Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 8

Having arrived at the sphere of Venus, Dante and Beatrice are greeted by luminous souls who glow with joy at their arrival. One soul comes forth and urges Dante to ask questions. The soul responds to Dante’s query about his identity with a summary of his brief life. It is Charles Martel, with whom Dante had a brief acquaintance. Martel’s mention of his “stingy” brother, Robert, opens the way for Dante to ask how it is that bad offspring can come from noble parentage. Martel explains that the workings of God’s Providence are manifested in a great diversity and that there would be no variety among humans if children followed precisely in their parents’ footsteps. At the same time, he remarks sadly about the human propensity to subvert the operations of Fortune by pushing people to follow paths they’re not destined for.

            Long ago, the world believed erroneously that the beauteous Cyprian, spinning wildly within her third orbit, poured down rays of sensual love upon mankind. In their error, mortals not only offered sacrifices to honor her, but also her mother, Dione, and her son, Cupid, thought once to have been cuddled in her lap by Dido, queen of Carthage. The ancients took the name of this goddess, who provides a theme for my canto, and gave it to the planet Venus who affectionately courts the sun – both as the morning star at his brow and the evening star at his neck.

            Though I was not conscious of having risen to this lovely planet, I knew that I was within its sphere because my Beatrice was now all the more beautiful. There within the radiance of that magnificent sphere I saw countless lights moving – some slowly, others swiftly. Their motion, I supposed, was in accordance with how clearly they looked upon the Godhead.

            The fastest winds that ever rushed down from the cloudy heavens would have seemed like a breeze compared to the speed with which those holy lights flew to us as they left their glorious dance begun among the lofty Seraphim. I heard those spirits who approached us first singing “Hosanna” so magnificently that my soul still yearns to hear that music again. One of those joyful spirits then approached my lady and I and announced: “All of us here are ready to bring you pleasure. Our joy is that you have the fullest joy of us! In one orbit do we circle, with one rhythm do we move, and with one desire do we unite ourselves with those Celestial Princes you once invoked in your canzone: ‘O you whose minds move Heaven’s third great sphere.’ So full of love are we that we will happily stop and spend time with you.”

            Reverently I raised my eyes to look at the beauty of my lady’s light for assurance, and in her eyes I saw the joy of her approval. So I turned my gaze again to that glowing light of love who had invited me to question him: “O shining soul,” I said tenderly, “please tell me who you are?”

            These few words caused that happy soul to glow with even greater brilliance as it replied with joy: “The happiness that blooms so within me hides me from you. Its radiance enfolds me like a creature wrapped in silk. My life on earth was rather brief. Had I lived longer, I might have prevented much evil. But your great love for me I, too, loved, and if I had not died when I did, you would have seen proof of my affection.

            “The lands of Provence, bounded by the waters of the Rhone and the Sorgue on the West, were waiting for me to rule, as was the kingdom of Naples. Already, I wore the crown of Hungary, and the future rulers of Sicily would have come through me and the line I inherited from my grandfather Charles I of Anjou and my father-in-law Rudolph of Hapsburg. But bad governance there by the French drove Palermo’s citizens to cry out: ‘Kill them! Kill them!’

            “If only my brother, Robert, had foreseen what is now history, in ruling Sicily wisely he would have dislodged those avaricious Catalonians who do him harm. Something must be done about this or more trouble will be added to those he must already bear. Had he allowed his stinginess to be overcome by his more generous roots, he would have appointed those who care more for their fellow men than for gold.”

            As he ended, I began: “I sense that the deep joy your words have given me is as clear to you as it is to me, and this joy is even deeper and more precious to me because I know that you see it as you behold it in the mind of God at this moment. So happy have you made me, I beg you to make me wise as well, because what you just said raises the question of how such a good father can produce bad offspring.”

            And he replied: “Gladly will I make this plain to you so that what you cannot see behind you will soon appear before you clearly. The God Who both moves and orders this heavenly realm you now climb invests these great spheres with the power of His own goodness. In the infinite perfection of His mind He foresees every type of nature and its specific goal. And when the bow of His foresight bends, His arrow always hits its mark. If this weren’t the case, the beauteous kingdom you climb through would manifest itself to you in chaos, not as a work of the Divine Artist. Furthermore, the angelic intellects who guide these spheres would be as flawed as the One who first created them. Shall I make this truth even clearer to you?”

            “No, no,” I replied. “You have made it clear that Nature must follow the path God has set for it.”

            Then he asked me: “Do you think it would be worse for men on earth if there were no order in their society?” “Certainly,” I replied, “and I need no proof of this.”

            “And could this be if men didn’t have different natures which lead them toward different ends? In no way, as your Aristotle writes.”

            Moving thus from point to point, he then concluded: “In the end, there is a great diversity at the heart of men’s activities. Thus, one is born a Solon, one a Xerxes, one a Melchizedek, and one a Daedalus whose son fell into the sea after his presumptuous flight. Nature, as you can see, puts her particular stamp on mortal wax with no concern for family lines. Esau differed greatly from his twin conceived in the same womb. Because he was a great man, people believed Romulus to be the son of Mars instead of a lowly mortal. If the diversity of God’s Providence were not at work in this case, mortals would have no individuality, merely following in the path of their parents.

            “At last, you now see clearly what was behind you. So let me joyfully enwrap you in another thought. If one’s nature is not in accord with Fortune, it will fail as a seed will die in bad soil. If mortals paid greater attention to Nature’s foundation, and built on it firmly, they would be better people. As it is, you find yourselves on paths not meant for you, twisting one toward the priesthood whose destiny is to be a soldier, an another toward kingship whom Providence calls to preach.”