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Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. Stephen Smith On Dante’s Paradiso

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HH: And I am sure that the Reagan Library is not a strange place to Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, or his colleague, Dr. Stephen Smith, who join me at this hour as they have for the last three weeks in order to do the hour of Hillsdale, the Hillsdale Dialogue. Dr. Arnn, Dr. Smith, welcome, good to talk to you both.
LA: How you doing, Hugh?

HH: I’m great. Dr. Smith, have you been to the Reagan Library?

SS: I never have.

HH: You’ve never been here? Well, you’ve got to get Dr. Arnn to dispatch you and all your Dante students out here, because it’s an inspiring, inspiring view. And Dr. Arnn, I know you’ve been here many times.

LA: Many times, and I adore, I even think the Reagan Library is like Reagan. It’s sort of his way. And you know, somewhere in a prominent place there, you can walk around and see a bust of Winston Churchill that I personally handed to him years ago.

HH: Oh, I didn’t know…now I will go looking for that.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Right now, I’m literally under Air Force One staring at this expansive California beauty which is in the main hallroom. There’s a little bit a slapback, and it brings to mind this is sort of Heaven on Earth. But we’re going to be talking today about getting off of Earth and into Heaven. How’s that for a transition, Dr. Smith?

SS: Wonderful.

HH: Isn’t that a amazing…

LA: Well done.

HH: You’d think I planned this out. But I want people to understand that the Hillsdale Dialogues, they’re all available online at For the last four hours, three weeks, we have been talking about Dante and the Divine Comedy. And this is our last hour, because Dante is getting off of Earth, and he’s getting into Heaven. Can you set up where he is right now as we begin Part 3 and where he is headed?

SS: Sure. You’ll remember he went down in Hell, gained self-knowledge through that descent, ascended the seven story mountain of Purgatorio, experienced kind of moral conversion at the top. And when we begin Paradiso, he is arriving in Heaven for the first time, and the heaven of the Moon, actually.

HH: And the heaven of the Moon, that calls for a quick explanation of the various spheres of Heaven.

SS: Yeah, you know, the Inferno has its nine circles, Purgatorio has its seven story mountain, and Paradiso features ten levels of Heaven, beginning with the Moon, and then going Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the fixed stars, Primum Mobile, and finally, the Empyrean, where all the souls that are blessed are gathered together with God.

HH: Now Duane always types these up at the end. All of the transcripts from all the Hillsdale Dialogues are there, but those last two are going to require that he consult the translation, I’m sure. Dr. Arnn, there’s a movie as we taped this for its first time on May 1st, 2014, there’s a movie in theaters called Heaven Is For Real, and it’s doing quite well, and lots of people are going to see it. Dante had as an advantage, didn’t he, that most of the people he was writing for actually did believe in Heaven.

LA: Yeah, he did. And you know, I have read that book, by the way. It’s a very interesting book, and I’ll bet the movie is great. And yeah, people, you know, you have to, for the world, that is to say fancy people, important people, aristocratic people, every kind of people, the entities and beings and teachings of Christianity were very central to their lives, and had been for a long time. And so this account, you know, which is this tremendous feat of imagination about Hell and Purgatory and Heaven, it gave one of the most vivid pictures ever written into a world that was already thinking about these things.

HH: Already thinking about these things, and certain of their existence, right, Dr. Smith? There really wasn’t a Christopher Hitchens-Richard Dawkins corner that was well-populated, or at least vocally presented.

SS: No, though certain figures in the Inferno are linked to atheism. But yeah, this poem is shot through and through with the Christian understanding of reality. You know, with Paradiso, it’s a hard poem. It’s definitely the hardest of the three parts. T.S. Eliot said it’s either completely unintelligible or utterly exciting, depending on your dispositions. And it starts in a funny way. Dante actually tells the reader you who are following me in your little boat, you have a choice. Turn back now. Go back to the shore if you don’t think you can keep up with me in Paradiso. Now of course if you keep reading and you do keep up with him, you hear a little while later if you press on and stay at your seat, dear reader, and dwell on these small bits that whet your appetite, you’ll see that I’ve set a table for you. Take and eat.

