Heavens of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (Cantos XIV-XXII)

Reading the Heaven of Mars

Paradiso XIV can be divided into five sections:

  • Thomas and Beatrice (1–18)
  • new description of the song and dance of the two crowns of blessed souls (19–33)
  • Solomon's explanation regarding the resurrected body (34–60)
  • the souls’ response to Solomon's speech (61–81)
  • ascent into, and description of, the Heaven of Mars (82–139). 

Paradiso XV can be divided into three sections:

  • silence and goodwill of the souls of the Heaven of Mars (1–12)
  • one of the souls of the Heaven of Mars comes to meet Dante, and Dante asks him to reveal his identity (13–87)
  • Cacciaguida reveals his identity and describes the peaceful living of the Florence of his day (88–148).

Paradiso XVI can be divided into three sections:

  • Dante feels glorified by the nobility of his ancestor, and asks Cacciaguida to talk in more detail about his family, the time in which he lived and the Florence of his day (1–27)
  • Cacciaguida tells Dante when he lived and where his family used to live (28–45)
  • Cacciaguida speaks in detail about the families of the Florence of his day, contrasting past virtues with present corruption (46–154).

Paradiso XVII can be divided into four sections:

  • Dante asks Cacciaguida to clarify the prophecies of exile he has heard throughout his journey (1–30)
  • Cacciaguida tells Dante about his future exile (31–99)
  • Dante asks Cacciaguida whether he should write about everything he has witnessed on his journey (100–20)
  • Dante receives his poetic mission from Cacciaguida (121–42).

Paradiso XVIII can be divided into five sections:

  • Dante receives comfort from Beatrice (1–21)
  • Cacciaguida points out to Dante some of the souls of the Heaven of Mars (22–51)
  • ascent into the Heaven of Jupiter (52–69)
  • description of the movements of the souls of the Heaven of Jupiter (70–114)
  • prayer for the correction of the moral degeneration of the world (115–36).

Key theme: Language in the Heaven of Mars

The episode of the Heaven of Mars is one of the most linguistically varied of the whole Commedia, both at the level of narrative action and the level of poetic register. At the level of narrative action we move from heavenly hymns incomprehensible to the human ear, to Latin, to the Italian vernacular, to infant speech. At the level of poetic register we move from poetry in the high style to poetry in the low style.

Language, as you will remember, is for Dante a defining characteristic of human nature, and it is intimately related to man's existence as a social and political animal. It is therefore important to reflect on the significance of language in the episode of the Heaven of Mars, where we are presented, through the words of Cacciaguida, with a picture of the ideal civic community (Paradiso XV, 97-148).

Discussion point: storytelling and infant speech

Apart from prayer, the other two references to language in the passage in question are to story telling and to infant speech. What might be so significant about these two kinds of language? What kinds of virtues are they associated with in Cacciaguida 's description of Florence?

One could also consider the way in which Paradiso XV, 121–26 might throw light on the significance Dante may have attributed to his writing the Commedia in the vernacular. In relation to this, you may find it helpful to refer to the following passages from the De vulgari eloquentia:

[…] such eloquence is necessary to everyone–for not only men, but also women and children strive to acquire it, as far as nature allows[…] […] I call vernacular language that which infants acquire from those around them when they first begin to distinguish sounds; or, to put it more succinctly, I declare that vernacular language is that which we learn without any formal instruction, by imitating our nurses. There also exists another kind of language, at one remove from us, which the Romans called ‘gramatica’. The Greeks and some–but not all–other peoples also have this secondary kind of language. Few, however, achieve complete fluency in it, since knowledge of its rules and theory can only be developed to dedication to a lengthy course of study. Of these two kinds of language the more notable is the vernacular: first, because it was the language originally used by the human race; second, because the whole world employs it, though with different pronunciations and using different words; and third, because it is natural to us, while the other is, in contrast, artificial.

De vulgari eloquentia I, i, 1-4 [translated by S. Botterill]

Critics have recently argued that the mixture of styles and languages found in the cantos of the Heaven of Mars is indicative of Dante's wish to encompass within his poem all possible levels of reality. It has also been argued that, on a poetic level, this is related to Dante's decision to write a ‘comedy’ which, according to the mediaeval divisions of style, could encompass a mixture of styles (unlike tragedy, for example, which is bound to the high style).

