Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Milton's Paradise Lost: Book 4

Discussion questions from meeting of March 27

1. Is Satan pure evil?

2. Why is Eden different from Heaven?

3. What’s the relationship between Adam & Eve?


Blogger SMJ said...

The following comments are a response to readings from Milton's Paradise Lost.

On Evil --

We often identify evil as being satanic, as having the qualities of pride, arrogance, jealousy and greed. But another way of understanding evil is to see Satan's rebellion as a kind of advocacy for self-fulfillment, or movement away from God and towards one's own interest. Satan doesn't care much for praising God (or anyone else). The only "higher purpose" he seeks is the satisfaction of his own desires. In other words, he wants what many people today see as the main purpose of life itself: i.e., the pursuit of happiness. But in Satan's mind, "happiness" becomes the equivalent of following his own will, or the freedom of having one's way. Thus, in the modern age of consumption (which habitually begins with the desire for acquiring things), it is easy to identify the principle of "self-fulfillment" with a search for personal happiness. Yet Milton reminds us that the war in heaven began with a rebellious angel substituting his own will for God's. In other words, Satan, no longer content with living in the penumbra of God's orbit, chooses to establish his own identity apart from his creator.

In The Republic, Plato identified knowledge as the source of all Good, with the assumption being that if one knows where one's true interest lies, one will pursue it. Can we then say that Satan does not know where his true interest lies? For getting kicked out of heaven is hardly the road to a better life. It is difficult to see how Satan improved his situation by going to hell. He himself admits that he might have overestimated his prospects for success. Does that mean the rebellion itself was a terrible mistake? Not necessarily. If the prospect of eternal pain, darkness and suffering does not alter one's thinking, then perhaps hell is not so bad. After all, Satan concludes that it's better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. But what about all the other devils who rebelled with Satan? They neither rule in heaven nor in hell. It may be they all neglected a simple truth, as Bob Dylan once said, "you have to serve somebody."

On the idea of freedom --

The ethic of serving somebody and the idea of personal freedom might appear, at first, to be in dire conflict. After all, if I am free why do I have to serve anyone? Isn't freedom the right to do whatever I want to do? Yes and no. Freedom is an existential right granted by God to his created beings, but not freedom to do "anything." For example, freedom does not extend to the right of self-destruction, nor to the gratuitous right of destroying other created beings. Freedom refers to the capacity for self-movement, either toward or away from God. Freedom is a condition of existence that has the potential for good or evil. Freedom implies choice and self-actualization. Thus, God has endowed his living creation with an unlimited power of making choices, but with a limited power to carry out those choices. In other words, Satan can choose to oppose God, but he lacks the power to successfully oppose him. So, we must always distinguish between the idea of freedom and the power of translating that idea into action. To quote Leibnitz, we must affirm this universe as "the best of all possible worlds."

The key word here is "possible." For God to grant unlimited freedom and unlimited power to his creation would be self-contradictory. The power of negation (evil) must necessarily be controlled or the created world will be doomed. There is no "balance of power" between God and Satan, nor could there ever be. If their power was equal, the universe, as we know it, could not exist. For creation to occur, order is required. And order requires a limitation on the power of freedom. Though it is the nature of freedom to oppose order, God's very existence is a repudiation of disorder. Note that disorder and freedom are closely related concepts; just as order implies limitation, freedom implies disorder. Thus, Satan represents the presence of disorder within creation. Since heaven is without blemish (being the realm of perfection), disorder must be expelled.

We conclude there must be a disturbing affiliation between disorder and freedom. Freedom, being only a potential force with limited power, nevertheless is excluded from the realm of perfect peace. Satan in revolt against God symbolizes the encroachment of disorder upon order. But is disorder a requirement for freedom? Why do only some of the angels rebel and not others?

Perhaps the answer is that God's angelic creation carries within itself the principles of both order (Being) and disorder (Becoming). But if both principles are necessary for creation, why should disorder ever be considered evil? Here we recall that another word for disorder is "change." The Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that change is the predominant condition of the universe. The separation of order from disorder is exemplified in the opening passages of Genesis where light is divided from darkness. But, of course, the kind of change that Satan represents is not just any change, but a certain kind of change—a change that removes God from the throne of heaven and puts Satan in his place. In other words, the realm of chaos subverts the realm of bliss. What kind of heaven results from such a change? A heaven that in most respects is indistinguishable from Hell. In fact, under Satan's power the very idea of Heaven and Hell become interchangeable and absurd.

Theologically, the reign of Satan could only mean the absence of all virtue and justice. Thus, in the pre-Hobbesian struggle of "all against all" there would be no conception of good by which to measure acts of injustice. Satan's power might be superior to other demons, but it could never establish an equilibrium necessary to compose a functioning society. At best, it would resemble a loose confederation of thieves, whose shifting alliances flow from the poisoned well of self-loathing. In every respect, such a world would exist as a pre-civil and even pre-human mode of endless strife.

So what are we to conclude from all this? Is the desire for self-fulfillment but an invitation for death and destruction? Milton suggests that the primary struggle for man is not between freedom and servitude, but between misery and bliss. For Hell represents not an idea of self-reliance, but a total emancipation from life. The mystery of Satan is why God allows him to exist. If his nature is unredeemable and poses such a threat to creation, shouldn't he be destroyed? Perhaps he cannot be destroyed (the text of Paradise Lost is ambiguous on this point). If so, he must function as a kind of primal anti-matter (or anti-spirit), proving lethal when in proximity to heavenly matter or spirit. Perhaps this accounts for the origin of such apocalyptic cosmologies as these words from Bhagavad-Gita...

"I looked and beheld an ashen horse; and his rider said 'I am become Death;
destroyer of worlds'; and all the riders of Hell followed with him."

4/10/2006 3:29 PM  

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