Meeting Beelzebub (II) in I.125-155
Bill Long 12/4/09
On Angels; On Beelzebub's Interpretation of Now
Since angels bulk so large in the story of PL, it might be good to pause in our expositions and consider what knowledge of angels, or angelology as theologians would have it, was part of the common intellectual heritage of educated Christians in the seventeenth century. Satan is said to have led "th' imbattl'd Seraphim to War" (129). Who are they and on what basis did Milton have knowledge about the them?
Though the ultimate source of Christian knowledge of angels is the Bible, this Biblical knowledge was considerably expanded with generous additions of Neoplatonic philosophy and systematic thinking in the work known as the Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius. This work, probably from the fifth century, discusses the doctrine of angels in the context of what is known as his apophatic theology, or theology of negation. Dionysius, in good Neoplatonic form, believes that humans cannot approach or understand the divine except through the way of negation. God resides in unapproachability. But rather than leaving us to "fend for ourselves" on earth, God has mercifully condescended to give us signs or symbols in the physical world or in the Scripture that lead us back to God. We are able to move, thereby, from the visible to the invisible and, if we are fortunate, we arrive at the contemplation of God. Dionysius is the fountain-head and most significant source of the Christian mystical tradition.
He devotes the opening chapters of Celestial Hierarchy to what we might call his theory of symbols and specifically how angels are symbols of the divine presence that lead us from themselves to the very contemplation of God. The angels are in a hierarchy, which he defines as
"a holy order and knowledge and activity which, so far as is attainable, participates in the Divine Likeness, and is lifted up to the illuminations given it from God," Ch. 3.
Then, in Ch. 6, he divides the angelic beings into three Orders, each consisting of three categories of angels. The first rank or Orders consists of those who "dwell eternally in the constant presence of God, and cleave to Him, and above all others are immediately united to Him." The second and third Orders have lesser degrees of intimacy with God.
The first Order in the Celestial Hierarchy consists of Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; the second is made up of Dominions, Virtues and Powers; the third consists in Principalities, Archangels and Angels (Chs. 7-9). The distinction between Seraphim and Cherubim is instructive for our purposes. Let's catch the energy of his language:
"The name Seraphim clearly indicates their ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine Principles, their heat and keenness, the exuberance of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat..," Ch. 7.
If the Seraphim are "heat seeking" or "producing" angels, the Cherubim are interested in knowledge.
"The name Cherubim denotes their power of knowing and beholding God, their receptivity to the highest Gift of Light, their contemplation of the Beauty of the Godhead in Its First Manifestation, and that they are filled by participation in Divine Wisdom, and bounteously outpour to those below them from their own fount of wisdom," Ibid.
Dionysius' work was picked up in that most influential of all medieval theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). In Q. 108 of the First Part of his Summa, Thomas devotes considerable attention to the "Angelic Degrees of Hierarchies and Orders." In his alluring method of question posing, objections, the sed contra turning point, the explanation and then the addressing of replies to the objections, Thomas covers the entire range of theological thought. We see in his treatment of angels that he is fully dependent on Dionysius, when he says, in his first sed contra,
"On the contrary, Dionysius (Cael.Hier vi) distinguishes three hierarchies of angels," Question 109, First Article.
He summarizes Dionysius well.
"The order of the Thrones excels the inferior orders as having an immediate knowledge of the types of the Divine works; whereas the Cherubim have the excellence of knowledge and the Seraphim the excellence of ardor," Question 108, Fifth Article, Reply Obj. 6.
He also anchors the nine categories of celestial beings in Scripture references, though a dispassionate examination of those references (many of which are in rhetorically charged passages in the Pauline epistles) might make one question whether St. Paul was really referring to different orders of angels or just piling up terms like linebackers on running backs.
Thus, we see that Milton was drawing on a considerable tradition of thinking about angels when he was writing PL. He never entered into the kind of speculation that fueled Dionysius' work or was reflected in Thomas, but he assumed the language of each of these two thinkers in describing many of his Rebel Angels.
Returning to Beelzebub's Argument
The angelic position in Heaven was so glorious, according to writers like Pseudo Dionysius and Thomas, that one wonders why they ever wanted to rebel. Something about Satan's oratory and framing of the problem in Heaven was probably decisive. But the stark reality is that they are in a desperate situation. Satan has already said that the time for renewed attack, either by force or guile, may be approaching. Beelzebub wants to put a brake on that kind of thinking, and so he cautiously advances his opinion in 143-155.
If we understand Beelzebub as a risk-averse lawyer, his words make perfect sense. A risk-averse lawyer, when assessing a situation or problem, always sees the weakness in it before its strengths, even if s/he first commends its strengths. Satan had advanced the thesis that the Rebel Angels' being left with most of their powers intact was a good thing; they now could rebel again. Beelzebub reads it more negatively. Perhaps God has left them relatively intact so that
"we may so suffice his vengeful ire,
Or do him mightier service as his thralls
By right of War, (148-150).
In other words, God might have preserved their strength in order either to sport with them or use their remaining strength in some oppressive purpose. Maybe there is work to do in Hell, like moving one pile of burning lake next to another pile of such lake. Maybe God has other things for them to do in Chaos. Deathless living, which Satan had celebrated (117), might just be the occasion for additional punishment.
Beelzebub's caution is anathema to Satan's energy and decisiveness. Though Beelzebub can carefully parse meaning in sentences, he seems unable to make a decision or recommend a course of action. Defeat is written all over him. Satan certainly has to counter this way of thinking..and fast. The next essay describes how he does this.