The Roman poet Virgil had conducted Dante through the dismal regions of hell and up the slopes of Mount Purgatory. Then Beatrice began to show him the celestial realms. Their first stop was the moon. Then in the middle of Canto V, they ascended to the planet Mercury.
Of course, Beatrice and Dante did not need any rocket to get to Mercury. Since they felt drawn to God, they ascended rapidly by the power of spiritual love.
Mercury was a realm of light and joy. When Beatrice arrived, she experienced great happiness, and her gladness made the planet even more brilliant than it was before. Influenced by the ecstatic environment, Dante also felt sensations of delight..
At their arrival, Dante and Beatrice were approached by a host of happy spirits. Dante wanted to learn about their condition, and his wish was granted. One of the spirits expressed a willingness to answer questions, and Beatrice also encouraged Dante to speak.
Dante decided to address his questions to the spirit who had spoken to him. He asked the spirit to identify himself. He also asked the spirit to explain why he appeared on the planet Mercury.
When Dante spoke to him, the spirit was filled with joy and became much brighter than before. Dante was not able to discern his features because of the brightness of his light.
In reply, the spirit identified himself as Justinian, the Roman emperor who ruled in the sixth century A.D. He confessed that he once had espoused the Monophysite heresy, the belief that Christ had only one nature instead of two. However, Pope Agapetus taught him the truth.
After embracing the true faith, God moved him to undertake a lofty work. He revised Roman law, removing any laws that were superfluous or useless. He did not have to concern himself with waging war because his general Belisarius was a skillful leader of the imperial armies.
After thus answering the first of Dante’s two questions, Justinian talked about the imperial Eagle and briefly outlined the historical events in which it was involved. Justinian wanted to show that this imperial standard was worthy of reverence, since both its detractors (the Guelphs) and its supporters (the Ghibellines) were currently abusing it. (The Eagle was the emblem of both ancient Rome and the Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages.)
After alluding to the legendary wars that Aeneas waged in Italy, Justinian pointed out that the Eagle lived in Alba Longa for more than three hundred years. When three Horatii of Rome defeated three Curiatii of Alba Longa, the Eagle moved to Rome. In Rome, the Eagle prospered during the reign of seven kings. After the era of monarchy came to an end, the Eagle continued to perform valiant deeds in the hands of republican generals, such as Cincinnatus, Scipio, the Fabii and Pompey. Pyrrhus, Hannibal, and other enemies of the Eagle met defeat.
When Heaven wanted to establish peace on earth in preparation for the birth of Christ, Julius Caesar took the Eagle and conquered Gaul (modern France). Under Caesar Augustus, the Eagle made Cleopatra weep and reached the Red Sea. Peace prevailed, and the doors of the temple of Janus were closed.
When the imperial Eagle adorned the hands of Tiberius Caesar, God granted it a special privilege by which it attained its highest glory. By crucifying Christ, it became the instrument by which God punished the sin that had entered the world when Adam fell. (It is true that the Romans were instruments of God, but they were still committing a sin. In Luke 23: 34, Jesus said: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” The fact that they needed forgiveness shows that they were committing a sin.)
Paradoxically, the crucifixion of Christ, though an act of just vengeance on sin, had to be punished. The imperial Eagle administered this punishment in the hands of Titus, who sacked the city of Jerusalem, which had been responsible for Christ’s death.
Still later, the imperial Eagle moved to northern Europe and achieved further glory in the hands of Charlemagne. It performed a notable service for the Christian Church by defending it against the attacks of the Lombards.
Justinian then addressed the current scene. The Ghibellines were dishonoring the Eagle by the unjust partisan activities that they were perpetrating under its standard, while the Guelph Charles II of Anjou actively opposed the Eagle. He wanted to replace this noble standard with yellow lilies, the emblem of his own house. Justinian made it clear that the Eagle deserved better treatment.
Justinian then answered the second question that Dante had asked. He explained that the people appearing on the planet Mercury were good spirits, but they had impure motives. Their actions were motivated by a desire for honor and fame. As a result, the rays of their love were not wholly directed toward God. Because of this, they appeared on the second lowest sphere of heaven. This did not trouble Justinian and the other spirits on Mercury. Rather, they rejoiced in the justice of God, who had given them exactly what they deserved. (Note that Dante believed that the rank of a spirit in heaven depended on his actions during his life on earth. I have criticized this view in an article entitled “Dante Converses with Lunar Spirits.”)
After answering Dante’s questions, Justinian spoke of another spirit who appeared on the planet Mercury. He was a just man named Romeo, who had faithfully served Count Ramon Berenger IV. Because of his efforts, Berenger’s four daughters became queens. However, he left Berenger’s court in disgust when the count was temporarily influenced by false accusations made by Romeo’s enemies.
Justinian and the other blessed spirits then left the scene, dancing ecstatically. Beatrice then discussed some theological points that were puzzling to Dante. The material was evidently taken from the theology of Thomas Aquinas and a tract by Anselm, so it took considerable effort on my part to grasp its line of thought.
