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Manichaeism, Skepticism, and Fideism

Examines the theology of Lord Byron's closet drama Cain, A Mystery

George Gordon, Lord Byron's Cain, A Mystery has been labeled blasphemous by several critics, but reaction to the closet drama has not followed clearly defined political lines. It has been admired by the conservative Sir Walter Scott and the Orthodox Catholic Thomas Moore yet criticized by the liberal Hobouse and the heterodox William Blake (Corbett 146). Byron has been accused of supporting Manichaeism in the play and of failing to offset Cain's irreverent arguments with equally convincing yet pious arguments from the mouths of Able and Adam (Lovell 441). The skepticism evident in Cain has been seen (and in our day even celebrated) as an attempt to undermine Christianity. It has long been "taken for granted that Lucifer was the mouthpiece of Byron, that the author [. . . ] was not 'on the side of angels'" (Coleridge 177). Yet it may be argued that Byron's Cain actually repudiates Manichaeism and uses skepticism not to undermine Christianity per se, but to reject the rationalization of Christianity in favor of fideism.

Byron wished to know why the "Quartering Reviewers" accused him of Manichaeism. "I am not a Manichean - nor Any-chean," he wrote. "I can't tell what [your] people mean by making me a hobgoblin" (Corbett 163). Such critics may have associated Byron with Manichaeism simply as another way of labeling him a part of the "Satanic School." Manichaeism was not actually a Christian heresy; it was a distinct religion requiring strict physical discipline. Adepts of the religion "were expected to refrain altogether from sex; the married laity should observe strict monogamy" (Smart 227). Yet "the orthodox were told that among the Manichees 'no modesty, no sense of honour and no chastity whatever is to be found; their moral code is a mass of falsehoods, [and] their religious beliefs are shared by the devil'" (Johnson 51).

However, most of the Manichees' religious beliefs are not shared by Byron's devil. The Manichees believed that the "prince of Darkness" desired to "produce as many bodies as possible to house and trap the light" (Smart 227). This is why celibacy was encouraged. But Lucifer encourages the destruction of life. Cain's meeting with the spirit depresses him to the point where he considers killing Enoch and actually kills Abel. The Manichees also believed in truth-telling and nonviolence and expected adherents to pray four times a day (Smart 227). Lucifer twists words, encourages violence, and abjures prayer: "I scorn all / That bows to him, who made things but to bend" (1.1.237-38).

Most discerning critics have associated Cain with only the dualistic aspects of the Manichees' religion. According to Ricardo J. Quinones, Cain inhabits a universe of "great Manichean and irreconcilable dual principles" (55). To Dr. James Kennedy, Byron himself appeared to have possessed "some erroneous opinion similar to the Manicheans, with respect to the power of God over Satan, or the evil principle" (Lovell 438). Dualism is the belief that there are two equal and independent powers--one bad and the other good--that have "both existed from all eternity. Neither [. . .] has any more right than the other to call itself God. Each presumably thinks it is good and the other bad" (Lewis Mere 48).

Lucifer is at first ambiguous about his perceived role in the universe, much as he is ambiguous about his role (or lack thereof) as tempter in the Garden. When Cain tells Lucifer he looks like a god, Lucifer replies, "I am none" (1.1.128). Yet he later refers to Jehovah as "the other God" (2.1.6). When Cain asks Lucifer if he is God's equal, Lucifer's response is again ambiguous:

No;--I have nought in common with him!
Nor Would: I would be aught above--beneath
Aught save a sharer or servant of
His power. (1.1.304-07)

Lucifer does not claim equality, but he does claim independence. According to Martyn Corbett, "the first hint of that coevality upon which, towards the end of the second act, Lucifer expands" occurs when Lucifer tells Cain that "[h]e who bows not to him has bowed to me" (1.1.315; 152). Of course, rather than implying dual control of the Universe, this may simply be another way of stating Christ's claim that "he that is not with me is against me" (Matt. 12.30).

