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Even as Paradise Lost is the story of “man’s first disobedience,” John Milton notably opens his epic poem with a complex portrait of Satan as the ruler of Hell. Satan is a sympathetic character as a rebel, but easily denounced as a hypocritical monarch of Pandemonium. His leadership in Hell is unexpectedly similar to God’s leadership in Heaven, if not more reputable on Satan’s part, which brings in to question the traditional antithetical roles of these biblical figures. If one were to read the first two books lacking the presumptions that God is almighty and Satan is evil, one might view Satan as the hero. Fully aware of biblical tradition and Milton’s unquestioned faith, the opening descriptions of Satan and, to a lesser extent, God are unexpectedly controversial.
Satan’s first line, “If thou beest he; but O how fall’n!” captures the meek position he adopts as a defeated usurper of God (1.84). Satan presents himself as a martyr unable to resist the tyrannical “victor” (1.95). For a majority of the poem, he is proud and unwilling to admit defeat, so the admission that “so much the stronger proved/ He [God] with his thunder” is out of character (1.92-93). The natural inclination for the reader is to sympathize with the underdog. However, Satan is addressing his fellow fallen angels, not the reader. He may genuinely consider himself defeated, or be using an appeal to emotion in order to maintain the support of his followers. Satan begins his second speech to them with great emotion: “Thrice he essayed, and thrice, in spite of scorn,/ Tears such as angels weep burst forth: at last/ Words interwove with sighs found their way,” (1.619-621). If Satan were only to display the pride and egotism that later characterizes him, the suffering followers may doubt his loyalty to them. Whether genuine or manipulation, Satan’s self-martyrdom works to establish him as the sympathetic character and God as the villain.
It is expected that Satan claims himself to be wronged, but even Milton portrays Satan gallantly, mostly through descriptions of his physical appearance. “So spake th’apostate angel, though in pain,/ Vaunting aloud, but racked with deep despair,” (1.125-126). This quote demonstrates the simultaneous passion and strength that Milton recognizes in Satan. Satan is commanding in presence (1.313-1.314) and inspirational to his followers (1.523-526). As the former angel highest in command under God, he does maintain a twisted form of celestial power: “Darkened so, yet shone/ Above them all th’Archangel,” (1.599-600). “Pride” is a morally ambiguous word repeatedly used to describe Satan (1.36, 1.527, 2.228). Milton generally portrays pride as a vice, as in this otherwise commendatory description: “care/ Sat on his faded cheek, but under brows/ Of dauntless courage, and considerate pride/ Waiting revenge,” (1.601-604). Thus, Satan’s impressive disposition as a rebel and leader is supported by Milton’s descriptions.
The last element that paints Satan as a sympathetic rebel in Books One and Two is simply the logic behind his rebellion. Just as seeing Satan as a martyr relies on being ignorant of his obsession with revenge, agreeing with Satan’s reasons for rebelling relies on his side of the story being presented first. Only later is jealously of Jesus revealed as Satan’s motivation for rebelling. Without the assumption that God is almighty, one might see him as Satan does: “Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heav’n,” (1.124). Satan claims to be fighting for equality: “Farthest from him is best/ Whom reason hath equaled, force hath made supreme/ Above his equals,” (1.247-249). Here, he introduces a theme of Paradise Lost: what legitimatizes holding power? He does not believe that God’s greater physical “force” merits his rule over those of equal “reason”. This theme becomes increasingly complex throughout the poem, but as of Satan’s introduction in Pandemonium, the argument legitimizes and idealizes Satan’s rebellion.
Though Satan may appear heroic to the reader, Milton by no means views Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. An undeniable fact looms over analysis of this poem: it is a story codified in biblical texts, in which Satan is the ultimate villain, the source of evil. There is not enough evidence to prove Milton excuses Satan. Indeed, he explicitly states, “Who first reduced them [Adam and Eve] to that foul revolt?/ Th’infernal Serpent; he it was…,” (1.33-34). So, why does Milton allow for Satan to be portrayed so sympathetically? The reader, as a supposed descendant of Adam, would be susceptible to Satanic manipulation. Allowing the reader to sympathize with Satan in the begin also leaves space for character development, as Satan’s more traditional role is enforced throughout the book. More importantly, highly developing Satan’s character consequentially reinforces God’s supremacy. If Satan was one dimensional – just evil epitomized – and he successfully persuaded one-third of Heaven along with man to rebel, then God must not have much legitimacy as the Supreme Being. On the contrary, Satan is sympathetic, charismatic, courageous, and – as will soon be described – manipulative, intelligent, and powerful. Satan is the closest there can be to a rival worthy of God.
There is a discrepancy between what Satan claims are his motivations for rebelling and what Milton cites: “he it was, whose guile/ Stirred up with envy and revenge/…his pride” (1.34-35, 36). Satan claims to be fighting for equality against an unjust leader. Slips in his speeches support Milton’s interpretation. At first Satan seems humbled by his fall, admitting God’s capability to maintain his throne, but he quickly begins to advocate for continued war. He praises, “the unconquerable will,/ And study of revenge, immortal hate,/ And courage never to submit or yield/…That glory,” (1.107-109, 110). It is difficult to reconcile “glory” with his obvious personal grudge. Spite and pride are likelier sources for Satan’s continued fight – “But ever to do ill our sole delight,/ As being the contrary to his high will” (1.160-161) – as there is no longer hope of reforming Heaven to be more democratic.
