Dante’s Paradise: The Sphere of Wisdom

On their journey through Paradise, Dante and Beatrice visit the fourth sphere—the so-called sphere of the Sun—and meet the wisest persons to ever live. But rather than finding a collection of scholars, they encounter a group of widely different individuals.

Domenico di Michelino Dante and His Poem (1465) fresco, in the dome of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (Florence's cathedral). Dante Alighieri is shown holding a copy of his epic poem The Divine Comedy. He is pointing to a procession of sinners being lead down to the circles of Hell on the left. Behind him are the seven terraces of Purgatory, with Adam and Eve representing Earthly Paradise on top. Above them, the sun and the moon represent Heavenly Paradise, whilst on the right is Dante's home city of Florence. The illustration of Florence is self referencial, depicting the recently completed and much celebrated cathedral dome inside which the fresco is painted.

At the Fourth Sphere we go outside the shadow the Sun casts so that we are now on the Sun. Here we are going to meet those who are associated with wisdom. It’s important because although there’s going to be a great collection of scholars—some of the all-time biggies, if you will, we are going to meet here—two things strike us that amend that notion that this is a scholarly place. One is the stories that we are going to hear of Francis and Dominic. Neither one of them was really a scholar in any sense of the word at all, especially Francis. Secondly, when we’re introduced around by the two major speakers in this part of the paradise, the circle of the Sun, we’re going to find out there’s some real simple folks there as well as learned people. So, we need to make sure that while there is, indeed, a great collection of scholars here, scholarship does not equal wisdom. Wisdom is a much broader concept that we’re going to be examining here in the Sun.

portrait of Dante Alighieri, the medieval Italian poet
Dante Alighieri, the medieval Italian poet

An Interesting Definition of Wisdom

One of the ways that Dante gets at this notion of wisdom is to suggest that it’s a kind of cumulative, communal thing. That is to say, wisdom has a lot to do with the right relationship of parts and wholes, the way things fit together, so when we see the scholars we are introduced to them individually, but they form a circle, a wheel of saved souls. In fact, we see a second wheel interacting with the first, so it’s this combination of who these folks are individually and the way that they interact with each other that helps to give us a definition of wisdom, and, in fact, what the poet does is start us off heading in that direction by doing exactly the same thing with the very structure of the universe itself. We’re out there, we’ve gone to a new place. We are outside of the shadow that is cast by the Sun on Earth, what do you see?

Well, one thing you do is instead of looking down you look up, and when you look up you see the spheres.

Look straight to the point of the lofty wheels where the one motion and the other cross.

A visual depiction of Dante's Paradise, illustrating the nine spheres of Heaven
A visual depiction of Dante’s Paradise, illustrating the nine spheres of Heaven

What he’s talking about is the wheel that we would call the equator, that line but extended out infinitely into space, and the second wheel, the path of the Sun, the yearly path of the Sun, through the planets, which we call the elliptic, and that movement is through the sign of the zodiac. He says basically, you’ve got these two wheels that make up the universe, and if you look at them you see that they cross each other at a certain point. Our way of saying, in a sort of post-Copernican time, would be to say that the Earth is tilted a bit. His way would be to say that the circles out there meet at a 23-degree angle.

He goes on from there to say this wonderfully intricate mechanism consists of the right relationship between parts and wholes, and if the angle were just a little bit different, life really wouldn’t be possible. If the angle were too great there would be too much of a variation between the seasons. If the angle were too little, there would be too little variation between the seasons. So, you’ve got it just right.

In the creation of the universe, what we’re supposed to do is, as he says, is

revel in the work of that great Artist who so loves His art, His gaze is fixed on it perpetually.

God contemplates his own creation; we should do that in order for us to become God-like. But notice that what he is saying is that in this depiction of the universe, of the cosmos, there’s a reflection in the way in which the two wheels of the souls are presented to us. They, too, are a kind of cosmos, or a microcosm if you will, in which wisdom is seen as this wonderful interrelationship of parts and wholes.

The First Circle

Dante comes into contact with this first circle, which consists of 12 souls. By the way, the two circles together obviously add up to 24, a number that has Old Testament resonances and New Testament resonances in the Book of Revelation with the 24 elders.

portrait of St. Thomas Aquinas, theologian and Doctor of the Church
St. Thomas Aquinas, theologian and Doctor of the Church

The first person who speaks is Thomas Aquinas. That might seem obvious to us because today Thomas Aquinas is considered the greatest of all the medieval, or perhaps even all the Christian philosophers, of all time. That was not as clear in Dante’s time; in fact, some of Thomas Aquinas’s teachings were condemned shortly after he died. He really only becomes the dominant theologian of the Catholic Church much later on, in the 16th century. So, in a sense, Dante, without knowing it perhaps, or without being conscious of it, is being prophetic in having the first speaker in the circle of the Sun, where the wise are, being Thomas Aquinas.

painting of Dante and Beatrice in the Sphere of Wisdom meeting wise people
The 12 wise souls that Dante and Beatrice encounter in the fourth sphere are Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Gratian, Peter Lombard, King Solomon, Dionysius the Areopagite, Orosius, Boethius, Isidore of Seville, Bede, Richard of Saint Victor, and Siger of Brabant.

Aquinas first introduces Dante to the 11 others who are with him. Again, many of them are learned people but they also include, for example, the Old Testament King Solomon, and there’s going to be a long discussion on the wisdom of Solomon later on. There is an interesting character we meet named Gratian who is a great compiler of Church law, just as Justinian was of Roman law. Gratian was the one who compiled Church law, and what’s interesting about that is in a previous canto Dante criticized the Church for spending too much time with Church law rather than studying Scripture. That does not mean that Church law is not important, it means that it is being misused for the wrong purposes. So, Gratian is here.

The most interesting character that Thomas Aquinas introduces us to is a fellow named Siger of Brabant, who turns out in the circle to be right next to Thomas, and Siger is a contemporary of Thomas, and Siger was also in Paris with Thomas Aquinas, and they were, if you will, theologically at odds. Siger not only was condemned as a heretic, but he and Thomas Aquinas disagreed fundamentally on certain issues. We might expect not to find them next to each other in this circle. But, in fact, of course, Dante’s making a very important claim here about the value of scholarship and also the limits of the kind of theological hagglings that take place back on Earth, that many of these disagreements are not between bad guys and good guys, but rather people who sometimes erroneously are nevertheless true seekers of wisdom.

From the lecture series Dante’s Divine Comedy
Taught by Professor William R. Cook, State University of New York, Geneseo
and Professor Ronald B. Herzman, State University of New York, Geneseo