But Lucifer's assertions become clearer as the play progresses. He claims to have aided in creation, which does fit well with the dualism of the Manichees, who believed that both the "Father of Light" and the "Prince of Darkness" had a hand in creation (1.1.531; Smart 227). Lucifer also implies that he too has the power to save: "I will not say, / Believe in me, as a conditional creed / To save thee" (2.1.20-22). Finally, he makes the direct claim, "we reign / Together; but our dwellings are asunder" (2.2.376-77). He even refers to himself as a part of "the great double Mysteries" and as one of "the two Principles" (2.2.403). In keeping with dualism, he sees himself as good and God as evil:

Cain. But one of you makes evil.
Lucifer. Which?
Cain. Thou! for
If thou canst do man good, why dost thou not?
Lucifer. And why not he who made? (2.2.394-396)

Lucifer claims he has a victor but not a superior: "I battle against him, as I battled / In highest Heaven--through all Eternity." And "the great / Conflict," he claims, "ne'er shall" cease (2.2.429-440). This is highly consistent with dualism, which perceives the world as a battlefield upon which the two powers "fight out an endless war" (Lewis Mere 48).

So, despite Lucifer's initial ambiguity on the subject, he eventually claims to be an equal, independent power--in short, he professes the dualism of the Manichee religion. Presumably, Byron learned about Manicheasim from Pierre Bayle's Dictionary historique et critique, which has been identified as a prominent source for Cain (Thorslev 60). Yet Bayle himself did not seek "to defend the Manicheans, but to discredit, in dialectical fashion, all traditional theodices whatsoever" (Thorslev 61). Thus, Lucifer's endorsement of dualism does not necessarily imply Byron's own (Thorslev 60). Indeed, it is only natural that Lucifer should favor such a theology. It tends to equate him with God, making him a rival rather than a servant. As Byron himself said in a conversation with Dr. Kennedy, if the servant role of Satan as depicted in Job is accepted, "it gives one a much higher idea of the majesty, power, and wisdom of God to believe that the Devils themselves are at his nod" (Lovell 438). The dualism of Manichean theology is, according to Peter L. Thorslev, Jr., "largely a red herring in the drama, raised by Lucifer in an attempt to prove himself independent of God" (61). Sir Walter Scott said as much in Byron's own time: "I do not see how anyone can accuse the author himself of Manichaeism. The devil takes the language of that sect doubtless; because, not being able to deny the existence of the Good Principle, he endeavors to exalt himself - the Evil principle - to a seeming equality with the Good" (Corbett 164).

There is ample evidence for refuting charges of Byron's Manichaeism, but what of the claim that his skepticism--as evidenced by the questionings of Cain--undermines Christianity? Byron defended himself against such a claim by contending that "it is absurd to expect from Cain, sentiments of piety and submission, when he was a murderer of his brother, and a rebel against his Creator" (Lovell 441). The problem with such a defense, according to many critics, is that Byron offers little convincing alternative to Cain's sentiments. Dr. Kennedy argued that "they blame you, not for putting those sentiments in the mouth of Cain, but for not putting such sentiments into those of Able and Adam, as would have counter-balanced the effect of what Cain said" (Lovell 441). Even Sir Walter Scott, who genuinely admired the work, "regretted that Byron had not placed 'in the mouth of Adam, or of some good and protecting spirit, the reasons which render the existence of moral evil consistent with the general benevolence of the Deity" (Corbett 166). In short, critics faulted Byron for not solving the immense problem of theodicy which has perplexed man since the Fall.

Yet, to be fair to the critics, it may be argued that Byron could have at least attempted to, like Milton, "justify the ways of God to man." Milton did not succeeded himself; critics and readers alike have long viewed Milton's God as flat and self-defensive compared to his dynamic Satan. By not attempting to justify God, Byron may have done the deity less damage. "If Cain be blasphemous," wrote Byron, "Paradise Lost is blasphemous" (Coleridge 176). Indeed, Byron even professed to have changed the confrontation between God and Cain into one between an Angel of the Lord and Cain because he feared to fall "short of . . . giving an adequate notion of the effect of the presence of Jehovah" (Corbett 172).

