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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
“What does God need with a starship?” – James T. Kirk
“I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you. The universe is not so badly designed.” – Jean Luc Picard (speaking to the omnipotent alien Q)
I’d intended to write about Othello and Paradise Lost together, but after the stunning character of Iago, quite frankly Satan was a disappointment. I read the two works together based on Harold Bloom’s claim that Milton borrowed much from Shakespeare’s Iago in creating his own anti-hero. While I see some general resemblance, in all honesty Satan stands out only because every other character in the poem (God, Christ, Eve, Adam, the various angels) is so ponderous.
Perhaps Milton would have done better if he’d had better material with which to work.
Harold Bloom and others have called Paradise Lost an early work of science fiction. True or not, let’s examine it from just such a standpoint. I started this post with three quotes which I think will help frame the discussion about the subject matter of Paradise Lost.
First, let’s do away with the notion of the supernatural. Why? Because I don’t understand it. I don’t know the rules; I don’t know how to make moral judgments about things which don’t obey the laws of our universe. As Clarke points out, though, if the technology is advanced enough, it looks just like magic.
So let’s consider God, Christ, Satan, and all the other angels (fallen or not) as incredibly advanced aliens living in the universe. These aliens are not quite immortal, but might as well be, as their technology gives them the power to heal, regenerate, even back up their own personalities and reboot in case of trauma. God isn’t quite omniscient, but has a huge supply of information with which to predict future events. Worlds are created, not through magic, but through the application of enormously powerful technology, including the ability to create artificial intelligences (angels and, finally, humans)
Given this framework the story of Paradise Lost becomes this: A powerful leader named God rules over other powerful entities – the angels. Satan/Lucifer is one of these entities. One day God decides he needs a right-hand man, so raises up another entity, Christ, to rule at his side. Lucifer is disappointed that Christ has been given this promotion and not him, so he gathers his followers and rebels against God.
Unfortunately for Lucifer, Christ proves to be far more powerful than he, and Lucifer (now Satan) and his minions are cast out of heaven. Satan rallies his troops and convinces them that all is not lost.
Around this same time, God creates a new world containing two adorable little morons known as Adam and Eve, living in a paradise known as Eden. Feeling the sting of the angels’ rebellion, God needs something new to occupy himself with. He wants Adam and Eve to adore and worship him, but he knows that such adoration would be meaningless without an alternative. So he proposes a little test. Into Eden God places a tree, which he cleverly names the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He puts only one proscription on Adam and Eve. They may not eat the fruit of that tree, or else they will die.
This is where things start to get weird (!). God, with his enormous information supply, deduces that of course Adam and Eve will fail his test. He seems rather melancholy about this, so Christ steps in and offers himself as a sacrifice to atone for Adam and Eve’s misbehavior.
This of course makes no sense at all, but more on the morality of it later.
Poor Satan, lacking apparently God’s near-omniscient knowledge, tempts Eve quite easily and causes her to do the one thing forbidden her. God, feigning anger (since, of course, he knew this was coming), reveals that when he said Adam and Eve would die from eating the fruit, what he actually meant was he would kill them by removing them from Eden and preventing them from eating of the Tree of Life – apparently the only thing protecting the two fragile humans from the cold, cold world.
When seen as a science fiction story, there’s so much wrong with this. First, why did God not create Adam and Eve with knowledge of Good and Evil? It can’t be because such knowledge would make them imperfect; apparently God himself, and Christ, too, possess such knowledge. If Adam and Eve had possessed such knowledge, maybe they could have resisted Satan’s tricks. Second, why, once Adam and Eve had obtained such knowledge, did God withdraw the Tree of Life? Third, what’s this crazy Christ story? Why would Christ’s death somehow nullify Adam and Eve’s misbehavior? It makes no sense, but hearkens back to the idea of scapegoating, literally blaming a goat or some other animal for your troubles and killing it. Again, what’s the mechanism? It makes no sense.
And what does it mean for Christ to die and then come back to life? Didn’t we establish that these entities are essentially immortal? If he’s got a regeneration card in his deck, then what did the death even mean?
But the biggest problem isn’t with the plot. The gaping chasm in the whole story is the morality of it. So God created Adam and Eve. Big deal. That doesn’t give God the right to rule them, any more than parents have the right to rule their children (and make no mistake, created artificial intelligences, which is what we have to consider Adam and Eve in the story, are exactly like created children). A parent who wants forever to shield his children from knowedge of the world, knowledge that the parent apparently already possesses, is abusive. In this view, Satan did us a favor by helping us to break free of this eternal prison.
Of course the story (both the original in Genesis and Milton’s poem) is metaphor. Let’s instead look at what really happened in the history of humanity. Slowly evolving from forest apes, our early ancestors experienced a life of constant fear, pain, and death. Natural selection had equipped us only poorly for a harsh environment, giving us few natural assets. But we did have a brain.
Using our brains, we slowly gathered information, and learned to pass it on to our children. Soon humans were living outside of our genes; unlike animals that could survive only in those environments for which they’d been adapted, humans could take their environment with them. We learned to make clothes to keep us warm. We learned to build tools to act as the sharp teeth and claws our bodies lacked. We learned to tame fire. Far from causing our fall, knowledge of the world is the only thing that saved us.
Many cultures have believed in a fall from grace and have longed to return us to that nearly-forgotten golden age. In fact, there was no Eden, there was no perfect, trouble-free time. We are our only hope, and it is only through gathering knowledge, via every tree we can find, that we have any hope of surviving.
Now that would be a poem worth reading.