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Miltons Satan in Paradise Lost


Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.
Satan (Paradise Lost, i.263) 1
Lucifer the fallen Angel or Satans agenda in John Miltons Paradise Lost is summarised in
this one quote from the poem. There is an ambiguity associated with the portrayal of Satan by
Milton. There is a certain heroic quality about him but it is undercut by his drive and passion
for ruling and being evil. It is important to look at Miltons religious beliefs for a complete
understanding of Miltons Satan. His religious ideas were strongly Protestant with an
emphasis on the free will of the individual. He rejected the idea of predestination and
election which were Calvinist ideas declaring Gods supreme control over human beings.
Milton was highly influenced by Arminian theology which was a subset of Protestantism
highlighting the freedom of individuals. This can be seen in Miltons characters in Paradise
Lost especially by viewing Satan and his seeming heroism.
Over time, there has been a lot of critique regarding Miltons depiction of Satan. Lucifers fall
is forced upon him as a result of his jealousy and hunger for power. His desire to reign was
greater than his faith in God. William Blake opined in his essay Marriage of Heaven and
Hell: The reason Milton wrote in fetters' when he wrote of Angels and Gods, and at liberty
when of Devil~ and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without
knowing It. In this statement, there is an implicit suggestion that Miltons depiction of Satan
is liberal and a better vision than God. According to Blake, Milton while being a true poet
was actually advocating the Devil by openly humanising Satan. Miltons aim while writing
Paradise Lost was to create the most epic poem ever written and he claimed that he
1 All Paradise Lost quotations are from: Milton, John. Paradise Lost. London. Penguin. 2003.

Print.

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achieved that goal. In Classic/Greek Epic Poems, there is a Hero who is larger than life who
has to overcome matters concerning the nation or cosmic peril. In his Epic poem, Milton
chooses to follow the classic model of Virgil and Homer but in a convoluted sense. He takes
up the greatest topic of Fall of Man and creates a larger-than-life character of Satan. There is
a perversion of the classical hero with this figure. He is presented in a complex heroic light
and in a sense, Satan is a character that comes close to being the Hero of the poem. The idea
that Satan is the Hero of the poem is supported by many critics like Hazlitt and Mary Shelley
who consider Satan to be the hero of the epic poem. In On Shakespeare and Milton,
William Hazlitt states: "Satan is the most heroic subject that was ever chosen for a poem;
and the execution is as perfect as the design is lofty. Hazlitt makes this claim based on the
audacity of Satan in waging war against God and trying to commandeer his power. In this
design, he was lofty and extremely bold which likens him to a heroic figure. Shelley agreed
with Hazlitt as he remarked in his essay A Defence Of Poetry, It is a mistake to suppose
that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil. This notion
was supported by other Romantics like Lord Byron and Sir Walter Raleigh who believed in
Satans heroism. In Raleighs opinion, Satan could either be a Hero or a Fool and Milton
doesnt allow for alluding to foolishness. The Romantics thus embellished Satans heroic
attributes based on nobility and courage but this notion goes back till critics like Dryden.
Miltons Satan is a complex character whose other dimensions are revealed in every step of
the poem. There is a juxtaposition between the villain in him and the hero. In Book I, the
poem starts in medias res and shows Satan and the other fallen angels chained to a lake of
fire. In following the classical tradition by starting a poem in the middle of the action when
the fall of the rebellious angels has already taken place, Milton immediately draws readers
attention to the punishment given by God. In spite of being punished, Satans description is

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glorious and his power is displayed in his effort of breaking the chains and freeing himself. In
a magnificent monologue, Satan reveals his intention of continuing to fight God. He believes:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. (i.254-255)
He wishes to make a heaven out of his Hell. In a powerful uproar, Satan claims that even if
Heaven is lost, there is hope for future conquests:
What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. (i.105-111)
This monologue is considered to be heroic by many critics. Here, Satan is seen at the
epitome of supremacy. He is strong and motivated to avenge his fall rendering him admirable
and from a humanistic viewpoint. In standing up to his tyrant, Satan becomes an advocate
for freedom and autonomy. He wants to be his own ruler which is recognised by the readers.
When he was the archangel Lucifer, he was attractive and seductive which remains with him
even after his fall albeit with elements of envy and pride interspersed in his character. These
emotions render the character of Satan sympathetic as humans see their own fallen selves in
him. His vices and suffering is identified and likened with readers own vices. It is
specifically Book I and II that focus on Satan and Hell which leads the reader to empathise
with him and hear his side of the story. The rebellious angels take the mammoth task of
construction of Pandemonium and procurement of luxury materials in an effort to recreate