Key theme: Cacciaguida and Cacciaguida’s Florence

Through the words of his ancestor Cacciaguida, Dante presents a picture of his ideal civic community. This is an extremely important moment in the Commedia. The cantos of the Heaven of Mars may be seen to bring together many of the questions regarding politics, the Church, and the nature of community which we have met in our study of the Commedia so far. We seem to find, in the cantos of the Heaven of Mars, Dante’s concerns with politics and Church fused together in the description of Cacciaguida’s Florence.

A most striking element of Cacciaguida’s description of the Florence of his day is its apparent simplicity and humbleness, all the more striking if one considers the sophistication and large-scale ambitions of Dante's political thought, as evident in numerous other passages from the Commedia. Note, for example, the beautiful simplicity of Paradiso XV, 130–32 – the rhyme position of ‘bello’ and ‘fida’ perhaps meant to emphasise the goodness and beauty of communal living characterised, quite simply, by the fact that one citizen can trust another.

The description of Cacciaguida’s Florence has, indeed, struck many readers as something of an anti-climax. Yet if you analyse the text closely enough, you'll be able to pick out extremely significant details which could allow one to read the cantos of the Heaven of Mars as one of the defining moments in understanding Dante's vision of human society.

One could note, for example, the various references to Rome. In Paradiso XV, 25–27, Cacciaguida’s coming to meet Dante is compared to Aeneas’ meeting with his father in the after-world, as described by Virgil in the Aeneid; in Paradiso XV, 109–11, Florence is compared directly to Rome; in Paradiso XV, 124–26 reference is made to the story that Florence descended directly from the founders of ancient Rome; in Paradiso XVI, 10–12 Dante addresses Cacciaguida in the way in which it was believed the Roman people had addressed Julius Caesar (note also that in Paradiso XV, 28 Cacciaguida addresses Dante using an expression ‘sanguis meus’ used by Anchises to address Julius Caesar in Aeneid VI, 835).

One could also consider some of the religious imagery found in the cantos of the Heaven of Mars. In Paradiso XV, 97–99 the walls of Florence are referred to with references to liturgical hours; in Paradiso 15, 133–35 it is Mary, mother of Jesus, and not Cacciaguida’s mother, who metaphorically is said to give birth to Dante's ancestor; in Paradiso XVI, 34–36, the date of Cacciaguida’s birth is determined with direct reference to the Annunciation.

Further listening: download a short lecture relating to this topic, by Claire Honess (University of Leeds) at Key Moments in the Commedia 7: Paradiso XV, 25-30.

Key theme: Prophecies and Dante's Mission

Paradiso XVII is an extremely significant canto. After the reflections on Cacciaguida’s Florence in Paradiso XV to XVI, Paradiso XVII is devoted to reflection on Dante’s exile and on the nature of the text of the Commedia itself. We thus find in the cantos of the Heaven of Mars important reflection not only on the crucial themes of politics, Church, language and community, but also on equally crucial themes running throughout the Commedia such as exile and the poetics of the Commedia.

In Paradiso XVII Dante asks Cacciaguida to reveal to him the nature of the prophecies regarding his future sufferings that he is heard at various stages throughout his journey. Cacciaguida thus reveals to Dante the most important details of his future exile. Previous instances in which Dante's future is prophesied can be found in Purgatorio XI and in Inferno XV when Dante hears news of his coming suffering in his encounter with Brunetto Latini. In fact, many commentators associate the figure of Brunetto with that of Cacciaguida (especially in the light of the paternal/ filial terms in which their relationships to Dante is described) and suggest that Inferno XV and Paradiso XVII ought to be seen as illuminating each other.

Discussion point: Phaeton

In Paradiso XVII, 1-6 Dante compares himself to Phaeton, who–according to myth–came to doubt he was the son of the Sun. To prove to him that he was his real father, the Sun allows Phaeton to ride his chariot. Unable properly to drive the chariot, however, Phaeton meets his death. Dante had already compared himself to Phaeton in Inferno XVII, 106-8, in relation to his lying on the back of Geryon.  Why do you think Dante chooses to open Paradiso XVII with a new reference to the story of Phaeton?

Discussion point: Dante's poetic mission and his characters

In Paradiso XVII, 124–42 Dante receives from Cacciaguida what we might call his poetic mission. In lines 106–20 Dante had expressed his concern that he might make life difficult for himself if he relates in writing everything that he has witnessed throughout his journey. Cacciaguida replies that Dante should write down everything that he has seen, and that even if his poetry is offensive to some this will only be for the good (124–35). He then explains that it is precisely so that the message of the Commedia could have as strong an impact on society as possible that throughout the three realms of the afterlife Dante is shown only the souls of famous figures (136–42). This last point might at first sight appear rather odd, given that many of the figures Dante meets on his journey are not exactly famous, even if perhaps known personally to Dante (as for example, Caccio, Belacqua, Forese, Picarddaa). What do you think should be made of this apparent contradiction?

