David Bruce: Dante’s PARADISE: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 10: Sun — Saint Thomas Aquinas”

“Canto 10: Sun — Saint Thomas Aquinas”

  • Which kind of souls can be found on the Sun?

At the end of Canto 9 of Inferno, Dante and Virgil leave behind the circles devoted to punishing the incontinent and move to the circle that punishes the heretics.

At the end of Canto 9 of Purgatory, Dante and Virgil pass through the gate, leaving Prepurgatory behind and passing through the gate to Purgatory Proper.

At the end of Canto 9 of Paradise, Dante and Beatrice leave behind the planets that are touched by the shadow of the Earth and move to the planets that are not touched by the shadow of the Earth.

On the previous planets, Dante saw souls who were associated with a planet for negative reasons:

Moon: Faith (Souls Who Did Not Keep Their Religious Vows)

Mercury: Hope (Souls Who Were Excessively Concerned with Earthly Fame)

Venus: Love (Souls Who Loved Excessively)

The Sun is a symbol of wisdom. Wisdom = Light. Here on the Sun Dante and Beatrice see the souls of some wise people.

On the Sun and the other planets, the souls will be associated with these planets for a positive reason — for something they had and have rather than for something they lacked.

  • Does wisdom equal scholarship?

Scholarship and wisdom are two different things.

We see a very learned soul here: that of Saint Thomas Aquinas. However, two other souls we will see here are not known for scholarship. Neither Saint Francis nor Saint Dominic is known for scholarship. Nevertheless, both of them were and are wise.

This means that wisdom is a broader concept than we may usually assume.

Two facts about wisdom are that it is communal and it is cumulative.

Think about the way that we accumulate knowledge throughout history. One of the great inventions has been writing because we can now write down what we learn. A person can study The Divine Comedyfor years and have wonderful insights into the epic poem, but when that person dies, those insights can be lost unless that person has written down his or her thoughts.

When a person writes a book that appears in a library, that person is making his or her insights available communally — someone else can read that book and learn those insights.

In addition, the other people who read that book can build on its insights. They can publish their own books that contain their own insights. These insights can build up over the years. For one thing, we don’t need to keep reinventing the wheel generation after generation. The wheel has already been invented. New generations can figure out better ways of using the wheel.

Books have a major advantage over the transmission of information orally. In Africa, storytellers, who were called griots, passed along information orally. It was said that when a griotdied, a library died. It would be much better if the griotswrote down what they know. That way, a library will not die when a griotdies.

So much knowledge dies when a person dies. Do you know much about your great-grandparents? How much better would it be if all of our grandparents had written books about their lives. Someday, you will probably be a great-grandparent. Why not start writing down autobiographical essays that you can assemble into chapters of your autobiography?

When a person can write a good book and does not write that book, it is as if a child has died.

Still, wisdom does not mean book-learning, although book-learning is important. A person such as Saint Francis is known for his love, and love can be a kind of wisdom. Love can be a way of knowing what is important.

We will see a visual display of the communal and cumulative nature of wisdom. A wheel of saved souls will appear. Later, another wheel of saved souls will appear. The two wheels will interact with each other.

One of the things that this will mean is that wisdom is understanding parts and wholes. It is understanding the way that things fit together and the way that things interact with each other.

The Sun is bright, and it is an appropriate symbol of the brightness of wisdom.

  • What does Dante admire about the Sun?

Dante admires the Sun because of the seasons: we have summer, and we have winter. Why do we have seasons? We have seasons because the Sun and the Earth have a proper relationship with each other. The parts — the Sun and the Earth — are related in such a way that we have seasons.

We know that the Earth is tilted. So does Dante, but he expresses it in a funny way.

Dante the Poet invites the reader to look at the heavens:

Look up now, Reader, with me to the spheres;

look straight to the point of the lofty wheels

where the one motion and the other cross.

and there begin to revel in the work

of that great Artist who so loves His art,

His gaze is fixed on it perpetually.


We say that the Earth is tilted at a 23.5-degree angle. Dante talks about wheels. One wheel is the equator (understood as extended into space); the other wheel is the path of the Sun. Dante would say that the two wheels meet at a 23.5-degree angle.

This relationship is absolutely correct. If the Earth’s tilt were too big, the Earth’s seasons would be extreme. If the Earth’s tilt were too small, the Earth’s seasons would be very similar. The relationship of parts and the whole is absolutely correct for seasons that will support life on Earth.

The universe is a great work of art, and we should contemplate it. God contemplates His own creation, and we should likewise contemplate it in order to become God-like.

  • Here Dante sees a wheel of souls. Dante will see two wheels of souls in Canto 12 (and a third wheel of souls in Canto 14). All of these wheels interact. What does this suggest about wisdom?

Dante sees three circles of souls eventually. Here he sees the first circle of souls. Then he sees a second circle in Canto 12, and he sees a third circle of souls in Canto 14.

Here we see that wisdom is cumulative. We learn one thing, then we learn another, and then another. Each new piece of knowledge fits into our growing web of knowledge.

We also see parts forming a whole. The parts relate to each other well. Wisdom is an interrelationship of parts forming a whole.

