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by Dante Alighieri

Paradiso Paradise Canto IV: (First Heaven: Sphere of the Moon) Summary

  • This doesn't stop his mind from working, though. In his moment of silence, Dante describes what it feels like to hesitate: he compares the moment to the indecision of a starving man trying to decide between two equally sumptuous dishes before him; or a lamb standing between two hungry wolves; or a ravenous dog in the midst of two deer.
  • The point is that competing doubts make him hesitate. In other words, necessity is keeping his mouth shut.
  • It doesn't matter. His face expresses his questions clearly enough for Beatrice to read.
  • So, just like David anticipated the questions of Nebuchadnezzar, Beatrice answers Dante's unasked queries. Ready for some major psychic fireworks?
  • Beatrice explains Dante's doubts as follows: if one has a will to do good, how can others' actions endanger that person's own chances at salvation?
  • His second doubt is if, after death, these souls return to the stars which most affected them in life— as Plato argued—doesn't that mean that the stars rule all human behavior and therefore that man doesn't have free will?
  • (Quick aside: medieval theory assigned different characteristics to each celestial body based on their mythology. The moon was inconstant, Mercury was a prideful, and Venus lustful. So, if you were fickle, you were supposedly governed by the moon.)
  • Beatrice chooses to answer the "most insidious question" first (Dante's second question). None of the souls Dante sees here are actually here. Nor will any of the souls Dante sees in the levels of heavens be there.
  • Instead, she explains, all saved souls inhabit the highest heaven, called the Empyrean, with God. They only appear to Dante in these different heavens because this is the only way Dante's human mind will understand that they are not all equal in their blessedness.
  • Beatrice continues. Plato's theory is not correct. (Well, Beatrice doesn't actually say that. More like, "his opinion is perhaps to be taken in other guise than his words speak." In other words, his theory means something different than what it actually says.) This is dangerous because it tends to lead people away from God.
  • Moving on to Dante's first question. This doubt is far less dangerous since it won't lead Dante astray from the true path. If Piccarda lets violence victimize her when Corso abducted her, she has a problem. More specifically, her will has a problem. It is not whole. If it were, she would've fought back. By allowing the abduction to happen, she aids the force that breaks her vow, no matter how unwillingly she acts.
  • But solving this problem raises another one, Beatrice says. What if "it is too wearying to try"? Which translates to: "What if it's too hard to fight back?"
  • Now she makes it clear to Dante that the blessed souls cannot lie. This means that Piccarda is wrong. How? Piccarda said before that Constance kept trying to adhere to her vows despite the circumstances. Yet Beatrice is asserting that they reside here because they gave up and did not try to resist the men's force. Well, Beatrice goes on to solve this apparent contradiction.
  • She gives examples of men who have sinned in order to avoid the violence of other threatening men. So if one gives in to committing sin out of fear for her life, this is no excuse.
  • Beatrice shows that this laziness of will is something which is not present in absolute will—that given by God—but only in the contingent, free will part of humanity.
  • Thus, both she and Piccarda are right; Piccarda is talking about absolute will while Beatrice addresses contingent will.
  • Dante has an intellectual epiphany. He thanks Beatrice for explaining everything to him. He then expounds on how helpful doubt is because it leads one to ask questions, which are then answered; this repeating process makes one smarter.
  • Dante asks one more question: can a person atone for broken vows by doing good works?
  • So what's the answer? Stay tuned to find out.

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