O How Unlike the Father

Frank Kermode

  • The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton and Blake by A.D. Nuttall
    Oxford, 282 pp, £40.00, July 1998, ISBN 0 01 981846 7

A. D. Nuttall is probably the most philosophically-minded of modern literary critics, and he has the additional merit of assuming that at some level philosophical (or theological) problems are of importance to everybody, an assumption that operates even when he is applying his mind, and his exceptional erudition, to such matters as the presence of Gnostic speculation in Marlowe, Milton and Blake. The justification for this belief is that almost everybody, often at an early age, has wondered how a God officially certified as good in all possible ways can co-exist with a creation that is manifestly not so.

This puzzle is generally known as the Problem of Evil, and Nuttall says it worried him as a child, having no doubt been instructed, or allowed to believe, that in spite of evidence to the contrary God was good as well as omnipotent, and that ours is the best of all possible worlds. Most people soon put this problem aside and get on with their lives. Some, less quiescent, consider the matter in the light of such works as Leibniz’s Theodicy, and Voltaire’s satirical response to it in Candide. But there is another venerable way of looking at it, invented by heterodox thinkers in the early days of the Christian era. Gnosticism avoids our problem by holding that the world is not the work of a good God at all, but rather of an evil power, the Demiurge, who has been falsely represented as a good God and could be identified with the God of the Old Testament. The consequent doctrinal ramifications are endless, and whenever the question came up it was likely that certain aspects of early Gnostic thought would be aired again.

The early Gnostics had considerable success, and had the views of Marcion, in the second century, prevailed (as they might well have done), the Old Testament, a celebration of the bad god, would have been banished from Christian Bibles. For he was a god of Law, an intolerant and capricious dictator who was wholly responsible for the evil of the Creation. Only a part of the New Testament, certified as purely concerned with Love, was to be used – some Pauline epistles and a reduced version of Luke’s Gospel. One effect of Marcion’s efforts was to prompt the orthodox establishment to set about defining a rather more copious Biblical canon. In the end, Marcion, and many much wilder Gnostics, lost the struggle with orthodoxy so completely that few traces of their writings survived; their ideas were known only by their citation in the works of the orthodox Church Fathers who triumphantly refuted them. But more direct light on Gnostic speculation was provided by the discovery, in 1945, of a cache of Gnostic writings at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, and since then Gnosticism has been intensively and sympathetically studied.

The eclipse of this rival form of Christianity by a politically well-organised Church has been much regretted. Elaine Pagels calls it ‘an impoverishment of Christian tradition’. Nuttall says its defeat ‘is of some interest because in one respect orthodox Christianity seems philosophically more vulnerable than Gnosticism’. He means that none of the Christian answers to the problem of evil really works. They include the notion that God leaves evil in the Creation simply because, for reasons secret and inscrutable, he chooses, in spite of being good and powerful, not to remove it; or that evil is there to promote wisdom by enabling us to distinguish good from bad; or that it is a necessary consequence of our being granted free will. None of these, apart possibly from the second, is very convincing, except to the apologists themselves. Gnosticism does not need these excuses since it regards the whole Creation as evil, and the work of a corrupt Demiurge.

This, as Nuttall says, ‘fits the facts’ or ‘saves the appearances’. Gnosis is ‘knowledge’, not of the physical but of the supernatural world. Knowing that knowledge is a good enables the adept to believe that the Serpent who persuades Eve and Adam to eat of the Tree of Knowledge is a beneficent snake. One Gnostic sect even identified the Serpent with Christ, going disguised about his work of undoing the wicked ukase of the Father. This of course sets the Son against the Father, and lays the foundation for the ‘alternative Trinity’ of Nuttall’s title. This Trinity is not Three Persons in One but Two Persons at Loggerheads, with the Third having rather little to do.

It may be that the Gnostic formulation, stripped of its allegorical apparatus, is closer to the feelings of ordinary people than official Trinitarianism. It also accounts for the general approval nowadays given to the dissident theology, the revived Gnosticism of Blake: ‘The vision of Christ that thou dost see/Is my vision’s deepest enemy.’

The purpose of this book is to show how Gnostic principles are manifested, or can be shown to be present, in the work of Marlowe, Milton and Blake. The treatment has all of Nuttall’s usual good-tempered energy and his gift for lateral thinking, which occasionally leads him into digression. There is one interesting digression on epic similes, some of which benefit by what he calls ‘homologation’ and some of which do not. Homologation operates not only in certain similes but in the book itself, bringing together materials that may at first seem to have a remote relevance to the argument.