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Cain's arguments are fairly convincing. They are not tempered by anything in the text of the play. Indeed, Cain refutes many of the very arguments that Christians have long used to render "the existence of moral evil consistent with the general benevolence of the Deity." Christians have argued that evil exists because "we deserve what we get, that somehow our misfortunes come as punishment for our sins" (Kushner 9). Man, of his own free will, chose to eat of the forbidden fruit, and so suffering entered the world. Cain refutes this free will argument at least twice. Once he asks, "But animals / Did they, too, eat of it, that they must die?" (2.153-54). Earlier he questions, "[. . . ] and wherefore should I toil?-because / My father could not keep his place in Eden? / What had I done in this?--I was unborn" (1.65-67).

Christians have also argued that suffering is justified because God makes a greater good from the evil that befalls us. For example, the blind man in the The Gospel According To John suffers not because of his sin, but so that something greater--in this case "the works of God"-- might be revealed (9.1-3). At its extreme, this view takes the form of the Christian heresy of the felix culpa, the argument that the Fall was fortunate because it brought us redemption through Christ, which will restore us to an even greater paradise than the one we lost. Though technically a heresy, this view is not much different from many Christian justifications for evil. Evil (like the Fall) is justified because good comes from it: because it enables the manifestation of God's works, because it enables us to help others who suffer, because it forces us to rely on our Creator, and so forth.

This felix culpa argument is more or less the one Adam makes to Cain when he points out the lamb which is healed from its wound (Corbett 160-61). The lamb's suffering is justified because a greater good--the mother's joy as it stands "licking its reviving limbs"--is born from the lamb's healing and could not have occurred had the lamb never suffered (1.2.296). But Cain tears down this argument with his reaction:

[. . . ] but I thought, that 'twere
A better portion for the animal
Never to have been stung at all, than to
Purchase renewal of its little life
With agonies unutterable, though
Dispelled by antidotes (1.2.300-05).

This is similar to Rabbi Kushner's modern day argument that "if a human artist or employer made children suffer so that something immensely impressive or valuable could come to pass, we would put him in prison. Why then should we excuse God for causing such undeserved pain, no matter how wonderful the ultimate result may be?" (Kushner 19). Only to Cain, the result is not even "immensely valuable."

As convincing as Cain's arguments are, it is still possible that by giving free reign to skepticism, Byron does not succeed in undermining Christianity. It may be argued instead that the play exhibits the need to rely on faith rather than human reason. I have already noted that Bayle's Dictionary was a major source for Byron's Cain. But the purpose of the Dictionary, at least according to its own author, was not to undermine Christianity but to demonstrate, through the application of skeptical techniques, "the impotence of reason and [to] urge reliance on faith," that is, to support fideism (Kenshur 3). Bayle writes, "Christianity is of a supernatural order, and [it has to do with] God presenting us with mysteries not so that we will comprehend them, but so that we will believe them with all the humility that is owed to the Infinite Being" (Kenshur 4).

Considering Bayle's intent coupled with his influence on Byron, it is not surprising that Cain should portray Adah's simple and humble faith--which seeks no rationalization and finds its strength in love rather than in understanding--favorably. According to Martyn Corbett, "Adah is the last and in many ways the most appealing" in a long line of Byronic heroines who present a "counterpoised ethical position to that of the male protagonist; one that is realistic, humane, [and] practicable" (156). Adah sees God as a being who "strives to make happy by 'diffusing joy.' It is a beautiful conception that differs at every point from that vision of the 'Indefinite, Indissoluble Tyrant'" described by Lucifer (Corbett 155).

Adah, like the apostle Paul, is willing to forget what is behind and to press on. "Why wilt thou always mourn for Paradise?" she asks Cain. "Can we not make another?" (3.1.37-38). She is loyal, and will not desert her husband (3.1.93-95). And, unlike Cain, who feels he is nothing, Adah possesses self-esteem because she knows she is God's creation:

Cain. Well said the Spirit,
That I was nothing!
Adah. Wherefore said he so?
Jehovah said not that. (3.1.68-69)

Adah also has hope in God's goodness and believes that it is possible that one day some atonement might redeem the human race (3.1.85). She understands that the sacrifices which are pleasing to God are "a gentle and a contrite spirit" (3.1.108). She loves God, without question, for His own sake, just as she pleads with Cain to "love thyself for our sakes, for we love thee" (3.1.148).

