Friday, 18 May 2012

Fellow Fallen Angels for Freethought and Science, Revolt!

Satan rouses the fallen angels. (Gustave Dore)
"We have never heard the devil's side of the story, God wrote all the book." - Anatole France on the Bible.

Let's get this into open: I'm not a Satanist.  No, really.

With that said, the longer I am outside of Catholicism, the more I wonder whether the Devil would actually really be on our side, like some kind of alternate Prometheus. It would appear that some prominent literary writers of the last century also had questions like this.

Ever since I read his profound novel Thaïs, I've had a huge fondness for 1921 Nobel Literature Prize Laureate Anatole France.  I shall likely cover Thaïs, Penguin Island and The Gods Are Athirst in later posts.

In this entry I'll focus on his novel La révolte des anges (The Revolt of the Angels).  This is a delightful book with a profound and disturbing message - well unsettling to believers, atheists will likely not be surprised.  I am lazy so, let's get Wikipedia to do some of the introductions with spoilers stripped out.


Introduction

Anatole (Kickass Mustache) France, 
né François-Anatole Thibault.
(16 April 1844 – 12 October 1924)
La Revolte des Anges (1914) is often considered France's most profound novel. It tells the story of Arcade, the guardian angel of Maurice d'Esparvieu. Arcade falls in love, joins the revolutionary movement of angels ...

... On 31 May 1922, France's entire works were put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Prohibited Books Index) of the Roman Catholic Church. He regarded this as a "distinction". This Index was abolished in 1966.



Well nothing will sell a book quicker than that.  I thank the Church for providing me, young armchair scholar that I was with a reading list nicely tailored for developing skeptics and proto-apostates.

Our hero in this novel is the angel Arcade who identifies himself as actually being one in the same with a certain Abdiel. He's the guardian angel of Maurice, who is so lazy that Arcade actually has a lot of spare time on his hands. Let's let the Wikipedia entry on Abdiel fill in some more background on Arcade's namesake.
Abdiel denounces Satan after hearing him incite revolt among the angels, and abandons Lucifer to bring the news of his defection to God. However, when he arrives, he finds that preparations are already underway for battle. In the ensuing fight, Abdiel smites Satan, Ariel, Ramiel, and Arioch, presumably among others. ... 
So Abdiel is actually one of the good guys as far as the Catholic Church is concerned.  He's the very angel who smote Satan.

Let's jump into the story.  When not paraphrasing, I'll be using the free Project Gutenburg translation of the book's first edition by Mrs. Wilfrid Jackson (1914).  The text is available for online reading or your E-Book reader here.

Understand that a great deal else happens in the book, much of it quite comical.  There are quite a few sub-plots and many details I will be forced to leave out.  It's tragic.  Read the book.

The Story Begins


The story begins with a description of the a massive library of some 360,000 rare and expensive books built up over many decades belonging to the ancient mansion of the d'Esparvieu family in St Sulpice.  This is now Maurice's library, although he's too lazy to care.  The collection was kept up to date such that it was one of the finest in all of Europe.  The duty of librarian and custodian fell to a Monsieur Sariette, who was perpetually paranoid that an intruder would break in and make off with some of the precious tomes within.

One evening, Sariette returned to the library after dining out.  He was shocked to find that although he had locked the library, there were clear signs of tampering.

But at his first step Monsieur Sariette stopped dead, stupefied, powerless alike to doubt or to credit what his eyes beheld. On the blue cloth cover of the writing-table books lay scattered about pell-mell, some lying flat, some standing upright. A number of quartos were heaped up in a tottering pile. Two Greek lexicons, one inside the other, formed a single being more monstrous in shape than the human couples of the divine Plato. A gilt-edged folio was all a-gape, showing three of its leaves disgracefully dog's-eared.


This nightly molestation of M. Sariette's precious books continues for some time and he becomes increasingly unstable. His paranoia grew to the point of blaming the Freemasons and Jews (typical targets of unjust and unfounded blame for practically every crime at the time). Finally, a rare copy of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things) goes missing and his mind utterly snaps.


