David Bruce: Dante’s PARADISE: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 1: Beatrice and Dante Rise from Eden”

CHAPTER 1: “Canto 1: Beatrice and Dante Rise from Eden”

  • We are finally going to experience Paradise.

This is Canto 68 of the 100 cantos in The Divine Comedy. Of course, we have seen a lot in the previous cantos. We began in the dark wood of error in Canto 1 of the Inferno, the canto in which Dante the Pilgrim tried unsuccessfully to climb to the light. Beginning now, he is going to travel to the light, but of course he first had to travel down into the Inferno, climb up the other side of the Earth, and climb up the Seven-Storey Mountain of Purgatory until he reached the Forest of Eden, where he made his final preparations for climbing to the light.

  • What do the first three lines of Paradise mean?

These are the first three lines of the Paradise:

The glory of the One Who moves all things

penetrates all the universe, reflecting

in one part more and in another less.

(Musa 1.1-3)

The glory of Him who moveth everything

Doth penetrate the universe, and shine

In one part more and in another less.

(Longfellow 1-3)        

Mark Musa writes that he is translating the Italian closely here. If he were to translate in an interpretative manner, he would have translated in this way:

The glory of the One Who moves all things

shines through the universe and is reflected

by all things in proportion to their merit.

(Musa 6)

Two main ideas are here:

1) God is the Prime Mover.

Here is a definition of Prime Mover:

first cause: an agent that is the cause of all things but does not itself have a cause; “God is the first cause”

Source: wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

Christians and Jews believe that God created the universe. Furthermore, many Jews and Christians believe that God keeps on continually creating the universe each and every moment. If God did not do this, the universe would cease to exist.)

I once read a science-fiction story (“The Nine Billion Names of God” by British writer Arthur C. Clarke) about a Tibetan lamasery whose monksbelieved that if all of God’s many names were written down, then theuniverse would cease to exist. For some reason, they wanted the universe to cease to exist. For centuries, the monks of the cult had been writing down God’s many names. The invention of computers speeded up the process considerably. At the end of the story, the protagonist is outside at night looking at the sky, and he notices the stars blinking out of existence as if a giant hand were sweeping across the sky putting out candles.

By the way, God has what philosophers call aseity, or necessary existence: Think of a continuum. On one side are objects whose existence is impossible. For example, it is impossible for a square triangle to exist. Also, because a bachelor is an unmarried man, it is impossible for a married bachelor to exist (unless you twist the meanings of words and commit the fallacy of equivocation).

In the middle are contingent beings. You and I are contingent. We exist for a while, and then we die. (According to a computer program that predicts lifespans, I am supposed to die on Wednesday, April 26, 2028.) Eventually nothing will be left of our bodies, not even bones. (Well, our atoms will still exist.) Some people argue that the universe itself is contingent because everything in it appears to be contingent.

On the other side of the continuum is necessary existence. A being with necessary existence is one that has always existed and will always exist. Its nonexistence is impossible, just as the existence of a square triangle is impossible. The being with necessary existence is what we call God.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generationcan state that religion is a superstition of the past, but philosophers of the twenty-first century are still taking the question of the existence of God seriously. One contemporary philosopher who believes he has a good argument for the existence of God is Richard Taylor, who makes what is known as the argument from contingency.

Mr. Taylor starts with a plausible principle: The Principle of Sufficient Reason. To illustrate the principle, he asks us to imagine that we are walking in the woods and we come across a translucent ball. (Translucentmeans “transmitting light but causing sufficient diffusion to eliminate perception of distinct images” — The American Heritage Dictionary.) Of course, we would ask, “Why is that translucent ball here?” In doing this, we are asking for a reason sufficient to explain the translucent ball’s existence.

Mr. Taylor explains the Principle of Sufficient Reason “by saying that, in the case of any positive truth, there is some sufficient reason for it, something which, in this sense, makes it true — in short, that there is some sort of explanation, known or unknown, for everything.”

Of course, the translucent ball is unusual and so we do not expect to see it in a woodsy setting, and so we ask where it came from. But if we were unfamiliar with rocks in a woodsy setting, and had come across a rock instead of the translucent ball, we would be asking why the rock was there. Mr. Taylor makes this point to show that even though we ask for reasons for the existence of unusual things, we could also ask for reasons for the existence of things we are used to.

One thing that we are used to is the existence of the world. (The world is everything that exists, except for God, if a god should exist.) Everything in the world is contingent; that is, its existence is dependent on something other than itself. For example, I am contingent. I exist because my parents brought me into being. Of course, my parents are also contingent; they exist because theirparents brought them into being.

One question we should ask is, Why does anything exist? Why should there be a world at all? We can certainly imagine the world not existing. As you can see, Mr. Taylor is using the Principle of Sufficient Reason on a grand scale: What is a reason sufficient for explaining the existence of the world?

