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Hipster Mammon Was An Existentialist Before It Was Cool

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

The plea of the arch-demon Mammon after the fall is eerily similar to the cry of the existentialist today. I have a great many friends who would gladly give a hearty ‘amen’ to the following excerpt from Mammon’s speech, not knowing its hellish origin:

…Let us not then pursue
By force impossible, by leave obtained
Unacceptable, though in Heaven, our state
Of splendid vassalage; but rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear
Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,
Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse
We can create, and in what place soe’re
Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain
Through labour and endurance.

Milton hits this sentiment right on the head. 200 years after Paradise Lost, many people have come to say the same things Mammon has. They try to convince themselves that without Heaven, life in the here and now becomes all the more important. Even though everything is ultimately meaningless, we need to fool ourselves into believing that it really does have meaning or we’ll go crazy.

So we manufacture purpose on the fly. Then we tell ourselves that sticking to this meaningless meaning and purposeless purpose is somehow admirable. But the fact that Mammon’s cries anticipated the existentialist’s tells us that this isn’t really a logical necessity or philosophical foundation, it’s simply a quaint rationalization. Hearing this speech from the helpless and hopeless demon is only a cruel reminder to us that our justifications are nothing more than ad-hoc wish fulfillment.

The passage immediately before this is also telling, as Mammon screams out:

…How wearisome
Eternity so spent in worship paid
To whom we hate!

“It’s better to be in hell!” he tells himself. “How miserable it would be serve God!” I was recently listening to a talk by philosopher Daniel Dennett where he said the exact same thing. And his reasoning was the same as Mammon’s – We can only be truly free once we get rid of God.

Mammon of course knows the outcome of all this. He isn’t an atheist after all. He realizes the consequences of rebellion. But that doesn’t stop the rationalizations. No matter what your circumstances, you tell yourself whatever you need to in order to get to sleep at night.

What Purpose Satan?

December 7, 2011 2 comments

The defeat of Satan in heaven should have rendered him obsolete. As odd as rebellion in Heaven seems, it’s even more strange that God should allow such a being as Satan to continue to exist at all. And not only to continue to exist, but to continue to exist in such a way that he is able to still interfere with God’s plans. What possible reason could God have for allowing this? Why not just eliminate Satan?

In Book I, after Satan has his initial discourse with Beelzebub (two separate persons in Paradise Lost), Milton reveals three reasons why God permits Satan to have freedom to rebel:

  1. Satan’s continued rebellion only serves to bring just damnation on himself. By allowing Satan freedom, it’s almost as if God makes Satan his own prison guard.
  2. It allows Satan to see all his evil intentions and actions merely end up being used by God for good in the end.
  3. It confuses Satan and shows both him and everyone else that he is ultimately powerless.

Here we see right off the bat the futility of rebellion against omnipotence. It’s not that God is powerless to stop it, it’s that the very act of rebellion is part of the plan.

But here’s the intriguing aspect to what Milton has written. It’s not enough that God is actually just and righteous. It seems more important to Milton that God is seen to be just and righteous – seen to be just not only by us, but by Satan as well. If Satan were annihilated, or made to be causally impotent, that would certainly demonstrate God’s power and his justice, but Satan himself would not be able to acknowledge the fact. Beelzebub begrudgingly admits this to himself after he realizes his defeat, when he speaks of God and says “whom I now of force believe almighty”.

Is this need to be ‘seen to be just’ a weakness on God’s part? Or does perfect justice demand it? I’m not certain. If Satan were to have been utterly destroyed after his rebellion, certainly Satan would have lost, but perhaps not. Perhaps in some way, Satan would have won.

A continued existence in which Satan is free to continue to rebel doesn’t seem cruel and unusual either, but rather compassionate. It’s not as if an existence in hell necessarily precludes the possibility of forgiveness, but rather – the state of being in hell is one in which you don’t want to be forgiven.