Welcome to Dante’s Celestial Paradise, otherwise known as Heaven or the Paradiso. Let us begin with some introductory remarks about how the Paradiso is differently structured from the canticles (Inferno, Purgatorio) before. For one, in the Paradiso, no soul or body is actually moving in the physical or material sense of the word. Unlike Hell and Purgatory, there is no material basis here. In Hell, the sin was physical weight which dragged souls down to hell through its gravitas. In Purgatory, though the souls/shades were immaterial, they inhabited a place on Earth and still were purging their sins and therefore still partook of motion and therefore physical nature. Here in Paradise, however, though it will apparently be split into the spheres of the heavens, all souls are together, and not separated as they will appear to be for the sake of Dante’s still all-too-human and thus limited perception (4.37-39). And ours.
This makes more sense if we consider a second major difference in this canticle: just as gateways to the next circle of Hell were easily found with Virgil alone guiding, and terrace-gates were found only through a gracious Angel whispering their locations in Purgatorio, so here the pilgrim will immediately be transmitted from one sphere to the next, like the speed “in which a crossbow bolt comes to rest, and flies, and leaves the nut” or instantaneously when he looks into Beatrice’s eyes. This is telling, for it suggests that Paradise is not so much a physical place external to one, but rather an internal place within the soul. If we follow the clues, this makes sense. Beatrice first sent Virgil down to help Dante/the pilgrim through Earth and then Hell and then Purgatory in order to reach a state which would be capable of revelation. Beatrice, therefore, could only appear to Dante when he was ready for her to be revealed from Paradise, or within himself, where of course he kept her form and not her matter.
When one adds to this the idea that it is unclear even to Dante whether his body moves and is therefore in Paradise (2.37-39)*, the evidence, from three different angles (Beatrice’s eyes, Location of Beatrice’s form, and the speed of “motion”), the hypothesis that Paradise lies within, where human nature and Divine nature intersect (2.40-42)**, becomes clear.
Since the celestial experience is essentially the pilgrim taking a trip up the maze (Purgatory) to its center, himself, or the divine and human nature within, the majority of the text will focus on right interpretation of difficult philosophical and theological matters, which of course find their roots in the rational intellect or soul, and on the proper method by which one (1) doubts, (2) questions, and (3) resolves one’s doubt due to correct investigation of a subject. So, though the souls in Paradise all correctly understand that which they know, it is their task to help the Pilgrim, still full of doubt, to relieve his doubt through correct understanding of the Truth.
In the first Sphere of Paradise, the Moon, we encounter our first cadre of difficult philosophical questions—besides those “simple” ones of how one moves in Paradise, and how a body would move in it (it couldn’t—just like a rock’s matter does not enter one’s head, ideally), now we can consider the question of why the Moon appears to have dark spots if it is immaterial in nature. The pilgrim (Dante in the text) tries some interpretation, but as his reasoning involves material, he is necesse incorrect in his reasoning. Beatrice will then explain, loosely based on Aristotle/Aquinas’ cosmology, that each celestial sphere appears in accordance to the “brightness” or “luminosity” of the pure souls within. The “spots” or “seeming marks of imperfection” (which would have to be material) are actually a human’s misperception of the fact that that which appears dark is only relatively dark due to the brightness of the souls surrounding it. All the souls of the Moon and in Paradise, therefore, are perfect in accordance with their own natures, but some are more perfect than others, and some accepted and lived by their own natures better than others (else there would have been no free-choice, and humans would just be different in quality based on their natures alone, like angels.) So much for that question.
Essentially, the luminosity of the angels can simply be represented by the “brain teaser” above. Though Square A and Square B appear different in coloring, they are the same. Generally this is called an “optical illusion”, but that term is a misnomer, because it is not the ops or eye at all which is deceived, but the mind based on the context one views the respective squares. Square A of course is surrounded by white squares and Square B by dark grey. Due to the differing patterns around them, they appear either lighter or darker than they are to the rational intellect or mind. It is precisely this same principle of relative light or perception which makes some lights on Dante’s Moon to appear darker than others.
Next Dante meets two radiant former-nuns who at first seem like “reflections in a deep pool” so faint are they to him—much like a vague thought, or reflection, one has not yet fleshed out. These two “sisters” are Piccarda Donati, sister to Forese whom we met in Purgatorio, and the empress Constance. Both of these sisters took vows to serve as handmaidens to god and brides to Christ (nuns are the brides of Christ as representatives of the feminine nature of the Church), but both were taken from their vows back into the secular world but against their wills. For this reason, they are in the lowest heaven, the heaven or sphere of oath-breakers or those with unfulfilled vows. Now, in order to justify her position in heaven (guilty conscience?), Piccarda explains the notion of contingent will vs. absolute will. Essentially, contingent will is the will which one uses to make every-day decisions about temporal things. The absolute Will, however, which appears to be the Will of God, can also be tapped into by a human by aligning their contingent will with it. If one, however, is forced by outside conditions to separate one’s will from the Absolute Will, there is not much blame if one truly does not wish to, but there is no blame, if like Laurence or Mucius (4.82-84), one united one’s contingent will with Absolute Will even under torturous conditions.
Returning to the notion that Paradise is all whole though broken into parts for human perception (just as Aristotle says that the soul is all one though it is logically divided for the intellect), let us consider the following passage:
“They have shown themselves here, not
because this sphere is allotted to them, but to
signify the celestial one that is least exalted.
To speak thus to your understanding is
necessary, for it takes from sense perception
alone what later it makes worthy of intellection.
For this reason Scripture condescends to
your faculties, attributing feet and hands to God
and meaning something different.
and holy Church represents Gabriel and
Michael to you with human shape, and the other
one who made Tobias whole.
(Dante, Paradiso 4.37-48. Durling tr.)
We see here that part of the project in Paradise will be to take that which we have perceived with our senses or been taught in a sensual way (like God having feet or Gabriel wings) and to teach the pilgrim and therefore us how correctly to dismantle the image through questioning and analyze the parts, and then put them back together as they were found but with a symbolic understanding of the thing itself. One therefore notices that the process by which one will come truly to understand things is also threefold: (1) learn through senses, (2) analyze the function of each part (dismemberment), and (3) correctly put it back together. If one thinks about this process hard enough, it sounds like the eternally repeated process of education: (1) learn something the first time through belief or by rote. (2) Then truly analyze it and come to know the purpose of each part. (3) Finally, to show mastery, put the concept back together by teaching it to another so that they might do the same. Voila.
Welcome to Paradise.
*”If I was a body–and down here it cannot be
conceived how one dimension could accept an
other, as must occur, if body coincide with body–”
**”it should kindle within us more desire to see
that Essence where is seen how our nature and
God became one.”