Skip to main content

The fullness of human community that Dante depicts in the final third of his Divine Comedy becomes more imaginable and compelling if we can see its playfulness and can, in turn, show the importance of play in our present communities, especially communities of learning. With help from James P. Carse’s distinction between finite and infinite games as well as Barry Johnson’s “Polarity Approach for Continuity and Transformation,” this article suggests how students of Dante can make connections to their own experience of community. Curtis Gruenler is Professor of English at Hope College and editor of the Bulletin of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion.

There is perhaps no more powerful guide to the fullness of community humans are made for than Dante’s Paradiso—if we can rise to its imaginative challenges. His serious consideration of human destiny leads to a vision of community that is supremely playful, but it requires us to learn to play the poem’s demanding games. I have found that students can begin to enter into Dante’s vision through their own experience of well-functioning teams, especially sports teams, and through the idea of polarities, especially as developed in the polarity management approach pioneered by Barry Johnson. The prizes include a better understanding of both community and play, applicable not least to the goals of a Christian college.

Dante does not have much of a reputation for playfulness. Portraits make him look rather dour. It does not help that the first part of his Divine Comedy, the Inferno, is by far the best known and most taught, too often without the following two canticles. What kind of impression can a poet make who dares not just to condemn real people to hell but to sort them into levels according to their besetting sins and imagine a spectacular suffering for each? Yet one cannot really understand Inferno until one gets to the next stage of the journey, Purgatorio. Indeed, this difficulty is the first part of Dante’s game. Readers of Inferno share the darkness of the souls stuck there, entertained as we are likely to be by the violence and deception that give it such narrative interest. It takes close attention to see that the sufferings are manifestations of what each sin does to these souls, and to pick up on the clues that allow us to see past their self-understanding, dimmed by unwillingness to take responsibility for their sin and ask for mercy.

Light dawns, however, in Purgatory, a mountain where the saved who are not yet fit for Paradise purge the effects of their sin as they climb. The narrator and his guide, the soul of the Roman poet Virgil, meet notorious sinners who merely prayed for mercy with their dying breath. Further, it becomes clear that part of the condition of hell is its excessive individualism; little attention is directed there to sin’s damage to anyone but the sinners. Part of purgatorial recovery, on the other hand, is learning the full, relational effects of sin and entering into relationships of help, even though the focus remains on each soul’s own story. This happens through a strenuous practice for the sports of paradise in which the souls on the journey repeat the moves that will give them the understanding and habits they need for the effortless freedom to come. But for the narrator, as well as for readers, climbing the mountain will already be “like play” compared to the road through hell, as Virgil says looking up from the mountain’s base.1

Playfulness emerges fully in Paradiso, even as—and in fact because—Dante remains seriously ambitious in attempting to envision what far exceeds earthly ability, understanding, and even language. Throughout the Comedy, the vivid sense of reality the poem projects pulls against the impossibility of knowing if its vision is real in any absolute sense. The attempt to imagine a heavenly fulfillment far beyond our current capacities, while recognizing how speculative such an attempt must be, leads Dante to intensify what translator Robin Kirkpatrick calls his “language game”: “Dante’s words are confessedly dissevered from any absolute connection with the truth. Nonetheless, they display the full range of possibilities of human language, and are capable also of drawing others, in their appreciation of Dante’s linguistic games, to enter into a similar exercise of their God-given talents.”2 Paradiso features, for instance, a high frequency of invented words. One of his first neologisms, “trasumanar” (1.70, “transhumanize”), describes a process of going beyond the human while still remaining human, which the narrator is undergoing and the poet is imitating, even as the poem invites readers to join in playing with the constraints of language, the most human of abilities, in order to express what is inexpressible.

My own lack of Italian limits my ability to play Dante’s language games, and there are many other challenges, especially for students in the general education course where I teach the Divine Comedy, that make it difficult to play along. Though we spend two-thirds of a semester studying history, literature, and philosophy selected to prepare us to read Dante, we are barely ready for the elevated conversations on a vast range of subjects between the pilgrim narrator and the souls who appear to him as he ascends, now guided by Beatrice, through the astronomical spheres to where they all enjoy the immediate presence of God. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the limits of our own imaginations, unable to conceive of life beyond every shadow of sin or violence. Opening up this difficulty, making a game of it by allowing us to try to follow the narrator as he “levels up,” at once gives a taste of what lies beyond and stretches our capacity to pursue it.

The Paradiso especially invites us to imagine the relational potential of play, which is also, perhaps, the aspect of his vision of heaven most accessible to our experience. Giuseppe Mazzotta, who concludes his book Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge with the most thorough exploration of play in Dante, argues that Dante conceives of God’s activity in creation as play and represents the angels as playing games because that is the best way for us to envision the participation in God for which humanity too is made. Mazzotta’s overall argument emphasizes the intellectual aspect of play in Dante’s vision. The encyclopedic reach of the poem sets up a sort of game in which the various realms and disciplines of human knowledge are, as it were, the players. Dante orchestrates a symphony (to switch metaphors) that shows the insufficiency and interdependence of each, including theology. It’s a hard piece, or game, to play, but one that promises great returns for intellectual community, as we shall see. This grand game is built, I would add, on many other aspects of fulfilled relationality that are more familiar and have been well treated in Paradiso scholarship but have not, to my knowledge, been gathered under the topic of play. Games, and the general mode of life we call play, give us a primary taste of growing endlessly into who we are as individuals by being in harmonious communion with others—of becoming most ourselves while being carried beyond ourselves.

