David Bruce: Dante’s PARADISE: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 4: Moon — Location of Souls  (The Absolute Versus the Conditional Will)”

“Canto 4: Moon — Location of Souls  (The Absolute Versus the Conditional Will)”

  • What is the true dwelling place of the saved souls?

The true dwelling place of the saved souls is outside of space and time. They are in the presence of God in the Mystic Empyrean. Beatrice tells Dante,

“Not the most Godlike of the Seraphim,

not Moses, Samuel, whichever John

you choose — I tell you — not Mary herself

has been assigned to any other heaven

than that of these shades you have just seen here,

and each one’s bliss is equally eternal;

all lend their beauty to the highest Sphere,

sharing one same sweet life to the degree

that they feel the eternal breath of God.

These souls appeared here not because this sphere

has been allotted them, but as a sign

of their less great degree of blessedness.”

(Musa 4.28-39)

Souls in Paradise are helpful, and they are willing to put in an appearance on various planets in order to enlighten Dante.

  • How do we use language to talk about God?

The saved souls are in the presence of God in the Mystic Empyrean. Of course, that is metaphorical language. If something is outside of space and time, how can it be in the “presence” of something? Our minds are finite, and so we have to think in terms of space and time.

God, of course, is aware that our minds are finite, so He takes trouble when communicating to us to make sure that we are capable of understanding. Beatrice tells Dante,

“For this same reason Scripture condescends

to your intelligence, attributing

with other meaning, hands and feet to God;

and Holy Church presents to you archangels

with human features: Gabriel and Michael

and that one who made Tobit see again.”

(Musa 4.43-48)

God does not have hands and feet because He is a non-physical being, but Scripture refers to God having hands and feet. Why? This is a metaphorical use of language that is intended to help us understand. We cannot understand God’s being, so we use metaphorical language to speak of God. Similarly, the archangels are given human features.

Note that Beatrice does a very good job of answering Dante’s unspoken questions. She is like Virgil and knows what he is thinking.

  • What is Tobit?

Tobit is a book that is part of the Apocrypha. The archangel Raphael cured Tobit’s blindness by telling Tobias, Tobit’s son, to cover Tobit’s eyes with a substance and after a while to peel it off.

Excerpt from Chapter 12 of Tobit:

1: After these things Tobias went his way, praising God that he had given him a prosperous journey, and blessed Raguel and Edna his wife, and went on his way till they drew near unto Nineve.

2: Then Raphael said to Tobias, Thou knowest, brother, how thou didst leave thy father:

3: Let us haste before thy wife, and prepare the house.

4: And take in thine hand the gall of the fish. So they went their way, and the dog went after them.

5: Now Anna sat looking about toward the way for her son.

6: And when she espied him coming, she said to his father, Behold, thy son cometh, and the man that went with him.

7: Then said Raphael, I know, Tobias, that thy father will open his eyes.

8: Therefore anoint thou his eyes with the gall, and being pricked therewith, he shall rub, and the whiteness shall fall away, and he shall see thee.

9: Then Anna ran forth, and fell upon the neck of her son, and said unto him, Seeing I have seen thee, my son, from henceforth I am content to die. And they wept both.

10: Tobit also went forth toward the door, and stumbled: but his son ran unto him,

11: And took hold of his father: and he strake of the gall on his fathers’ eyes, saying, Be of good hope, my father.

12: And when his eyes began to smart, he rubbed them;

13: And the whiteness pilled [peeled] away from the corners of his eyes: and when he saw his son, he fell upon his neck.

14: And he wept, and said, Blessed art thou, O God, and blessed is thy name for ever; and blessed are all thine holy angels:

15: For thou hast scourged, and hast taken pity on me: for, behold, I see my son Tobias. And his son went in rejoicing, and told his father the great things that had happened to him in Media.

Source: Standard King James Version (Pure Cambridge)


Excerpt from Chapter 12 of Tobit:

1: Then Tobit called his son Tobias, and said unto him, My son, see that the man have his wages, which went with thee, and thou must give him more.

2: And Tobias said unto him, O father, it is no harm to me to give him half of those things which I have brought:

3: For he hath brought me again to thee in safety, and made whole my wife, and brought me the money, and likewise healed thee.

4: Then the old man said, It is due unto him.

5: So he called the angel, and he said unto him, Take half of all that ye have brought and go away in safety.

6: Then he took them both apart, and said unto them, Bless God, praise him, and magnify him, and praise him for the things which he hath done unto you in the sight of all that live. It is good to praise God, and exalt his name, and honourably to shew forth the works of God; therefore be not slack to praise him.

