Book Review: Paradise by Dante Alighieri

Many modern readers of the Divine Comedy arrive at the false conclusion that the Paradiso is the book of the Divine Comedyinto which Dante put the least effort and for which he had the least passion. It is common in literature courses today to read only the Inferno and ignore the Purgatorio and the Paradisoaltogether. It has commonly been described as too medieval, too pious, and not of the same quality as the other two books. To the modern reader, it appears especially weak when compared with the Inferno.

Ultimately, however, all of this entirely misses the point of Dante’s Divine Comedy, namely that he saw the entire drama of the cosmos as a comedy, a story with a happy ending. In the case of the cosmic drama, the story has not only a happy ending, but one of immeasurable joy and glory. In this sense, without theParadiso the Inferno is a tour through nihilism and thePurgatorio nothing more than an updated version of the myth of Sisyphus, and, contrary to Camus’s absurd contention, Sisyphus is indeed not happy. The Paradiso completes theDivine Comedy and is, in fact, the most essential of the three books.

The Paradiso is only frequently seen as “too medieval” because modern man has forgotten the source and center of his own being is a Being. In the Paradiso Dante at least departs from the existential human condition and travels toward the meaning and fulfillment of human existence in the Trinitarian God who is Love. This completion of Dante’s journey allows him at last to find the answers to his many questions about life, justice, reason, and faith. The modern mind might rebel against this finality, against wisdom itself, but it is nonetheless the destination for which he was created, and Dante knows this. Perhaps it is this which makes the modern mind so uncomfortable with the Paradiso.

This translation and commentary are the best available in the English language. Anthony Esolen, a Catholic himself, takes Dante quite seriously and allows Dante to speak freely and fully, without contradicting, interrupting, or undermining him. The notes throughout the length of the entire book provide a depth of insight I have not yet seen in any commentary on theParadiso. The introduction is also a valuable gateway into understanding Dante, the story of the Divine Comedy, and the mind of the man of faith.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a guide through everything that matters told in the form of an enthralling story wrapped up in moving poetry. I recommend this book to everyone who can read and everyone who can’t.

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