Dante’s Paradise: Canto 4 Retelling — Location of Souls (The Absolute Versus the Conditional Will)

Chapter 4: Moon — Location of Souls (The Absolute Versus the Conditional Will)

Dante had two questions that he wished — equally — to ask Beatrice. He was like a man who stood exactly in between two equally delicious meals — he would starve to death before choosing which to eat. He was like a lamb that stood exactly between two equally menacing wolves. He was like a dog that stood exactly in between two equally enticing does.

Unable to choose which question to ask first, Dante stood without speaking, but his face showed his desire to speak.

Beatrice then did what Daniel did. King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that he wanted his advisors to recount and to interpret. His advisors were unable to do these things and so he ordered that they be executed. But Daniel was able to recount and to interpret the dream, thus appeasing Nebuchadnezzar. Beatrice appeased Dante.

Beatrice said to Dante, “I see that you desire to ask two questions, and that you are unable to speak. Your first question is this: ‘If my will remains good, how can another person’s forcing me to act against my will mean that I receive less of a reward?’ You also want to ask, ‘Where do the souls of the saved go after death? Is it true that all souls return to their particular planet or star, as we read in Plato?’

“Those are the two questions you wish to ask. I will answer the second question first because the result will be very harmful if it is answered incorrectly.

“Where do the souls of the saved go after death? All of them go to the same place: Paradise, aka the Mystic Empyrean. This is where the Angels, including the highest order of the Angels, are. This is where Moses and Samuel are. This is where John the Baptist and John the Apostle are. This is where Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is. The souls you have seen here, and all of the other saved souls, do or will (if they are still climbing the Mountain of Purgatory or if their body is still alive) reside there. Each soul will have eternal bliss. Paradise is in the Mystic Empyrean, and it is where God resides.

“You have seen souls here on the Moon not because the Moon is where these souls stay, but simply because these souls are appearing before you in order to educate you. You will see souls on other planets and other places. Where they appear will reveal the greater or the lesser degree of their blessedness. The Moon is the lowest planet, and these souls are less blessed than other souls, although they are fully and eternally happy and reside in the same place as Mary.

“The souls are appearing before you in these places and in this way because this is a form of education from which your mind will be able to benefit. Your mind and the minds of other living human beings acquire knowledge through experience and the use of the senses, which give your minds information that your reason can consider.

“This is something that God is willing to do and has done. For example, sacred scripture mentions the hands and feet of God even though God, of course, is immaterial and has no hands and feet. For example, we use spatial terms to describe Paradise, which lies outside space and time — ‘outside’ is a spatial term that does not apply literally to Paradise. The Holy Church presents Archangels that have human features although Archangels are immaterial beings. All of these things are done to help Humankind understand.

“Plato in his Timaeus spoke about a myth in which souls exist on planets and stars, acquire material form and live on Earth, and then after death return to the planet or star from which they came. If this is meant to taken literally, it is false. Souls are created by God and do not exist before the body.

“If Plato’s myth is taken figuratively, then perhaps what is meant is that the planets and the stars have some influence on human life. Your age believed that, but science will later show that astrology is false. The Romans gave the planets names such as Jupiter and Mercury and Mars, but these names led the world astray.

“Still, one element of truth remains. Plato may be saying, figuratively, that after death the soul retains what made it distinctive and individual in the living world. You will still be you, even after death.

“The main point for you to learn here is that the dwelling place of Piccarda Donati and the Empress Constance is in the Mystic Empyrean with God. Their eternal dwelling place is not on the Moon. The souls in Paradise are helpful, and these souls made an appearance on the Moon to educate you about the degrees of blessedness in Paradise. Merit determines whether God’s glory is seen more clearly or less clearly in human beings. In these souls who appeared to you on the Moon, God’s glory is seen, but it is seen less clearly than in other souls.

“Your other question is this: ‘If my will remains good, how can another person’s forcing me to act against my will mean that I receive less of a reward?’

