This past semester for Literature I wrote my thesis paper on Milton’s portrayal of Lucifer. I thoroughly enjoyed finding sources, especially C.S. Lewis’s essay “A Preface to Paradise Lost”. It was truly a gem to read his thoughts, which I cite throughout the essay.
The Degeneration of Satan
“He [Satan] begins by fighting for ‘liberty’, however misconceived; but almost at once sinks to fighting for ‘Honor, Dominion, glory, and renown’ (Book VI). Defeated in this, he sinks to that great design which makes the main subject of the poem—the design of ruining two creatures who had never done him any harm, no longer in the serious hope of victory, but only to annoy the Enemy whom he cannot directly attack.” (Lewis, 99)
Paradise Lost is Milton’s attempt to retell how evil originated and how it led to the Fall of man, but he brings to the table a unique perspective. His Satan is not the blatantly wicked persona we might expect. No, instead, Milton describes to us Satan’s very psyche, his thought process as he initiates his rebellion against God. Milton presents Satan as someone striving for the image of a hero who has been misunderstood, someone who is denied this understanding since his actions are classified as rebellious by God’s commanding archangels. Milton’s Satan opines that God casts him out of heaven due to a subjective opinion that Satan shouldn’t have questioned the Divine status quo. Meanwhile, God and the Son are shown to be far less intriguing, more or less existing as the heavenly foils for Satan. Milton seems to portray them as the flat wall of opposition that Satan encounters. God is the highest authority, and there He remains, while the focus stays on Satan’s growing resentment and on his envy of God’s dominion. Milton’s Satan is a complex character who strives to be a hero like Achilles but fails miserably and instead remains incomplete and unfinished.
“Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell than serve in Heaven.”
In his essay on Paradise Lost, Gene Edward Veith begins with a value statement about Satan. He calls Milton’s Satan “one of the most remarkable characters in all of literature. Veith remarks that “Milton’s portrayal of God the Father is not always artistically successful. He comes across as a stern, hectoring old man, blaming Adam for falling before he has done anything wrong. He is too human-like, and when a human acts like a God the result cannot be satisfactory. The mistake, though, is in presenting God as a character.” Veith’s perspective may at first seem surprising. Why would Milton develop Satan into such a vivid and complex character while his God and Jesus are bland and almost dolorous? “If Milton’s portrayal of God as a character is unsatisfying […]—his portrayal of Satan is absolutely compelling. Some readers think that the story, consequently, is out of balance. Some critics have gone further, claiming that Satan is the true epic hero.” (Veith, pg. 5) Here Veith reminds readers that Milton “must have [unconsciously] related more with Satan than with God, whom he portrays much less effectively.” (Veith, pg. 5-6) But this is what makes Milton’s Satan all the more powerful and striking. This, Veith says, demonstrates to us the very fact that our fallen human natures fail to relate more to God, who is perfect and without any flaw or fault. How can we, who only know the sin and perversion of God’s original intent for us, understand Someone so drastically different from ourselves?
“Of course it is easier to identify with Satan than with God. Of course we resonate with lines like ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n’ (I, 263). Of course we admire his will, his defiance, and his pride. This is because we are fallen. We sinners are like Satan. We deserve to live where he lives. Milton knows exactly what he is doing in manipulating our perceptions. When Satan, ‘imbruted’ as a serpent, tempts Eve, his arguments are so smooth, so logical, so convincing that we readers cannot help but think, ‘If I were there, I would probably eat the fruit, too!’” (Veith, pg. 6)
Thus, Veith argues that Satan is actually realistic and understandable relative to the human condition. Milton reminds us through subtle characterization of Satan just what it means to be Fallen, and the dangerous slippery slope we stand on, saved only by God’s grace. Most tragic in all of this remains the fact that Satan could have repented. He had once been Lucifer, the brightest light in Heaven and the most beautiful angel. But he rejected that identity, that place in the presence of God, in exchange for the throne in hell. He perverted his very own nature in order to pursue this course. But his choices came with a horrendous cost.
“The mind is its own place and in itself
Can make a Heaven of hell, a hell of Heaven.”
