David Bruce: Dante’s PARADISE: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 21: Saturn — Symbolic Ladder; Saint Peter Damian”

“Canto 21: Saturn — Symbolic Ladder; Saint Peter Damian”

  • Who is Semele?

One should not be temperate in some things. One is Love. Unconditional Love is not temperate.

However, even though Beatrice’s beauty is not temperate — she becomes more and more beautiful the closer she rises to Paradise — she demonstrates temperance in how she handles her beauty. For example, she does not smile at Dante because she knows that if she were to smile, her beauty would blast Dante to ashes, the way that Semele was blasted to ashes when she asked Zeus to reveal himself to her in all his glory. Mortals cannot look at gods in all their glory and survive. This may be why the gods and goddesses so often disguise themselves as mortals when they come among Humankind.

In addition, we do have not music on this planet (Saturn) because Dante could not withstand its beauty.

Here is some information about Semele:

Semele was the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia, and the mother, by Zeus, of the god Dionysus. Because Zeus slept with Semele secretly, Hera only found out about the affair after the girl was pregnant. Bent on revenge, Hera disguised herself and persuaded Semele to demand that Zeus come to her in all the splendor with which he visited Hera. As a result, Semele asked Zeus to grant an unspecified favor, and got him to swear by the river Styx that he would grant it. Unable to break his oath, Zeus came to her armed in his thunder and lightning, and Semele was destroyed. However, Zeus rescued the unborn child from the mother’s ashes and sewed it in his thigh until it was ready to be born. Thus Dionysus is sometimes called “the twice-born.” Dionysus was raised at first by Semele’s sister and brother-in-law, Ino and Athamus, and later by the nymphs of Nysa. As an adult, he retrieved his mother from Hades and made her a goddess; she was called Thyone.

Source: James Hunter, “Semele.” Encyclopedia Mythica. <http://tinyurl.com/kmx8swq&gt;. Accessed 8 August 2013.

  • The souls on Saturn are temperate. What is temperance?

Beatrice and Dante have risen to the next sphere: Saturn, which is the planet of temperance.

Temperance means moderation, not going to extremes. Temperance is one of the cardinal virtues. The four cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.

The word “cardinal” means “fundamental,” “chief,” “principal,” and “of the utmost importance.”

Saint Thomas Aquinas regarded temperance as the disciplining of our instincts toward pleasure. Eating is pleasurable, but a temperate person will not be obese. Sex is pleasurable, but a temperate person will not be a rapist or engage in immoral sex. Drinking wine in moderation is pleasurable, but a temperate person will not be an alcoholic.

  • Why does Dante regard temperance as so important?

Dante regards temperance as being very important, as shown by the fact that the planet devoted to temperance is the closest to Paradise of the planets devoted to the four cardinal virtues. Other people of the Middle Ages probably would have regarded wisdom as being more important than temperance, but Dante believes differently.

On Saturn, the planet of temperance, we find the contemplatives. The contemplatives contemplate God, and possibly they occasionally enjoy a direct experience of God.

Contemplatives are temperate. They do not overindulge in food, sex, or wine.

Why does Dante regard temperance as so important? Temperance is important if we are to develop and use our other virtues. Temperance is a foundation for the other cardinal virtues (wisdom, courage, justice).

Let’s say that you are addicted to food, sex, and wine. Will you be wise, brave, and just?

  • If you are drunk all the time, you won’t read books or study or think much.
  • If you eat way too much, you won’t be able to rescue a child from a burning house because you are too fat to climb in the window so you can rescue the child.
  • If you are addicted to sex, you won’t be a just judge because all a pretty (or handsome) defendant has to do to get a verdict of “innocent” is to sleep with you.

I personally don’t drink much alcohol because it interferes with reading. As a young man, I tried reading a novel while drinking. I enjoyed reading about 30 pages of the novel, but the next day I couldn’t remember much of what I had read. Therefore, I decided that I really didn’t (and don’t) want to drink much.

