A Map of Dante's Paradiso in Three Touchstones

In the first two parts of this series, I provided brief maps of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio, maps each composed of three moments or “touchstones.” My aim is to help readers understand the individual canticles and Dante’s epic as a whole as the great poem of Christendom. It is a poem that comprehends much of humane learning and, as Ezra Pound once put it, includes history, but it is in structure and concern above all a poem that gives us a brilliant architectural vision of the world as it appears to Catholic eyes.

Paradiso I: We Are Not Our Own End

In the first two canticles, Dante feels bodily the correction and refinement of his intellect and will, sometimes to the point of blacking out in a wave of pathos. The climactic and final instance of such suffering comes in the Garden of Eden, where Beatrice greets Dante but also makes him to feel the failures of his life—which Beatrice makes clear are instances of unfaithfulness to the memory of her beauty, which is itself an image of divine grace. In the Paradiso, the refinement continues but in the form of a simple movement from the wonder of ignorance to the wonder of knowledge and awe.

That the refinement will continue is made clear in the first three cantos, as the (now) gentle voices of Beatrice and Piccarda edify Dante. In these same moments we are given an account of love that refines what Virgil offers at the center of the Purgatorio. We thus learn simultaneously that the mode of education begun in the first parts of the poem will continue and that what Dante learns here will reach backward to those earlier canticles and transform our understanding of them.

In the Purgatorio, Virgil had described the movement of human love toward its end in God and also its perversion into sin. He promised that Beatrice would elaborate further on, and indeed she does over the first three cantos in Paradise. What Virgil described from the perspective of a human creature in the world, Beatrice simply displays to Dante from the heavenly heights. She shows the whole order of the universe as it moves toward “the Eternal Worth” who is God and, in circulating toward him becomes the “imprint” and “pattern” of him.[1] Beatrice shows that this circulation of the stars and planets is essentially one with the movement of human beings, those creatures who love with the intellect; she repeats the image of the bow with its shaft to describe all movement in the universe as the movement of love toward Love Itself.[2]

Dante’s soul having been purged of all moral imperfections, in the garden of Eden at the peak of the mount of Purgatory, the pilgrim soon learns how simple and unmediated has become the movement of that soul’s love. He had already experienced his steps growing lighter as he shed his sins while ascending the mountain, but now he learns that the purified love of the soul instantly flies, carrying Beatrice and himself into the heavens. Beatrice explains, “The thirst that is innate and everlasting—/ thirst for the godly realm—bore us away/ as swiftly as the heavens that you see.”[3]

As part of the order of nature, their thirst for, or love of, God is natural and no longer suffers impediments to that natural movement. But Dante reminds us that this fulfillment of our natures can only occur through the supernatural. By this, we mean, first of all, that he has been forgiven his sins by the supernatural mercy that sent Virgil to guide him and by the supernatural justice of the mountain that purged him, but also that the realm through which he now moves is superior to, and overwhelming of, the nature of his flesh-bound intellect. Hence, the canticle begins with Dante’s confession that he “saw things” that he now forgets and cannot speak.[4]

His journey is supernatural in still a second way. Our desire for God is the desire to have our natures fulfilled. It should—we might naturally presume—be absolute, uncompromising, and end only in our achieving union with him. Dante becomes aware that this is mere presumption only when, in the first heaven, that of the moon, he meets Piccarda Donati. He sees that she is “happy here,” but wonders if she desires “a higher place” closer to the divine light.[5]

No, she replies, and thereby reveals that Dante still does not wholly understand the nature of love or happiness. Happiness consists not merely in the soul’s complete union with God as if the soul could take possession of God, filling itself to the full. That would suggest that our end in a sense lay in ourselves. Rather our happiness consists in going beyond ourselves, not in filling ourselves up but in giving ourselves away so that our soul may take its place in the order and pattern that is the image of the divine will. Piccarda explains, “The essence of the blessed life consists/ in keeping to the boundaries of God’s will,/ through which our wills become one single will.”[6]

She concludes with one of the best-known lines of the poem, a verse especially celebrated by Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot: “And in His will there is our peace.”[7] Beatrice began Dante’s pilgrimage through Paradise by stating two truths: all creatures yearn in love for God and all creation has been imprinted with the order and pattern of the divine image. In Piccarda’s line, these two distinct principles are reconciled: our yearning for God lies specifically in our being conformed to the pattern of his image. Happiness is our end, but that end is not found within the self but in the self’s being fitted to what transcends us.

This is the essential paradox of Christianity, as Saint Augustine learned nearly one thousand years earlier. Early in The Confessions, Augustine recalls the sense of happiness and completion he felt in a youthful friendship. But, when that friend dies, he is thrown back upon himself and, in the midst of his pathos, reaches the conclusion, after the manner of the stoic philosophers, that “it appeared to me that unity, in which the rational mind subsisted, was itself the essence of truth and of the supreme good.”[8]

The younger Augustine conceives of happiness as repose within one’s own will, as a sturdy self-enclosure not subject to the shocks of the passions. As he matures, he eventually discovers that he “needed to be open to the radiance of another light in order to become a partaker in truth.”[9] Such truth lies not in the mind but in God, not in the repose of his will in itself, but in its ecstatic submission to the divine will.

