Home > Paradise Lost > Milton’s Satan: Admirable or Pathetic?

Milton’s Satan: Admirable or Pathetic?

There is a centuries-long debate concerning the chief character of Milton’s Paradise Lost, stemming from this fundamental question: How are we supposed to feel about Satan?

It may seem like an odd question to some, but to anyone who has read Paradise Lost, the question is difficult to answer. If Satan truly is who we think he is, why is the character so compelling to us? Did Milton have some sort of underlying motive? Is Satan perhaps the unfair victim of an overbearing cosmic killjoy with delusions of grandeur? Or is Milton’s depiction of Satan perhaps somehow ‘accidentally’ majestic?

William Blake, himself a huge admirer of Milton and his work, seems to be the first to suggest this ‘alternate view’ of Satan. A little over a hundred years after Paradise Lost, Blake wrote in his own work ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:

“The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

This seems to insinuate that even if Milton wasn’t aware what he was doing, he was still under the compulsion to write positively of Satan. Since that time, Blake has had a large and influential following. After Blake, no less a poet than Percy Bysshe Shelley took up his mantle as Satan’s defender. In the years since, many others have followed in their footsteps right up until today. An upcoming film of Paradise Lost appears to be in the works which, given the sentiment of the culture today will undoubtedly join this group in portraying Satan as being the unjust victim of an oppressive deity. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see about this, but I’m pretty confident in my guess.

Of course, God has continued to have his advocates as well. An early edition of Paradise Lost with notes by Joseph Addison was very influential in it’s condemnation of Satan. And in the 20th century even C.S. Lewis joined the fray by making an extremely strong case against Satan in his still popular ‘Preface to Paradise Lost’.

These two opposing views seems to have come to a head in 1967, with the book that launched literary theorist Stanley Fish’s career, ‘Surprised by Sin’. In his book, Fish tried to unite both sides by arguing that Milton, although intending to ultimately portray Satan as a petty creature, has done so in a way that appeals to us as readers – and more fundamentally, in a way that appeals to us as sinners. The reason we are so captivated by Satan when reading Paradise Lost, Fish writes, is because like Satan, we ourselves are fallen creatures. This sympathy towards Satan is no accident, but rather a conscious effort on Milton’s part, who worded and phrased his masterpiece so that we couldn’t help but gravitate toward him, while at the same time hopefully realizing that this gravitation is wrong-headed, as it ultimately sides the reader against God. However dull and boring God may come across, at the end of the day if we don’t ally ourselves with Him, we are on the wrong side simply by definition.

It is my humble opinion that Stanley Fish comes the closest to explaining this seeming mystery. But I don’t think that it is exactly right. Knowing who Milton was, and knowing who Satan is, makes his explanation a little hard to swallow. If we take Fish’s take on Paradise Lost, the entire work becomes almost unnecessarily convoluted. Was Milton sincerely trying to deceive us in his writing, or would he instead be shocked that some modern readers have the audacity to side with Satan? I rather think the latter is more likely.

Though it is true that Satan comes on stage as the ‘hero’ of the work, he is only the hero in the sense that he is the main character. This fact alone is certainly not enough to prove one way or the other that Milton implicitly condones Satan’s rage against God anymore than Homer’s use of Achilles as the main character forces him condone that character’s rage.

It is also true (as some critics point out) that Satan does indeed have many admirable qualities that we can rightly call ‘good’. But this hardly makes the case either. Theologians since at least Augustine (and probably earlier) have acknowledged that evil must necessarily have ‘good attributes’.

To explain briefly: Any evil that might exist isn’t actually ‘evil’ per se, but rather a deprivation or perversion of some more fundamental ‘good’. It takes many good qualities to have something be evil. Dante himself makes it a point in his Divine Comedy to show that the depravity of a creature is directly proportional to the greatness that same creature can achieve. These two are closely linked, with the greatest example of this relationship being Satan himself. Satan has will, existence, emotion, drive, power, and love, all of which are good things, but all of which are nonetheless misused. And as Augustine would point out, the perversion of these attributes aren’t because of a distinctly created evil known as ‘perversion’, but rather the elevating of one good over another good – In this case, Satan’s ‘love for self’ over his ‘love for God’. These two attributes (self-love and God-love) are both necessarily ‘good’, however when applied in the wrong order, they constitute what we call ‘evil’, and in this particular case, evil in it’s most basic form. For it is out of the misplacement of these two ‘good things’ that all other evils flow (but more on this in another post).

So… Satan being the main character, and his description as a creature with many good traits does not necessarily argue for the fact that Satan himself was intended to be written as the hero. In fact, I would argue oppositely: Milton knows that for Satan to truly be Satan, he MUST be written this way.

But why?

Well that is the 64,000 question, isn’t it? Let me explain my response this way: If I were to write about Satan, he would more than likely come across as a deceitful, bickering, accusatory trickster (picture C.S. Lewis’ Satan figure in Perelandra) – nearly the exact opposite of Milton’s Satan. So what would cause this character to have two such vastly different portraits? One Majestic and one Pathetic?

The answer the ‘pro-Satan’ critics give is that, like Blake said, Milton is either consciously or subconsciously ‘of the devil’s party’… but what I see as the real distinction between these two views of Satan, is Genesis 3. Modern depictions of Satan’s pettiness is one which has taken place well after he has fallen and who has been the deceiver and accuser of mankind since the Garden of Eden, but this is not what Milton is writing. In Paradise Lost, Satan is fresh out of Heaven – directly fallen from his majestic position in the presence of God. He will eventually become the contemptible creature described above, but this is something he must first shrink down to. And in large part, Paradise Lost is a poem about Satan’s transformation into that very creature.

In the end, the problem we seem to to have in dealing with Satan’s majesty boils down to a simple anachronism. Milton even explains this to us. In Book I, he writes that Satan’s form “had not yet lost all her original brightness”. Satan comes on the scene appearing as a monumental figure, towering even over the most colossal of trees and whose throne all the kingdoms of earth could not come close to rivaling. But by the time we reach Book IV, Satan has been progressively transforming himself lower and lower. He appears as a cherub to Uriel, a bird perched on the Tree of Life, and then as a lowly toad when tempting Eve. This is Milton’s way of describing Satan’s fall from grace and glory. That the once great Satan subjects himself to such demeaning forms is a testament not to Satan’s craftiness, but to the ruinous depths of self-degradation that he will go through for the sake of rebellion. This is not an admirable portrait.

The only valid response to who God is in light of who we are, is to rejoice and worship. But Satan refuses to rejoice. His response instead is rebellion. To lash out and fight against it (only to be further used by God). And although rebellion might appeal to us as modern’s, Milton shows how pathetic it really is. As perhaps a spoiled child is pathetic when screaming about how his mommy won’t buy him his favorite cookies at the grocery store. As much as we may want to admire rebellion against God, the person we must become in order to do so is exactly the opposite of admirable. We must become petty. We must become pathetic.

It is this which ultimately makes Satan a tragic figure. Yes, Satan still retains many of the necessarily good attributes he has been created with – His fall hasn’t obliterated these. But in the end, these attributes, though indeed good, do no good for Satan. And as Milton points out again and again, the answer to all of this has always been the orthodox one: That even though Satan actively works to overturn good, God uses Satan’s purposes and will for an even greater ultimate good than would have been possible without his rebellion.

The same can undoubtedly be said of God’s other critics as well.

  1. October 25, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Well spoken. I am very impressed. Are you using these insights to help shape your role in Judgment House?

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