Study Guide

Paradiso Paradise Canto XIII: (Fourth Heaven: Sphere of the Sun)

By Dante Alighieri

Paradise Canto XIII: (Fourth Heaven: Sphere of the Sun)

  • Dante now invites us readers to exercise our astronomical fantasies, imagining the fifteen brightest stars of the two rings, the lovely constellations they form, and their swift dances. Still dancing, the starry souls sing praises for the Holy Trinity.
  • St. Thomas stops the dancing to voice Dante's second question: why can't anybody match King Solomon's wisdom?
  • Dante's argument, which St. Thomas summarizes, is that God's wisdom can only go to those he creates directly. The only two people God directly created were Adam and Christ, so how can Solomon's wisdom be greater than theirs?
  • Let's start tangentially. Both immortals and mortals, begins St. Thomas, are only the "reflected light" of the idea that God begot. From there, the nine essences (or Angelic Intelligences) act as mirrors, reflecting His Light down from one star to another, and when his light hits the "last potentialities" (matter), they create only "brief contingent things" (animals, plants, and inanimate objects). The matter of these contingent things is compared to wax, which varies in its perfection.
  • Now, because the wax isn't perfect, it doesn't always capture a perfect reflection of the light, which is why it can be corrupt. So the blame falls to Nature, an "artist [with] a trembling hand" who cannot stamp the wax as perfectly as she should. This explains why some trees bear better fruit than others, just as certain men get worse children than others.
  • But when God himself prepares both the Light and the wax, His perfection is transferred to his creations, as in the cases of Adam and Christ.
  • Okay, St. Thomas continues, now I'll consider your question of why Solomon had "matchless vision" (which means great wisdom).
  • Consider Solomon's story: God came to King Solomon in a dream and promised to answer any question he might ask. Wise Solomon, instead of asking for the answers to intellectual dilemmas, asked for the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. This is also called "kingly prudence." St. Thomas explains that "matchless vision" is having the wisdom to ask for something practical and moral.
  • St. Thomas warns Dante to consider this story before jumping too quickly to conclusions about things he doesn't fully understand. Hasty opinions are often wrong.
  • St. Thomas proves his point by naming several examples of scholars whose opinions turned out to be wrong—Parmenides, Melissus, Bryson, Sabellius, Arius, Dame Bertha, and Master Martin.
  • Finally, St. Thomas ends with a warning to men not to judge too quickly, because things which appear bad can turn out to be good, and vice versa.