This essay appears in a revised form in my book An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. Paperback, Hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), other ebook formats
“Did I request thee, Maker from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”
John Milton, Paradise Lost
“When, after some heretics had taken Christ for a mere man and others for the supreme God, St John in his Gospel endeavoured to state his nature so that men might have from thence a right apprehension of him and avoid those heresies and to that end calls him the word or logos: we must suppose that he intended that term in the sense that it was taken in the world before he used it when in like manner applied to an intelligent being. For if the Apostles had not used words as they found them how could they expect to have been rightly understood. Now the term logos before St John wrote, was generally used in the sense of the Platonists, when applied to an intelligent being and the Arians understood it in the same sense, and therefore theirs is the true sense of St John.”
So let’s talk about Arianism.
Arius of Alexandria must have been very naughty indeed, even though he was a priest. We know this because he is the one person of whom we actually have a reasonable historical record of him being slapped in the face by St Nicholas.
So what put Arius on the naughty list?
The Nicene creed (“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible…”) is the major touchstone of the Christian faith, and is shared by the vast majority of Christians in the world – Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran alike share this creed. It was drawn up in the early fourth century at the first Council of Nicaea, the event at which this face-slapping took place. And this council, probably the most important event in the history of Christian theology, took place mostly just to tell Arius he was wrong.
The original version of the creed, in fact, ended with “But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” – this was specifically aimed at Arius.
Because what the Christian church – as we know it today, as it has been known since the fourth century – teaches is that God has three aspects in one. There is God the Father, The Son (who is also The Word who became flesh as Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. But these are all the same thing. I would say here that they’re ‘like different faces of a die’ or something, except that pretty much every metaphor for the Trinity has, over the millennia, been declared a heresy. But they’re three aspects of the same thing – Donne’s “three person’d God”.
By contrast, Arius taught that the Word (which is to say, the thing that became Christ) was not the same as God, but was created by God – that the Word was the first and best creation of God, and that all the other creations were created by the Word, which acts as the intermediary between God and the physical/spiritual universe. (Arianism seems almost here to shade over into Gnosticism).
Richard Dawkins, incidentally, says in his book The God Delusion that there is ‘very little’ difference between these two positions. One hates to imagine Dawkins’ reaction were a theologian to claim there was ‘very little’ difference between Lamarckianism and natural selection. I would here use the phrase ‘separate magisteria’ but that would just be rubbing salt in the wound.
The substantive point here is that Arius, and his followers the Arians (who include modern-day Jehovah’s Witnesses, which possibly explains their aversion to Santa – old enmities die hard), believed that rather than being the same thing as God, Jesus was somewhat closer to the Devil or Adam. God was eternal, but the Son had a beginning. He was created. He was a creature.
Some of them say that the Son is an eructation, others that he is a production, others that he is also unbegotten. These are impieties to which we cannot listen, even though the heretics threaten us with a thousand deaths. But we say and believe and have taught, and do teach, that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter; but that by his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before ages as perfect God, only begotten and unchangeable, and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. For he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, once the Reformation had allowed religious disagreements to surface in central Europe [FOOTNOTE: Interestingly, this was the same time and place in which Rabbi Loew lived. Had we not earlier discussed his golem, this would undoubtedly feature in this essay.], there was a flourishing of theological thought never seen before or since. The many movements that became known as Puritanism were among the more obvious fruits of this, but one small but influential group were the Socinians.
Based on the teachings of Fausto Sozzini (also known as Faustus [FOOTNOTE: This is the Latin for ‘lucky’. The tale of Faust was not yet so widespread that the name had died out. However, it’s a nice coincidence given our subject.] Socinus), Socinianism became popular in Poland and TransylvaniaYes, honestly. It was an offshoot of Calvinism which disagreed with Calvin on two important points. It agreed with Arius that Jesus was a creature, not God, and it also believed that humans have free will, and therefore God’s omniscience only stretched to necessary truths, not contingent ones.
England in the mid 17th century wasn’t as theologically diverse as central Europe of a few decades earlier. While a certain amount of religious toleration was allowed, this was toleration of the “OK, we’ll stop torturing Puritans and burning Catholics to death, for now” type, and it had definite limits. The Act of Toleration of 1689, for example, which legalised nonconformist Protestantism, included a reiteration that Catholicism and disbelief in the Trinity were still illegal.
