In Dante’s Paradiso the Poet is transported to a heavenly realm resembling a vast eagle

In Dante’s Paradiso the Poet is transported to a heavenly realm resembling a vast eagle, in whose eye he sees standing Moses and other prophets. A doubt occurs to him, as it has occurred before in different forms.

A man is born on Indus banks, And none is there that speaks of Christ Nor reads of Him nor writes. And all his inclinations and his acts As far as human reason sees are good. And he offendeth not in word or deed. Where is the justice that condemns him? Where is his blame, if he believeth not?

Moses meets this with what may be called hand-waving arguments, brushing aside the objection as proceeding from narrowness of vision and of faith. However, the assumptions behind both question and answer, in fact the whole imagined situation, show narrowness of vision.

There is a humorous but telling example of the same thing. A little girl of four tells her father that she is doing arithmetic at school. To encourage her, father picks up some apples. ‘Look!’ he says, ‘I’m holding three apples in this hand, and I’m holding two apples in that hand. So how many apples have I got?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘What! you’re doing arithmetic, aren’t you? Now, I’ve got three apples here, and two apples there. Now dear, how many apples is that?’ ‘I don’t know, Daddy. If it was oranges, it would be five.’ She knows the particular case, but does not yet grasp the principle. It may not be too far-fetched to compare this to the case imagined by Dante.

That man is saintly in thought and deed. If he had been born in Italy he would have heard of Christ and would have been assured a place in Paradise. But because he was born in India, where he would have worshipped an Indian form of God, the equation does not add up. It works for those born near the Tiber (oranges so to say), but not for those born by the Indus (apples). There has been a narrowing to a particular case, and the principle is not grasped.

Continued

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© Trevor Leggett

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