Mammon’s “Wisdom” in Milton

Call for Papers
I’ve been reading Milton — which I suspect is an important background source for a number of Mormon cosmological concepts from the “war in heaven” to Arianism (Jesus as a completely separate member of the Godhead, clearly inferior to God the father). Of course, I knew that Milton is one of the greats of English literature, but in my reading I’ve been shocked at the sophistication of his portrayals of Lucifer and his allies. Paradise Lost is not a cardboard polemic about the war in heaven. Milton puts himself in the sandals of the fallen angels and creates a realistic perspective. After their ostracism and exile, the fallen legions of hell consider their options. Mammon has a particularly realistic appraisal of any potential gains that might be made in renewing the war with heaven.

He argues:

Either to disenthrone the King of Heav’n
We war, if war be best, or to regain
Our own right lost: him to unthrone we then
May hope, when everlasting Fate shall yield
To fickle Chance, and Chaos judge the strife:
The former, vain to hope, argues as vain
The latter: for what place can be for us
Within Heav’n’s bound, unless Heav’n’s Lord supreme
We overpower? Suppose he should relent
And publish grace to all, on promise made
Of new subjection; with what eyes could we
Stand in his presence humble, and receive
Strict laws imposed, to celebrate his throne
With warbled hymns, and to his Godhead sing
Forced hallelujahs; while he lordly sits
Our envied Sov’reign, and his altar breathes
Ambrosial odours and ambrosial flowers,
Our servile offerings? This must be our task
In heaven, this our delight; how wearisome
Eternity so spent in worship paid
To whom we hate! Let us not then pursue
By force impossible, by leave obtain’d
Unacceptable, though in Heav’n, our state
Of splendid vassalage; but rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty, before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp. [II: 229-257]

I find that I couldn’t agree more with Mammon. We often hear in Milton’s words that it’s “better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven,” but isn’t it also better to be free in hell than be a slave in heaven (in Milton’s universe, at least)?

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  1. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    Milton, in the guise of ‘Mammon’, evidently sees our Father in Heaven as a consummately vain, self-centered, prideful egotist. God does not need us to sing his praises or to give Him glory. He knows exactly who and what He is and is most likely totally indifferent to His mortal children’s attempts to “give” Him praise or glory. The commandments that instruct us to praise God, etc. are, IMHO, purely for our own edification. They are meant to teach us and help us catch the vision of our “nothingness” in comparison to our Creator and God, much as Moses did when he was shown just a portion of Our Heavenly Father’s creations as told in the Pearl of Great Price. When we begin to comprehend the awesome gulf of difference between our present selves and the Godhead, then we will begin to grasp the magnitude of the Atonement and unfathomable Grace we are freely offered, which are our only means of attaining salvation and exaltation.
    C.S. Lewis also explained this seeming theoretical conundrum when he had “Wormwood” a senior temptor explain the different ends of mortals to his young apprentice nephew by telling him that God wants “…servants who will become Sons*”…and joint heirs with Christ, whereas Satan desires “…slaves who will become food…*”. Even John Taylor once said referring to this utterly erroreous concept, “I will be a servant of God but I will never be his slave.” So Milton’s ‘Mammon’ seems to be emulating his master, Satan, the great liar, by positing a theory that has no relation to actual truth.

    *The Screwtape Letters; the quotes are from memory and not verbatim.

  2. >Even John Taylor once said referring to this utterly erroreous concept, “I will be a servant of God but I will never be his slave.”

    The problem for Taylor is that in the language of the Bible, there is not always a difference between “slave” and “servant.” The hope in Mormon soteriology is that as God’s slaves we will one day be manumitted:

  3. But was Taylor speaking with the Biblical definitions of servant and slave (synonymous) in mind, or with the terms as used when he was living?
    I think that makes a big difference. The way we use the words servant and slave have a significant difference in that, as servants, we choose our master and are free to leave our post to find another.
    I agree with the ideas in your previous post on manumission. I’m just wondering whether we can apply the same rules to John Taylor’s quote.

  4. “So Milton’s ‘Mammon’ seems to be emulating his master, Satan, the great liar, by positing a theory that has no relation to actual truth.”
    Exactly, Velikiye. It’s a lot easier to make it sound like your position is correct when you change your opponent’s position into something completely different than what it is. It’s the original political debate.

  5. I was amazed at Milton’s wealth of insight. I thought too that this has to inform our LDS thought. I love paradise lost!

  6. My surprise is not that the rebellious angels have a negative perspective on God the father, but rather that a 17th century poet was willing and able to consider what that perspective might be.

    It’s also interesting to me because Milton, caught up in the English civil war, is among the earlier Christians to have to wrestle with and reconcile our modern ideas about the individual, freedom, and democracy vs. monarchy, with the ancient descriptions of heaven found in the Bible. Biblical descriptions, having been written by prophets who didn’t have access to modern ideas, understandably do not need to address them and their image or reflections on heaven are absolutist and monarchical, not because heaven is that way, but because ancients had no other framework within which to place it.