Nonetheless, Socinianism had a huge influence on three of the most important English thinkers of the time – Sir Isaac Newton, [FOOTNOTE The great Liberal economist John Maynard Keynes, who first brought to light Newton’s views on theology and magic, said “It may be that Newton fell under Socinian influences, but I think not. He was rather a Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides.” However, it seems generally agreed that Newton was influenced by the Socinians. Certainly the argument I quote above is a specifically Arian, rather than Maimonidean, one. ] John Locke and John Milton. Newton has been dealt with extensively in these pages already, so I’ll be looking more at the others, but keep the influence on Newton in mind.
I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton.black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.
John Locke was a friend of Newton, and one of the intellectual founders of both Capitalism and Liberalism. He was also one of the greatest proponents of religious tolerance of the time – his A Letter Concerning Toleration showed that suppression of religious dissent caused more problems than the dissent itself did (one of the earliest examples of the type of cybernetic insight that led to Ashby’s Law, and the eventual unification of thermodynamics and information theory), though he didn’t go so far as to accept that this toleration should extend to atheists, who would be incapable of swearing binding oaths.
The swearing of oaths was hugely important to Locke, because central to his thinking was the idea of the social contract – that society should be based on agreements freely entered into, rather than on authority imposed from above. (Locke did not seem to see any contradiction between this and his being one of the most important people in the slave trade). Free trade and free expression would ultimately lead to a better world.
The reason Locke could think this is that he dismissed the idea of Original Sin. To Locke, humanity wasn’t fallen. Rather people were tabula rasa – blank slates written on by their experiences. No-one was born bad or good, a genius or fool, but everyone was made the way they were by their experiences. Locke’s view here can be contrasted with the earlier work of Hobbes, who in Leviathan [FOOTNOTE: Referenced, of course, in Klarion. Honestly, I’m not reading all this 17th century philosophy stuff into the comics – this stuff is text, not subtext] argues for a social contract but also for an absolute monarch, on the grounds that humans are irredeemably evil and anything less would lead to ‘the war of all against all’.
Locke’s ideas represented the first real break between the philosophy of the English-speaking nations (Locke was a huge influence on the founders of the USA) and that of continental Europe. While self-proclaimed ‘rationalists’ like Leibniz were arguing that many ideas were innate, Locke, an empiricist, argued that we only have a concept of, say, ‘red’ after we have experienced something red in the real world.
Locke’s ideas lead, essentially, to the idea that the soul does not exist as something apart from and separate from the physical world [FOOTNOTE The Socinians were Christian Mortalists, who believed that the soul dies with the body but is resurrected by God on Judgement Day. Both Hobbes and Locke held to this idea, as did Milton, of whom more shortly.]. Humans, like Locke’s deity, are a single substance, rather than beings with multiple independent aspects. God made his Son the same way he made us, and all we are are lumps of flesh – but lumps of flesh that are infinitely perfectible, not innately evil.
OF man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos:
John Milton, Paradise Lost
John Milton disagreed with Locke about Original Sin – in fact Milton’s greatest work, Paradise Lost, is from beginning to end about the Fall, first of Satan and then of Adam. But Milton was also influenced by the Socinians, and shared Locke’s political views. The two of them were, separately (their productive years overlapped, but only slightly) hugely influential in the formation of the Whigs, the party that later became the Liberals and later still the Liberal Democrats, because both advocated religious freedom and a severely limited monarchy. Even the fact of Milton writing in blank verse was down to his wanting to liberate himself from “the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing”.
This wish for freedom caused overrated Tory windbag Samuel Johnson to say in the late 18th century that “the Devil was the first Whig”, and indeed despite Milton’s intense piety Blake noted that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” This is because in Paradise Lost the figure of Lucifer, the fallen angel, is a far more sympathetic one than any of the ‘good’ characters.
This is because the politics of Paradise Lost are confused as hell. Milton’s Satan is a hierarchy-loving conservative who is meant to represent the British monarchy, while God and the Son of God are represented as meritocrats who want everyone to rise to their natural station, like the Roundheads whose revolution Milton so ardently supported.
