Sunday, December 27, 2009

The devil you know

There were two general areas or positions on the existence of diabolical evil current in Milton's day: On the one hand, there were those, like Isaac Newton, who, while firm believers in the primal truths of Scripture, found little support for the actual existence of demons and devils; on the other hand, there were those who clearly felt that skeptical disinclination to believe in evil powers was nothing less than a clear manifestation of the workings of those very powers.

Men like Joseph Glanvill, for example:

In his 1668 work A Blow at Modern Sadducism, Joseph Glanvill, Fellow of the Royal Society and ardent apologist for belief in witches, demons and ghosts, contended that the denial of the demonic was tantamount to atheism. Those who rejected the literal existence of evil spirits, Glanvill asserted, did so because they did not dare take the next putatively logical step and openly declare that there is no God:
...if any thing were to be much admired in an Age of Wonders, not only of Nature (which is a constant Prodigy) but of Men and Manners, it would be to me a matter of Astonishment, that Men, otherwise witty and ingenious, are fallen into the conceit that there’s no such thing as a Witch or Apparition, but that these are the creatures of Melancholly and superstition, foster’d by ignorance and design.
But this was not all. Glanvill went on to propose a sinister source for this wicked disbelief, suggesting that the very devil, “whose influences they will not allow in Actions ascribed to such Causes, hath a greater hand and interest in their Proposition than they are aware of.”
Here's the turning of the tables:
For since the influence of the Prince of Darkness “is never more dangerous than when his agency is least suspected,” in order to accomplish “the dark and hidden designs he manageth against our Happiness, and our Souls, he cannot expect to advantage himself more, than by insinuating a belief, That there is no such thing as himself, but that fear and fancy make Devils now, as they did Gods of old.” (Italics are Glanvill's.)
The rest of this interesting piece by Stephen David Snobelen, which is actually about Isaac Newton's concept of evil, (and is entitled Lust, Pride, and Ambition: Isaac Newton and the Devil) can be downloaded here as a .pdf file which requires Adobe Reader).

When we consider the bewildering maze of illusion and delusion in Books I and II of Paradise Lost, it's well to bear it mind that Milton was writing for a public that wrestled with these matters not just in theological circles, but even at the august Royal Society.

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