A brief exoneration of Satan: The inverse morality of Christianity and the restorative ethics of Alan Badiou

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(This was a project for my PHD studies.) Introduction: While Zizek’s radical postmodern Marxist-atheism openly discusses, criticizes and invokes the Christian tradition, Badiou’s treatment of religiousity is more subtle – and yet there can be no doubt that Badiou’s philosophy is heavily influenced by Christianity: he continuously refers to St. Paul’s experience of the Christ-Event as a primary example of the value of fidelity to an event (even though he denies that such an event ever truly took place). At the same time, by masking his characters the points of similarity are not pristinely clear. This paper will claim that Badiou’s formulation of Promethean courage restores a pre-Christian ethical system of heroism and the virtues of blasphemy – that is, standing up to God and refusing his authority – thereby justifying the Romantic reading of Satan as the real hero of Paradise Lost.

This view of Milton’s Satan as a tragic hero conforming to the literary styles of epic literature, while immediately present on the surface of the text and in sync with Milton’s own political values, has been so badly disparaged by nearly a century of Christian theorists like C.S. Lewis and Stanley Fish that it continues to be dismissed by literary theorists. The true secret of the religious “rebranding” of Milton’s Paradise Lost however, is the raw power that an unleashed re-reading of Satan would bring. This is because Satan is not only a fictional character in a 17th century epic poem – he’s also the center and foundation of Christian ethics; he’s been charged without trial and imprisoned, and his fall and punishment is the defining myth that allows evil to exist in the world while absolving God of any wrongdoing. Consequently, the claim that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost is also the claim that Satan is the secret hero of the entire Christian epic, and reveals one of the greatest ethical inversions in human history.

In this paper (which will serve as a simple introduction to a much larger research project) I will show that the fall of Satan was foreknown and inevitable, and his eternal punishment therefore unjust. I will demonstrate that his continuing attempts to seek justice and a fair trial are no different from Job’s: both characters have faith in an absolute sense of fair play and the righteousness of standing up for oneself when wronged or falsely accused. Moreover, I will argue that the fact Satan had the courage to stand up to the omnipotent God, rather than a sin of hubris or pride, is actually a bold claim of individual autonomy, and hence a prime example of the site of freedom and the necessity of self governance; values which are championed by all forms of Western contemporary society and culture. In this regard, Satan can be compared to the heroes of modern media – the rebels, intransigents, and revolutionaries. These are figures who stand up and speak against tyranny and injustice at all costs, and are willing to sacrifice even their own lives to attain it; convinced of the inherent value of absolute freedom.

Moreover I will prove that this is not a perverse reading of Satan, and that seeing Satan as the hero of the Christian epic is completely normative and in agreement with our highest-regarded theorists and philosophers; identifying Satan in particular with Badiou’s concept of Promethean Courage and Zizek’s praise of revolution and terrorism. Finally I will demonstrate that not only are Christian ethics inherently impossible, but that they are also in conflict with basic humanitarianism. I will argue that real ethics are Satanic; that is they are constrained within the boundaries of this world without looking for an external source or post-mortem confirmation. It is only the continuing pollution of Christian ethics that inverse traditional values of heroism and bravery in favor of the virtues of humility, weakness and misery; obscuring the majesty and relevance of the figure of Satan.

Main Body: Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), was originally interpreted as in line with traditional Christian themes; a moral piece of literature with the final conclusion that Satan (and man) must submit to the absolute authority of God. Near the end of the 18th century, William Blake challenged this view, relating Milton’s personification of Satan to Prometheus as a creature of nobility, righteously seeking justice and freedom. Later humanists followed Blake in claiming that Milton, as a poet, deliberately or unconsciously created in Satan a heroic character that demands sympathy for his deterministic pursuit of autonomy in the face of an absolute power. The nature of the problem was recorded elegantly by Bloom:

Milton’s God is out of balance because Satan is so magnificently flawed in presentation, and to account for the failure of God as a dramatic character the reader is compelled to enter upon the most famous and vexing of critical problems concerning Paradise Lost, the satanic controversy itself. Is Satan in some sense heroic, or is he merely a fool? (3)

These “Satanic” understandings of the text were challenged in the 20th century by a resurgence of religious interpretations – from Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and most recently, Stanley Fish. Rather than a straight reading of the text, these theoretical manipulations warn against “falling into the trap” of a “false” reading, and argue that Milton’s writing is meant as a temptation or challenge for the faithful, which must be met with caution and distrust.