One clue to this larger significance of play comes from the games with numbers that also pervade Dante’s poem. Mazzotta has pointed out that metaphors of play cluster in cantos 15 and 16 of all three parts.3 In canto 15 of the Inferno, Brunetto Latini, Dante’s former teacher whose suffering in the barren sands of deviant sexuality also signifies his fruitless desire for eternity through literary fame, is compared to a runner in a famous annual race held in Verona. Both foot and horse races, as well as other games more distinctive to each city, were becoming a major part of civic celebrations in Northern Italy during this era.4 In Paradiso 16, Dante’s ancestor Cacciaguida mentions the horse race, palio, held in Florence on the feast day of its patron saint, John the Baptist. In Purgatorio 16, by contrast, Marco Lombardo’s important speech explaining the reality of free will uses a very different image than a runner in a civic race for the soul created in freedom: the innocent, aimless play of a little child. Purgatorio 15 had begun with a description of the sun moving across the sky as playing like a child. In both cases, according to Mazzotta, this “harmonious playfulness binding the Creator to his creatures is a miniature representation of what is called theologia ludens, the view of God as a playmaker waiting for the soul to return home to play.”5 Further, these two references to child’s play bracket a contrast Dante makes in Purgatorio 15 between desire for finite things, root of envy and other sins, and desire for the infinite, ineffable Good: “The more there are who fix their minds up there, / the more good love there is—and more to love— / and each (as might a mirror) gives to each.”6 This play of endless, loving exchange, rather than a race with a winner, is the freedom those on their way up the mountain are being fitted for, and what Paradiso fleshes out.

Heaven as Infinite Game

Dante’s explicit references to play and games imply an overall contrast between finite and infinite play. In his book Finite and Infinite Games, James P. Carse explores a similar distinction that helps show how what Dante envisions in the next world can illuminate our experience of this one. Carse writes, “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”7 Dante, like Carse, extends this distinction to all of life, but he does so by projecting it to where it will have become absolute in the purely finite games of hell and the purely infinite games of paradise. Near the end of Paradiso, the poem suggests how the difference between a small child playing simply to play and citizens racing for a prize can expand to the widest possible scale. Before passing beyond time and space, the narrator sees the participation of the cosmos in God to be mediated by the angelic orders, whose activity is finally called “Angelica ludi,” “Angelic games.”8 This vision of the universe itself as playing is bracketed, however, by speeches exposing major earthly failures to play this infinite game. St. Peter, in canto 27, condemns the church’s corruption by desire for finite things like money and influence. Beatrice, in canto 29, criticizes scholars for being “swept / along by show and love of showy thoughts” (29.86-7). Finite goals have turned even learning and the church itself, which should be about playing infinite games of knowledge and love, into finite games played to win prestige and power. The Inferno shows the ultimate, sterile, isolating results of bending potentially infinite games to strictly finite goals. But the narrator witnesses in Paradiso how even finite games, involving status, strength, or authority, can be played as part of the infinite game that culminates in eternity.

To say that Dante’s vision of heaven is playful, then, is not to take a view of play as referring just to activities set apart from serious life. Rather, this view anticipates Carse in seeing play as everything we do freely.9 It takes this sense of freedom from our experience of games—where we are most aware of choosing to play with certain others, within certain boundaries, under certain rules, and for certain goals—and extends it to all of human life. No doubt many finite games do not feel like games at all. At an extreme, such as “severe political oppression, the refusal to play the demanded role may be paid for with terrible suffering or death.”10 Yet, as the prisoner in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy learns from Lady Philosophy, constraint of options does not eliminate all choice, and spiritual freedom—to contemplate the providential order, to pray, to act virtuously—remains infinite. Indeed, approaching the most severe injustice and suffering as part of an infinite game is a way of retaining one’s humanity.

Carse focuses on the individual experience of play, how an infinite player will see things differently than a finite player. Finite players, for instance, have a more serious attitude than infinite players: “To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.” Yet Carse also gives attention to the relational dimension of play: “To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence.”11 Boethius’s vision of cosmic order is a conceptual way, rather like modern ecology or systems thinking, of beginning to imagine the consequence of everything that happens. St. Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 is more relational in its sense of the interdependence of functions and gifts despite perceptions of their relative status. Dante draws on both cosmic and interpersonal visions of order and thus animates them—puts them in play. The Paradiso attends to both the individual and the relational, but coming to it from a modern, individualistic mentality, we stand to gain most from its vision of communion, of the body of Christ infinitely at play.

Playfulness in the Paradiso works with tensions that our finitude makes unresolvable and often conflictual: between unity and difference, hierarchy and equality, obedience and freedom, authority and individuality, justice and mercy. The poem begins to draw attention to them in the first stage of the narrator’s ascent, the sphere of the moon, where he and Beatrice discuss why it has light and dark spots. This topic seems trivial at first (though it was a considerable puzzle for medieval astronomy), but it leads to a discussion that goes right to the heart of what still makes community difficult. The whole conversation in canto 2 should be read, Kirkpatrick recommends, “in a spirit of comedy” and with “the pleasure that arises from entering into the intellectual game that Dante invites his reader to play.”12 First the narrator opines, scientifically, that the dark spots are less dense and thus less reflective. Then Beatrice leads him, as if on a path of discovery from physics to metaphysics, from matter to meaning, step by step to the conclusion that the difference cannot be quantitative, a matter of relative lack, but rather qualitative, a difference in kind of virtue (in a broad sense that includes all sorts of aptitude and ability). Quantitative difference would imply light as good and dark as evil, while qualitative difference follows from and signifies the endless variety necessary for the parts of a finite universe to combine in a dynamic order that reflects the infinity of God. Though nothing in this text refers directly to differences perceived as racial, persistent cultural biases about skin color might underline for us Dante’s point that the tendency to see human difference as a matter of positive or negative, better or worse, often needs to change to an embrace of complementary differences in kind in order for division to become unity.

