Paradiso Canto 13: The Judgment of Judging

OK, first of all, let’s talk about the dancing. I find it so interesting that in this section of Paradiso, there’s so much dancing. And singing. If hell is about yelling and groaning and fighting, Paradise is about singing and blessing and harmony, in what is I believe a very intentional inclusio of symbol and image that harks back to what comes earlier. So much of this stuff harks back to its opposite – the stuff we find at the very beginning. In hell. And other places.

For instance, remember the Spenders and the Hoarders in Canto 7, in their violent parody of the round dance? Going round and round in opposing circles (“Why do you spend? Why do you hoard?”)? But, in heaven: here is the real dance, the real round dance. This is the place where we see the most dazzling representation of the dance human eyes can perceive. Where the soul-stars wheel round each other and create not hatred but harmony; create greater light and not greater scarcity, with their opposing lights.

“Dancing with the Stars” Dante style can’t compare to the cheap TV imitation. And all this – just for Dante’s eyes. Not that these souls are like this in themselves, we hear. We do not encounter the Kantean Ding an sich (thing itself) in heaven – but a dazzling display that’s dumbed-down for human eyes, an approximation of the real thing fit for human consumption, in an act of loving, heavenly condescension. Words themselves are a heavenly concession to the human mind.

The way Dante tells the very tale to his readers is an allegory for how that display appears to him: I can only tell you about what I saw in cheap words and similes and metaphors – about as crappy as the little muddy creek in the Chianna. But that’s in a way what it was to me: an approximate representation of something too blissful for human capacity to fully grasp.


OK – so to the business at hand for today. (And, I didn’t want Leigh to feel uncomfortable being a bit late with her offering so I decided to delay today. Ahem.) This is what today’s Canto is about: judging. Judgement. Judgmentalism.

I think so. Actually, I’m sure of it. And I pretty much know I’m right.

This Canto speaks – via the via positiva – to our particular context at this moment. In the conversation between Mitt, Rick, Newt and Ron. A moment when we hear a bunch of guys talking about how right they are. Even if they agree, one says “I’m right, he’s wrong.”And the rightest guy gets the nomination, right?

It’s about how to know – what is the right thing to do in a given scenario? And not only that, how can I know what is true? How can I base my life on truths that may or may not be…er…true? Right?

The problem with earth-bound creatures, upon whom the perfect imprint of the maker has been marred (Dante’s whole deal about direct and secondary creation, via St. Thomas, will have to wait for another day…), is that oftentimes being right is more important than what really corresponds to the truth.

So, at stake in this Canto is a question raised way back in Canto 10: when Saint T makes the claim that when it comes to the wisdom of Solomon – the wisest king of ancient Israel – no one “ever rose to equal this one.” (X.114) How is that possible that Solomon was wiser than the original, perfect man (before he damaged the perfect nature he was given)? How is it possible that his wisdom was wiser than…uh…Jesus?

Now, there’s a subtext here. A debate that’s going on. Some of the Doctors of the Church have disputed (and continued to dispute in Dante’s time, apparently) whether Solomon was among the elect. Whether Solomon deserved to be in Heaven. He certainly had quite a taste for the ladies. And did some other not so wise things. But some thought he repented and made the team. Some thought he didn’t. Who’s right?

You see, back then, people debated this stuff. Perhaps the most infamous debate – how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? – was a serious argument. People would throw their beer at each other over such questions. Kind of like getting in the thick of it with your father-in-law over Rush Limbaugh’s etiquette, or Mitt Romney’s real feelings about health care reform.

Well, OK. So how elegant that Dante settles the matter. Via his poem. But in doing so, he also points out his own foolishness – how human beings want to know things, so that they can be right. And he gets a tongue-lashing at the end of it for his impulse – to be right. St. Thomas calls him on it (XIII.112).

It’s pride that’s at stake here. How often we make a judgment, and stick to it because it’s more important that we’re right, than what’s actually true. It’s the human ego thing.

So, the key here is why Solomon is in heaven. And I believe the answer has to do with the fact that his wisdom came about through a choice – and it’s actually a wisdom that didn’t come from him, but from God, so is in a sense a borrowed wisdom. Some of us may recall the story of Solomon’s choice (not the one about the baby and the two ladies). About how he offered a bunch of sacrifices to The Lord at Gibeon, and had a dream in which God offered to give him anything he wanted. Door number one: Unbelievable wealth. Door number two: Power to do anything you darn well please. And door number three: wisdom you need to really help your people get along – wisdom that’s fit for a King.

Solomon chose door number three. And it’s that particular kind of wisdom that’s peerless among mortals. The Kingly kind.

Because Dante underlines that it wasn’t just that Solomon chose wisdom; it’s about what kind of wisdom. He could choose to know about things that inquiring minds what to know: how do you square the circle? Who’s right about Prime Motion – is there or isn’t there? C’mon, we want to know, once for all. And get all the fame and fortune for being the knower.

Such hair-splitting wisdom may make the knower feel good, and get you a whole lot of other perks – but what lands Solomon in heaven is the fact that the wisdom he chose was that which was helpful not so much to himself, but to his people. It is a wisdom that came from God (again, another reason for its peerless quality) to be used not for the aggrandizement of the recipient, but the well-being of the governed. Perhaps this is here, because this (good government) was a particular concern of the D-man himself.

The final verses of this Canto brings us around to the heart of the theme here: why do we want to be “wise”? “Knowing”? One word: ego.

People make judgments because they want to be right. Not only that, but we think we are right. We think we can see things as we are. This brings us back full circle to the beginning of the Canto: listen, people: I learned in heaven that you can’t see things as they really are. We have to make do with “hints and guesses” (ala T.S.);  we have this crude paint-by-numbers set called language with which to fill in an approximate picture.

But we act like we can see it right. I can see the thing itself. I can see what’s right. Because I’m me.

People not only judge, but judge too quickly, under the illusion that we see things exactly as they are:

Opinions too soon formed often deflect
man’s thinking from the truth into gross error
in which his pride then binds his intellect. (XIII.118-120)

I once attended a Buddhist retreat in which the lesson (which was rather profound and subtle) really boiled down to what you can put on a bumper sticker: don’t believe what you think. We would do so well if we realized our judgements about the world are just that – our own personal human filter with which to process the world, a set of useful projections and guesses, not the world itself. Just realizing that is a huge bit of wisdom in itself.

So – don’t judge “lest you be judged.” And moreover, don’t judge to quickly. The thief may be a saint, and the non-profit exec may be a pervert. We can’t know. But inasmuch as we need to make judgments, we should rely on that kind of wisdom that comes to us, not from us: the kind that was given to Solomon. The kind that helps other people – the light of reason and wisdom that comes ultimately from God.

Right? Right.

About jeffvamos

Presbyterian Pastor. Dante Fan. See also my other blog, The Electronic Meetinghouse, at: View all posts by jeffvamos

One response to “Paradiso Canto 13: The Judgment of Judging

  • bobsinner

    Thanks, Jeff.

    This has always been a problem for me.

    It reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” and the dangers as well as the possible value of snap judgments.

    Aren’t all our judgments “snap judgments” in the grand scheme of things?

    Not to be paralyzed, but to be slow to judge others (and one’s self).

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