“You’re not going to change us” …

Timothy Trybus, the 62-year old alcoholic moron who harassed a Hispanic woman in a Chicago park last month for wearing a t-shirt with the Puerto Rico flag, has been charged with committing a hate crime. The entire ordeal was filmed on a phone camera and posted on Facebook, where it went viral. As it was happening, there was a cop on duty who witnessed the harassment but–apparently not realizing that he was on camera–failed to intervene. Was he being lazy, ignorant, or both? He has since resigned.

During the harassment, Trybus asked her if she was an American citizen, told her she shouldn’t be wearing that flag in the U.S., and told her “you’re not going to change the United States of America“. The irony! Puerto Ricans were annexed in 1898 after the Spanish American War and were all made Americans citizens–against their will, or at least with no input from island residents–in 1917, just a year prior to First World War, and were promptly drafted to the war. So it was the U.S.A that changed Puerto Rico’s political, societal, and cultural identity radically! Trybus could only exhibit his audacity as a result of living in a post-fact vacuum entirely void of historical context.

In the decades after citizenship was conferred, and prior to the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the island was ruled with an iron fist by federally appointed governors. English was the only language allowed in schools and, for a time, it was illegal to even display the Puerto Rican flag in Puerto Rico, to express island patriotism in overt manner, or to discuss nationalistic ideas in public. This “gag law” was later found to be unconstitutional in the courts, and was abolished.

See the source imageOne of the most popular plena songs of the 20th Century is titled ¡Que bonita bandera! (=”What a pretty flag!”)–its cheerful, contagious lyrics took delight in the peculiar kind of transgression that the Puerto Rican flag embodied. Today, the island flag is seen as “American flag Jr.” (it has the same colors), it’s liberally woven into clothing and memes, and saturates the annual parades in many major cities. But it would be wrong to forget the flag’s controversial history! There are too many lessons there, and too much is at stake.

It’s difficult to understand how Americans who claim to be patriotic are so deeply unaware of the geographical extent of the United States, of the history involved in America’s expansion, or even of the fact that free expression and the other constitutional guarantees are part of what made this country great. A quick scan through the maps of Africa and Asia will quickly remind us that not every country has these blessings … But if Puerto Rico’s gag law is any indication, this deep ignorance of basic civics and of our constitutional rights isn’t anything new and has even been prevalent enough to have made its way into laws during particularly pernicious instances in history.

This weekend, I will be blasting ¡Que bonita bandera! at full volume in celebration that today, in the courts, the United States is telling all the Timothy Trybuses out there: “No, it is YOU who will not change the United States of America!”.

Further Reading:
Puerto Rican Citizenship: the Odd Case of Juan Mari Brás

 

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Anti-Platonic Passage from RotA

The following is the very amusing anti-Platonic paragraph in chapter 20 of Revolt of the Angels (full review here):

“While the little children played at hop-scotch under the Abbey walls our friends the monks devoted themselves to another game equally unprofitable, at which, nevertheless, I joined them, for one must kill time,—that, when one comes to think of it, is the sole business of life. Our game was a game of words which pleased our coarse yet subtle minds, set school fulminating against school, and put all Christendom in an uproar. We formed ourselves into two opposing camps. One camp maintained that before there were apples there was the Apple; that before there were popinjays there was the Popinjay; that before there were lewd and greedy monks there was the Monk, Lewdness and Greed; that before there were feet and before there were posteriors in this world the kick in the posterior must have had existence for all eternity in the bosom of God. The other camp replied that, on the contrary, apples gave man the idea of the apple; popinjays the idea of the popinjay; monks the idea of the monk, greed and lewdness, and that the kick in the posterior existed only after having been duly given and received. The players grew heated and came to fisticuffs. I was an adherent of the second party, which satisfied my reason better, and which was, in fact, condemned by the Council of Soissons.

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Happy Twentieth! Lucian’s Aerial Expedition

“We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf.” – Epicurus

This month, the Guardian published The friend effect: why the secret of health and happiness is surprisingly simple. This, plus the above quote by Epicurus, present us with an occasion and an excuse to randomly invite friends over for dinner, to cook and eat together, or have brunch together, and presents a powerful case in favor of developing culinary and brunch traditions with our friends.