Key theme: Knowledge of Contingencies (Canto XVII)

There is an important theological detail which seems to be presented in Paradiso XVII almost as a thought of secondary importance, but which is in fact extremely important. In Paradiso XVII, 37–42 we learn about Dante's idea of the relationship between temporal events and the knowledge God has of them. It is important to note that, for Dante, the fact that future events might be present in the mind of God (and, through God, in the mind of the blessed) it does not mean that these events are predetermined. God, for Dante, is beyond time. God can therefore see all temporal events from the perspective of eternity. This however does not mean that, from the perspective of the unfolding of time itself, temporal events are predetermined. God sees temporal events as they unfold freely according to the processes of nature and, in the case of human beings, the exercise of free will. Given that he is beyond time, however, he can see all temporal events at once.

Reading the Heaven of Jupiter

Paradiso XVIII can be divided into five sections:

  • Dante receives comfort from Beatrice (1–21)
  • Cacciaguida points out to Dante some of the souls of the Heaven of Mars (22–51)
  • ascent into the Heaven of Jupiter (52–69)
  • description of the movements of the souls of the Heaven of Jupiter (70–114)
  • prayer for the correction of the moral degeneration of the world (115–36).

Paradiso XIX can be divided into four sections:

  • the joy and the voice of the Eagle (1-21)
  • Dante’s doubt and the first part of the Eagle’s response (22-99)
  • second part of the Eagle’s response (100-11)
  • invective against the corrupt rulers of Europe (112-48).

Paradiso XX can be divided into three sections:

  • the song of the souls of the Heaven of Jupiter (1-15)
  • the eye of the Eagle and the souls within it (16-78)
  • the Eagle’s speech and the salvation of Trajan and Ripheus, and on predestination (79-148).

Key theme: transition from Mars to Jupiter

In Paradiso XVIII the transition between two heavens is once again presented within a single canto. And, once again, it might be possible to find connections between the themes explored in the two episodes relating to the two different heavens. One aspect of the canto you may wish to consider is the way it might relate to the theme of language. Why does Dante refer, in lines 52–54, to his turning toawrds Beatrice in terms which strongly emphasise the act of communication through signs? Could the ‘nostra favalla’ [‘our language’] of line 72, or the linguistic formations of the blessed and the overall emphasis on the structures of languages 70–99, be related to the theme of language as explored in the cantos of the Heaven of Mars?

Key theme: Justice and Love

The words the souls of the Heaven of Jupiter spell out for Dante in Paradiso XVIII are taken from the opening of the biblical book of Wisdom (attributed in the Middle Ages to Solomon). Directed at earthly rulers, they are an injunction to follow justice. This suggests that one of the predominant aspects of the cantos of the Heaven of Jupiter will be a reflection on the justice which, for Dante, ought to govern human society on earth. The focus of attention in the cantos of the Heaven of Jupiter, however, is not simply on human justice but on the way in which human justice relates to divine justice.

Discussion point: the Eagle

It is certainly no coincidence that Dante chooses to represent the souls of the Heaven of Jupiter in the formation of an Eagle. The Eagle of the Heaven of Jupiter clearly is, at least on one level, the symbol of Empire. We have already met the image of the Eagle in relation to Dante's idea of Empire in Paradiso VI. Moreover, two of the souls Dante sees in the eye of the Eagle (Trajan and Constantine) were Roman emperors; whereas another one of the souls Dante sees in the eye of the Eagle (Ripheus, a character taken from the Aeneid) is a Trojan companion of Aeneas and, as such, is intimately related the story of the foundation of Rome.

As representing the Empire, the Eagle can be seen to represent human justice, that justice which human beings can achieve through their own powers by following the philosophical virtues and the guidance of the Emperor. Yet, as we have seen, the Eagle is formed from the words of Scripture and is thus also intimately related to the Word and wisdom of God. Consider the way in which Paradiso XX, 31–32 recalls the mediaeval image of the eagle looking at the sun as representing the soul contemplating God. The eagle was, moreover, the symbol generally associated in the Middle Ages with St John the Evangelist, who in turn was taken to be representative of charity (Dante himself will use this image in Paradiso XXVI, 53). Do you think it is possible that the Eagle of the Heaven of Jupiter represents something more than simply human justice? If so, what else to think it might represent?