7: It is good to keep close the secret of a king, but it is honourable to reveal the works of God. Do that which is good, and no evil shall touch you.

8: Prayer is good with fasting and alms and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with unrighteousness. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold:

9: For alms doth deliver from death, and shall purge away all sin. Those that exercise alms and righteousness shall be filled with life:

10: But they that sin are enemies to their own life.

11: Surely I will keep close nothing from you. For I said, It was good to keep close the secret of a king, but that it was honourable to reveal the works of God.

12: Now therefore, when thou didst pray, and Sara thy daughter in law, I did bring the remembrance of your prayers before the Holy One: and when thou didst bury the dead, I was with thee likewise.

13: And when thou didst not delay to rise up, and leave thy dinner, to go and cover the dead, thy good deed was not hid from me: but I was with thee.

14: And now God hath sent me to heal thee and Sara thy daughter in law.

15: I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels, which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One.

Source: Standard King James Version (Pure Cambridge)


  • Is it just to blame people for committing an act that they were forced to commit?

We can certainly ask this question about Piccarda and Constance. After all, weren’t they forced out of the nunneries they entered?

Beatrice gives an interesting answer here. Both Piccarda and Constance consented in part to be removed from the nunneries. All of us have free will, and if we wish to use our free will fully we can avoid consenting, even in part.

Beatrice says,

“Had they been able to maintain their will

intact, like that of Lawrence on the grid,

and Mucius cruel to his own hand in fire —

it would have forced them back, once they were free,

back to the path from which they had been drawn.

But such firm will as this is seldom found.”

(Musa 4.82-87)

Beatrice says that they could have resisted. Even if they were forcibly taken from the nunnery, they could have fled back to the nunnery the moment they were not watched. However, they did not do that, so they consented in part. Of course, they made a compromise. They felt that they were faced with a decision between death and a forced marriage, and they chose (in part) a forced marriage.

Piccarda said in Canto 3 about the Empress Constance:

“But even when forced back into the world

against her will, against her sacred vows,

she always wore the veil over her heart.”

(Musa 3.115-117)

The Empress Constance’s Absolute Will was good: “she always wore the veil over her heart” (3.117). However, her Conditioned Will gave in to circumstances out of fear. The choice was death or marriage, and out of fear of death, the Empress Constance consented (at least in part) to be married. If she had followed her Absolute Will, she would have returned to the convent even if it meant that she would be killed.

Conditioned Will compromises. Conditioned Will sometimes chooses the lesser of two evils.

Unfortunately, sometimes we do the wrong thing out of fear even though we may think that we have a good reason. Alcmeon killed his own mother at the request of his father. His father, Amphiaraus, was a seer who foreknew that if he fought at Thebes that he would die. However, his wife (and Alcmeon’s mother), Eriphyle, betrayed him, and therefore Amphiaraus told Alcmeon to avenge him by killing Eriphyle. Alcmeon did so, reluctantly, because he wanted to observe piety toward his father and was afraid that he would not be showing piety toward his father if he did not obey him. Alcmeon’s Conditioned Will led him to kill his own mother.

  • Explain the two examples of a firm will: Lawrence and Mucius.

Saint Lawrence

Saint Lawrence was entrusted with Church treasures by Pope Sixtus II. He was ordered to give up the treasures, which had been hidden, but he refused. As punishment, he was grilled to death. Dying, he told his tormentors that he was done on one side so turn him over and eat. AmericanCatholic.org has this information:

A well-known legend has persisted from earliest times. As deacon in Rome, Lawrence was charged with the responsibility for the material goods of the Church, and the distribution of alms to the poor. When Lawrence knew he would be arrested like the pope, he sought out the poor, widows and orphans of Rome and gave them all the money he had on hand, selling even the sacred vessels to increase the sum. When the prefect of Rome heard of this, he imagined that the Christians must have considerable treasure. He sent for Lawrence and said, “You Christians say we are cruel to you, but that is not what I have in mind. I am told that your priests offer in gold, that the sacred blood is received in silver cups, that you have golden candlesticks at your evening services. Now, your doctrine says you must render to Caesar what is his. Bring these treasures — the emperor needs them to maintain his forces. God does not cause money to be counted: He brought none of it into the world with him — only words. Give me the money, therefore, and be rich in words.”