  7. I couldn’t agree more with Mammon.

    Doesn’t such a statement make you pause, John?

  8. Steve Evans says:

    John, I disagree with you on a few points, but centrally I think your assertion about freedom is mistaken. Paul most notably speaks of being a slave in Christ, and Milton’s point is not to make us envious of Satan’s freedom but rather to show the illusion of such “freedom” compared to the glory of being God’s servant. Your view is a misreading of Milton overall – and fundamentally a misunderstanding of what service to God is like.

    Actually I don’t know how many people here are going to agree with either you interpretation of Milton or your conclusions. I suspect most common responses will be along the lines of what I wrote above. Tough to advance Satan’s thesis on a Mormon blog!

  9. Kathryn: Hopefully Milton will be just as skilled at considering and voicing the alternate perspective of Michael, the heavenly host, the Son and the Father, otherwise I’m lost for sure!

  10. Or perhaps as Joseph once ironically quipped that it is better to be in hell with friends than in heaven alone. Much of this turns on what ones conceptions of God are. Milton was familiar with Calvin, and many Mormon readers would likely reject the a Calvinst heaven (as well as his hell). There is no question that Mammon is persuasive but he is ultimately and disastrously wrong. That is the satanic reality. Being a slave to Christ as Paul states and being free with the Satan, are inversions of the terms.

  11. Evans: Given that Milton was a committed Christian and not a crypto-Satanist, I’m quite certain that his overall project is to show that “Mammon’s wisdom” is not wisdom at all, as you guys have indicated.

    I brought this up on a Mormon blog not to win converts for the Adversary, but to think about images of the preexistence and the rebellious angels. I think Mormons have mostly junked the old idea of less valiant spirits in the war in heaven. But what do we think about the rebel spirits? Mammon and Lucifer were generals who presumably acted with some degree of knowledge that was sufficient to damn themselves, but was insufficient to realize their folly. Was that true for every angelic foot soldier on the rebellious side, now consigned to less than telestial glory, never to experience corporality?

    J: Exactly — what I think this vision begins to challenge is the premodern conception of God as a kind of celestially elevated Persian Shah or Roman Emperor.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    John, the answer to your question is yes: each one of them was in open rebellion against God, while in his very presence and without any veil over their minds. They are sons of perdition and are damned. Rolling Stones to the contrary, I feel no sympathy for the devil nor his angels.

  13. Another thing that has struck me as I’ve been reading Milton for Mormon parallels is the flip-flop of rhetoric from the angels. In Milton, the rebellious angels are arguing for individual rights in opposition to what they see as an oppressive monarchy. When we get to Joseph Smith, their argument has become the opposite — they favor a system that would have eliminated free will. I think that’s a very fascinating way to address the potentially unsettling argument Milton puts in Mammon’s mouth.

  14. For me, I look at the whole test differently. I’ve mentioned this at Mormon Matters, but we in the Church put such a huge emphasis on “knowing” the Church to be true or that God exists. But we must admit that this type of “knowing” is different than knowing that we exist or that the computers we use to type this stuff exists. We KNOW the United States government exists, therefore we are 100% accountable for living the laws while we’re here.

    Since we can’t “know” God exists in the same way, we are not held accountable in the same way. Therefore, the test is preserved. God gives us agency and wishes to see how we perform in a test without Him. We are not slaves, we can do whatever we wish. However Paul, who saw Christ in open vision at least once, had a higher accountability because of that vision, and was called specifically to his ministry. Therefore he would be more of a slave than we would be.

    And ultimately, we are all slaves to the consequences of our actions. If we drive our car into a brick wall, we are a “slave” to the consequences. The car will crash and you will be seriously injured. We cannot choose our actions and then choose the consequences (“I wish to drive my car into a brick wall and that it will repair my engine when I do so”). So I wouldn’t necessarily say those who are damned (or whatever) are more free from the consequences of cause and effect than those who are exalted. That would mean they exist in a realm where matter does not follow cause and effect, which would be a strange place indeed.

  15. Yes J. Milton’s God is not our God, nor his Satan ours. Miltion’s God is arrogant, vain, autocratic and arbitrary. And fairly clueless. Satan, as tragic hero, turns to malice because he lacks the power to overturn an oppressive authority and who has been defeated militarily. Humans are a new kind of creation in which freedom is first even possible. This isn’t about freedom to serve heaven and hell it is about the freedom as such.

    As they walk out of Eden it reads:

    Some tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
    The world was all before them, where to choose
    Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
    They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
    Through Eden took their solitary way.

    Milton is freeing them from God and Satan’s determinism. Freedom is what they obtain so they can choose and at the end ‘providence’ becomes a guide rather than an inevitability. Very Mormon in that we are not slaves of God, but partners in choice.

  16. Yeah, Mammon is right — we are slaves to God (at least for now) — but also wrong — God’s yoke is easy and Satan’s freedom is illusory.

    Good stuff.

