Paradiso Canto IV

Paradiso 4

Beatrice looked at me with eyes so full
of the radiance of love and so divine
that, overcome, my power of sight faded and fled,
and, eyes cast down, I almost lost my senses.

vv. 139-142

Doubts of Dante, respecting the justice of Heaven and the abode of the blessed, solved by Beatrice.—Question of Dante as to the possibility of reparation for broken vows.

Dante’s experiences on the moon have raised two questions in his mind, which Beatrice proceeds to answer before he can ask them aloud. He is wondering, first, whether the Greek philosopher Plato is correct in writing that souls “go back to [the] stars” upon death. This is not literally accurate, Beatrice insists, but is partly true if seen metaphorically. Heaven, she explains, is not really a set of concentric spheres like the planetary orbits Dante is traversing. Instead, all souls are enthroned in the same “sphere”—the “highest gyre” that exists outside the physical universe. Thus, souls like Piccarda and Constance in Canto 3 are not physically remote from God. Rather, the stars-and-planets imagery is God’s way of relaying divine truth to the limited “human mind,” since before being united with God humans still are limited in understanding. Dante’s second, difficult question concerns the justice of punishing souls for acts committed against their will. If Piccarda and Constance were forced to break their vows, why are they held responsible? Beatrice prefaces her explanation with an acknowledgment “that justice in our realm, to mortal eyes” will sometimes “seem unjust.” Free will, she continues, is paramount and cannot be defeated even by force. Piccarda and Constance could have resisted those who forced them from their convents, just as early martyrs accepted death rather than betraying their faith. When “will conjoins with violence,” Beatrice maintains, “there is no excuse”—even if the consent is granted out of fear for one’s life, that is not enough. Satisfied, Dante thanks Beatrice for her explanation. He then asks a follow-up question: Can souls “make amends” for a broken or “unfulfilled” vow? As Beatrice turns to answer him, the canto ends.

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