In the early part of the Paradise Lost, Milton establishes that it is about Satan’s rebellion against God. Milton tries to capture how Satan sees the rebellion. He sees it as one prompted by God. He sees himself as tempted; tempted by God. As Satan says in the first book, God “tempted our attempt, and wrought our fall”.
Satan: A Thinker and a Master of Possibilities
Satan admits he is a rebel, but as with the Islamic accounts of Iblis, and with the medieval scholastics like Anselm and Aquinas, he has an excuse: from his perspective, God was behind his fall. Satan is never willing to own up to his own responsibility in this; he wants to figure out a way to make it someone else’s fault.
Among his many other gifts, Satan is also a master of possibilities, of hypotheticals, but never able to settle on any of them. It matters a lot that Satan’s first spoken word in the whole poem is “if”. When he first looks over at the bottom of the pit, he sees another angel, Beelzebub. He says, “if thou be’est he; but O how fallen!”. This wonderful first line of Satan’s is a hypothetical—if that is you, but oh how disastrous your fall has been.
Satan is also a sinuous thinker; he doesn’t just end up as a serpent, he thinks sinuously. He has a hard time making straight declarative sentences. Typically they come only at the end of vast, wandering lines, paragraphs, which are enormously rhetorically powerful; but when considered outside of the rationalizations that led up to them, can sound enormously dubious.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Question of Freedom of Choice
Milton through Satan also raises the question about whether or not choice itself, freedom, is about having lots of possibilities. Does Satan think he had a choice, or does he think he was set up? He seems to oscillate wildly between these two extremes. When he thinks about his own condition, he blames God—“God set me up for this”—but when he thinks about his own ambitions, he thinks of himself as doing it himself, as wholly unsponsored.
Learn more about the “logic” of Satan’s rebellion against God.
Iblis and Satan
Think about Satan in comparison to Iblis. In Iblis’s case, his fall—the fall of Satan in the Islamic text—is caused by Iblis not doing something, by not acting; and again, there’s at least a semi-reputable ethical or spiritual rationale for Iblis’s resistance on some readings of Iblis.
But in Satan’s case for Milton, this is not so; Satan’s rebellion is clearly, wholly self-willed, wholly committed to the idea—more extreme even than Aquinas or Anselm or Dante, too—that Satan should be his own god.
Anselm and Aquinas and Satan
In a way that Anselm and Aquinas thought wasn’t really possible for Satan, Milton says Satan can actually formulate this thought; and Milton tries in his poetry to represent Satan’s thinking as he does this. How can Satan do this? What is the motive for Satan’s sinning? What is Satan’s inner life like? We get some of this when Satan tries to talk to other people, to the other fallen devils and especially sometimes to, say, Adam and Eve.
Satan and Adam and Eve
When Satan sees Adam and Eve, he says, “Oh, you poor creatures. You are going to suffer for what God has done to me. God’s the one who’s causing me to cause you to suffer. It’s not really your fault; you’re caught up in a much larger war between superpowers—myself and God—that treat you like a plaything.”
To himself at times, Satan seems to think of himself as someone who, as one of the other angels says, would “rather than be less / cared not to be at all”. Again, Satan in some sense resents the conditions of his own existence. That is one part of Satan’s reality.
Learn more about Martin Luther’s view of Satan.
Satan’s Paranoia and Despair
The other part that complicates Satan is that he can never be sincerely satanic; he can never fully believe the story about himself that he is trying to tell. For he knows, and somehow realizes, the foundations of his own being: the futility of sin. At the deepest level, Satan represents in a way the unavoidability of truth. He frequently breaks down in the poem; he frequently despairs.
He is continually paranoid that, in fact, everything is still God’s plan—that his fall is God’s plan, that the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden is God’s plan, that their eventual redemption and elevation is God’s plan, too—that the whole plan is God’s, not Satan’s, and that Satan is thus still a bit player in God’s drama.
Of course in all this, Satan’s paranoia turns out to be right; in fact, the tree, which Satan thought was his bait for Adam and Eve, turns out to be God’s bait for Satan. God uses Satan’s temptation to pave the way for Christ’s redemption and elevation of humanity as it is foreseen and prophesized by the end of the poem.
This is the felix culpa or the “happy fault”. So Satan is both simultaneously a rebel and a person who knows rebellion is futile. The amplitude and magnitude of his verbal rebellion, and the magnificence of it, is paralleled in Milton’s representation of him. Milton puts forth a brilliant representation of Satan as one, behind whose verbal pomposity resides a completely despairing being, regurgitating the suspicion that this all is an exercise in futility, a part of God’s plan.
Common Questions about Paradise Lost and Satan’s Rebellion
Satan oscillates between yes and no. He blames God—“God set me up for this”—but when he thinks about his own ambitions, he thinks of himself as doing it himself, as wholly unsponsored.
Satan’s rebellion is clearly, wholly self-willed, wholly committed to the idea—more extreme even than Aquinas and Anselm or Dante, too—that Satan should be his own god.
The tree, which Satan thought was his bait for Adam and Eve, turns out to be God’s bait for Satan. God uses Satan’s temptation to pave the way for Christ’s redemption and elevation of humanity.