He pushes this tension a step further in canto 3 when souls appear out of the radiant mists. These are the saved who were coerced on earth to break vows they had taken. The narrator talks to Piccarda Donati, who had become a nun but had been forced by her brother Corso (who also helped get Dante exiled from Florence) to marry for the sake of a family alliance. When the narrator hears why her place is in this lowest sphere, and yet how happy she seems, he asks, “Have you no wish to gain some higher grade, to see and be as friends to God still more?” (3.65-6). Though the saved all dwell equally in God’s presence, their appearance in the poem’s pageant of the heavens also indicates different degrees of honor, with the Virgin Mary above all. Still, Piccarda says, each is equally happy: “In his will is our peace.”13 Differences of virtue and situation form hierarchies, but these do not detract from heavenly communion, it seems. The narrator’s question, however, exposes honor as one of the earthly objects of desire most likely to cause competition and dissatisfaction. Rankings make especially apparent what René Girard calls the mimetic nature of human desire. Beyond basic physical appetites, our desires are formed in unconscious imitation of the desires we see in others. Hierarchies of honor provide powerful models of desire by making more visible the objects of desire already imitated within a group. Girard and others have argued that Dante understood desire to be mimetic, an insight available, for instance, in biblical texts such as the commandment against coveting what belongs to one’s neighbor, and in Augustine’s Confessions.14 Girard also proposes that mimetic desire is the primary driver of human conflict because it leads to rivalry when directed toward finite objects—and nothing is more finite than the spot at the top of the hierarchy.

Girard’s mimetic theory leads to the further insight that conflict arises from similarity, sharing the same desires, rather than difference. Mimetic rivalry, in turn, deepens the unconscious similarity between the rivals. In the Inferno, the sins that lead to the endless strife between those who have damned themselves are often shown to have obliterated their individualizing characteristics, leaving only the stamp of the sin itself. The saved in Paradiso, on the other hand, are imagined as splendidly differentiated and unique through their surrender to desire for infinite good.15 Yet we tend to miss how similarity drives conflict because we are unaware of the models of our desires. Indeed, we want see our desires as coming from our own unique personalities and the qualities of what we desire. Then, because we want to see ourselves as more deserving than our rivals, we fixate on differences and see them as the cause of division. Hierarchy seems at odds with equality, difference at odds with unity.

The conversations in the sphere of the moon explore these dilemmas of community further through the mysteries of human freedom, a problem raised by devoting a sphere of the Paradiso’s pageant to the surprising category of those forced to break vows. Since free will is humanity’s greatest gift from God, says Beatrice, voluntarily and sacrificially binding oneself to a vow is the greatest gift a human can offer. This is how Dante frames the wrong of letting oneself be forced to take this gift back, as it were. In combination with the other tensions at play, this problem of broken vows also brings up further tensions: between freedom and obedience, individuality and authority. Embodiment gives us a visceral sense of incompatibility between my will and another’s: I can move my body, or another can force me to move. How can we enter into a state of communion in which the endlessly varied differences of created being are brought into unity, in which the order of obedience to divine authority mediated through hierarchy is also perfectly free, flourishing individuality?

When I ask students to think of group activities in which they have experienced something like this perfected community, I suggest some possibilities. Dante’s favorite is music, often accompanied by dance. In the sphere of Mercury, this is how the Byzantine emperor Justinian contrasts earthly rivalries with the effect of “the longing for good” inspired by “Living Justice”: “As, differing, voices sing a sweet-tuned chord, / so, too, in our life here, from differing thrones, / sweet harmonies are sent through all these wheels” (6.121-6). Not only the singing souls, but the astronomical wheels themselves, source of the cosmic “music of the spheres,” make musical harmony the master image of the Paradiso for a beautiful order of unity across maximal differences. In the sphere of the Sun, the scholars sing and dance in circles, while in the sphere of Jupiter, the just rulers move as what might be called a marching choir, forming letters and then the shape of an eagle. The narrator’s response to the harmonious singing of the courageous in the sphere of Mars as “such delightful bonds” (14.129) might also describe the feeling of individual surrender to a larger order and authority in dancing or playing music.

More than participating in music groups, however, students seem to have felt something like Dante’s vision of communion in team sports. Whatever the sport, there are differences of role, position, and ability united by a common goal. These differences form various kinds of hierarchy, but good teams recognize and honor the contribution of each member. Under the authority of coaches and team captains, each individual is free to improvise in the moment. When the team plays well, each player experiences a fullness of both freedom and coordination with others that would not be possible without the rest of the team and the rules of the game.

The Power of Polarity Thinking

Music and sports perhaps offer particularly satisfying experiences of individual freedom within a larger order because they are so bodily, among other reasons that both are things we say we play. But all kinds of organizations must work positively with the same tensions in order to succeed both as a whole and for each member. Over the past three decades, management consultant Barry Johnson, co-founder and chairman of Polarity Partnerships, has developed an approach to managing these polarities, as he calls them, in organizations from businesses and churches to hospitals and schools. When polarities are involved, he suggests, negative dynamics follow from seeing them as exclusive, either/or possibilities, while leveraging them positively follows from learning to see them as mutually enhancing, both/and necessities. The centerpiece of his approach is a way of mapping polarities that helps conceptualize both their positive and negative dynamics.16

The tensions we have identified so far all relate to Johnson’s “generic part and whole map,” which he employs at every scale from children sharing toys to the entire world confronting the climate crisis. Difference, equality, freedom, and individuality are all values that emphasize the well-being of each part of an organization, while unity, hierarchy, obedience, and authority are values that enable the good of the whole. In the Polarity Map®, the two sides, left and right, identify qualities associated with each pole. Leveraging the tension involves maximizing the qualities in the upper half on each side and minimizing those in the lower half.In this case, part and whole, the two poles, each label one side of a map made of four quadrants (see diagram).

