This is the second part of a series exploring John Milton’s treatment of Satan in his epic Paradise Lost. Find a link to the first part here:Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost– An Introduction
In the previous article, the character of Satan in John’s Milton’s Paradise Lost and his diabolical mental makeup was put forth– the origin of all evil in the world. In fact, Book I starts out with an allusion to Adam and Eve’s temptation, a story we are all too familiar with.
“Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World…”
But to say that Satan represents only evil is to segregate good and bad as if they are milk and water. Every word Satan speaks exists in shades, and whether it qualifies as good or evil depends on whose perspective we choose to view the circumstance with– the epic poet or Satan himself. Satan’s speeches show us that there is nothing inherently evil and that in his own mind, he’s been right all along. Who knows, perhaps if Satan had indeed managed to decimate the supremacy of God by some ungodly method, his evil doctrine would have been codified into our morality today.
Since that is not the case, we do perceive him as a horrifying monster, the wrong in everything right. Milton was not content with the way a millennium of preachers had portrayed the only one who dared to oppose God. To the poet at least, he was surely a more complex character and an insanely interesting figure. Satan is presented as extremely convoluted in the mind, far more than human imagination can grasp. It is no mean feat to sustain this superhuman decision of sorts, the will to wage an eternal war against the creator of the universe. In this article, I shall explore the first shade of evil– Satan as a liar and a fool.
Satan is so ashamed of his defeat that he proceeds to appropriate God’s victory as purely military. In one impassioned sentence, he claims that God came out the stronger one, because of his clandestine weapon: Thunder. It is almost as if he alludes to an unfair battle, one where he was misled. This is in direct contrast with the narrator’s idea of God, who is described as “omnipotent”. Satan foolhardily makes a virtue of his suffering and obdurate demeanour, justifying every inch of his sin with snowballing ridiculousness. He portrays that he cannot be threatened anymore by lethal weaponry or the infliction of defeat.
Standing on the incandescent soil of Hell, akin to the crater of a volcano, he returns to the elegiac and self-pitying tone of his first speech and contemplates the exchange of heaven for hell as his capital. Picturing the happiness of heaven in an image of the classical Elysian Fields, Satan bids Heaven farewell. His ceremonial speech is that of a king who has conquered Hell– “Receive thy new Possessor”. Here, it is proven that Satan is a petty and overreaching fool who will govern a place as disgusting as Hell.
Satan asserts that heaven and hell are states of mind and that the mind can make a heaven of hell and vice versa. As subservience to God is hell for Satan, heaven even before his fall did not exist for him. Satan cannot escape hell for he contains it and there is no escape from the self. God created hell to reflect Satan’s mind. Satan, here then, is the fool, for lies to himself unknowingly with ardent irony.
Satan, having flown to land, in due course seeks to revive his unconscious angels. To achieve this end, he resorts to false glorification and praises the fallen angels’ worth. He recalls their status as Princes, Potentates and Warriors which passes into flattery when he invokes the chivalric image: “Flow’r of Heav’n”. They are the very crème of immortal beings. This is a blatant falsification, for they have been reduced to demons. In this manner, Satan the fool also makes himself feel good about his pathetic condition.
In a bout of deepening sarcasm, Satan contemptuously mocks the undignified position in which the angels are lying as a result of their fall. He taunts them by asking if they’re prostrated as a sign of veneration for the conqueror. It is ironic because Satan himself was in this position a while back, bound by adamantine chains and slammed by God. Satan bluffs himself to the point where he has lost his hold on the truth of his condition, concealing the insult by the artificial posturing of a fool. While Milton does allow Satan space for grandeur and eminence, it is consciously underlined by factors that force us to question whether this grandiosity is true greatness or merely lies.
Picture Courtesy- Sophos