Lest we forget at least an over the shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins - or which is which), the very first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom - Lucifer.
--Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals
The phenomenon of the "heroic" Satan--either as a mythological construction or a political ideal--endures in popular culture, and in low- and middle-brow intellectual circles. These notes should be helpful in clearing up the misconceptions upon which such thinking and talk is based. Milton represents a serviceable point of departure for examining the issue.
From Milton's perspective, everything about Satan is a lie, including his "cosmic complaint" and his "heroic" identity. That readers and poets over the years have read this in any other way is perhaps attributable to Milton's portrayal of the arch fiend--if he is to be a believable Satan, then he might appear at times to be the "wronged being" he claims to be. But again and again Milton shows how Satan is nothing but a lie and a liar. This understanding is neatly underscored by the first epic simile that occurs in the Paradise Lost, here employed in a description that neatly characterizes the illusion and the deception qua deception that is the arch-fiend:
|Thus, talking to his nearest Mate,|
|With head uplift above the wave, and eyes|
|That sparkling blazed; his other parts besides|
|Prone on the flood, extended long and large,||195|
|Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge|
|As whom the fables name of monstrous size,|
|Titanian or Earth-born, that warred on Jove,|
|Briareos or Typhon, whom the den|
|By ancient Tarsus held, or that sea-beast||200|
|Leviathan, which God of all his works|
|Created hugest that swim the ocean-stream.|
|Him, haply slumbering on the Norway foam,|
|The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff,|
|Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,||205|
|With fixèd anchor in his scaly rind,|
|Moors by his side under the lee, while night|
|Invests the sea, and wishèd morn delays.|
|So stretched out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay,|
Next consider consider Shelley's assessment of Satan from the second paragraph of his Preface to Prometheus Unbound:
The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.Upon this landscape we can drill deeper into a philosophical assessment of the Great Deceiver's character, which I'll present here as a description of the "place" of poetry in philosophical analysis. To begin, consider the epistemology under-girding Jung's concept of myth:
Myth is not fiction: it consists of facts that are continually repeated and can be observed over and over again. It is something that happens to man, and men have mythical fates just as much as the Greek heroes do.
--Carl Jung, CW 11, Para 648.Here Jung's understanding of language is off, and he is advancing what, for the purposes of my argument, I shall call the "Satanic Lie." Now, this is dramatic phraseology, so I should underscore that "conceptual confusion" is probably better language. In any event, in this assessment I am following Milton and Wittgenstein.
Myth/poetry: I use the words interchangeably: myth is poetry, poetry is myth, and a poem/myth is either in some sense accurate, or in some sense deceptive. Compare Wittgenstein: "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language" (PI§109). In Paradise Lost, Milton's poetry is an instrument to analyze this very bewitchment, and as such the epic can be read as an anthropological exposition of the emergence of analytic philosophy and clear(er) understanding. In Milton, the language of religion and religious myth becomes the vehicle for the emergence of this clearer understanding: the transcendence of misunderstanding and deception (lies/Satan) is realized metaphorically in the victory of the Son, who is the clarification of philosophical credulousness that is rooted in conceptual confusion and the misuse of language. In Paradise Lost, Milton is using the poem to analyze this very bewitchment, and as such it can be read as an anthropological exposition of the emergence of analytic philosophy and clear(er) understanding. In Milton, the language of religion and religious myth becomes the vehicle for the emergence of this clearer understanding: the transcendence of misunderstanding and deception (lies/Satan) is realized metaphorically in the victory of the Son, who is the clarification of philosophical credulousness that is rooted in conceptual confusion and the misuse of language.
Milton begins with religious language because of our historical circumstance. We are forced to use this language, but over time the discussion produces various heterodoxies that allow us to view the linguistic-stream-of-life confluence in toto--or rather in context--thus enabling us to gain a clear overview of the parts, the whole, and their relations to each other.
Hester and Dimmesdale go through this in The Scarlet Letter: the context of their Calvinist orthodoxy gives them the linguistic tools they use to transcend that same orthodoxy. In working this out, Hawthorne suggests a two-phase Calvinist experience, and places the "post-Calvinist" phase at the center of American political and philosophical understanding. Compare Melville in Moby-Dick, and Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nabokov plays on this string producing marvelous effects in Pale Fire. The plot and theme of these novels is suggested by Wittgenstein:
What is your aim in philosophy? - To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.I argue, too, that this post-Calvinist worldview compares very closely to core aspects of Judaism, and also sets forth the outlines of the modern worldview we associate with Ockham, Bacon, Locke, and Jefferson--whose originality chiefly rests in his ability to clarify these ideas in memorable and effective political language.
~ Ludwig Wittgenstein, PI §309
This post-Calvinist worldview compares very closely to core aspects of Judaism, and also sets forth the outlines of the modern worldview.
And so where does this place poetry? Short answer: Understanding the sense of propositions proceeds the project of explaining reality (poetry, science), as the analysis of the former calls into question the authority of the latter.
Milton--returning once more--uses poetry as a vehicle for examining the anthropology of human understanding, so empowering us to realize Wittgenstein's aim of showing the way out.