The upper quadrants on each side name the “values” or “positive results” of focusing on that pole; these are the qualities of perfected communion Dante envisions. The lower quadrants contain the “‘negative results’ from an over-focus on that pole to the neglect of its pole partner,” the familiar pathologies of imperfect organizations that make healthy ones sometimes hard even to imagine. These negatives tend to be simple negations of the positives in the opposite, upper corner. Not only are they real consequences of over-valuing one side; they also loom large in the fears, driven by either/or thinking, of what might happen in giving up some focus on the other side. Thus, on the “part” side, the illustrative positive values are freedom, uniqueness, and initiative of parts, while the negative fears on the “whole” side are loss of freedom, sameness, and excess conformity. Similarly, on the “whole” side, the values are equality, connectedness, and synergy of parts, while the fears of excess focus on the “part” side are inequality, isolation, and lack of coordination. Envisioning a positive, both/and dynamic requires identifying a “Greater Purpose Statement” (GPS) that goes at the top of the map. Here the higher goal, “we all thrive,” guides a positive interplay between freedom and equality, uniqueness and connectedness, individual initiative and group synergy.17

Crucial to conceiving an overall positive dynamic is the flow pictured by an infinity symbol (a figure 8 tipped on its side) superimposed over all four quadrants, with arrows that move upward where they cross at the center and downward on the sides. Over-focus on either side will lead to the negatives feared, but recovery and upward movement comes with seeking the values on the other side. Though Johnson does not tend to use the language of play to talk about this dynamic, I would suggest that it is fitting in the basic, physical sense of active, free move-ment in a bounded space, and that his use of the polarity schema is profoundly playful. The part-and-whole polarity unpacks what Carse sees as “the essential fluidity of our humanness” that follows from the fact, emphasized in the Paradiso, that we are relational beings: “There is no selfhood where there is no community.” Carse continues, “It is, therefore, this fluidity that presents us with an unavoidable challenge: how to contain the serious within the playful; that is, how to keep all our finite games in infinite play.”18 Polarity thinking, we might say, reframes finite games—and the rivalries that mimetic theory would say they tend toward—as part of a larger, ultimately infinite game. Thus the use of the infinity symbol accords not only with the endlessness of dynamic processes, of continued dialogue and refocusing, but also with the nature of an effective Greater Purpose Statement that identifies an infinite object of desire. By transcending goals that would pertain to one pole more than the other, greater purposes move from finite toward infinite goods, from what is subject to rivalry and appropriation to what resists them. Perhaps any truly robust greater purpose must participate in the infinite good that Dante identifies with beauty and love.

In the case of sports, the obvious higher purpose is winning, but this only engages the values of part and whole at the level of the team, at the cost of the other side losing, and not even to the greatest benefit of the winning side. What is the higher purpose when the whole includes two competing teams, or all of the teams that play a given sport, and when the good of each member goes beyond their proficiency at the sport? How do all individuals and all teams thrive? Purposes like playing a good game, growing as people, and making friends bring to the experience of sports the transcendent goals of love and beauty.19 Higher purposes will be qualitative rather than quantitative and scoreable. The modern idea of sportsmanship subordinates finite games to an infinite one that includes individuals becoming good sports and relationships rising above rivalry—plus, at least for soccer fans like me, the beauty of the game itself. With such higher purposes in mind, the free initiative of individuals in their different roles can coordinate under the unifying authority and hierarchy of coaches and captains and engage competing teams in a playful community.

Dante’s encounters in Paradiso are like snapshots of continuous success in leveraging polarities. He had posited in his Latin treatise Monarchia that an ideal society would include all humanity in an order that enables each individual to reach their highest potential.20 In most of his heavenly spheres, individuals speak as representatives within a category. In the sphere of Jupiter, however, the just rulers who form the shape of an eagle speak with a collective voice, despite the fact that each was set apart on earth as a king, a singular authority. A sharp contrast comes in the next sphere, Saturn, when saints Benedict and Peter Damian speak individually though they were both monks, that is, members of strongly hierarchical communities where the whole might be seen to be emphasized over the individual. In the sphere of the sun, as the first dancing circle of scholars is joined by a second, their movement is compared to millstones refining grain, an image that could apply to the refining of each individual, like athletes refining each other through good play.21 Finally, beyond all the spheres, the souls of the saved assemble in the stadium-like celestial rose as if they are now spectators of the real game that all participate in, played by the Trinity through the mediation of the angelic hierarchy.22Though in one sense they all seem to blend in to a crowd, Dante identifies where enough individuals are seated to suggest that their life in eternity continues their self-actualization as unique individuals that began on earth.

The whole Divine Comedy plays with a further polarity between justice and mercy. The eagle of the just, addressing the question of who is saved and how this fulfills both infinite justice and infinite grace, asserts that the answer is a mystery that finite minds, even in heaven, cannot understand. To see it as a polarity, however, imagines this mystery not as a static answer to a question, but as a dynamic, relational process in which finite communities already participate—what the eagle calls “this great game” (20.117, “questo gioco”). Mercy and justice align in some ways, Johnson suggests, with part and whole: the equal, unconditional respect due to each part and the proportional, just respect conditional on performing in accord with the whole. In a larger sense, though, justice is accountability to the laws that structure the coordination of parts into a whole. Mercy introduces a new pole of gift and forgiveness rather than contract, even to the point of self-sacrifice for the sake of the good of the other and of the whole. Johnson explores the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as an example of a process involving both justice and mercy, accountability and forgiveness.23

