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Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Par. 11-20)

Genealogy plays an important role in the Commedia. We spent a good amount of time discussing how Dante has chosen his poetic fathers. His relationships with Virgil and Statius are central to the narratives of the Inferno and the Purgatorio. And some of the most interesting moments in those poems occur when Dante speaks with poets whose work has informed his own: his interactions with Brunetto Latini or with Guido Guinizzelli and Arnaut Daniel. We also see the importance of Florence as the land of Dante's fathers. Of course, all discussions of fatherhood take place in the context of the fatherhood of God.

In cantos 11 through 20 of the Paradiso, fatherhood moves from the metaphorical to the literal because we encounter Dante's flesh-and-blood ancestor Cacciaguida.The discussion of fatherhood begins in Canto 13 with the first human father. There Thomas Aquinas explains to Dante that God made Adam and Christ directly, and so "human nature never was nor shall it be --/ what it was in these two creatures" (Par 13:86-7). In Canto 14, Dante moves from the creation of Adam and Christ to the state of risen human bodies after the resurrection. Solomon says, "When we put on again our flesh, / glorified and holy, then our persons / will be more pleasing for being all complete, / so that the light, granted to us freely / by the Highest Good, shall increase, / the light that makes us fit to see Him. / From that light, vision must increase, / and love increase what vision kindles, / and radiance increase, which comes from love" (Par 14: 43-51). Dante notes that the choirs of souls around Solomon quickly shouted Amen after Solomon's words to express their desire for their dead bodies. "The flames in paradise don't desire their own bodies so much as they desire bodies, / for their mothers, / for their fathers, and for others whom they loved, / before they all became eternal flames" (Par. 14: 64-66). That is, to love another human being is to love an embodied human being. The love the flames have for their families will be more pleasing for being all complete when the flames are once again embodied.

I have no doubt that Dante's discussion of the first ancestor Adam in Canto 13 and the flames' desires for their mothers and fathers in Canto 14 leads up to Dantes encounter with his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida in canto 15. The interactions with Cacciaguida in cantos 15 through 18 are some of my favorite lines in the entire Commedia. Part of what I find so moving is what Dante can understand and what Dante decides not to disclose. When he first meets Cacciaguida, he cannot understand everything his ancestor says. "Then, a joy to hear and a joy to see, / the spirit added to what first he said / words so profound I could not understand them. / Nor did he hide his thoughts from me by choice / but by necessity, for his conceptions / were set beyond out mortal limit" (Par 15: 37-39). Dante is clear here that he cannot understand Cacciaguida because of his mortality. I wonder, though, if the point here goes beyond the fact that Cacciaguida is in heaven and Dante is still alive.

I wonder, instead, if any of us truly understands the lessons our ancestors teach us. Is part of our mortal condition that we all too often neglect the lessons of those that came before us? But our ancestors, as Dante notes, make us who we are: "I began: You are my father, / You prompt me to speak with bold assurance. / You raise me up, so I am more than I (Voi mi levate s, chi son pi chio)" (Par 16:16-18). Who Dante is is inextricably tied up with what he does and what will happen to him. And so as he asked Virgil, he asks Cacciaguida about his future. Cacciaguida's reply comes in Canto 17, which, significantly, is the middle of the poem. Dante writes, "Not with cloudy sayings, by which the foolish folk / Were once ensnared, before the Lamb of God, / Who takes away our sins was slain / But in plain words and with clear speech / That paternal love replied, / Hidden and yet revealed in his own smile: / Contingent things, which do not extend / beyond the pages of your material world, / are all depicted in the Eternal Sight, / yet are by that no more enjoined / than is a ship, moved downstream on a rivers flow, / by the eyes that mirror it" (Par 17:37-42). A discussion of God's providence and human freedom should not detain us here, but it is enough to say that Dante sees no contradiction between a strong sense of both.

Cacciaguida's knowledge doesnt inhibit Dante's freedom. Cacciaguida's knowledge enhances both Dante's freedom and his poetic gifts, even if there are some things Cacciaguida tells Dante that Dante doesn't tell us. For example, "And you shall bear this written in your memory, / But shall not tell of it and he foretold events / That even those who witness them shall not believe" (Par 17:91-93). Cacciaguida's words are troubling. He tells Dante of the exile that awaits him and makes it clear that Dante will be alone. He will have to leave Florence, the land of his fathers, and a land whose inhabitants will read his poem. Indeed, Dante worries about whether he should tell of this harsh future, but Cacciaguida responds, "A conscience dark, / whether with its own or with a kinsman's shame, / is sure to feel your words are harsh. / Nonetheless, forswear all falsehood, / Revealing all that you have seen, / And then let him who itches scratch. / For, if your voice is bitter at first taste, / It will later furnish vital nourishment / Once it has been swallowed and digested" (Par 17:124-132). Cacciaguida tells Dante to forswear all falsehood even though the truth will seem harsh to dark consciences. The most important lesson that any of Dante's fathers have taught him is that the truth may be bitter at first taste, but it will offer vital nourishment.