Yes, Satan chose to embrace his new destination in the miserable inferno of hell. Should this be seen as a sign of valor and nobility? Is it admirable to embrace one’s choices, if those choices lead away from the objective good? Satan tries to emulate Achilles, retreating from the presence of God, determined to make his point, at the cost of losing himself. But the pagan epic tradition of Homer and Virgil lacks one aspect that defines the Christian tradition that Milton looked to as his muse. That is, the objective good—God—exists even before Milton himself, and he is merely retelling the story of how one angel, created by God, tried to rebel. His choice, however, carries far more weight and is truly tragic, in comparison to Achilles’ decision to storm out of the Greek camp to sulk after Agamemnon insulted him in front of everyone. Satan, a being of free will, makes every decision in accordance with his resentment of God’s “tyranny”. He believes that he is truly right and justified in what he does. Satan genuinely considers himself to be making a point, courageous enough to risk eternal damnation in order to show the other angels that God’s authority can in fact be subverted. He could be likened to the 18th century man defending his “honor” in a duel. He aims his will at one objective—that is, to destroy the hierarchy that God has established in Heaven. This hierarchy, Satan argues, really makes Heaven into hell because of the ranking system he believes unjust. To him, to be dishonored is the equivalent of committing a grave abomination. By this logic, when Satan establishes himself as leader over his minions—the other fallen angels—hell has become heaven since he eradicated the degradation of God’s “tyrannical” presence. Of course, God exists on the other side as Satan’s enemy, for the rest of eternity. C.S. Lewis points out that everything that Satan does comically achieves the opposite of elevating him to God’s degree of power. Instead, Satan goes from “hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake—such is the progress of Satan.” (Lewis, 99) In the pagan epic tradition, the hero must endure the tests posed by the gods in order to become noble and just. They begin as unfinished men, who need to develop the glorious qualities of the soul that will transform into true heroes, worthy of the gods’ approval. However, Satan hurtles in the opposite direction. He cannot liken himself to Achilles, for he lacks the courage of Achilles. Lewis parallels him to “the coward in Beaumont and Fletcher’s play, not daring to fight a duel, decided to go home and beat his servants.” (Lewis, 99) Nor is Satan wise like Odysseus. Odysseus and Satan do share the trait of cleverness. But while Odysseus’ intellect guides him to know true valuable wisdom, Satan’s rationale sends him on a downward spiral, deeper and deeper into the evil of hell. Paradise Lost begins with Milton introducing us to the beautiful and powerful Lucifer. But as the book progresses, this character declines into the identity of the Devil: “…not as the fallen Archangel or Hell’s dread Emperor, but simply as ‘the Devil’ (IV, 502)—the salacious grotesque half bogey and half buffoon, of popular tradition.” (Lewis, 99)
“[Milton] is saying that the highest heroism does not involve killing people. Rather, the highest courage is found in the way a person endures suffering. And the most impressive heroism is the self-sacrifice of ‘martyrdom’. By these standards, Satan might well be the pagan epic hero. He has the pride and the wrath of Achilles. He lies like Odysseus. But he specifically lacks what Milton, soaring above the Aonian Mount, considers the traits of a Christian hero: patience and martyrdom.” (Veith, 7) Satan strives to be a figure such as Achilles, one who deserves far more respect and recognition than he actually receives. Milton deftly narrates to readers in the traditional epic style that Satan genuinely believes himself to be justified in his insurrection against the Highest Power in heaven, willing to lose his seat by the throne of God to make a point. Now we come to the very reason that Milton wrote Paradise Lost. He meant this epic poem to represent the Christian tradition. Thus, although he writes in the same style as pagan authors Homer and Virgil, his standards differ drastically. Paradise Lost, The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid begin in medias res. We can recognize the heroes in the last three—Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas. So we would expect the same pattern in Paradise Lost, since this story is modeled after the pagan epics. But since this is a Biblical epic, some details have been changed. Satan can be neither the pagan nor the Christian hero. He becomes far too perverse to ever identify as the latter. Thus, his place in Paradise Lost should be viewed as ironic. Why? “Milton . . . casts the first stone at the ideal of martial valor and points us towards the meaningful acceptance of something better.” (Fish, 49) Satan cannot belong to either pagan or Christian tradition. True, the ancient pagans were ignorant of God. But even their keystone epics show to us a standard of human righteousness and valor, even if based on the martial gods and wisdom limited by pagan ignorance. Homer and Virgil pursued a standard later perfected by the Christian church. Jesus taught His followers the most important law— “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) This leads to Veith’s emphasis on the traits of the Christian hero—patience and martyrdom. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) The courage championed by Homer’s Achilles and Odysseus, the endurance exemplified by Virgil’s Aeneas, make it possible for them to become a martyr. But Satan can never achieve such an identity since he weakens himself by focusing all his attention on his resentment, jealousy, and wrath towards God. He ends up destroying himself because he thought too much of himself.
“…lifted up so high
I ‘sdained subjection and thought one step higher
Would set me highest and, in a moment, quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burdensome, still paying, still to owe,
Forgetful what from him I still received
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharged; what burden then?”
Satan centered all his energy and attention on what he owed, instead of realizing how glorious in fact this “debt immense of endless gratitude” could actually be. To be in debt to God meant to endure an abominable existence too far beneath him in all his brilliance and power. Satan not only lacked a righteous character but he also missed the will to let God correct him and forgive him for doubting His goodness.
In a sense, Satan did “embrace’ his suffering, to the extent that it excused him from the perversity of his actions. In this way, he subverted the very meaning of endurance. He manipulated the situation to give the appearance that he was obligated to God by force rather than by gratitude. The tragedy in Paradise Lost clearly lies in the fact that Satan could have repented, he could have tried to resolve the conflict by returning to God and humbling himself. But he stood on the conviction that humility did not exist within the realm of possibility. Therefore, he remained in a constant state of incompleteness. He would remain unfinished throughout all eternity, since he rejected the only One who can make us whole. What future awaits him? When Jesus comes to earth of His own volition to save the fallen humans tempted by Satan, God’s promise will be fulfilled. In the end, Satan sank deep into Hell, locked there by his own will. Milton presents to us the epitome of evil—it contorts our true identity and bars us from any kind of fulfillment. Satan even failed to improve his own wisdom and strength of courage—hence, he degraded himself so much that he became unrecognizable. Therefore, he belongs in the cold blandness of no-man’s-land. He remains stuck forever, unable to save even himself in an act of self-sacrifice.
- Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967.
- Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. New York: Oxford University Press, 1942.
- Veith, Gene Edward. Omnibus VI (The Modern World): “Paradise Lost”. Lancaster, PA. Veritas Press. 2012
- Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 2005.