Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 13

Dante begins this Canto by asking the reader to join him in a series of astronomical visualizations so that the reader will have a vague idea of what Dante sees as he stands beneath the double crown of lights circling above he and Beatrice. Then the crowns stop spinning and Thomas Aquinas again speaks with Dante, this time to answer a second question Dante has had in mind since Canto 10. There, when Thomas had introduced the other souls/lights in his group, he noted that no one was wiser than Solomon. Thinking of the perfect wisdom of Jesus and of Adam, Dante was confused at this, and for the rest of this Canto Thomas explains what he meant when speaking of the great Hebrew King. Thomas ends with several warnings for Dante in the form of clever aphorisms.

            If you wish to visualize what I saw next, keep these images in your mind as I speak: imagine the fifteen brightest stars in the heavens, those whose brilliance can be seen even through the mist. Consider next the constant movement of the Big Dipper and everything else that moves across Heaven’s great vault. Think of the Horn, at the end of which is that great star around which the Primum Mobile rotates. Imagine all of these joined into a double constellation, not unlike Ariadne’s Crown, the rays from one crown shining into the other and both turning at different speeds, light with light moving.

            All this will give you but a glimpse of that luminous constellation of the two crowns encircling me, because what Heaven holds in store for us is more than we can imagine – just as the slowest-moving sphere there far exceeds the flow of our Chiana. Nor did the souls in that crown of light sing the praise of pagan gods, but the God of Nature, Three in One, they sang, and of One who is both God and man. And when their circling ended and the final note was sounded, those holy luminaries turned their attention to us, happy to move from that task to a new one.

            The momentary silence of those harmonious souls was broken by that light who told the lovely story of Francis, that poor man of God. He began: “One sheaf of holy wheat has been threshed and its grain collected. Now God’s love beckons me to thresh the other one. You were thinking that into Adam, from whom the rib was drawn that would become she whose palate would cost mankind so dearly, and that into Christ, pierced by the lance, who made satisfaction for all human guilt – that into both of these was poured the fullness of wisdom that could be given to a human by God who created them. And so you were surprised to hear me remark about Solomon, our fifth light, that no one possessed such wisdom as he. But open your eyes to what I will show you, and you will see that your thoughts and my words join together as a single truth.

            “Now all that is mortal and immortal reflects the brilliance of the Son which the Father begets through His love. This Living Light – the Son of God, streams forth from the Father throughout creation, but is never separated from Him nor from the love of the Holy Spirit which unites the Three as One. This Light, of Itself, pours down on through the spheres of the heavens and is reflected through the nine orders of angels, though It remains eternally One.

            “As it descends through the order of created things, this Light gradually decreases so that it brings forth things that exist only briefly, either from seed or not, as determined by the movement of the heavens. It is as if the mold for these things is more or less receptive to do the shaping, and the shaping power is more or less capable – and so what is pressed into it comes out more or less clearly. Thus it is that trees of the same kind might produce diverse fruit – some better, some worse. And so mortals are born with different talents. If the mold was perfect, and if the power of the heavens was at its peak, the matter placed into the mold would be perfectly shaped. Unfortunately, Nature cannot transmit this creative light at its highest capacity, and so it is like a craftsman who knows well his craft – but has a trembling hand. But as it is, the Holy Spirit, the Son, and the Father, working together made the perfect seal, and what that one stamps is always perfect. Thus it is that the first human being was formed perfect from the dust and the second came forth that way from the Virgin’s womb. And so you are correct in thinking that human nature was perfected in these two only.

            “If, however, I were to stop here, you would be right to ask: ‘How can you say that Solomon here was without equal?’ But to help you make this clear, think for a moment who Solomon was and what he requested when God said to him: ‘Ask me for anything.’ You see, what I said to you originally was intended to remind you that he was a king, and as a king he asked God to give him wisdom so that he would rule wisely. He didn’t ask to know the number of the angels, or if, in logic, an absolute conclusion can be arrived at with conditional premises, or whether something can move without being moved itself, or whether a triangle can be constructed in a semicircle without a right angle.

            “So, to return to my earlier point, when I spoke of perfect wisdom, what I had in mind was the kingly wisdom that would enable Solomon to govern prudently and justly. And if you recall that I used the phrase, ‘there has never been another one with such wisdom as his,’ you can see that I was speaking of kings – good ones in particular. Thus, if you understand what I said in the right sense, you will see that you are still correct in believing that only two humans were created perfect: Adam and Jesus.

            “My advice to you is to move slowly regardless of whether you see the ‘yes’ or the ‘no’ of something right away, because only the fool is quick to affirm or deny without first considering both. It happens frequently that hasty opinions lead us in the wrong direction, and then our pride gets in the way and blinds our intellect. Imagine how foolish it is to sail off to fish for the truth unless you have the skill for it. It may happen that you return having caught nothing! History is filled with examples of this: consider Parmenides, Bryson, Melissus and others who set out not knowing their destination clearly. Add to these Sabellus and Arius and the rest of the fools who misread Holy Scripture and distorted the truth there like images seen on the shiny curve of a sword. Don’t be so quick to trust your judgment like those who calculate their harvest before the corn is ripe. At length, a beautiful rose will grow from a rough, thorny briar. Moreover, I have seen a ship that sailed quickly along its course on the open sea – only to sink when it entered the harbor! Finally, do not believe everyone who sees one steal and another give alms. They do not see with God’s eyes; for in the end the one may be saved and the other condemned!”