Dante’s Paradise: Canto 17 Retelling — Cacciaguida’s Prophecy

Chapter 17: Mars — Cacciaguida’s Prophecy

Phaëthon had heard rumors that he was the son of Apollo, and he went to Apollo to see if the rumors were true. Apollo assured him that the rumors were true, but Phaëthon demanded that his father allow him to drive the chariot of the Sun to prove that he was his father. Apollo allowed him to do this, but the result was disastrous: Phaëthon could not control the horses that pulled the chariot, and Jupiter killed him so that he would not burn up the Earth. For that reason, fathers are wary in granting what their sons request.

Like Phaëthon, Dante wanted to know whether the vague things he had heard were true, and if so, he wanted to try to get some benefit from having that knowledge. Dante felt that he was with the two people — Beatrice and his ancestor Cacciaguida — who would be best able to enlighten him.

Beatrice knew what Dante was thinking, and she knew that Dante ought to know about his upcoming exile, but she felt that it would be better that Dante’s ancestor Cacciaguida tell him and so she said to Dante, “I know that you have questions burning inside you. Go ahead and ask them. Of course, we already know what your questions are, but you should learn to ask for what you want: This is a skill that will be necessary for your future survival.”

Dante said to Cacciaguida, “Cherished ancestor in Paradise, you have special knowledge. Human beings in the living world have some knowledge. We know that a triangle cannot contain two obtuse angles. A triangle has three angles that add up to exactly 180 degrees. An obtuse angle has more than 90 degrees, so two obtuse angles equal more than 180 degrees, and so whatever geometric figure is formed will not be a triangle.

“As clearly as human beings in the living world know that, so clearly do you know the past, the present, and the future because you can see into the mind of God. Whatever contingent being — a being that is capable of existing and of not existing, although not at the same time — will come into existence, you know that it will come into existence before it comes into existence. Contingent existence is different from necessary existence, which has always existed and always will exist. God has necessary existence.

“While I was still with Virgil and was climbing the Mountain of Purgatory and descending the circles of the Inferno, many souls made vague but ominous statements about my future life.”

Beatrice thought, During his journey throughout the Inferno and the Mountain of Purgatory, Dante has heard hints of his future exile.

In the Inferno, Ciacco prophesied to Dante, “After much more fighting, one party will drive out the other party. Then within three years the positions will be reversed, and the party that was victorious will be defeated, and the party that was defeated will be victorious.”

In the Inferno, Farinata revealed that Dante will soon be sent into exile — within 50 months.

In the Inferno, Brunetto Latini prophesied hard times for Dante. Brunetto’s prophecy stated that both political parties will regard Dante as an enemy.

In the Inferno, Vanni Fucci predicted coming trouble for Dante and for Florence. Vanni told Dante of the coming troubles, including the expulsion of the White Guelfs from Florence by the Black Guelfs, and he added that he was telling Dante this bad news so that Dante would suffer,

On the Mountain of Purgatory, Dante talked with Conrad Malaspina, who made a prediction: Within seven years Dante will have need of the generosity of the Malaspina family.

On the Mountain of Purgatory, Oderisi of Gubbio prophesied that Dante will learn the humiliation of begging.

On the Mountain of Purgatory, the poet Bonagiunta Da Lucca prophesied that a woman from his city, which is reviled, will make Dante praise his city.

Dante continued, “Because of these prophecies, I am better prepared to withstand bad fortune. I would like to know in more detail what bad fortune is coming. If I know what bad fortune will happen to me, I may be able to blunt its force.”

Dante had done as Beatrice had wished, and now Cacciaguida answered him. His reply was not vague, like the ancient, tricky oracles whose words can mean more than one thing.

Oracles that existed before Christ’s crucifixion could be misleading, and they could lead people astray. Some prophecies were deliberately ambiguous. For example, Croesus, the King of Lydia, was thinking about attacking Persia. He sent an emissary to the Delphic Oracle to ask whether he should do that. The Delphic Oracle responded that if he attacked Persia, “A mighty empire will fall.” Croesus regarded the oracle as propitious, and he attacked Persia. A mighty empire did fall; unfortunately, the mighty empire that fell was his own empire.

Cacciaguida replied to Dante with clear, easily understandable words. Cacciaguida was happy to enlighten Dante.