Lawrence replied that the Church was indeed rich. “I will show you a valuable part. But give me time to set everything in order and make an inventory.” After three days he gathered a great number of blind, lame, maimed, leprous, orphaned and widowed persons and put them in rows. When the prefect arrived, Lawrence simply said, “These are the treasure of the Church.”

The prefect was so angry he told Lawrence that he would indeed have his wish to die — but it would be by inches. He had a great gridiron prepared, with coals beneath it, and had Lawrence’s body placed on it. After the martyr had suffered the pain for a long time, the legend concludes, he made his famous cheerful remark, “It is well done. Turn me over!”

Source: “St. Lawrence”



Mucius was an early Roman citizen who attempted to assassinate Porsenna, King of the Etruscans, when the Etruscans were besieging Rome. However, he was captured and sentenced to be burned to death. Therefore, to show the fortitude of the Romans he thrust his right hand in a fire and burned it off. Porsenna was impressed by this act of courage and freed him. Afterward, Mucius was known by his nickname: Scaevola (Left-handed).

The story is told in Book 2 of Livy’s History of Rome:

[2.12] The blockade, however, continued, and with it a growing scarcity of corn at famine prices. Porsena still cherished hopes of capturing the City by keeping up the investment. There was a young noble, C. Mucius, who regarded it as a disgrace that whilst Rome in the days of servitude under her kings had never been blockaded in any war or by any foe, she should now, in the day of her freedom, be besieged by those very Etruscans whose armies she had often routed. Thinking that this disgrace ought to be avenged by some great deed of daring, he determined in the first instance to penetrate into the enemy’s camp on his own responsibility. On second thoughts, however, he became apprehensive that if he went without orders from the consuls, or unknown to any one, and happened to be arrested by the Roman outposts, he might be brought back as a deserter, a charge which the condition of the City at the time would make only too probable. So he went to the senate. “I wish,” he said, “Fathers, to swim the Tiber, and, if I can, enter the enemy’s camp, not as a pillager nor to inflict retaliation for their pillagings. I am purposing, with heaven’s help, a greater deed.” The senate gave their approval. Concealing a sword in his robe, he started. When he reached the camp he took his stand in the densest part of the crowd near the royal tribunal. It happened to be the soldiers’ pay-day, and a secretary, sitting by the king and dressed almost exactly like him, was busily engaged, as the soldiers kept coming to him incessantly. Afraid to ask which of the two was the king, lest his ignorance should betray him, Mucius struck as fortune directed the blow and killed the secretary instead of the king. He tried to force his way back with his blood-stained dagger through the dismayed crowd, but the shouting caused a rush to be made to the spot; he was seized and dragged back by the king’s bodyguard to the royal tribunal. Here, alone and helpless, and in the utmost peril, he was still able to inspire more fear than he felt. “I am a citizen of Rome,” he said, “men call me C. Mucius. As an enemy I wished to kill an enemy, and I have as much courage to meet death as I had to inflict it. It is the Roman nature to act bravely and to suffer bravely. I am not alone in having made this resolve against you, behind me there is a long list of those who aspire to the same distinction. If then it is your pleasure, make up your mind for a struggle in which you will every hour have to fight for your life and find an armed foe on the threshold of your royal tent. This is the war which we the youth of Rome, declare against you. You have no serried ranks, no pitched battle to fear, the matter will be settled between you alone and each one of us singly.” The king, furious with anger, and at the same time terrified at the unknown danger, threatened that if he did not promptly explain the nature of the plot which he was darkly hinting at he should be roasted alive. “Look,” Mucius cried, “and learn how lightly those regard their bodies who have some great glory in view.” Then he plunged his right hand into a fire burning on the altar. Whilst he kept it roasting there as if he were devoid of all sensation, the king, astounded at his preternatural conduct, sprang from his seat and ordered the youth to be removed from the altar. “Go,” he said, “you have been a worse enemy to yourself than to me. I would invoke blessings on your courage if it were displayed on behalf of my country; as it is, I send you away exempt from all rights of war, unhurt, and safe.” Then Mucius, reciprocating, as it were, this generous treatment, said, “Since you honour courage, know that what you could not gain by threats you have obtained by kindness. Three hundred of us, the foremost amongst the Roman youth, have sworn to attack you in this way. The lot fell to me first, the rest, in the order of their lot, will come each in his turn, till fortune shall give us a favourable chance against you.”

[2.13] Mucius was accordingly dismissed; afterwards he received the soubriquet of Scaevola, from the loss of his right hand.

Source: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/livy/livy02.html


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