Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven

Paradise Lost by John Milton - Airmont Edition

You’re reading a blog called Classically Educated.  I suppose that an appearance by Milton shouldn’t be much of a surprise…  Also, we’ve done poetry before, too…

Of course, even those of us who’ve never read John Milton’s epic poems, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, know about Milton’s Satan.  He is often pointed at as one of the great characters in the history of literature, and used as the prime example of how villains are so much more interesting than the good guys.

And it’s true, he is.  Not particularly sympathetic, perhaps, but definitely interesting.

But I often wonder how much of the character’s sympathetic nature has been created by modern readings of the poem.  Would a 17th century reader have been captivated by Satan’s cleverness or perseverance or have seen it as a warning and a danger, kind of the way modern people might see the industrial might of a military rival?

Most readers of that time, I believe, would have read the poem as a cautionary tale, and heeded the implied warnings against pride and arrogance contained within.

Milton's Satan by Gustav Doré

Nevertheless, the more interesting question of what Milton intended still persists.  We need to remember that, before composing his opus, John Milton was an official of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and, as such, the Christian paradise he refers to might be a symbol of the political one he feels was destroyed by Oliver’s death–although it would be really, really hard to place Cromwell in Satan’s role in this case.

Viewed in a different light, the poems (Lost and Regained) might have been written more in the way of a Shakespearian tragedy: the virtuous, albeit flawed protagonist struggles to the best of his ability, only to be crushed in the end.

Contemporary critics appeared to take the poems in the same light as his readers.  They were much more astonished at his skill than offended at the positive portrayal of some of the devil’s characteristics…  so no light got shed there.

I suppose the truth went to the grave with the author.  That hasn’t stopped seas of ink flowing into analysis later… but I can’t give the answer.  What I will say is that, unlike Chapman’s Homer, this one is an easy, often riveting read that holds up well in modern times.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts about what old Mr. Milton intended.

If you haven’t, don’t do what I did.

I made the mistake of taking this one along as reading material on an international trip…  Not a good idea.  When you’re on a trip, you want something that can immediately, effortlessly, whisk you away into a plot.  This one requires concentration and effort.  Not airport reading material.


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short-story writer.  His latest novel, The Malakiad, has one major advantage compared to Paradise Lost: it is not in blank verse.  You can check it out here.


The Need for Secular Faith

Voice of God
Classically Educated prides itself on being eclectic.  Our manifesto makes it clear that we are looking to display as broad a variety of disciplines as possible.  That is patly because we believe in the conceptual superiority of Polymath discipline but mainly because we have a severe case of “shiny” syndrome.
Under these premises, we had an inexplicable gap in our subject matter: faith.  It is a concept that has been central to human experience for as long as human experience has existed… and yet, we’ve only mentioned it tangentially when we made fun of gullibility in the name of spirituality.  Clearly, a more measured, serious approach was needed.
But who could write it?  Faith is a polarizing, moving subject and our regular contributors and especially our editorial team tend to be strongly opinionated and often atheistic – which is great for most subjects, but bad for this one.  We think we’ve got the right man for the job.  After many years of mental hibernation and corporate procrastination we finally get a piece from our deep north correspondent in the mountains near Seattle.  He has asked us to refer to him as “The Delay Lemming” (which we found fitting, so that’s his new handle).  We believe this piece will make you think (or is that: “we think this piece will make you believe”?).

I grew up in Buenos Aires in what I consider a very representative context towards religion for the country: there is a historical base of Catholicism that feeds many customs and morals, but for the most part the rest is fairly secular.  My grandma would go to church on Sundays, my mother on Christmas, and I would only go there when someone was getting married.  When I moved to the USA later in life I saw a similar thing in the liberal half of the population – the base is now Protestant, the morals have different relative weights but for the purpose of this article are largely the same.

There is also a need, fueled by the religious divide with the other more zealous half of the population, to distance oneself from all things religious and push forward an atheist view. The goal is to base choices on the best available science (like vaccination) as opposed to following what was deemed right and wrong by the scripture of choice. In this context, faith is equated with religion and seen as the enemy of progress and common sense.

xkcd religions
(Original comic here.  Click to see the mouse-over)

If you take a pragmatic approach to a human level, the choices we make have consequences in our lives.  We make those choices based on our own models of the world in what we think would yield the best outcome.  These models have inherent probabilities associated with them, like rolling dice, and as such a level of uncertainty and randomness.  When the outcome meets the model and our expectations, we pride ourselves in our superior understanding of the world and rational choices.  But when the unexpected happens, when unforeseen consequences arise or when we start throwing people and emotions into the mix, the results are blurrier.

In these failure scenarios, the most often answer given by religion is faith: believe in our model of the world and trust that there is a higher-order reason for your current suffering.  Billions often find solace in this answer and atheists tend to reject it wholeheartedly. The engineering answer is to look for new information and update the model accordingly to account for this miscalculation – but what about the times when there is none?
Secular Faith
The answer I believe to be also faith, but a secular kind of faith.  This would be the belief that the model you acted on had a high probability of success but yielded failure on this occasion. The faith comes from understanding the odds and thinking about behavior in the long term, believing that acting on this model was indeed the best thing to do despite a failed sample outcome, and thus continue to act this way in the future. The emotional frustration and the discipline that this conviction requires mimics that of religious belief, which should open a path to empathy and hopefully improve the conversation.

Agree wholeheartedly?  Disagree violently?  Have a  slightly deranged opinion about something completely unrelated to this post? That’s what the comments section is for.