Definitive evidence of Satan’s hypocritical role as monarch of Pandemonium are the hierarchical features of Hell’s new government, with Satan as its head. Fallen angels gather in hierarchical order, “At their great emperor’s call, as next in worth/ Came singly,” (1.378-379). Decision making in Pandemonium, while including a “thousand demigods” rather than one God, is conducted by “The great Seraphic Lords and Cherubim/ In close recess and secret conclave,” (1.794-796). Satan invites free debate, a democratic practice that would never occur in Heaven because God is undisputable. It is more by luck than guile that Hell’s governors choose to support Beëlzebub’s plan, “first devised/ By Satan, and in part proposed,” (2.379-380). Politics in Pandemonium is settled between the democratic ideal Satan advocates and the completely hierarchical order of Heaven.
The purity of Satan’s motivations as a rebel and his legitimacy as a ruler further come into questions considering his rhetorical skills, often manifesting as manipulation. One sentence encapsulates his skill: “Me though just right, and fixed laws of Heav’n/ Did first create your leader, next, free choice,/ With what besides, in counsel or in fight,/ Hath been achieved of merit,” (2.18-21). The first two lines of this sentence are deliberately convoluted because Satan is asserting his right to rule by the “fixed laws of Heav’n,” after denouncing God for doing the same. Satan tacks “free choice” onto this clause in order to tie his leadership to something as desirable as free will. His legitimacy by “merit” is stated without support, and placed secondary to the claim of divine authority. Thus, his egotism and hypocrisy are disguised by wordplay. Satan also changes his opinions based on his interests. When his pride is first wounded by the fall, he “Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n/…Here we may reign secure,” (1.255,261). Later, when advocating for war, the same “infernal pit shall never hold/ Celestial Spirits in bondage, not th’abyss/ Long under darkness cover,” (1.657-659). Yet another example is the way in which Satan describes the danger of traveling to Earth at length, knowing that he will volunteer to go just moments later (2.432-444).
As Book One and Two focus on Satan’s role as monarch of Hell, and his reasons for rebelling against the monarch of Heaven, it is only natural to compare the legitimacy of each ruler. Milton would not doubt God’s supremacy, but the complex way in which Satan is portrayed may cause the reader to question the traditional biblical roles. Both leaders have countless unquestioning followers, who look to their rulers with admiration and fear in varying degrees. As previously described, Pandemonium is a more democratic place than Heaven. However, in practice, Satan holds an absolute authority over Hell similar to God’s absolute authority over Heaven. Beëlzebub wonders is God’s legitimacy stems from “strength, or chance, or fate,” (1.134) while Satan thinks God is “upheld by old repute, / Consent or custom,” (1.639-640). Neither rebel accepts God’s right to supremacy, even by his greater brute force. If one takes a moment to put aside the presumption of God’s innate sovereignty, Satan’s assertions appear reasonable. God has always been head of Heaven, but we have an account of Satan literally fighting to become head of Hell. Even though Satan tries to claim power by the “fixed laws of Heav’n” (2.18) or “our just inheritance of old” (2.38), is it his actions against God that merit his place of power? All of this may contribute to the reader initially supporting Satan’s rebellion and questioning God’s eminence.
The main fault that can be found with Satan, other than his disobedience, is the evil method by which he pursues revenge. Satan causes the fall of man – Adam and Eve being innocent bystanders in the fall of the angels – to spite God. From Satan is born more evil, Sin and Death, who will plague mankind indefinitely. God reacts to these actions with punishments that, without the legitimacy of his position as sovereign, may be considered vengeful or evil. For Adam and Eve’s sin, all of mankind is born with original sin. In hell, all of the fallen angels are periodically turned into ravenous serpents. This seems a fitting punishment for Satan, but even the hundreds of fallen angels who were not in the council that vowed to continue war are punished. Even stranger is God’s punishment of the serpent species, whose only crime was to be temporarily possessed by Satan. The line between punishment and revenge is ambiguous. Satan and God both have displayed rage, wrath, and vengeance.
After accepting the reasoning that God and Satan are more alike than expected, how is this reconciled with traditional doctrine of God as good, Satan as bad? There is a fundamental difference between the rulers that establishes God’s legitimacy, even within the first few books of Paradise Lost. Milton believes God to be an all-knowing sovereign, and so he is in the poem. After the fall, Satan is mistakenly “glorying to have scaped the Stygian flood/ As gods, and by their own recovered strength,/ Not by the sufferance of supernal power,” (1.240-241). Even in Hell, Satan cannot act, “but that the will/ And high permission of all-ruling Heaven/ Left him at large to his own dark designs,” (1.211-213). In an unbiased comparison of power and knowledge, God is sovereign.
There is no claim in this essay that John Milton doubts the traditional roles of God or Satan. Ultimately, it is subservience to God that makes a Miltonic hero and any action against this is evil. However, Milton does invite the reader to question Satan and Gods legitimacy – or as Milton might see it, fall prey to satanic politics – at the start of Paradise Lost. As the poem continues, Satan’s villainy is reinforced as Adam and Eve become the protagonists. Ultimately, Satan is not the hero of this story, but without the assumption of God’s legitimate sovereignty, it is a small leap to see Satan as such.
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