An Historical Sequence of European Aphorisms, with Comments
1 Dante, in Inferno:
“Lasciate ogni ‘speranza, voi ch’entrate: abandon all hope, you who enter.”
Things, deeds, persons, states of affairs (even places!) have their good or evil inherent in them, like an essence. The Damned in the Inferno can no more look on the bright side of things, than the Blessed in the Paradiso can wake up one day in a foul mood. Things on Earth work this way too, and we can read the value of this or that just by looking at it: the lion, the leopard, and the she-wolf of Canto I are inherently terrifying. They can stand as allegories for particular evils like Pride, Covetousness, and Gluttony quite easily, because of the resemblances between those animals and those concepts. None of this is considered an interpretive act. An evil possibility either repulses us, or tempts us, or overcomes our resistance by force or by seduction; but in each of these cases we know that it is evil we’re dealing with. Should we later find that we mistook good for evil, or vice versa, we can attribute this to the Devil, or to an allegorical figure like Wrath, without making any extra (interpretive) work for ourselves. This resembles childhood prior to puberty: good and evil already exist, having been put there for us by a loving but mostly unknowable parent.
2 Luther, in The Freedom of a Christian:
“No matter the work, it was good if done in faith, wicked if done in unbelief.”
The first vertiginous, heady tremors of adolescence. This position seems like independence from Mother Church, seems like an achieved relativism, because there are no absolute values (good or evil) attached to particular deeds anymore. But the criterion of this new, apparently more relative value is⎯degree of belief in a set of specific doctrinal propositions that are revealed and do not change. In its early, insurgent phase, Protestantism throws off the yoke of Roman Catholic ecclesiastical authority. But this makes it utterly dependent on the Bible for the intelligibility of the world. The next phase is characterized by the appalling discovery that texts require interpretation⎯not only while they are in the extraordinarily sensitive state of being translated from one tongue to another⎯but always! And this is like a young adult who begets a child and is amazed that the required care is not intermittent but constant and endless.
3 Marlowe, in Doctor Faustus:
"Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd
In one self-place; but where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be"
The badness of the bad place has been relocated inside the person, as Luther relocated the criterion for Salvation-or-Damnation, away from the outer world of deeds and other people, into the “inner man” of beliefs and thoughts. Orwell’s perfect totalitarian state does the same thing when it invents “crimethink,” “thoughtcrime,” and “crimestop” as political events that occur inside people.
4 Shakespeare, in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Relativism. “The human being is the measure,” said the ancients, and here the human being becomes aware of this. Very good. But look at the mood of the one who says it, and the scene: two false friends confront a miserable prince; he calls their country a prison; they disagree; and he responds: “Why, then, ‘tis none to you: for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.” This is a paradox. It declares that the values of things are not in the things themselves (whereas with Dante, they are); nor in their degree of apparent conformity with a set of doctrinal propositions (the Inquisition); nor in the degree of someone’s (e.g., an agent’s, or an observer’s) belief in such a set of propositions (Luther). If the value of things is instead legislated by our thinking⎯if we have such power⎯why should Hamlet be having such trouble rousing his own aggression, or even simply cheering up? Because the "thinking" that gives things their various values "good or bad" is itself captive to feeling, which is far less volitional. In the same scene, Hamlet says, "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."
5 Milton, in Paradise Lost:
"The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."
If this were really true, or if Milton’s Satan really believed it, then damnation would be no problem at all, and God’s aggression would be laughable. The promise of emotional relativity on this scale is a promise of omnipotence that, if fulfilled, would make the actually omnipotent Father impotent. It’s as if the subtext of these lines were, “you can’t hurt me anymore.” But it isn’t true, and Satan seems to suspect as much. There is weather to contend with outside and inside. The prisoner in a cell must contend with torments outside the body, and with the rigors of his or her inner experience of the ordeal.
Milton’s character Satan is vividly aware—even as Milton the poet cannot afford to become aware—that the crime for which the protagonist of Paradise Lost has been eternally damned was at its inception an act of defense, not attack--though it was rapidly followed by withdrawal to "the North" of Heaven and then by rebellious aggression. The occasion for the war is the refusal to serve the Son, who appears to have been hidden until his debut--so that Lucifer's reluctance to worship him is not so strange. Far from being repellent to the reader, seems quite reasonable (or if not, emotionally understandable) where God seems tyrannical and abusive.
The trouble is, the criteria themselves—the norms that define crime and damnation, piety and salvation—turn out to be no more fixed or eternal than the recently discredited Medieval cosmology into which they had been all-too-well integrated by Aquinas and Dante. Hell is no longer a place at the center of the Earth, partly because Earth is no longer at the Center of everything. That might not be too damaging if we could keep clear about what it is that God wants from us, where He is, how He rules, and so on. Paradise Lost is supposed to help stave off a crisis of culture which it instead exacerbates. It leaves God’s severity standing, while failing to produce or shore up the old certainty of his justice ("justify the ways of God to man"). Satan has to fear that he may be wrong, and God right, in which case he has grounds to feel guilty. But he must also fear that he is right, and God really wrong, in which case he has to fear permanent victimhood in an unjust cosmos ruled by a petty but invincible tyrant. He must also fear the endless anxiety of not knowing which of these is ultimately the case, if indeed either is.
6 Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, Section 110 in its entirety, including this:
“Such erroneous articles of faith, which were continually inherited, until they became almost part of the basic endowment of the species, include the following: that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in itself. It was only very late that such propositions were denied and doubted; it was only very late that truth emerged⎯as the weakest form of knowledge. It seemed that one was unable to live with it: our organism was prepared for the opposite; all its higher functions, sense perception and every kind of sensation worked with those basic errors which had been incorporated since time immemorial. Indeed, even in the realm of knowledge these propositions became the norms according to which “true” and “untrue” were determined⎯down to the most remote regions of logic.”
Here “good” occurs only once, as one among a long list of deeply erroneous but adaptive anthropomorphisms and defenses. The paragraph does not say whether it hopes to transcend this ubiquity of error by pointing it out⎯if everything we think is error, but we somehow achieve the insight to perceive this, then have we item number one in a potentially long list of non-erroneous assertions? Nope.