A research paper for English 450, Milton: To Paradise and Beyond, an upper-level literature course taught by Dr. Christopher Hodgkins, written on 8 December 2008 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
A Devil of a Problem: Satan as Hero in Paradise Lost
by Matt Wallace
In the beginning of Book I of Paradise Lost, true to epic convention, John Milton invokes the muse, but his muse is no less than the Holy Spirit:
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men. (17-26)
Thus Milton makes clear that Paradise Lost is not simply an epic poem but is a theodicy, a “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil” (Merriam-Webster 1223). This dual purpose required him to focus on both the literary aspects of the poem and the theological argument within it. The best evaluation of his success and failure in both functions may be contained in William Blake’s infamous comment: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (Blake 1433). While one can dismiss this apparent exaggeration as one of Blake’s patented perversities, perhaps he is making a valid observation. Did Milton’s literary success in Paradise Lost compromise his religious purpose?
Milton goes back to the events of the Creation and the Fall of Man, to the first things of the Christian narrative. His case focuses not so much on the roles of God or Adam and Eve, but on the actions of Satan. Milton’s primary defense of God is a conflated portrayal of Satan so vivid and compelling that a reader is likely to identify with the Arch-fiend:
In the first two books Milton portrays a web of evil so complex that its density reminds us of our
own existence and confusion, magnified to heroic proportions. Our difficulties are increased
because Satan possesses most of the characteristics and trappings associated with the hero of
the conventional heroic poem—exactly those attributes Milton scorned (cf. IX.27-31). In secular
terms Satan is the heroic, if defeated, military figure, but such a figure is to be admired only in evil
days (cf. XI.689-697). (Summers 72)
Milton’s Satan is a leader whom we would follow unto the gates of Hell. We know he has a plan. We know he has our interests in mind. We know he cares for us in his heart. He is a slick politician whom we unwaveringly believe when he exhorts, “Yes, we can!” And he is so good that we fail to realize he is deceiving us— and perhaps himself.
Compounding this problem is the reader’s expectations of how an epic poem works. The hero is the character at the center of the reader’s attention, and Milton placed his Satan right in front of his readers and directly in their imaginations. “Though he follows it closely, then, Milton turns the epic tradition on its head in one respect: he made Satan himself, the old enemy, the hero, or at least candidate for hero, of his poem: his is the main point of view from which we experience the action, at least at the start” (Forsyth 30).
Also, Milton’s Satan is readily comparable to the heroes of the classical epics:
He is a variant of Achilles, who equates honor with his own status . . . and feels slighted by his
commander-in-chief, refuses his orders and believes himself superior. Both epics turn on the
connection between ‘a sense of injur’d merit’ and the hero’s wrath. He is Odysseus and Jason
on their heroic voyages, leader and chief warrior in battle during and after the War in Heaven,
and through it all the most powerful speaker, able to rally and organize his troops with
the eloquence of his appeals to their own heroic values. (Forsyth 30)
Further complicating matters, Milton’s Satan contains elements of the hero in classical tragedy. Satan’s fatal flaw is a fundamental lack of self-knowledge; he has no ability to recognize his own limitations. He never seems to realize that he can never win in a contest between the Creator and the created being. This characteristic is readily recognizable as hubris— overweening self-confidence and pride. The tragic theme of “those whom the gods would destroy, they first raise up” is also present, albeit imperfectly. Satan goes from “reign[ing] in Hell” in Book I to his final appearance in Book X where he is transformed into a “monstrous Serpent” by the power of God reaching into Hell. Milton’s Satan fails as a tragic hero in that “[h]is character does not degenerate; it is degraded” (Hughes 177).
Given the power of Milton’s portrayal, Satan is arguably the hero of his epic poem and that appears to be Milton’s intent. “Perhaps it is closer to the mark to call him a parody of the epic hero, as most respectable critics have done for over a century, but if so, one should be careful not to withhold the due measure of admiration that would accrue an epic hero achieving the kinds of exploits Satan does” (Forsyth 30).
Milton wrote Paradise Lost as an inverted epic or anti-epic. He has twisted and reversed the epic conventions to conform them to his retelling of the Biblical account of Creation and the Fall as given in Genesis. He does this to give an account of his own Christian worldview. Accordingly, Satan can rightly be called the hero, or more accurately, the anti-hero. Like the gods, Milton has set up Satan as a tragic hero in order to destroy him. For all his grandeur, Satan suffers from the ultimate fatal flaw, at least in terms of Milton’s Christianity: his inability both to recognize his sinful nature and to accept the forgiveness God makes readily available. Thus, Milton turns Satan into a metaphor for the ultimate sinner; that is, the human being who acts on his own will alone and adamantly refuses God’s readily available offer of forgiveness and salvation. In Milton’s eyes, such a person has repeated Satan’s error and willfully and foolishly given up God’s promise to his creatures, the promise of eternal life in the paradise of the Creator’s presence. For a Christian like Milton, such a person deserves Satan’s fate.
