You wouldn’t think an epic poem from the 17th century that dealt with a war in Heaven between the angels of God and Satan, the creation of Hell, and the fall of Adam and Eve, would have all that much to tell you about the 2008 financial crisis, or, on an even deeper level, would reveal the whole of modern economics to be based on a sort of magical illusion, but you would be wrong. John Milton’s great epic, Paradise Lost does both of those things, and perhaps much more besides.
For those of you who haven’t read Paradise Lost in high school or college I will briefly lay out the story below. I have to admit that I came very late to this book, and hadn’t read it in either high school or college. Once I had I was somewhat upset I hadn’t done so earlier- it is truly one of those books that grab you and change the way you look at the world. All I can say is read this book, and don’t think you can “wait for the movie”, it’s been canceled.
The story is one that probably anyone with even a modest Christian background in some sense already “knows” even if they’ve never heard of Milton. It is the tale of Lucifer and his angelic allies’ rebellion against God, the Son of God, and the angels that remain loyal to their Creator. Lucifer’s rebellion is sparked by his claim that angels are “self-begot”, and therefore owe no worship to God and his Son. The rebels are single-handedly casts out of Heaven by the Son of God, and into the depths of Hell, where they become monstrous, shift-shaping demons. Under the encouragement of the demon, Mammon, (literally “money”), they build Hell’s capital of glittering gold, Pandemonium. This city is supposed to replicate the glorious visages of Heaven, but, though more splendid than any earthly city, remains but Heaven’s pale shadow.
Satan plots his revenge against God, and finds his opportunity in the weak link of God’s new creation- Adam and Eve. After a courageous and epic journey through the depths of Hell, Satan makes his way to the earthly Garden of Eden, where in the form of a serpent, he convinces Eve that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil God had commanded her and Adam not to eat of on pain of death, is instead the means to upgrade to a god herself.
Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Open’d and clear’d, and ye shall be as gods. (286)
Eve takes the bait, and Adam the ever dutiful husband follows her lead. Rather than leading to godhood, eating from the Tree of Knowledge results in the couple’s expulsion from the Garden and the beginning of the sad fate of human beings until the arrival, promised to Adam by the archangel, Michael, of the Messiah.
You might be asking yourself by now what in the world such a religious epic from an era so unlike our own could possibly have to do with such a real world event as the financial crisis of 2008? Surely, the state of contemporary economics is not so bad that it needs to pull from the pages of religious mythology.
Allow me in what follows to engage in a flight of fancy. What I intend to do below is ride out what is a largely unsubstantiated set of assumptions, a claim, as it were, that has only the barest minimum of research behind it. CRITICISM of such a wild set of assumptions is not only to be expected, but HOPED FOR on my part. For the last thing I would want is to turn some random thought that entered my head into some sort of IDOL, that I refuse to allow to be criticized, or much worse, have DISPROVEN.
Here then is my idea: that one of the best ways to understand the financial crisis that broke upon us in 2008 is not through any of the competing economic models out there which have emerged largely ex post facto to explain the crash, but through the lens of an idea that emerged out of religion- the idea of idolatry.
This idea, in large part, was inspired by David Hawkes, the editor of the brilliant 2005 edition of Paradise Lost I have in front of me. It is Hawkes’ point that what Paradise Lost offers us is an extended meditation on idolatry, and that the concept of idolatry can provide us with a useful guidepost, even when severed from its original ground in the Jewish, Christian or Muslim faiths. That Milton’s great work might be read as a prophecy of our own age of secular idolatry.
Hawkes sees behind Milton’s Paradise Lost, though it is embedded in religious language, what was to become philosophy’s famous distinction between the “thing” and the “thing in itself”. The awareness that we can never know the world as it truly is, but only as it is mediated for us by our senses, and perhaps most especially by our ideas, one would today call them models of it.
The only being who can know the thing in itself, in Milton’s reading of it, is their Creator and thus the world of the created, including the angles, are in a state of alienation in reference to the world. (XXX-XXXI)
Our inability to know the world as it truly is does not, however, stop us from trying. Far too often in our quest we believe we have reached that unreachable destination.
This seemingly innocent confusion of the map for the territory, the symbol for that which is symbolized, is not, in Hawkes’ terms “ethically neutral”. Instead the thing in itself, which only God can see, becomes confused with the image we hold in our hands or place upon an altar. The illusion that we are in possession of the “Truth”, like the voodoo dolls of witches. seems to lead straight to the illusion that we have God-like control over the actual thing we have symbolized. (XXXII)
In the words of Hawkes:
…. for Milton, sin consists in the refusal to recognize, and thus in the attempt to bridge, the world of experience and the world beyond experience. This is the sin of Satan, whose basic mistake is the failure to understand the difference between himself and God is qualitative rather than quantitative. (xxxvi)
The whole of Paradise Lost is a meditation on the dangers of confusing our idols for the thing in itself, our maps for the actual territory. This delusion is seen in Satan’s futile rebellion against an omnipotent God, in the building of Pandemonium, the capital of Hell, in which the demon Mammon thinks the glory of Heaven can be obtained in the gold of the earth. It is seen in the seduction of Eve by the serpent, when she confuses what she sees -the serpents human like power of speech- with the reality of what will be gotten from eating from the Tree of Life.
Hawkes wants us to connect Milton’s meditation on idolatry with the birth of capitalism that was happening right in front of the “eyes” of the blind prophet. Persons were being alienated from their labor as they were forced from their lands and forced to become wage earners, and more importantly for our purposes, money emerged as “an independent, self-generating force- an efficacious sign”. (XV)
Above all, Hawkes wants us to see Paradise Lost not as a mere epic poem that, despite its genius, is too embedded in a religious language that offers little guidance to the problems of our secular age, but as what Milton intended it to be, a prophecy, that was meant to capture the outlines of the future. We are that future, and if Hawkes is right, Milton might have been able to peer into the way in which the world would unfold not out of any connection with the divine, but because his genius occurred at the very moment the modern world was coming into being, allowing him to grasps its fundamental assumptions.
Hawkes writes of us:
Our own “postmodern condition” is characterized by the virtually complete dominance of representation over reality, but few twenty-first-century thinkers are capable of constructing an ethical critique of this situation. Paradise Lost offers such a critique, and that is why Milton’s poem is more pertinent today than ever before. (XXXIII)
What Hawkes interpretation of Paradise Lost provided me with was a model to understand the financial crisis. In particular, it gave me a way to understand the role of two forces which played a role in the outbreak of the crisis: the mathematical geniuses of Wall Street known as “quants” who created a whole new system of computer based finance during the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s that imploded with the 2008 crisis, and the emergence of “fiat currency” in the early 1970s that engendered a credit boom the likes of which was never seen before, and that was ultimately based on the illusion that money could be created out of thin air- like magic.
Next time the Quants….