Please note that the complexity of the universe is not a sufficient reason for its existence. Suppose the universe consisted entirely of a translucent ball. We would still want to know the reason for its existence. The same thing applies to our world of many and complex objects, including billions and billions of stars, as Carl Sagan might say.

Please also note that even if the world is old, that still is not a sufficient reason for its existence. We would still want to know why there is a world. Just to say that something is very old does not explain why it exists.

Please also note that even if the world does not have a beginning, that still is not a sufficient reason for its existence. We would still want to know why there is a world. Just to say that something has always existed does not explain why it exists.

Our world could have always existed (as in the Steady State theory), or it could have had a beginning (as in the Big Bang theory). Either way, it is proper to speak of the world as being created. Mr. Taylor points out that people have been confused by the word “creation,” incorrectly assuming that “creation” implies a beginning in time. Mr. Taylor writes, “Now if the world is the creation of God, its relationship to God should be thought of in this fashion; namely, that the world depends for its existence upon God, and could not exist independently of God.” It is possible that both God and the world are eternal, but that the world is contingent upon God. (Or, alternatively, it is also possible that God is eternal, the world had a beginning in time, and the world is contingent upon God.)

So, what is the reason sufficient for explaining the existence of the world? Two answers suggest themselves. One is that the world is responsible for its own existence; that is, that it has aseity (necessary existence). Mr. Taylor finds this implausible because everything in the world appears to be contingent. (If the Big Bang theory is true, then even time and space are contingent.)

Mr. Taylor writes, “It would be a self-contradiction to say of anything that it exists by its own nature, or is a necessarily existing thing, and at the same time to say that it comes into being or passes away, or that it ever could come into being or pass away. Nothing about the world seems at all like this, for concerning anything in the world, we can perfectly easily think of it as being annihilated, or as never having existed in the first place, without there being the slightest hint of any absurdity in such a supposition.”

The second possibility, and the only one that remains, is that a self-caused, necessary being is responsible for the existence of the world. This being, of course, is God. Mr. Taylor attempts to clear up some confusion over the terms we apply to God. For example, to say that a self-caused being brings itself into being is absurd. Mr. Taylor writes, “To say that something is self-caused (causa sui) means only that it exists, not contingently or in dependence upon something else, but by its own nature, which is only to say that it is a being which is such that it can neither come into being nor perish.”

Is the idea of a self-caused, necessary being absurd? Taylor writes that it is apparently not. If we can think of objects whose existence is impossible, such as a square circle or a formless body, why not of a being whose existence is necessary?

Mr. Taylor also attempts to make clear the notion of a first cause. He points out that “first” does not mean “first in time.” Rather, he writes, “To describe God as a first cause is only to say that he is literally aprimaryrather than a secondary cause, an ultimaterather than a derived cause, or a being upon which all other things, heaven and earth, ultimately depend for their existence.”

One important point to note is that though Mr. Taylor has argued that God exists, his argument does not establish that God has all the attributes that religion says that God has. Mr. Taylor has argued that God is the Creator of the world and that God has aseity (necessary being). However, his argument does not show that God, for example, is benevolent. Still, Mr. Taylor shows that modern philosophers do not simply assume that God does not exist; indeed, many believe that good arguments can show that God exists.

Captain Picard talks about philosophy; however, he seems to assume that God does not exist (without presenting any arguments to show that this is actually the case). That is not philosophical.

Mr. Taylor writes his argument in this book:

Taylor, Richard. Metaphysics, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1992.

2) All Things Can Reflect God’s Glory.

Each of us can reflect God’s glory differently. A morally good person would reflect God’s goodness well; a morally bad person would reflect God’s goodness badly. Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected God’s goodness well; Adolf Hitler reflected God’s goodness badly.

  • Why can’t Dante the Poet tell us everything that he saw in Paradise?

This is what we read at the very beginning of the Paradise:

The glory is the One Who moves all things

penetrates all the universe, reflecting

in one part more and in another less.

I have been in His brightest shining heaven

and seen such things that no man, once returned

from there, has wit or skill to tell about;

for when our intellect draws near its goal

and fathoms to the depths of its desire,

the memory is powerless to follow;

but still, as much of Heaven’s holy realm

as I could store and treasure in my mind

shall now become the subject of my song.

(Musa 1.1-12)

The glory of Him who moveth everything

Doth penetrate the universe, and shine

In one part more and in another less.

Within that heaven which most his light receives

Was I, and things beheld which to repeat

Nor knows, nor can, who from above descends;

Because in drawing near to its desire

Our intellect ingulphs itself so far,

That after it the memory cannot go.

Truly whatever of the holy realm

I had the power to treasure in my mind

Shall now become the subject of my song.