Yet, of course, it is Satan, not God, who is the revolutionary in the poem by his actions, even though his words are those of a Tory, while God, for all his Whiggish rhetoric, is pretty much the ultimate Tory. As a Whig, Milton couldn’t help but have more sympathy for the creature than the creator.
The interesting thing about the story of the War In Heaven, and Lucifer betraying God, and Lucifer also being the snake in the Garden Of Eden, is that it has relatively little Biblical grounding [FOOTNOTE: Although a similar story, involving a fallen angel named Azazel who teaches humans metalwork before becoming Satan, appears in the apocryphal Book Of Enoch. But there, a separate fallen angel called Gadrel tempts Eve.], and in fact Lucifer seems to have wandered out of a totally different mythology altogether. Lucifer means ‘bringer of light’, and by encouraging Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge, he brings the light of knowledge to humanity, removing it from being the exclusive province of God.
In this, he is more than slightly similar to another figure – Prometheus, of Greek myth.
Prometheus was a Titan, whose rebellion against the other Titans helped the Greek Gods overthrow them. Prometheus made the first men out of clay (and according to Aesop accidentally invented LGBT people by, when drunk, sticking the wrong genitals on people, causing them to revel in ‘perverted pleasures’), but the first men annoyed Zeus, so Zeus wouldn’t allow them the secret of fire. Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the Gods and gave it to men, and this annoyed Zeus so much that, as well as punishing Prometheus, he decided to punish mankind as well, by creating women (who says the Ancient Greeks were misogynist?)
Pandora, the first woman, was made out of clay by Hephaestus and driven so much by her utterly insatiable curiosity that she opened a jar clearly marked ‘do not open’ and let out all the troubles of the world (who says the Ancient Greeks were misogynist?)
“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
“The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.”
In 1818 Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her husband, Percy Shelley, both wrote very different works on a similar theme. Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound , now the less-known of the two works, was a poetical sequel to Æschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Like Milton, who he took as inspiration, Shelley was writing in the aftermath of a revolution – this time the French Revolution – and Shelley wanted to find a way to avoid the mistakes that had caused France to endure an arguably worse tyranny as a result of the revolution than it had endured before. His Prometheus becomes a heroic revolutionary, eventually overthrowing the Greek Gods and bringing in an anarchist Utopia.
Mary Shelley, on the other hand, had a very different, more conventional view of Prometheus. As far as she was concerned, it was Prometheus’ gift of fire that had caused humanity’s downfall, allowing people to cook and eat meat rather than remaining placid vegetarians. And so in her Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus, her Prometheus is Doctor Frankenstein, the creator, while her creature (never named in the book, but Shelley always referred to him as Adam) is Milton’s Satan in every detail (the creature even learns to read from a copy of Paradise Lost he finds in a barn [FOOTNOTE: As the comedian Mark Steel points out, this is the most implausible part of the story, the most likely reading matter to be found in an isolated barn being pornography, not religious poetry.]).
Frankenstein was, in essence, a reaction against both the Locke-inspired Enlightenment values of Mary Shelley’s parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and the Romantic utopian idealism of her husband. While Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Percy Shelley all believed in human perfectibility and the advancement of humanity through knowledge, Frankenstein is a profoundly conservative work. While Mary Shelley has been described as “William Godwin’s and Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter who became Shelley’s Pygmalion. [sic – the writer clearly meant Shelley’s Galatea]”, Frankenstein is opposed to everything Percy Shelley ever wrote. Frankenstein aspires to the knowledge that man was not meant to know, and is destroyed by it. He does not even bring fire to anyone else – it is not for the crime of sharing that this Prometheus is punished, but merely for the crime of thinking at all.
Comic issues Frankenstein #1-4
Artists Doug Mahnke (line art), Nathan Eyring (colours)
Other credits Phil Balsman (letters), Michael Siglain (asst editor), Peter Tomasi (editor)
Connected Morrison works Morrison’s really done very little with this kind of feel. The nearest is probably Seaguy.
Look Out For Fairytales, the dead having their revenge on the living
Still to come in Seven Soldiers Galatea!