In the end it does all hang together homologously. Nuttall singles out C.S. Lewis as a typical opponent. Lewis was certain that in Elizabethan and early Stuart England some thoughts that later became possible were still unthinkable, and should therefore be ruled out of consideration. Paradise Lost, properly read, need present no difficulties to perfectly orthodox Christians. And Blake, who said, ‘the Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being and being a Worshipper of Christ I cannot help saying the Son O how unlike the Father,’ simply represented a kind of thinking that was, in Marlowe’s time or even Milton’s, impossible. Nuttall’s point, of course, is that however the ideas were transmitted it was at no time out of the question to regard the Father as cruel and the Son as his enemy: Love as the enemy of Law.

Marlowe’s Faustus sells his soul to the devil for knowledge and power, and the fact that God condemns this bargain shows that he prefers human beings to be ignorant, as he proved when he placed his ban on the Tree of Knowledge. Marlowe, along with others of his time, found the idea of new knowledge – of a magic that was on the verge of becoming science – very exciting. Confidence in the powers of the human mind and the possibilities offered by its acquisitions was now so strong that some found the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, at that time endorsed by the Church, very distasteful, preferring to believe that despite the Fall man was still capable of exploring the Creation in detail. As Nuttall remarks, Faustus’s punishment is tragic in a sense impossible to Calvinism, for the question whether he will be sent to hell, the question on which the tragedy turns, would be meaningless to a Calvinist, who is sure that such decisions are taken long before the person concerned is born. The only question for Calvinists watching Dr Faustus would be whether the play would show whether Faustus (always already, as the phrase goes) had been damned from eternity or not. If not, not: if so, too bad. Along the way Nuttall wonders why Calvinists, their ultimate fate already sealed, didn’t become ‘passive libertines’, as some Gnostics did in earlier times; if nothing could be done anyway to change their fate they might as well enjoy what they could. However, as Faustus reminds himself at the outset, the wages of sin is death. Will he abjure magic and repent? The question is settled in advance by Calvin: if repentance happened to work it would do so by the gift of prevenient grace, itself foreordained. But in the play that view is countered by another, essentially Gnostic idea. Despite the power of the Calvinist position Marlowe is, in the end, on the side of knowledge, the cause of Christ against that hidden tyrant. Finally Faustus is forsaken much as Christ was forsaken on the Cross. There are, of course, deviations from the older Gnostics, who despised the nature Renaissance magician-scientists rejoiced in exploring – the knowledge they sought was not natural. But the recurrent Gnostic rebellion against Jehovah is there all the same.

The chapter on Marlowe is the most difficult in the book. It has to consider all sorts of issues like the Calvinist philosophy of time, and the differences between various alternative trinities, as they declared themselves in the peculiar climate of 16th and 17th-century opinion. With Milton the issues seem simpler, perhaps because they have been debated, though not in these terms, so many times before. Paradise Lost after all announces itself as a theodicy.

Nuttall believes in the authenticity of the treatise De Doctrina Christiana and accepts that it is roughly contemporary with the poem, though he wisely does not expect the theology to be identical. Milton was not a Calvinist but an Arminian, believing in free will and so opposed to Calvinistic ideas of predestination. But this attitude, according to Nuttall, presented some difficulties when enshrined in a narrative about the Fall. One venerable problem is that for Adam and Eve to make their fatal choice they must have been corrupt already. St Augustine thought so, and the difficulty does not go away; Auden expresses it as a paradox –

Since Adam, being free to choose
Chose to imagine he was free
To choose his own necessity ...

– but Nuttall denies that one can explain sin as a simple consequence of free will. His answer, in short, is that Milton found himself unable to resist the idea that in defying the divine ban and choosing knowledge Adam and Eve were right; the advice of Satan was sound, and indeed there may be a touch of the old Gnostic identification of the Serpent with Christ, for in the end the Fall was Fortunate and made possible the Redemption. Yet Milton could not quite ignore the implication that to reject predestination was to limit the power and majesty of God. There is a tricky moment in the Argument to Book V, where Milton writes: ‘God, to render man inexcusable, sends Raphael to admonish him.’ Of course God foreknew that Adam would eat the apple, but foreknowledge, as God explains in Book III, doesn’t put it out of the power of Adam and Eve not to sin, even though in some sense they were bound to:

If I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
Which had no less proved certain

Nuttall’s pages on this crux, and on the Fortunate Fall, topics familiar to all who have studied Milton, are full of intellectual energy and novelty. When Pharaoh might have obeyed God and let the Israelites go, God hardened his heart and caused him to refuse, so forcing him to sin and to extend the list of disasters that fell on the Egyptians. Since Milton’s God rendered man inexcusable, and therefore deserving of ‘new torments’, Shelley was justified in calling Satan morally superior. A residual Calvinism causes tension or even confusion in Milton’s narrative. There are attempts to suggest prior corruption (Eve’s dream in Book IV, for instance), but in the end ‘the myth designed to account for the origin of evil has had to presuppose, as occurring at an earlier point in the story, the very element whose first appearance it purports to explain.’

