Occasionally, I stumble on an idea that really excites me. This would be a fortuitous occurrence to combat mid-day lethargy, but for better or worse, I’ve become perhaps irrevocably nocturnal. As such, it’s two in the morning, and re-reading sections of Paradise Lost for the upcoming candidacy exam has yielded a level of excitement about pondering the nature of evil – indeed, writing an essay completely committed to the topic of evil, which seems appropriate for a horror blog. And the excitement is difficult to contain. Really, I’m not exaggerating. I even thought maybe dissecting literary depictions of evil would be good fodder for a doctoral dissertation, which brought further almost uncomfortable fervor. So, I started pacing around frantically, then I decided to settle on the couch for a ten-minute meditation, to calm down and focus. I have learned, especially under the right circumstances, that I am a person who feels very strong emotions. In any case, the idea tonight is to harness those emotions into a writing product, one of my atypical miscellaneous essays for this blog, a piece of writing not tied to one particular work of art. Who knows – such meanderings may even help me shape the dissertation I need to start writing in about two years. As usual, then, I’m using whoever might be misguided enough to read my thoughts for my own academic purposes. To that end, thanks for your time.
I think I’ll begin with the admittedly beautiful poetics of one John Milton. Really, I haven’t studied Paradise Lost enough to infer the author’s attitudes about what now might be construed as dogmatic Christianity, but I think it’s worth noting that Milton expresses the story of Eve’s temptation so impeccably that I became a scintilla closer to becoming a Christian fundamentalist. And I only partially jest about that statement. I feel like a lot in my life – my sobriety, my sanity, my productivity and ultimate contribution to society, the meaning of my life as a whole – depends on maintaining a balanced spiritual connection with some Higher Power (a difficult and inconsistent adventure, at least for me). But ever since I’ve become open to directing my energies toward that perhaps mysterious power, I’ve had trouble grappling with how difficult life can be – even for a person of relative privilege, like myself, and especially for those who experience significant and pressing adversity. Such a question could be attributed to the inherent pessimism which is my unfortunate nature, but I wonder if, also, the answer to that question can be traced to the relatively ambiguous concept we’ve labeled “evil,” at least in a Western-religious context. This makes studying the concept more appealing to me, personally, and it’s probably also a valuable line of inquiry for society. In any case, I felt this inexplicable pull toward the Christian story of good and evil when reading Milton. There was, in other words, a temptation to believe in the paradigmatic story of temptation. And so I write this post.
Here I’ll return to Terry Eagleton, Marxist literary critic who’s probably esteemed by some and disliked by others, and who wrote an interesting philosophical-literary exploration of evil, simply titled, “On Evil.” I became intrigued enough by his theories to start applying them to my study of horror on this blog, and I always return to his fundamental thesis, which is that evil derives from a genuine desire to do harm, to “watch the world burn,” as the joker in the Dark Knight states (who I also quote frequently in these discussions, in part because he seems like an apt embodiment of evil). Eagleton’s proposition sits (at least possibly) in interesting contrast from how the story of creation explains the presence of great evil and plight in the world. Of course, we typically believe the devil (originally dubbed “the adversary” and then morphed into a viler form for Dante-era and later contemporary Christianity) is the embodiment of evil. But Milton’s devil comes off as more of a miffed, charismatic, rebel who preys on mankind to spite God (and his creation) because God kicked him and his fallen angel friends out of Paradise. If I read Book Nine of Paradise Lost correctly, at one point he even expresses some warmness and affection for humanity, before sidestepping his emotions and cunningly persuading Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. We may assume, then, that even this dogmatically evil being experiences a range of very human emotions that simultaneously explain his malevolence and defy typical definitions of evil (and especially Eagleton’s definition of evil). That is, according to Milton’s interpretation. As such, on the one hand, Satan endeavors to do harm for humans solely for doing harm – he has no profit from these actions, at least in tangible form. Not only will he never return to Paradise; his intentional harm to humanity places him further from Paradise, on a spiritual or metaphorical level. On the other hand, his profit is his revenge, a purely understandable, typical psychological need to react to harms he feels were done to him. If Satan performs evil deeds on humanity – that is, provokes the fall of mankind – for the feeling of satisfaction he believes his actions produce, is his enterprise still evil? Is it evil according to Eagleton’s thesis? Is it evil, period? Is evil ever done for no reason, if the evil-doer experiences psychological and emotional gratification from the act? And how does revenge-based gratification (you hurt me, I hurt you, or your creation) differ from a satisfaction that results only because of suffering, no paybacks involved. I will reiterate that I do not interpret this story literally, but an interpretation at once both literal and metaphorical raises intriguing questions about how Christianity, and much Western thought, treats the concept of evil.