HH: So why do you say it’s harder than the first two? They were not easy. They were entertaining, and certainly people’s vivid imagery of Hell is impressed on the popular culture. By why is Paradiso so much harder?

SS: Well, you know, in Purgatorio, for example, he’s working with a mountain kind of reality that we all can relate to and have seen. Paradiso, his imagery is drawn mainly from light, from fire. It has a whole different feel to it. And it’s simply more mystical as a poem. You know, how do you get from heaven to heaven as Dante ascends? Well, he says you simply do. It’s sort of a mystical ascent. So it strikes readers differently.

LA: Isn’t, let me, may I ask a question, Hugh?

HH: Please, please.

LA: Is it true that none of us has seen Hell?

SS: Well…

LA: Whereas we’ve all seen a mountain. But Hell might be more like Earth, right? It might be more earthly in some way, whereas there’s some transcendence going on.

SS: Yeah, Hell is literally a city, and earthly city that’s divided against itself.

LA: Yeah.

SS: And Purgatorio is putting the community back together, and then Paradiso is the mystical community.

HH: But now was he in trouble, because sort of the Catholic traditional understanding is not levels of Heaven. Some protestants understand there to be various rooms in the mansion, various levels of Heaven, but the Catholic tradition in which he’s writing, is this at all heretical?

SS: No. Actually, this is a really important, that’s a great question, because it comes up in Canto 4 at the beginning of the poem. Dante’s confused by this, too. He asks, you know, what’s the deal? Are there levels up here? And what he’s told is this. All the souls you see, Dante, lend their beauty to the highest ring and live the sweet life there, each one more or less. They show themselves to you in this way because of your native powers. So Paradiso, actually, is kind of tricky. There really isn’t a heaven of the Moon. Dante is experiencing Paradiso level by level because of his limitations. Everyone is actually in the top level, the Empyrean with God, with one another, forever.

HH: Well now, that is tricky. And I want to make sure I understood it, so I’m going to ask Dr. Arnn to translate that. How did you understand that to come out, Dr. Arnn?

LA: I don’t know. Explain that again, Steve. I was following, but I didn’t get it.

HH: Because I am confused.

SS: Well, so Dante is experiencing Paradiso level by level. But he’s told in Canto 4, there really aren’t levels. Heaven is greeting your native powers in this way, in a way you can understand, kind of astronomically. But really, what you find out at the end of the poem is that Heaven is the top level, and everyone is really there. So Paradiso is kind of a condescension to Dante’s limited powers.

LA: Oh, so I can help.

SS: Yeah.

LA: So here’s why C.S. Lewis is so great.

HH: Yeah, I thought of the same thing. Go ahead.

LA: He explains so many things, because he has a great mind and a plain ability to speak, as Steve does, by the way. So Ransom goes to Mars in Out Of The Silent Planet, and at one point, they have a conversation with an angel up there, the angel of Mars, he’s called, Oyarsa, and the angel has to adjust his appearance so that the earthlings who are there, and there are three, two evil and one good, can see him. And he has to adjust the way he speaks so that he can be audible. And in general, because divine beings move, actually, first of all, they don’t have motion, really, and they don’t have matter. So there are mysteries here that you have to try to figure out. So they have to change themselves so that we can perceive them. And that means that these stages that Dante is going through are actually progressions in his own soul as his capacities grow so he can see more and higher things as he goes. They do not have to degrade themselves as much as he improves.

HH: Now see, that is both elegantly and beautifully put, as did Dr. Smith do it. Now it makes a lot more sense. We’ll talk about Dante ascends and how the various spheres of Paradiso are calibrated to his capacity when we come back.

— – – – –

HH: Is it 33 cantos or 34 cantos, Dr. Smith?

SS: 33.

HH: 33, the first word of which is Gloria. Now why start with that word? As you put in your notes to me, wasn’t glory and the search for it part of the problem with the people down below?

