Milton’s Satan has cast an enduring shadow over literature and the tropes we use to this day to portray the fall of a character from a proverbial (or literal, if you ask Milton) heaven to hell. I’ve written previously on this blog about the modern use of Miltonic theodicy (1) in the much watched television series Breaking Bad(Scars of Thunder: Walter White, Satan and the Material Roots of Reemergent Miltonic Theodicy). Yet, a student freshly entering Milton or specifically his masterwork Paradise Lost for a survey course at the college level may be less interested in the nuances of the vitality of Milton’s theodical project, and more so on the central critical debates surrounding the epic’s most captivating character, Satan. I certainly remember fondly my first paper on Milton as an undergraduate – a four page answer to the question “does Milton support Satan?”
This introduction, then, will serve the utilitarian purpose of introducing one unfamiliar with Milton’s most (in)famous character. Below, I will cover some of the major concepts one needs to consider when they endeavor to write and understand Satan’s role in the epic by pulling on the history of criticism of the epic, Satan’s transformation, Milton’s religiosity, the mythological roots of Satan’s character, and the political implications of Satan’s depiction in illuminating the beginnings of an answer to the age-old question of just what Milton is doing with his provocative textual depiction of the arch-fiend. In this introduction I will endeavor to include as many references as I can to encourage further study, and I have also included a very basic suggested reading list at the conclusion of the blog.
Scholars in Milton will notice that many corners have been cut and some dialogues omitted. This is a product of several things. Namely that I, like Milton’s Adam, am imperfect. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the intended audience of both the medium and this post itself is better served with introductory materials. This is meant as an introduction and should be treated as such. The primary goal of this post is to help those in Milton surveys and those with some bearing in literary studies become acquainted with the dialogues surrounding Milton, and provide avenues for further research.
For ease of use, I will break this introduction into multiple parts to be released in the future. These parts will cover the following:
- (1) Critical History and Reception
- (2) Satan’s transformation in the text of Paradise Lost
- (3) Milton’s Puritanism and Satan’s appeal
- (4) Charles II and Miltonic Satanism
- (5) The New Milton Criticism and Satanic ambiguity
A History of the Critical Reception of Milton and Satan:
A unique facet of John Milton’s work and specifically his epic is that it was recognized as one of the finest works of poetry every written in his own lifetime; and because of this his epic has been a lynch pin on which succeeding generations have constructed their ideal literary forms and styles. This is key in understanding Satan as critical reactions to Satan, while now relatively homogeneous, have a conflicted past. In the fourth edition (the first edition to have engravings) of Paradise Lost published in 1688, Milton is proclaimed as Homer and Virgil in one. In his essay “Milton’s Readers,” scholar Nicholas Van Maltzhan highlights the rare celebration of Milton as one of the greatest poets of all time during his life and immediately after. Quoting contemporary critics, Van Maltzhan writes, “Hobart already reports ‘the opinion of the impartial learned’ that Paradise Lost is ‘not only above all modern attempts in verse, but equal to any of the ancient poets.’ Milton’s nephew also proclaimed to continental audiences that the poem “reached the perfection of this species of poetry” (2). To the point, Milton’s characters and his epic were considered a masterpiece by a majority of his audience.
Yet the admiration of Milton as a master poet began to falter even as he was being immortalized in his fourth edition. In restoration England (Charles II was restored in 1660), specifically on the stage, his epic style was satirized. Samuel Butler’s Hudibras mocks the epic tenor and biblical nature of Paradise Lost, and Aphra Benn lampooned Milton’s concept of “know, yet abstain” (Areopagitica) in her famous play The Rover. Milton’s erudition and humanism (3) where replaced by libertinism and later moderation. Alexander Pope would famously address Milton’s own effort “to justify the ways of god to man” in his “Essay on Man” by claiming proudly “What is, is RIGHT.” Satan, and all the wordy evil that he represents (which will be discussed in a later part), was robbed of his spiritual fangs by the increasingly secular discourse of restoration and 18th century England. In his ranter-esque (a religious sect from Revolutionary England) assertion that whatever God created on earth is right (4), Pope, in directly addressing Milton’s theodicy, endeavors to undermine the necessity of Milton’s project. This is certainly demonstrative of the move away from both the epic genre and the deeply religious undertones of Paradise Lost in the long 18th century. Ultimately, Satan and all he represented was removed as a serious threat to society and rendered as a product of dogmatic and fearful puritans.
“Beside, he was a shrewd philosopher / And had read every text and gloss over; / Whate’er the crabbed’st author hath, / He understood by implicit faith; / Whatever skeptic could inquire for, /For every why had a wherefore.” -Samuel Butler, Hudbiras (5)
As bourgeois sentimentality rose to prominence on the stage and on the page as the 18th century progressed, Milton’s ideology of temptation became more prevalent. In plays such as Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers and novels such as Burney’s Evelina, the idea of being tempted but refusing began to become more important and specifically linked to Milton his work, from Areopagitica and Paradise Lost. In such sentimental projects, the epic became an orthodox one; a pedagogical tool to warn the tempted away from sin and death. Satan’s character had moved from an overly dramatic relic of a dead ideology to a character of the highest evil – one who, by deception, turned the good and wholesome to the bad and corrupted. The villains of sentimental tragedies and comedies are often keenly Satantic. They have good in them, but abandon it for evil.