Then, of course, Eve eats the forbidden fruit, followed by Adam, and so they introduce evil (and hardship) into the world. Life is no longer a romp in a majestic garden, but a struggle rife with toil. In Milton’s account, Eve and Adam shed their innocence and make love after they both eat the fruit, but the unfortunate outcome of this love-making is a slew of negative emotions they feel inside, emotions they’ve never before experienced in their state of innocence. In this way, Milton perfectly describes not only hardship entering the world, vis a vis God’s punishment to Adam, Eve, and their descendants, but accounts for the toxic emotions that distort human nature and ultimately produce evil, “what man has done to man,” as, I believe, William Wordsworth says in one of his poems. This is an exceedingly helpful explanation to the skeptic; one might ask, if God is all-powerful and all-loving, and if he desires to give us free-will, then why did he not give us pure natures that would prevent, or at least buffer, our evil deeds, to reduce or eliminate instances of malice and injustice that we see during so many different times, in so many different places? My freshmen philosophy professor diminished this question to the “happy chipmunk” theory: why did God not make us “happy chipmunks” (a perhaps simplistic analogy that tautologically answers its own question by rejecting the complexity and worth human beings are still capable of without harboring considerable potential for the experience of negative emotions and intentions). But as my parenthetical suggests, I don’t think the assumption that being human wouldn’t be worthwhile without toxic, painful emotions is an accurate assumption. Perhaps Milton thought so too, because in relating that Eve and Adam began to experience “high Passions, Anger, Hate, Mistrust, Suspicion, Discord,” (IX, 1123-1125) and that their “inward state of mind” was “shook sore,” by their transgression, loss of innocence, and love-making, he accounts perfectly for the difficulty a person may face both in the external world and in his or her own mind. It is no wonder that he is the same author who famously stated, “The mind is its own place, and can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell.” (As a sidenote, in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faust, hell is a state of mind alone, affiliated with no geographical location, which is arguably equally insightful). As such, Milton accounts for the spiritual malaise that often produces evil (although his story has a pleasingly happy ending, a point too extraneous to discuss here).
And then, to switch topics abruptly, what about Eve, and Adam? I think we traditionally label their transgression as evil, but this is a supposition which is perhaps tenuous. In Milton’s rendition of the myth, Satan embodies a serpent, who then constructs a seemingly rational (though fundamentally flawed) argument to persuade Eve to eat the apple. To Milton, it seems, all of that which is good rests on the proper use of reason, and baseness (and perhaps evil) derives from incorrect, warped reason (A likely byproduct of Aristotelean philosophy of ethics and an Enlightenment mentality in general). At the point which Eve succumbs to false empirical evidence (Satan asserts that he ate the fruit, which in a literal sense he didn’t, and that it gave him, a mere snake, the power to talk, with no negative repercussions from God), and is then persuaded by a series of arguments that prove faulty, isn’t her action less a result of evil, and more of misunderstanding, deception, and perhaps mere intellectual inaccuracy? Her error, after all, can hardly be faulted when, paradoxically, she’s forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge; there is, as a sidenote, an interesting tension between Adam and Eve’s reliance on reason in Milton’s story and the fact that they’re forbidden to understand good and evil, which by that time had, I think, been much speculated in reason-based philosophical context. At what point do the mental processes behind evil (especially if we reject the thesis that faulty reasoning is evil in and of itself) negate the presence of evil, in general? How does Eve’s action work with a broad definition of evil, or an array of definitions I haven’t considered? How does it work with Eagleton’s definition of evil, the desire to do pure harm? Could not that desire stem from a psychological process, just as Eve’s acquiescence to temptation was the result of a (problematic) psychological process? Does the psychological process, in any case, diminish the weight of the evil deed, it’s amount of “evil-ness” or its label as evil in general? These seem questions worth pondering.
In the end, Eve seems to commit evil (if, indeed, we choose to call it that) as a result of temptation, though she intends no harm. This choice seems a starkly different act then the evil the Joker commits in the Batman movies, with no end in mind save the sake of doing harm (and, perhaps, tempting Batman to commit similar evil in retaliation, and feeling satisfied with his destruction). Is it fair, then, to label both actions as evil? Are they not astonishingly different in nature (especially since Eve eats the fruit to obtain a sort of divine enlightenment that we might deem inherently good?) Then we consider Adam, who, in Milton, purportedly eats the fruit not just because Eve persuades him, but because if Eve dies as a result of her decision, Adam does not want to live alone in Eden, without his original love. He considers the possibility of God creating a new Eve, but rejects a substitute for the love of his first companion. Much like the fallen Anakin Skywalker, who turns into Darth Vader out of love for Padme, Adam succumbs to what we might call evil out of love, at least according to Milton’s version of the story. What a tricky predicament, to consider the possibility that love (the emotion and state most traditionally associated with God) can produce evil (the state of being most traditionally associated with the devil). This problem may question the entire dichotomy we create between the concepts of love and evil, one of many possible critiques of Western, binary thinking.
Ultimately, it seems surprisingly difficult to separate “bad deeds” and “human selfishness” from evil actions, to the extent that we find it appropriate to separate these actions and concepts at all. Much more could, of course, be written about the subject, but this was a fun mental exercise, and I’m ready to revise, post, and go to bed. Still, I would not wonder if the most fervent atheist would be tempted to believe Milton’s wonderfully expressed version of the ultimate story of temptation, a cornerstone of Christian, and to an extent, traditionally Western, thought. I certainly do not wonder that I found it appealing – I who often wrestle with these questions. And I do not wonder that human beings have both created stories and turned to religion since the inception of mankind, to explain the otherwise inexplicable. Is it a “cop out” then, if you’re of the religious or spiritual variety, to say that evil was meant to be beyond the realm of human understanding, that only a Higher Power comprehends the true nature and existence of evil on earth? Not according to the myth. After all, evil comes into the world, according to the story, because Eve eats from the tree that possesses the knowledge of good and evil. As such, our earlier human brethren suggested that there were some things we simply weren’t meant to know. And even if we assume we weren’t meant to possess indisputable explanations for these problems, its oddly exhilarating to consider the possibilities. In short, Milton, and Christianity as a whole, are really great at answering the question: “Why do we, made in the image of divinity, do such shitty things?”