An essay titled The Evolution of Law in Epicurus and Nietzsche was published, as was a book review of Revolt of the Angels, which inspired some Epicurean thoughts on the curious evolution of Satanism into a mainstream religion.

If you’re on twitter, you may follow me on twitter at @hclasalle, and you may also follow @SocietyEpicurus and @NewEpicurean.

Also this month, NASA announced the conclusive discovery of organic compounds on planet Mars, which inaugurates a new era in the science of astrobiology and gets contemporary science closer to confirming the Epicurean doctrine of innumerable worlds, which was articulated in Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus, and later in Diogenes of Oenoanda’s Wall and in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, which says:

“It is in the highest degree unlikely that this earth and sky is the only one to have been created … Nothing in the universe is the only one of its kind, unique and solitary in its birth and growth … You are bound therefore to acknowledge that in other regions there are other earths and various tribes of men and breeds of beasts.” – Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura, Book II

Some years back, in a piece written for the classics publication Eidolon titled Swinish Herds and Pastafarians–which explores the continuity between ancient comedy and modern atheist activism–I explained that ancient Epicureans treated their philosophy, at times, as a parody religion complete with its own version of heaven and their own criteria for who gets in and who does not. Recently, someone on our Facebook groups mentioned the comedy Icaromenippus: An Aerial Expedition and how in this work, Lucian of Samosata–in a scene where his main character flies to the moon and looks back–took for granted that the Earth was round.

Imagine yourself first descrying a tiny Earth, far smaller than the Moon looks; on turning my eyes down, I could not think for some time what had become of our mighty mountains and vast sea.

His point was that this demonstrates that the ancient Epicureans of the second century of Common Era believed in a round Earth. In fact, Lucian has been credited (here, and in his True Story) with writing the earliest examples of science fiction in the history of literature. I read the work, and found more of the kind of secular mocking of vulgar religion discussed in the Eidolon piece. Lucian speaks out against creationists:

Some say it had no beginning, and cannot end; others boldly talk of its creator and his procedure; what particularly entertained me was that these latter set up a contriver of the universe, but fail to mention where he came from, or what he stood on while about his elaborate task, though it is by no means obvious how there could be place or time before the universe came into being.

Lucian elsewhere pokes fun at the overconfidence of the philosophers:

To begin with, their feet are on the ground; they are no taller than the rest of us ‘men that walk the earth’; they are no sharper-sighted than their neighbours, some of them purblind, indeed, with age or indolence; and yet they say they can distinguish the limits of the sky, they measure the sun’s circumference, take their walks in the supra-lunar regions, and specify the sizes and shapes of the stars as though they had fallen from them; often one of them could not tell you correctly the number of miles from Megara to Athens, but has no hesitation about the distance in feet from the sun to the moon.

And another portion of the work reminded me of the Pale Blue Dot sermon given by Carl Sagan. Lucian’s pale blue dot sermon questioned the pride men take in petty things, and compared cities to anthills.

The whole of Greece, as I then saw it, might measure some four inches; how much smaller Athens on the same scale. So I realized what sort of sized basis for their pride remains to our rich men.

In a scene where the main character sits next to Zeus while listening to the prayers of men, Lucian served another brilliant satire of religion:

From every quarter of Earth were coming the most various and contradictory petitions; for I too bent down my head and listened. Here are specimens. ‘O Zeus, that I might be king!’ ‘O Zeus, that my onions and garlic might thrive!’ ‘Ye Gods, a speedy death for my father!’ Or again, ‘Would that I might succeed to my wife’s property!’ ‘Grant that my plot against my brother be not detected.’ ‘Let me win my suit.’ ‘Give me an Olympic garland.’ Of those at sea, one prayed for a north, another for a south wind; the farmer asked for rain, the fuller for sun.

One of the points I made in the Swinish Herds piece, and later in my Epicureanism as a Religious Identity blog, was that the Epicurean tradition exhibits–even if at times robed in comedy and humor–many of the symptoms of being a religious tradition, complete with a foundational exile story (in his case, from Mytilene) like Muhammad’s hajj, Rama’s expulsion from his father’s castle, and Moses’ exodus. The flight to heaven motif is also a theme in Elijah, Muhammad (who flew to the seven heavens), Jesus (the “transfiguration” at Gethsemani), and other great prophets. While Icaromenippus takes place in Lucian’s comedy and is not meant to be taken seriously, it’s fully consistent with Epicurean tradition to have fun while philosophizing, while encouraging critical thinking, and while creating meaning.

