August 4, 2018


The Devil's Party?: Why we love Lucifer--and why Milton might have, too (Edwin M. Yoder Jr.,  July 31, 2018, American Scholar)

The paramount issue, since John Milton's great poem Paradise Lost first appeared in 1667, is that his magnificent articulation of the myth of the Fall of Man should, for many readers, make a hero of the archangel Lucifer, the leader of the celestial rebellion that precipitates the legend. For attentive readers, notably William Blake, Satan overshadows the Almighty, in color if not in virtue. Whether or not Milton was the Devil's unconscious partisan, Satan's distinction in the poem remains controversial.

We are assured by the formidable critic and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis that it is a misreading of the poem to find Satan a more attractive figure than the God against whom he leads the rebel angels. But a recent rereading leaves me with the persistent impression that the issue is less easily resolved than Lewis supposed. [...]

Milton installs Adam and Eve as innocents in a paradise of flower and fruit. Their enjoyment is circumscribed by a single rule: They may eat all the fruit in the Garden except that from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This exception is obviously significant, since Milton's epic appeared at a time when certain forms of knowledge were dangerous in and of themselves. The temptation and fall, and its consequences, are preceded in the poem by the rebellion of a third of the angelic host. Satan's followers are cast out of Heaven in a celestial war in which the divine son volunteers to rally the loyal angels. Satan's expulsion, to the fiery waters and "darkness visible" of Hell, becomes one of the spectacular scenes of the epic:

Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.
Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf, ...
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes ...

The description of Satan's expulsion is a vivid example of Milton's masterly interplay of vowels and consonants, offering an auditory sensation of falling; and the plunge is earth-shaking--or would be, had our world existed then. That comes later in time, if not poetic sequence. Milton's God excites Satan's envy by creating a new and favored being, Adam, and sets him up in Paradise. The Creator stipulates a unique test of fidelity: the tree laden with forbidden fruit, deathly to the touch. God dispatches Raphael and other angelic messengers to counsel Adam and Eve about the penalties of disobedience--indeed, these angels harp upon the dangers of certain kinds of inquiry. The First Parents are admonished to content themselves with information of a more practical and earthly kind:

And thus the godlike Angel answered ...
Such commission from above
I have received, to answer thy desire
Of knowledge within bounds; beyond abstain
To ask, nor let thine own inventions hope
Things not revealed, which the invisible King,
Only omniscient, hath suppressed in night,
To none communicable in Earth or Heaven:
Enough is left besides to search and know.
But knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain,
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind. ...

Thus the perils of excessive learning! And here lies the heart of the mystery, for me, as for others before me.

Milton's inventive power is nowhere more dramatic than in the sequence in which Satan, stealing into Eden as a toad and then a serpent, spies Eve at a distance and is smitten by her beauty. His malicious resolve briefly falters. The temptation of Eve is open to a suspicion of misogyny; during the first of Milton's three marriages, his young Royalist wife fled his household at the outbreak of civil conflict, returning only when the parliamentary side was clearly winning. Eve pleads with her distrustful lord and master Adam to be permitted to work alone one morning, and Adam reluctantly grants permission--till lunchtime. So "hapless Eve" is pictured as easy prey for Satan's sophistries:

Her graceful innocence, her every air
Of gesture or least action overawed
His malice, and with rapine sweet bereaved
His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought.
That space the Evil One abstracted stood
From his own evil, and for the time remained
Stupidly good of enmity disarmed,
Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge,
But the hot Hell that always in him burns,
Though in mid Heaven, soon ended his delight,
And tortures him now more, the more he sees
Of pleasure not for him ordained; then soon
Fierce hate he recollects.

Satan offers arguments that, we are to assume, Adam would have seen through and dismissed. The serpent leads her to the tree of knowledge, and boastfully plucks and eats without the penalty of death. The benefits are lavish:

"O sacred, wise, and wisdom-giving Plant,
Mother of science, now I feel thy power
Within me clear, not only to discern
Things in their causes, but to trace the ways
Of highest agents, deemed however wise.
Queen of this Universe, do not believe
Those rigid threats of death; ye shall not die: ...
Shall that be shut to man, which to the beast
Is open? or will God incense his ire
For such a petty trespass, and not praise
Rather your dauntless virtue ... ?

The grievance, absorbed and echoed by Eve, is that humankind should enjoy at least the same privileges as the beasts. Eve elaborates her own fallacious rationalization:

How dies the Serpent? He hath eaten and lives,
And knows, and speaks, and reasons, and discerns,
Irrational till then. For us alone
Was death invented? or to us denied
This intellectual food, for beasts reserved?

And so Eve falls, with cosmic effect, as the poet returns to the universal calamity in third-person narration:

... in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat,
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost. Back to the thicket slunk
The guilty Serpent, and well might, for Eve
Intent now wholly on her taste, nought else
Regarded ...
Greedily she ingorged without restraint,
And knew not eating death. Satiate at length,
And heightened as with wine, jocund and boon ...

Disobedience, as promised, brings death into the fallen world, but the effect is not immediate. Adam, dismayed by Eve's lapse, administers a husbandly tongue-lashing but then chivalrously joins in her death sentence. The immediate consequence is an abrupt surge of sexual lust and self-conscious nakedness.

Despite the warnings of C. S. Lewis and others, I am left echoing Eve's question: if the beasts, why not man? Why, having armed his new creatures with intellectual curiosity, should their thirst for intellectual adventure become the paramount sin and its exercise a cosmic catastrophe? This prohibition seems especially odd because it contradicts what we know of Milton the lifelong scholar and polymath.

The warning communicated by angelic messengers is so categorical that it trivializes the original evil. Myths of overweening curiosity--forbidden knowledge--are plentiful; they neither began nor ended with Faust. But God's ban in this case seems to call for an elaboration that the archangels don't provide. Because God said so, is what it amounts to--the eternal edict of parent to child.

The extravagance of our punishment for simply being true to our nature is why He is equally extravagant with His love after sinning Himself.

Posted by at August 4, 2018 8:32 AM