The Origin of Evil. MAYL Wear x KULT Inspiration

The English word evil is of Teutonic origin, cognate with übel and Dutch euvel. It is thought to derive from a theoretical word *ubiloz, cognate with up or over, and thus the etymology of evil connects it with the concepts of too much, exceeding due measure, and over limits.

The Oxford English Dictionary has various definitions, but the important distinction is between those uses that are synonyms of ‘weakness’ or ‘affliction’, and those that retain the much stronger sense that makes people reluctant to use it, restricting it to the Nazi holocaust or similarly extreme events such as the recent genocides in Ruanda or Kosovo. This strong sense of evil is usually reserved for those who are barely regarded as human. This is the sense in which I explore the concept in this essay, with the important addition that the word implies a metaphysical, not simply a powerfully moral, reality.

In this sense, then, does the word have a classical or rather a Judaeo-Christian origin?

The Problem of Evil In The Ancient World

No Greek word covers all of what we mean by the concept evil, and there was in classical times no such thing as what theologians call ‘the problem of evil.’ to kakon is the closest word, especially in tragedy, but it means so many things, including both cowardice and base birth (concepts of heroic origin), and is so often plural or merely particular; to aischron means rather shameful or disgusting, and is usually opposed to to kalon as ugliness to beauty or vice to virtue; poneria covers any defects or blemish, moral or otherwise.The problem, certainly, was anticipated by Epicurus (341-270 BC), who put it thus as a part of his argument that the gods pay no attention to our world:

God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? or why does He not remove them?

This passage survives because it is quoted (in Latin) by Lactantius (AD 260-340) in his newly Christian context. It poses the terms of the problem in the way the Christian world was beginning to face it. Indeed in discussing this early form of the dilemma, the contemporary Christian theologian John Hick admits that ‘No argument, it seems, could be simpler or clearer than this. Quite so. As a theist, Hick is obliged to answer the argument, but he admits he cannot do so without making things very complicated indeed. Occam’s razor, one might suppose, would destroy theodicy, that is, the extraordinarily bold attempt, in Milton’s words, ‘to justify the ways of God to man.’ Nevertheless when Epicurus formulated the dilemma, he appears to have used the plural (Lactantius’ mala), and does not refer to a singular ‘evil.’ This singular abstraction seems to appear not in classical Greek contexts but concomitantly with the developing idea of the Devil in Jewish apocalyptic and then spectacularly in Christian contexts.

Pseudomorphosis

We move into a different conceptual universe when we turn our attention from classical Greece to the world in which Christianity arose. And indeed evil as a metaphysical principle is regarded by most historians of ideas as of Christian rather than classical origin. But just how large is the gap crossed from pagan classical to Judeo-Christian culture in thinking about ‘evil’? A strong form of the argument has it that the concepts of Greek and ‘Eastern’ systems of thought are so different that even when there is apparent overlap, this is an illusion. For this illusory phenomenon, which is characterized by the use of Greek forms for oriental conceptions, Oswald Spengler coined the useful term pseudomorphosis. The metaphor derives from mineralogy and refers to the geological phenomenon that occurs when one crystalline structure in a rock formation is emptied out, leaving a hollow, and another quite different structure comes in, after a time, to fill the gap. ‘Disintegrating’ Greek thought is the older crystal, Eastern thought the new substance forced into its mould. The observer risks being misled into taking the new for the older crystal, but once he carries out chemical analysis, the difference becomes clear. 

An example will help understand the idea. In many religious systems of late antiquity, including several that overlapped with Christianity, there was a widespread idea that spirit is good but the matter is evil. In the Manichaean religious system, which was perhaps the most widespread of the Gnostic systems which the Church fathers opposed, and which has especial importance for Christianity because it attracted the young Augustine for nine years, two arch-principles of Light and Darkness oppose each other from all eternity.  In the Persian language sources of this international religion (which spread as far as China), the Dark principle is personified as Ahriman, following the Zoroastrian tradition; the Arabic sources call it Iblis, or Arch-Devil, a corruption of the Greek diabolos. But the Greek sources generally call it by the name Hyle, and the Greek word is used even in Latin or Syriac versions of Manichaean teaching. Indeed Mani himself, who wrote mostly in Syriac, still used the Greek term Hyle. Now hyle is the conventional Greek word for the matter. Alexander of Lycopolis, a pagan opponent of Manichaeism, well trained in philosophy and writing in Egypt one generation after Mani, distinguishes Mani’s Hyle from the hyle of Plato and Aristotle, and Jonas summarises his argument as follows:

Mani ascribes to it powers, movements, and strivings of its own which differ from those of God only by being evil: its movements are ‘disorderly motion,’ its strivings ‘evil lust,’ and its powers are symbolized in the ‘dark consuming fire’. So far is Matter here from being the passive substratum of the philosophers that the Darkness with which it is identical is even alone the originally active of the two opposed principles, and the Light in its repose is forced into action only by an initial attack of the Darkness.