The first circle of 12 souls surrounds Beatrice. These souls are very bright, and they dance.

  • Write a short character analysis of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Who is he, historically?

In our time, we regard Saint Thomas Aquinas as being the greatest medieval philosopher, but in Dante’s time Saint Thomas was respected, but not as respected as he later became in the 16th century. In our times, we regard Saint Thomas as the dominant Catholic theologian. Dante’s opinion of Saint Thomas agrees with our opinion of him.

Saint Thomas was born in 1224, and he died at age 50 in 1274. Dante was born in 1265, so he was nine years old when Saint Thomas died. The Catholic Church canonized Saint Thomas in 1323. Dante died in 1321, so he had been dead for two years when Saint Thomas was canonized. To canonize someone is to declare someone a saint. The Catholic Church placed Saint Thomas’ name in the canon, or list, of recognized saints.

Thomas Aquinas was a huge man, both physically and mentally. Once a brother monk decided to play a joke on him. The monk looked out a window and said, “Come quick — look at the cow flying.” Aquinas jumped up and looked out the window — and saw nothing, of course. The monk began to laugh, but Aquinas told him, “I thought it more likely that a cow should fly than that a monk would lie.”

An important fact about Saint Thomas is that he was a Dominican monk.

Some people attacked Saint Thomas’ writings because they thought that pagan philosophers such as Aristotle had influenced him too much. Later, Martin Luther, who started the Reformation, also attacked him.

Aquinas believed in both revealed truth, such as the revelations that we have in Scripture, and in discovered truth, such as we find by using our reason. He argued that the two kinds of truth were compatible. Moses Maimonides, a great Jewish thinker, believed the same thing.

  • Who are the other souls with Thomas Aquinas?

In this first circle are 12 souls, and they surround Beatrice like the numbers on a clock. All of the 12 souls are male. Later, a second circle of 12 souls will join the first circle. The number 24 is important in the Bible — for example, in the Book of Revelation there are 24 elders.

Thomas Aquinas tells Dante who are the other 11 wise people in the circle with him. Among them is the Old Testament King Solomon, whose wisdom Saint Thomas will discuss later.

The other 11 wise people come from many nations and 21 centuries:

  1. Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus — “Magnus” is Latin for “Great”)

He was a teacher of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Albert the Great died in 1280, and he was canonized in 1931. Albert the Great was known as the Universal Doctor, a name that reflected his great knowledge. He commented widely on the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Like Saint Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great was a Dominican.

  1. Gratian

He is Italian. He was a Benedictine monk, and he is known as the father of canon law. Gratian sought to harmonize Church and civil laws, thereby allowing canon law to be correctly interpreted. His magnum opusis A Concordance of Discordant Regulations, or Gratian’s Decretals, which appeared between 1140 and 1150. It is interesting that we see Gratian here. One of Dante’s criticisms of the Catholic church was that it did not spend enough time studying Scripture; instead, it spent too much time studying Church law. Yet we see here Gratian, the great compiler of Church law. What can we learn from this? We can learn that Church law is important, but we have to be careful to use it well, neither overvaluing nor undervaluing it.

  1. Peter Lombard

His years are circa 1100-1164, and he was the bishop of Paris. He wrote Libri Sententiarum(The Books of Opinions), which brought together the opinions of the Church fathers on four key subjects:

the Godhead

the incarnation


the sacraments

Peter Lombard called his writings his “widow’s mite,” a reference to the New Testament story (Luke 21:1-4), who brought her small offering to the temple. This is the story in the King James Version:

1: And he [Jesus] looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury.

2: And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites.

3: And he said, Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all:

4: For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had.

  1. King Solomon

Solomon, David’s son by Bathsheba, is in this group of wise souls. Though Saint Augustine believed that King Solomon was damned, Solomon is the most beautiful in this group.

Solomon had a dream in which God asked him what he wanted, and Solomon wanted wisdom to be able to distinguish “an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad” (I King 3:9; King James Version). God granted him that, as well as things which Solomon did not ask for. This is the story from I Kings 3:1-15 (King James Version):

1: And Solomon made affinity with Pharaoh king of Egypt, and took Pharaoh’s daughter, and brought her into the city of David, until he had made an end of building his own house, and the house of the LORD, and the wall of Jerusalem round about.

2: Only the people sacrificed in high places, because there was no house built unto the name of the LORD, until those days.

3: And Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father: only he sacrificed and burnt incense in high places.

4: And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there; for that was the great high place: a thousand burnt offerings did Solomon offer upon that altar.

5: In Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night: and God said, Ask what I shall give thee.

6: And Solomon said, Thou hast shewed unto thy servant David my father great mercy, according as he walked before thee in truth, and in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with thee; and thou hast kept for him this great kindness, that thou hast given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day.

7: And now, O LORD my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in.

8: And thy servant is in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered nor counted for multitude.

9: Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?

10: And the speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing.

11: And God said unto him, Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies; but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern judgment;

12: Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee.

13: And I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches, and honour: so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days.

14: And if thou wilt walk in my ways, to keep my statutes and my commandments, as thy father David did walk, then I will lengthen thy days.

