Paradiso -- Canto IV

Beatrice on Free Will










13 Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, allaying his anger and saving the lives of the augurs (Daniel 2:1-45).





24 Plato’s Timaeus pictured the souls pre-existing in the stars and waiting for birth; after their life on earth they return to the stars. Such a doctrine, Beatrice shows, would grant too much influence to the stars and destroy free will (ll. 27-63).

29 The two Johns are the Baptist and the Evangelist.









43 Dante is referring to a passage in Genesis XVII, as interpreted by St. Augustine.


48 The third archangel is Raphael who restored Tobit’s sight (Tobit 11:1-15).











64 The second problem involves the inviolability of the will and the amount of freedom in forced actions.











83 Saint Lawrence died a martyr on the grill in 258, and Mucius Scaevola, a Roman hero, put his arm into the fire set to execute him.












103 Alcmaeon revenged his mother’s treachery of having his father Amphiaraus sent to a sure death in the siege of Thebes by taking her life (see Purgatorio XII, ll. 49-51, and note).

          Between two equidistant and delicious foods
          A man with a free choice would starve to death
          Before he might bring either to his mouth;
          So would a lamb stand still between the cravings
5        Of two fierce wolves, in equal fear of both;
          So would a hound stand still between two deer.
          I don’t then blame myself if I kept silent,
          Pulled equally in both ways by my doubts,
          Nor, since it had to be, do I praise myself.
10       I held my peace, but my desire was painted
          Upon my face, together with my question,
          In warmer colors than if framed in words.
          Beatrice now did what Daniel once had done
          When he freed Nebuchadnezzar from the wrath
15       Which had caused him to be unjustly cruel,
          And she said, "I clearly see how this and that
          Desire draws you so that your eagerness
          Entangles itself and then it cannot breathe.
          "You reason: ‘If the will remains resolved,
20       By what right does another’s violence
          Reduce the measure of my full reward?’
          "Again you are thrown into doubt because
          The souls seem to return up to the stars
          In accordance with the doctrine taught by Plato.
25       "These are the questions that weigh equally
          Upon your will: and so I shall first treat
          The one that is most poisonous for you.
          "The seraphim who are closest to God,
          Moses, Samuel, and either John —
30       Choose whom you will — and even Mary
          "Do not have their seats in any other heaven
          Than do these spirits who appeared to you,
          Nor have they more or fewer years in being,
          "But all make the first circle beautiful,
35       And yet share the sweet life in different ways
          By feeling the eternal breath diversely.
          "They show themselves here, not because this sphere
          Is assigned to them, but to give a sign
          Of this celestial state which is least lofty.
40       "So must the human mind be spoken to,
          Since only through the senses can it grasp
          What then is fitted to the intellect.
          "That is the reason Scripture condescends
          To your capacity, attributing
45       Feet and hands to God, without meaning it;
          "And Holy Church represents for you
          With human features Gabriel and Michael
          And the one who made Tobit’s vision sound.
          "What Timaeus argues about the soul
50       Does not resemble what we witness here,
          Since he seems to take what he says as truth.
          "He states the soul returns to its own star,
          Believing it to have been cut from it
          When nature gave it to be the body’s form.
55       "But his opinion may be at variance
          With what his words express, and should be taken
          To have a meaning not for us to scorn.
          "If he means that the honor and the blame of
          Their influence returns to their gyrations,
60       Perhaps his bow has hit upon some truth.
          "This principle, misunderstood, once so
          Misled almost the whole world that it strayed
          In naming Jove and Mercury and Mars.
          "The other doubt disturbing you is less
65       Poisonous because its malice could not
          Lead you somewhere else away from me.
          "For our justice to appear unjust
          In eyes of mortal men is argument
          For faith and not for wicked heresy.
70       "But since your intelligence is capable
          Of fully penetrating to this truth,
          I will content you, just as you desire.
          "If it be violence when the sufferer
          Contributes nothing to what forces him,
75       These souls had no excuse on that account.
          "For will that is unwilling can’t be quenched,
          But stands as nature does within the flame
          Though violence twist it in a thousand ways.
          "For should it bend itself much or little,
80       If follows force: as did these souls when they
          Had power to escape back to the cloister.
          "If their will had remained perfectly whole,
          Like that which held Saint Lawrence on the grill
          And made Mucius hold his hand in the fire,
85       "It would have urged them back, no sooner freed,
          Along the road where they were dragged away,
          But such a steadfast will is all too rare.
          "And by my words, if you have garnered them
          As you should do, the argument is quashed
90       That would have many more times troubled you.
          "But now before your path another pass
          Confronts your eyes, so strait that by yourself
          You would not get through without growing weary.
          "I have for certain impressed on your mind
95       That the souls in bliss can never lie
          Since they are always close to the First Truth;
          "And then you could learn later from Piccarda
          That Constance kept up her love for the veil,
          So that in this she seems to contradict me.
100     "Often before, brother, it has happened
          That men unwillingly, to flee from danger,
          Have done things that they ought not to have done:
          "Like Alcmaeon who, at his father’s bidding,
          Took his own mother’s life and, so as not
105     To fail in piety, was pitiless.
          "At this point I want you to understand
          That force mingles with the will, and they
          So act that there is no excuse for wrongs.
          "Absolute will does not agree to wrong,
110      But out of fear that, by withholding, worse
          Trouble may befall, the will consents.
          "So when Piccarda spoke about this matter,
          She meant the absolute will, and I the other,
          So that what both of us said was the truth."
115      Such rippling issued from the sacred stream
          Out of the fountain from which all truth wells up,
          Such that it calmed one longing and the other.
          "O loved of the First Lover, O divine one,"
          I said then, "you whose speech flows over me
120     And warms me so that more and more I live,
          "Not all the depth of my love is sufficient
          To give you grace for grace in my return:
          But may the One who sees and can — make answer.
          "I clearly see our intellect may never
125      Be sated unless that Truth shines upon it
          Beyond which no truth has a further range.
          "In that it rests, like a wild beast in its den,
          The instant it has reached it — and reach it can,
          Otherwise all longing would be futile.
130     "For this cause questions spring up like new shoots
          At the foot of truth, and this it is in nature
          That drives us to the heights from ridge to ridge.
          "This urge invites me, this emboldens me,
          Lady, to question you with reverence
135     About another truth obscure to me.
          "I want to know, can people compensate
          For broken vows with other goods, so as
          Not to weigh too lightly in your scales?"
          Beatrice looked at me with eyes so filled
140     With sparks of love and so heavenly
          That my powers, overwhelmed, broke loose,
          And, eyes cast down, I almost lost myself.
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