Might we not grant that Milton’s text is unclear? This is at odds with what most readers recognize as Milton’s prodigious control over his material, but perhaps the epiphany on the pinnacle of the temple is meant to be puzzling. Perhaps Milton’s praxis is in the service of a theory which aims to point out certain expressive and cognitive limits. (McMurray, 262)

According to C.S. Lewis, the aim of his 1942 preface to Paradise Lost was “preventing the reader from ever raising certain questions.” Stanley Fish argues that Milton has created a program of “reader harassment”; designed to scold unwary readers who allow themselves to be tempted by grand rhetoric of Satan into momentarily pushing aside the “imperative of Christian watchfulness” (Fish).

It is revealing to compare the figure of Satan with Milton’s own biography, in particular his many clashes with the government and the church. Milton is revolutionary, anti-censorship, anti-monarchy, anti-church power, pro-divorce, an Arian heretic, and believed in rule by election and reason and freedom above all else. He ended his life proud, stubborn, blind, jailed (or exiled) and unrepentant. It is hardly possible to read his 1649 Tenure of Kings and Magistrates without making a direct comparison with Satan’s justification of revolution in Paradise Lost: “…it is lawful, and hath been held so in all ages, for any who have the power, to call to account a Tyrant or wicked King, and, after due conviction, to depose and put him to death.”

It is no wonder, therefore, that critics have been quick to dismiss the author himself and warn against relating an author’s personal beliefs to his own writing. “We must constantly be on guard against over-reading any author’s biography or personal character into his works” (Nicolson 186).

At the same time, Paradise Lost is a rich field for a theoretical interpretation: Satan’s relationship with God can be viewed, especially, through the lens of Foucault’s Resistance to Power (without resistance, power is absent), Badiou’s fidelity to the event (which relies on Promethean courage) and Zizek’s revolutionary self-negation or purging. The rest of this paper will focus on the later two, as Foucault is beyond the scope of this brief discourse.

Badiou might be the most relevant modern thinker for this investigation: with his refusal of the one and break with the contemporary ethics of tolerance, as well as his dedication to the fidelity of the event (with courage), he seems to agree with my ideas concerning the politics of rebellion. In brief, I will argue that his ethics are the exact opposite of those found in Christianity and are better aligned with a libertine “Satanism”. Zizek sums up Badiou’s view of tolerance as follows:

This ironic experiment perfectly renders what Alain Badiou is opposed to when, in an unrepentant old Platonic way, he rejects today’s rule of “tolerance,” which tends to distance the very notion of someone’s sticking to truth against the pressure of others’ opinions as intolerant, Eurocentric, and so on. That is to say, today’s predominant liberal political philosophers relegate politics to the domain of opinions (tastes, preferences, etc.) rejecting the conjunction of politics and truth as inherently “totalitarian”’ is it not “evident,” they might insist, that if you insist on the truth of your political statement, you dismiss your opponent’s view as “untrue,” thus violating the basic rule of tolerance? (Subject to Truth, Foreword, xi.)

Rather than acceptance or tolerance for other views, Badiou passionately seeks real experience of truth. The way to reach it is only by refusing the ways of the world, in a kind of purposeful disconnection. This nearly always implies revolution, a theme explored in many of Badiou’s writings; he warns against any truth becoming external authority and demands that a personal, subjective experience serve as truth-generating process. “There is always the danger that a truth – however errant and incomplete it may be – takes itself, in the words of the poet, for an ‘age of authority’” (Theoretical Writings 120)

As I hope to explore the figure of Satan (as he relates to Prometheus) in terms of a human character motivated by external forces, Badiou’s theory of the subject is very fitting. Badiou divides his process of subjectivization and subjectivity into the four categories, anxiety, superego, courage, and justice. These four poles generate a non-static process of subjectivity which rotates from anxiety to confidence.

