Origin of the human as half angel, half devil?
June 7, 2005 2:01 PM   Subscribe

Who is the originator of the familiar literary trope that human beings are half lofty/angelic, half base?

For some reason, Goethe came to mind, but I can't verify this, and it seems to me it would date much earlier. If the trope has no definite origin, I'd be satisfied with some of its more noteworthy expressions.
posted by ori to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
I'm sure this is by no means the first, but I'm happy to start things rolling:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?

-Hamlet, Act II Scene 2
posted by coelecanth at 2:26 PM on June 7, 2005

"Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands." Hebrew 2:7
posted by goethean at 2:33 PM on June 7, 2005

This trope would have evolved out of an abuldance of western cultural contrasts. It would not have originated from literature but religion, myth. Literature being derived from poetry, which is derived from oral tradition and further, ritual. Shakespeare in particular, as coelecanth has cited, essentially translated mythic stories and archtypes for his modern age. Western symbolism is based on the contrasts of two different properties such as that between the base and the divine, man and god (rather than for instance the Hindu view where such properties are inherent to each other, destruction is essential for creation). Christian orthodoxy in particular took ancient allegories and metaphors and made the more finite deliniations between good and evil, an angel and man, that would appear in modern (post Shakespeare) literature.

So, I think the various uses of this specific trope could be explored, but I don't think that it could be nailed down to one person. Such contrasts of light and dark are too inherent to western culture.
posted by scazza at 2:45 PM on June 7, 2005

yeah, the basic idea goes back to the story of the fall of man, at least - created perfect by god, and then corrupted by satan.

One can also interpret Plato (as xtian neo-platonists did) to mean that knowledge/ideas are pure and always good, while the material world is base, a poor shadow, etc.

Plenty of philosophers since have affirmed or denied that theme in various ways, but since you're looking for a 'first', and probably for a more specific quote rather than the prevalence of the general idea, I won't get into that...
posted by mdn at 2:46 PM on June 7, 2005

^ re plato, man as thinker has access to both worlds, so in that sense is half divine, half material. The neo-platonists emphasized 'overcoming' the material and trying to get closer to the ideal / divine.
posted by mdn at 2:52 PM on June 7, 2005

posted by scazza at 2:52 PM on June 7, 2005

I can try to look it up later, but this idea sounds a lot like Augustine.
posted by mikel at 2:57 PM on June 7, 2005

Well, in the Judeo-Christian line, there's an earthly body / divine soul setup as far back as Genesis 2:7. Here it is according to King James:

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Augustine was pretty hardcore on the evils of the flesh and original sin - I'm sure there'll be some good quotes from him.
posted by expialidocious at 4:47 PM on June 7, 2005

The Hamlet bit is what popped to my mind. It may not have been first, but it's the piece I know best. (I think of it often.)
posted by jdroth at 4:48 PM on June 7, 2005

Alexander Pope's Essay on Man is a somewhat over-worked elaboration of the conceit that man is half angel, half animal. The key excerpt:

What would this Man? Now upward will he soar,
And little less than Angel, would be more;
Now looking downwards, just as griev'd appears
To want the strength of bulls, the fur of bears.
posted by mono blanco at 6:51 PM on June 7, 2005

I'd say this idea goes back to the beginning. Some have expressed it better than others, though.
posted by mookieproof at 8:07 PM on June 7, 2005

there is good and bad in everyone

it is impossible to cut the evil out of the world because the line separating good and evil runs through the human heart
posted by paradise at 2:08 AM on June 8, 2005

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