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  • Chapter 1 The Divine Comedy’s Construction of Its Audience in Paradiso 2, lines 1–18
  • Jason Aleksander

Prologue: An Unorthodox Orientation to Salvation

Before I address the question of the apostrophe to the reader in Paradiso 2, it may prove helpful to give some orientation to my approach by briefly discussing the relationship between Paradiso 19’s and 20’s responses to the problem of reconciling divine justice with the orthodox Catholic creed “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” [no salvation outside the Church].1 In Paradiso 19, the Eagle of Divine Justice asks the pilgrim’s question for him:

    “ché tu dicevi ‘Un uom nasce a la rivade l’Indo, e quivi non è chi ragionidi Cristo né chi legga né chi scriva,    e tutti suoi voleri e atti buonisono, quanto ragione umana vede,sanza peccato in vita o in sermoni.    Muore non battezzato e sanza fede:ov’ è questa giustizia che ’l condanna?ov’ è la colpa sua se ei non crede?’”2

[“for you would say: ‘A man is born on the banks of the Indus, and no one is there to speak of Christ or read or write of him, and all his desires and acts are good, as far as human reason can see, without sin in life or in word. He dies unbaptized and without our faith: where is this justice that condemns him? where is his fault if he does not believe?’”]

The Eagle’s initial and direct response to this question affirms (in a subjunctive and counterfactual conditional): [End Page 1]

“Certo a colui che meco s’assottiglia,se la Scrittura sovra voi non fosse,da dubitar sarebbe a maraviglia.”

(Paradiso 19, lines 82–84)

[“Certainly for the one who matches wits with me, if the Scriptures were not over you, there would be wondrous cause for doubt.”]

Nevertheless, the Eagle goes on to insist:

“A questo regnonon salì mai chi non credette ‘n Cristo,né pria né poi ch’ el si chiavasse al legno.”

(Paradiso 19, lines 103–5)

[“To this kingdom no one has ever risen who did not believe in Christ, either before or after he was nailed to the wood.”]

These passages pose an interpretive dilemma for us concerning the ways in which they might be read as a response to the doctrine of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. The two options seem to be as follows: either (a) the Eagle is suggesting that the temporal institution of the Church provides the only efficacious means of stimulating human striving for salvation, or (b) the Eagle’s comment requires us to understand Ecclesia as something other than the temporal institution of the Church.

The reasons by which we are forced to reject the first of these two interpretive possibilities are obvious. In the first place, I can think of no work of Dante’s that any serious reader (let alone Dante himself) has ever cast as claiming or as illustrating the claim that the efficacy of the Church as a political institution legitimizes either its function in the political arena or its role in the spiritual development of its flock. Quite to the contrary, nobody seriously doubts the sincerity of the Divine Comedy’s many explicit criticisms (most pointed, perhaps, in Purgatorio 16) of the temporal Church for the harm it does to human strivings when it debases itself by being too involved in mundane matters. But beyond these general reasons to reject the first interpretive possibility, in the very next canto, the pilgrim discovers that two of the souls that compose parts of the Eagle’s eyebrow are the Roman emperor Trajan, who, through a miracle, was resurrected after his death so that he could convert to Christianity, and the Trojan warrior Ripheus, who is known to us only because of the briefest of mentions in Virgil’s Aeneid. In short, Dante’s positioning of these souls—along with Cato’s puzzling appearance as the first soul encountered in Purgatorio—forces us to accept the conclusion that, in the Divine Comedy, participation in the Church as a political and therefore also as a historical institution is in no way necessary for salvation.

But what, then, are we to make...


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