Angelic Appearance

Finally Maurice gets involved and his guardian angel appears unto him and a female friend of his completely nude, presumably with his angelic parts dangling en plein air. Maurice gives the angel some clothes and just before the angel puts his socks on he reveals his important mission.
"... I am about to reveal to you a secret on which hangs the fate of the Universe. In rebellion against Him whom you hold to be the Creator of all things visible and invisible, I am preparing the Revolt of the Angels."
Maurice asked Arcade why he would rebel.  The angel responded that although the original revolt was due to Satan's pride, this revolt has a different motivation.
"... As for me, it is science that has inspired me with the generous desire for freedom. Finding myself near you, Maurice, in a house containing one of the vastest libraries in the world, I acquired a taste for reading and a love of study. While, fordone with the toils of a sensual life, you lay sunk in heavy slumber, I surrounded myself with books, I studied, I pondered over their pages, sometimes in one of the rooms of the library, under the busts of the great men of antiquity, sometimes at the far end of the garden, in the room in the summer-house next to your own."
After a short exchange with Maurice he continues.
... "I have delved deep into Oriental antiquities and also into those of Greece and Rome. I have devoured the works of theologians, philosophers, physicists, geologists, and naturalists. I have learnt. I have thought. I have lost my faith."
At this Maurice exclaims disbelief that an angel could not believe in God.  To which Arcade explains that he believes in an entity that calls himself God.  But after reading authors like Lucretius, he now knows that an unbounded, limitless creature is simply an impossibility.  To him God exists, but he cannot be what he claims himself to be - that would be logically and scientifically impossible.  He is like any other god - powerful, highly intelligent, but not infinitely so.
"I believe in Him, since my existence depends on His, and if He should fail to exist, I myself should fall into nothingness. I believe in Him, even as the Satyrs and the Mænads believed in Dionysus and for the same reason. I believe in the God of the Jews and the Christians. But I deny that He created the world; at the most He organised but an inferior part of it, and all that He touched bears the mark of His rough and unforeseeing touch. I do not think He is either eternal or infinite, for it is absurd to conceive of a being who is not bounded by space or time. I think Him limited, even very limited. I no longer believe Him to be the only God. For a long time He did not believe it Himself; in the beginning He was a polytheist; later, His pride and the flattery of His worshippers made Him a monotheist. His ideas have little connection; He is less powerful than He is thought to be. And, to speak candidly, He is not so much a god as a vain and ignorant demiurge. Those who, like myself, know His true nature, call Him Ialdabaoth."
Lion-faced demiurge.
A bit of background.  This Ialdabaoth is merely a demiurge; a being that created the physical world out of existing material - no more. Admittedly, like a lot of this mystical Neo-Platonic or Gnostic stuff, it doesn't seem to make a tonne of logical sense - so I'd recommend not trying too hard to understand it and by all means don't believe it. Anatole France is merely showing that Arcade believed in a non-infinite God; a very powerful creature who is ultimately not the be-all and end-all of all things; not the creator of everything; a counterfeit.

A little later Arcade talks about how it is possible to know what things (namely God) are not without having to know what they are by using Logic as his guide.  He has become a Skeptic and a Freethinker.
"... As to the kind of truth one finds in books, it is a truth that enables us sometimes to discern what things are not, without ever enabling us to discover what they are. And this poor little truth has sufficed to prove to me that He in whom I blindly believed is not believable, and that men and angels have been deceived by the lies of Ialdabaoth."
Not only this, but he is willing to change his mind - he was once the hero of this demiurge.   He himself smote Satan and helped quell the first revolt.

This Master, greedy of praise, whom he had for a long time adored, appeared to him now as an ignorant, stupid, and cruel tyrant. He had denied Him, blasphemed Him, and was burning to combat Him. His plan was to recommence the revolt of the angels. He wished for war, and hoped for victory.
Sometime later in the novel Arcade talks about the importance of bringing science education into Heaven.  He would show them that they are not the centre of all things but part of a vast and astonishing universe much bigger than them (or their God).  He alludes also to Evolution.

"Nevertheless," replied Maurice's guardian angel, "man has created science. The important thing is to introduce it into Heaven. When the angels possess some notions of physics, chemistry, astronomy, and physiology; when the study of matter shows them worlds in an atom, and an atom in the myriads of planets; when they see themselves lost between these two infinities; when they weigh and measure the stars, analyse their composition, and calculate their orbits, they will recognise that these monsters work in obedience to forces which no intelligence can define, or that each star has its particular divinity, or indigenous god; and they will realise that the gods of Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, and Sirius are greater than Ialdabaoth. When at length they come to scrutinise with care the little world in which their lot is cast, and, piercing the crust of the earth, note the gradual evolution of its flora and fauna and the rude origin of man, who, under the shelter of rocks and in cave dwellings, had no God but himself; when they discover that, united by the bonds of universal kinship to plants, beasts, and men, they have successively indued all forms of organic life, from the simplest and the most primitive, until they became at length the most beautiful of the children of light, they will perceive that Ialdabaoth, the obscure demon of an insignificant world lost in space, is imposing on their credulity when he pretends that they issued from nothingness at his bidding; they will perceive that he lies in calling himself the Infinite, the Eternal, the Almighty, and that, so far from having created worlds, he knows neither their number nor their laws. They will perceive that he is like unto one of them; they will despise him, and, shaking off his tyranny, will fling him into the Gehenna where he has hurled those more worthy than himself."


WARNING
I'm about to give away the ending.
Skip down to the very last heading, 
My Literary Path to Atheism,
to avoid the major spoiler.
"You didn't warn me that you'd give away the
ending.  Now I shall have to shoot you."



"We have destroyed Ialdabaoth, our Tyrant, if in ourselves we have destroyed Ignorance and Fear."

Towards the end of the book, Arcade and a number of other rebel angels go down to Hell and meet with Satan in the hopes of convincing him to lead their army in revolt against the vaults of Heaven.  Satan, a seemingly pleasant fellow, and bearing no apparent grudge against Arcade, greets them warmly and advises them he would sleep on the matter and will let them know in the morning.
Climbing the seven steep terraces which rise up from the bed of the Ganges to the temples muffled in creepers, the five angels reached, by half-obliterated paths, the wild garden filled with perfumed clusters of grapes and chattering monkeys, and, at the far end thereof, they discovered him whom they had come to seek. The archangel lay with his elbow on black cushions embroidered with golden flames. At his feet crouched lions and gazelles. Twined in the trees, tame serpents turned on him their friendly gaze. At the sight of his angelic visitors his face grew melancholy. Long since, in the days when, with his brow crowned with grapes and his sceptre of vine-leaves in his hand, he had taught and comforted mankind, his heart had many times been heavy with sorrow; but never yet, since his glorious downfall, had his beautiful face expressed such pain and anguish. ...
... "Friends," replied the great archangel, "I was aware of the object of your visit. Baskets of fruit and honeycombs await you under the shade of this mighty tree. The sun is about to descend into the roseate waters of the Sacred River. When you have eaten, you will slumber pleasantly in this garden, where the joys of the intellect and of the senses have reigned since the day when I drove hence the spirit of the old Demiurge. To-morrow I will give you my answer."
During the night, Satan dreams that he had indeed successfully dethroned God the Demiurge and was seated as the new ruler of Heaven and Earth.  But it comes to him that he is too weak to wield such power without becoming as corrupt as the God he wishes to overthrow.
And Satan found pleasure in praise and in the exercise of his grace; he loved to hear his wisdom and his power belauded. He listened with joy to the canticles of the cherubim who celebrated his good deeds, and he took no pleasure in listening to Nectaire's flute, because it celebrated nature's self, yielded to the insect and to the blade of grass their share of power and love, and counselled happiness and freedom. Satan, whose flesh had crept, in days gone by, at the idea that suffering prevailed in the world, now felt himself inaccessible to pity. He regarded suffering and death as the happy results of omnipotence and sovereign kindness. And the savour of the blood of victims rose upward towards him like sweet incense. He fell to condemning intelligence and to hating curiosity. He himself refused to learn anything more, for fear that in acquiring fresh knowledge he might let it be seen that he had not known everything at the very outset. He took pleasure in mystery, and believing that he would seem less great by being understood, he affected to be unintelligible. Dense fumes of Theology filled his brain. One day, following the example of his predecessor, he conceived the notion of proclaiming himself one god in three persons. 
Satan wakes up in a cold sweat and realizes that by becoming as God he would become an evil monster, a Satan.  He tells the other angels that he will not revolt, but stay in Hell.
"God, conquered, will become Satan; Satan, conquering, will become God. May the fates spare me this terrible lot; I love the Hell which formed my genius. I love the Earth where I have done some good, if it be possible to do any good in this fearful world where beings live but by rapine.

Now, thanks to us, the god of old is dispossessed of his terrestrial empire, and every thinking being on this globe disdains him or knows him not. But what matter that men should be no longer submissive to Ialdabaoth if the spirit of Ialdabaoth is still in them; if they, like him, are jealous, violent, quarrelsome, and greedy, and the foes of the arts and of beauty? What matter that they have rejected the ferocious Demiurge, if they do not hearken to the friendly demons who teach all truths; to Dionysus, Apollo, and the Muses? As to ourselves, celestial spirits, sublime demons, we have destroyed Ialdabaoth, our Tyrant, if in ourselves we have destroyed Ignorance and Fear."


My Literary Path To Atheism

If you've read my blog, you may have noticed that my path to Atheism did not bring me through the words of Science alone.  Now some of these things, like Carl Sagan's awe-inspiring words have fanned the flames of awe at the beauty of the universe, but these things weren't my path.

My main road was Philosophy and subversive literature like this.  There is plenty of it out there; written over the centuries by brilliant minds who were able to poke their heads up above the crowd and see the beautiful truth of things out in the distant horizon.  Then, desperate to make the world see, they  communicated this to other inquiring minds under the guise of light fiction and satire.  They often did this anonymously or with the protection of secret people in high places.  Their necks were often just beyond the reach of a very hostile Rome.


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