Not only did the Fall turn out to be Fortunate, it created the state of affairs celebrated by the poet years before in a famous passage in Areopagitica where he refuses to praise ‘a fugitive and cloister’d virtue, unexercis’d and unbreath’d, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where the immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat’. The Milton of Areopagitica had little doubt that good came of the eating of the apple:

It was out of the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil; that is to say, of knowing good by evil. And therefore the state of man now is: what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil?

Evidently the twenty years or so that intervened between the prose work and the epic had not changed Milton’s belief that the knowledge of good is inseparable from the knowledge of evil, so that in a sense the choice Adam and Eve made was between a sort of ignorant inertia and a virtuous encounter with the world, an encounter ultimately to be rewarded with ‘a paradise ... happier far’. It is at this point that we again encounter Gnosticism. Milton’s alternative Trinity, and, consequently, Nuttall’s, is a complicated affair because he took the Arian view that the Son was subordinate to the Father, so that making Christ (who by general consent gets a rather poor showing in the poem) the successful antagonist of the Father is a self-contradiction. It is not enough to say that it was reasonable of Adam and Eve to want to know, and simply wicked of God to make knowledge a forbidden thing. Milton’s God, who must be allowed some authority, says that it would have been better for them to know good only, without knowing evil, but he does not explain how this could have been done. And for Nuttall there is the further problem that Milton seems in no doubt that the serpent Satan, though in some ways very attractive, is very wicked.

I am merely glancing at Nuttall’s very bold and complex ruminations on Paradise Lost. What they tell us, to put it crudely, is that Milton could not avoid an extremely difficult encounter with the problems we have all spotted but prefer not to go into. I have not mentioned them all: for instance, there is the question of how the world could be created without diminution of the divine substance and why, despite its necessary inferiority, it could still be called good. Milton mentions Gnosticism in his theological treatise, but as to the possibility that the world was created by an evil God he simply says that it is ‘intolerable and incredible that evil should be stronger than good and should prove the supreme power’. He is driven by his own love of knowledge to approve in some sense the choice of Adam and Eve, but cannot say that it was a blow struck at Jehovah, any more than he can elevate the Son over the Father. What we are seeing is a treatment of the evidence that persuaded Gnostics to take such positions, not a proof that Milton was Gnostic; indeed he was trying to work things out without the drastic abandonment of more orthodox Christianity to which that evidence might have led. His will or need to believe God good was too strong.

With Blake we are, despite some of the author’s disclaimers, in a different world. His historical connection with certain Gnostic-like 17th-century sects, such as the Ranters and the Muggletonians, has been established by modern scholars, and antinomian traditions of a Gnostic flavour survived into Blake’s time and beyond which treated the Old Testament God as a Demiurge, and claimed personal inspiration and complete liberation from the Law, not least as it bore on sexual conduct. The celebrated Abiezer Coppe, of Merton College, author of A Fiery Flying Roll, would have had little difficulty in understanding ‘The Everlasting Gospel’, and indeed Nuttall detects a similarity of styles in Coppe and Blake. He studies the relation between Blake and Milton, who argued in the De Doctrina that the old Law had been abolished; Blake agreed, but deplored Milton’s continuing respect for the Father. Satan is now the unacknowledged hero of the story told in Paradise Lost. Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it, and the difference between them was that Blake did know it, and acknowledged the goodness of Satan. ‘In the book of Job Milton’s Messiah is called Satan,’ says Blake. ‘For this history has been adopted by both parties.’

Milton would not have approved of Blake’s antinomian extremism – ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires’ – nor, perhaps, of the proliferations of Blakeian mythology, which more resembles the fantasies of the early Gnostics than Milton’s more restricted Christian mythology. But although their solutions were different it can be said that, in some sense of the term, Milton and Blake, and even Marlowe, do suggest an ‘alternative Trinity’. Much of the pleasure offered by this agreeably argumentative and learned study derives from the author’s own power of scholarly fantasy; but it remains true that he is, in the last analysis, treating a topic in which all can be, or have been, interested: namely, the problem of the origin of evil and the problem of a world so little in accord with our wishes for it – so beyond our powers of understanding that we cannot help being interested in what great poets have to say about it. All these three, it seems, at least considered the Gnostic way out, and the modern revival of interest in Gnosticism may suggest that this is an alternative that could find favour in a new age of secular antinomianism.