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Heaven in Hell reinforcing Satans wish to recreate Heaven. Book II shows Satans journey
through Chaos and Night which lie between Heaven and Hell with Earth suspended by a
golden chain from Heaven. Supporters of the school that sees Satan as a Hero use the
examples of Book I and II as evidence of his heroism because Milton chooses to focus on
him and Hell. There is the introduction of Sin and Death who are the son and daughter of
Satan as a result of incestuous relationships. Vivid descriptions of Hell and Satans constant
efforts to fight God are depicted by Milton in Book I and II. While his monologues of
grandeur and authority bring him closer to a Hero, it is his human-like qualities which make
the character relatable. It is his emotions that invoke a sense of empathy in the readers. In
Book IV, Satans conflicted self is revealed while he overlooks Eden. He is shown to look at
Paradise and thinks of good and evil. His resolve to be evil is strengthened by his inability to
repent. The beauty is a reminder of his former self, causing a conflict within him. He states
Which way I fly is hell; myself am Hell (iv.75) exposing his inner battle between enjoying
pleasures of Paradise and destroying this creation of God. The line foreshadows his
impending collapse. He is intent on embracing his evil side but this moment of weakness is a
moment of empathy in modern readers. Humans find themselves reflected in the self-loathing
figure wondering of the possibilities.
While some critics use Book I and II to support the theory of Satan as Hero of Paradise Lost
other critics, some of whom are called Anti-Satanists, use the same to show the downward
trajectory of this seemingly heroic figure. In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S Lewis states
that To admire Satan is to give one's vote for a world of misery and a world of lies and
propaganda, wishful thinking and incessant autobiography. Yet the choice is possible and
hardly a day passes without some slight movement towards it in each one of us. That is what
makes Paradise Lost such a serious poem. The thing is possible, and the exposure of it is
resented. In his argument, Lewis stands the ground that Satan is not a Hero and to agree

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with Satans heroism is to give into the self-deception and seduction carefully constructed by
Milton. In writing Paradise Lost, Milton manages to fascinate the reader by the character of
Satan like Satan attracts Eve. Lewis firmly believes that critics who side with Satans heroism
are a part of this deception. Other critics or Anti-Satanists like Stanley Fish, Charles
William and S. Musgrove choose to stress on Satans egocentrism and selfishness while
stripping him of his heroic status given to him by the other critics.
Through Books I XII, there is an evolution or rather, degeneration of Satan from a strong,
heroic leader to a shell of his former self. His power which was once his weapon is shrouded
by his passion for spreading Evil and destroying God's creation. At first, his struggle is
against God and for his autonomy but slowly, Satans motives get unclear and regress to
basic destruction and evil. His sole purpose which was to waste his (God) whole Creation
(ii.365) seems to shift and his once powerful aura of a leader deteriorates in appearance as
well his behaviour. His soliloquies which were once heroic and eloquent become confusing
rambles. He chooses to believe in his own fabrications of lies which lead to the creation of his
own personal Hell. Satan wanted to create heaven in hell but his own body becomes his own
hell. In his contradictions, Satan reveals the inner turmoil rising leading to his ruin. In his
conversation with Gabriel, it is revealed that he wishes to escape the hostile and painful Hell
Lives there who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from Hell,
Though thither doomed? (iv.88890)
Even though he wishes to rule over the place which makes him miserable and provides him
with suffering. This theory of Satan embodying contradiction is supported by C.S Lewis as he
calls Satan a personified self-contradiction in A Preface to Paradise Lost. In his struggle
for equality and liberty, he is flawed as he aims to rule over his fellow fallen angels in Hell
and not serve God in Heaven. It is not only his contradictory thoughts but also his physical