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

I hope you go on this adventure and fly to the heavens with Lucian, and that you eventually get to enjoy the pleasure of his other works: Alexander the Oracle-Monger (where he mocks a false prophet), True Story (another wildly entertaining out-of-this-world adventure), and his hilarious Sale of Creeds.

Further Reading:

In Praise of Lucian

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Some Epicurean Thoughts on Satanism’s Curious Evolution into a Mainstream Religion

Towards the end of Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche included a “Worship of the Ass” parable where many of the higher men who had followed the atheistic prophet felt that anything was better than a meaningless life, that ANY god was better than atheism, so they installed an Ass to be worshiped. Some people have interpreted this as the need to mock religion in the post-Christian era but, in the narrative, Zarathustra is furious and indignant, and the scene actually reminds us of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai and finding his people worshiping the bull. It seems like Nietzsche’s point is to remind us that we are all, in the end, “human, all too human”. Here, once again, Nietzsche was prophetic in his foresight. At least one tradition within modern Satanism reveres a deity associated with a donkey–a new religious movement known as the Temple of Set.

Pop-culture’s fascination with the archetypal rebel can be seen everywhere, from South Park’s recast of him as Saddam Hussein’s bitch to the incredibly popular–and not without reason–Lucifer series, which was once a Fox staple, now is cancelled there and will be taken up by Netflix.

Now that Christians have allowed our pussy-grabbing president to become the face of Christian piety in America, it should not surprise us that the hypocrisy of fundamentalist Christianity looks increasingly repulsive. The emergence–like froth in the ferment of that repulsion–of a mainstream atheistic religion known as Satanism, on the other hand, is taking many people by surprise. Two main factions occupy it: the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple–whose feud is reminiscent of the petty feud between emos and Goths in South Park, and just as hilarious. In recent years, membership in TST has skyrocketed as a result of visibility gained from litigation and controversies related to the hegemony of Christianity in the public sphere and the use of public schools to indoctrinate children–which prompted TST to create an after-school Satanic club to compete with the “Good News Club”. Thousands of atheists have come to admire the activist tactic of taking up the sigil of the arch-boogieman to scare people, to have fun, and to educate society about the importance of the constitutional guarantee of separation between church and state. My review of Revolt of the Angels made me aware of the fact that The Satanic Temple considers this their main canonic work, and is part of what prompted me to write this blog.

In the 1960s the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, authored The Satanic Bible and appropriated and re-branded the philosophy of Ayn Rand in order to profit from his ideology of radical individualism, his theatrics (prior to this, he worked for a circus), and his cynical misanthropy. Like Rand–and Nietzsche before her–he misinterpreted natural selection and posited social Darwinism as the order of things in nature, which resulted in what Lucien Greaves calls a “fetishism of authoritarianism” that can be seen in LaVey’s Satanist cult to this day.

On the other hand, the Satanic Temple is a reformed, politically-engaged flavor of Satanism which rejects social Darwinism and argues–from game theory and other anthropological research–that there should be a place for compassion and kindness in Satanism. The line of argument here is identical to what we find in The Bonobo and the Atheist, and in other modern discourse that seeks to identify the natural sources of morality.

Satanism is Not a Nihilism

The pessimism and cynicism sometimes found among Satanists–which is perhaps justified if we read the many case studies and arguments made in the aptly-named book The Lucifer Principle–might lead us to think Satanism is merely a nihilist and existentialist religion, and maybe that’s one interpretation of it, but on the whole we would be wrong to conclude that. If one were to discern the philosophical identities of the various strands of Satanism, one would likely find that the Temple of Set is a Neo-Platonic religion, CoS is mostly influenced by Nietzschean/Randian thought (it claims Epicureanism as a source–but seems to misinterpret it by idealizing indulgence), and TST probably draws most heavily from Epicurean philosophy without giving it credit.