Cacciaguida said to Dante, “God knows all about the existence and the nonexistence of all contingent things. God knows the past, the present, and the present. But this does not take away from free will. God exists outside of space and time, and God sees the past, the present, and the future all at the same time. God sees human beings use their free will either for good or for ill. A human being may watch a boat going down a stream. Watching the boat does not mean that the human being is controlling the actions of the boat.

“From the vision that the mind of God has, I can see what will happen to you in the future.

“Hippolytus’ stepmother fell in love with him and tried to seduce him. Hippolytus resisted, and his stepmother lied and said that Hippolytus had tried to force himself on her. Therefore, Hippolytus, although innocent, was banished from his city: Athens.

“You, also, although innocent, will be banished from your city: Florence. You will be exiled. A Pope who each day engages in simony and sells Christ is now planning the events that will lead to your exile.

“As is usual, the public will blame the one who is innocent and will praise the one who is guilty. And yet, in the long run, the truth shall be known.

“You will have to leave Florence and everything that is valuable to you. You will have to leave behind your family. This is the first of the evils that await you.

“You will learn how salty the bread of other people is, and you will learn to walk down steps that belong to other people and to walk up steps that belong to other people.”

Beatrice thought, Dante will have to eat different kinds of food than what he is used to getting in Florence. Dante will be in unfamiliar places. He will eat the food of other people, and he will stay at the homes of other people. Of course, when he does that, he is not at home. He is not in control. To an extent, he will have to do what other people want him to do.

In addition, people in Florence do not put salt in their bread, and so when they travel outside of Florence and eat bread, they notice how salty the bread is.

Bread is important. The Bible calls bread the staff of life. Bread is also an important part of the Eucharist — a Christian sacrament in which bread represents the body of Christ and wine represents the blood of Christ.

Cacciaguida continued, “What will be worse will be the company you fall in with. The people you will be around will be despicable and senseless.”

Beatrice thought, By 1300, the Guelfs had defeated the Ghibellines in Florence. However, the Guelfs divided into two factions: the White Guelfs and the Black Guelfs. The White Guelfs will throw the Black Guelfs out of Florence. Corso Donati will persuade Pope Boniface VIII to send Charles of Valois and his troops to Florence. Charles of Valois, working with Pope Boniface VIII, will pretend to be a peacekeeper, but actually he will be working to have the Black Guelfs take control of Florence and expel the White Guelfs. This will happen while Dante, a White Guelf, is away from Florence in the fall of 1301. On 1 November 1301, Charles of Valois will enter Florence and give control of the city to the Black Guelfs. Cante de’ Gabrielli will issue a proclamation on 27 January 1302 that will falsely charge Dante with barratry and will give him three days to return to Florence to reply to the charges and to pay a huge fine. Dante wisely will stay away from Florence. On 10 March 1302, Cante de’ Gabrielli will issue another proclamation that will condemn Dante to be burned to death if he ever returns to Florence. The reason for the death sentence will be that Dante failed to show up to reply to the charges against him.

For a while after he is exiled, Dante will think that he will return to Florence in a few weeks, but that will not happen. For a while after he is exiled, Dante will plot with other White Guelfs about how they can return to Florence. Their plots will fail. Dante will never return to Florence after he is exiled.

Cacciaguida continued, “The company you fall in with will turn against you and hate you. They will be ungrateful, but history and their own deeds will show that they, not you, are in the wrong.

“Instead of being in a party with others, you will gain honor by being in a party of one: yourself.”

Beatrice thought, One thing that Dante has been learning during his journey through the afterlife is to avoid extreme factionalism. The people he will meet with after his exile will turn out to be extreme factionalists of the type that Farinata was in the Inferno.

Eventually, Dante will do the right thing and become a party of one. He will rightfully criticize both the White Guelfs and the Black Guelfs, and he will rightly criticize both the Guelfs and the Ghibellines.

After his exile, Dante will be tempted to work very hard to get back into Florence. One way to do that is to raise an army and go to war. Of course, if you do that, lots of people will die, and lots of people will be hurt. Soldiers will die, and their families will be without breadwinners.

Eventually, Dante will stop plotting with other people about how to get back into Florence. He will stop engaging in bad factionalism. He will learn that other things are important. We should not say, “My political party, right or wrong.”

Farinata is a person who put himself and his political party first, and look where he ended up.

Cacciaguida continued, “You will also meet and enjoy the hospitality of good people. After leaving the bad people, you will find refuge first with the great Lombard, Bartolommeo della Scala of Verona, whose coat of arms shows an eagle and a ladder. He will give you what you need even before you ask for it.

