Tuesday, December 29, 2009

His Loyaltie He Kept

Who are we, exactly, we who represent the accused and the damned?

This isn't another post addressing some variant of the Cocktail Party Question (How can you defend those people?). I've done that repeatedly and at length in recent months. I'm after something else now. It's more reflective, more philosophical, more literary, more fundamental.

The Cocktail Party Question asks about how and why we do it. This is the more bottom-line issue: How do we get up in the morning and go forth?

Norm Pattis raised it earlier today as he looked back at a year of defending and forward to what lies ahead.
For many years, Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost was hero enough for me. "Better to reign in hell then serve in Heaven," he told his dispirited ranks as they descended to Hell. The proud defiance energized me. Yes, I thought, far better to be in Hell -- with all my friends. But I didn't realize that Hell was a real place, a place filled with broken people who pay their fees for counsel in lumps of sulphur.
Yes, that's a view. Marlowe understood Hell better even than Milton. Mephistopholes explains in Dr. Faustus.
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd
In one self place; for where we are is hell,

And where hell is, there must we ever be:

And, to conclude, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that are not heaven.
If we are Satan, we are lost, however much we plod on. Norm again:
Somehow even now, Milton's Satan summons. But is it enough? Is it enough to say with Satan: "So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,/ Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost"? Frankly, it is not. But as the new year dawns and old wounds continue to fester, I have little choice.
Nobody's ever accused me of being a glass-half-full sort of person, but I reject Norm's view. We are not (at least, I'm not) affirming Edmund's command in King Lear:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
Instead, I stand up for clients. Some might be bastards (I speak metaphorically - many are in a literal sense), but that's of no moment. My role is not abetting the evil. It's standing up for what's right. And that's the business of defending. (OK, you can't completely ignore the Cocktail Party Question here.) But it's not about whose side I'm on. It's about whether I'm really on that side.

William Blake (famously, but many others, too) thought Satan the true hero of Paradise Lost, and for just the "proud defiance" Norm tried to channel. But Blake (and the others) are wrong. Heroism for Milton isn't defiance. The Miltonic hero isn't defiant, he's loyal. He doesn't bend or yield. Attack is for Satan. The hero defends.

In Paradise Lost, that hero is Abdiel.
Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov'd,
Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd
His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale.
To stand with Satan is to assume you're on the wrong side and actually to be on the wrong side. We can admire his defiance and pride, but pride is one of the sins - the chief of them, in fact, that Norm wants to associate with crime.

To stand with Satan is, ultimately, easy. The angels who join Satan in rebellion in Paradise Lost, like all who give in to temptation, are in fact giving in. They take the easy way out, though of course they end up suffering for the choice.

To stand with Abdiel is harder. We resist the blandishments of the State. Plead to this. Admit that. Confess. Allow us to search. Don't object. Don't defend. To that, we join with Abdiel in saying, "No."

The demand that the government prove guilt is the demand of the resistor. Of the hero.

It's hard, of course, as all that is valuable is hard. The government's blandishments are real. But the strength comes in response.

Defending the damned isn't the work of Satan. He led them to damnation. Defending them is the work of Abdiel.


  1. I don't think he meant the Satan reference to be taken quite so literally. More of rebellious, devil-may-care, type of Satan, whose fires of hell served to burn him out rather than consume him.

  2. I'm sure that's right. It's the "proud defiance" we all admire (as did Blake). But give me the metaphor and a chance to run with it, and I will.

    And Norm's is still a helluva post.

  3. I jumped here from Mark Bennett's blog (http://bennettandbennett.com/blog/2009/12/two-things-to-read-today.html) where he wrote that you and Norm are smarter than him. I'm quickly getting the impression that you guys are smarter than me, too. Great post.

