we shall see!

Genius line:
La concreata e perpetua sete. I love that word concreata! It means created in and with the soul, innate or inborn. In other words, the desire for knowledge is intrinsic to being human. Elsewhere Dante calls it la sete natural che mai non sazia, “the natural thirst that is never satisfied”.