How Can We Speak of Heaven? (Paradiso, It's Lit #25)
After journeying through Hell and Purgatory, Dante finally make this way to the moment we’re all still waiting for—Eternal Heavenly Paradise. As you can imagine, Heaven is a difficult place to write about. But if you can write about the unimaginable horrors of Hell, you can write about the unimaginable beauties of Heaven, and that’s just what Dante does. Though he may not be able to do his ‘experience’ total justice, Paradiso still provides fertile ground for Dante to explore his theology as he journeys with Beatrice amidst the planets, stars, and Empyrean that make up Paradise.
What Dante cannot seem to do is write about the visual experience of Heaven. This makes the end of the poem a bit anti-climactic. When he finally reaches the Empyrean, he simply says ‘From that point on, what I could see was greater/than speech can show: at such a sight, it fails—/and memory fails when faced with such excess’ (XXXIII.55-7). It’s the obvious cop-out, but what could you expect? The presumptuous arrogance it would take for Dante to believe he was so great a poet that he could describe the glory of God could possibly land him in the sixth circle of Hell. Instead, he must humble himself by speaking to us ‘in words more weak than those/of one whose infant tongue still bathes at the breast’ (XXXIII.107-8). I’m not sure how many of you have spoken to an infant lately, but they’re generally not the most accomplished orators.
Dante’s descriptions of Heaven, thus, lie most potently in comparing it to the natural world. He suggests, for instance, that heaven is more natural than nature itself. Though nature comes from the hand of God, he argues ‘Nature always works defectively—/she passes on that light much like an artist/who knows his craft but has a hand that trembles’ (XIII.76-8). This is why humans can err; if nature always worked perfectly, humans would never make mistakes, organisms would never mutate, and all nature would be uniformly beautiful. Heaven, on the other hand, is as natural as can be. In fact, Dante is told he will likely ‘not feel more marvel at our climbing than/you would were you considering a stream/that from a mountain’s height falls to its base’ (I.135-8). Dante will feel right at home in Heaven. It’s the natural order that humans spend their whole lives in pursuit of. In Heaven, you are perfectly in line with how everything is meant to be.
Like Hell and Purgatory, Heaven also has levels. In this case, it is symbolized by the moon, the sun, the planets, the Primum Mobile (which theoretically keeps all the planets in line), and the Empyrean, the ultimate throne of God itself. These levels introduce a possible paradox in Heaven’s operations. Do those on the lowest levels envy those above them? The natural quality of heaven, in fact, does not allow this. As the Angels tell Dante on the moon, the lowest level of Heaven, ‘The power of love appeases our/will so—we only long for what we have;/we do not thirst for greater blessedness’ (III.70-2). Even the lowest level of heaven entails profound satisfaction for its denizens. To be one with the natural order of love is fulfilling enough.
This concept of Heaven as unity with natural order has other interesting implications. For instance, Dante suggests that angels have no need for memory. Because they are united with God and ‘their sight is never intercepted/by a new object, [they] have no need/to recollect an interrupted concept’ (XXIX.79-81). If Elon Musk can really execute neural-link, we might find something close in the modern age, but this idea of having instant access to the wisdom of the universe is certainly a heavenly concept, and in Dante’s age, incredibly imaginative.
If you are looking for long descriptions of the beauty of heaven, therefore, you may not quite find it in Paradiso. Instead, expect to find the culmination of Dante’s theology. In The Divine Comedy, it is less important what heaven looks like. Instead, the reader is asked to wonder—what does Heaven mean anyway? Dante has left us with his answer, and I have left it to you to make of it what you will. Next week, I will be moving back into the modern age as I discuss Ben Shapiro’s take on the importance of many of these Western spiritual concepts I’ve been exploring for the past few months. See you then!
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Notes by Peter Armour, Everyman’s Library, 1995.