Knowledge smarts. Knowledge has consequences.
In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan tempts Adam and Eve with the apple, and mankind is banished from the Garden of Eden, burdened with the gift—and the curse—of knowledge. “…The day ye eat thereof,” says the serpent to Eve of the tree of knowledge, “then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Milton 131-2). Once she takes the fateful bite, there’s no return to innocence: some things can’t be unlearned. John Milton’s Satan is a familiar agent provocateur, offering his familiar quid pro quo—wisdom for the loss of innocence.
Until Milton adapted the monster for his own purposes, Satan spent centuries as an archetype, personifying evil, mutiny and original sin in the Abrahamic religions. But he wasn’t static. He evolved along with the cultures that spawned him, engaging with their evolving fears. This is what monsters do: they mirror back the dread and desire of a culture in flux. In Paradise Lost, Satan is a fiend uniquely situated in his time and place: post-medieval England, when European society was unhooking itself from the constraints of papal Christianity, embracing rationalism, and asserting its sovereignty over nature—each a bite of the "fruit of knowledge.” Milton's Satan represents the consequence of this pursuit. He stands at the crossroads, finger crooked, beckoning. He ushers us out of the garden and into a new era of empirical science and self-determination—one from which we can never return. Milton's Satan is an heroic anti-hero, the perfect Renaissance monster, at once embodying freedom from God and the alienation that such freedom creates. He is prophetic, revealing the anxieties and priorities of a society at the precipice of modernity.
In “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” Jeffry Jerome Cohen explores the role of monsters in their historical contexts. He thinks monsters tell the story of, “…a certain cultural moment… a time, a feeling and a place” (4), the specific, unvoiced fears and longings of the culture that created them. Monsters are made of the stuff we are afraid we are—or are becoming—the "…loci that are rhetorically placed as distant and distinct but originate Within” (Cohen 7) They are used, Cohen suggests, to give voice to our own unutterable selves. The monster “…polices the borders of the possible” (12), delineating the morals we most long to violate, but that we’re not quite ready to give up. We’re anxious and excited that the monster refuses to conform to society’s moral guidelines. He challenges—frighteningly but necessarily—the notion that morality is universal, static in time and space. Through the proxy of the monster, society explores its taboos, enjoys the "freedom from constraint" of breaking them, and then delights in the punishment of the transgressor, a transgressor that is really our disguised selves. He is both projected wish and cautionary tale. "We distrust the monster," says Cohen, "at the same time we envy its freedom and perhaps its sublime despair" (17). The monster is a sort of mass cultural id, "[Inhabiting] the gap between the time of upheaval that created it and the moment into which it is received…" (4). In retrospect, we can see the monster is a prophecy of what man was becoming.
Milton wrote Paradise Lost in the middle of great political and economic upheaval, and much of the anxieties of the era centered on religion. The influence of religion over the spheres of politics, economics and education was beginning to fray. Previously, faith and God, via the leadership of the Catholic Church, had the final vote on society’s decisions. The Renaissance marked the emergence of Reason, not God, as a prime mover. Paradise Lost, says David Hawkes in an introduction to the book, “…tells of how the universe that God made came to be alien to Him, and how it came to seem autonomous and self-generating to its inhabitants” (xxx). To account for new findings in science, the invention of labor economics and the schism between religion and politics, man had to change the way he interpreted the bible. As the various spheres rent apart, says Hawkes, we felt the growing pains of our chaotic new weltanschaung, and Satan, our reliable monster, could be found everywhere. He was in the banker seeking the pound of flesh; he oiled and turned the gears of the new machines; in the sciences, he plucked God from nature’s equations. Without God, man feared an inevitable moral decay. “The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” says Hawkes, “witnessed a pan-European…panic over what was perceived as Satan’s vastly increased practical power in the world (xxxii). That power represented an autonomy that many feared might make God superfluous to man.
In Paradise Lost, Satan claims independence from his creator—a grave sin in the God’s eyes—and is cast from heaven. He is richly conflicted, tortured with doubt and loneliness. He is, paradoxically, the truly human character of the story. In response to the pain of God’s rejection, he laments;
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven (109).