If the leaders of the TST were to ever gain a strong intellectual foundation as Epicureans, they’ll find that the best way to put forward a coherent case for compassion within their worldview–which accurately views humans as an animal species–is to root it in the Epicurean concept of natural justice, as articulated in the last ten of our 40 Principal Doctrines. Our contractarian theory of justice, and the expanded Onfrayan idea of the hedonic covenant, might appeal to their large libertarian base, and also most people underestimate the extent to which arguing from mutual advantage / mutual benefit helps to easily explain the utility of most common-sense moral decisions  (not to mention difficult ones) made in any social context. They will also find that the concluding words in Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus furnish one way to interpret the principle of personal sovereignty. There, our Hegemon says that we will live like gods among mortals if we train ourselves to live a life filled with the pleasures that nature easily makes available, as explained in the middle portion of the epistle.

TST’s arguments on religious identity resonate with our arguments in favor of Epicureanism as a religious identity. They claim that atheism on its own does not affirm any values, that atheistic religions can be affirmative philosophical identities that inform the lives of adherents and give meaning to life, and that Satanism can be a model for “the religion of the future”: one that affirms the cultural traditions of Judaism, Christianity, or this or that heritage, but that is divorced from its supernatural beliefs. In fact, there are atheistic (or “cultural”) Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions out there. TST’s revisited definition of what it means to be a religion also resonates with arguments I’ve made on religion as a form of play or as a work of art, and with Raoul Vaneigem’s brilliant characterization of religion as having evolved from the usurpation of primitive play by ancient priests in order to employ Spirit as an enforcer of labor in early agricultural societies. Reinstating play within religion, while doing away with dis-embodied Spirit, therefore redeems religion from its historical complicities.

The Counter-History of Religion

Both Satanism and Epicurean philosophy posit a counter-narrative to the mainstream. They posit a counter-history of religion, and we a counter-history of philosophy. But ultimately, if Satanists understand the Platonic roots of Christianity, they will in the end echo Michel Onfray in earnest. After all, doesn’t the Gospel of John begin with the Platonic doctrine: “In the beginning was the Logos”? Speaking of counter-history, Lucien Greaves’ (the founder of TST) wrote a brilliant piece for Washington Post on the Christian roots of white supremacy. Religious fundamentalists desperately want to forget the racist history of Christianity, and indeed the history of Abrahamic religions is so bloody and violent that it’s not difficult to expose it using Michel Onfray’s methods of atheistic historiography. We are drowning in false narratives, and never before have we had a need as urgent to understand Onfray’s counter-history.

One observation bears mention here: it’s curious that the Judeo-Christian tradition chose to name the arch-enemy of its cosmology Lucifer, which means Light-bringer. This, by their own admission, would seem to entail a self-description as the cosmic and historical force of obscurantism–a fact which history certifies–and reinforces the perception that the Enlightenment and its humanistic values remain an existential threat to the church. The very first taboo in the Biblical narrative was not against evil or sin or abuse or violence, but against science, against the tree of knowledge.

The Adversarian and the Friendly Archetypes

One major distinction exists between Satanism and Epicurean philosophy. Satan means adversary, foe. Epicurus means friend, ally. Friendship is one the most cherished values of the Epicureans, while confrontation is a staple of the Satanists. Both engage in parrhesia–frank criticism–frequently using comedic methods, but Epicureans employ suavity while Satanists do not necessarily employ it. While it’s true that we can’t be friends to everyone and that we all play the roles of friend and foe in different social situations, the tension between these two modes is reminiscent of the tension between atheist militancy and ataraxia discussed in Atheism 2.1. Insofar as Satanic methods of activism, misanthropic tendencies, or morbidity generate perturbations or harm our meaningful friendships, a true Epicurean will stay away from them.

I believe that the adoption of this or that archetypal figure to guide us does have real repercussions in our lives, and that this choice must be carefully undertaken. We tend to see the world, people, and situations, through the lens of what is already familiar to our minds. The tendency to idealize the adversarian and contrarian spirit would presumably produce quite different interpretations of things than the tendency to idealize friendship and pleasure. One way to see the distinction is to understand Venus (pleasure) as the guiding principle and deity of Epicureans, as opposed to Satan–or the god of opportunity Mercury (the “Spirit” of the Market), if we are to assign to Satanism the guiding principle that belongs in Randian philosophy.

Another way to see the distinction is to understand the importance Epicureans place in not confusing the means (if by Satan we mean to signify the need to sometimes engage in contrarian behavior) with the end that our nature seeks, which is the motivating power of pleasure. To some people and in some circumstances, Satanism and Epicurean philosophy may be complementary, but to others–I’d venture to say most, if they are sincere Epicureans–this tension will be frequently impossible to reconcile. This, together with Satanism’s Randian DNA, provides the contours of the tectonic plate that separates the two traditions.