Sentimentality, like the libertine dramas of the Restoration before it, faded into disfavor as society changed in the crucible of industrialization and empire. At the turn of the 19th century, England had undergone great change economically, politically, and socially. Out of this change emmerged romanticism, and the romantics are perhaps the most famous critics of Milton’s Satan. To the romantics, Satan’s heroic struggle against the “tyranny of heaven” (PL Book I) mirrored their own antiheroes like Prometheus, Frankenstein, and the romantic poet. Shelley claimed his Prometheus was better than Milton’s Satan, if only for the reason that he as the author was willing to allow the character to achieve its full potential.
“The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest.” (6)
The romantics, as Shelley suggests in the above quote, saw Milton’s Satan as potentially out of the author’s control which is still a key point of criticism around the epic. William Blake, another romantic and author of the abortive twelve volume poem Milton, remarked famously that, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Many scholars still debate this very thing; is Milton’s Satan out of Milton’s control? Did Milton’s own grief over the fall of the Republican paradise (7) inhibit his ability to portray a just and kind God who could stand up to the cunning rhetoric of Satan? These are questions outside the scope of this summary, but they are questions that the romantics first raised in their desire to portray Satan as the true hero.
A main point of the romantic defenders of Satan is his Promethean quality. If, as the epic suggests, choice is the most important quality, Satan brings this power to Adam and Eve in an environment (Eden) where they have no choice. In this way, Satan emerges as Promethean; one who gives of himself to give a gift to humanity. A student looking to find reasons to defend Satan should know that this reading is almost universally denounced in modern Milton studies and with good reason, as Adam’s growing anxiety in Eden in the books leading up to the fall prove with very little doubt that Milton has intentionally established that the choice is long made clear to Adam and Eve, and they, our grandparents, chose wrongly in the end.
With the rise of institutions of literary criticism at universities in the English speaking world in the 20th century to today, movements in Milton criticism become less definable by era and are thus necessarily designated by critical school. In the heyday of New Criticism, William Empson published the famous Milton’s God in 1961 which is still used to frame the debate on the nature of Milton’s Heaven in Book III. Empson essentially makes the argument that the chief source of interest in the epic is the very ambiguity with which critics now wrestle, and to endeavor to explain away these ambiguities via Milton’s religious orthodoxy ultimately robs the epic of all its literary meat. This argument has reemerged in The New Milton Criticism, which will be covered later.
the poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions, which ought to be clear in your mind when you are feeling its power. I think it horrible and wonderful; I regard it as like Aztec or Benin sculpture, or to come nearer home the novels of Kafka, and am rather suspicious of any critic who claims not to feel anything so obvious. (Milton’s God)
In the same year, C.S. Lewis published his much used A Preface to Paradise Lost, where he essentially argues the exact opposite of Empson. Lewis portrays Milton as an orthodox christian spinning a tale of orthodox validation, concluding, “Unorthodoxy must be searched for.” (8) As stated above, contemporary Milton criticism celebrates rather than deflates the importance of Milton’s moments of ambiguity, and Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana is miles away from orthodox. Jesus, provocatively, is not a part of a trinity but rather appointed by merit in Paradise Lost which rather oddly gives Lewis little pause. Because of these facts and a current critical appreciation of ambiguity, Lewis and other critics’ assertions of orthodoxy in Milton have come under fire.
The concept of Milton’s orthodoxy become central to late 20th century Miltonics when Stanley Fish published his canonical Surprised by Sin, which introduced the now common notion that Paradise Lost is a pedagogical text. Satan’s character and his early heroism are but a theological trap set by the ever in control Milton. It is a development of Lewis’ search for orthodoxy, as Fish, in line with his Reader Response critical method, illuminates an orthodox message in Satan’s seemingly sympathetic nature. Instead of demonstrating Milton’s own ambiguous theology, Satan’s character demonstrates a clever textual trap by Milton; intended to ensnare the sinful and then “surprise” them with their own sin as Satan’s evil is slowly, over the course of the epic, revealed.
While the New Milton Criticism avoids such efforts to dissolve Milton’s ambiguity, Fish’s critique was central to Miltonics for the latter half of the 20th century and still holds measurable critical support at the academy. Over the course of history, in sum, Milton and his most famous character have moved freely between the usually rigid categories of hero, genius, hack, villain, and god. This is critical in understanding Satan as whether or not Milton has full control of his archdemon is in much debate to this day, and it is a debate with many sides from many eras. In the next part, I will cover the way Satan develops as a character over the course of Paradise Lost itself, and highlight some hurdles and lynch pins for those readers with “sympathy for the devil.”
Further Reading on Milton’s Satan (included in each part):
Critical editions and collections of short criticism with essays about Satan:
(1) The New Milton Criticism. Ed. Peter Herman, Elizabeth Sauer. Cambridge UP. 2012.
(2) The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. Cambridge UP. 1999
(3) Paradise Lost. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Gordon Teskey. Norton. 2004.
(4) Milton’s Selected Poetry and Prose. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Jason Rosenblatt. Norton. 2010.
Introductory/notable critical works that are about/have sections on Satan:
(1) Milton’s God. William Empson.
(2) Surprised by Sin. Stanley Fish.
(3) Milton and the English Revolution. Christopher Hill.
(4) A Preface to Paradise Lost. C.S. Lewis.
(5) The Satanic Epic, Neil Forsyth.
(6) The Romantics on Milton, Joseph Wittreich.
(7) Representing Revolution in Milton and his Contemporaries, David Loewenstein.
(1)An explanation of evil in a universe with a god, or, as Milton put it, “to justify the ways of god to man.”
(2) From Von Maltzhan’s essay The Cambridge Companion to Milton, cited above, Page 243
(3) Reading and use of classical texts, in this context.
(4) For more information on ranterism, see Lawrence Clarkson’s “A Single Eye”
(7) The English Commonwealth, headed by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector
(8) A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis