Go ask the Serpent

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July 1, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

There are times in my life where I think I secretly aspire to be a villain.  It’s not because I want to be evil or to knowingly do wrong, there’s just something about villains and the strength of their convictions that’s so alluring.  Most villains don’t consider themselves to be villainous characters, they simply see their actions as following through on their convictions, objective morality be damned.  But, I guess in order to wear the black hat you have to be too confident with yourself, in spite of people accusing you of being the villain.[1]

There a lot of different kinds of villains, some of which I’ve described previously.  The most interesting kinds of villains aren’t the ones who are innately evil like Voldemort, Jack Tatum, or Dick Cheney; it’s the ones who live in the shades of gray, the ones with the potential for good who are merely misguided that prove to be the most intriguing.  People and characters like Saruman, Sinestro, and Isiah Thomas are way more interesting because of their pragmatic approach to villainy.  Saruman was seduced by power because of his logical sense of despair, Sinestro wants to defeat the chaos that engulfs the universe by ruling over it with an iron fist, and Isiah Thomas wanted to win by any means necessary.  The more nuanced the act of villainy is, the more layered and therefore human the perpetrator appears to be.

The fact that the road to Hell is oft paved with good intentions gives us a romantic, but warped image of villainy because very few examples exist of such descents into evil.  The idea that in trying to do good, evil will unknowingly abound is both paradoxical and nihilistic because it assumes that evil will flourish no matter what.  The best example is Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish bishop who tried to end Native American slavery in South America.  In trying to stop the exploitation of the natives, he suggested using Africans as a source of slave labor, because according to him, they were more physically acclimated to hard manual labor.  As a result of him trying to improve the lives of the Mayans, and Aztec, de las Casas turned out to be one of the main motivators of racially based slavery.  It seems like the road to Hell is actually paved with the best of intentions.

Speaking of Hell, if I were to make a movie where Lucifer was a character in this movie, my only choice to play him would be Isiah Thomas.  This is because my version of Lucifer would be the one created by John Milton in “Paradise Lost”.  No one alive save for Thomas could capture the soothing but ferocious nature of Milton’s antagonist.  As per Bill Simmons, Isiah Thomas has the uncanny ability to convince anyone of the most ridiculous things; if you’re playing the devil, this is pretty much the only prerequisite.[2]  Thomas is a soft spoken soothsayer who is a master of manipulation, and at first glance doesn’t seem to be evil incarnate.[3]  Truth be told, the character of Lucifer, as a literary figure created by John Milton and nothing more, is one of my favorite characters in all of English Literature.  He is the most complex, and therefore most human of most literary figures, yet he still remains the undisputed villain and antagonist of the poem.

The most interesting thing about Milton’s depiction of Lucifer is that he still remains the villain of the poem despite the fact that we are given full access to his thoughts feelings and motivations.  We understand exactly where he is coming from, and in some cases it’s not difficult to agree with him, yet he still, despite his intense humanization remains the totality of universal evil and abhorrence.  His feelings aren’t what make him unforgivable, nor is it what he does; it’s why he chooses to do what he does that makes him evil.  The fact that he has free will and is able to discern right from wrong, yet knowingly and willfully chooses to do evil is what makes him evil.  Many times throughout the epic he declares his evil intentions just so he could oppose God, whom he attributes to be good, and pure, and right.  So if God is virtue incarnate, Lucifer realizes that the best way to clash with God would be to become his opposite, evil, sinister, vile.  His true sin mutates from original disobedience into something far more deplorable: pursuing evil merely for the sake of becoming evil.  He wants to be evil and therefore does whatever he can to uphold the title of being a rebel angel.  His motivation is to antagonize and contradict-not necessarily evil ends, but he is trying to oppose the purest and most righteous of beings by doing things that are universally understood to be wicked, this is why he is irredeemable.

The mistaken belief that Lucifer is the hero of the epic comes from the fact that it begins in media res wherein for the first three books we are only introduced to his point of view.  By this point we only know his side of the story, and at first it does indeed sound seductively sound.  At first we only have his opinion and warped perspective to accept as truth.  His rhetoric for arousing rebellion and the continued pursuit of opposing God is identical to that of every other successful dictator throughout human history.  He plays the “What about us?” card which calls upon the unrealized desires of a group of people to juxtapose themselves with another dissimilar group of people.  He constantly reiterates that the angels should bow down to no one as they, being perfect should know no master, including the Son of God, who was created after themselves.  Lucifer’s rage and jealous then reaches a fever pitch when he discovers the creation of man, another being to whom the angels must be subservient to; he sees this as further outrage which lengthens his disconnect from God as Lucifer feels that angels don’t deserve to be servants.  He feels as if he personally has been rejected and looked over by God, which he then projects onto a third of Heaven’s angelic host.