SS: Yeah, it turns out glory is one of the key words to the whole poem. Everyone in Hell was seeking a kind of glory. But what’s surprising is when you get to Paradiso, glory returns and is the most positive word in the poem. You can think of it two ways. If you’re interested in this subject, you should really read C.S. Lewis’ The Weight Of Glory. It’s one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read on the subject. In the first sense, speaking of the glory of Heaven, this is what Lewis writes. He says when I began to look into the matter of glory, I was shocked to find such different Christians as Milton and Thomas Aquinas taking glory, Heavenly, to be quite frankly fame or good rapport, not fame conferred by our fellow creatures, but fame with God or approval by God. When I thought this over, I saw the view was in fact Scriptural, for nothing can eliminate from the terrible the Divine accolade Well done, you good and faithful servant. So all the souls have the kind of glory or a fame with God, honor with God in Paradiso. But the other way that Dante uses that word is connected to reality. The psalmist wrote, “The whole world is full of the glory of God.” And so much of the Divine Comedy is a challenge to our sense of reality, to how we see, and what we see when we see reality. So Dante presents the poem as a comprehensive meditation on the way God’s glory shines in the world, the way it penetrates all things in this way and that. And the poem is really encouraging us to look again at reality and see if we can understand what the psalmist is talking about when he says the full world is full of the glory of God.

HH: That is a remarkable essay. It’s my favorite Lewis essay, and I quote from memory, so I’ll misquote here. You have never met an ordinary human being. Everyone is an eternal horror or an everlasting splendor. And it goes on to talk about ages and epochs and all that stuff passes away, but glory of the individual endures forever. And it’s remarkable as well when Dr. Arnn brought up C.S. Lewis and the Space Trilogy, I was thinking of something completely…I was thinking of the last book in the children’s book, higher up, higher in is at the end of the Narnia Chronicles, that you just keep going higher up and higher in. But eventually, Dr. Smith, you end up at the highest level in the Paradiso. And what is that like? We’ll come back and do the other circles, the other spheres. What’s that highest level like?

SS: It’s called, quite simply, the Feast of Paradise. And it takes the form, very famously, of a celestial rose. It’s, in a way, it’s imagined almost like a stadium, but it’s a flower with all the souls in rings surrounding it. And in fact, in one of the funny details, if you have listeners from Texas, is that finally, Paradiso is actually a yellow rose. So as we like to joke in class, God must be a Texan.

HH: You see, we don’t want to actually encourage that tendency among Texans, Dr. Smith. That’s a bad thing. Dr. Arnn, it interests me, you are about the project of building a chapel, perhaps, at Hillsdale College. And when you sit down to design a chapel you have to evoke things beautiful, magnificent, eternal and glorious about which are supposed to put people in the mind of God. But when you get a piece of work like this, don’t you think it’s almost impossible?

LA: Well, that’s, so we have a chapel designer, a man named Duncan Stroik from Notre Dame, and we, yesterday we were given a challenge gift for half the chapel, by the way. So if someone wants to help us with a chapel, they can write.

HH: Oh, that is terrific.

LA: Yeah.

HH: But don’t build just half.

LA: Yeah, well, you can’t build just half. And there are two things that they mentioned that come in, that are evoked in this tremendous poem. One is transcendence. So a chapel has to have a tall and rounded ceiling to look up to Heaven and give some image in the shape of the arch or the circle, which are perfect shapes, of Heaven. And the second thing is directionality. A chapel points somewhere toward an altar at the front. And so those images, you see, they reproduce a lot of what goes on in this poem. And I want to say something about its mystical character, because, and this is also copied from C.S. Lewis, and why not. On the one hand, it all sounds kind of vague, doesn’t it? But on the other hand, it satisfies a need that we’re all, we all know we have. When we see something beautiful, we love it. Almost everything we see in physical nature has some failing in its beauty. It isn’t quite perfect. I mean, have you seen Yosemite? It’s tremendous, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: And then you see something that looks ordinary in it. And that leads the mind to imagine what if the whole thing were really perfected?

