The Hierarchy Of Happiness In Dante’s The Paradiso

1337 words - 5 pages

Ask anyone you know what their ultimate goal in life is, and the answer will unanimously be, “to be happy.” According to Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, a state of fulfillment is the ultimate goal of all beings. This is how they define happiness: a state of being fully. Happiness and the means by which humans can achieve it is the main theme in Dante’s poem, The Comedy. In this poem, Dante starts his journey in the Inferno where he sees the souls of those who rejected the possibility of happiness by not knowing or refusing to know God. He then ascends to Purgatory, in which he observes souls who want to be happy, but must purge themselves of sin to achieve it. In the final installment, The Paradiso, Dante meets the souls of people who are truly happy. However, there is a peculiar feature in Dante’s version of paradise, which is that the souls are arranged in a hierarchy. The implications of a hierarchy of happiness would be that certain peoples’ fulfillment is less than others’, meaning that certain people have less potential to be happy than others. If there really were a hierarchy of human potential, then it would certainly contradict Catholic tenants such as divine grace and justice. Therefore it would stand to say that there is no hierarchy in heaven.

Before understanding Dante’s motives behind the hierarchy and why it does not make sense, it is first necessary to understand the philosophical tradition behind Dante’s writings. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed that there are two potencies that make humans to be human. The first is what he called the possible intellect, or the ability to know. To fulfill the possible intellect, it would require one to know everything. Also according to Aristotle, there is an entity which is the cause of all being, which Dante knows as the Judeo-Christian God. Since God is the source of all being, and therefore is everything, then to know everything is to know God. This is the perfection of the possible intellect and is called Faith. The other human potential is the intellectual appetite, also known as free will. This is the ability to accept being as good, also known as love, and move towards it. For Dante, the perfection of free will is in sacrificing one’s life to God, which is known as caritas, or charity. Since happiness is being fully, then being a happy person requires both having faith and doing acts of caritas.

Dante, being a devout follower of Western philosophy, had a hard time imagining paradise as non-hierarchical. For Dante, if every person in paradise were perfected equally, then nothing would set them apart. If they all had equal intellectual appetites, then they would all do the same acts, and thus be indistinguishable. This vision of paradise seems to be the same as the Eastern imagination of “nirvana,” in which individual beings are illusions which are really one whole. Staying true to his Greek philosophical roots, he devised a hierarchy based on...

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