That is to say, Hyle here functions not as a philosophical concept, but as an active mythological figure, even as a ‘round,’ i.e., fully developed character, rather than a ‘flat’ background figure, to borrow E. M. Forster’s terms for novelistic fictions. This use of the word hyle represents not a development of the original Greek classical conception, but a wholly new ‘crystalline structure’ forced into the mould of a disintegrated concept. The mould was created by a world-view (the classical) which admired and often reverenced the order of created things. Plato’s Timaeus provides an apt illustration of this outlook: when Timaeus introduces his description of creation, he begins with the firm statement that the creator ‘was good; and in the good no jealousy about anything can ever arise. So, being without jealousy, he desired that all things should come as near as possible to being like himself’ (129e). Aristotle, similarly, begins his Nicomachean Ethics by saying: Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and practical pursuit, is thought to aim at some good: hence it has rightly been said that the Good is that at which all things aim.

Even in reflecting on the tragedy in the Poetics, Aristotle maintains that happy endings are the best and that what goes wrong therein is hamartia. This innocent notion, which is best translated as ‘error’ or ‘missing the mark,’ derives ultimately from the Socratic argument that sin is an error, which in turn is caused by ignorance. Moderns in general, Christian or post-Christian, and so suffering from pseudomorphosis, have had trouble with the rather amoral notion of hamartia, so that it often becomes flaw or fault or even sin in various translations of the Poetics. Tragedy may well have been, from a modern perspective, the Greek way of thinking about how to face evil, but that is not how Aristotle presents it to its own audience. The actual term hyle was first used by the Peripatetics in developing a theory of Matter which distinguishes Aristotle’s ontology sharply from his master, Plato’s. The term was conventionally used thereafter to mean the basic substance of visible reality, even in discussions of the theories of the Pre-Socratics. When the term Hyle appears in the works of Mani, however, it has an entirely different ‘crystalline structure,’ as Alexander of Lycopolis demonstrated. It derives its meaning not from the Greek tradition at all, but from the Gnostic revision of Iranian dualism. The Greek word is used because much of the Gnostic re-interpretation of traditional teachings, whether Persian, Greek, Hebrew, Babylonian, or Egyptian, was carried out in the medium of the Greek language, the prestigious koine of the ancient world. But instead of the reverence for cosmic order demonstrated by classical Greek philosophy, a large and extremely influential spiritual movement has come to hate that order. No longer is the visible universe equated with order, beauty, and harmony, all of which are implications of the Greek word ‘cosmos’ within its classical context: rather it has become the visible aspect of a malign and vicious jailer, the repressive ‘law and order’ of a hated tyrant. And his chains are Hyle, matter.

Of course, not all aspects of the new religions are examples of ‘pseudomorphosis.’ Some of the concepts adapted by Christianity and its rivals derive directly from classical philosophy. The trick is to know which is which.