  • Dante sees a ladder. What is the ladder a symbol of? And what are the cross and the eagle symbols of?

The Ladder is a symbol of communication between God and Humans; it is also a symbol of spiritual vision. We read the story of Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis 28:12-16 (King James Version):

12: And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

13: And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;

14: And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

15: And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.

16: And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.

We see four symbols in this section of the Paradise:

Four planets are devoted to the cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Each planet has a symbol.

The Sun is devoted to wisdom. Its symbol is the Circle, which is a symbol of Divine Infinity: Infinite Power, Infinite Knowledge, and Infinite Benevolence.

Mars is devoted to courage. Its symbol is the Cross, which is a symbol of Human Salvation.

Jupiter is devoted to justice. Its symbol is the Eagle, which is a symbol of Earthly Order.

Saturn is devoted to temperance. Its symbol is the Ladder, which is a symbol of Communication between God and Humans.It is also a symbol of Spiritual Vision. Each rung of the Ladder represents knowledge of the Divine that the contemplative has achieved.

People of the Middle Ages were very concerned about these things: Divine Infinity, Human Salvation, Earthly Order, and Spiritual Vision.

  • Write a brief character analysis of Peter Damian.

Peter Damian greets Dante on Saturn.

Peter Damian was a great contemplative who was called away from the contemplative life. He lived 250 years before the time The Divine Comedyis set. His dates are circa 1007 to 1072.

He introduces himself by saying,

“I in that place was Peter Damiano;

And Peter the Sinner was I in the house

Of Our Lady on the Adriatic shore.

Little of mortal life remained to me,

When I was called and dragged forth to the hat

Which shifteth evermore from bad to worse.

Came Cephas, and the mighty Vessel came

Of the Holy Spirit, meagre and barefooted,

Taking the food of any hostelry.”

(Longfellow 21.121-129)

Peter Damian was a contemplative who was “forced to wear the Hat” (Musa 21.125). That means that he was forced to wear a Cardinal’s hat although he did not want to; in other words, he became a Cardinal.

“Cephas” is another name for Peter, and so “Cephas” here means “Pope.” (The Pope is the vicar of Peter; Peter is regarded as being the first Pope.) Pope Stephen IX made Peter Damian a Cardinal, although Peter Damian preferred not to be a Cardinal. “Cephas” means “rock” in Syrian. It is a surname that Jesus gave to Peter:

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Matthew 16:18 (King James Version)

The Pope wanted a contemplative such as Peter Damian to be a Cardinal. Contemplatives have the ability to reform the Church.

The Gregorian Reform era was one that was supported by both Peter Damian and by Pope Stephen IX.

  • How does Peter Damian criticize the leaders of the Church in Dante’s day?

By the way, Saint Peter, the first Pope, was also temperate. He is “Lean” (Musa 21.127), in contrast to the intemperate clergy who need to be reformed:

“Your modern pastors need all kinds of help:

one here, one there, to lead, to prop and hold

up their behinds — they are so full of food;

their flowing cloaks cover the horse they ride:

two beasts beneath one hide appear to move!

O Heaven’s Patience, what you must endure!”

(Musa 21.130-135)

The modern clergy are not temperate when it comes to food. They are fat.

We can think of other criticisms.

What did Pope Boniface VIII do? He ended up in the circle of the Inferno that was dedicated to punishing Simony. He worked differently from Pope Stephen IX.

Pope Stephen IX wanted to reform the Church; therefore, he found the best man for the job, and he made him a Cardinal. (Of course, there were also other reformers.) A Simonist Pope would have made a Cardinal whoever offered him the greatest amount of money.

Compare also the people who are made Cardinals in the two systems. A Simonist wants to be made a Cardinal but is not qualified to be a Cardinal. Peter Damian is qualified to be a Cardinal, but he resists being made a Cardinal until he is convinced that he can do a lot of good as a Cardinal.

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