A discussion of Milton's Paradise Lost and Satan'srole in it. Investigates the mixture of sympathy and horror evoked by Milton's portrayl of Satan in this work.
Ambivalence toward Satan in Paradise Lost is a difficult element to define. On the one hand Satan is our socio-religious inheritance as the embodiment of all the ills of mankind. Thus the name "Satan," even if merely uttered, connotes horror and repulsion, even to the staunchest atheist. In Paradise Lost, however, at least in the first several books, a characterization of Satan is portrayed in which the audience feels sympathy and fraternity with Satan's character. In addition to an analysis of God's and Satan's characters, there are two perspectives on the content of Paradise Lost which show where the conflict in the reader's perception evolves.
On the more superficial level, meaning the level determined by preconceived notions of the epic's characters, there is a conflict between Satan, pure evil, and God, pure good. Pure evil then continues to lay waste to anything God cherishes in a feeble attempt to exact revenge for his punishment. Our first father and mother, Adam and Eve, are seduced by Satan and made to suffer therefrom. The punishment, determined by God, seems just and merciful in light of mankind's transgression of his sole command, not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This much is in the mind of any Judeo-Christian or informed reader before the epic is even begun. Thus the details of Satan's transgression, the war in heaven, God's commands and actions, and the characterization of all characters within the epic are subordinate to our foreknowledge. Without a careful analysis everything seems to be in place and to conform, at least generally, to our preconceptions. One cannot help, however, but to feel some ambivalence in the accepted religious convictions. Why?
To answer this question one should wipe all foreknowledge and preconceptions out of the analysis. This of course leads to an inaccurate conclusion since Satan's character in Paradise Lost cannot be separated in the audiences mind nor in its reality from the socio-religious convictions about Satan. Nevertheless, this analysis will reveal the ultimate cause of the ambivalence toward Satan. To illustrate the point better by separating preconception from story, Satan's character will be referred to as Robert and God simply as the king.
Robert lives in a kingdom, but it is a kingdom of general equality and mutual honesty and trust. One day the king, out of the blue, announces that he has decided that his son shall be his successor. Robert feels uneasy about this and calls a third of the kingdom to a conference. In this conference Robert argues that if this kingdom truly rests on equality, honesty, and trust, shouldn't all the subjects at least have been asked what they thought before the king made such a ponderous decision? After debating the question the entirety of the conference except one single subject agree that the king has violated their trust and should no longer hold his position. Having thus determined, they march on the capitol, are met with resistance, and a war ensues. Over a period of two days, Robert's side makes an amazing come back from near defeat through Robert's ingenuity. They seem to be doing well when, on the third day, the king uses his unique ability to imprison Robert and the rebels, banishing them from his kingdom forever. Robert then goes on to lead the rebels even in their despair. Having determined that the king is too powerful to confront on the battlefield, but even more assured of their rebellion now that they are imprisoned, Robert resorts to guerrilla tactics, indirect violence to the king. Perhaps this is bad judgment or immoral, but it is so human to make mistakes.
This story at least partially parallels every democratic revolution since the Bastille. Without a doubt, the most universal sentiment on earth today is a respect for democracy, especially in the west, whose inheritance includes the socio-religious preconceptions of Satan. So, although Satan is by default evil and unjust, Robert seems to be a great leader fighting for human dignity and popular freedom. This is the initial catalyst for a sympathy with Satan. Satan rebels for the most popular and sentimental cause, a cause which twentieth century citizens of the world share, the cause of democracy.
This sentiment is strongly accentuated by Milton's characterization of Satan versus God. Milton's initial and probably greatest difficulty seems to be putting God, the infinite and good, into the range of human perception. Milton's references to God distance the audience from Him in addresses, descriptions, actions, and speeches.
Hail, holy Light, offspring of Heaven first-born!
Or of the Eternal coeternal beam
May I express thee unblamed? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from eternity, dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate!
