The Reading Room
Miltonheimer Two, The Sequel
In Paradise Lost, Raphael makes an account to Adam about the war between the good angels and the rebel angels that took place in Heaven prior to his and Eve’s creation. The archangel tells Adam that Satan, frustrated by his inability to defeat the good angels, begins working on a chemical concoction that might overturn the balance of heavenly power and swing the celestial war in his favor. What Satan ends up inventing, according to Raphael, is gunpowder.
Although the good angels still end up triumphing in the end, it is only (at least in part) due to their needing to engage in a celestial arms race with the rebel angels (an astounding escalation of the war that results in the angels tearing out mountains from their moorings and slinging them at one another).
Milton knew that gunpowder had actually been invented by human beings, and he knew that all of his readers would be well aware of this historical fact as well. By recognizing Satan as the spiritual (if not scientific) inventor of gunpowder in his epic, Milton was trying to signal to his readers that although gunpowder may be necessary—to protect ourselves against our enemies and to defeat the forces of tyranny that are inimical to human flourishing—we need to ultimately view deadly weapons capable of inflicting mass-death as the offspring of Satan himself. Although such weapons can (and, as in the Second World War, sometimes must) be used for the sake of the good, we must always remember that their essence is evil. As Oppenheimer declares, “I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon. But I know the Nazis can’t.” The usage of these kinds of weapons may at times unfortunately be necessary, but it must only ever remain that—necessary, and not optimal.
In Oppenheimer, the Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist Niels Bohr calls Oppenheimer an “American Prometheus,” alluding to the Greek hero who stole the secret of fire from the gods and bequeathed it to human beings, thereby bringing endless punishments upon himself but gifting to humanity the ability to warm themselves in the cold, illuminate their surroundings in the dark, and cook the kinds of foods that would allow their brains to expand in ways that would enable homo sapiens to overtake their other mammalian competitors. But Bohr also realizes that this new kind of fire that Oppenheimer has stolen from the gods of physics will now enable homo sapiens to destroy themselves. They both know that this new kind of nuclear fission-induced fire is necessary in order to defeat the Axis powers, but they also realize that once they’ve used it to defeat evil this same fire could also eventually be used to perpetuate even greater evil. Oppenheimer, in response, once again draws the story back to its thematic connection with Milton’s great poem. In the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, it is the snake in the Garden of Eden that convinces Eve to eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, thereby bringing about her and her children’s fall from grace. In Paradise Lost, Milton imagines Satan as having coopted the body of the snake prior to his fateful encounter with Eve. It is the snake, then, for Milton—as Satan disguised—that precipitated humanity’s fall. For Oppenheimer, this is precisely what he—and we—have done by creating this new form of Promethean power: we have allowed satanic forces of great destruction to once again infiltrate themselves into our world. As he tells Bohr, “You can’t lift the stone without being ready for the snake that’s revealed.”
Oppenheimer’s most famous quote after having helped the Allies create the atomic bomb was his repetition of a line that the god Vishnu utters in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Although he recognizes the necessity of what he has done, his gravest concern, as he confides in the movie to Albert Einstein, is that the forces he’s unleashed “might start a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world.” As much as Oppenheimer’s most well-known line is a paraphrasing of a line in Hindu sacred scriptures in a literal sense, in the figurative and spiritual senses it is a quotation that illustrates how much he also came to understand that as a physicist he had gone from Adam—a mere human being with a profound curiosity to know more about the inner workings of God’s universe—to Satan, the figure in Christian sacred scriptures who is responsible for bringing Death into the world. A world with such possibility for violence and destruction isn’t merely a world with new weapons in it; as Bohr declares, it’s a new world entirely.
In Milton’s epic, Adam and Eve bring this new world into being by eating from the forbidden fruit. The only chance that they would have of redeeming themselves and saving the world from destruction, in Milton’s theological worldview, would only enter into the world once “the Son” (i.e. the Son of God, who volunteered to assume the form of a human being) would enter the world much later. For us, in this brave and very scary atomic-age new world, it still remains to be seen when our possibility for saving ourselves from nuclear catastrophe will come, and in what form. Until that time, we can only hope that nothing happens to set off the apocalyptic chain reaction that Oppenheimer so greatly feared.