To borrow a line from another Dantista, there is an initial question as to whether being awarded Paradiso 13 is an onore or an onere (‘honor’ or ‘onus’). The canto has the reputation of being one of the most difficult to explain and of coming across more as philosophy than poetry. Yet there is much knowledge to be gained from Saint Thomas Aquinas’s discourse, and it is certainly worth the effort to acquire it.
The canto begins with the description of the twenty-four souls of the Sphere of the Sun dancing in a double constellation of circles and singing of the Trinity and Incarnation. Once the song and dance has ended, St. Thomas Aquinas turns to Dante and seeks to answer his unspoken question regarding Solomon: how can Solomon have been the wisest man such that there was none wiser before nor after him? St. Thomas refers to his earlier remark in Paradiso 10 that there never came a second as wise, but the reference could just as well be to 1 Kings 3:12, where God promises Solomon a wise mind such that “no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” Dante wonders how Solomon could be wiser than Adam or Christ, who both were human and had the full infusion of the knowledge of God. St. Thomas begins his explanation by separating all of creation into derivatives of the Almighty. First are the nine orders of angels, which are like mirrors of God. They reflect His goodness, and yet they are beings distinct and different from God. Those things that are not eternal receive different amounts of light based upon the vicissitudes of nature, the artist who creates “with a hand that trembles.” [line 77] Adam and Jesus were not subject to such an unreliable craftsman, and thus were exceptional human beings. St. Thomas concludes his discourse on Solomon by explaining that Solomon’s wish was to become a wise ruler, and with this qualification in place it is perfectly true to say that there never arose another ruler as wise as Solomon (Cf. Nehemiah 13:26, “Among the many nations there was no king like [Solomon]”). St. Thomas closes his discussion with a warning against premature judgment on matters, lest one seize upon an erroneous answer and cling to it out of habit or consistency. He announces that even a thief may be saved and an almsgiver punished.
As mentioned previously, there are many valuable lessons to be learned from the canto, but I would focus particularly on the final discussion on premature judgment. Dante refers to premature judgment in two ways: first, that of arriving at a decision on a matter without fully understanding the options, and second, that of determining the eternal fate of others based upon their actions.
Dante explains that human beings, once having made a decision, are wont to defend it at great cost. Ralph Waldo Emerson alluded to this fact in his assertion that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”; not wanting to be proven wrong, we will search for every reason possible why a position may be correct without choosing the objectively right answer. This point is as true today as it was seven centuries ago: no one wants to be a “flip-flopper.” Decisions should be made with due care and thought, but barring that, they should be made with an aim to ultimate truth and correctness, not with the selfish desire to seem right. The Romans encapsulated this thought in the phrase esse quam videri, ‘to be rather than to seem’. Justice and wisdom deal in things as they are, not as they appear to be.
The final point Dante raises is that too frequently “donna Berta e ser Martino” (the medieval Italian equivalent of “every Tom, Dick, and Harry”) feel as though they can intuit God’s wisdom and judgment based on their observations. After all, a thief is a sinner and an almsgiver a saint, right? Dante’s warning provides a twofold reminder. First, as noted above, things are not always as they appear. Benjamin seemed a thief to the Egyptians when he was found with the Vizier’s silver cup in his sack (Genesis 44:12). Judas Iscariot seemed a pious almsgiver to those listening when he asked why perfume was not sold and given to the poor (John 12:5). And yet the thief was innocent (Gen 44:2) and the almsgiver guilty (Gen 44:2; Jn 12:6). It is the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who is justified in Luke 8:14 and the poor widow, not the rich donors, who gives the most in Mark 12:43. Although we may know right from wrong ourselves, we may not always be able to see it. A priest and friend of mine frequently reminds me that too often “we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions.” It would seem then that we should be mindful of all the circumstances and always be ready to amend our understanding in light of the truth.
Second, we are too quick to say a person is too guilty to be saved or too saintly to fall. The father-son example of Guido and Buonconte da Montefeltro shows that even a friar and advisor to the Pope can make wicked decisions, and that a teardrop of repentance and the name of Mary can save a sinner. In the Bible, David was “a man after [the Lord’s] own heart” (1 Sam13:14), and yet he brought about the death of Uriah the Hittite and incurred God’s anger (2 Sam 12). His son Solomon was the wisest of kings, and yet he fell into following foreign gods and women, bringing about the disintegration of the Kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 11). But it was a prostitute of Jericho, Rahab, who alone with her family was saved and who was elevated as a model of good works and faith (James 2:25; Heb 11:31). It was a criminal, punished to die on a cross, who received the promise of Paradise from the Lord on His own cross (Luke 23:40-43).
In sum, it remains vital to our understanding of our neighbors and ourselves that we reflect before declaring judgments and remember the possibility of good and salvation that awaits those who seek it. Christ dined with sinners and was criticized for it. Yet He clearly believed there was hope for them. Dante reminds us with his canto of this incisive truth: if God reserves His judgment and freely offers His mercy, should we not strive to do the same?
Nicholas Dube is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard College, with a degree in History and the Classics and a secondary concentration in Italian Studies. His experience with Dante includes study at the Carla Rossi Academy in Monsummano Terme, Italy, and attendance at academic conferences on the Divine Comedy.