Satan

The boundary between that which is genuinely classical and that which appears in the Greek of the New Testament and the early Fathers only through ‘pseudomorphosis’ may be drawn even more clearly by the figure of Satan, the Prince of this World. Despite the many classical allusions with which the later tradition, especially Milton, dignified the character of Satan, his genesis and his role in the Christian scheme put him outside the classical Greek legacy. The historical equivalent of chemical analysis demonstrates that he appears as the Greek ‘diabolos’ only by virtue of ‘pseudomorphosis.’ Indeed, if the reference in I Chronicles 21.1 (the only time where an independent Satan with no definite article appears in the Old Testament) is influenced by Persian dualism, then he would even be outside the genuine Hebrew tradition also. All his associations are with the radical dualism or anticosmism of the religious environment within which he ‘grew up.’ Not that he is automatically identified as ‘evil’: rather he is ‘the adversary’, a character in a myth, not a rootless metaphysical principle. Nonetheless, the two ideas, that of evil and the devil, develop within similar contexts, and in reaction to the general sense of helplessness that the inhabitants of the Seleucid, and more especially the Roman Empire, seem to have experienced. Satan emerges from the ancient myth-language that had been taken up or revived by apocalyptic and sectarian movements within Judaism like the one responsible for the now-famous scrolls recovered since the 1940’s from the Qumran caves above the Dead Sea, or the one which soon formed around the figure of Jesus. Members of such movements saw themselves as engaged in spiritual battles fought out at both cosmic and earthly levels, and they adopted the widespread myths of combat to tell their story to themselves and make sense of the terrifying political events of the period. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the records of a Puritanical (and all-male) Jewish sect, probably the Essenes described by Josephus. They record a belief in apocalyptic interpretations of prophetic texts like Isaiah and Hosea, expounded by a ‘Teacher of Righteousness’, in the sense that time would soon end and the Sons of Light would prevail in the final battle over the armies of the Angel of Darkness. Satan, or more often Beliar, is the leader of these hostile forces, who function both at the heavenly level, as angels, and at the earthly, as the majority of the community’s fellow Jews, those who have stayed behind in Jerusalem and try to reach an accomodation with the foreign rulers.

A long tradition lies behind this idea of human-as-cosmic conflict. In the Old Testament, Yahweh aligns himself with Israel, and so has enemies when Israel does: ‘If thou wilt indeed obey, then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies and an adversary unto thine adversaries’ (Exodus 23.22). In the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, this tendency has expanded to the idea of the guardian angels of the nations; Michael, Israel’s angel, is the most powerful, and in the last battle he will defeat the fourth oppressor, patron angel of Greece (ie the Seleucids: Daniel was written during the anti-Jewish pogroms of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in Palestine) and deliver his people. These enemies are also pictured as stars, and as chaos-monsters emerging from the turbulent sea. The deliverance, though it uses human instruments, was to be God’s work, and in the vision it is ‘the Ancient of Days’ who judges and sentences the beast to destruction. This apocalyptic tendency to use the combat myth to polarize moral issues into black and white opposites, and so to demonize ‘the Other’, even those like the Jerusalem Jews who are closest to oneself, was especially strong among the first Christians, but in the process that led to the invention of the Satan figure the tendency was carried one step further. It was customary that the enemy figures in the myths have significant personal names: the Babylonian Tiamat, a female monster, has a name cognate with Hebrew tehom, chaos; the Huwawa (Humbaba) of the Gilgamesh cycle is a personification of the forest; the enemies in the Canaanite or West-Semitic traditions that are often echoed in the Old Testament had proper names like Lotan (which turned into Leviathan), Nahar (River) or Yamm, a personification of the sea, and thus another figure of chaos; while the bright rebel of near-eastern tradition, who appears in various forms as Athtar, Phaethon or Helel, the harbinger of Dawn, eventually becomes Lucifer, light-bringer, in Jerome’s Latin Bible. But in the Jewish, and then much more so in the Christian tradition, the name which came to dominate and to include all the others was the most general: satan is the Hebrew for ‘adversary’, and the devil comes from its Greek equivalent, diabolos, which means simply ‘opponent’ in the etymological sense of ‘obstruction’, something placed in the way. So it is enmity itself that is signaled by the name of the Christian enemy. Once we try to trace Satan back further than the Christian movement and its immediate apocalyptic precursors like the Essenes, we soon lose touch with the combat myth. There is a satan figure of a sort in the book Christians call the Old Testament, but he is decidedly less powerful and almost never an independent figure, indeed not necessarily evil at all.

The only time we find a figure who is apparently named Satan (since the word occurs without the definite article) is in the Book of Chronicles. He tempts David to commit the much-loathed act of holding a census (numbering the people as a preliminary to imposing the tools of bureaucracy, like taxation), and for this all of Israel is punished by Yahweh with a plague. The point where the punishment stops is ever after commemorated by the building of the first temple in Jerusalem. This is an especially interesting moment, since the earlier account of this episode, the one in the Deuteronomic historian, 2 Sam xxiv 1, makes no reference to Satan: rather it is Yahweh himself who tempts David directly—and then punishes him. It looks as if the Chronicler is the first known writer who makes use of Satan in order to protect God from his own more destructive or arbitrary nature: as the idea of a good Yahweh, as opposed simply to a nationalistic deity, develops, Satan begins to take over his unsavoury side. The immediate risk of this new version of an old narrative is dualism when eventually the world is divided between the wills of two gods, not subject to one.