Throughout the poem, Lucifer is portrayed as a child throwing a temper tantrum at his parent for not getting what he wanted.  What Lucifer wanted was distinction, recognition as being special, different from the rest of creation.  The very thought of being replaced as the most favored and renowned of creation was enough to drive him mad with jealousy and rage.  He really is an only child who has out that his parents are having another child.  His temptation of Eve is much in the same vain as an older sibling trying to get the younger sibling in trouble by making them do something that they don’t understand to be bad.  Not only does Lucifer actually strive to do ill, he commits the fraudulent crime of seducing others to commit evil.  In Hell when one of the demons proposes that they actually serve out their sentence in the pit and eventually ask God for forgiveness, Lucifer ignores and concocts his plan to destroy paradise.  He later misguides and deludes Eve into disobeying God by eating the forbidden fruit.  Everything that Lucifer does in the poem is borne from anger and jealousy.

It is his designs and aspirations that make him evil, not his motivation or rationale, in fact those are actually quite romantic.  Not only is he jealous of Adam and Eve, perfection incarnate, but he is also furious with himself at having lost his former state of grace and perfection.  Hell is not relegated to his exile, Hell goes wherever Lucifer goes as he himself is Hell, the personification of being torn and separate from God.  He wants to make humanity suffer as he has suffered because he hates what he has become.  There are several deeply stirring moments within Paradise Lost where he actually questions himself and the validity of his mission.  At one point he questions his own evil motivations as being empty since humanity, in their perfection, has done nothing to earn Satan’s ire, but yet he sought to destroy them.  He also fully understands that it is his own pride and sense of superiority which prevents him from asking God for the forgiveness, he knows his maker would grant him.  He fears that it would either lead to him betraying himself, or worse, that he would simply disobey and rebel against God again.  Within the character of Satan there are layers upon layers of complexity that bring him to life in a way that few literary figures are.  There’s anger and hatred towards God and humanity which only masks the extreme degree of self-loathe that Satan feels for himself, but conversely he is the epitome of narcissism, as he truly believes himself to be above not only all of creation, but the Creator Himself.  Every feeling that Lucifer feels in “Paradise Lost” is not only conflicting with other feelings, but also totally sincere; he has become the living embodiment of every single negative emotion from anger and despair to lust and jealousy.

What it comes down to is that Lucifer felt that he deserved something that he was not given, and in response to this perceived snub he lashed out.  Even though his response was ill conceived and a bit over the top, everyone alive can relate to those initial feelings.  We all have pride and have therefore felt jealousy and vanity.  What it really boils down to is that when we’re hurt, some of us want to make others feel that selfsame pain, not because we’re sadists, but because we just don’t want to be the only ones feeling hurt.  Misery does love company and Lucifer in his isolated misery wanted to make others feel separated from God to mirror his own fragmented relationship with goodness and righteousness incarnate.  Even in anger and despair, Lucifer knows that he is wrong, but that still isn’t enough to dissuade him from pursing evil ends.  John Milton’s Lucifer is evil because he actively seeks evil out solely to oppose the forces of good, even if it means corrupting innocent souls.

Villains have always fascinated me, because I’ve oft wondered what would drive a person to do such dastardly deeds.  More often than not it isn’t for wanton destruction, in the most interesting cases it’s merely a strength of convictions (however misplaced they may be) that leads men down the path of damnation.  The road to hell isn’t always paved with good intentions, sometimes it’s paved with self-confidence.


[1] This is why no matter what, society will always hate 2010-2011 Lebron James more than we will ever hate 1987-1991 Bill Laimbeer.

[2] Including trading for Eddy Curry for an unlimited number of draft picks, and Steve Francis when you already have Stephon Marbury on the team.

[3] The way that the Bad Boy Pistons functioned as a team was that Thomas was the Lucifer figure, Dennis Rodman was the sexual predator, Rick Mahorn was the Luca Brasi, and Bill Laimbeer was (is) a sociopath.


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