Beatrice begins by discussing the justice of the crucifixion and the justice of the punishment that the city of Jerusalem suffered. She starts with Adam’s sin, which condemned not only himself, but also his descendants. Sin alienated human nature from God. Later, the Word (Jesus Christ, the Son of God) united this alienated human nature with himself and so became flesh. However, His human nature was pure and good, untainted by sin, just as it was when human nature was first created.
Beatrice then says that the crucifixion was just because human nature deserved punishment because of its sinful alienation from God. Even though the human nature of Christ was pure, human nature in itself was culpable. Therefore, God justly punished human nature in Christ. (Actually, the real reason why the crucifixion was just is because Christ had taken upon His shoulders the sins of the world – all sins, both original sin and actual sins. In Christ’s crucifixion, all these sins received the punishment that they justly deserved. Though Beatrice did not state this expressly, it probably is implied. I believe that the unexpressed thought in the argumentation of Beatrice is this. The sinful alienation of human nature was imputed to the innocent human nature of Christ.)
Then, to prove that God was just in punishing Jerusalem for its role in the crucifixion of Christ, Beatrice focuses on the person of the Savior. Beatrice does not spell it out; but she undoubtedly meant to say that since the person of Christ was a union of a divine nature and a human nature, the crucifixion was an act of hostility toward God Himself. Therefore, crucifying Christ was wrong, and God justly punished Jerusalem for its role in the crucifixion. (This argument gives the verdict of the law without taking the gospel into account. The actual reason why Jerusalem was destroyed was because they refused to believe in the Savior of the world. This rejection expressed itself not only in the crucifixion, but also in the persistent persecution of those who believed in Him. The city was not under an irredeemable curse after the crucifixion. It could have repented and received forgiveness at any time. In Luke 13: 34, Jesus said: “How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!”)
Dante also wondered why God redeemed the world through the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ rather than employing some other means.
Beatrice begins her explanation by asserting that everything created by God without the intervention of an intermediate agent is eternal and perfectly free because the unchangeable imprint of God’s goodness has sealed it. Because man was created immediately by God, he enjoyed these gifts, but he lost them when he sinned. There were only two ways in which his former dignity might be regained. Either God had to dismiss the charges through an act of generosity or else man had to make satisfaction for his folly.
Since man could not atone for his sins, God had to act. Beatrice states that God used both ways mentioned above (i.e., effecting redemption by pardoning sin and by an atoning act on the part of man). She does not spell it out, but she was undoubtedly referring to the fact that Jesus had a human nature, so that He, a true man, made the necessary satisfaction for sin when He was crucified. At the same time, the crucifixion brought it about that God pardoned sin. So the redemption was effected both by a pardon on God’s part and by human satisfaction for sin.
Beatrice states that God chose the best possible method for redeeming man. If he had simply dismissed the charges without satisfaction, the requirements of justice would have remained unfulfilled. (Actually, the idea that there might have been another way of redemption other than the cross of Christ is pure speculation unsupported by Scripture.)
Dante was puzzled when Beatrice said that everything created by God without the intervention of intermediate agents was eternal. He observed that water, fire, air, and earth (the four elements of which it was believed all things were made) were subject to corruption.
Beatrice states that angels and man were created by directly by God. However, the four elements and the things made from them received only their matter from the creative act of God. They received their form through the mediation of created things, namely, from the stars. Beatrice cites animals and plants as examples. It is from the rays and the motion of the holy lights that they receive their souls. In contrast, God breathed life into man without the mediation of the stars. Therefore, the life of man is everlasting, and he will consequently rise from the dead. (This, of course, was based on the philosophy of Aristotle as adopted by Thomas Aquinas. I am not sure how Romans 8: 19-21 was treated by Aquinas. Here the Holy Scriptures explains that the corruption evident in the world is due to the fall into sin.)
Orientation on Roman History and Legend
According to legend, Aeneas led a group of Trojans to Italy after the fall of Troy. He founded the city of Lavinia, which became his capital. His son moved the capital to Alba Longa, where it remained for three hundred years. The capital then moved to Rome, where seven kings ruled in succession. Tarquin the Proud, the last of these seven kings, was driven out, and Rome became republican. Nearly 500 years later, Rome became an empire. Caesar Augustus was the first emperor. Eventually the Roman Empire was split into two sections: the western Roman Empire, and the eastern Roman Empire. The western section fell in 476 A.D., while the eastern half lasted till 1453 A.D. The Holy Roman Empire was an attempt to revive the Roman Empire in the west. It began in 800 A.D. when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne. The conquest of the Lombards actually antedated the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire. The Lombard campaigns of Pepin and Charlemagne took place when they were merely kings of the Franks. The Holy Roman Empire lasted until the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon brought it to an end.
“Paradiso” from “The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri”; Italian text plus verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum; Notes by Anthony Oldcorn, et alii