The Inferno shows the results of insisting only on justice, which realize the fears of over-focus on both part and whole: both isolation and sameness. To learn mercy in the Purgatorio is to learn what empowers the healing interplay of part and whole through self-examination and forgiveness. The souls on their way up the mountain begin to taste the healthy polarity of justice and mercy that Paradiso invites us to imagine as something like a constant, playful give-and-take of what is called, in theatrical improvisation, overacceptance: responding to each other not with a blocking “no” or a contractual “yes” (either of which arrests the relational dynamics of polarity) but with a “yes-and” that invites a “yes-and” in return and keeps the play going.24 In the sphere of Saturn, the narrator inquires about justice and mercy on the smallest scale: not why is someone saved, but why is someone called to do any small thing—in this instance, why Peter Damian is chosen to speak to the narrator. But this too, Damian says, is a mystery known only to Providence, so that we must withhold judgment and be humbly willing to improvise in the hope that our efforts will be met with a cosmic, both just and merciful, “yes-and.”

Mercy, Johnson suggests, is involved in seeing the good of both sides of a polarity. Justice, on the other hand, tends to see good at the end of a straight line with evil at the other end. Emphasis on one good as the solution to an evil, at the expense of its interdependent, partner good, leads to an excess of laws and punishments. Most dangerously, it leads to self-righteousness and the tendency to deflect blame by projecting it onto others. Dante’s Inferno is full of this kind of self-justification and blaming. In this life, it is the negative dynamic of scapegoating that Girard has shown to be the default mechanism—going back to primitive, sacrificial religion but taking ever more insidious forms in modernity—for generating social solidarity, but at the expense of excluded and persecuted others and always temporary and fragile.25 Mercy, of course, requires recognizing one’s own faults, as those on their way up Mt. Purgatory are doing. It also requires recognizing polar, different-but-interdependent goods by listening to others, especially to those most vulnerable to persecution, who have what James Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim” that enables them to see what the self-righteousness and powerful are blind to.26

The Wisdom of Infinite Play

Dante dramatizes the play of multiple goods most powerfully in the sphere of the Sun, representing wisdom. In the first dancing circle of twelve, Thomas Aquinas introduces the others, starting on his right with his teacher, Albert the Great, and finishing on his left with Siger of Brabant, a contemporary who had taken the opposite side from Aquinas in the controversies over the Christian reception of Aristotle that were dividing the university of Paris. The authorities came down on Aquinas’s side and revoked Siger’s license to teach, so that one could even say that Aquinas was part of excluding Siger. In heaven, though, not only do they appear side by side, but Aquinas pays Siger a playfully riddling compliment for having “argued for truths that won him envious hate” (10.138). In the second circle of scholars, Bonaventure plays emcee and similarly names last, next to himself, Joachim of Fiore, whose prophetic view of history he was said to have opposed. Further, Aquinas and Bonaventure stage, between them, a courteous polarity between the two rival mendicant orders of the thirteenth century: Aquinas, leading intellectual light of the Dominicans, celebrates the life of St. Francis—drawing attention to the playfulness of his spirituality27—and confesses the faults of his own order, while Bonaventure, head of the Franciscan Order, pays tribute to St. Dominic and laments how his own order has failed to follow its founder.

As theologians, both Bonaventure and Aquinas embraced, though in quite different styles, another, more intellectual polarity between affirmation and negation that opens up the space within which polar goods play and propels the improvisational “yes-and.”28 This polarity is perhaps most familiar in the history of Christian mysticism, where the two poles are known as the cataphatic and apophatic ways, usually conceived as interwoven and interdependent. “For Dante,” writes Vittorio Montemaggi, “negative and affirmative theological discourses are not mutually exclusive. Neither discourse is properly meaningful if understood in isolation from the other.”29 In contemplating or speaking of God, it is possible to affirm divine qualities by analogy to what we know, so that we can say, for instance, that God is like light. But we must also negate any affirmation by recognizing that it is only an analogy, that whatever about God it helps us name or see transcends what we know from our finite experience, even of something as seemingly infinite as physical light. Even to say that God is good requires adding, in the next breath, that God’s infinite goodness transcends all human concepts of good. But the polarity of affirmation and negation does not merely move like a seesaw of “yes-and-no”; rather, negation turns each affirmation into a “yes-and” that opens onto a more capacious dialogue of further “yes-and.” Every affirmation of a good, in the moment of its negation, invites a complementary good that joins with still others in moving toward the infinite Good.

Dante’s sphere of the Sun moves beyond the binary poles figured through Aquinas and Bonaventure to evoke multipolarities of good by selecting representatives of wisdom from a variety of eras, nations, and fields of knowledge, including grammar, logic, mathematics, music, natural science, law, history, prophecy, and mysticism. Some individuals bring multiple fields together in their own encyclopedic works. Many of these scholars interacted with each other’s works, sometimes disagreeing. Dante’s point, Joan Ferrante suggests, “is the interdependence of their work, the thought of one stimulating or provoking the thought of the next, with human knowledge and understanding enriched at each stage.”30 Further, the dialogue here and throughout the Paradiso models what Carse calls “infinite speech,” which “does not expect the hearer to see what is already known to the speaker, but to share vision the speaker could not have had without the response of the listener.” The residents of heaven have all knowledge available to them through the immediacy of the divine presence, yet their conversation with the pilgrim seems to be not just something they do for his benefit but for the sake of delight and surprise. Whereas playing to win involves minimizing surprise, infinite players open themselves to being transformed by it. Learning at its best gives us the taste and tools for the joy of surprises: “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”31

For Mazzotta, this “harmonious correlation of traditionally contrary views,” representing “as a living totality the various branches of all knowledge,” is a central and distinctive accomplishment of Dante’s whole poem. And poetry as open-ended play is how Dante keeps what Mazzotta calls “the circle of knowledge,” or what I am calling polarities, in motion. These include reason and imagination, knowledge and love, order and transgression.32 Mazzotta’s argument places Dante at the height of an ancient and modern ideal of literature as the most interdisciplinary form of knowledge and expression, incorporating all the others, even theology, into its play. The Paradiso, especially, is singular in the degree to which it rises above the ambiguous, enigmatic devices of figurative literary language as a means of evoking interpretation and combining affirmation and negation.33 It achieves a rare, even unique blend of both precision and fullness of meaning by rendering every side of its polarities with clarity yet keeping them all in play.

