Paradiso I can be divided into five sections:
the glory of God and the limits of the human mind (1-12)
invocation to Apollo (13- 36)
ascent into the heavens (37- 81)
Beatrice answers Dante's question (82 -93)
explanation on the order of the universe (94-142).
The first twelve lines of the Paradiso are extremely significant and could be seen to provide a key for reading the cantica as a whole. They introduce two ideas which you will meet time and time again throughout the Paradiso, and from which most of the central ideas we will explore in this web guide to the Paradiso could be seen to derive:
a. The nature of God is made gloriously manifest, albeit to different degrees, in all of creation.
For Dante, everything that exists originates in, and is sustained in existence by, God, who is existence itself. As such, everything that exists may, to a greater or lesser extent, be seen as a manifestation of the creative power of God and as revealing something of the nature of divine being.
b. It is impossible for Dante to put into words the truth he witnessed in the Empyrean, not simply because he cannot find the words to describe it, but because it is beyond the grasp of the structures of the human mind on which language itself depends.
All knowledge, thought and language, for Dante, is based on sense experience. From the information received from the senses, the mind generates images in the ‘imaginativa’ or ‘fantasia’. These images are the basis for memory and intellectual apprehension, in which knowledge, thought and language depend. However, when it comes to God–the ground of all existence–things get more complicated. Although the mind can to some extent think and discourse about God on the basis of experience and knowledge of the world, it can never do so in a fully objectively accurate manner. This is because God simply cannot, as he is in himself, fully be the object of experience or thought. As the ground of all existence God, for Dante, is as intimately related to the act of experiencing or thinking as to any object of these. In the intellectual union with God which Dante speaks about in the opening lines of the Paradiso, God and the human mind are perfectly at one. In this union there is nothing (literally no thing) for the human mind to perceive and/or think about. Strictly speaking, then, there can be nothing in this union with God that Dante could remember and/or talk about; though, as he tells us, he is able to remember that he was indeed united with God.
Discussion point: the Paradiso as a mystical work
The Paradiso is often referred to as a ‘mystical’ work. However, there is debate among Dante scholars as to whether or not this it is in fact an appropriate term with which to refer to the third cantica. The supernatural, for Dante, is simply that which gives meaning to, and reveals the truth of, the natural. If the Paradiso may be referred to as a mystical work, it is not because it may be seen as an exploration of a higher kind of reality. It is, rather, because the third cantica would have been seen by Dante as an exploration of what truly counts as reality; an exploration of the meaning of, and truth about, human beings and the universe they are part of.
From a Dantean perspective, to think of something that is ‘mystical’ is not to think of something that belongs to a different or higher order of reality. For Dante, to think of something as mystical is simply to think of it as related to the unfathomable mystery–God–which is truth itself; a mystery which can neither fully be experienced or comprehended by the human mind; a mystery which, however, may be reflected upon on the basis of one's experience and knowledge of the created order which depends on it.
Discussion point: ‘Transumanar’
‘Transumanar’ (line 70) is a term invented by Dante to refer to the human condition as transformed in Paradise. It could be translated literally as ‘to exceed the human’. One of the questions you should always consider while reading through the Paradisois what exactly might Dante mean by this term. On the one hand the term would clearly seem to refer to a state beyond the human condition. On the other hand, we shall see that the Paradiso is not so much about the state beyond the human, as about the way in which, in God/ truth, the human state may be perfected.
Discussion point: the order of the universe and the ascent into heaven
Lines 103-42 introduce an idea of fundamental importance for understanding the Paradiso. ‘Le cose tutte quante/hanno ordine tra loro’ (‘There is an ordered ratio between all things that are.’)- according to Dante, everything that exists, exists as part of the universal order which determines the relationship of one thing to another, as well as the relationship of all things to their creator. This universal order makes the universe similar to God. Insofar as something partakes in the order of the universe, it may be seen as an image of divine being itself. This is because the order of the universe issues from divine being, and must therefore correspond to informing principles fully conforming to the nature of God.
A particularly significant place is occupied, in the universal order of things, by those creatures–human beings and angels–that are endowed with ‘intelligentza’ and free will, and which have both ‘intelletto’ and ‘amore’. These are the only creatures that are able actually to discern the ‘orma’ of God in creation (106-8). These are also the only creatures capable of turning away from the divine order of the universe. However, Beatrice explains, if they do not turn away then they naturally tend to return to the ground of their existence. Which is why Dante ought not to be amazed at the fact that he may ascend into Heaven (136-41).
It follows from what has been said so far that, for Dante, to discern the truth of something is to discern how it partakes in the order that makes the universe similar to God. This idea often appears, on first reading, to be rather mechanistic, for it seems to suggest that everything has its fixed place in the order of the universe (in the same way as all pieces have a fixed place in a car engine or a clock mechanism); and that once you have understood its place in the universal order you have understood the truth about that thing. This is not what Dante is saying. You need to remember that, as suggested by line 74 and as will be confirmed throughout the Paradiso, the order of the universe is to be understood, for Dante, primarily in terms of love. For Dante to understand the truth about something is not only to understand what place it occupies in the order of the universe. It is also to understand how it may partake in that order through love. As we shall see, this is particularly significant when it comes to thinking about Dante’s idea of the relationship between human beings and God.
Discussion point: Dante and Beatrice in Paradise
Two different, but related, aspects of the figure of Beatrice emerge from Paradiso I: her role as teacher and her role as Dante’s beloved/loving guide. The first of these aspects emerges through her explanations regarding the universe and the nature of her and Dante’s journey through heaven; the second aspect emerges from the personal relationship which begins to develop between Dante and Beatrice through gazes, wonder, smiles, and so on. The two aspects are clearly closely interrelated and it is important that you always bear both of them in mind when thinking about the significance of the figure of Beatrice.
© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson