Paradiso -- Canto XIII

The Wise, Aquinas on King Solomon




4 The poet asks us to imagine the twenty-four brightest stars in the sky forming two circles of twelve, like a double crown of Ariadne (the Corona Borealis) who was changed into a constellation by Dionysus after Theseus had deserted her, Metamorphoses, VIII, 177-81 (ll. 13-15).










24 The Chiana is a sluggish river in Tuscany which flows through marshes into the Tiber.







36 King Solomon, as the wisest man, Thomas Aquinas goes on to explain, was still inferior to Christ and Adam in intelligence. From the rib of Adam’s breast issued Eve and human error, as from the side of Christ pierced on the cross came the cure (ll. 37-42). With delicate elaboration, Thomas shows that Solomon acquired the wisdom appropriate to his duties as ruler and did not ask for a grasp of theological ideas.









































106 See Canto X, l. 114, where Aquinas says of Solomon: "No second ever rose with such wide vision."











124 Three early Greek thinkers whom Aristotle refuted.


127 Sabellius (d. 265?) and Arius (d.336) were both condemned by the church as heretical.

          Imagine, if you really want to grasp
          What I now saw — and hold on to the image
          Firm as a rock while I am speaking here —
          Fifteen stars which in the different quarters
5         Liven up the sky with such sharp brightness
          That they pierce all the thickness in the air;
          Imagine that Great Bear which on the breast
          Of heaven rests all night and day, so that
          It does not vanish with the turning pole;
10       Imagine also the mouth of that Horn
          Which starts at one end of the axle star
          Around which the first wheeling daily rotates;
          Imagine all these patterning out two signs
          In heaven, like the constellation of King Minos’ daughter
15       Formed when she felt the chill of death upon her,
          One circle with its rays inside the other,
          And both so spinning round the center that
          One should turn first and after that the other:
          Then you will glimpse some shadow of the real
20       Constellation and the double dance
          Revolving on the spot where I was standing.
          For it’s as far from our experience
          As the motion of the highest swiftest heaven
          Outspeeds the sluggish flow of the Chiana.
25       They sang no Paean there nor hymn to Bacchus,
          But to Three Persons in the Godhead’s nature,
          And God and human nature in one Person.
          The song and circling ran to their full measure,
          And then those holy lights attended to us,
30       Happy to pass from caring to new care.
          Then the light in which the wondrous life
          Of the poor man of God was told to me
          Shattered the silence of these souls in concord,
          And said, "Since one sheaf has been beaten out,
35       And all its grain is garnered at this time,
          Sweet love now bids me to thresh out the other.
          "You believe that, in the breast from which
          The rib was pulled to shape her lovely cheek
          Whose palate all the world has paid for dearly,
40       "And in the breast which, pierced so by the lance,
          Before and after made such satisfaction
          That it outweighs all evil in the scale,
          "In both, all of the light that human nature
          May possess has been infused in full
45       By that Power that formed one breast and the other.
          "You ponder, therefore, what I have said above
          When I told how the excellence enclosed
          Within the fifth light never had a second.
          "Now open your eyes wide to what I answer
50       And you will see your thinking and my speaking
          Become in truth the center of a circle.
          "Those things that die and those that cannot die
          Are but the splendor of the one Idea
          Which in his love our Father has begotten;
55       "For the same living Light which so streams from
          The lucent Source that it is never parted
          From it or from the Love which makes them Three
          "Through its own goodness focuses its rays
          In nine existences like nine reflections,
60       Itself eternally remaining One.
          "From there to the remotest potencies
          Light falls from act to act until it comes
          To make now only brief contingencies.
          "By these contingencies I understand
65       The generated things produced by seeds
          Or, if without seeds, by the moving heavens.
          "The wax of these things and what molds the wax
          Are not the same, and so the ideal stamp
          Shines through it more or less transparently.
70        "So it happens that trees of the same species
          Bear better or worse fruit, and that by birth
          Human beings have diverse endowments.
          "If the wax were molded to perfection,
          And were the heavens at the height of power,
75       The light through the whole seal would be apparent,
          "But nature always gives imperfectly,
          Working in the same way as the artist
          Whose hand shakes in the practice of his art.
          "But if warm Love disposes and imprints
80       The clear-cut vision of the primal Power,
          Complete perfection is accomplished there.
          "So clay was once made suitable to form
          The full perfection of a living man,
          So was the virgin made to be with child.
85       "I give approval, then, to your opinion
          That human nature never was nor shall be
          As perfect as it was in those two persons.
          "Now if I went no further than this point,
          You might well start to ask, ‘How is it then
90       This other one is said to have no equal?’
          "But to make plain what still is not apparent,
          Consider who he was and what moved him
          To his request when God said, ‘Choose your gift.’
          "I’ve spoken like this so you’ll plainly see
95       He was a king who chose the gift of wisdom
          In order to be worthy of his kingship
          "And not to know the number of the moving
          Angels here above, nor if necessity
          With a condition ever proved necessity,
100     "Nor if there is prime motion, nor if one can
          Construct a triangle in a semicircle
          So that it has no right angle inside.
          "It follows, if you note what I have said,
          That kingly prudence is the matchless vision
105     At which my arrow of intention strikes.
          "And if you turn your sharp-eyed sight to ‘rose,’
          You will see it refers only to kings,
          Of whom there are many, but the good are rare.
          "Take my words on him with this distinction
110      And they are in accord with your belief
           Regarding the first father and our Beloved.
          "And let my words be lead weights to your feet,
          To slow you, like a weary man, from hastening
          To the yes or no of what you do not see.
115     "For he is well placed low among the fools
          Who, whether in affirming or denying,
          Does not distinguish one case from the other.
          "For often it occurs that one’s opinion,
          When quickly formed, leans in the wrong direction,
120     And vanity then binds the intellect.
          "It is far worse than vain to quit the shore
          To fish for truth and not possess the skill,
          Since one returns worse off than when he left.
          "And here, Parmenides, Melissus, Bryson,
125      And many more who went they knew not where
          Are open proof of this folly to the world,
          "As are Sabellius and Arius,
          And those fools who to Scripture were like swords
          Mirroring straight faces with distortion.
130     "Again, let people not be too secure
          In how they judge, like someone who would count
          The ears of corn before the field is ripe.
          "For I have seen first, all the winter through,
          The briar show itself barbed and unbending,
135      And then upon its stem it bears a rose.
          "And I have seen a ship sail swift and straight
          Over the vast sea, through her entire course,
          To sink at last while entering the harbor.
          "Let every Dick and Jane not think, if they
140      See someone steal and someone make an offering
          That they observe them with divine omniscience,
          "For the thief may rise up, and the donor fall."
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