I disagree on certain points with two literary giants, Dante and John Milton. Though unworthy to follow in their literary footsteps, I feel nonetheless that even giants are fallible.
Is it possible to argue without quarreling? G.K. Chesterton thought so and did so. He said of his relationship with his brother that they were always arguing but that they never quarreled. Nor did Chesterton restrict himself to arguing with his brother. He argued with almost anyone and everyone, but always without quarreling. He crossed swords with George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, but only in the spirit in which MacIan and Turnbull crossed swords in his novel, The Ball and the Cross, in a spirit of amity, not enmity, seeking clarity in the service of charity. In doing so, he managed to agree to disagree, remaining friends with his intellectual enemies. He is an example and an inspiration for us all.
In this Chestertonian spirit, I am about to argue without quarreling. I should add at the outset, however, that I’ll be arguing with two literary giants, Dante and Milton. Since these giants are conveniently dead and unable to defend themselves, I can make no claim to being a veritable David seeking to slay Goliaths. I am merely an upstart, unworthy to follow in their literary footsteps, who feels nonetheless that even giants are fallible, stooping to folly on occasion or falling into occasional error.
And now, without further ado, I am going to throw down the gauntlet to each in turn.
Beginning with Dante, the larger of the giants with whom I’m picking a fight, I have several bones of contention. First is his placing of the hero of The Odyssey in the hell of his Divine Comedy. Dante, as a literary disciple of Virgil, sees things through Virgilian and not Homeric eyes, a fact that should be borne in mind when we read the Inferno. It is for this reason that I applaud Father Wetta, in his novel The Eighth Arrow, for seeking to help Odysseus escape from Dante’s infernal clutches.
As if the damning of fictional heroes is not bad enough, what are we to make of Dante’s consigning of real-life people to hell?
Our discomfort with what might be termed Dante’s judgmentalism is understandable. It’s not for any of us to presume that anyone is in hell. It is fair, therefore, to question this aspect of Dante’s greatest poem. Might he not have been better served had he peopled his afterlife with fictional characters of his own invention, suggestive of and inspired by real-life historical people, but not actually naming them and therefore damning them (at least literarily)? If he had done this, he would have not only avoided being accused of judgmentalism but would have saved generations of readers from having to read the historical context surrounding the real-life people whom he consigns to hell or purgatory.
It is, however, imperative that we not allow this tragic flaw in Dante’s comedy to blind us to the beauty of the great poet’s engagement with sin (in hell and purgatory), with repentance (in purgatory), and with sanctity (in heaven). It is a majestic work, filled to the brim with Christian insight into man’s relationship with God and neighbor. In short, we shouldn’t allow the mote in Dante’s eye to become the plank in ours!
And so to Milton. At the dark heart of Paradise Lost, indubitably his masterpiece, is the looming and alluring presence of Satan, whose powerfully portrayed characterization has elicited sympathy from many readers of the poem, from Percy Shelley’s eulogizing of him in the early nineteenth century to modern manifestations of sympathy for him in our own time. With respect to the latter, Edward Simon, in an article for The Atlantic on March 16, 2017, tried to get to grips with the fascination that Americans feel for the character of Lucifer in Milton’s epic. In a well-written and well-reasoned article, Mr. Simon saw aspects of Milton’s Satan in the characterization of thoroughly modern anti-heroes in contemporary TV dramas, especially The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, all of which are seen to reflect in some manner the American dream. This morbid fascination with Milton’s archetypal anti-hero prompts Mr. Simon to ask a provocative question: What’s so “American” about John Milton’s Lucifer?
There is, however, another provocative question that must be asked if we are to avoid misunderstanding and misconstruing Milton’s Satan. Regardless of how “American” he is, we need to ask how Christian he is.
At the heart of such a question is a paradox. From an orthodox Christian perspective, the real Satan is, at one and the same time, a Christian and an anti-Christian. He is a Christian in the sense that he knows that Christ is the Incarnate Son of God; he is an anti-Christian because he hates the Son as he hates the Father. He knows the Trinitarian God and he hates him. He is not an unbeliever. He is a rebel who is at war with the reality in which he has no choice but to believe.
The demons in the Gospel do not deny the authority of Christ; they defy him, as far as they are able, and despise him, but they do not and cannot deny him. We see this Christian/anti-Christian paradox in the manner in which Dracula, in the old movies, recoils in horror from the sight of a crucifix. He hates the symbol of the power of Christ, but he cannot help but retreat from it because the power he despises is real.
The problem with Milton’s Lucifer is that he is not synonymous with the Lucifer of the Bible or the Lucifer of Christian tradition. He is a figment of Milton’s heterodox imagination. In consequence, those who feel that they have sympathy for the Miltonian devil are not sympathizing with the real Satan, any more than they are rebelling against the real Christ. In similar fashion, Milton’s God is not the Trinitarian God of the Christians but a Unitarian God. The Son in Milton’s epic is a mere creature, albeit the greatest of the creatures, against whom Lucifer rebels. Considering Milton’s theological break with orthodoxy, his denial of the Trinity, and, in consequence, his denial of the Incarnation, it is grievously erroneous to see Paradise Lost as a truly Christian work. Except for its biblical trappings, it is no more Christian than the earlier epics of Homer and Virgil, and perhaps less so. It might be argued, for instance, that Homer and Virgil were groping in the right direction, towards the light of the Gospel, whereas Milton, rejecting the Church and the traditions of Christendom, was groping in the wrong direction, away from the light of the Gospel. To employ C.S. Lewis’ evocative image, Homer and Virgil are like virgins awaiting the arrival of the Bridegroom, whereas Milton is the disgruntled divorcée turning away from both the Bridegroom and the marriage.
William Blake might have been right when he said of Milton that he was “of the devil’s party without knowing it.” Certainly, Milton was doing the real devil a service in inventing a mythical devil who has proved so attractive. Milton’s Lucifer has what he perceives to be a just grievance and rebels against the perceived injustice with great courage. On the other hand, it is hard to feel much sympathy with Milton’s God who is not loved because he is not loveable. He is an omnipotent Puritan prig who is right because of his might. A Pharisee himself, he might well have been the sort of God whom the Pharisees worshipped but he has little in common with the God of the Christians. Meanwhile, Milton’s Son is not worshipped because he is not God. Having nothing in common with Jesus, he is depicted by Milton as a warrior who boasts of his martial prowess. Perhaps nobody in history has done more to evoke sympathy for the devil than John Milton, even though he would no doubt have been appalled at this dark side of his legacy.
Having no doubt stirred up a good deal of controversy, and having broken ranks with those many champions of Milton, such as C.S. Lewis, in highlighting the poet’s heterodoxy over his indubitable genius, I’ll take my bow, beating a hasty retreat before the admirers of Dante and Milton challenge me to a duel.
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The featured image is a combination of a portrait of Dante Alighieri by an unknown British painter and a portrait of John Milton (c. 1629) by an unknown artist. Both images are in the public domain, have been brightened for clarity, and appear here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.