Paradiso Paradise Canto XX: (Sixth Heaven: Sphere of Jupiter) Summary
The Eagle falls silent but then the various souls that make up its image begin singing. Dante compares this series of events to the setting of the sun, and the subsequent appearance of thousands of stars which reflect the very same sun.
Eventually the "jewels" of the Sixth Heaven stop singing. But that sound is quickly replaced by a curious murmur coming from the Eagle.
The murmuring crescendos and travels up the Eagle's throat, until it spills forth in a single thundering voice, whose words are so power they are inscribed in Dante's mind.
The Eagle tells Dante to look at its eye. Its image is composed of six of the highest-ranking souls – one for the pupil itself, and five for the eyebrow. The Eagle identifies each soul by name.
First, the eye itself is king David, the "singer of the Holy Spirit" and bearer of the Ark of the Covenant. Through his writing of the Psalms, David learned that he must accept God's inspiration instead of being a passive instrument for His genius. For this virtuous exercise of free will, David was saved.
Secondly, on the eyebrow of the Eagle is the Roman emperor Trajan. Trajan learned the horrible consequences of refusing to follow Christ; he later learned, and received, the rewards of living a more virtuous life.
The third soul is Hezekiah, who freaked out when the prophet Isaiah told him it was time for him to die. Hezekiah immediately wept and prayed to God for mercy – a sign of repentance. God rewarded him with fifteen more years on earth.
The fourth soul is Constantine, whose well-intentioned monetary Donation to Pope Sylvester had the unforeseen consequence of whetting the clerics' appetite for cash; it also planted the seeds for – at least in Dante's eyes – all the contemporary problems of the corrupt Church. Despite the ill effects of his gift, though, Constantine learned that it was not his fault, and God saved him.
Fifth is William II of Hauteville. Although known for his just rule, William's throne was passed onto Charles of Anjou and Frederick II of Aragon, both corrupt rulers. However, like Constantine, he is absolved of any fault for these future rulers, whom he could not influence. God rewarded him for his "just rule" with a place in Heaven.
Finally, the sixth and last soul is Ripheus, a Trojan warrior in Virgil's Aeneid, who died a pagan and yet was saved. The lesson he learned was that God works in mysterious ways and that mankind should not waste its time trying to work through God's logic.
This whole time, Dante has thought each introduction to be like the lark's song – glorious in its sound but falling ultimately into a silence just as sweet.
Dante still has doubts. And before he can check them, they come tumbling out of his mouth: "Can such things be?"
The Eagle suddenly goes into red alert mode and all its lights start flashing wildly, before answering. It tells us Dante's state of mind – that he believes what he's been told but doesn't understand how it could be. This means he doesn't understand their essence.
The Eagle explains what it means. The will of God, he explains, "is won because It would / be won." This is a fancy way of saying God chooses whom he saves. Now, Dante had doubts about why the emperor Trajan and Ripheus are here. He believed them both to have died as unbelievers, but the Eagle says otherwise. He claims they died as Christians. Trajan did indeed go to Hell, but because he was headed the right direction when death overtook him, God gave him another chance. Trajan was allowed to come back to his body and die a second time, this time after repenting. It was this second life – as a Christian – that won him his salvation.
Ripheus, on the other hand, did indeed die before Christ's coming. But he was always virtuous and for some unknown reason, God gave him a glimpse of the future where Christianity reigned. Based on this prophetic vision, Ripheus converted – yes, before anyone had heard about Christ – and his conversion was legitimized by a baptism. Who baptized him, you ask, if there weren't any Christian priests at the time? The Three Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity descended from Heaven to baptize Ripheus three thousand years before Christ. And that's how he got into Heaven.
Dante cries out at how unpredictable and unfathomable God's predestination plans are to human beings. On second thought, Dante reasons, it's not such a bad thing that man doesn't know God's plans. The "incompleteness of our knowledge" gives each and every man incentive to be virtuous, because he has a good a shot as anyone to get into Heaven.
Dante reflects that the Eagle's discourse has shown him how short-sighted he is and how man should never assume he can predict God's plans.
He remembers with a smile that the souls in question – those of Trajan and Ripheus – had flashed and winked playfully at him during the Eagle's explanation.