Praise connotes justice, resignation signals the out the superego, discordance touches upon anxiety, Prometheus is the character who, in defiance of the gods, keeps the becoming of courage running on empty. (TOS 321)

A subject is formed by facing the superego of the symbolic; it can either give praise for being made, or give up in resignation. At the same time there is a conflict with the real that produces skepticism and anxiety; the results are discordance and courage. Badiou will emphasize courage, seizing the power to “make yourself”, or subjectivization. He calls this courage “promethean”. Action is the “wager of the real,” which takes courage, but there will always be a reaction of anxiety. (303) Ethics is the arrangement and space between:

a position in the complete field of its four poles (praise, discordance, resignation, Prometheus) whereby one of them is never anything else than the way to gain access to the other three. (…) Still, of course it is true that dogmaticism and skepticism infect ethics as much as they saturate the subject. (TOS 321)

Although Badiou is speaking mostly in mathematical terms, the philosophers he draws on (Pascal, etc.) would replace his “symbolic” with the term “God”; this is especially made clear by Badiou’s use of “Prometheus” to signify the opposite. Prometheus is the figure who rebelled against and defied God (Zeus) by bringing fire to mankind; hence he represents confidence and the attempt to “get outside of” the legal order of God. “Belief is the discourse of the ethics of praise; confidence, that of Prometheans” (TOS, 322).

Traditionally God has played the role of providing symbolic order, praise, justice and also resignation (“que sera, sera”); but at the same time God produces anxiety by the inability of this concept to explain everything in experience. “If belief is what enables the possibility of salvation, and consequently the subject’s potential eternity in a spacement which is finally real, confidence is concentrated in the fidelity to courage, conceived as the differential of a recomposition which is more porous to the real, less exposed to the law” (TOS, 324). Badiou’s fidelity to the event is actually fidelity to courage: which means the true constitution of the event is simply having the courage to refuse, rebel and oppose the ruling symbolic order. Consequently, Badiou is arguing that defying the law of the symbolic order (God), and producing subjective truth through an act of will, courage and fidelity to an event is the only way to reach the real.

There is nothing here that is redolent of a logic of examples. The important thing is to touch upon the real. No one will imitate you. You will simply have destroyed the belief in the obstacle, you will have displaced the place of the impossible. (TOS 326)

Moreover this revolution is always justified; Badiou argues that there is no useless courage:

The essence of confidence lies in having confidence in confidence. This is why it is right to revolt. In other words, there is no useless courage. The idea of useless courage, like its anxious reverse, the Fracoists’ Viva la muerte, is nothing but the reactionary parody of ethics. (TOS 326)

Similarly, Milton’s Satan rebels against God even when there is no hope of victory, and Ahab of Moby Dick struggles against the white whale, and declares to God, “Thy right worship is defiance.” These themes are clarified and expanded even more directly by Zizek. Reading from Lacan, he argues:

For Lacan, there is no ethical act proper without taking the risk of… A momentary ‘suspension of the big Other’, of the socio-symbolic network that guarantees the subject’s identity: an authentic act occurs only when the subject risks a gesture that is no longer ‘covered up’ by the big Other. (Zizek, qtd. Feldner 110)

In other words, only an act of random, intentional violence with no clear objective or aim can break free. “Free will implies the paradox of a frightful disconnection from the world, the horror of a psychotic confrontation with the radical negativity that ultimately defines the status of the subject” and that “True revolution revolutionizes its own starting presuppositions.” Zizek then argues the unique position that this break can be achieved with over conformity.