Interpretation of Dante, as an attempt to wrestle insight into words, may seem to subordinate its relational polarities to its poetic, intellectual ones, but in life our experience is the reverse. The polarities of intellectual play are among those we experience in community. Those who write about Dante or play do so in conversation with other scholars. A successful learning community needs order and transgression, knowledge and love, reason and imagination. A school, and especially a college, has a particular opportunity to experience the multipolarity of all the fields of knowledge and academic disciplines it includes, each pursued freely to see where it leads and yet ordered in a curriculum and placed in dialogue. Knowledge is one of the most obviously infinite objects of desire. Of course it is still liable to finite games like academic rivalries and being used for power. Yet desire to learn together not only leads to endless discovery; it also provides a gymnasium, as it were, for practicing the polarities of part and whole: difference and unity, equality and hierarchy, individual and authority, freedom and order. The polarity of justice and mercy can be more playful in school because we expect to make mistakes as we pursue truth, and at our best we turn them, improvisationally, into opportunities for learning, responding not with a mere “no” but with a creative “yes-and.”

Strong communities of learning, like all communities and like Dante’s Paradise, are made up of our fundamental experience of playful polarity and communion: friendships. Nowhere do I feel more like I am myself and free and at the same time part of a larger, harmonious whole than in conversation with a friend. One of the arts of friendship is the play of unity and difference whereby we grow in communion through celebrating what we have in common while also resisting the pull of assimilating the other to oneself—instead remaining open to the infinite otherness of the other.34 Franco Masciandaro has beautifully explored Dante’s portrayal of friendship in the sphere of Venus. Charles Martel’s playful disclosure of himself to the narrator communicates that

the closer he is to his friend, the greater the distance that “puts him authentically in relation” to him, and paradoxically, more tangible becomes the infinity of his otherness, the infinity that he shares partially with the friend who comes from earth, in the flesh, and more fully with the other blessed spirits, as together they share their vision of God, thirsting to continue to be with Him and His Infinite Love.35

Dante’s linguistic inventiveness here “expresses the pilgrim’s (and by extension human beings’) desire for the full intimacy of perfect friendship by creating the neologisms intuarsi and inmiarsi, verbs derived, respectively, from the pronouns tu and mi, to describe the mutual ‘entering’ shared by two friends.”36 The pilgrim’s relationships with his guides, Virgil and Beatrice, begins with a strong sense of hierarchy between them but adds equality as they grow in the communion of friendship. Dante learns about the world and himself by learning to see through their eyes. This is the polarity of love and knowledge. As Mazzotta puts it,

Beatrice’s love is for Dante that viewpoint, the look which allows him to overcome the temptation to reduce the world to the measure of his own narcissistic subjectivity and of his own imaginary delusions, as if the world were a mere tangle of objectified entities there for him, for his mastery and purview.37

In communities of learning, friendship is how we seek humbly to be something like Virgil or Beatrice to each other, while practicing, through this shared pursuit, the play of friendship.38

Friendship has been seen as the summit of the virtuous life since at least Aristotle. It puts all the virtues in play to seek the well-being of a beloved other, and Dante’s vision of perfected communion invites us to imagine the playfulness of virtue at its best. As I have noted along the way, the seven planetary spheres are each associated with a virtue. The lower three display imperfect examples of faith, hope, and love, and they are perfected precisely by moving from finite games on earth to the infinite game of these theological virtues as contemplated in the sphere of the fixed stars through dialogue with the apostles Peter, James, and John. In between, in the spheres of the four cardinal virtues, Dante moves beyond an Aristotelian understanding of virtue as a mean to a more dynamic polarity, as we have seen, in his depictions of wisdom and justice, and this might be the case with courage and temperance as well. In the sphere of Mars, the courageous include not only warriors, such as Dante’s crusading ancestor, but also martyrs, including Dante the narrator himself. Here he receives the fullest revelation of his coming exile, in which courage will be required to bear witness, through his poem, to the evil he has seen—the perspective given to him especially as a victim. Courage, then, means taking the side of victims and involves compassion, just as justice is in polarity with mercy. The more important Aristotelian legacy here is the idea of virtues as trainable strengths, seen according to the distinction Carse makes between power, which forces others, and strength, which frees others.39 Virtue is how we set each other, and ourselves, free to play.

One of Dante’s words for the playful practice of virtue is cortesia, which he enlarges beyond even its medieval importance, but which is much diminished in modern English “courtesy.”40 Courtesy for us smacks of mere good manners, which we are likely to think friends can do without. For Dante it elevates ethical obligations to the playfulness of friendship. In his exile, as the narrator learns in the sphere of Mars, his first refuge will be his patron from the della Scala family, lords of Verona: “And he will hold you in such high regard / that ‘ask’ and ‘do’ between the two of you / will place as first what others put behind” (17.73-5). The generous hospitality Dante will receive is taken up into a mutual game of giving before the other asks, the courteous fruit of a communion of love and understanding. Such friendship reflects the Creator, as Kirkpatrick explains: “If God is thought to create freely out of nothing, creation will be at its fullest in the condition of free inter-relationship, as in the giving and receiving of gifts, in conversation or the playing of games.”41 One of the words that conveys for us something of what courtesy means to Dante is sportsmanship: not just playing by the rules, but playing for the sake of a good game, one that is good for all the players and includes everyone in the infinite game.

