By Bill Cook
Paradiso 10 is the first of four cantos where Dante describes his experience in the Circle of the Sun. Let’s remember that in the Ptolemaic universe, the sun is the middle one of the seven planets (Moon, Mercury, Venus before and Mars, Jupiter, Saturn after). And since the sun is associated with wisdom, Dante meets lots of smart guys—people like Thomas Aquinas. Nevertheless, the ‘stars’ of the Circle of the Sun are not souls we meet but saints whom we hear about—Francis of Assisi and Dominic, founders of the two most important new orders of the century, the Franciscans and Dominicans.
It somehow seems right that we hear about Dominic since his order was the most learned in that era, including Thomas Aquinas himself. Yet it is the learned Thomas who tells the story of St. Francis of Assisi, whom I often describe as a man with an elementary school education and likely a B- Latin student. Perhaps one takeaway from these four cantos is that knowledge without love is insufficient. When St. Bonaventure, whom Dante will meet in Paradiso 12, writes his life of St. Francis, the Legenda Maior, he discusses Francis’ attitude toward learning. Friars should study, Francis tells his brothers, because we learn by reading (since we were not with Jesus to witness his life or hear his words directly) that Jesus prayed more than he read. So, yes we have to read, but we also must then learn from our reading to pray more than we read. Bonaventure also presents Francis as one who believed learning is a means to being a better lover of God and God’s creation. Learning for the sake of power or wealth is of no worth.
For Dante, the Church is in such bad shape at the end of the 12th century that God sent two great men, Francis (Paradiso 11) and Dominic (Paradiso 12), to repair it. In the early 16th century, Machiavelli wonders if the Church would even have survived to his own time had these great rebuilders not done their complementary work.
Thomas Aquinas is part of a circle of twelve wise men, and in Paradiso 12 we will see that Bonaventure is also part of a twelve-man circle. It is useful to look at the first dozen wise men here. To most readers, even after looking at the notes, these are not familiar people. With one significant exception, they are medieval thinkers and writers, known to medievalists and Church historians. Four of the twelve, including Thomas Aquinas are canonized saints, so we may hear their names from time to time (Albert the Great, often referred to in the Latin as Albertus Magnus, Bede often referred to as the Venerable Bede, and Isidore of Seville). The one non-medieval figure is King Solomon, who lived in the 10th century BC. It does not surprise us that Solomon is here, because we sometimes use the term “the wisdom of Solomon,” usually referring to his way of dealing with the two women who both claim to be the mother of the same child.
However, in Paradiso 13, Thomas Aquinas reads Dante’s mind and raises the question of why Solomon received such high praise from Thomas. His answer is not the story of Solomon judging the two supposed mothers. Rather, it is that when God offered Solomon any gift, he chose the wisdom to govern his people, i.e. the wisdom needed in fulfilling his God-ordained purpose.
The most striking element of Aquinas’ introduction of his circle of twelve to Dante are their placement. To Thomas’ right is Albertus Magnus, who was one of his teachers. It is interesting to see this teacher/pupil relationship and compare it to Dante the Pilgrim’s mentor Brunetto Latini, whom he meets in Inferno 15. It is good to go back to the Inferno and see both the conversation and the placement of Brunetto at the hem of Dante’s gown as they talk.
Most shocking is who Thomas’ other neighbor is—Siger of Brabant. He was at the University of Paris at the same time that Thomas taught there. And they were real rivals with very different theologies. For fun, take a look at a fictionalized debate between the two at
The teachings of Siger were condemned in 1277 and at other times. Aquinas was well on his way to becoming a saint when Dante was writing the Paradiso (canonized 1323, two years after Dante’s death).
So, Aquinas spends eternity with his mentor and his nemesis beside him. So what is Dante trying to tell us? Certainly he is not declaring the works of Albertus, Thomas, and Siger to be equal in importance or in truth. It is hard to imagine so much of the Divine Comedy without the deep influence of Aquinas. Perhaps what Dante wants us to ponder is that our understanding of truth while we are on earth is partial and imperfect. Dante mentions in the Purgatorio that, for example, the prophet Ezekiel gives a false report about the number of wings of angels in his prophetic book. More surprisingly, Pope Gregory the Great (AD 590-604), as we learn in Paradiso 28, discovered when he got to heaven that he had incorrectly corrected the writings of Dionysius (another one of the twelve in Paradiso 10). However, we are told that when Gregory got to heaven and saw the angels, he laughed at his mistake [line 135].
So, this part of heaven has many things for Dante the Pilgrim to learn. And most of them are not the sophisticated intellectual things that we might expect in the region of heaven containing the souls of the wisest people. Here he learns about the diversity of thought, the importance of honest inquiry, and the essence of wisdom from Solomon who was, after all, not a scholar.
Dr. William Cook taught history for 42 years, retiring in 2012 with the rank of Distinguished Teaching Professor of History. A specialist in medieval history, he has taught a course on Dante’s Commedia alone and with his colleague Ron Herzman. Bill has written several books and about 50 articles as well as more than 900 columns for the Livingston County News. He has established the Bill Cook Foundation (www.billcookfoundation.org), which provides educational opportunities for some of the world’s poorest children.