The Primo Mobile (Cantos XXVII-XXX)
Reading the Primo Mobile
Paradiso XXVIII can be divided into three sections:
- the point and the nine circles of fire (1–39)
- the correspondence of the order of the universe to the order of the angelic hierarchies (40–87)
- explanation regarding the ordering of the angelic hierarchies (88–139).
- Beatrice's explanation regarding the creation of the angels and regarding their relationship to God (1–84)
- Beatrice speaks out against the presumption and vanity of many preachers, theologians and intellectuals (85–126)
- Beatrice's explanation regarding the number of the angels (127–35)
- Beatrice's explanation regarding the way in which God’s being is reflected on the angels (136–45).
- Dante and the beauty of Beatrice (1–33)
- ascent into the Empyrean (34–54)
- the river of light (55–81)
- the rose (82–123)
- Emperor Henry VII’s throne (124–48).
It is important that you take some time to consider Dante's idea of the Primo Mobile, as it is a fundamental part of Dante's understanding of the cosmos and its relationship to God. In Paradiso XXVII, 97–120 we learn about Dante's idea of the Primo Mobile. The important points to consider are:
The Primo Mobile is the cosmic meeting point between God and the universe. The existence of the Primo Mobile depends on nothing other than the light and love that God is.
For Dante, the light and love that God is is not physical phenomena.
Technically speaking, the existence of the Primo Mobile does not depend on anything. It simply originates in the unfathomable mystery of divine being itself.
The Primo Mobile is the origin of all space and all time. It contains everything that exists in space and time, and is itself not contained by anything else existing in space and time. It is the fastest of the heavens. Its movement, however, cannot be measured in relation to that of anything else; rather, the movement of the Primo Mobile is itself that against which all other movement may be measured.
All the points above may be found in Paradiso XXVII, 97–120. Before moving on, it is important that you also bear in mind the following points which you may find helpful in analysing the poem:
The Primo Mobile is the cosmic nexus between time and eternity. As such it may be seen as a cosmic counterpart of the human being. As we have seen in previous sections, for Dante human beings are the only created things to be both temporal and eternal.
Dante's idea of the Primo Mobile is important not only because it tells us something about Dante's physical understanding of the universe, but also because it tells us something about Dante’s philosophical and theological understanding of the universe. To say that the Primo Mobile originates in divine being is, for Dante, to say that, when one comes to think about the ultimate origin of the universe, one does not have to think in terms of the physical causes that bring the universe into being; for, in fact, the ultimate cause of the universe is not of a physical kind. According to Dante, to think about the ultimate origin of the universe is, rather, to think about the unfathomable mystery on which everything physical depends. The Primo Mobile is the origin of all physical phenomena; but it itself originates in the nonphysical love/light/truth that is God.
Key theme: Transition from the Heaven of the Fixed Stars to the Primo Mobile
In Paradiso XXVII Dante and Beatrice move into the Primo Mobile. As we saw above, the Primo Mobile is according to Dante, the origin of all spatio-temporal existence, the cosmic meeting point between God and the universe. Before ascending into the Primo Mobile, Dante is invited once again by Beatrice to look down on the universe below him. When Dante looks down he sees himself to be in cosmic correspondence with the Pillars of Hercules, the ‘segno’ trespassed by Ulysses. This is the last time in the Commedia that Dante’s position in Heaven is referred to in relation to a location on Earth.
It is often said that in representing the heavenly journey towards God, Dante's Paradiso is also characterised by a gradual movement away from the concerns with the world and with human earthly society which had so strongly characterised the first cantiche. If so, then how does one account for prominent presence in ParadisoXXVII-XXX of the invectives against earthly corruption?
XXVII, 103–5 is the prelude to Beatrice's explanation regarding the nature of the Primo Mobile in lines 106–120. In lines 121–48 Beatrice then speaks out against the earthly greed of human beings. The movement, in lines 120–21, from the first part to the second part of Beatrice's speech has struck some commentators as rather abrupt. Why do you think there is this sudden movement from the explanation on the nature of the Primo Mobile to the invective against earthly greed?
Key theme: Angels
It is difficult for us, modern readers of the Commedia, to retrieve a full sense of the significance of angels in mediaeval thought generally and in Dante’s work in particular. It is important that we try, otherwise we run the risk that fundamental aspects of Dante’s poem will remain altogether obscure to us.
Angels hold a place of fundamental importance in Dante’s thought. For Dante, angels are the most perfect aspect of creation; they are the creative beings closest to God; they are that through which God’s being and power is reflected onto the universe; they are that which governs the movement of the different heavens.
Angels, for Dante, are immaterial substances, pure form and pure intelligence; or, as he puts it in Paradiso XXIX, 33 ‘puro atto’. This means that their existence depends on nothing other than God; it is eternally perfectly actualised, as it is subject to nothing temporal or corruptible. Like human beings angels have intellect and will, but unlike human beings they have no memory. This is because they eternally will to be at one with God and thus eternally see and love him perfectly. They are thus eternally beyond time and therefore beyond the need for memory.
That so much emphasis is placed in Paradiso XXVIII on the question of the correspondence of the order of the angels and of the heavens could at first sight appear quite odd. Why indeed is Dante so troubled by the fact that whereas with the heavens the fastest is on the outside, with the circles of angels the fastest is on the inside instead? In any case, is not what Dante sees in the Primo Mobile a show put on for him, just like the formations of the blessed souls in the other heavens?
Dante is troubled because of a mismatch in relative size between the heavens and the angelic circles that moves them. Yet, as Beatrice explains, the correspondence between the two orderings ought not to be thought of in physical terms but in theological terms. As with the question of the dark spots visible on the moon the point is made, in Paradiso XXVIII, that the nature of celestial bodies ultimately depends on their relationship, through the angels, with divine being itself; and that therefore the origin and meaning of their movement is to be thought of as nothing other than the way in which divine being reflects itself in the angels.
The order of the angelic hierarchies adopted in the Commedia is (in descending enumeration) Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, Angels. This is the same as that found in the work of Dionysius, but different from that found in the work of Gregory the Great. In his works Gregory had given two different orderings. The one Dante is referring to is most probably the following (in descending enumeration): Seraphim, Cherubim, Powers, Principalities, Virtues, Dominations, Thrones, Archangels, Angels. This is the same ordering the Dante had followed in the Convivio referred to in Paradiso VIII, 34–39. As you can see, a number of different orders of angels change place in the two different orderings. But, as you've seen in previous sections, it is to the changing position of the Thrones that, throughout the Paradiso, Dante draws most attention.
Lines 10-18 of Paradiso XXIX are among the most significant lines of the Commedia. They are among the most philosophically and theologically rich, and also among the most poetically beautiful. They are a supreme example of the way in which Dante's language in the Paradiso comes to combine philosophical precision and theological sophistication with rhythmic balance and imaginative richness, each element illuminating each of the others. The main idea expressed by the passage is that God created beings capable of love not so that he could gain anything out of it, but so that they might rejoice in their existence. We are also told that created beings rejoice in their existence insofar as it is a reflection of the original light which is God; and that the act of creation was a free act which happened out of time and space.
Yet, poetically, much more than this is conveyed. Note, for example, the relationship between ’nuovi amor’ and ‘eterno amore’; the way in which a created being said to ‘speak’ in being a reflection of the regional light itself; the way in which ‘subsisto’ is, in fact spoken both by the created being (in so far as it is itself subsistent being) and by God (in so far as the created being exists as a reflection of the divine light).
© 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