HH: Right, and yesterday, there was a story which I covered that the David, that they’re afraid his ankles are weak after 600 years. And I thought those would be the strongest weak ankles that have ever been. But there is an imperfection even in that which I think is the most perfect work of art anywhere on the planet. Interesting, Dr. Smith, that you called out that the most famous line in the poem, in His will is our peace. I would imagine a chapel is supposed to achieve that as well, architecturally.

SS: Yeah, and that occurs early on, and one of the most quoted lines. Again, in His will is our peace. So yeah, a chapel, an oratory, should be a place of peace and aspiration, a peace of soul. And you know, that line, in His will is our peace, you can look back at the earlier parts of the poem and realize how important it is. Inferno rejects entirely that position. It rejects Thy will be done. Purgatorio, they’re working on it. And then of course in Paradiso, it’s identified as the key to happiness in Paradiso, the free affirmation of the Divine will.

HH: Doesn’t it also go back to Augustine and to Confessions?

SS: Oh, most certainly.

HH: And I was restless, and I can’t remember the line. Maybe you remember the line. I was restless until my will rested in Thee. Isn’t that the line?

SS: Yeah, our heart is restless until it rests in Thee. And yes, you know, that paradox that the highest act of freedom is to say yes to the Divine will.

HH: When we come back from break, we’re going to talk about the description in Dante’s Paradiso of Christ’s salvific act. But before we do, that challenge grant, Dr. Arnn, they just call you up if they want to build half a chapel?

LA: That’s right. They do. All they’ve got to do.

HH: All they’ve got to do is go to, look around for the president’s office, and call up and say you would like to be part, because I’ll bet you that’s going to be a beautiful chapel.

LA: It’s staggering how lovely it is.

HH: Have you already got drawings and things like that?

LA: Oh, yeah, it’s completely designed. And it looks like Central Hall, which is in the Italianate Renaissance, which is a development on the federal architecture. And it’s going to make the campus look more beautiful than it looks. It’s just tremendous.

HH: And within it, the iconography? What will that be?

LA: Well, it points toward an altar at the front, and it seats 1,600 people, and it’s got side and rear balconies, and it’s gorgeous.

HH: I hope someone is inspired to go to and say I’ll meet that challenge, Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – – – –

HH: And with two segments left, we haven’t gotten to the description of Christ’s offering, Dr. Smith. So why is that so beautiful?

SS: Well, you know, for Dante, that act, and the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, that’s the center of history. And here’s how it’s described in Canto 7. He calls it the art of God, and then says this. “Unto the Earth’s final night, from the Earth’s first day, no deed so great nor lofty has been done by justice or mercy, nor ever shall be. For when God gave Himself, enabling man to rise again, the gift was all the more great than had He pardoned alone.” So for Dante, he’s fascinated by when God gave Himself. And that’s really the key to not only his understanding of Christ, but to his understanding of the human person. That’s what we’re for is to give ourselves in a profound way like Christ did.

HH: Yeah, it’s the most difficult part of the Nicene Creed – He descended into Hell. It’s always amazed theologians for years, and Luther was once known to remark, God forsaking God. How could that be? And so it is not something strange to stand there and be astonished if you’re the greatest poet of the age, or of many ages, and to reflect on that for a long period of time. How do your students like it?

SS: Oh, oh, they love it. I mean, you know, the thing about Paradiso is, as mentioned, it’s a difficult poem, tough experience sometimes. But if you approach the poem in those small daily portions and take your time, it’s really not so bad. You just have to get used to it.

LA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: Go ahead, Dr. Arnn. You’re encouraging people in the small parts so your students can knock off early tonight?

LA: Yeah, it’s Friday and you know, it’s finals right now, so every, all the students at Hillsdale College look a little bit like vampires right now. Yeah, the thing about it is imagine attempting a description of the perfect being and the perfect place for which it is claimed you are meant and can only find your rest there. So let’s say somebody gave you an essay assignment. Go write something like that. Well, this is the greatest thing like that ever written. And you have to get used to it a little bit, but it comes along.