Dante believed that human beings could through love be perfectly at one with God and with each other; and that it is through love that God creates and sustains the universe. Often Dante will use ‘amor’ to refer to love intended in both senses. Sometimes, however, he will use the more technical terms ‘carità’ and ‘pietà’. ‘Carità’ refers to a freely undertaken act of love through which human beings love God and each other in such a way as to partake in the very love which God is. ‘Pietà’, as applied to God, refers to the love through which God creates and sustains the universe, and also therefore to the love through which God grants existence, redemption and salvation to human beings.

We have already seen in previous sections the importance to Dante of the idea that human beings should make their will at one with God’s and with each other’s. We also saw that, for Dante, it is by following the example of Christ that human beings may attune their will to God’s and to each other’s.

Why does Dante place so much emphasis on the Eagle speaking in the first person singular, although it should have spoken (given that it was composed of many souls) in the first person plural?

Key theme: Salvation

The reflection on justice in the cantos of the Heaven of Jupiter is dominated by a single question: that of the possibility of salvation for virtuous non-Christians. The question, we're told in Paradiso XIX, 22–33, is one which has long troubled Dante. The question in Dante's mind is: according to what justice might a human being be condemned who lives without sin and lives a morally virtuous life in full accordance with reason, but dies without baptism and faith because he has never heard of Christ? The question is indeed a troubling one. How indeed might it be just that a human being is prevented from reaching salvation simply by the fact that, through no fault of his or her own, he has never heard of Christ? Why ought morally virtuous figures such as Virgil and the other figures Dante meets in Limbo be prevented from reaching salvation?

On first reading of lines 40–148, what the Eagle might appear to be saying is simply that human beings cannot comprehend divine justice, and that even though they might not understand how, everything that God wills is in fact just. But is this really what the Eagle is saying? Consider lines 103–11. Is there anything odd about this statement? First, the Eagle says that no human being was ever saved who did not believe in Christ. The Eagle then says that many human beings who explicitly profess faith in Christ will not be saved, whereas other human beings who do not know Christ will be ‘eternally rich’ by being saved. What sense can we make of this apparent contradiction?

According to some mediaeval theologians (such as Augustine, Aquinas and Bonaventure) it was in fact possible for human beings to be saved through ‘implicit’ faith in Christ. In other words, it was thought possible that even though a human being had never heard of Christ he or she could nonetheless be saved if, through grace he or she, although not explicitly professing faith in Christ, came adequately to relate to God. Do you think that in Paradiso XIX the Eagle might be saying that it is possible for human beings to be saved through implicit faith in Christ?

Even if one accepts that in Paradiso XIX the Eagle’s words are taken to refer to the possibility of salvation through implicit faith, the way the reflection on the salvation of non-Christians is developed in Paradiso XX raises a number of questions. First of all, how exactly is one to understand the idea that through grace a human being may be saved even if he or she had no direct contact with Christian revelation? ‘Grace’ is the term used to refer to that which is freely given by God to human beings, so as to move us towards salvation. The question is thus raised as to whether the grace which may allow non-Christians to be saved is actually offered by God to all or just to a select few.

Some commentators argue that the stories of the salvation of Trajan and Ripheus are of such an extraordinary nature that it would be difficult to think that, according to Dante, the possibility of salvation is actually offered by God to all non-Christians. Moreover, if the possibility of salvation is offered by God to all non-Christians, then why are virtuous figures such as Virgil confined to Limbo? On the other hand, however, it was widely accepted in mediaeval theology that God offered saving grace to all human beings. Indeed, there is nothing in Paradiso XX, 31–138 which explicitly says that the grace that might lead non-Christians to salvation is offered only to a select few. Could this suggest that Dante did in fact believe God offered saving grace to all human beings?

Reading the Heaven of Saturn

Paradiso XXI can be divided into four sections:

  • entrance into the Heaven of Saturn (1–24)
  • the golden ladder (25–42)
  • Dante talks to one of the souls of the Heaven of Saturn (43–105)
  • St Peter Damian introduces himself and criticises corrupt prelates (106–42).

Paradiso XXII can be divided into four sections:

  • Dante's reaction to the cry of souls (1–24)
  • St Benedict introduces himself and speaks out against the corruption of religious orders (25–99)
  • ascent into the Heaven of the Fixed Stars (100–11)
  • invocation to Gemini and contemplation of the universe below the Heaven of the Fixed Stars (112–54).