Of course, Milton’s argument rests on the concept of free will. Within Christian doctrine, God’s higher created beings, both human and angelic, were made with the freedom to choose between good and evil, obedience and rebellion. Milton allows the Almighty Father to discuss this doctrine in Book III, lines 80-134. He says of Man, “I made him just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (98-99). He says likewise of the Angels, “Such I created all th’ Ethereal Powers / And Spirits, both them who stood, and them who fail’d; / Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell” (100-102). God later reiterates freedom and responsibility as manifestations of His divine will:
I form’d them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change
Thir nature, and revoke the high Decree
Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain’d
Thir freedom: they themselves ordain’d thir fall. (124-128)
One must agree with Milton’s God that sentient beings have both the freedom to choose their actions and the responsibility to live with the consequences of those actions.
The problem of God’s omniscience complicates the doctrine of free will. God’s perfect knowledge suggests that He knows the choices of His creatures prior to creating them. Tellingly, God’s argument for free will is made in the context of Satan’s Temptation and Adam and Eve’s Fall before they occur. Milton begins the passage with God the Father pointing out to the Son Satan’s passage to Eden to work his evil which the omnipotent God does nothing to prevent. Worse, Milton’s God appears to be deflecting any culpability for the coming calamity entirely onto His creatures while accepting none of the responsibility He requires of them:
Not mee. They therefore, as to right belong’d,
So were created, nor can justly accuse
Thir maker, or thir making, or thir Fate,
As if Predestination over-rul’d
Thir will dispos’d by absolute Decree
Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed
Thir own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
Which had no less prov’d certain unforeknown. (111-119)
Consequently, Milton’s God is left appearing to be, not the omnipotent Author of all things, but a petulant child denying blame.
Most troubling is the treatment God’s creatures can expect for choosing incorrectly:
The first sort by thir own suggestion fell,
Self-tempted, self-deprav’d: Man falls, deceiv’d
By th’ other first: Man therefore shall find grace,
The other none: In Mercy and Justice both,
Through Heav’n and Earth, so shall my glory excel,
But Mercy, first and last, shall brightest shine. (129-134)
Despite the talk of “Mercy and Justice,” Satan and the fallen angels are condemned forever. Man will ultimately be given the opportunity to seek redemption, but only through acceptance of the sacrifice of the Son. Failure to choose Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will leave one condemned forever with Satan and the fallen angels.
The God of the Christian theologians is described succinctly as the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent First Cause. According to Christian teaching, this God is the proximate cause of everything that exists save Himself as He is self-existent. He has perfect power to bring anything into existence by the simple exercise of His will. He has perfect knowledge of all things through all time. He has perfect goodness in all that He is and does.
The free will defense to the problem of evil fails due to the internal contradictions in the Christian God. If everything that exists comes from an all-powerful and all-knowing God, how can evil exist within the Creation of an all-good God? How can Satan and his rebel angels exist? How can Adam and Eve commit the sin of disobedience? Such questions could be asked without end. If one desires to preserve God’s perfect goodness, then He must be lacking in one of His other faculties, in which case, He ceases to be God.
The ultimate failure of the free will defense lies in the fact that God is the proximate cause of everything that exists, and everything exists as it does precisely because God willed it so. God created all that exists, and He did so with full knowledge of the nature and the ultimate fate of all His creations. Even if one allows knowledge and choice within sentient beings and holds them accountable for their decisions, there is one decision that was never theirs: the decision to exist in the first place. God alone makes that decision, and free will is a moot point without it.
Milton’s failure to portray the magnificence of the Creator in Book III is a consequence of this inherent weakness in his religious doctrine. By having Him make the free will defense, Milton’s God sounds like nothing more than a petty theologian. Unfortunately and terrifyingly, Milton’s Theologian has ultimate knowledge and ultimate power, and Milton portrays Him capriciously using and not using both. Though He clearly could do otherwise, He creates with full awareness of the flaws within His creations and allows them to act on their flaws. When His creations fail as a consequence of the flaws He knowingly incorporated into them, He punishes them for what is ultimately His fault and failure as Creator. As a result, Milton’s God comes across as the hated “King of Heaven” Satan claims He is and pales in comparison with the “Adversary.”
Though Milton offered his Satan as a mockery of sin and evil, he created a character so real and so human that one can’t help but be drawn to him; one must discount his wickedness of course. The success of Milton’s Satan rests upon that questioning child within each of us, a child whose only reply from parental authority was an unsatisfying “Because I said so!” But then such children grow up and search for their own answers.
Blake’s point begins to make sense if Paradise Lost is evaluated on its poetic success and its theological failure. Milton “was a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” in that his poetry unwittingly brought Satan to life while trying to destroy him. Satan, warts and all, is probably the most memorable presence in the poem and likely all readers retain of it. Similarly Milton’s theology is so weak and flawed that it opens the door to a devastating philosophical counterattack. In trying to justify God, Milton actually accomplishes the opposite as demonstrated by the failure of Book III. For Blake, Milton the Epic Poet ultimately trumps Milton the Christian Apologist who surely desired otherwise.
Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major
Authors, Volume B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. 8th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. 1430-1441.
Forsyth, Neil. The Satanic Epic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003.
Hughes, Merritt Y. Introduction. Paradise Lost. By John Milton. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt
Y. Hughes. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1957. 173-205.
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“Theodicy.” Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. 9th ed. 1985.