Further Reading:

 Philosophy shrugged: ignoring Ayn Rand won’t make her go away

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The Evolution of Law in Epicurus and Nietzsche

I recently had the pleasure of reading the highly-recommended book by Nietzsche, The Antichrist. Many of its paragraphs merely served to add depth and detail to some of the things I had previously come to understand from reading his notes in Will to Power and other sources, like Zarathustra. Other paragraphs offered new insights either because of the way in which they were passionately and emphatically stated, or by virtue of their content. Paragraph 57 is one of the latter cases and caught my eye because usually, when Nietzsche discusses the origins of laws and mores, he employs a cynical tone and seeks the ulterior motives of the proponents. Here, he takes on the anthropologist’s tone that we find in Lucretius and Epicurus, and it might be interesting to compare how he views the primitive origins of moral and legal codes versus how the Epicureans viewed them.

In Nietzsche, the time when the laws are written down indicates a time when rules and contracts are standardized and experimentation is no longer encouraged as a result of certain legal precedents and practices becoming solidified in tradition. There are conservative and liberal interpretations of this process: to some–who are privileged by the existing laws–this creates a mythical “golden era” during which the population developed the best means to rule itself. To others, this imposes limits on how creative legislators allow themselves to be in adapting the legal code to new circumstances and keeping it relevant. Nietzsche, who is a staunch defendant of a type of aristocracy, supports the first interpretation, but nonetheless sympathizes with the second one.

A book of laws such as the Code of Manu has the same origin as every other good law-book: it epitomizes the experience, the sagacity and the ethical experimentation of long centuries; it brings things to a conclusion; it no longer creates. The prerequisite to a codification of this sort is recognition of the fact that the means which establish the authority of a slowly and painfully attained truth are fundamentally different from those which one would make use of to prove it.

A law-book never recites the utility, the grounds, the casuistical antecedents of a law: for if it did so it would lose the imperative tone, the “thou shall,” on which obedience is based. The problem lies exactly here.—At a certain point in the evolution of a people, the class within it of the greatest insight, which is to say, the greatest hindsight and foresight, declares that the series of experiences determining how all shall live—or can live—has come to an end. The object now is to reap as rich and as complete a harvest as possible from the days of experiment and hard experience.

So the creation of a code of laws is an act of power by which the law-givers say: these matters are no longer up for discussion. Nietzsche then explains how the ruling classes, having decided that the era of legal experimentation is over, create what Marx would have called “the superstructure”, the over-arching set of narratives that the ruling classes use to preserve their power.

In consequence, the thing that is to be avoided above everything is further experimentation—the continuation of the state in which values are fluent, and are tested, chosen and criticized ad infinitum. Against this a double wall is set up: on the one hand, revelation, which is the assumption that the reasons lying behind the laws are not of human origin, that they were not sought out and found by a slow process and after many errors, but that they are of divine ancestry, and came into being complete, perfect, without a history, as a free gift, a miracle…; and on the other hand, tradition, which is the assumption that the law has stood unchanged from time immemorial, and that it is impious and a crime against one’s forefathers to bring it into question.

The authority of the law is thus grounded on the thesis: God gave it, and the fathers lived it.—The higher motive of such procedure lies in the design to distract consciousness, step by step, from its concern with notions of right living (that is to say, those that have been proved to be right by wide and carefully considered experience), so that instinct attains to a perfect automatism—a primary necessity to every sort of mastery, to every sort of perfection in the art of life.

To draw up such a law-book as Manu’s means to lay before a people the possibility of future mastery, of attainable perfection—it permits them to aspire to the highest reaches of the art of life. To that end the thing must be made unconscious: that is the aim of every holy lie … – Nietzsche, The Antichrist

He then goes on to justify the caste system, which does not concern us for the purposes of this essay. I mainly wish to note that, against the conservative analysis we find in Nietzsche–who seeks to remind us of the original advantages that certified the ancient laws–we can posit the case for adaptability, progress and evolution of the legal code according to mutual advantage in the ancient Epicureans–who advocate for a fluid legal system that allows for perpetual processes of experimentation and adaptation.

Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.

Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.

Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines 37-38

Notice that, first and foremost, it is clear that men create the laws and that men have, at any point, the power to change them. Epicureans never allow for a “holy lie” to even plant its roots in the soil of philosophy. While Epicurean doctrines seem to allow for an aristocratic code (things of advantage may or may not be “the same for all”), we also find in the Epicurean sources a lack of emphasis on the priorities of the ruling class, and instead an egalitarian, anarchic, and–most importantly–pragmatic focus on mutual benefit.

In Book 5 of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius mentions how “neighbors began to form mutual alliances, wishing neither to do nor to suffer violence among themselves“, echoing again the indication that Epicureans believed contractarianism to be the earliest type of law.

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Revolt of the Angels Book Review

“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.” – RotA

See the source imageArcade is many things. As Arcadia, it’s the town built by the survivors of post-apocalyptic Earth in “The 100”. It’s the province of the ancient world where the cult of Pan originated, and the name of French Americans and Canadians which originated the term “Cajun”, now linked to Louisiana. Arcade also has a place in Satanic literary tradition: in his book Revolt of the Angels, Anatole France created a literary character, Arcade, who rebelled against Jehovah after learning atomism and science.

An Epicurean under-current exists throughout the work: the bed-side book that the angel was reading during his awakening was Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things–particularly, the copy that had Voltaire’s notes. Mention of Gassendi is also made.

The novel reminds one of the series Once Upon a Time, where everyday characters in our world derive their transcendental identities from their heavenly origins–but instead of being drawn from fairy tales, these characters are drawn from the angelic hosts. It also reminded me of the series Lucifer–which was recently cancelled by its network and will be rebooted on Netflix to give fans (who were clamoring for more) some semblance of closure. Its main character is based on the Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer Morningstar, and–as in Revolt of the Angels–it precipitates fallen angels into modern cities, living modern lives while evolving and going on adventures as their archetypal characters.

The Light-Bearer Lucifer himself is re-imagined in Chapter 18 as an angel of science and freedom. His counter-history is narrated by the most Epicurean of the characters in the novel: Nectaire, also known as “the Gardener”. His name, of course, relates to “nectar”, ambrosia, sweetness, and therefore pleasure, and one wonders to what extent the author intended the epithet “gardener” to remind the reader of the Epicureans. In order to enshrine Enlightenment values in the work, the author attributed these words to Lucifer upon being cast from heaven:

Friends, if victory is denied us now, it is because we are neither worthy nor capable of victory. Let us determine wherein we have failed. Nature shall not be ruled, the sceptre of the Universe shall not be grasped, Godhead shall not be won, save by knowledge alone.

… In these silent realms where we are fallen, let us meditate, seeking the hidden causes of things; let us observe the course of Nature; let us pursue her with compelling ardour and all-conquering desire; let us strive to penetrate her infinite grandeur, her infinite minuteness. Let us seek to know when she is barren and when she brings forth fruit; how she makes cold and heat, joy and sorrow, life and death; how she assembles and disperses her elements, how she produces both the light air we breathe and the rocks of diamond and sapphire whence we have been precipitated, the divine fire wherewith we have been scarred and the soaring thought which stirs our minds.

… It is through pain that, suffering a first experience of Nature, we have been roused to know her and to subdue her. When she obeys us we shall be as gods …

The rebel archetype is cast in heroic and noble relief when, at the crucial moment, Lucifer chooses not to take heaven from its former inhabitant, fearing that if he did, he would become in the end like his arch-enemy. He expounds the details of this choice to his angels in an epic speech, which gives the author an opportunity to furnish his critique of religion through the mouth of the Light-bearer.

The Ialdabaoth Tradition

It may sound like a creature out of HP Lovecraft mythos, but it’s not. Ialdabaoth is a name for the Demiurge (or Divine Craftsman) in the Gnostic tradition which was popular in Egypt when Christianity was young. The idea of the Demiurge ultimately has its roots in Platonism–and, in fact, Arcade exhibits a strong anti-Platonic spirit when he engages in debates with monks in a chapter which is just one of the many gems of great value in the novel.