The Essenes, at about the same time, adopted a fairly elaborate angelology, expounded in the Book of Enoch, including the myth of the fallen ‘Watcher’ angels, who lusted after human women. Their leader, called both Asa’el and Semihazah (Shemhazai), is certainly a prototype of the New Testament Satan, but in the form of the myth that appears in the Qumran texts he is already being punished in Hell: in the Book of Jubilees, however, he is still free to walk the earth a certain time.

Rome: Hell’s Fury

So far we have followed the strong argument for a radical difference between classical and Christian concepts as sources of the idea of evil. But we have also confined the ‘classical’ to what Greece represented. If we now extend the classical tradition to include Rome, we get a different view. Not only is malum closer to the modern senses of evil, it is the word used in Jerome’s Bible for several of those disparate Hebrew and Greek words, and indeed for the most influential discussions of the problem of evil, notably Augustine’s. In Horace and Juvenal there are instances of that ‘motiveless malignancy’ that Coleridge identified in Iago. In Virgil’s Aeneid, there are certain features that point to a new sense of the universe as malevolent, especially the poignant beginning of the second, Italian half of the poem. Allecto introduces and virtually presides over the second, Italian part of the Aeneid, and she is representative of this new sense of malignance in Virgil. The poet signals how different she is by inviting comparison with Juno’s first intervention in Book I, when she invoked the god of the winds, Aeolus, to oppose Aeneas’ destiny. Having failed in that Homeric venture, the vindictive Juno now goes beneath the forces of nature for very un-Homeric weapons, and invokes the aid of Tartarus.

She summarizes this escalation of the war in a line that Freud used, with somewhat different

connotations, as the epigraph for The Interpretation of Dreams: flectere si nequeo superos. Acheronta movebo (VII.31) / ‘If I cannot bend the powers above, then I will arouse hell. Even without Freud’s signal, we could see that Juno’s decision is a radical departure from previous tradition. She summons Allecto, a Fury whom even her sisters abhor, to incite frenzy in the Italians and thus oppose Aeneas’ efforts to install himself peacefully in Latinus’ territory. Allecto goes first to Lavinia’s mother, Amata, maddening her by means of a snake that crawls its poison unnoticed through her body, then to Turnus himself (who first rejects her in her disguise as an old priestess, but is overcome by the snakes she hurls at him). She then incites the hunting hounds to chase the pet stag which Iulus promptly shoots, unaware that it is a pet: nec dextrae erranti deus afuit (VII.498) / ‘Some god did not allow his faltering hand to fail.’ Finally she sounds the trumpet of war, and returns to Juno, mission accomplished.

This splendid invention of Virgil’s certainly has precedents in Greece: Hesiod’s Eris (Strife) and Night (Allecto, like the Dira of XII, is virgo sata Nocte VII 331 / ‘virgin born of Night,’ cf. XII 846, 860) among those originary and earlier monsters who now inhabit Tartarus, the Gorgon myth for the poisionous snakes in the hair (VII 341-48), and above all the Fury or Erinys and her sisters Tisiphone and Megaera. (These creatures have in fact already appeared at the entrance to Virgil’s underworld, VI.280-1.) But Hesiod’s monsters have been overcome by Zeus, while the Greek Furies, in their best-known appearance in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, are, despite their horrific appearance, servants of justice. They are to avenge the murder of Clytemnestra, not initiate an unprovoked and bloody war. Virgil’s creature is an embodiment of furor in its darker sense of uncontrolled and obsessive power, and opening with her lends the whole of the second, Iliadic and Italian part of the Aeneid, a distinctly un-Homeric aura. Even though she works with qualities already present in the psyche of the victim, as Macbeth’s weird sisters call up his ‘black and deep desires,’ the very fact that she is given separate existence and free rein to work her sadistic will risks detaching her from any larger world of values. She acts as, and has all the poetic power of, an independent being.

Thus her powerful presence in the narrative, like Satan’s in Milton’s, needs to be held in check by explicit moral assertion. Virgil’s Juno brusquely tells her upon her return that Jupiter will not allow her to wander freely in the upper air and she must return to the world of Dis:

 

…te super aetherias errare licentius auras

haud pater ille velit, summi regnator Olympi.

cede locis. (VII 557-9)

The lord of high Olympus will not let you wander free about the

upper air. Be gone from here

 

The result is one of those splendid Virgilian descriptions of the landscape as the Fury returns to Tartarus through a hole in the Earth’s crust.

