Paradiso -- Canto V

Mercury, Men of Honor
















22 Dante returns to one of the central issues of the Commedia: free will, which is the root of human freedom, the greatest gift from God. See also De Monarchia I, XII, 6.

















51 Dante refers to Leviticus 28: 1-33.




57 For the two keys of priestly authority and discernment, see Purgatorio IX, 117-129 and n. 117.





66 Jephthah made a foolish vow to Jehovah and felt obliged to sacrifice his only daughter (Judges 11). Agamemnon (l. 69) likewise vowed to sacrifice his daughter to Artemis. When Iphigenia was born, however, he reneged until forced to take her life at the outset of the Trojan expedition (see Aeneid II, 116).



76 References to vows in the Old Testament are present, besides Leviticus (see note 51), in Psalm 75:12; Ecclesiastes, 5:3; and Genesis 28:20-22. But there is nothing in the Gospels.









93 The second kingdom is the sphere of Mercury where the seekers after honor have their thrones.

          "If I flame on you in the warmth of love
          Beyond the measure witnessed in the world
          And so overwhelm the power of your eyes,
          "Do not wonder, for this light proceeds
5         From perfect vision which, as it apprehends,
          So moves its steps to apprehended good.
          "I plainly see how in your intellect
          Already shines eternal radiance
          Which, once seen, alone and always kindles love.
10       "And should another good seduce your love,
          It only is some vestige of this light,
          Misunderstood, which still shines through within.
          "You wish to know if with some other service
          Such reckoning can be paid for unkept vows
15       That would secure the soul from further suits."
          So Beatrice began this canto and, like someone
          Who will not pause to interrupt a speech,
          Continued in this way her sacred discourse:
          "The greatest gift God’s generosity
20       Made in creating and the most conformed
          To his own goodness — what he prizes most —
          "Is freedom of the will, and with this gift
          The creatures with intelligence — they all
          And they alone — have been and are endowed.
25       "Now, if you reason from this, you will see
          The high value of the vow, if it be such
          That God gives his consent when you consent.
          "For in the compact between God and humans,
          This treasure of the will which I describe
30       Becomes the sacrifice by its own free act.
          "What can you render then in restitution?
          If you think to make good use of your offering,
          You wish to do good with ill-gotten gains.
          "You now have been assured as to the main point,
35       But since here Holy Church grants dispensations,
          And seems to contradict the truth I’ve shown you,
          "You’ll have to sit at table a while longer
          Because the tough food which you have been taking
          Requires further aid for your digestion.
40       "Open your mind to what I shall reveal
          To you, and keep it there, for to have heard
          Without retention does not make for knowledge.
          "The essence of this sacrifice involves,
          First, the matter of which it is made,
45       And second, the nature of the final compact.
          "This second never can be canceled out,
          Except by being kept, and on this point
          My preceding speech was so precise.
          "To offer sacrifices was prescribed,
50       Then, for the Hebrews, although what was offered,
          As you must know, might sometimes be exchanged.
          "The other part, which you know as the matter,
          May in fact be such that there’s no fault
          If it should be replaced with other matter.
55       "But let none shift the weight upon his shoulder
          At his own judgment, till he first has turned
          The lock with both the gold and silver keys.
          "And let him think of every change as folly,
          Unless the thing that he takes up contains,
60       As six does four, the thing that he laid down.
          "So then, whatever thing through its own worth
          Weighs so much that it would tip any scale
          Can never be made good by other outlay.
          "Let mortals never make their vows too lightly.
65       Be loyal, but also be not blurry-eyed,
          As Jephthah was in his first offering,
          "Who better would have cried out, ‘I’ve done wrong!’
          Than, keeping to his vow, do worse. And you’ll find
          As big a dolt the great lord of the Greeks
70       "Whose Iphigenia wept to be fair of face
          And made both wise and foolish weep for her
          On hearing such cruel rituals recounted.
          "Christians, be serious in taking action:
          Do not be like a feather to every wind,
75       Nor think that every water cleanses you.
          "You have the New and the Old Testament
          And the Shepherd of the Church to guide you:
          Let this be all you need for your salvation.
          "If sorry greed shout anything else at you,
80       Be men, do not be senseless sheep, so that
          The Jew among you not laugh at you in scorn.
          "Do not be like the lamb that strolls away
          From its mother’s milk and, silly and wanton,
          Fights with itself for its own fun and frolic!"
85       What Beatrice said to me I here write down.
          Then, all in longing, she turned toward that point
          Where the whole universe is most alive.
          Her quietness and her transfigured look
          Made my inquiring mind lapse into silence
90       While it already planned new questionings.
          And like an arrow that strikes at the target
          Even before the bowcord becomes still,
          So we sped on into the second kingdom.
          Here I saw my lady so full of gladness
95       When she gave herself into the heaven’s light
          That the planet itself now glowed more brightly.
          And if the star was so transformed and smiled,
          What then did I become who by my nature
          Am subject to fresh changes of all sorts?
100     As in a fish-pond that is clear and tranquil,
          The fish draw to what drops down from the outside,
          Believing it to be some food to feed on,
          So I did see more than a thousand splendors
          Drawing toward us, and in each I heard,
105     "Look, someone comes who shall augment our love!"
          And when each one in turn came up to us,
          We saw each shade was filled with happiness
          By the bright glow that burst out from within.
          Imagine, reader, if what I now begin
110     Went no further on, how you would feel
          An anguished hunger to know more about them,
          And you will see, all on your own, how I
          Hungered to hear more of their condition
          The moment they were shown before my eyes.
115     "O happy-born, to whom grace freely grants
          Sight of the thrones of everlasting triumph
          Before you are released from earthly warfare,
          "We are inflamed by the illumination
          Reaching through all heaven: if you seek then
120     Enlightenment from us, take what you please!"
          These words were said to me by one of those
          Gracious spirits. And Beatrice: "Speak, speak
          Safely, and trust in them as you would gods!"
          "I plainly see how you nest in your light
125      And that you draw it out from your own eyes
          Because light sparkles in them when you smile,
          "But I do not know who you are, nor why
          You, worthy spirit, have your rank in this sphere
          Which rays of sunlight veil from mortal sight,"
130     This words I said as I turned toward the light
          Which first had spoken to me, and at that
          It beamed out much more brightly than before.
          Just as the sun which by excessive light
          Conceals itself when heat has all consumed
135     The thickly mantling mists that moderate it,
          So by increasing joy that holy figure
          Hid itself from me in its own radiance,
          And hidden fast in this way, answered me
          In the manner which my next canto sings.
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