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A Complex Satan in John Milton's Paradise Lost

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Milton's Complex Satan in Paradise Lost

 

Milton's Satan continues to fascinate critics largely because he is more

complex than the Devil of the Christian tradition appears. Satan's

rebelliousness, his seeking of transcendence, his capacity for action,

particularly unconventional action, endeared him to certain types of minds,

even if their viewpoint might be considered theologically misleading.

Milton often follows the road of intellectual definition for his characters,

of reasoning demonstration. This serves well his theological and

intellectual cohesiveness. However, when his thought becomes more

conceptual rather than metaphoric, it falls trap to its own special kind of

static imprisonment. Most of the images in Paradise Lost, however, have a

substantial life of their own; they are properties rather than metaphors.

 

In the presentation of Satan, Milton is dealing with a special difficulty.

He is not presenting a human intelligence, but an angelic one-a being the

nature of which is almost impossible for the human mind to grasp. Milton

simplifies the matter by making spiritual intelligences more highly refined

versions of human intelligence. He is still left with one problem, that of

introducing a flaws in this refined beings. Because of these refined

intelligence, these creatures should incline solely to good.

 

                  "So farwel Hope, and with Hope farwel Fear,

                  Farwel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;

                  Evil be thou my Good;"

                                    (IV, 109-111)

 

In this intensely dramatic statement, Satan renounces everything that's

good. His is not a lack of intelligence, or weakness of character, very

simply an acceptance of evil. It almost justifies C. S. Lewis' observation.

"What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and

incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything."

 

Although the statement "Evil be thou my Good," makes no sense on the

surface, it has a symbolic meaning as an expression of Satan's will to

reject the hierarchy of values set before him. In doing so he creates an

illusory world that reflects his adopted values, which he accepts as

reality. His reality is based on hatred. His hatred makes him

psychologically dependant on that he hates, thus making it all the greater.

Throughout the epic Milton dramatizes this dependence among the devils-

even the hatred that gives them their energy is based on that reality which

they are bent on rejecting.

 

If Milton's portrait of God does not display sufficient inspiration or

detail, it still does not follow that Milton regarded Satan as the hero.

The artist projects something of himself in his creation (his character);

thus creating "empathy" towards him/her. Moral approval for such projection

is not required or even implied. Moral approval will lie in reason rather

that in emotion. The meaning of good and evil must be reexamined by every

generation. Even though both meanings reside and function reasonably well

on a popular level, these words seldom provide enough cohesiveness to be

analyzed in depth. The solution-at any end-might a dilemma.

 

One cannot help but feel that the fall of Satan was brought about by an

intellectually interesting temptation. Socrates believed that ignorance led

to subversion, but Satan's curiosity and, to certain extent, jealousy, came

about as a result of God's infinite and omnipotent being.  Surely, one must

feel horror at a God who deliberately reduced Satan to such condition.

God's retaliation -  turning the rebels into snakes - and then continuing

to work upon mankind is an obvious challenge for power. Genesis (a story to

which Milton adheres) represents the Fall as a lack of knowledge, ignorance.

But if Adam and Eve (and Satan in his time) had no foreknowledge of evil -

since God's creation was void of it - how were they to know and discern.

Therefore, how innocent is Milton' God? He should be able to foresee any

contingency, including that of evil. A theological conundrum remains, for

who is to blame God.

 

Theological and character discussions of this caliber cannot be resolved or

even postulated in a few paragraphs. Arguments always tend to find their

way to the original intent for creation - life. Milton, however, brought us

a step closer creating a vast array of images and concepts that help our

mundane senses appraise the situation, and give a human face to The Great

Conflict.

 

                        "But he that hides a dark soul and foul thoughts

                        Benighted, walks under the midday sun

                        Himself is his own dungeon..."

                                                    John Milton

 

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