15: And Solomon awoke; and, behold, it was a dream. And he came to Jerusalem, and stood before the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and offered up burnt offerings, and offered peace offerings, and made a feast to all his servants.

Immediately following these verses appears the story in which two women claim to be the mother of a living baby. Solomon uses his wisdom to resolve that dispute. He orders the child to be cut in half, and each mother to be given half of the child. One of the women speaks up and asks Solomon to give the child to the other woman. Solomon knows that the woman who spoke up is the real mother of the child because the real mother would not want the child killed.

  1. Dionysius the Areopagite

In the 1st century, Saint Paul converted an Athenian named Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34):

34: Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

People incorrectly believed that Dionysius the Areopagite had written a highly influential book about angels: On the Heavenly Hierarchy, aka The Celestial Hierarchy.

Here are two definitions of “Areopagite”:

a member of the council of the Areopagus

Source: wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

The Areopagus or Areios Pagos is the ‘Hill of Ares,’ north-west of the Acropolis, which in classical times functioned as the chief homicide court of Athens.

Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areopagite

  1. Orosius

This soul is not named, but commentators tend to identity the soul with an Orosius who was a Spanish cleric and historian. He was a 5th-century contemporary of Saint Augustine. Some pagans believed that the arrival of Christianity had made the world worse than it had been, and Orosius wrote seven books opposing that belief. These books were called Seven Books of History Against the Pagans.

  1. Boethius

Boethius (circa 480-524), a Roman, wrote On the Consolation of Philosophywhile he was in prison. He was executed for treason — although he was innocent — after he completed the book. After the death of Beatrice, Dante read On the Consolation of Philosophy and was consoled by it. Boethius is also known as Saint Severinus; his full name was Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. People of the Middle Ages regarded him as a martyr.

  1. Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville (circa 570-636) was a Spaniard. He wrote a highly influential encyclopedia of the scientific knowledge of his time.

  1. The Venerable Bede

The Venerable Bede(circa 673-735), an Anglo-Saxon monk, is known as the father of English history. He wrote the five-volume Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.

Here are some definitions of “venerable”:

1) impressive by reason of age; “a venerable sage with white hair and beard”

2) august: profoundly honored; “revered holy men”


Venerable is an official epithet in several Christian churches. 


commanding respect because of age, dignity, character or position; worthy of reverence; ancient, antiquated or archaic


  1. Richard of Saint Victor

Richard of Saint Victor died in 1173. He may have been a Scotsman, and he was called the great Contemplator after he wrote a book titledDe Contemplatione. He was an important 12th-century mystic, and he was prior of the illustrious Augustinian monastery at Saint Victor near Paris.

  1. Siger of Brabant

Siger of Brabantdied circa 1284. He was a Belgian whose beliefs opposed those of Saint Thomas. For example, Siger thought that the world has always existed and therefore is eternal. He also doubted that the soul is immortal — since he is in Paradise, he has happily discovered that he was wrong about that. He and Saint Aquinas may have had philosophical disagreements while they were alive, but they get along well in Paradise.

  • Why isn’t Saint Augustine here?

Many of Dante’s readers would expect to see Saint Augustine somewhere on the Sun, but he does not appear, although we find out in Paradise32.34-36 that he is in fact in Paradise. That Saint Augustine does not appear may reflect what Dante considers most important. Saint Augustine is a theologian, but although theology is important, Dante believes that contemplation, as represented by Saint Benedict, and the perfect imitation of Christ, as represented by Saint Francis, are more important. See Mark Musa’s note for Paradise32.34-36 for more information.

  • Many disagreements between scholars are not between good people and bad people. People of good will can disagree. Sometimes, people are mistaken, but they are still true seekers of wisdom.

Siger of Brabant and Saint Thomas Aquinas disagreed about important things while they were alive on Earth, but they are next to each other in Paradise. Siger of Brabant was even accused of heresy, and yet we see him in Paradise.

What can we learn from this? We can learn that many disagreements between scholars are not between good people and bad people.We can learn that people of good will can disagree. Sometimes, people are mistaken, but they are still true seekers of wisdom.

  • How does Thomas Aquinas introduce himself?

Thomas Aquinas introduces himself in a very interesting way:

“Of the lambs was I of the holy flock

Which Dominic conducteth by a road

Where well one fattens if he strayeth not.

He who is nearest to me on the right

My brother and master was; and he Albertus

Is of Cologne, I Thomas of Aquinum.”

(Longfellow 10.94-99)

We learn, if we did not already know, that Saint Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican monk. By the way, Aquinas simply means “of Aquino.” The name identifies the town where Thomas is from.

The people whom Saint Thomas Aquinas is next to in the circle are very interesting. One person is Albert of Cologne, better known today as Albertus Magnus or Albert the Great. Albert the Great was Saint Thomas’ teacher. The other person is Siger of Brabant, with whom Saint Thomas had philosophical difficulties.

After Saint Thomas has introduced himself and the other wise souls, the souls revolve like a clock wheel.

In Canto 11, Dante wants more information about something that Saint Thomas said when he introduced himself. Dante wants to know what the line “along the road / where all may fatten if they do not stray” (Musa 10.95-96) means.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved





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