“Canto 24: Gemini — Saint Peter Examines Dante’s Faith”
- Dante will be examined in the virtues faith, hope, and love.
My students at Ohio University have to take final exams to show what they have learned; the same is true of Dante.
Dante will be examined on his knowledge of the virtues faith, hope, and love.
Of course, the first three spheres that Dante visited were concerned with those virtues:
The souls in these first three spheres incorrectly practiced or lacked in some way the virtue associated with the sphere they were in.
Afterward, the Sun and the spheres beyond the Sun were beyond the shadow cast by the Earth. The souls on these spheres (including the Sun) did not lack the virtue associated with the sphere they were in; instead, they were outstanding examples of that virtue.
One purpose of the examination is to see what changes his journey has wrought in Dante. What has he learned by taking this journey?
- Who are the three apostles who will examine Dante in the virtues faith, hope, and love?
Three apostles examine Dante in the virtues faith, hope, and love:
Saint Peter: Faith
Saint James: Hope
Saint John: Love
- Dante’s examination is described as similar to a medieval university exam for a bachelor’s degree.
Dante’s examination is described as being similar to a medieval university exam:
As baccalaureate arms himself, and speaks not
Until the master doth propose the question,
To argue it, and not to terminate it,
So did I arm myself with every reason,
While she was speaking, that I might be ready
For such a questioner and such profession.
Undergraduate students at Ohio University are attempting to get their bachelor’s degree, and “bachelor” (Musa 24.46) refers to the student taking an examination to get a medieval bachelor’s degree.
The examination involves discussion, not final answers. The bachelors taking these examinations in the Middle Ages would discuss whatever topic the master examining him would propose. This is a case of the bachelor demonstrating what he knows, but also learning from the master. This examination is a case of engaging oneself in a dialogue from which one can learn.
This examination can be scary for some people reading The Divine Comedybecause it can remind them of their examination to get a Ph.D. However, taking an examination such as this can be a good thing. Normally, the people examining you are going to be on your side, and they will be hoping that you do well. In addition, we want the people who get a degree to actually deserve the degree.
- Why is Saint Peter a good choice to examine Dante in faith?
Peter examines Dante in the virtue of faith. This is the same Peter who denied three times that he knew Jesus after the Romans took Jesus prisoner. Peter sinned, but he repented, and he became an effective spreader of Christianity, with the results that he knows a lot about faith and he is now in Paradise. The story is told in Matthew, chapter 26 (King James Version):
31: Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad.
32: But after I am risen again, I will go before you into Galilee
33: Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.
34: Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.
35: Peter said unto him, Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. Likewise also said all the disciples.
69: Now Peter sat without in the palace: and a damsel came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee.
70: But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest.
71: And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and said unto them that were there, This fellow was also with Jesus of Nazareth.
72: And again he denied with an oath, I do not know the man.
73: And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee.
74: Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew.
75: And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.
- How does Dante answer this question: What is Faith?
One good thing to do can be to define important words to show that you know their meaning. Saint Peter in fact asks Dante, “Speak up, good Christian, and declare yourself! / Faith, what is Faith?” (Musa 24.52-53).
“Faith is the substance of the things we hope for,
And evidence of those that are not seen;
And this appears to me its quiddity.”
The word “quiddity” here means essence.
Dante has read Saint Paul. His definition comes from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (11:1): “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (King James Version).
Dante has done his reading for the examination. Saint Peter is the author of 1 Peter and 2 Peter in the New Testament; these books are letters. Dante has read these books, as well as the writings of Paul, including Hebrews.
- How does Dante answer this question: What is the evidence for the truth of what we read in the Bible — including miracles?
The discussion continues, and they talk about the evidence for the truth of what we read in the Bible — including miracles. Now that Dante has defined — correctly — faith, they move on to the substance of faith.
Dante’s argument here is interesting. He says,
“If the world turned to Christ without the help
of miracles,” I said, “then that would be
a miracle far greater than them all.”
Miracles occurred, and people became Christians.
Suppose that the miracles did not occur. If people became Christians without witnessing the miracles that spurred them to become Christians, then that would be even more of a miracle than the miracles we read about in the Bible!
- How does Dante answer this question: What does Dante personally believe?
Once they have talked about how we can know that what we read in the Bible is true, Peter asks Dante what is it that he personally believes. We read,
I answered him, “you want me to reveal
the form of my unhesitating faith,
and you have asked the reason for its being.
I tell you: I believe in one, sole God
eternal Who, unmoved, moves all the heavens
that spin in His love and in His desire;”
“and I believe in three eternal Beings,
an Essence that is One as well as Three
where isand aredescribe it equally.”
Dante also talks about how he knows that these things are true:
“And of such faith not only have I proofs
Physical and metaphysical, but gives them
Likewise the truth that from this place rains down
Through Moses, through the Prophets and the Psalms,
Through the Evangel, and through you, who wrote
After the fiery Spirit sanctified you;”
Dante has learned much not only from Holy Scripture (Moses, which refers to the first five books of the Bible; the Prophets; the Psalms; the gospels, and from Peter and Paul), but also from philosophers such as Aristotle. When Dante refers to God as the “eternal Who, unmoved, moves all the heavens” (Musa 24.131), he is using Aristotelian language. In this definition, we have a combination of creed and cosmology. Of course, as Dante moves upward in the Heavens toward Paradise, he is engaging in cosmology.
We have two sources of knowledge here: revelation (as in Scripture) and reason (as in the study of nature, including the heavenly bodies). In other words, we can learn some things through reason, and we can learn other things through revelation. The two kinds of knowledge, if in fact they are knowledge, do not conflict. Importantly, by using our reason, we can learn some things about God.
- How does Dante do in this examination?
Saint Peter is very pleased with Dante’s answers:
Even as a lord who hears what pleaseth him
His servant straight embraces, gratulating
For the good news as soon as he is silent;
So, giving me its benediction, singing,
Three times encircled me, when I was silent,
The apostolic light, at whose command
I spoken had, in speaking I so pleased him.
Saint Peter is delighted by Dante’s answers to his questions.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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