HH: Now I also want to talk about, very briefly, the spheres, so that people will not be confused. Are the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the thick stars, the place of the angels, and then the center of all centers, the place where God resides. But along the way, again, he’s just running into people, and including Aquinas and Bonaventure. Why these two? Why is that central in your teaching of the poem, Dr. Smith?

SS: Well, these are, this is in the Heaven of the Sun, Heaven of the theologians. It’s kind of funny. Thomas Aquinas is actually called Toma, Tommy, by Bonaventure. I love that detail. That’s how he’s called in Heaven. You don’t call him Thomas, St. Thomas. It’s Tommy. It’s a family place.

HH: Now why does that delight Larry? I’m asking this of Professor Smith. Why do you think that delights Larry Arnn? It delights me as well, but why do you think that is?

SS: Well, because I think it’s funny, and I think Dr. Arnn has a good sense of humor. And it’s also, it’s…

LA: The point is…

SS: It’s affection. It’s child-like, you know?

HH: It’s affectionate, exactly.

SS: Yeah.

LA: If you met the author of the Summa Theologica, would it occur to you to call him Tommy?

HH: To call him Tommy. No, that is a thing of, that is a great bit of genius of which I was unaware. And of course, the confidence with which you write to do such a thing is…

SS: Well, he even has Thomas dancing, too, which is a little bit of a stretch for many readers.

HH: Oh, my gosh. Okay, so that’s, they get there, and what do those two tell them?

SS: Well, this is a crucial part of the whole poem, because Thomas is a Dominican, and he’s going to tell the story of St. Francis. Then Bonaventure, who’s a Franciscan, is going to tell the story of St. Dominic. And the point here is that in Paradiso, you hear stories of saints for the first time. That is, you know, stories of souls that live the Christian vocation heroically, and really live that, in His will is our peace. If you think back to the Inferno, all the stories were very self-centered and tragic. And then Purgatorio was kind of the in process poem. But now, you know, the real stories are the stories of holy men and women.

HH: What do we learn about martyrdom from this poem, if anything? Oh, I guess, hold that thought. After the break, we’ll come back with Dr. Stephen Smith, Dr. Larry Arnn, faculty member and president respectively of Hillsdale College.

— – – –

HH: I asked you right before the break, Dr. Smith, what does the last part of the Divine Comedy teach us about martyrdom, if anything?

SS: Well, there certainly are martyrs in the Heaven of Mars, and one of Dante’s own relatives. But I like to think of it this way. You know, martyr means witness. And so the poem has a kind of comprehensive teaching on witness. Every person witnesses to something for good or ill in their lives, and for Dante Alighieri, who was not a red martyr, he didn’t die for the faith, you can nevertheless look at him as a witness to something through this poem. And I think finally, he’s a witness to God, and then after that, to poetry. So it comes up for sure in the poem.

HH: And your students are very happy, especially at this exam period, that he is himself examined by Saints Peter, James and John.

SS: Yeah, students often cheer. You know, Dante is, one of the funny things about Dante is he’s so smart, and he’s also so ordinary. He’s like people you’ve met. And so he’s got a high deal of the smarty pants in him. And so when he has to face down St. Peter, St. James and St. John on faith, hope and love, students tend to cheer. They like to see him sweat a little bit.

HH: But he makes it through his examination.

SS: Yeah, he really does well, got to give him some credit. In fact, during the examination on hope, St. James tells, says of Dante, the Church has no greater son of hope than this guy. And I really like that title for Dante.

HH: It’s a great poem of hope. And what do you mean by that? That everyone can get to where he has almost gotten to.

SS: Yeah, I mean, remember where he started? He started lost in the dark wood on the point of death, no knowledge of himself, no idea how he got there, and this is the same guy who’s now hearing holy poetry, experiencing Paradiso, and ascending with confidence to God.

HH: And he gets there in the company not of Beatrice, who started the trek with him into paradise, but somebody else.

SS: Yeah, when he reaches the top, you know, one of the big surprises at the end of the poem, this is a spoiler alert, I guess, is that Beatrice is replaced by Bernard of Clairvaux, a small, older man. And Dante’s a little bit disappointed by this, you know, when he gets to the top. But it turns out Bernard of Clairvaux is a saint Dante loved very much. He wrote a great commentary in the Song of Songs, and he had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. And Bernard will tell Dante if you want to go the rest of the way, you have to ask the mother of God for help. And he describes Mary very famously as having the face that is most like his, the face that is most like Christ.