“This question arises from a misunderstanding of the will. Absolute will exists, and conditioned will exists. Absolute will is like a flame that always desires to rise although it can be forced to the side if something such as a stone is held directly above it.

“Conditioned will gives in, to some extent. Violence can force will to give in, and a conditioned will can continue to give in even after the violence has stopped.

“Such was the case with Piccarda and the Empress Constance. Evil men used violence to take them out of the convent. Piccarda and the Empress Constance cannot be blamed for that. But their will became conditioned, and after the violence ceased they remained instead of running back to the convent to be nuns.

“Absolute will does not give in, even when faced with bad consequences. If the choice is to give in and remain married or to run back to the convent to keep a vow made to God to be a nun even though that can result in being hunted down and murdered, the absolute will chooses running back to the convent to be a nun.

“This is more than a theory. For example, Saint Lawrence, a deacon of the Church of Rome, was ordered to hand over the treasures of the Church. He gathered a group of ill and poor people and called them the treasures of the church although he knew, of course, that his tormentors wanted material treasures. His tormentors tortured him and grilled him alive. He told them that one side was done, so turn him over and eat. His absolute will refused to allow his will to be conditioned and give up the Church’s material treasures — thereby violating his oath to protect the Church’s treasures — although the alternative to allowing his will to be conditioned was a horrible death. Absolute will never consents to doing the wrong thing, no matter the consequences.

“Here’s another example, Gaius Mucius attempted but failed to kill the Etruscan King Porsena. He was told that he could either give information about the Romans’ defenses or be executed. Mucius put his right hand in a fire and allowed it to be burned off to show that he would not be a traitor to his country. Instead, he would be faithful to his vow to be loyal to his country. King Porsena allowed Mucius to live. Thereafter, Mucius was known by the nickname ‘Scaevola’ — ‘Lefthanded.’

“Piccarda and the Empress Constance should have kept their vow. Saint Lawrence had vowed not to hand over the material treasures of the Church, and Scaevola had vowed loyalty to the Romans. Both kept their vows, despite the consequences. But such firm will as they showed is seldom seen.

“But here arises another question. Do what Piccarda said and what I said contradict each other? Piccarda said that the Empress Constance always wore the habit of a nun in her heart. Of course, the will of Empress Constance had become conditioned. Often, someone will consent to doing the wrong thing out of fear that something worse will occur.

“For example, Alcmeon did this. His father was Amphiaraus, a soothsayer who knew that he would die if he took part in a war against Thebes and so hid himself. Polynices, the leader of the forces against Thebes, bribed Eriphyle, the wife of Amphiaraus, with a gold necklace to reveal her husband’s hiding place. Forced to go to war against Thebes, Amphiaraus asked Alcmeon to vow to avenge him, and Alcmeon killed his mother, Eriphyle. Alcmeon faced a choice: either kill his mother or risk being impious by disobeying his father. He did something evil because he was afraid that if he did not he would do something even more evil.

“The Empress Constance did the same thing. She remained and stayed married and broke her vow although she could have run back to the convent and been a nun. She chose the lesser of what she considered to be two evils: being married, rather being killed. Absolute will would not have consented to this.

“When Piccarda spoke of the Empress Constance wearing the habit of a nun in her heart, she was referring to her absolute will. When I was speaking of the Empress Constance’s actions, I was referring to her conditioned will. Piccarda and I did not contradict each other.”

Dante understood. He said to Beatrice, “Thank you. All humans want to acquire truth, and acquiring truth is a process of asking questions and learning the answers until we are in Paradise and happy in our full knowledge. I understand the answers to the two questions that I had before, but now I have a third question: Is it possible to mend a broken vow to God by substituting good deeds for it?”

Beatrice looked at Dante. Her eyes sparkled with love, and Dante felt as if it he were about to faint. Beatrice had become more radiant.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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