Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 4

After hearing the stories of Piccarda and Constance, Dante is left with questions he cannot resolve. Beatrice, who can read his mind, understands what he wants to know. With the case of Piccarda and Constance in mind, his first question concerns whether a person forced to do something can be held responsible for the act. A second question relates to Plato’s Timaeus, and whether our souls return to their proper stars after our death. Beatrice calls this latter question the more “poisonous,” and answers it first. Then she returns to the question of vows forcibly broken and discusses the difference between Absolute and Conditioned Will. Overcome with gratitude at Beatrice’s willingness to instruct him, Dante is emboldened to ask a further question: whether one can compensate for a broken vow by good works.

            Struggling with my questions, I was like a man who might starve because he can’t decide which of two equidistant foods he should eat first. I was the tender lamb trapped by fear between two snarling wolves. I was the dog chasing two deer who then quickly veer one to the right and one to the left. So, if I stood there before Beatrice, don’t blame me if I was made dumb by equal doubts. Yet on my face was written the page of what I so strongly desired to ask but could not express in words.

            At this point, she became for me the like prophet Daniel, who turned the wrathful Nebuchadnezzar from his cruel intentions by interpreting his conflicted dreams. “It’s clear to me,” she said, “how your questions torment you with the desire for answers, so that even your words are bound up by your eagerness to speak. On the one hand, you’re thinking: ‘If my vows remain intact, how can I be held responsible if someone forces me by violence to break them?’ And a second question plagues you with equal intensity: whether, as Plato states, each soul returns to its own star after death. Both questions are equally weighty and equally fuel your desire to know, so let me answer the more poisonous question first.

            “Neither the highest of the Seraphic angels, nor Moses or the Prophets, or any of the Johns – I assure you, not even Mary has been positioned at any other place in heaven than the spirits you just spoke with here. All of them rejoice eternally in equal bliss; the Empyrean itself is made even more glorious by their collected beauty; and they share the same eternal life, though diversely to the extent that they feel the eternal breath of God.

            “You did not see the spirits who manifested themselves to you here because this sphere of the Moon has been assigned to them. No, they appeared to you here merely as a sign or symbol of their lesser degree of exaltedness. I explain this in terms like these because your mind only works on what it takes from your  senses. Thus, even the Bible adapts to your intellectual ability by giving God limbs like hands and feet. And the Church, too, gives human features to Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael who restored sight to Tobias.

            “If you take literally what Plato’s Timaeus says about the soul, it’s not the same as what you’ve seen here. He thinks that souls are separated from their stars when they’re born and return there at death. But if one were to bend his doctrine somewhat, there may be something in it that’s worth considering. If it was interpreted to mean that the stars might have some influence on human behavior, then some truth might be found in what he believes. But misunderstood, as it has been, his belief has led people mistakenly to name planets Jove, Mercury, Mars, and the like.

            “Now, the other question that so captivates your thinking right now is not as poisonous as the first one. In spite of its danger, it would never really cause you to wander away from me. The fact that you might think heavenly justice is unjust concerns your faith, but it’s not heretical. However, since this is a truth that your mind will comprehend easily, I will explain it to you.

            “Just because the person violated did not consent to the violation, this is is not enough to  excuse them. Our free will – even if it does not act – cannot be quenched. Think of a flame, whose nature is to rise upward. Even though it be forced down by violent winds, it still rises upward. By giving in to the violent act, even just a little, the will actually cooperates with the forceful act. This is the case with those you spoke to moments ago. They could have returned to the cloister when their circumstances changed, but they didn’t. If they kept their wills strong – following the example of St. Lawrence on the gridiron, or Mucius who thrust his hand into the flames – it would have compelled them to return to the convent once they were no longer bound by force. But it is not often that one finds such a strong will as this. So, if you’ve listened carefully to my explanations, you will agree that I’ve overcome the arguments that otherwise would have left you restless in your doubts.

            “Nevertheless,” she continued to instruct me, “there appears before you now an even greater obstacle that by yourself you cannot overcome. I have made it clear that the spirits here cannot lie because they now live forever looking upon the Eternal Truth. But you might think, my brother, that Piccarda contradicted me when she told you of the love that Constance kept throughout her life for the veil. It is often the case that people will do things they never should have done in order to prevent something worse from happening. Look at the example of cruel Alcmeon who, in order to keep his word to his dying father, murdered his own mother as an act of filial piety!

            “Considering this example carefully, you can see how both will and violence can join, and lead to acts that can never be justified. Absolute Will can never consent to wrongdoing, but it will do so if it fears that by holding back something worse will happen. In her explanation to you, it was Absolute Will that Piccarda was referring to. I was referring to the Conditioned Will. But both of us were speaking the truth.”

            At this point, having been instructed by Beatrice, I was freed from both of my doubts by the stream that flows from the sacred Fountain of Truth Itself. “O god-like beloved of the First Love,” I began, “your words, like a bath, surround and warm me and awaken me to the real life. Though my love for you is profound, it is still not deep enough to find within it the thanks your gracious care for me deserves. May the One who sees and knows all things make answer for me. It’s clear to me that the human intellect can never find fulfillment unless it be enlightened by that Truth beyond which there is no other. Within that Truth – once our minds find it – we rest content in it like a wild beast becalmed within its lair. And I am certain that it can be reached. Otherwise all our strivings are in vain. Truth is a great tree, and our doubts grow beneath it like tender shoots reaching always to higher heights.

            “This, my dear lady, is what gives me the courage to pursue yet another question in search of the truth that is still not completely clear to me. With reverence and respect, I wish to know if it’s possible for those who break their vows to compensate for this by good works that would once again balance the scales within your court?”

            As my troubling question came to rest, Beatrice looked at me with those eyes of hers so sparkling with divine love, that my sight began to fail, and looking down, I felt myself grow weak.