On the meaning of the tree, which is essential to the canto, Parodi, one of the most authoritative of recent Dantists, writes: ‘For Adam, as for his descendants in Eden, the tree was intended to symbolize the law under whose authority they were to live, the ordinance to which they were freely to consent, in a word, their righteousness…. On earth this natural righteousness, impressed on each individual conscience, is manifested in its ideal unity only in the Empire, one and unique, which is not less holy and not less willed by God, … and it forms as it were one thing with its purpose, that is, with the law itself…. Symbolizing the idea of right, the tree is also of necessity the symbol of the Empire, because the two things are practically one and the same.’ When the pageant gathered about the tree its members praised the Griffin—Christ in His earthly life—for His care not to pluck its fruit, the tasting of which had been the cause of human misery; and the Griffin replied: ‘So’—by this obedience to the divine law for men—‘is preserved the seed of all righteousness.’
It is this primary sense of right, belonging to human nature itself, that has been ravaged and wasted by Adam and his race, that was encircled for its succour by the divine resources of revelation, that was honoured by Christ in its embodiment in the Empire—by His birth and death under the Empire’s jurisdiction, by His refusal of ‘the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them’, by His words, ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’—and that bloomed into purple splendour when the car of the Church was joined to it. The vision of the perfected human order of Church and Empire, a thing that never was except in vision, and the hearing of ‘the hymn that company then sang’ were for Dante like the heaven-wrought wonder of the spring and he was enraptured and overcome as were the three apostles by the sight of ‘some of the blossoms of the apple-tree’, the foretaste of Christ’s glory; and then, like the three, he is summoned to face the bitter, challenging realities of the world.