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9. Primum Mobile
Angelic Orders. Cantos 28.16 to 29.145;
Primum Mobile. Canto 27.97-148;
Inversion. Canto 28.40-78

Study Questions

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Angelic Orders. Cantos 28.16 to 29.145
Rings Around Point of Light Angelic Orders Angelic Orders
In the Primum Mobile ("first mover")--the swiftest, outermost sphere that imparts motion to the other spheres--Dante sees nine fiery rings whirling about a central point of intense light. These, as Beatrice explains, are the nine orders of angels, hierarchically arranged according to their proximity to God. Following the order of The Celestial Hierarchy, an early medieval text attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, Dante perceives (from the innermost to the outermost ring): Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. This order differs from the order Dante used in a previous work (Convivio 2.5.6) that followed a version of Gregory the Great; Gregory, we are told, laughed at himself when he saw the correct order of angels in Paradise (28.130-5)!
Dante's angelology is unique for its identification of each order of angels with Aristotle's mover-intelligences of the celestial spheres. His emphasis on the intermediary role of angels in the generation of mortal things is also exemplary. Similar to mirrors, angels reflect the divine light, which remains "one in itself," down through the created universe (29.143-5). As the highest created beings, above humans on the ladder of being, angels are associated with pure reason and contemplation. Dante goes further than most in calling the angels "pure act" (29.33), beings free from both matter and potentiality; this idea contradicts other theological positions (e.g., Thomas Aquinas, for whom only God is "actus purus") and borders on heresy. Sempiternal creatures (eternal since their creation), angels enjoy uninterrupted vision of God (29.76-80). This implies for Dante, against accepted opinion of the time, that angels have no memory (29.80-1).
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Primum Mobile. Canto 27.97-148
The Primum Mobile, the largest and swiftest sphere in Dante's cosmology, is the physical origin of life, motion, and time in the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic universe. This heaven, the supreme physical heaven in the universe, is enclosed only by the Empyrean, the mind of God. Enkindled in the Empyrean are the love which turns the Primum Mobile and the virtue (or creative power) that the Primum Mobile pours down onto the lower spheres. Therefore the Primum Mobile--or "first moving" sphere--determines the natural operation of the universe, in which the earth is motionless at the center of the nine concentric, revolving heavens. As the physical source of motion, the Primum Mobile serves as the measure for the other spheres and is the basis for time (insofar as time is a function of motion) (Par. 27.106-20). In the Convivio Dante credits Ptolemy with positing the existence of this ninth sphere as a way to account for the slightly varying motion of the Fixed Stars (the eighth sphere) within the daily east to west revolution of the heavens around the earth (2.3.3-6). Identifiable only through its movement, the Primum Mobile is also called the Crystalline heaven because of its total transparency (Convivio 2.3.7).
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Inversion. Canto 28.40-78
Dante is confused by an apparent contradiction: the fiery rings of angels are brighter and swifter the closer they are to the central point, whereas the celestial spheres are purer and faster as they increase in size outward from the earth (at the center of the universe). Beatrice must therefore explain this discrepancy between the spiritual realm (the angelic orders) and the physical universe (the spheres). The contradiction disappears if we consider the "power" of the circling rings of angels and not their size and location (28.73-8). From this perspective, the angels and spheres correspond to one another in an inverse relationship: the innermost ring of angels (Seraphim) and the outermost sphere (Primum Mobile) correspond because they are closest to God, from spiritual and physical viewpoints respectively; the Cherubim (second angelic ring from the center) are assigned to the sphere of the Fixed Stars (the next to outermost sphere); and so on, down to the pairing of the outermost angelic ring (simple angels) with the innermost sphere (Moon). This inverse correspondence is based on the theological idea that God "occupies" both the center (as an infinitesimally small point) and a dimension beyond space-time.
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"come l'essemplo / e l'essemplare non vanno d'un modo" (28.55-6)
how the original / and copy don't follow the same pattern
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Study Questions
1. How does the apparent contradiction--the inverse relationship--between the physical and spiritual universes (28.16-78) relate to other episodes and themes in the Paradiso? What is the significance of such inversions (differences in perspective) for Dante's overall conception of the celestial realm?
2. Less than twenty seconds after their creation, Beatrice explains, a portion of the angels rebelled and fell from grace (29.49-51): how does this rebellion compare with other transgressions described in the poem? What does it mean that Dante once again opts for a very brief period of harmony and innocence?
3. Angels are familiar figures in movies and television shows. What differences and / or similarities do you see between Dante's angels-- their function in the universe, their appearance, creation, and fall-- and modern, popular conceptions of angels?
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