Study Guide

Paradiso Time

By Dante Alighieri


The one who guides me so from good to better
is Beatrice, and on our path her acts
have so much swiftness that they span no time. (Par. X, 37-39)

The journey from one heaven to another takes no more than a moment's time. This gives the illusion of a fluid heaven, with no boundaries, where the blessed can come and go as they please.

[Cacciaguida]: "Florence, within her ancient ring of walls –
that ring from which she still draws tierce and nones –
sober and chaste, lived in tranquility.
No necklace and no coronal were there,
and no embroidered gowns; there was no girdle
that caught the eye more than the one who wore it.
No daughter's birth brought fear unto her father,
for age and dowry then did not imbalance –
to this side and to that – the proper measure.
There were no families that bore no children;
and Sardanapalus was still a stranger –
not come as yet to teach in the bedchamber.
Not yet had your Uccellatoio's rise
outdone the rise of Monte Mario,
which, too will be outdone in its decline.
I saw Bellincione Berti girt
with leather and with bone, and saw his wife
come from her mirror with her face unpainted.
I saw dei Nerli and del Vecchio
content to wear their suits of unlined skins,
and saw their wives at spindle and at spool.
O happy wives! Each one was sure of her
own burial place, and none – for France's sake –
as yet was left deserted in her bed. (Par. XV, 97-120)

This passage describes Dante's claim that the passage of time leads to the degeneracy of the human race. The ancient times were the golden age. In the case of ancient Florence, when the city was Christian, "sober and chaste," women were modest, raising a family was everyone's first priority, and everything was in "the proper measure."

[Cacciaguida]: "All things that you possess, possess their death,
just as you do; but in some things that last
long, death can hide from you whose lives are short.
And even as the heaven of the moon,
revolving, respiteless, conceals and then
reveals the shores, so Fortune does with Florence;
therefore, there is no cause for wonder in
what I shall tell of noble Florentines
of those whose reputations time has hidden." (Par. XVI, 79-87)

Although "all things…possess their death," in things that last a long time – like bloodlines – time can hide the truth. In this case, we can take the hiding "death" to mean the roots of a family's later degeneracy. This is why, like the waxing moon, Cacciaguida will shed light on the true nature of the early Florentine families, so Dante may see them in their original glory and also divine the causes of their decline.

[Cacciaguida]: "Such were the ancestors of those who now,
whenever bishops' sees are vacant, grow
fat as they sit in church consistories.
The breed – so arrogant and dragonlike
in chasing him who flees, but lamblike, meek
to him who shows his teeth or else his purse –
was on the rise already, but of stock
so mean that Ubertin Donato, when
his father-in-law made him kin to them,
was scarcely pleased." (Par. XVI, 112-121)

From this passage, one may infer that Dante considers the corruption of the Church to be one of the main causes of society's increasing degeneracy over the ages. Dante calls the corrupt clerics "dragonlike" to evoke remembrance of the very first evil, Lucifer, who is often represented by a dragon. Ever since the "Donation of Constantine," when the clerics first got their taste of money, human greed has become institutionalized in the Church, in the form of simony (the selling of pardons or Church positions).

[Dante to Cacciaguida]: …"I clearly see, my father,
how time is hurrying towards me in order
to deal me such a blow as would be most
grievous for him who is not set for it;
thus, it is right to arm myself with foresight,
that if I lose the place most dear, I may
not lose the rest through what my poems say." (Par. XVII, 105-111)

Dante is given the privilege of hearing his future foretold . But the way he reacts to the dire news is in line with how medieval artists thought of themselves. Dante will make sure that though he may lose his home, his poetry will help him gain immortality, even though material things will be gone.

[St. Benedict]: "Up to that sphere, Jacob the patriarch
could see that ladder's topmost portion reach,
when it appeared to him so thronged with angels.
But no one now would lift his feet from earth
to climb that ladder, and my Rule is left
to waste the paper it was written on.
What once were abbey walls are robbers' dens;
what once were cowls are sacks of rotten meal." (Par. XXII, 70-77)

Only in the virtuous old days could a mortal see, as Jacob did, up the whole length of the golden ladder. In the corrupt modern world "no one…would lift his feet from earth / to climb that ladder." This seems to imply that everything man does leads to more corruption. Since nothing can be more perfect than God, everything man does leads to more corruption.

If it should happen…If this sacred poem –
this work so shared by heaven and by earth
that it has made me lean through these long years –
can ever overcome the cruelty
that bars me from the fair fold where I slept,
a lamb opposed to wolves that war on it,
by then with other voice, with other fleece,
I shall return as poet and put on,
at my baptismal font, the laurel crown;
for there I first found entry to that faith
which makes souls welcome unto God, and then,
for that faith, Peter garlanded my brow. (Par. XXV, 1-12)

This passage begins Canto XXV, where St. James tests Dante on hope. It is fitting that the canto begins with Dante's deepest personal hope, which is that he will one day be recognized by his own people (the Florentines) as a superb poet. Because of his virtue and God-given skill, Dante is certain that this day of "future glory" will come.

[Adam]: "The tongue I spoke was all extinct before
the men of Nimrod set their minds upon
the unaccomplishable task; for never
has any thing produced by human reason
been everlasting – following the heavens,
men seek the new, they shift their predilections." (Par. XXVI, 124-129)

Adam's discussion of the transience of human language illustrates the concept that only God's creations are everlasting. Anything made by other powers – including human – must always "seek the new…shift their predilections," and eventually die.

No other heaven measures this sphere's motion,
but it serves as the measure for the rest,
even as half and fifth determine ten;
and now it can be evident to you
how time has roots within this vessel and,
within the other vessels, has its leaves. (Par. XXVII, 115-120)

This passage discusses the Ninth Heaven: the Primum Mobile. If we look at this sphere's name, it becomes obvious why "time has its roots within this vessel." "Primum Mobile" means "first moving" and as the highest and most blessed finite sphere, is the Heaven that God created first. And since His creation of the universe marked the beginning of time, we can assume that time began here. This implies that anything beyond this sphere is beyond time, and indeed the Empyrean – where God and his blessed reside – is timeless and eternal.

Then she began: "I tell – not ask – what you
now want to hear, for I have seen it there
where, in one point, all whens and ubis end.
Not to acquire new goodness for Himself –
which cannot be – but that his splendor might,
as it shines back to Him, declare 'Subsisto,'
in His eternity outside of time,
beyond all other borders, as pleased Him,
Eternal Love opened into new loves.
Nor did he lie, before this, as if languid;
there was no after, no before – they were
not there until God moved upon these waters." (Par. XXIX, 10-21)

Beatrice's insistence that "there was no after, no before…until God moved upon these waters" supports the idea that time began when God created the universe. Beatrice claims that God created the universe so "that his splendor might, / as it shines back to Him, declare 'Subsisto'." This Latin word means "I am" and is in the present tense. Time doesn't exist for God. So God created the universe to reflect back to himself His own existence, and it is appropriate that Beatrice tells this story in the Primum Mobile – the place where Time began – because it most accurately reflects God's "Subsisto," as a place which is eternal and created only by His will.