How are we to oppose such a system, which seemingly coexists with, indeed depends upon its own systematic transgression? According to Zizek, not by acts of resistance, since the system is readily able to accommodate, indeed depends on such acts. Instead, Zizek suggests opposition through acts of overconformity, which, rather than protesting let alone breaking the law, insist upon it to the letter, even when ideological “common sense” suggest otherwise. (Krips 99)

In ethical terms, this leads to the Zizekian thesis according to which the only true act of freedom available to the subject facing a repressive ideological predicament lies in the over-identification with this elusive/excessive gap of ideology itself, i.e. in the full assumption of the traumatic core of ideology. (Feldner, 40)

As Zizek puts it, the elementary act of freedom, the manifestation of free will, is that of saying no, of stopping the execution of a decision: “At its most elementary, freedom is not the freedom to do as you like (that is, to follow your inclinations without any externally imposed constraints, but to do what you do not want to do, to thwart the ‘spontaneous’ realization of an impetus” (The Parallax View 202).

In this regard, Milton’s Satan is perhaps the exemplary character that models this over-identification. At first, he rebels, refusing God’s ultimate authority. He attempts to set up his own kingdom but realizes that it is only a reflection of God’s kingdom, and that he is still not truly free. Satan finally makes a deliberate choice to become evil – not as an act of rebellion, and not as his “natural” self or inclination (actually it is abhorrent to him); he becomes evil because God has commanded it to be so. He is “compelled” to do it as a last resort.

If then his Providence, Out of our evil seek to bring forth good, Our labour must be to pervert that end, And out of good still to find means of evil. (1.162–5)

And should I at your harmless innocence Melt, as I do, yet public reason just Honour and empire with revenge enlarg’d, By conqu’ring this new world, compels me now To do, what else (though damn’d) I should abhor. (4:386-392)

Satan has been called a fool, for continuing to rebel against God, who is omnipotent and omniscient. It is obvious to the reader that Satan will fail in the end. He attacks humans without any clear objective in mind other than simply to refuse and oppose God in any way possible. This makes him – not only within the text of Paradise Lost but also in the broader context of world literature – one of the few (if not only) literary figures who can be said to have reached subjectivity (which is defined by reaching a place outside of the totalizing order). As Badiou points out, freedom can only be found in a decision based on nothing: “If it is to be a genuine decision, it seems, the decision must take place as a pure leap of faith, one that resists any location in the situation, any justification by its subject, and any ‘conceptualization’ by philosophy” (Ethics xxvi).

We could also go a step further. Zizek argues that Judas, rather than a villain or traitor, is the apostle who loved Jesus enough to make the ultimate sacrifice of turning him in – and even be willing to play the role of the betrayer and be damned.

In The Puppet and the Dwarf, Zizek claims that the (Real) hero of the New Testament is Judas, since the divine plan could only be executed through his readiness to betray Christ and accept eternal damnation (see Zizek, 2003b, 16). What we are encouraged to do, therefore, is to interpret Judas’ gesture of betrayal and consequent acceptance of sacrifice as the highest expression of love, precisely because the path to university (inclusive of its founding negativity) necessarily implies a terrifying act of infidelity. (Feldner 218)

If this is true for Judas, how much more is it true for Milton’s Satan? At the conclusion of Paradise Lost, we can see that Satan never truly broke free of God’s symbolic order or power discourse: instead his resistance, rebellion and terrorism were all foreseen by God and necessary conditions to God’s final saving act. While Jesus suffers briefly before being elevated to heaven, Satan suffers permanently for a role which God determined he play and manipulated him into.

The introduction to my edition of Paradise Lost (by David Hawkes) notices this issue, but deflects it by saying it is “beyond human comprehension”:

For example, the poem’s pivotal event, the Fall of Man, is unequivocally a bad thing “for us,” and Satan, as the being who brings it about, is thus unequivocally evil from a human perspective. On the monotheistic assumption of an omnipotent God, however, we must inevitably concede that God intended the Fall to occur, and that it and its author, Satan, are therefore, in a sense that is by definition beyond human comprehension, good. (Introduction to PL, xxxvi)

Rather, once we give up the totalitarian system of Christian ethics which blames Satan for all evil and absolves God of responsibility, it is not difficult to understand how Satan is, much more than Judas, not only the true Hero of Paradise Lost (for without his suffering the plot would never be completed), but also, in light of modern theory, the only possible hero (in the sense of conforming to Badiou and Zizek’s conception of freedom and subjectivity).

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