The Demiurge is a false God or angel–syncretized also with the angel Ariel–who, out of vanity or ignorance, believes himself to be the one and only true god of the universe and seeks to convince all in heaven and Earth that he is to be worshiped as the only God. Naturally, he was syncretized into Jehovah of the Jews and Christians. It’s possible that this tradition emerged as a way for people in a world that had always been polytheistic and was heavily influenced by Plato to make sense of the petty jealousy and megalomania of the deity of the desert tribes.

“… 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.” – Arcade, in Chapter 10

Some Christians from ancient times–in order to address the obvious differences between the Old and New Testament Gods–have claimed that the false, jealous God of the Old Testament was the Demiurge, but that there was still a higher and true God above him who is the one that Jesus revealed in the Gospels. This makes sense of John 8:44, where Jesus converses with a group named merely as “Jews” and tells them:

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

If the God of the Jews is the Father of Lies, then the Father of Jesus must be a different person–to think otherwise would create too much cognitive dissonance, and history has shown that syncretistic appropriation is a convenient way for religious populations to resolve conflicts of this sort–hence the Ialdabaoth tradition, which had deep roots in Gnosticism. Gnosis means “knowledge”, so those who elaborated this tradition would have thought of themselves as being “in the know” and capable of explaining the contradictions that perplexed those who delved into these matters. This proved quite popular, particularly in cosmopolitan Egypt, where people were often challenged with a vast variety of knowledge from different sources.

But the Gnostic flavor of Christianity would not survive. The Pauline Church of Rome sought by all the means at its disposal to do away with Gnosticism–as well as with any other competing version or interpretation of Christianity or the Bible–and to firmly establish its own salvific and exclusivist interpretation. This best served the interests of a Roman empire seeking to consolidate and to TEST the loyalties of its subjects. The attack on the Gnostics was not entirely a fruitful campaign because Anatole France, the author of Revolt of the Angels–who lived between 1844 and 1924–knew of the Ialdabaoth tradition decades before the Nag Hammadi scrolls were discovered and forever changed our ideas about the diversity that existed within primitive Christianity.

Some of the more paranoid end-of-days cults within Christianity (like Jehova’s Witnesses) also teach that the true god of this world is indeed the devil, but they seem oblivious as to the Gnostic roots of this tradition. Either way, I think that understanding the Ialdabaoth tradition is useful (but not necessary) to the enjoyment of this work.

Conclusion

I absolutely relished every page of this novel. The html version available from The Gutenberg Project was translated beautifully into English by Wilfrid Jackson–and I’m sure the French original is just as delicious and refined. Anatole France was an award-winning author and a member of the Académie Française who sympathized with the revolutionary ideas that were en vogue in early 20th-Century France, as Russia fell into the hands of the proletariat. The historical period and the solidarity that existed in the Parisian left at the time the book was written, add another layer of complexity to the novel.

I believe atheists, humanists and Epicureans will derive the most pleasure and inspiration from this book. It is ultimately a book about rebelling against religious tyranny and totalitarianism.

Then, as now, they showed themselves, for the most part, incapable of lofty thoughts, and in the fear of the Lord lay their sole virtue. – Chapter 18

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Nietzsche, Against the Moloch of Abstraction

A virtue must be our invention; it must spring out of our personal need and defence. In every other case it is a source of danger. That which does not belong to our life menaces it; a virtue which has its roots in mere respect for the concept of “virtue,” as Kant would have it, is pernicious. “Virtue,” “duty,” “good for its own sake,” goodness grounded upon impersonality or a notion of universal validity—these are all chimeras, and in them one finds only an expression of the decay, the last collapse of life, the Chinese spirit of Königsberg. Quite the contrary is demanded by the most profound laws of self-preservation and of growth: to wit, that every man find his own virtue, his own categorical imperative. A nation goes to pieces when it confounds its duty with the general concept of duty. Nothing works a more complete and penetrating disaster than every “impersonal” duty, every sacrifice before the Moloch of abstraction.—To think that no one has thought of Kant’s categorical imperative as dangerous to life!… The theological instinct alone took it under protection!—An action prompted by the life-instinct proves that it is a right action by the amount of pleasure that goes with it: and yet that Nihilist, with his bowels  of Christian dogmatism, regarded pleasure as an objection…. What destroys a man more quickly than to work, think and feel without inner necessity, without any deep personal desire, without pleasure—as a mere automaton of duty? That is the recipe for décadence, and no less for idiocy….

– Nietzsche, in The Anti-Christ 11

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