He has traded in God’s love for an independent and self-determined future. He questions his very existence: even as he hatches the prideful, self-consciously rebellious plot to tempt Adam and Eve out of the Garden, he longs for the God he has alienated. "Oh then at last repent:" he implores God, "Is there no place left for repentance? None for pardon left?" (109) Upon seeing the beauty of the garden and the innocence of Adam and Eve, he is overcome with envy: "Sight hateful, sight tormenting,” he says while he watches them, "Thus these two / Imparadised in one another's arms… Shall enjoy their fill of bliss on bliss: while I to hell am thrust" (124). Like Satan, Enlightenment man traded God's unconditional love for the ambiguity—and isolation—of science and rational self-interest: the darkness of ignorance for the blinding light of Reason. We relate to the despair that Satan feels, at the same time we reject and hate him.
Satan stands at a teleological crossroads, or, as Cohen puts it, he possesses an “ontological liminality” (14). On the one side, man’s purpose is related to a divine plan. On the other, he claims the right to fulfill his own potential. The former is God's mysterious way: the latter, Satan's eternal font of self-referential knowledge. "Knowledge forbidden?" says the devil of the tree of knowledge, "Suspicious, reasonless" (Milton 124) Later, he refers to the apple as powerful and virtuous: “Oh Sacred, wise and wisdom-loving plant / Mother of science, now I feel thy power / Within me clear…” (Milton 285). Monsters, says Cohen, “…bear self-knowledge—human knowledge, and a discourse all the more sacred as it arises from the Outside” (20). It is obvious that Satan bears human knowledge: he is the consequence for choosing knowledge over faith, superstition, and the capriciousness of an inexplicable God. Satan’s fall from grace demonstrates the penalty we pay if we step outside our boundaries, if we abandon God for what Hawkes refers to as self-worship (xxxii). With this penalty—original sin and the isolation of individualism—come great rewards, in the form of progress, prosperity and the joys of self-determination.
But in following Satan, we trade something precious and irredeemable. We become Satan, that proud, independent, self-deifying monster. When we go the way of the monster, says Cohen, we risk "… attack by some monstrous border patrol or (worse) to become monstrous [ourselves]" (12). The apple allows man "…Not only to discern / Things in their causes, but to trace the way / Of highest agents, deem'd however wise (Milton 285). Now, post-apple, nature and our minds belong to us, and not to God. We lose God’s tyranny, but also his fatherly love. The monster, a bit more individual than we are allowed to be, reveals to us what we are becoming. Cohen perches the monster on a metaphorical edge, always standing “…at the threshold… of becoming” (20).
Cohen highlights the eroticism and eeriness of the monster, the terror and pleasure we suck from its bones. But he also implies that monsters have practical powers of prediction. Think: in the clarity of the garden, one can almost see the apple, after Eve bites into it, dropping into the real world, into Milton’s world. Impelled downward by gravity for twenty years, it lands on the head of Isaac Newton and becomes immortalized, once again, in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Satan has shown us how to be lords in our own garden. “To reign is worth ambition though in hell:” he says, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav'n" (Milton 19). And he almost persuades us (or, at least, he predicts what will soon be persuasive to us). Stripped of the necessity to fulfill our duty to God, we’re free to improve our own lives. The unprecedented American Revolution mirrors Satan's rebellion. Other revolutions follow from Satan's trailblazing: the industrial revolution; the adoption of scientific empiricism; the new, self-generating attribute of money; belief in a heliocentric universe; the transition from agrarian to labor economies—all the changes that make modern man able to reconstruct himself and his society in his own image.
Satan, that sad and incandescent villain, shows humans the lonely way to independence. His egoism mirrors the desires and fears of his time and place. But he warns us too: freedom is not just a happy state: it comes with a cargo of agonies and doubts. Satan, a perfect distillation of Cohen’s monster thesis, stands at the threshold of the industrial revolution. He represents more than fear and desire: he tells the future; he represents what a culture is becoming; rejecting the old morals for a new set, he tempts man to do the same. And so modern man limps forward on his own two feet, freighted with the atomizing ideas of the Enlightenment, perhaps longing still for the garden. Satan might have caused this sorry state for man, but he suffered the same fate. The expulsion of Adam and Eve—An echo of Satan’s expulsion from heaven—can be understood as the pain of trading blissful ignorance for progress: the delicious terror of individualism.
American Bible Society, The King James Bible: Genesis. http://www.bartleby.com/108/01/2.html, (Sept. 23, 2008)
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, “Monster Culture: Seven Theses.” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1995.
Hawkes, David, Introduction: Paradise Lost. Barnes and Noble, New York, NY, 2004.
Milton, John, Paradise Lost. Barnes and Noble, New York, NY, 2004.