  4. As an English major drop-out, any contribution I might have to thoughts about Satan would be more in the Philosophical vein, as Philosophy was what I ultimately got my B.A. in. Indeed, I wrote my senior thesis on "the metaphysical nature and cause of moral evil," and am therefore an expert on the subject. Turns out that moral evil is caused by the "non-consideration of the rule." It exists only negatively as an absence of a good that should be there (which neatly evades the problem of how evil can exist in a world created by an all-good and all-powerful Creator. Even Satan, insofar as he exists, is good, don't ya know.). Moral evil is a willfully chosen defect and therefore a defection. It's freely and knowingly choosing a lesser good (e.g. one's self) over a greater good (e.g. one's relationship with and duties to one's neighbors and God). There's nothing heroic in that, in the shutting of one's eyes to what would make us fully human, in wilful ignorance. Dante's frozen and immobile Lucifer better reflects his essence than Milton's. How one could conceivably choose what one knows and truly understands to be a lesser good over a greater good is a mystery, or else an impossible contradiction, which frankly calls into question whether we have free will at all or whether moral evil is just a mental illness for which we are not ultimately responsible.

    Fortunately life as we know it will not go on forever. So long as we are a friend, we are not in Hell.

  5. John,

    Milton's Satan, like his Abdiel, is as much a literary construction as a theological one - just as Paradise Lost is both a literary and a theological text. In any event, to discuss heroism and moral virtue and sin and evil in the context of Milton and his book is itself to engage in a literary exercise as much as a moral or philosophical one.

    I don't share Milton's theology, though if pressed I can discuss it at some length. I do think his views and his characters sometimes provide a useful way of thinking and talking about things. And while I think Abdiel a pretty fine moral exemplar, I don't really believe the simple refusal of temptation is the essence of true virtue (nor do I join with Milton, in taking that refusal, that seeming passive "No." as the only thing that can properly be considered active).

    That much said, I think both Norm and I (though Norm can speak for himself) were using the idea of good and evil/God and Satan as framework for talking about what we do and how we do it rather than as declaration of personal belief. Scott recognized that Norm's references to Satan probably weren't meant "to be taken quite so literally" as I seemed to take them. Nor were mine to Abdiel.

  6. Jeff,

    My claim to be an expert on the subject of Satan by virtue of having written my senior philosophy thesis on metaphysical evil was an off-hand attempt at dry humor that lent itself to being misunderstood (especially since I am known in certain parts as a "narcissist"). Same with my phrase "Turns out . . .," as if I was explicating a discovered indubitable objective truth and declaring a personal belief therein.

    My thoughts were not meant to contradict but only to supplement yours and Norm's, from a different literary (i.e. philosophical and theological) tradition about which I know a little. I know next to nothing about Milton, having read an excerpt ages ago.

    Recognizing that both you and Norm were using the idea of God/Satan as a framework for talking about what we do and how we do it, the most on point part of my comment was the last two sentences. A client of mine, who I'm convinced is innocent of the charges against him, and I prayed together at his suggestion during many visits at the jail leading up to his trial. He once expressed the belief that God would protect him from being wrongly convicted. I reminded him that unjust things happen to good people, that God allowed Jesus Himself to be wrongly convicted and executed, and that our faith in God (or the Universe, or what have you) has to surmount the evil running rampant in the world. Sure enough, my client was wrongly convicted and sentenced to 45 years, for which I bear much responsibility, after a farcical trial. (I am praying and have high hopes that truth and justice will prevail in his appeal, into which much work was invested.) I'm familiar with the charge that Christianity enervates by placing our hopes and efforts in the hereafter rather than the here and now. But if our hopes were only in the here and now, and if I was sentenced to 45 years in prison (or if any of a number of other things happened that superficially made my life not worth living), I think I would do my best to hang myself. I couldn't bear the thought that I was responsible for an innocent human being being sentenced to 45 years, and would turn in my law license (which I almost did anyway, and which I might yet do if my client's conviction isn't overturned). Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn and Frankl and Wilde found meaning in the midst of their imprisonments. Even in prison and disgrace it's possible to love and keep faith and hope in our fellow men and God. If we're doing that, as a prisoner or a criminal defense attorney, we're not in Hell.