When uncontrolled evil becomes the object of admiration

This series focuses on the art of Gustav Doré and began by examining his illustrations of the epic poem paradise lost by John Milton, dating from the 17th century.

In this article, Satan has just finished rallying the rebellious angels after their fall into hell. He challenges them, shames them and rekindles their passion to resist God. At first, he only speaks to one Rebel Angel, but it doesn’t take long for one to turn into many, and his troops begin to regain the strength to continue their mission.

Although Satan is the cause of their fall from paradise, the rebel angels rise to continue following him without flinching. Milton describes the scene:

These bad angels were so many
Hovering on the wing under the yoke of hell.
Between the upper fire, the lower fire and the surrounding fire;
Until, as at a given signal, the spear raised
Of their great sultan, brandished to lead
Their course, they soar in balance
On solid sulphur, and fill the whole plain […]
Immediately, from each squadron and from each band
The chiefs and leaders hasten to where stood
Their great Commander […]
Although their names are no longer inscribed in the celestial registers
There’s no memorial, erased and razed
By their rebellion, books of life.
(Book I, Lines 344-350, 361-363)

follow the leader

“So numberless were these evil angels seen/hovering on the wing, under the yoke of hell”1866, by Gustav Doré for the Lost paradise by John Milton (Engraving Public domain)

Gustav Doré’s illustration allows us to look deeper into Milton’s passage. In it he depicts a legion of rebel angels flying through hell like a flock of crows above a cloud of smoke that frames both sides of the composition. Only Satan, who leads the pack, and a few rebellious angels who follow close behind can be identified as individuals. Otherwise, the rebel angels merge into one swirling presence.

If we take a moment to consider this scene in reference to another text, it is not difficult to see similarities with the 1984 by George Orwell, in which the subjects line up evenly and individuality is absent. We are led to ask ourselves: where does this uniformity, this absence of individuality, lead Satan and the rebellious angels?

The beginning of tyranny

1669766978 1 When uncontrolled evil becomes the object of admiration
“They are called / From all the bands and all the regiments / The most valiant are chosen”1866, by Gustav Doré for the Lost paradise by John Milton (Engraving Public domain)

Milton continues:

He spoke: and to confirm his words, came out
Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
Mighty cherubim, and sudden fire
Light up hell, and they go wild
Against the Most High, and with clasped arms they rage
The crash of war crashes down on their sonic shields,
They issue a challenge to the celestial vault.
(Book 1, Lines 663-669)

Arguably, this uniformity and lack of individuality can lead to tyranny. In the Milton passage, Satan continues to speak to the rebellious angels and unifies them under one thought: to hate and defy God and heaven. Nowhere do the rebel angels take a moment to think rationally for themselves; they are only shadows of the tyrannical intentions of Satan.

Gustav Doré creates a very energetic scene for this passage from Milton. We see the silhouette of seven rebel angels at the top of a cliff, where they blow trumpets. The rest of the rebel angels hear the call and come running from everywhere. Several of them leap into the scene at the gallop of their horses, and those in the distance light up the darkness of hell with their flaming weapons.

Earlier, Milton describes Satan as a “commander”, Gustav Doré portrays Satan and the rebel angels in a military way: Satan directs, enthralls, gives orders, and the rebel angels shout to confirm the words of their commander as they prepare to return to combat.

I read these passages, I look at these images and I think of the Nuremberg trials, where members of the Nazi party were tried for the atrocities committed during the reign of Adolf Hitler. Many Nazis invoked the defense that they were merely following orders. This defense was not accepted by the court. It makes me wonder: if these rebel angels were judged, what would be their defense?

The tyrant takes his throne

1669766978 689 When uncontrolled evil becomes the object of admiration
“High on a throne of royal state, which far exceeds the wealth of Ormus and Ind”1866, by Gustav Doré for the Lost paradise by John Milton (Engraving Public domain)

The rebel angels help build an empire in hell that seems like an inversion of heaven, lending perverted credence to the old phrase “on Earth as it is in Heaven”. the empire, Pandemonium – a title that embodies the effects of Satan’s intentions – is where Satan takes his place as the ruler of hell.

Milton describes the scene:

Meanwhile, the winged heralds, on command
Of sovereign power, with terrible ceremony
And the sound of trumpets through the army proclaims
That a solemn council will be held forthwith
At Pandemoniumthe upper capital
Of Satan and his peers: the summons are made
Of all the bands and all the quadrille regiments
The bravest of them […]
On a royal state throne, which far exceeded
Far surpassed the wealth of Ormus and Ind
(Book 1, Lines 752-759; Book 2, Lines 1-2)

Doré here represents Satan on his throne in a large palace in the Pandemonium. The spotlight is on Satan, who stands before his throne and raises his arm in a symbolic gesture of his power in hell. Several fallen angels come to venerate and adore him and they await his advice.

Uncontrolled evil becomes the object of admiration

1669766978 837 When uncontrolled evil becomes the object of admiration
“O Earth, how it resembles Heaven, if not preferred”1866, by Gustav Doré for paradise lost by John Milton (Engraving Public domain)

Let’s see how these passages can relate to our inner life. In the first article in this series, we have concluded that as God exiles Satan and the rebellious angels from heaven, we too must exile those things in our hearts and minds that lead us away from the goodness of God. In the second article, we concluded that, if we are not careful, evil can multiply. So what can be inferred from the fact that Satan rallied his troops in hell, and what might his taking of the throne in hell represent?

To me, this represents the idea that if we don’t protect ourselves from evil, evil will become so strong within us that we will begin to justify its presence and even admire and exalt it. We are unable to think rationally and calmly when possessed by an evil state of mind. The fact that such a state causes us so much pain escapes us. Losing a sense of our individuality, we may even confuse this state with who we really are, or refuse to take responsibility for our actions because of its hold on us.

In this state, we become the subjects of a tyrannical force within ourselves, and our only defense for our actions may be that we are following or following orders. But we are much more than that, aren’t we?

Gustav Doré was a prolific 19th century illustrator. He created illustrations for some of the greatest classics of Western literature, including The Bible, paradise lost and The Divine Comedy. In this series, we’re going to delve into the thoughts that inspired Gustav Doré and the images those thoughts caused.

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When uncontrolled evil becomes the object of admiration

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