No human being is entirely good or entirely evil. We have within us two opposing impulses: One pushes us towards the nobler, higher ideals of mankind–such as truth, freedom, service, and fraternity–and the other pushes us towards our baser, more animalistic tendencies–the sphere of existence where greed, dishonesty, jealousy, and selfishness abide.
Human beings have the freedom to choose between an infinitely wide range of emotions, thoughts and actions. The sum total of these emotions, thoughts and actions determines whether we are living in virtue or whether we are giving in to our baser instincts. It is an internal battle that everyone faces Every Single Day… from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep, and sometimes our subconscious wages these battles in our dream life, as well.
What lies at stake in this daily battle is not only our personal happiness and wellbeing, but also the happiness and wellbeing of the people that surround us. Ultimately, no man is an island. What we do affects everyone we come in contact with–especially our family and close friends. How to live our life is a personal decision that will shape not only our relationships, but also our reality. Thus, everything that happens to us is a reflection of the choices we’ve made in life, the path we have decided to follow, and the people we have chosen to surround ourselves with… for better or for worse.
The internal battle between noble impulses and baser instincts has been externally represented throughout the ages in Literature. Internal noble impulses are represented externally through heroic deeds; while base, self-serving instincts are represented externally through the conception of threatening forces of evil.
What’s fascinating about this is that through the external representation of this inward battle, we get to experience firsthand all the attitudes necessary to not only fight evil, but also win over it. It stands to reason that if we apply the attitudes displayed by the heroes and protagonists of these great works of Literature in our daily internal life, we will also have a better chance of overcoming that which seeks to drag us downward towards unhappiness and vice.
Here is the first example…
PARADISE LOST, by John Milton
This tale was penned by 17th-century englishman and poet John Milton. The story has two narrative arcs: one concerning the banishment of Lucifer from heaven, the other concerning the Fall of Man and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Wether you believe in these things or not is irrelevant. This is a great story, regardless of your personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
It starts after Lucifer (Satan) and the other rebel angels have been defeated and banished into Tartarus (Hell). Over the course of the story we learn that the war between the faithful angels and the rebel angels lasted three days. At the final battle, the Son of God single-handedly defeated the entire legion of angelic rebels. After this victory, God creates the world, which culminates in the fashioning of Adam and Eve after his own image.
Down in Tartarus, Satan is livid. He wants to poison Mankind, God’s new and favored creation. However, the other fallen angels want none of it. They were defeated and have had enough war for now. Satan, though, will stop at nothing to get revenge. So he organizes his followers, persuades the others to follow his plan, and then volunteers to cross the abyss (the place between Tartarus and Earth) into the material World, and later into the Garden of Eden.
We notice three important things here:
1. Satan, the antagonist, is filled with an all-consuming purpose, fueled by the passion of his rage. He has made the decision to stop at nothing until he makes God pay.
2. He happens to be a spectacular leader and advocate. First, he uses the facts (as he sees them) to make an argument–much like a lawyer would: God, in his unfairness and pride, banished us from heaven, our rightful home. Then he fashioned Mankind after his own image, seeking to bestow unto them the power of rulership that he took away from us.
Through his passionate powers of persuasion, he rouses his defeated comrades from their stupor and convinces them to rally and fight God once again. But he doesn’t stop at that… which leads me to the next point.
3. He takes action. He is the one who crosses the abyss, he is the one who tempts Mankind so they Fall from Grace. In other words, he does his own dirty work.
This part of the narrative ends as the other begins. Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden, happily minding their own business. God sends Archangel Raphael to warn them about the coming of Satan. He tells them how jealousy against the Son of God led Lucifer and his followers into waging war, and how the Son cast them all into hell. He relates that the world was created so Mankind could one day replace the fallen angels in heaven.
After Raphael leaves, Satan takes the form of a serpent and tempts Eve by telling her that if she eats from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she’ll learn the truth about many things… the truth about the world. Curiosity got the best of her and she took a bite out of the fruit. When Adam learns what Eve did, he chooses to eat the fruit as well because he claims they are bound to one another. If she dies, he must also die.
Up in heaven, God admits he foretold the fall of man. He knew the choice they would make even before they made it. The Son of God then offers to sacrifice himself in the future so that Mankind will be redeemed. God accepts, and sends Archangel Michael to expel the pair (who deeply regret the decision they made) from the Garden of Eden. Archangel Michael tells Adam of future events, terrible events, resulting from the choice they made. But he also tells him of the future coming of the Savior of Mankind. So in a somewhat mitigated sadness, Michael escorts them out of paradise.
We can learn many things from this Story. First, that evil is relentless. Satan fulfilled his goal of expelling Mankind from paradise through the use of his skill, after all. Second, that the flesh is weak. Adam and Eve were warned of the upcoming peril, but still they failed the test. Third, that there’s always hope.
We will always be surrounded by people who tempt us into acting in a way we feel to be untrue to ourselves. The solution to this is not to retreat from the world. It is better to face these problems with integrity and act in accordance to our own values than to seek to build a bubble of false contentment around us. Doing the right thing is never easy, least of all in this age, but it is worth it.
However, it is unwise to underestimate the challenges of life, no matter how righteous or strong we think ourselves to be. I am speaking here from personal experience. If we happen to win a personal battle, it would be unwise to think we’re invincible in the face of future temptation. The opposite also happens to be true. If we fail to act according to our values in a certain situation, it doesn’t mean we’re going to perpetually fail for the rest of our life.
Tomorrow is a new day. Wallowing in what we did wrong will lead to nothing. Regret is useful insofar as we can learn from our mistakes, and it becomes an unnecessary burden beyond that, a burden we must let go. Adam and Eve moved on. They sorely regretted their decision, but they buckled their pants (so to speak) and got to work on Earth. No matter how bad a mistake we make, there is always hope for a better future. This is the underlying message of the great christian epic that is PARADISE LOST.
What else do you think we can learn from it?
This post is the first of a series that examines the Battle of Good vs. Evil in different works of Literature. Since this post focused on a classic story, the next post will focus on a modern one to keep things interesting. Stay tuned! 🙂