A similar sense of courtesy is to be found in the novels of Dante’s great admirer Charles Williams, as noted by his friend C. S. Lewis:

For courtesy can be frolic or ceremonial—or both—where unselfishness is lumpish and portentous. And that sublimation of merely ethical attitudes is at work through all his writing. His world may be fierce and perilous; but the sense of grandeur, of exuberance, even of carnival…are never lost.42

Modern novels can take us further inside the experience of playful communion through their greater realism, their extension of the devices of narrative and characterization pioneered by Dante, rather than the almost geometrical perfection of his allegorical vision. Besides the novels of Williams, others inspired at greater or lesser remove by Dante and offering a gateway to his vision, not just of courtesy but of playful communion, include those of Lewis, their contemporaries Tolkien and Sayers, their precursor Chesterton, and, in our own time, Wendell Berry.

All of the academic disciplines have something to contribute to imagining human fulfillment in community. The playfulness of pursuing knowledge together is an accessible and instructive taste, along with experiences like team sports and music ensembles, of what Dante’s vision of heaven invites us to imagine pervading every level of community, from friendship and church to business and politics. “There is only one infinite game,” as Carse writes at the end of Finite and Infinite Games, and his work, along with that of other play theorists, suggests how all the mundane games that structure our earthly communities can be part of it. Johnson’s polarity management offers practical tools for leveraging the polarities that shape our relational lives instead of being polarized by them—an art, or game, or sport, for which Dante’s poem turns out to be a master class.

Cite this article
Curtis A. Gruenler, “The Playfulness of Perfect Communion: Polarities in Dante’s Paradiso”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 50:4 , 345-362


