Dante's Heaven of the Sun and the Wisdom of Solomon (1)

By Williams, Pamela | Italica, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Dante's Heaven of the Sun and the Wisdom of Solomon (1)


Williams, Pamela, Italica


The wisdom of Solomon is proverbial; it is exalted among others by St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure, Dante's two spokespersons in the two circles of the wise in the Heaven of the Sun. Indicating the brightest light Thomas says that there never was one so wise nor will there ever be: (2)

   La quinta luce, ch'e tra noi piu bella,
      spira di tale amor, che tutto '1 mondo
      la giu ne gola di saper novella:
   entro v'e l'alta mente u' si profondo
      saver fu messo, che, se '1 vero e vero,
      a veder tanto non surse il secondo. (Paradiso X, 109-14)

That comment about the unprecedented nature of Solomon's wisdom instils doubts in the character Dante's mind and Thomas explains at the end of canto XIII that the kind of wisdom God granted Solomon was specifically kingly wisdom, "regal prudenza" (1. 104), so as to clear up any misunderstanding there might be about his being second to none in relation to Adam and Christ.

As the brightest light in Dante's Heaven of the Sun ("La quinta luce, ch'e tra noi piu bella"; "la luce piu dia / del minor cerchio," Paradiso XIV, 34-35), Solomon has been a key figure in interpretations of this section of the Paradiso and of the poem in general. In Paradiso XIV, when Solomon answers questions by Beatrice put on Dante's behalf on the splendour of the resurrected body and the capacity of human eyes to sustain it, he shows wisdom in his insight into the interdependence of loving and knowing, the two essential and complementary aspects underlying this whole episode of the Heaven of the Sun. (3) Marguerite Chiarenza finds Dante imitating as well as vindicating the author of the Song of Songs in the Heaven of the Sun, thus celebrating the art of religious poetry along with its most venerable practitioner. For Chiarenza, Solomon's wisdom inheres in his writing the religious poetry of the Song of Songs. She accepts the interpretation that Thomas's reference to doubts on earth as to whether Solomon is saved or not ("che tutto 'l mondo / la giu ne gola di saper novella") is attributable to people thinking that because of the prima facie sensuality of the Song of Songs Solomon had been damned for lust--not to mention, of course, the seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines we hear about in the first book of Kings. (4) Dante's salvation of Solomon is then seen as an apology for his own poetry that, like the Song of Songs, was potentially "the target of ... accusations of earthly love and idolatry." (5)

The wisdom of Solomon may be proverbial but the interpretations of Solomon's wisdom are various. Here I want to concentrate on Thomas's speech at the end of canto XIII, not to dispute the kind of wisdom he had--because Dante's Thomas is characteristically clear about that; but in order to reconsider what I take to be the main theme of this episode in Paradise: the coordination of diverse wisdoms. My purpose is to compare Thomas's speech with a text from St. Bonaventure on the wisdom of Solomon, a passage from his Conferences on the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, of which Dante was probably aware having attended both the Franciscan and Dominican schools in Florence as he tells us in the Convivio. (6) As a subtext, to my knowledge not referred to in this context before, for the words Dante puts in Thomas's mouth, it brings the theme of unity in diversity as dramatically into focus as does the positioning of figures, locked into controversy with one another on earth, next to one another now in heaven: Thomas next to Sigier of Brabant in the first ring of lights and Bonaventure next to Joachim of Fiore in the second. Harmony, complementarity, courtesy, and generosity are pervasive in the Heaven of the Sun but they are balanced by the principle of diversity. At the opening of the episode Dante asks his reader to contemplate the various movements of the sun and to be aware of the potency and diversity of life they cause (Paradiso X, 7-21). In the following canti, we are asked to be just as aware of how the human world is modelled on and should conform to this unity in diversity that exists already in the natural world. …

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