Paradise Lost is a very long read; ten books with more than one thousand lines of poetry per book makes it regarded as an epic poem. Book 1 (and possibly the entire narrative of Paradise Lost) is divisive because the villain of the story, Satan, a former Archangel comes across as a hero; from one viewpoint he is a rebel seen as trying to deliver his fellow angels from "oppression by God." Milton similarly portrays Satan to heroes' rebellion shown in the Greek Tragedies, case in point Prometheus stealing fire from the gods in Olympus to give as a gift to humans (Kavolis 15). Essentially Milton expands the first three chapters of the Bible shows the story of creation, and Adam and Eve's eventual leaving from the Garden of Eden. Hence, the rhetoric: Is Satan's quest justified, with the way he endears himself with humans, by Milton giving him identifiable human values?
According to (Paris n.p.) "the appeal of Milton's characters continues because they have recognizable inner lives and relationships and are drawn with such depth that they transcend all ideologies." When conversing with Beelzebub, Satan employs great appeal to the feelings of the former Apostate angel. He speaks how Beelzebub was once powerful but is now a diminished figure as a fallen angel. It is clear that Satan knows how to incite not only people but also higher beings such as angels and higher angels. Beelzebub is so touched by Satan's honest, accurate and most importantly understanding the evaluation of him and their situation regarding rebellion against God. Satan describes God's reign to Beelzebub as being dictatorial or tyrannical: "Who now triumphs, and in the' excess of joy Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n" (Milton 1.123-124). Satan has evident human qualities of being empathetic to the feelings of others. He identifies that Beelzebub, who is like his right-hand man feels broken just like him. We later learn that Satan is a great manipulator and would say anything to get things done.
Beelzebub's response to Satan shows us how the former angel of Light Lucifer is courageous, brave and respected among the fallen angels. "Under thy conduct, and in dreadful deeds, / Fearless, endanger'd Heav'ns perpetual King; (Milton 1. 130-131). "Heav'ns perpetual King" is God. Beelzebub respects Satan's courage and effort in trying to ouster God, even though unsuccessfully. Milton gives himself a lot of creative room to maneuver around, but doubtless, he makes the reader see things not just from Satan's point of view, but the reader understands some actions in a way. Not that Satan is justified, but humans can identify with wanting to achieve social change even using unconventional means. Usually, heaven is Paradise, where there is peace and tranquility. However, in Book 1 heaven is a battlefield between the fallen angels led by Satan and the other angels led by God and the likes of Archangel Michael.
It is clear that Satan believes in himself; that he is pursuing a noble cause in trying to depose tyranny. He thinks that opposing God will make the fallen angels gain heaven. Satan portrays evil but rationally on the lines of "the end justifies the means." A reader initially, distrustful of Satan begins to humanize him. For example, Satan appeals almost logically to Beelzebub:
Fall'n Cherube, to be weak is miserableDoing or Suffering: but of this be sure,To do ought good never will be our task,But ever to do ill our sole delight,As being the contrary to his high will (Milton 1.156-161)
Satan equates strength with action or effort when he says "to be weak is miserable" and "doing or suffering." Satan is defeated, but he does not give up; instead, he shows clarity, determination, and self drive to get heaven for his self-serving intentions. His desires are selfish. The reader is repulsed but at the same time fascinated, as it is human folly to be self-centered. There is even the popular cliche, "God for us all and man for himself" which people often use to justify selfishness. The epic is a clear case of the old "good versus evil," but for Paradise Lost, it is not clear whether Satan is inherently evil.
Jealousy is what drives Satan to rebel in the first place. Milton, in book 1 paints the picture of heaven in -a new light. It is not necessarily a perfect place; Satan rebels against God when the Son is appointed King instead of him (Goldman n.p). Evil looks to be a method that Satan uses to get back at God. Satan's motives sound childish like a child running away from home because their parents rebuked them. "But ever to do ill our sole delight...
contrary to his high will." Doing ill or evil is the same as going contrary to God. Words such as "delight" serve to humanize Satan. Milton gives Satan emotions and feelings, something which is not a norm in modern times. One can only imagine the manner of controversy it raised in the seventeenth century.
Milton's Value Systems and Authority
All these characters, more so the divine or supernatural ones, including God and Satan, have very human-like qualities. It is straightforward for the reader to judge the actions of any of the characters (Paris n.p). Beelzebub in his conversation with Satan reveals to the reader just how much the fallen host doubted the legitimacy of God's supremacy. Regarding God's victory and the fall of the apostate angels from heaven, Beelzebub has no explanation except: "Whether upheld by strength, or Chance, or Fate." The way Beelzebub speaks, it is clear he believes that he, and possibly the other rebels, thought that they had a chance in overthrowing God. Hence, it is clear that Beelzebub does not believe in the legitimacy of heaven's ruler God, a sentiment shared by Satan and all the other fallen angels.
Satan is a hero in the way that he tries to fight the oppressive system by doing the unthinkable; challenging God for the throne of heaven Satan is fighting against oppression although it is controversial to think of God as being tyrannical, something which Milton unwittingly seems to convey (Goldman n.p). In essence, Milton's heaven is a vivid picture of the hierarchical value system and the arbitrary authority in that there was God at the top, followed by the Son, Lucifer (Satan) and then the others. In book 5, the angel Abdiel speaks to Adam concerning "All things, ev'n thee, and all the spirits of Heav'n/ By him created in their bright degrees." (Milton 5. 837-838). Even Adam is made superior over Eve. It is unclear whether Milton intended to show Satan as being heroic or if the message was that God s the Almighty and cannot be challenged; possibly both.
Goldman, Peter. "By merit more than birthright": Election and the Logic of Modernity in Paradise Lost." Anthropoetics 23.2 (2018).
Milton, John. Paradise Lost, 1667. Menston, (Yorks.: Scolar P, 1968. Print.
Paris, Bernard J. Heaven and Its Discontents: Milton's Characters in Paradise Lost. Routledge, 2017.
Kavolis, Vytautas. "Models of Rebellion: An Essay in Civilization-Analysis." Comparative Civilizations Review 3.3 (1979): 3. 13-36
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