Or hearest thou rather pure ethereal stream, . . . (Milton III.1-7)
This is the most complete description of God in Paradise Lost. God is described as "light," "the Eternal coeternal beam," "bright essence increate," and "pure ethereal stream." Nothing can serve to distance a character further from the audience than refusing to give him some sort of physical, corporeal entity. Even in the abstract, Milton does not lend the audience the conceivability of light as a description, but rather, in accordance with religious doctrine, makes God's description ambivalent to reinforce His infinite nature and man's fallen and limited existence. This all sits well religiously, but in human terms, the terms of the audience, limits God's ability to evoke the audience's sympathy. Through further description, and further development of divine justice and human inability to judge God, God begins to take on the character of a tyrant. "[Satan] towards the new-created World// . . . with purpose to assay// . . . or worse,// By some false guile pervert -- and shall pervert;// For Man will hearken to his glozing lies,// And easily transgress . . . Sole pledge of his obedience:" (III.89-95). God reinforces man's own fault by stressing his free will (III.95-119), and in so doing creates an atmosphere of guilt by his necessity to justify. This is one of the many paradoxes Milton struggles with in Paradise Lost. Either God says nothing and seems like a heartless tyrant (XII.90-96) or God justifies (III.89-95) and in the very act of justification effects a sense of guilt. So the very existence of God creates his own inhumanity, religiously acceptable but irreconcilable with the audience's sympathy.
The audience, however, does find someplace to invest its sympathy, and that place is in the character of Satan. The audience first sees Satan waking in Hell where he and the other fallen angels despair. Through his despair, however, Satan claims, "All is not lost -- the unconquerable will,// And study of revenge, immortal hate,// And courage never to submit or yield -- . . . That glory never shall his wrath or might// Extort from me" (I.104- 111). Initially this is perhaps a questionable statement but later qualified by God's seeming injustice. "At first I [Satan] thought that Liberty and Heaven// To heavenly souls had been all one, but . . . most through sloth had rather serve," (VI.164-166). Satan now seems to have a cause, the cause of democracy, which he is willing to go through great personal danger to support. "I [Satan] come no enemy, but to set free// From out this dark and dismal house of pain// . . . all the heavenly host// Of spirits . . . Fell . . . from on high. From them I go// This uncouth errand sole, and one for all// Myself expose," (II.822-828). Again and again in his speeches and actions Satan seems to be a noble, resourceful, intelligent, brave, and self-sacrificing leader. The audience's sympathy is accentuated by Satan's human emotions, his demagogic character, his desire for revenge, his hostility towards injustice, and his latent desire for glory.
The greatest arguments against Satan are the argument of his pride and his violence toward Adam and Eve. Both of these arguments, however, are flawed. Satan's pride acts only as a human aspect for his character, attracting the audience. Milton presents Satan's pride in a moderate light as well. Satan is not so arrogant as to believe in his superiority to God, but he does desire at various points to democratize Heaven and later to coexist in a separate kingdom. This moderation of Satan's vice introduces a more human and less despicable characterization of him in the story, although religious preconception tends to override this moderation into seeming excess. Satan's violence toward Adam and Eve is not an applicable argument for several reasons. First, his actions toward our first ancestors are after the fact. The war in Heaven and God's seeming injustice have already occurred, and God has already exacted violence upon Satan and the Fallen Host by means of Hell. Secondly, the use of violence or "guerrilla warfare" as a means of accomplishing an end is a human moral judgment. Philosophies differ in this respect from universal violence condemnation to justifiable violence.
The audience's ambivalence towards the character of Satan resides largely in the struggle between religious preconception and democratic principle. The human involvement of Satan versus the cold and detached outlook of God highlights this incongruity. So everything seems to boil down to an opposition of religious myth versus secular politics and philosophy. The ambivalence is understandable, but what is interesting is how powerful the religious preconceptions really are, in most cases completely overriding the secular sympathies and justifying the actions of God in secular terms, something Milton avoids doing because of its inherent faults. In other words, Satan, by contemporary standards, truly seems justified, but religion is so powerful, yet abstract, that people tend to assign nonexistent or non relevant injustice or guilt to Satan rather than admitting the inherent and indisputable justice of divinity.