This argument is conducted on a more impersonal level in The City of God. Augustine agrees with the pagan philosophers, Plato and the stoics included, that our end is happiness. But once again the philosophers conceive of the fulfilled self as that end, whereas Christians know that our end lies outside ourselves in the will of God.[10] This finds expression not in the rational mind turning about itself in perfect aseity, as did Aristotle’s god, but in the rational mind’s giving itself “up to the praise of God.”[11] Reason’s longing is consummated in the vision that supernatural grace makes possible. Our peace lies not in being perfect, autonomous, self-sufficient works of art but in pouring ourselves out in praise of the divine artist.[12]

We see here the essential dependence of nature on the supernatural. Reason has “short wings” and cannot fly where its love would have it on its own power.[13] Virgil, that figure of reason, signaled his own limitations in the tableau of Saint Lucy in Purgatory, but we see this even more clearly now, in Paradise. It is the figure of Beatrice, sensuous image of the beauty of supernatural faith, who must be present to reveal the full truth about these things to Dante.

Paradiso II: The Aesthetics of Light

The most frequently discussed, indeed complained about, feature of the Paradiso is its magnificent expression of an aesthetics of light and glory. Writing of this aspect of the poem, T.S. Eliot observes the challenge it poses to the typical reader:

It is a matter of gradual adjustment of our vision. We have (whether we know it or not) a prejudice against beatitude as material for poetry. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries knew nothing of it; even Shelley, who knew Dante well . . . was able to enounce the proposition that our sweetest songs are those which sing of saddest thought.[14]

My sense is that many readers do indeed share in this prejudice and that is unfortunate, for, the highest achievement of the poem as a poem lies not in hell but paradise. Dante is at his least inventive in the Inferno, where he can follow Virgil’s precedent in many respects and where the invigorating drama of pathos and the spectacle of pain makes the poem something of a curiosity in Augustine’s sense of that word. In the Paradiso, Dante finds ways to give voice to the aesthetics of light and glory that the Christian theologians had brilliantly described in the abstract and which had found luminous but silent expression in the beauty of stained-glass windows in sacred architecture. Dante the poet is at once more concrete than the theologians and, naturally, more articulate than the sacred artists, as when he describes one blessed soul as she returns to the heavenly pageant of praise and another comes and smiles upon him:

Here she was silent and appeared to me
to turn toward other things, reentering
the wheeling dance where she had been before.
The other joy, already known to me
as precious, then appeared before my eyes
like a pure ruby struck by the sun’s rays.
On high, joy is made manifest by brightness,
as, here on earth, by smiles . . .[15]

In the fourth heaven, that of the sun, he praises the enchanting music of the blessed souls and then the beauty of Beatrice’s eyes, which only increases as they ascend:

But he who notes that, in ascent, her eyes—
all beauty’s living seals—gain force, and notes
that I had not yet turned to them in Mars,
can then excuse me—just as I accuse
myself, thus to excuse myself—and see
that I speak truly: here her holy beauty
is not denied—ascent makes it more perfect.[16]

Many other instances of luminous glory form the heart of the canticle, but two of the last such images especially reveal Dante’s success at rendering the divine visible to the poetic imagination. As Beatrice and Dante reach the ninth heaven, the primum mobile, she describes the supernumerary choirs of angels as myriad reflections of the divine light:

The First Light reaches them in ways as many
as are the angels to which It conjoins
Itself, as It illumines all of them;
and this is why (because affection follows
the act of knowledge) the intensity
of love’s sweetness appears unequally.
But now you see the height, you see the breadth,
of the Eternal Goodness: It has made
so many mirrors, which divide Its light,
but, as before, Its own Self still is One.[17]

In the thirty-third and final canto of Paradise, beginning with the prayer of Saint Bernard and concluding with Dante’s recollection of his vision of the light of the divine triune nature, all has become pure radiance. Light repeats and repeats across the verses but, appropriately, culminates in the vision of God:

In the deep and bright
essence of that exalted Light, three circles
appeared to me; they had three different colors,
but all of them were of the same dimension;
one circle seemed reflected by the second,
as rainbow is by rainbow, and the third
seemed fire breathed equally by those two circles.[18]

Paradiso III: The Intellectualism of the Beatific Vision

As the poem reaches the divine heights and ends in prayer, silence, and the overwhelming luminosity of the beatific vision, we may be tempted to look back on the preceding moments of the poem, with their concrete particularities that cast shadow rather than light, and find them all voided. After the ecstasy of mystical vision, T.S. Eliot once wrote, how it seems “Ridiculous the waste sad time/ Stretching before and after.”[19] Is it possible that the strongest argument for identifying Dante with Thomas Aquinas is that poet and theologian end with the same conclusion of their respective works? Among the last words of Aquinas are those to his friend Reginald, spoken to explain why he had quit work on a treatise still incomplete: “All that I have written seems to me nothing but straw . . . compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”[20]