“With him will be his younger brother, Con Grande della Scala, who will win great renown. Right now, in 1300, he is not known because he is only nine years old, but he will quickly make his merit known — even before the Gascon tricks Henry by first supporting him and then withdrawing that support.”

Cacciaguida thought, In 1312, Pope Clement V, aka the Gascon, will trick Emperor Henry VII.

Cacciaguida continued, “Can Grande della Scala will scorn the pursuit of wealth and will not be afraid to work. His generosity will be so widely known that even his enemies will acknowledge it.

“Look at him and expect great things from him. Because of him, many deserving beggars will be raised high and many undeserving wealthy men will be brought low.”

Cacciaguida then told Dante about some of the things that Can Grande della Scala would accomplish, but he forbade him to talk or write about them.

Then Cacciaguida continued, “You see your future. You know the snares that lie ahead. Do not envy Corso Donati or Pope Boniface VIII. Your future is brighter than their futures despite the pain that they will inflict on you.”

Cacciaguida had answered Dante’s question, and Dante was able to add what he had learned to the web of knowledge that he had already acquired.

Dante sought reassurance and advice from his virtuous ancestor who knew the future and loved him: “Father, I see the hardships that lie ahead of me — hardships that do much damage to those who are unprepared.

“I know that I will not be able to live in Florence, the place I hold most dear. I do not want to lose the ability to live elsewhere because of what I can write.

“I have traveled down the Inferno and up the Mountain of Purgatory and from heavenly Sphere to heavenly Sphere with the help of Beatrice, and I have learned much. If I write the truth about what I have learned, I will make enemies.

“And yet, if I do not write the truth about what I have learned, what I write will not last. People of the future will not read what I write.”

Beatrice thought, Dante will be able to bring good out of exile. He will be exiled from Florence, but he will be able to learn from the experience, and he will be able to pass on what he learns to other people when he writes his Divine Comedy.

Dante will be like an Old Testament prophet who speaks truth to power. His exile will become a kind of pilgrimage.

In doing this, Dante will make many, many people very, very angry at him. Many, many powerful people will appear in the Inferno part of his Divine Comedy. Their families will still be alive.

Dante will be in exile, which means that he won’t have much to lose. Because he won’t have much to lose, he will have a certain amount of freedom. Not having much to lose means that he can tell the truth. What will someone do if they become angry at him: exile him? He will be already in exile.

Dante is worried. If he is going to tell his story, he has to tell it the right way if his message will endure.

Brunetto Latini wrote for the wrong reasons. He wanted to become famous, and so he wrote to become famous. It worked, but not for long. Brunetto Latini was well known when he was alive, but unless Dante puts him in the Inferno Brunetto Latini will be forgotten.

What Dante needs to do is to tell the truth. The Old Testament prophets are remembered because they told the truth. Dante knows that it will take courage to tell the truth. In order to be remembered, Dante must tell the truth, even though the truth will make other people angry.

Dante will make the right choice and write the truth about what he has learned. People 700 years from now will read what he writes — and people 700 years after that will read what he writes.

Cacciaguida’s light grew brighter because he was joyful at being able to give Dante advice that was exactly right.

Cacciaguida said, “Some people have dark consciences, and yes, they will be angry at what you write. But do not lie. Tell the truth. Everything you have learned, write. If some people are wounded by what you write, let them bind their wounds.

“What you write may seem bitter at first, but it will be good medicine. Although some people will sting from the words; nevertheless, the words will be beneficial to them.

“Your words will hit hard at bad Popes and bad politicians, but these are the people who most need to read what you write.

“During your journey through the afterlife, you have met and seen many prominent people. Use them in what you write. Readers will pay attention to what you write if you write about prominent people. Readers will know about the prominent people, and they will know that you are writing the truth. They will learn from these examples. Use clear examples, and make clear arguments.”

Beatrice thought, Dante will engage in much criticism in The Divine Comedy, but his purpose will be ultimately creative rather than destructive. If a building is a wreck, tear it down and then build another one in its place. If you have bad habits, get rid of the bad habits so that you can substitute good habits in their place. If the Church needs to be reformed, criticize it so that it can be reformed and become both better and stronger.

Dante’s words will be hard to hear, but they can provide much-needed nourishment.

Cacciaguida was a Crusader with a sword, and he has let Dante know that he must be a Crusader with a pen.

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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