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self that suffers through the course of the poem. He dons various forms which begin from his
gigantic self, reduced down to a lowly earthbound snake. After tempting Adam and Eve,
when Satan return to Hell, he looks visibly diminished in power and his motives seem not for
glory or fame anymore but only pleasing his companions. The former glory and his powerful
words are rendered meaningless in the face of his diminished self. He resorts to unheroic acts
like changing appearances to lowly forms in order to enter Paradise or to tempt the innocent
Eve. In Paradise Lost, Milton certainly portrays Satan in a humanistic vision but it is a ruse.
It is an attempt to lure the reader in the same way that Satan tempts Eve and Adam to be
seduced by evil. The seductive and appealing Satan draws in the reader to empathise and
overlook the reality of his immoral and sinful acts. Satan is consumed by his Pride and Ego
and it is his self-love that drives him to Hell. Satans appeal is equated to the attractiveness of
Sin and Pride. It is clear that Milton that he had to be careful while constructing Satan as a
literary character. In spite of all the claims of Satan shown as a Hero and allegations against
Milton, Satan is not actually a heroic figure as Milton uses his own brand of humour to
highlight flaws. Coleridge recognises in him the alcohol of egotism. Satan goes from a
beautiful archangel to an egocentric who is the first to commit the sin of Pride.
By giving Satan his own voice which is not partial or affected by the Biblical understanding,
he achieves in providing a character which can be empathised with and his actions
understood. Satan is seen as the Hero but in reality, Milton deconstructs the classical hero
archetype in his poem as no character can truly be called the hero, not even God. God is the
distant, omniscient and absolute voice of reason depicted by a bright light who is not relatable
because the figure is in constant mystery. He is all-knowing but doesnt participate in the
action. The figure is guided by pure reason without emotions playing a part in His decisions.
In opposition, Satan is ruled by his emotions (which lead to his fall) but still make him
appealing to the reader. In fictionalising God and Satan, Milton makes it possible to look at

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them beyond a Biblical reading. God becomes a spiritual entity punishing the rebellious rulebreakers while Satan becomes an attractive figure who can be seen as a victim of his own
idea of free will. Milton gives way for free will to be the true hero of the poem as each
character is governed only by their free will. Absolute reason and Free Will become guiding
principles for both Man and Satan in Paradise Lost and especially for Satan, reason leads him
to misuse his free will. He chooses evil over good and even the omniscient God cannot stop
him because of the gift of free will. Thus, free will becomes integral in Miltons poem. Every
character has the choice to either move upwards or downwards and Satans choice goes over
the line between good and bad causing his fall. This resorts to Miltons doctrinal beliefs
which revolved around this idea. In a strictly scriptural sense, Milton does not support Satan
in any way but in a literary sense, he gives the Devil his due or some leeway in humanising
him. Satan is given extreme importance by Milton and by giving him free will, Milton
becomes an advocate of choice and individuality.
It is Miltons genius that enables the readers to identify with a fallen angel. Satans
construction is done in a way that readers recognise the dangers of being sinful. For Milton,
the ultimate sin is disobeying God which led to the fall of Man and Satan. Satans heroism is
relegated to Book I and II as Paradise Lost becomes not about him but about justify(ing) the
ways of God to men (i.26). Satan becomes the Hero in his own story against God but
remains the anti-hero in Paradise Lost. Milton creates a hero that needs to be defeated and
struck down to fulfil the purpose of his poem. Therefore, Miltons Satan is the Hero and the
antagonist of Paradise Lost at the same time as he goes through an inconsistent journey of
self-loathing and torment. Satan is in certain terms a hero while in others he is farcical. This
ambivalence makes Satan a complex yet interesting character.

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Works Cited
1.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. London. Penguin. 2003. Print.

2.

Blake, William. Marriage of Heaven and Hell Complete Poems ed. Alicia Ostriker,

New York. 1977. Web.


3.

Hazlitt, William. On Shakespeare and Milton. Milton Criticism. Selections from Four

Centuries. London. Routledge & Keagan Paul Ltd. 1965. Web.


4.

Shelley, P. B. A Defence of Poetry. Milton Criticism. Selections from Four Centuries.

London. Routledge & Keagan Paul Ltd. 1965. Web.


5.

Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1942. Web.

6.

Coleridge, S.T. Milton. Milton Criticism. Selections from Four Centuries. London.

Routledge & Keagan Paul Ltd. 1965. Web.


7.

Hamilton, G. Rostrevor. Hero or Fool? A Study of Miltons Satan. New York: Haskell

House Publishers Ltd., 1969. Web.