Milton wrote Paradise Lost just before the rise of the nation states, and Milton also had the intuition that there was something wrong with rationality, and he identified rationality with the mythology of Satan.
In the mythology of Satan, Satan was represented as the highest angel in God’s heavenly kingdom – so you can think about that as the highest psychological function, who had rebelled against God and then was cast into Hell.
His hypothesis was this: Evil was the force that believes that its knowledge of the world is complete. And that it can do without the transcendent. And as soon as it makes that claim, it instantly exists in a place that’s indistinguishable from hell. [“In Hell all is Self Righteousness” – Blake. As McGilchrist notes in his fascinating gloss on Blake, “He who sees the Infinite (looks outward to the ever-becoming with the right hemisphere) in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only [looks at the self-defined world brought into being by the left hemisphere] sees himself only (the left hemisphere is self-reflexive)”]. And it could get out merely by admitting its Error, and it will never do that.
Watch the full talk here:
Milton and the Rejection of the Transcendent
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is an intellectual figure. You see that motif emerge very frequently in popular culture. In The Lion King, for example, Scar is a Satanic figure, and also a hyper-intellectual. That’s very common. It’s the evil scientist motif, or the evil advisor to the king: the same motif. It encapsulates something about rationality.
What it seems to encapsulate is the idea that rationality, like Satan, is the highest angel in God’s heavenly kingdom. It’s a psychological idea, that the most powerful sub-element of the human psyche is the human intellect. It’s this thing that shines out above all within the domain of humanity and, maybe, across the domain of life itself. There’s something absolutely remarkable about it, but it has a flaw. The flaw is that it tends to fall in love with its own productions, and to assume that they’re total. Solzhenitsyn, when he was writing The Gulag Archipelago, had a warning about that, with regards to totalitarian ideology. He said that the price of selling your God-given soul to the entrapments of human dogma was slavery and death, essentially.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan decides that he can do without the transcendent—he can do without God. That’s why he foments rebellion. The immediate consequence, from Milton’s perspective, was that as soon as Satan decided that what he knew was sufficient, and that he could do without the transcendent—which you might think about as the domain outside of what you know—immediately, he was in hell. I was studying totalitarianism when I read Paradise Lost. I thought the true poet, like a prophet, is someone who has intimations of the future. Maybe that’s because the poetic mind—the philosophic or poetic mind—is a pattern detector.
Milton’s Satan and the Left Hemisphere
We talked a little bit about hemispheric specialization, before. One of the ways of conceptualizing the difference between the two hemispheres is that the left hemisphere operates in known territory and the right hemisphere operates in unknown territory. That’s one way of thinking about it. Or the left hemisphere operates in the orderly domain and the right hemisphere operates in the chaotic domain. Or the left hemisphere operates in the domain of detail and the right hemisphere operates in the domain of the large picture.
Milton did the first psychoanalytic study of malevolence and evil. God’s highest Angel, who was Satan, Lucifer, the Bringer of Light, the Spirit of Rationality, tormented a rebellion against God in Heaven and was cast into Hell as a consequence. Satan, as the highest Angel in God’s heavenly Kingdom, is a personification of the tendency of the Rational Mind to produce totalitarian systems and then to fall in love with them [“One King, one God, one Law” – Blake, The First Book of Urizen].
Milton’s hypothesis was that the element of the psyche – the spiritual element of the psyche that characterised the rational mind – would, by its proclivity to produce these totalising systems, end up casting itself into Hell.
Jordan B. Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He has a particular interest in the works of Carl Jung, and in understanding totalitarianism, and totalitarian ways of thinking. To watch his interview with Iain McGilchrist on the nature of the brain hemispheres, please click here.