Key theme: Love, predestination and the inscrutability of the divine will

The episode of the Heaven of Saturn is (without counting that of the initial ascent into the heaven in Paradiso I) the shortest of the Paradiso. Yet it is extremely significant. Coming at the end of Dante’s and Beatrice’s journey through the planetary heavens, it could be seen to bring together many of the most important themes we have encountered so far; and thus to provide a significant perspective from which to refine our understanding about some of these themes.

The first thing to note is the way in which Saturn is referred to in Paradiso XXI, 25–27. Why do you think Dante chooses to refer to Saturn with reference to the golden age of innocence and peace, the classical counterpart to the biblical account of Eden? Through Paradiso XXI, entrance into the Heaven of Saturn is characterised by reference to the ideal of earthly happiness (that happiness which human beings ought, for Dante, to achieve under the guidance of those earthly rulers addressed by Paradiso XVIII). This might well strike you as odd, given that in the Heaven of Saturn Dante meets the souls of the contemplatives: those who on earth stood out for the way in which they set their mind on eternal happiness and the contemplation of God. Indeed, the ladder that appears in lines 28–30 is itself a symbol of the contemplative life. (In the Middle Ages, the image of the ladder was often used to refer to the contemplative life, different rungs of the ladder representing the different stages through which one gradually came, in contemplation, closer and closer to God.)

One way to read the reference to earthly happiness is to see it as an invitation to link the themes of the cantos of the Heaven of Saturn to those of the cantos of the Heaven of Jupiter.

In lines 56–57 Dante asks Peter Damian why it is that he has approached him. In lines 70–72 Peter Damian replies that is because divine charity has ordained it so. Dante then says, in line 73–78 that he understands that ‘libero amore’ (love undertaken in freedom) allows the souls to be at one with providence. He insists in wanting to know why it is that it is just this one soul that has presented itself before him. To which, in lines 83–102, Peter Damian replies that not even the angel closest to God can fully comprehend divine being and will. We are then told, in lines 103–5 that, after Peter Damian's words, Dante leaves this question and humbly asks Peter Damian to reveal his identity.

It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of Paradiso XXI, 43–105. In it, Dante brings together many of the most important questions we have encountered in the previous sections. Consider the following points:

  • It is often thought that, according to Dante, the inability fully to comprehend God pertains to human beings as mortal and/or sinful, and that this disappears as redeemed human beings reach Heaven. Paradiso XXI, 43–105, however, makes it clear that, for Dante, the inability fully to comprehend God does not disappear in Heaven, as it pertains to human beings simply insofar as they are created beings. Like all other created beings, including the angels, human beings cannot even in principle fully come to know God. (As we have already seen in previous sections; this is because, as the ground of all existence, as existence itself, God cannot fully become an object of knowledge or contemplation).
  • Paradiso XXI, 43–105 also makes it clear that although human beings cannot, even in Heaven, fully come to know God, they can, through love, be in full accordance with the divine will and partake in divine being.
  • Given the two points above, lines 103–5 become extremely significant. Following Peter Damian's words Dante realises he should abandon the question of predestination and turn humbly to meet his interlocutor. Dante needs to abandon the question not because his mind is not powerful enough to grasp the answer to it, but because there simply could not, even in principle, be an answer to the question he asked. For there to be in answer to his question would be tantamount to God ultimately being fully an object of knowledge. Having realised this, Dante recognises that what one ought to do is not aim fully to come to know divine being and will, but rather to act in humility and love towards other people. As lines 70–75 had suggested, if one acts in charity one is, in fact, performing an action which is at one and the same time fully free and fully in accordance with providence, predestination and the will of God. To know God, for Dante, is ultimately to know that God cannot fully become an object of knowledge, and that one can freely act in accordance with the love that is God.

Key theme: Love, the human person and contemplation of God

Since the Heaven of Venus, the souls of the blessed have been completely enclosed within the light they irradiate. So it has not been possible for Dante to see their human semblance. Paradiso XXII, 52–60, however, is the first time that Dante expresses the wish to see one of the souls in its human form. What might the significance of this be? One possible answer is that, after what Dante has learned in his encounter with Peter Damian, he now fully understands the value of interacting with other human beings; he now sees it might lead one fully to partake in divine being itself; in other words, he now sees the full value of the human person as relating to God. Having understood all this, one could argue, Dante is eager to see Benedict in his human lineaments, so as fully to respond to his human presence.

© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame