When we last left Dante, he was making a quick departure from Purgatory, a land on the outskirts of Heaven, but with the temperament of Hell. Now it’s time for Heaven in the real world. Virgil, his guide thus far, won’t be making the trip due to his literal lack of faith. Instead, Dante’s childhood sweetheart, Beatrice, takes up tour guide duty.
Hell was arranged as a series of concentric circles; Purgatory had every-rising terraces. In Heaven, it’s spheres, each one represented by (or actually) one of the spheres of the solar system. In each sphere, Dante meets increasingly holy residents of Heaven.
- Moon – Those who broke their vows to God, such as nuns who left their convents. They made it to Heaven, but just barely.
- Mercury – Those who trusted God, but still managed to achieve earthly acclaim through their ambition, and thus didn’t rise too high on the Heaven scale.
- Venus – The lovers, who may not have been as temperate in their emotions as God would have preferred.
- Sun – The abode of the wise theologians and fathers of the church. At this level, we start to see the souls as beings of light, arranged into various shapes. In the Sun sphere, the souls have arranged themselves into three concentric circles.
- Mars – Here be martyrs and crusaders. Get it? Mars is the god of war, and those at this level died as warriors in the faith. This tie between each planet’s traditional mythos and Dante’s identification of those who live there appears in each sphere of Heaven. The light-soul shape is the cross.
- Jupiter – At this level are those who were righteous kings and rulers on earth. King David is here. The souls in this sphere form themselves into the shapes of letters, although some of them also form the shape of an eagle.
- Saturn – Those who spent their time in contemplation.
- Fixed Stars – Representing faith, hope, and love. Mary, the Apostles, and Adam meet Dante here, although they (and everyone else) are also located in the highest Heaven farther on.
- The Primum Mobile – The source of all movement in the universe. Dante introduces us to the different levels of angels, but then insists that we not get too interested in them.
- The Empyrean – God’s throne is here. All believers sit in chairs, each chair placed on the petal of a flower. Mary is at the center of the most significant of the flowers, surrounded by a thousand angels (lucky Mary).
Dante finally gets to see God in His Trinitarian form, a set of three colored circles, one of which has a human face. And then the book ends; no summary, no Aesop-style lesson, no closure.
As in the two other sections of the book, Dante spends a lot of time condemning Italy and Florence for their wayward actions. He also take time, through the fictional voice of his great-great-grandfather, to shout from the rooftops the great history of his own family.
When taken together, the three sections of The Divine Comedy provide a fanciful glimpse of the afterlife, and also provide a statement on the phases through which an earthly soul passes as a person lives out sinful, mediocre, and saintly faith experiences. Along the way, Dante adds discusses official church teachings on various topics, although I was surprised to see so much emphasis on earthly accomplishments tied to one’s pole position in Purgatory and Heaven. Works-salvation is not one of the core tenants of the church. There are also hints of fatalism, especially in Chapter 8 of Paradiso, another idea that falls outside of Christian orthodoxy.
I found the three sections of the book to be commentaries on life phases of a kindly yet curmudgeonly believer, such as Dante appears to be. Inferno represents childhood, a time of discovery, but with parents and other authority figures constantly punishing you. In Purgatorio, Dante portrays youth and young adulthood, teaching that the world is filled with unfair and judgmental experiences. Finally, Paradiso brings him to adulthood and old age, where his curmudgeonly griping about the world brings him both joy and pain, but he must still pass through the experience as is. Overall, the book had a tinge of Oscar the Grouch in it.
Perhaps I should have left the book with a more uplifted feeling, getting to see God and all. But Dante kept bringing the reader back down to the baser instincts of mankind, harping on this political event or that wicked leader. His descriptions of the various punishments for those in Hell and Purgatory go way beyond any pain and suffering mentioned in the Bible. He also has little good to say about the church or the monasteries of his day, although it was a complex time in church history.
I much preferred C. S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, which provided a different perspective on Heaven and Hell as seen by a living human just making a short visit. Lewis has much more “comedy” in his work, but he also keeps the focus where you expect it to be: on God and his Heaven. Dante keeps flipping around between Heaven, Italy, Hell, Florence, Purgatory, Pisa, and the personal lives of his contemporaries. Perhaps Dante wanted to show what choices were available for eternal life. For me, he accomplished the opposite, showing that a little bit of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven resides in each person.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.