by Jennifer Jamer, Seton Hall University
In reading John Milton's Paradise Lost, I was challenged to consider the nature of evil and sin more seriously than I ever had before. The problem of evil is the problem that we have in being able to identify it; the processes of evil are subtle, universal, and within our own personal experiences and therefore are very difficult to identify. This problem is clearly illustrated in Milton's characterization of Satan, the personification of evil and the one responsible for the entrance of sin into the world; his character is presented in a manner that initially seems sympathetic. The positive portrayal of Satan is an intentional decision on the part of Milton; Satan must be attractive- he has to be able to tempt and seduce, or he is powerless. Sin must be presented attractively for humanity to entertain it as an option. This sympathetic rendering of Satan is a ruse, meant to draw the reader into believing that Satan is heroic the same way that sin draws humanity into its embrace.
Sin and evil have an important purpose in Paradise Lost; without evil and sin, humanity would not have fallen and the reader could not see the ultimate goodness of God through the saving power of Jesus, and Milton would have failed in his ultimate goal of explaining God's wisdom and mercy to man. Evil exists as a contrast against Good; without evil, we have nothing to use to define Good. "There is… the aesthetic consideration" for God in constructing this universe, "the beauty and sublimity of the good requires something to set it off by contrast- just as the spires of the Gothic cathedral soar to greater majesty, perhaps, when their loveliness is broken by an occasional leering gargoyle."1 In Paradise Lost, Satan's character personifies evil; his evil is an evil of rejection. Satan's sin is his willful refusal to recognize his position in God's creation. The "perverted view [Satan has] of himself and of his place in the universe of Milton's poem" causes Satan to refuse "to recognize the crucial fact that, as a creature, he is inescapably linked with the divine order-not only in terms of his own nature, but also in terms of his assigned place in that order."2 Satan's sin seems to be a sin that is universal to humanity. Everyone pushes selfishly for what they desire without seeing that they are part of the magnificence of God's plan, in which all things will work out for the best. Milton's Satan provides an extreme example of this tendency, his perversion of God's will is a prototype for disobedience.
In order to understand Milton's Satan, we must forget our assumptions of Satan. Paradise Lost shows a drastically different view of Satan from Dante and his contemporaries; rather than being depicted as bestial and coarse, Satan is depicted by Milton as handsome and refined. Milton's Satan seems heroic; he is presented as the attractive light-bearer, and as God's favorite angel. Milton seems to invite the comparison of Satan to the tragic heroes of Greek drama intentionally. Satan is given by God great abilities, which mirror the abilities of the great heroes of the classical epics. However, unlike the heroes of the epics and tragedies of the classical world, Satan abuses his gifts and falls from grace; Satan "possesses specific virtues- courage, determination and fortitude- but the use he makes of these traits is considered to be evil."3 He puts distance between himself and God, rather than using his gifts to further God's will in the world. Satan must be presented as a heroic character, because he wants the reader to initially sympathize with Satan and be drawn to him, the way that people can be drawn to sin. A bestial Satan would be incapable of providing man with temptation.
When he is presented to us with an obvious comparison to Prometheus, it invokes sympathy for his situation in the reader's mind, a sympathy which can linger if the reader does not recall what fundamentally separates Satan from Prometheus. Though Satan is, like Prometheus, "strecht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay/ Chain'd on the burning lake, nor ever thence/ Had ris'n or heav'd his head, but that the will/ And high permission of all-ruling Heaven/ Left him at large to his own dark designs."4 Prometheus, however, is put into this position by his benevolence; his rebellion is a true rebellion from the tyranny of the Olympian gods. He is a liberator of Man from petty, often vicious gods by giving humanity fire. Satan is not a liberator; Satan has imprisoned Adam and Eve with sin and death and has caused them to be sent from paradise.
The reader can further observe the significance of the difference in the speech Satan gives in Book I; his traits which had made him God's favorite angel and light- bearer are firmly presented, as is the pride and resulting blindness that cause him to fall from grace:
If thou beest he; But O how fall'n! How chang'd
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light
Cloth'd with transcendent brightness didst outshine
Myriads though bright; If he whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope,
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprise,
Join'd with me once, now misery hath joined
In equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest
From what hight fall'n, so much the stronger prov'd
He with his Thunder: and til then who knew
The force of those dire Arms? yet not for those,
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though chang'd in outward luster; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sense of injur'd merit,
That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits arm'd
That durst dislike his reign, and mee preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd
In dubious battle on the Plains of Heav'n,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield
And what is else not to be overcome?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power
Who from the terror of this Arm so late
Doubted his empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through the experience of this event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc't,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal War
Irreconcilable to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n 5
While it seems as though Satan is simply motivating the other fallen angels, there is something far more sinister to be found within the passage. Satan has willfully rejected God, and established himself as superior, in his own mind. Satan's mention of his matter being indestructible and his foresight being greater than God's in the lines: "And this Empyreal substance cannot fail/ Since through the experience of this event/ In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc't…", shows us that Satan has placed himself above God, and deserves his punishment.6 He is not like the tragic hero, who often does not deserve what befalls him; he is degraded by choice. Satan is moved from being a perfect being in the company of God to being evil through his own decision to move away from God. Satan is not evil because he is created to be evil, the application of his free will in a direction contrary to his right duty to God degrades him; his evilness is an evilness of abused choice.
Milton's Satan provides for us a very human portrait of evil; one which includes pride, blindness and rejection of God's plan. Satan, in order to be able to tempt people into sin, needs to be misleading, seductive and compelling; a one-dimensional Satan would not be capable of tempting Adam and Eve into sin. Sin needs to be seductive in order for us to choose it; very rarely is it that sin is chosen for its own merits- instead we have to be tricked into it through rationalization. This is clearly demonstrated in Eve's temptation in Book IX. In order to convince Eve to disobey God, Satan has to seduce her with promises of becoming an equal to God, and provide a carefully constructed rationale to support disobedience. By eating the fruit of the tree, not only will she be God's equal, she will be happier with her knowledge of Good and Evil than she is in her state of ignorance.7 Satan argues that God will even praise her for her efforts; more likely than God's anger, Eve's disobedience will bring His praise for her "dauntless virtue."8 Satan even extols the virtue of death in sin: "So ye shall die perhaps, by putting off/ Human to put on Gods, death to be wisht."9 Humanity is not likely to choose sin for sin's sake, but through our imperfect judgment, we seduce ourselves into it and rationalize it to make it appear to be the right choice.
1. John M. Patrick. Milton's Conception of Sin as Developed in Paradise Lost. (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1977), 20.
2. Desmond M. Hamlet. One Greater Man: Justice and Damnation in Paradise Lost. (London: Associated University Press, 1973), 112.
3. Peter F. Fischer. "Milton's Theodicy" Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 17, No. 1, January 1956.
4. John Milton. Paradise Lost. New Edition. Edited by Marritt Y. Hughes. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Books, 1962) Lines 209-213.
5. Ibid, Book I, Lines 84-124.
6. Ibid, Book I, Lines 118-120.
7. Ibid, Book IX, Line 697.
8. Ibid, Book IX, Line 694.
9. Ibid, Book IX, Lines 713-714.
Fischer, Peter F. "Milton's Theodicy" Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 17, No. 1, January 1956.
Hamlet, Desmond M. One Greater Man: Justice and Damnation in Paradise Lost. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1973.
Milton, John, et. al. Paradise Lost. New Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1997.
Patrick, John M. Milton's Conception of Sin as Developed in Paradise Lost. Logan, UT: Utah University Press, 1977