 

his specus horrendum et saevi spiracula Ditis

monstrantur, ruptoque ingens Acheronte vorago

pestiferas aperit fauces, quis condita Erinys,

invisum numen, terras caelumque levavit. (VII 568-71)

Here appears a horrid cave, one of the breathing vents of savage Dis,

and a huge abyss where Acheron bursts through open its infectious

jaws. Into this, the Fury hid her hated power and relieved earth and

sky.

 

Virgil then intervenes in his own voice, a rare occurence in the poem, to condemn the war that Allecto begins:

ilicet infandum cuncti contra omina bellum,

contra fata deum perverso numine poscunt. (VII 583-4)

At once, against the omens, all men demand unholy war, against the

signs of divine will, under a malign influence.

 

Virgil apparently feels the need to remind us of the values we supposedly share with him (as Milton does more often), in this case that these men call for war under a malign influence, that the impulse that makes them do so is perverse.

The word numen obviously refers here to supernatural interference like Allecto’s, although Page took it as the collective and misdirected will, and cited Lucretius 4.179. To cite Lucretius in order to distinguish supernatural from natural impulses is itself a loaded and perhaps perverse impulse, but the very fact that commentators may disagree about these matters (and so about Virgilian religion) is significant. It shows how far we are from the world of Homer, even of Hesiodic Tartarus, or classical Greek culture in general. This is rather the world of Roman (or at least Hellenistic) syncretism, of religious turmoil and doubt and apocalyptic expectation, where divine forces are imagined as battling for the world, as Virgil’s gods do for Troy and Italy, and where the relation of those supernatural events to human action is philosophically problematic. We may wonder, on rereading these Virgilian passages, whether the bald assertion of Jupiter’s supreme power does much to counteract the cumulative effect of poetic darkness. In this literature, we certainly find a more pervasive and familiar sense of something recognizably evil. Thus it is apt that the poem ends with a new Fury or Dira released this time by Jupiter himself, and with the pathos of Turnus’ death. Aeneas has finally succumbed, despite all his efforts throughout the poem, to furor, to the malign influence of the furies (furiis accensus et ira terribilis, XII 946-7). The absence of the Homeric reconciliation scene between the hero and his dead victim’s relatives is itself a comment on the world that is coming into being in this poem. Greco-Roman rationalism has almost yielded to the mythological imaginings of the new religions and mystery cults, to their insistence on the unintelligibility of the world outside the closed circle of believers, and thus to recognition of evil not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Virgil sails very close, in the conclusion of the poem which he wished destroyed, to acknowledging those powers of darkness that were being released all over the world of the ancient Mediterranean, and of which Gnosticism and its rival, ‘orthodox’ Christianity, are such powerful signs.

Hell

Hell, or the realm of Dis, the place Allecto comes from, is another sign of that darkening realm in which Satan and the abstraction he embodies, evil, were coming into being. An essential component of the Christian cosmos, Hell has scarcely any precedents in Jewish literature. Sheol, the Old Testament graveyard of the dead, takes on some of the characteristics of Hades (the standard translation in LXX) in later Jewish texts, but before the Hellenistic period, when ‘syncretism’ became widespread, Sheol (or sometimes Gehenna, a kind of garbage dump where the bodies of criminals were also thrown into fires that burned perpetually) was not much more than a spooky burial ground or vague place of the dead. The Christian Hell derives, at the popular level, from various folk beliefs, and at the level of educated texts, from Virgil’s reworking of the Homeric and Roman tradition. Virgil was the classical author most often Christianized, of course, in the medieval tradition, especially through the Messianic reading of Eclogue IV as a prophecy of Christ. Thus it is Virgil who is most likely to provide a bridge between classical and Christian (as he does for Dante), even on so momentous a topic as evil. 

So different is Virgil’s underworld from its apparent model in Homer, a land of troubled ghosts often known as Hades, that the best term to describe the relationship might be, again, ‘pseudomorphosis.’ Milton understood Virgil’s hell and reproduced it clearly, especially its most distinctive feature: even more than the monsters, and the bleakness, what he makes most of is its ‘darkness visible’ (I, 63). There are many instances of this paradoxical quality in Virgil, from the uncertain luminosity that Aeneas perceives as he starts his underworld journey to the black light (atro/lumine), an oxymoron divided by line-end, that Allecto throws as a torch into Turnus’ dream (VII 456-7). How powerfully Milton, in his blindness, responded to this paradox, in both its physical and its symbolic meanings, may be shown through a comparison with what Dryden makes of the passage which introduces Aeneas into the underworld. Dryden was usually trying to avoid too close an echo of Milton’s language (he was writing some twenty years after Paradise Lost was published, and had already adapted its blank verse to the couplets of his State of Innocence, but the result was often somewhat lame, as in his version of Aeneas’ apostrophe to the nether world and its powers:


Ye realms yet unrevealed to human sight!