  1. Dante, Purgatorio 2.66 (The Portable Dante, edited and translated by Mark Musa, London: Penguin, 1995, 203). Dante’s word here is “gioco,” also the common word for game, as in Giochi Olimpici, Olympic Games. See also his uses of this term at Purgatorio 28.96 and Paradiso 20.117 and 31.33 and Vittorio Montemaggi, “In Unknowability as Love: The Theology of Dante’s Commedia,” in Dante’s Commedia: Theology as Poetry, eds. Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 80.
  2. Dante, Paradiso, translated by Robin Kirkpatrick (London: Penguin, 2007), lxiii. Many others have also probed Dante’s linguistic playfulness; for example, Brenda Deen Schildgen, “Dante’s Neologisms in the Paradiso and the Latin Rhetorical Tradition,” Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society 107 (1989): 101-119.
  3. Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 223-228.
  4. William Heywood, Palio and Ponte: An Account of the Sports of Central Italy from the Age of Dante to the XXth Century (London: Methuen, 1904).
  5. Mazzotta, Dante’s Vision, 226, with references.
  6. Purgatorio 15.73-5 (trans. Kirkpatrick), alluded to in Paradiso at 5.105. Dante’s distinction between finite and infinite objects of desire is often traced to Augustine’s contrast of the human city and the city of God; see, for example, The City of God XV.5. See also Gruenler, Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 344.
  7. James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 3. Bernard Suits makes a similar distinction between open and closed games in The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (Boston: David R. Godine Publisher, 1978). Open games are “games which have no inherent goal whose achievement ends the game: crossing a finish line, mating a king, and so on. Games which do have such goals we may call closed games” (133). Suits describes open and closed games at length (90-138).
  8. Paradiso 28.126, translated by Robin Kirkpatrick (London: Penguin, 2007). All quotations and translations of Paradiso are from this edition unless noted otherwise. At Purgatorio 15.3, Dante sets up the connection between this cosmic image and Marco’s of a child playing by describing the movement of the sun across the sky as “like a child at play” (“fanciullo scherzo,” trans. Musa; see Mazzotta, Dante’s Vision, 225).
  9. Perhaps the most influential study of play and games that treats them mostly as a category separate from the rest of culture and social life is Roger Callois, Man, Play, and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (London: Thames and Hudson, 1962), which identifies freedom as the first defining characteristic of play. Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture is an important precursor to Carse’s more encompassing approach but does not make such a strong distinction in analyzing play that Carse would see as finite, such war, as opposed to infinite, such as poetry (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). In Man at Play, the theologian Hugo Rahner, inspired principally by Thomas Aquinas, offers a summary definition of play historically germane to Dante and also consonant with Carse: “an activity that is undertaken for the sake of being active, meaningful but directed towards no end outside itself,” trans. Brian Battershaw and Edward Quinn (New York: Herder, 1972), 7.
  10. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games, 11.
  11. Ibid.,15, emphasis original.
  12. Paradiso, trans. Kirkpatrick, 335-336. Dante’s name for his poem, the Commedia, is usually thought to refer to its happy ending and perhaps also to its mixing of stylistic registers, both in contrast to tragedy, but both of these are also essential to, and indeed require, the overall playfulness the term could imply.
  13. Paradiso 3.85, trans. Musa.
  14. See Girard, “The Mimetic Desire of Paolo and Francesca” in To Double Business Bound: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 1-8; Heather Webb, “Deceit, Desire, and Conversion on Girard and Dante,” Religion and Literature 43.3 (Autumn, 2011): 200-208; Manuele Gragnolati and Heather Webb, “Dubbiosi Disiri: Mimetic Processes in Dante’s Comedy,” in Mimesis, Desire, and the Novel: René Girard and Literary Criticism, eds. Pierpaolo Antonello and Heather Webb (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2015), 113-132; and Curtis Gruenler, “The Promise of Mimetic Theory as an Interdisciplinary Paradigm for Christian Scholars,” Christian Scholar’s Review 50.2 (Winter, 2021): 123-144.
  15. The contrast between the peace of heaven and earthly rivalry is emphasized within Paradiso in the sphere of Mars, where Dante’s ancestor Cacciaguida recounts Florence’s descent into corruption and violence through desire for wealth and honor. See Joan M. Ferrante, The Political Vision of the Divine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 284.
  16. Barry Johnson, And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma, Volume One: Foundations (Amherst, MA: HRD Press, 2020), 5-21.
  17. Johnson, And, 30-31.
  18. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games, 37-38.
  19. My colleague Chad Carlson notes that “the late philosopher Robert Simon (who wrote a sports ethics book called Fair Play) argued that competitive sport, when done right, can provide (at least) three things to all competitors whether they win or lose: excellence (one can perform well even in a loss), enjoyment, and improvement. Further, Simon argues for a normative description of competition as the ‘mutual quest for excellence.’ The word ‘mutual’ indicates relationship among competitors in which each seeks to be at their best in order to provide the best challenge for the other.”
  20. Ferrante, Political Vision, 253; see also 8-9 on the Aristotelian background of this view. Richard H. Lansing states the polarity of part and whole as a paradox: “To merge one’s will with God’s signifies not loss of self, of the individual identity, but the fullest perfection of the self. Inherent in Dante’s theology of the individual’s perfection is a correlative paradox that makes all souls equal in their inequality” (“Piccarda and the Poetics of Paradox: A Reading of Paradiso III,” Dante Studies 105 (1987): 65).
  21. Paradiso 12.3. Ferrante (Political Vision, 274) applies the image instead to the refining of truth by scholarly dialogue, which as we shall discuss below, also puts polarities to wor
  22. On the playfulness of Dante’s rankings in the celestial rose as part of his use of allegorical interpretation of the Bible in his poem to stimulate desire for eternal truth, see Kirkpatrick’s commentary on Paradiso 32 in his translation, 466-467. On participation, see Andrew Davison, Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), with brief discussion of Paradiso at 121-124.
  23. Johnson, And, 129-156.
  24. See Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (London: SPCK, 2004) and Scott Cowdell, Rene Girard and the Nonviolent God (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018), 173-201. Though Carse does not use the term “improvisation,” he captures something similar when he says, “Infinite players do not oppose the actions of others, but initiate actions of their own in such a way that others will respond by initiating their own.” Similarly, there is an improvisational quality to what he says is “the most critical distinction between finite and infinite play: The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play. The rules are changed when the players of an infinite game agree that the play is imperiled by a finite outcome—that is, by the victory of some players and the defeat of others. The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play” (Finite and Infinite Games, 31, 9, italics original). To suggest that salvation is an infinite game in this sense would venture farther toward universal salvation than Dante seems to go (unlike the later medieval English authors William Langland and Julian of Norwich), but there is a strong sense in which the discovery in the sphere of Jupiter that the pagans Trajan and Ripheus have been saved implies that human understanding of the rules of salvation, at least, is open to continual change.
  25. See Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977) and The Scapegoat, trans.Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
  26. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (NY: Crossroad, 1998), 77-83, and Knowing Jesus (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1994), 31-58.
  27. Mazzotta, Dante’s Circles, 239-40.
  28. Compare, for example, Bonaventure’s Itinerarum mentis ad Deum with Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, part I, questions 3-13 and see Gruenler, Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma, 60-71.
  29. Montemaggi, “In Unknowability as Love,” 62.
  30. Ferrante, Political Vision, 274.
  31. Finite and Infinite Games, 109, 19, italics original.
  32. Mazzotta, Dante’s Vision, 132, 151, 215. In medieval thinking about the contemplative ascent through affirmation and negation, there was a division over whether the closer approach to the divine was through knowledge or love, in which Franciscans tended to align with love and Dominicans with knowledge. Thus Dante, both in the circle of the Sun and throughout the poem, turns a contemporary polarization into a polarity.

  33. See Kirkpatrick’s comments on Paradiso 17.31-6 in his translation, 405. This is how I would see the Paradiso as going beyond the poetics of enigma found in the final cantos of the Purgatorio (Gruenler, Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma, 342-350).
  34. See Simone Weil, “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Putnam, 1951; repr. New York: Harper, 1973), 204-208.
  35. Franco Masciandaro, The Stranger as Friend: The Poetics of Friendship in Homer, Dante, and Boccaccio (Firenze: Firenze University Press, 2013), 100.

  36. For more on friendship and learning, see my forthcoming article “How Friendship Works in Higher Education: Inclusive Friendship, Mimetic Theory, and the Liberal Arts.”
  37. Mazzotta, Dante’s Vision, 150.
  38. For more on friendship and learning, see my forthcoming article “How Friendship Works in Higher Education: Inclusive Friendship, Mimetic Theory, and the Liberal Arts.”
  39. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games, 31. On Dante’s understanding of virtú in Paradiso, and the inadequacy of English “virtue” to translate it, see Kirkpatrick in his translation, lxxiv-lxxvi.
  40. On cortesia in Dante, see Kirkpatrick’s introduction to his translation of Paradiso, lxvi-lxvii.
  41. Kirkpatrick, trans., Paradiso, 443. Dante’s most novelistic episode of courtesy in friendship comes in Purgatorio what the narrator and Virgil are joined by fellow poet Statius.
  42. C. S. Lewis, “The Novels of Charles Williams,” in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt, 1982), 27.

Curtis A. Gruenler

Hope College
Curtis A. Gruenler is professor of English at Hope College.