The play implies that Cain might have been able to find peace in Adah's love and faith. After all, he is closest to being happy when he thinks about Adah:

My sister Adah. - All the stars of heaven,
The deep blue noon of night lit by an orb [. . . ]
All these are nothing, to my eyes and heart,
Like Adah's face: I turn from earth and heaven
To gaze on it. (2.2.255-269)

Indeed, earlier in the play, Cain seems to have been on the verge of submitting to Adah's simple fideism out of love for her: "Rather than see her weep, I would, methinks, / Bear all--and worship aught" (1.1.333-34). But when directly faced with a choice between love and understanding--between fideism and a futile quest for rationalization--he chooses the latter, despite Adah's heart-rending plea: "Oh, Cain! choose Love" (1.1.431). By opting for "abstract and imponderable Knowledge" over "the immediate tangibility of Love," Cain "compounds the sin of his parents, the very sin the results of which he deplored" (Corbett 155).

Cain's choice is proven poor, because it brings him neither satisfaction nor happiness. Abel was correct to have said, in the beginning of the play, that "this gloom / [. . . ] can avail thee nothing" (1.1.53-4). Cain seeks knowledge "as, being / The road to happiness," but it only depresses him further, so that he feels "sick of all / That dust has shown" him and concludes, "Then my father's God did well / When he prohibited the fatal Tree" (2.2.230-31; 2.2.108-9; 2.2.233-34). But Cain's realization is too late, he has already chosen understanding over love; he has already been caught up in the endless spiral of rationalization. As Byron said of his own skepticism, "The more I think, the more I doubt"(Lovell 545).

Cain's doubts remain unanswered because, in human terms, they are unanswerable. Cain "is asking God to judge matters by the ethical standards of human reason" (Quinones 53). But God's ways are not our ways, and neither are His thoughts our thoughts (Isaiah 55.8). As C.S. Lewis speculates, "Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see there never was any problem" (Grief 83).

Because Cain chooses to rely on rationalization rather than faith, his life is restless and sorrowful. He can not be satisfied with mere fideism, and failing to find a rational reason to offer sacrifice to God, he kills his brother Abel. Remorse-torn and exiled, Cain pleads for a peace the author leaves us little hope he will ever receive:

Adah. Peace be with him!
Cain. But with me! (3.1.562)

Byron seems to have desired the certainty of fideism, but like Cain, he fell into the spiraling trap of rationalization. Yet he also knew that if he ever could become a Christian, he would "not be a lukewarm Christian" (Lovell 427). In the last days of his life, as he lay on his sick bed, he seemed to have grabbed hold of the fideism which had eluded him in his life. He was reported to have said:

Eternity and space are before me; but on this subject, thank God, I am happy and at ease. The thought of living eternally, of again reviving, is a great pleasure [. . .] There are questions connected with this subject which none but Almighty God can solve. Time and space, who can conceive--none but God, on him I rely. (Lovell 585)

Perhaps the peace that Cain pleads for at the end of Byron's Mystery had finally come to rest upon the author himself.

Works Cited

Byron, Lord George Gordon. "Cain, A Mystery." The Bare Bones Literature Handbook. Ed. Will and Mimosa Stephenson. Brownsville: U of T at Brownsville, 1999.

Colerigde, E.H. "From E.H. Coleridge's Introduction to Cain." The Bare Bones Literature Handbook. Ed. Will and Mimosa Stephenson. Brownsville: U of T at Brownsville, 1999.

Corbett, Martyn. Byron and Tragedy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Lovell, Ernest J., Jr., ed. His Very Self And Voice: Collected Conversations of Lord Byron. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1954.

Kenshur, Oscar. "Doubt, Certainty, Faith, and Ideology." The Flight from Science and Reason. Ed. Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt, and Martin W. Lewis. New York: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1996. 15 Nov. 1999

Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Avon, 1981.

Johnson, Paul. The History of Christianity. New York: HarperPerrennial, 1988.

Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. New York: Bantam Books, 1961.

---. Mere Christianity. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1952.

Quinones, Ricardo J. "Byron's Cain: Between History and Theology." Byron, The Bible, and Religion. Ed. Wolf Z. Hirst. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1991.

Smart, Ninian. The World's Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Thorslev, Peter L. Jr. "Byron and Bayle: Biblical Skepticism and Romantic Irony." Byron, The Bible, and Religion. Ed. Wolf Z. Hirst. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1991.

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