(Longfellow 1-12)

The most important thing here is that Dante the Poet cannot remember everything he experienced in Paradise. This is as it should be and as it has to be. God created the universe, which means that he created everything in the universe, including both space and time. This is something that we finite human beings are unable to understand. Indeed, we find it difficult to even speak about God. For example, we may say that God is outside space and time, but of course the word “outside” is a spatial term. When we speak about God, we cannot always speak literally. Often, we are forced to speak metaphorically. When we say that God is outside space and time, we are speaking metaphorically.

What we read in the Paradiseis what Dante remembers of his trip to Paradise. He is unable to tell us everything that he saw and that he experienced.

  • Much of what Dante sees in Paradise is ineffable. What does “ineffable” mean?

If something is ineffable, it cannot be explained in words. Much of what Dante sees and experiences in Paradise is ineffable. In this canto, Dante lets the reader know that.

  • Why does Dante invoke the help of the Muses and Apollo in telling his story?

Epic poets often invoke the Muses for help in telling their story. In both the Infernoand Purgatory, Dante asked the Muses for help. However, explaining what he saw in Paradise will be so difficult — actually, impossible — to explain in words that he needs extra help, so he invokes Apollo as well as the Muses. Dante refers to the two peaks of Parnassus, one of which is dedicated to the Muses and the other of which is dedicated to Apollo. An oracle of Apollo was located at Delphi, an ancient Greek religious sanctuary on Mount Parnassus. The oracle — a priestess — would answer questions brought to her. Mount Parnassus is associated with inspiration — the kind of inspiration that results in art. So, of course, are the Muses, and Apollo, the god of poetry and music.

  • How does Dante’s language change through the three parts of The Divine Comedy?

We see that Dante’s language changes throughout the three parts of The Divine Comedy.

Inferno:

In the Inferno, Dante uses some very coarse language, including some four-letter words. We remember Malacoda, the devil who uses the hole in his butt as a bugle.

Purgatory:

The language is Purgatoryis more refined. We have a lot of language that is used in religious ritual. We have many quotations from the Bible. We have psalms and prayers. Also, occasionally we have quotations from the Aeneid.

Paradise:

In the Paradise, much of the language is philosophical and theological and difficult to understand. Much of what Dante is describing is ineffable. In an effort to have language describe what is in essence ineffable, Dante creates many new words.

  • What does Dante the Poet mean by the word “transhumanized”?

The first word that Dante creates is “transhumanized,” a word that Dante created because what it means cannot be explained in other words, although, of course, I would love to do just that.

We read:

Gazing at her, I felt myself becoming

what Glaucus had become tasting the herb

that made him like the other sea-gods there.

“Transhumanize” — it cannot be explained

per verba, so let this example serve

until God’s grace grants the experience.

(Musa 1.67-72)

Dante looks at Beatrice, and he finds himself being “transhumanized,” just like Glaucus had been. Glaucus is a fisherman who appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The experience of being “transhumanized” is ineffable — it cannot be explained through words (per verba). Because the word “transhumanized” cannot be explained in words, Dante gives us an example and hopes that we understand the word by understanding the example.

  • How does Dante use Ovid’s Metamorphosesto make a comparison?

The story of Glaucus appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this myth, Glaucus is a fisherman who notices that an herb has a miraculous effect on fish. When a fish is placed on the herb, it revives and jumps back into the sea. Glaucus then eats some of the herb, and he becomes a sea-god who lives in the sea.

Similarly, Dante becomes a new being. He has been purged of sin as preparation to make this journey to see God. Glaucus became a god; Dante becomes a being worthy of visiting Paradise. He has been transformed, and he is no longer a sinful human being.

We learn the importance of experience. Paradise has to be experienced for oneself; what Dante is doing in words cannot substitute for the true experience of Paradise.

  • How can Dante rise upward?

Dante rises upward, and he wonders how he can do this. Beatrice, like Virgil (and like the other souls in Paradise) knows what he is thinking. Also like Virgil, Beatrice will often answer Dante’s questions even before he asks them. In this case, Dante has been purified by climbing the Mountain of Purgatory, confessing his sins, and drinking from Lethe and Eunoë. He is no longer burdened by sin, and therefore he rises in the air.

It is left ambiguous whether it is only Dante’s soul who is rising, or whether his body and soul are rising together as one.

In II Corinthians, chapter 12, Saint Paul wrote about one who rose to Heaven, but Saint Paul was uncertain whether the man’s body rose with his soul (King James Version):

1: It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.

2: I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.

3: And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)

4: How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

5: Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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PARADISE: CANTO 1  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 2  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 7  RETELLING

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2 Responses to David Bruce: Dante’s PARADISE: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 1: Beatrice and Dante Rise from Eden”

  1. tref says:

    I’ve circled April 26, 2028 on my calendar. RE-posted on twitter @trefology

    Liked by 1 person

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