Reading Dante’s Paradise

Mother Culture selection for April 2016

All of the Divine Comedy points to the fact that all of God’s creation—mankind, most especially, as the crown of His creation—is meant to be moved by God’s love. In Inferno. Dante shows us what happens when we refuse to be moved by the love of God. In Purgatory, he shows us how we can learn to be moved by the love of God. In Paradise, he will show us what it looks like to be moved by the love of God.

Version Notes

My favorite translation is by Dorothy Sayers; I love her masterful marriage of faithful literary translation with Dante’s chosen poetic form of terza rima. Her introduction and notes at the end of each canto are helpful, but never intrusive. Anthony Esolen’s translation is also lovely. There is also a new translation by the Hollanders written in blank verse, which looks interesting. The footnotes are exhaustive. For comparison, read the text of the first pages of both in the Amazon “Look Inside” preview. If you can afford—$$-wise and time-wise—two translations, it might be fun to use both.

Reading Helps

Again, the Paradise is, first of all, a marvelous story and should be enjoyed as such. The ideas below for a close reading of this book build on the principles and practices detailed in my post on High School Humanities. The master aim of literature study should be to read and delight in the story. Keep these reading helps in their rightful place as servant to that master.

Background and Context

As we come to the final book of the Comedy, review what you have learned about Dante’s life and times. Many readers find this the most challenging book of the three. It is certainly more philosophical and far less plot-driven. We may struggle to understand, or even, truth be told, to enjoy the Paradise. And yet, it’s Heaven. We should enjoy it the most, right? Dorothy Sayers (quoting C. S. Lewis) gives a good explanation for the struggle in her Introduction:

It has been said* that the joys of Heaven would be, for most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste. In a sense, Dante’s Paradise is a story about the acquisition of that taste. . . as he mounts ever higher through the circling spheres and beyond them to the still centre of infinity which is the abode of God, his vision strengthens and he grows in understanding and love until, at last, in the unveiled presence of the Deity, his will and desire are integrated with the divine love. Although we may feel we are strangers in Heaven, Dante is at least known to us; he is our very selves.

One thing I have had to remind myself and my students is to approach Paradise (indeed, all of the Divine Comedy)  primarily as a work of imagination, not a work of theology.* This does not imply that we as followers of Christ should suspend our duty to measure what we read and hear against the straight edge of Scripture; however, we will miss much of the beauty and exhilaration of Dante’s breathtaking portrayal of love rightly ordered (in the case of Inferno and parts of Purgatory, the horror of love wrongly ordered) if we are constantly distracted by the places where his theology does not match our own. At least for a first reading, I would ask my students to not dwell on such disagreements (note them, certainly, and do come back to them another day—especially in class discussion), but first just let the poetry draw your own eyes to Dante’s compelling portrait of love rightly ordered.

*Important caveat: Our Great Books courses at Providence Prep presuppose that students are sitting under the weekly preaching of God’s Word, that they are pursuing a regular course of bible reading on their own, and that families are actively training students in Christian doctrine and practice. We believe that doctrine is important and essential, and we do not ask students to gloss over doctrinal questions or differences, but to fully explore them, particularly by seeking the counsel of the pastor and elders of their church. See Reading the Classics—Start Here! for the complete explanation of this expectation.

Commonplace Book Entries

(Read my series of posts on Commonplace Books here.)  Always read with a pen in hand! Mark possible passages for commonplacing at a future time. Of course, commonplacing favorite passages as you read should be a regular habit. 

Copy passages from the Paradiso that

  • mention or describe the eyes of Beatrice
  • mention or describe the strengthening of Dante’s vision, love, and/or understanding
  • spark your interest, remind you of something else, or bring up questions in your mind
  • delight you – especially figures of speech and eloquent turns of phrase
  • point you to the good, the true, and the beautiful

Reflections As You Read

In addition to the general reading journal options, there are a few specific Reading Journal assignments that may be helpful. This is not meant to be a deep analysis. Use this kind of guided journaling only as a way to enhance enjoyment of the story!

  • Why is Dante so preoccupied with Beatrice’s eyes? How does this impact you?
  • Note any surprises that Dante offers in his placement of people in heaven
  • How has Paradise (and the rest of the Comedy) inspired you to be moved by the love of God? Write out some concrete, practical thoughts and ideas.
  • Note how Dante is an historical figure, rooted in his particular space and time.
  • How does Dante represent all of mankind—how do you see yourself in Dante?
  • According to Dante, what were we made to be (in Aristotelian terms, what is our formal cause)? What were we made to do? What is our purpose in life and how do we achieve it? Draw from your reading of the entire Comedy.

Connections and the Great Conversation

Write a response to the reading and community discussion. What did you find most interesting (or odd, or convicting…)? Are there any common themes or ideas that you saw in your reading here and other books you have read? Are there any common themes or ideas from your Bible reading or recent sermons you have heard? Always be on the lookout for references to earlier or contemporaneous authors, ideas, and events—the ongoing Great Conversation.

  • Copy the final stanza plus the final line of each book into your Commonplace Book. What do you notice about all three? Can you think of other books you have read that have a similar feature or repeating symbol?
  • Every worthwhile book will lead us to repentance, and point us to more that we need to know or read. After reading all of Dante, which books do you need to add to your reading list? What historical persons, places, or things do you need to understand better?

Links Worth A Look

Mother Culture Community

Mother Culture Community is an online fellowship of Christian classical home educators and other reading mothers (and aunts, and sisters, and grandmothers, and daughters), sponsored by The Reading Mother. Our mission is inspire our students in the pursuit of a life well‐read. We believe our own pursuit of a life well‐read is the best place to start.

 

Empyrean Light, by Gustave Doré, 1865 (with color modifications)

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