Gathering at Pandemonium III
Bill Long 12/20/09
What Christians Did With The Story
Plato's moralistic approach to education not only provoked discussion in the Greek world but, in the Providence of God (according to Christian writers) provided the context for Christian thinking about these stories. Plato's treatment of myth gave Christian apologists of the early centuries, like Eusebius of Caesarea, a reason both to argue for the divine wisdom given to Plato (several early Christian thinkers actually "Christianized" Plato, considering him nearly divinely-inspired in his philosophy) and to conclude that the Greek myths were false. Plato actually says that he isn't sure if the myths are false; he just knows that the stories aren't those that are good for children to learn. Yet early Christian writers, such as Eusebius in his Preparation for the Gospel (Book XIII), for example, quote at length from this passage of the Republic to argue that even the Greeks knew that their myths weren't true.
But there is something else that is happening in the earliest Christian thinkers that will affect their reading of classical mythology. Taking their cue from St. Paul's statement in I Cor. 10:21-22 that the idols/gods of other people were really demons, early Christian theologians therefore began to look at Greek myths as telling veiled stories of the actual fall of demons from the divine world, rather than simply being entertaining, though morally misguided, tales of Olympian gods and heroes. So, the stories were both erroneous as well as shadows or adumbrations of the "true drama" in creation--that of the battle of the Rebel Angels against God and their being cast out into Hell.
This background is essential to understand four simple words of Milton that follow hard on the story of Mulciber's fall to earth at Lemnos. He says:
"thus they relate, Erring..." 746-47.
This story is, though interesting and powerful, fundamentally wrong for Milton. And Milton goes on to develop this idea even further:
"for he (Mulciber) with this rebellious rout
Fell long before.." 747-48.
Of course he fell long before. He was, in fact, the one who was thrown out of Heaven to build Pandemonium in Hell. The Greek myths tell us in a shadowy form what really took place long ago. Milton tells us that real story, even though, one must hasten to add, biblical scholars don't find anything approaching the clarity or depth of the angelic fall in the biblical story itself. It is hinted at in various texts; the full story, however, awaited medieval expositors.
Finishing Mulciber's Fate
Milton must have felt like a torn man in dealing with the classics because he had spent his earlier life combing the classical literature for a literary model for his most ambitious task--Paradise Lost. Thus, on the one hand, he is so indebted to the epic tradition and to classical writing that if you told him, "Leave the influence of the classics aside and let me see some writing," he would have been unable to write a word. But, on the other hand, he now is adopting a rather proto-fundamentalist theology that says, in essence, that there is nothing but error in the classical writings.
So his dilemma is that he must imitate the writings he knows to be in error. But, there is much more here. He not only imitates these works. He delights in them. No one could have penned the dozen or so lines on Mulciber without having made these lines a subject of deep meditation and preoccupation. He might have filled his mind with the Scriptures, and that knowledge is evident everywhere you turn in PL, but the classical stories are so much more catchy, vivid, and powerful than many biblical stories. There might be time for Samson Agonistes, one of Milton's last works, but the Samson portrayed there isn't really the result of a fine literary reading of Judges 13-16.
So, Milton was stuck. Stuck with the great inheritance he had spent his time cultivating. But stuck also with the theological interpretation of this material which really doesn't easily fit into an appreciation of it.
What then did he do? Well, in the next lines, he shows himself indebted again to the classical tradition (748-51):
"nor aught avail'd him now
T' have built in Heav'n high tow'rs; nor did he 'scape/ By all his engines; but was headlong sent
With his industrious crew to build in Hell."
The "aught avail'd him now" language is important both in Homer and Virgil. In Book V of the Iliad, Homer narrates how Menelaus was fighting Skamandrios, the favorite of the goddess Artemis. He says:
"Yet Artemis of the showering arrows could not now help him..," V.53.
Then, Virgil used a phrase literally translated "but now it availed not" when describing the death of Camilla:
"The way you served Diana while you were
lonely among the wilds has been no help," Aeneid XI. 843.
Milton would not be the first, nor the last, Christian thinker who had a bifurcated approach to the secular classics. The story is told of St. Jerome, the 4th-5th century Church Father, of a terrifying dream he had of standing before Jesus Christ on judgment day and being rejected because of his love for the classics, especially Cicero. Some felt, like the Church father Tertullian, that Athens had little to do with Jerusalem. Others, such as Augustine, used the inheritance of Neo-Platonism to formulate his enormously influential theology. Milton would both admire and criticize the classical inheritance, but he couldn't get away from it. It was wrapped around his mind like a vine enveloping an oak or, as some might say, like a tumor wrapped around a vital organ. So, in this passage, he shows us both sides of himself--the one profoundly grateful for that heritage but critical of the thoughts behind it.