Ye gods who rule the regions of the night!

Ye gliding ghosts! permit me to relate

The mystic wonders of your silent state.

Obscure they went through dreary shades, that led

Along the waste dominions of the dead.

Thus wander travelers in woods by night,

By the moon’s doubtful and malignant light,

When Jove in dusky clouds involves the skies,

And the faint crescent shoots by fits before their eyes.

Just in the gate, and in the jaws of hell,

Revengeful Cares and sullen Sorrows dwell.

(Dryden’s Aeneid VI,374-85)


If we now recall Virgil’s Latin, what we note in particular is that Dryden (line 380) has nothing for Aeneid VI272 et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem / black night has taken all colour from things,’ but has instead a silly line about the fitful crescent moon, and some dusky clouds.


Di, quibus imperium est animarum, umbaeque silentes

et Chaos et Phlegethon, loca nocte tacentia late,

sit mihi fas audita loqui, sit numine vestro

pandere res alta terra et caligine mersas.

Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram

perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna:

quale per incertam lunam sub luce maligna

est iter in silvis, ubi caelum condidit umbra

Iuppiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem

(Aeneid VI 264-274)


Milton’s famous paradox about ‘darkness visible,’ by contrast with Dryden, is only one of many phrases which repeat that central idea of hell, even in this single passage. Virgil’s simile methodically deprives the eye of the images it presents. It clearly anticipates Milton’s


…dreary plain …/… voyd of light, Save what the glimmering of these livid flames Casts pale and dreadful ...(I.180-83)


and other paradoxes of hell, like the burning lake. Cumulatively they show the difficulty of imagining hell, and invite the reader to experience that difficulty for himself. What is more, the following passage begins the narrative, not merely of the underworld scene but, because Milton moves the experience of Hell to the beginning, of the whole poem. It describes what Satan sees as he awakens in Hell after being cast from Heaven, and then begins the narrative with the first words he speaks.


At once as far as Angels kenn he views

The dismal Situation waste and wilde,

A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round

As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible

Serv’d only to discover sights of woe,

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace

And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

That comes to all; but torture without end

Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed

With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:

Such place Eternal Justice had prepared

For these rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d

In utter darkness and their portion set

As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n

As from the Centre thrice to the utmost Pole. 

(PL I 59-74)

 

What is remarkable here is that Milton can reproduce some of Virgil’s language as his central idea, and at the same time, without apparent contradiction, allude to widely known paradoxes of the Judeo-Christian Hell. Job x 22, for example, says that in the land of the dead, Sheol, ‘the light is as darkness.’ Contemporaries of Milton knew this paradox as a theological enigma about Hell: Herrick, for example, writes that ‘The fire of hell this strange condition hath, / To burn not shine (as learned Basil saith). In his Homilies on the Psalms xxviii, St. Basil indeed explains that God separates the brightness of fire from its burning power: in Paradise fire can increase the joy of the blessed, while in Hell it helps torture the damned. The Basil passage is also cited by Aquinas, where it is debated whether the damned have any light and can see. John Collop and Thomas Adams were among Milton’s contemporaries who discuss the issue. T.S.Eliot’s unusual lapse into vulgarity when he complained that Milton’s blindness led him to write phrases like ‘darkness visible,’ which Eliot claimed to find difficult to imagine, thus has no theological and little imaginative justification. On the contrary, he might have recalled Plutarch’s discussion of the question ‘Whether darkness can be visible to us’. The issue was of some philosophical and scientific interest, but it also has obvious symbolic resonance.

As these quotations show, the idea of evil had become an automatic ideological assumption, and the symbolic relation with Hell, darkness and imperfect vision were common coin within the Christian tradition. And the sources of these ideas are not in classical Greece, in spite of a few timid anticipations, but rather in the world, contemporary with Virgil though in a different social and cultural context, of apocalyptic expectation and religious myth-making. Allecto and the Hell she comes from are not far from the most enduring legacy of that apocalyptic world, the Jesus movement, and its Satanic evil.

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