Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 2

Dante warns his reader to think twice about following him out onto the “sea” of his poem, lest the reader become lost in the complexity of his language, yet he invites those who are willing to follow in his wake. And so, rising upward into the Cosmos with Beatrice, Dante finds himself literally in the Moon. Dante raises the question of the dark spots on the Moon and Beatrice engages him in a scientific discussion that leads him to the truth.

            My dear reader, be warned! If you have read my words and have followed in your tiny boat behind my great ship that happily sails these waters – – – turn back now while you still have the shore in sight. Do not attempt to follow me out into the deeps, because you might lose sight of me, and you yourselves will be lost! Emboldened by the gods, my course will take me through uncharted waters with Minerva filling my sails, Apollo at the helm, and all the Muses as my navigators. Those of you – and there are not many – who have lived your lives in search of heavenly wisdom, though you always hunger for more, you can follow me onto the high seas as long as you stay close within the wake of my words. If the Argonauts, in their quest for the golden fleece, were amazed to see their hero, Jason, behind a plow, I promise you more amazement here than you can imagine!

            And so, by the power of that thirst for God within us, we soared upward at amazing speed.  As we moved, I kept my gaze on Beatrice, whose face was fixed on Heaven. In no time at all, like an arrow hitting its mark, I realized that I had arrived at a place where something amazing absorbed me in complete wonder. Then she, who knew already what I was dying to know, turned the joyous beauty of her face toward me and said: “Now, direct your grateful thoughts to God who has brought us to His first star.”

            It seemed to me that we were wrapped within a cloud that shone with the brilliance of a perfect diamond pierced by a ray of sunlight. And yes, we were actually taken into that celestial pearl, like a ray of light into water – our material wholeness completely intact.

            Now, in earthly terms, it’s impossible for two solid forms to inhabit the same space. But that is not the case here, since we were here – substance within substance. And if this is the case, imagine how much more we should long to see God, within Whom we will see the union our nature with His. At that moment, what we now believe by faith to be true will be revealed in its fullness.

            So, in response to her urging, I said to Beatrice: “My Lady, I adore Him and offer him in humility all my gratitude for raising me from the mortal world. But let me ask this: the dark spots on this body which we see from earth – and which lead us to tell stories about Cain – what are they?”

            Smiling gently, she answered me with another question. “It shouldn’t surprise you when, with insufficient evidence from our senses, people arrive at faulty conclusions. For that matter, human reason, even with sensory evidence will sometimes fall short of its intended goal. But tell me: what do you think causes these dark spots?”

            Right away I replied: “Well, I think the spots we see from earth are actually caused by different densities within this body.”

            “Ah,” she said. “I think you will quickly discover that what you believe to be the case is actually false. So, listen to what I will now propose to you. As you know, heaven’s eighth sphere is lit by a great many stars whose light differs wonderfully in both quality and quantity. But, if this diversity were simply produced by rare and dense, then all of them would possess more or less the same amount of light. Instead, as you can plainly see, they all shine differently because of the diverse  powers active within them – all of which your rare and dense principle would collapse into one.

            “Furthermore, if your dark spots were the result of density alone, then the substance of this planet might actually be seen through in places. Or, on the other hand, there might be some areas that are rare and others that are dense like the flesh and fat in a piece of meat, or like alternating pages in one of your books.

            “However, if my first theory were true, then the moon would not completely block the sun’s rays. In an eclipse, for example, some light would shine through its rarer parts – but, of course, it doesn’t. So, let’s explore your other argument, and if I prove that one wrong as well, then your thinking about the dark spots will be mistaken.

            “If the rare matter that you propose doesn’t go all the way through the moon, then obviously there must be some place where the dense matter blocks it in some way. At that place the rays of the sun would be reflected back out as though from a mirror.

            “Now, you could raise an objection to this by suggesting that the rays reflected back out are dimmer there than at other places, since they have to reflect back from a greater distance. But you can drop this objection if you’re willing to perform a simple experiment. These often fill the streams of your art with new knowledge.

            “So, take three mirrors and place them in front of you so that two of them are equidistant. Place the third mirror between them, but farther away. As you stand facing these three mirrors, have someone place a lamp behind you so that its light strikes all of them and reflects back to you. Although the light from the farthest mirror is smaller than from the two closer to you, observe that its brilliance is the same.

            “Now then, as snow in the bright sunshine loses its color and its coldness, just so your brain should be clear, because I am going to disclose to you a truth so bright that it will sparkle in your mind. Within the Heaven of God’s peace, which we call the Empyrean, there revolves a sphere in whose power lies the essence and being of all things contained within it. Within this sphere the next one, ablaze with countless lights, divides the essence of things into various kinds – different, yet contained within it. And the other spheres within these – all unique – have their own distinct qualities that serve their own ends and purposes.

            “I hope you can see now how these organs of the cosmos proceed downward from sphere to sphere, getting their powers from those above them, and in turn influencing those below. So, attend carefully, now, as I lead you to the truth you seek, so that in the future you will be able to do this on your own.

            “The motion and the power of these sacred spheres comes from the blessèd angels who guide them, just as the blacksmith’s hammer shapes the metal. The sphere ablaze with countless lights derives its power directly from the angelic hosts who guide it. From these it takes the stamp which it imprints on the vast diversity of creation below it. Just as your soul animates your body and diffuses its power among all your parts according to their various purposes, so do the angelic Intelligences spread their bounty among the stars. Just as your soul blends different powers within you, so also the various powers animating the cosmos blend with the countless stars.

            “And since these blended powers reflect the divine throughout creation, they shine throughout the spheres and stars just as happiness is evident in living eyes. And it is from this power within the universe, not from rare and dense, that comes the variation in the light we see. And it is according this variation that we perceive differences of light and darkness.”