HH: And so how does it end?

SS: Well, I supposed it’s spoiler alert day.

HH: Now, well you know, that’s such a modern term. We’ve got to get people to go read it at length, of course, but how does it end?

SS: He find out what Rosebud means.

HH: (laughing)

SS: No, he will pray with Bernard, and then the poem actually ends with a sequence of visions. He sees the universe as a great book bound together by love, first, has a kind of total vision. And then he will see these three rings of fire in a sort of motion. And looking at one of the rings, he begins to see something like the figure of a man. And this absorbs his attention utterly. And this, of course, is Christ. And the poem is going to end with Dante’s attempt to see into that circle and to see Christ at last, face to face. A couple of great lines at the end, before we get to the very end, he says you know, I’m writing this so that the world can see clearer Your victory. So part of the Divine Comedy, and it’s very important, is who’s poem is it at the end? Is it Dante’s poem? Is it God’s poem? And he calls the end of it the victory of God over Dante Alighieri. He also says compared to what I’m seeing, my words are like a baby at his mother’s breast. So in a way, the sound of the last canto is actually a child who can’t speak, making noise, inarticulate noise at his mother’s breast. He says how feeble, how small language is as he approaches that final vision.

HH: Wow. Yeah, sign me up.

SS: It really, it’s really beautiful. Canto 33 is about as good as it gets.

HH: Larry Arnn has tricked me into coming to Hillsdale in January of next year, and that is a total trick. But will you be doing anything on Dante when I’m there?

SS: Well, we could have lunch.

HH: Well I know, but I would actually like to see students taught this. What are they like at the end of your course? I mean, are they just sitting there enrapt in contemplation?

SS: Well…

LA: You know what we might do?

SS: Well, I’ll tell you this, Hugh. When you get, when you’ve been doing this for three months, and you get to Canto 100 at last, it’s about as exciting as it gets in a classroom.

LA: So I’ll tell you what. I’ll make you an offer. I’m just the president around here. So we will get some of Steve’s students, and I will host a lunch, and we were talk about Canto 33 for lunch while you’re here.

HH: I would find that wonderful, just to see how it impacts them. As we said last week, Rod Dreher wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal on how Dante is the ultimate self-help book. And I don’t know that anyone actually who read that piece would know why. But if they listened to the four hours with Dr. Smith, and you, Dr. Arnn, they’d have an intimation, not perhaps an understanding of why, but at least a glimpse of why.

SS: Yeah, I mean, the thing is, again, think of the progression from the dark wood to Canto 33. You know, and the reality is Dante understands that whole motion as how a man becomes a friend of God. And finally, at the end, you know, what’s happening as he glimpses Christ is the completion of that progress and that growth and friendship. You know, it’s funny, the last, one of the last similes in the poem describes Dante trying to look at Christ, trying to see as a geometer struggling to do all he can to square the circle but failing. And the last image, and Dante’s got that geometry in him. Think of how to structure the poem and everything.

HH: Did any of his great contemporaries see this and instantly recognize they’ve been dwarfed?

SS: Yeah, I mean, Dante’s fame was pretty quick and pretty extraordinary. I mean, this is an astonishing performance, once in a millennium.

HH: What did he follow up with?

SS: Death.

HH: Yeah, that was it. Did he just stop then?

SS: Yeah, well, he, you know, he simply, he didn’t write anything after that.

HH: That’s remarkable.

SS: The rest is silence, as Hamlet said.

HH: Ah, oh, what a nice transition, but we’re not going that far next week. We’re just going into the Renaissance. Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, Dr. Stephen Smith, a colleague of his, thanks to you both. It’s been a great epic tour of Dante. All of this and more available at, all the Hillsdale Dialogues there, and you can also find all of the free online material at and be part of that chapel challenge.

End of interview.


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