The poem does indeed end with the confessed failure of words to convey what the eye has seen. But it is important to note that even as Dante draws near to that final vision, he and the blessed souls are still talking. Of especial importance are the three moments, late in the poem, of catechetical examination on the theological virtues. Saint Peter examines Dante on faith, to which the pilgrim answers, “faith is the substance of things we hope for / and is the evidence of things not seen.”[21] Saint James examines him on hope. Dante explains: “Hope is the certain expectation/ of future glory; it is the result/ of God’s grace and of merit we have earned.”[22] The apostle Jesus loved, Saint John, gives the examination on love. Dante replies that Love has “read out” to him the divine goodness and that, conversely, once that good is understood, love is enkindled.[23]

There is a sense in which this discursive knowledge of the theological virtues and the virtues themselves are surpassed. Aquinas writes that faith cannot coexist in the same subject with science, but the vision of the divine essence is the perfection of all science; there is no faith in heaven.[24] Nor is there hope in heaven, because the virtue of hope has as its object “a future good”; hope has “no place” in the blessed.[25] Only charity, or love, endures forever, for this virtue does not look forward to God but is that whereby we rest in God.[26]

Aquinas further argues that our final good is the contemplation of God, but this contemplation consists of knowledge of a kind radically other than that given to us, in this life, by faith and discursive, rational demonstration.[27] For Dante as well the articulate knowledge of the virtues is superseded by the failure of speech that gives way to pure vision. The vision sees the essence of God who is Love itself and who is described as best as possible in the language of light.

Why then do we end on this note about the late presence of discursive exchanges rather than on the aesthetics of light? We do so in order to avoid a possible confusion. Dante’s poem from beginning to end is intellectualist: it holds that the mind’s correction and refinement leads to the assimilation of the intellect to the divine essence. The final vision may entail the surpassing of words, but it does not entail the surpassing of the intellect. It entails rather the perfection of the intellect. The contemplative vision of the divine essence is prepared by the gradual perfection of the intellect and so is principally a mode of knowledge rather than, say, a sensation or an affection. The examination of the saints reminds us of this.

Dante, who began his career as the philosophical poet of love ends it, as we have said before, as the theological poet of love. He never wavers in the properly Catholic—and indeed Thomist—conviction that it is the intellect that is elevated by supernatural grace and made adequate to the rest in, and vision of, God. Love does not eliminate the need for knowledge. Rather, the poem transforms Dante’s knowledge of truth for the sake of redirecting his love to its true and final good. In this important sense, intellect and love are equally foundational to the poem and, even in the heights of heaven, one is not to be retained at the expense of the other.


As one might expect, the Paradiso stands above the earlier canticles in several ways, including in the clarity and simplicity of its theological vision. Dante has left Virgil behind and entered into the heavens with only Beatrice, the figure of supernatural grace and faith, for guide. The refinement of his intellect continues, but only as it moves from the wonder of blameless ignorance to the wonder of vision in the presence of the divine light. Virgil’s account of the ethics of love is deepened and perfected so that we see more fully the order of the universe Love itself has made, and so that we see that the fulfillment of our own love is not to find complacency in ourselves but to pour ourselves out and be fitted to the pattern of that universal order.

To do so, to join the company of the blessed, is to enter into a realm of pure, divine light, of beauty unconstrained and unsullied by the shadows of material, finite, and changeable bodies. In this, Dante joins the Christian theologians and artists in finding light the most perfect means by which to imagine the unimaginable essence of God. And though the imagination and the reason have been in a real sense transcended in these realms of light, the intellect has not. Dante’s poem, from beginning to end, is the story of the intellect’s refinement so that it may know the true good and love it perfectly. There is no goodness apart from truth, and no truth not founded in the goodness of the divine love. The late catechesis on the theological virtues reminds us of this even as we approach the divine essence.

[1] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, 1.103-107.

[2] Ibid., 1.118-120.

[3] Ibid., 2.19-21.

[4] Ibid., 1.6-8.

[5] Ibid., 3.64-66.

[6] Ibid., 3.79-81.

[7] Ibid., 3.85.

[8] Augustine, The Confessions, 4.15.24.

[9] Ibid., 4.15.25.

[10] Augustine, The City of God, 11.25

[11] Ibid., 22.29.

[12] Ibid., 22.30.

[13] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradiso 2.57.

[14] T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1932), 225.

[15] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, 9.64-71.

[16] Ibid., 14.133-139.

[17] Ibid., 29.136-145.

[18] Ibid., 33.114-120.

[19] T.S. Eliot, The Poems Vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 184.

[20] Joseph Pieper, The Silence of Thomas Aquinas (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s, 1999), 40.

[21] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, 24.63-64.

[22] Ibid., 25.67-69.

[23] Ibid., 26.16 ff.

[24] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981) II-II.1.5.

[25] Ibid., II-II.17.7 and II-II.18.2.

[26] Ibid., II-II.23.6.

[27] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles (Notre Dame, IN: UNDP, 2001), 3.39-40.

Featured Image: Taken by Sailko, Casa Massimo frescos - stanza di Dante - Ceiling by Philipp Veit; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.


James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair of English and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. He has published eleven books, including The Strangeness of the Good and Praying the Nicene Creed: I believe in One God.

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