Last weekend, my wife and I took our ten-month-old to visit his great-grandfather (my wife's maternal grandfather). Although fewer generations separate them than separated Dante and Cacciaguida, the joy in Grandpa's eyes mirrored the joy in Cacciaguida's. Like their Florentine forebears, there was a bit of a language gap. My son's waves and smiles responded to his great-grandfather's words. I'd like to think that when Dante writes that Cacciaguida "foretold events / That even those who witness them shall not believe," Cacciaguida was telling Dante about this meeting in New York. If Dante had told me about this meeting when I first read the Commedia I certainly would not have believed it.

 

[For part one of our discussion of the Paradiso, see here. For our discussion on the Purgatorio, see here, and for the Inferno, see here.]  

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There's so much that's so good in cantos 10-20. I loved the exchange with Cacciaguida that you note, Scott--it's the only really human exchange that Dante seems to have in Paradiso that's equivalent to those he has in the Inferno and Purgatorio, and I find the time-traveling really interesting too (the fact that Dante the poet, in the present, is creating an interview that supposedly happened in the past, and foretold the "future" of his exile, presumably in part to rewrite that episode and insist upon his stoicism rather than whatever he actually felt and did when banished). But since I've talked before about my interest in Dante's attitude toward the salvation of the virtuous pagans, and since that's what canto 20 deals with explicitly, I'm going to think aloud about that a bit more. Although Hollander seems to regard the salvation of Trajan and Ripheus skeptically, suggesting that Dante couldn't *really* have believed this and must be leaving it as an open question, I'm not so sure. Dante certainly reaffirms the orthodox position that there's no salvation without Christ--even for those who had no way of knowing about him. But in criticizing the idea that anyone (even the blessed!) can ever know or predict who will be saved, and in demonstrating that fact with the apparent salvation of Statius and Ripheus, Dante's also insisting on the mysteriousness and unknowability of God. If everything God does is just, then either it's entirely just (albeit in ways human reason can't process) to condemn the virtuous pagans. . . or they'll somehow be saved anyway, even though we know salvation comes through Christ alone.As I recall, the way Calvin solved this problem in the case of the patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible was to insist that they actually DID know Christ, fully. It seems to me that Dante is doing something similar with Ripheus: somehow, he knew Christ.So whether Dante "really believes" that the specific persons of Statius and Ripheus were saved seems beside the point; I think he's using them as examples of the unknowability of salvation, and as examples of kinds of people (e.g., pagans) who could be saved. It's a neat way of remaining totally orthodox--salvation comes only through Christ--and keeping alive the possibility of salvation for non-Christians.

If I were asked to pick my favorite canto(s) so far I would have to say Cantos XI and XII in the Paradiso. In those cantos St. Thomas Aquinas, foremost Dominican, praises St Francis, the founder of the Franciscans, and St. Bonaventure, foremost Franciscan, praises St. Dominic, founder of the Dominicans. Each also ends their respective paeans with a critique of their own religious orders. Frankly, I was taken aback with such generosity of spirit and honesty. But, then, this is Heaven and the two speakers are saints. Perhaps the Franciscans and Dominicans have been competitive down through the ages. I have taught Church History in a Lay Ecclesial Ministry Program and am not aware of any competition.Can the words of these two saints model for us how differing groups, (even political groups?) respect and collaborate for the common good? Or is that too much to expect here on earth?In Canto XV Dante meets his great-great-grandfather. I can just picture the encounter: the elder anxious to share his wisdom and knowledge about the good old days gone by with his progeny and Dante listening attentively to every word and bursting with pride when he learns that his ancestor was a martyr. I used to love hearing my grandmother tell stories about my mother and her siblings when they were growing up even though she would repeat them many times. Our son does the same thing with my husband.My translation (H.R. Huse, 1959) has a few lines that I found to be clever and a bit amusing. I dont know is Dante meant it that way in the original Italian.Canto XIII St. Thomas Aquinas mentions the creation of Eve and describes her as one whose palate cost the world so much.You believe that in the breast from which a rib Was drawn to form the beautiful cheeksOf her (Eve) whose palate cost the world so much.Canto XVICacciaguido describes his birth as the time when my mother, now holy, relived herself of the burden I had been. a clever description of pregnancy and delivery.

Helen, I also love Thomas's praise of Francis and Bonventure's praise of Dominic. There was quite a bit of rivalry between the two groups, so Dante clearly knows what he is doing in bringing peace between them. And you're right, of course. Would that today we had someone who could bring such peace between rival groups.

Flavia, I wonder if your thoughts on time and your thoughts on salvation are linked. God's foreknowledge is a thorny theological and philosophical issue, of course. But if God lives in an eternal present outside time, then Dante's journey through the afterlife gives him a vista that is timeless. And this timeless vista also allows him to see how knowledge of Christ -- which, you're right, Dante always sees as necessary for salvation -- can somehow bend around our own limited understanding of temporality.

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.