  17. Also, as SteveP states, Milton’s God is a loser. This is why I was never offended by the His Dark Materials books.

  18. “Milton’s God is a loser”
    Yes. If God’s nature were really that portrayed by Milton (and then Pullman), we would be justified in fighting against him, I think. But, like John said in #13, Joseph Smith taught that God was fighting for our free will, and not the other way around.

  19. I think it’s very useful to try to imagine the appeal of following Lucifer. We have a penchant for imagining not just Lucifer but all those who followed him as eyes-wide-open, self-referentially evil evil-doing evil-doers. Putting our trust in a single savior figure to clean up the entire mess guaranteed by mortal free will entailed what would have seemed to each of us like considerable risk. Milton’s Satan seems to have favored an alternative that didn’t require an eggs-in-one-basket submission to a benevolent tyrant. Of course, for some of us, Milton’s God is an egomaniac and a lout. But for others, submission to an all-powerful emperor is a compelling and appealing vision.

    Regardless of what we think about Milton’s overall cosmology, I think that for Mormons to try to imagine why arguments in favor of Lucifer’s alternative might have been appealing is a useful exercise in inoculation against the Mammon (and Mammonian logic) he still pedals in the guise of divine power. The fact that Milton portrays Mammon’s arguments as appealing, and the fact that some of us recognize that appeal, even while recognizing the strawman of Milton’s god, is not disturbing. Even on a Mormon blog, methinks.

  20. Joseph Smith taught that God was fighting for our free will, and not the other way around.

    That doesn’t alter the likelihood that Satan/Lucifer and his followers don’t also understand their project (or portray it to others rather convincingly) as protecting freedom. Everyone, on all sides of all conflicts, fights for freedom. Just ask them.

  21. It’s probably worth mentioning here the undeniable appeal of at least some of the Grand Inquisitor’s arguments in BK…

  22. “The fact that Milton portrays Mammon’s arguments as appealing, and the fact that some of us recognize that appeal, even while recognizing the strawman of Milton’s god, is not disturbing. Even on a Mormon blog, methinks.”

    Indeed, it makes it interesting to ponder. While I ultimately reject Milton’s cosmology, it’s not a leap to entertain that Mammon’s arguments surly would have been pridefully appealing and provocative- at the very least.

  23. I think that all of our images of God, “the kingdom of heaven,” angels, fallen angels, and concepts such as the “War in Heaven,” are necessarily mortal images, bounded by the limitations of our own human thought at the time we live and write.

    As folks have quite correctly pointed out, Milton’s heaven and hell, God and Lucifer, are not the Mormon conception, and the argument he invents for the fallen is actually opposite the general Mormon understanding. But I do think the motives Milton invents for the fallen in his own Miltonian universe are fascinating as an early attempt to make sense of the idea of a War in Heaven, while simultaneously wresting with modern ideas. Having not yet gotten to the end, I don’t know if I’ll personally find Milton’s wrestling with these ideas fully successful or not. (Note: I edited the original post slightly to make it more clear that I’m talking about Milton’s universe here and I’m approving of the “wisdom” here with some irony.)

    What I do know is that in writing, giving your opponents realistic motives actually substantially increases the credibility of your own case. In our mortality, we surely can’t grasp the actual nature of a celestial war, but we might presume that the opposition had motives they thought were legitimate, however wrong they may have been.

    Also, to your point in (12), Steve, I should think that one of the absolute tragedies of such a war, whatever its nature, is that God the Father would (in fact) have perfect sympathy for his fallen spirit children, however utter their rebellion.

  24. Hard to believe no one has yet mentioned William Blake’s famous comment in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

    “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

  25. Everyone, on all sides of all conflicts, fights for freedom. Just ask them.

    My thoughts exactly. It depends on how one defines “freedom.” Most people are willing to exchange a certain amount of liberty for a certain amount of safety or security because absolute liberty entails more risk than we’re willing to accept. We’ve all seen how certain circumstances can render us less free to choose and act for ourselves. How much do we want to be sheltered from the consequences of our own actions? This was the issue at stake in the (Mormon) war in heaven.

    giving your opponents realistic motives actually substantially increases the credibility of your own case.

    It’s been about 18 years since I read Paradise Lost, but I recall losing interest in the non-Satanic parts. This post does make me want to read it again, though, just to see if Milton’s case for God is any more compelling to me now.

  26. Ronan’s #17 is right on.

  27. Satan is talking about how he refuses to believe he is an actor whose outcome is already determined. He can live his life.

    His point is exactly the opposite of that implied by the word salvation, or if you prefer, soteriology. The world, in Milton, is predetermined. God wins. For references, refer to random Revelations passages (or if you prefer, the Revelation of St. John the Divine.” )

    Milton’s says: “up yours. ” “I don’t care if you get to bend me to your will eventually; for a brief moment, I will live as a free agent. The burn, the punishment, will be well worth it.” Milton’s take-away message is Capital M Misbehave.

    I suggest you suggest your kids read different commonwealth/Restoration drama.

    After a moment’ reflection, perhaps they should stick with stuff written in Utah in the last 20 years or so.

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