Category Archives: Milton’s Satan

An Introduction to Milton’s Satan, Part 1 (Critical History and Reception)

What matter where, if I be the same?

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.

The frontpiece of the fourth edition of Paradise Lost, where Milton is described as Homer and Virgil in one – “To make a third she joynd the former two.”

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.

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The picture adorning chapter 1 in the fourth edition of Paradise Lost (on the left), when compared to Dore’s famous 19th century engravings of Satan (seen on the right), demonstrates the impact of the romantics on our understanding of Satan. Notice that Dore’s Satan is much less demonic.

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 CriticismWilliam 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 Criticismwhich 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.

Footnotes:

(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”

(5) http://archive.org/stream/cu31924013360841/cu31924013360841_djvu.txt

(6) http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/PShelley/prompref.html

(7) The English Commonwealth, headed by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector

(8) A Preface to Paradise Lost,  C.S. Lewis

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Scars of Thunder: Walter White, Satan and the Material Roots of Reemergent Miltonic Theodicy

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*Breaking Bad spoiler warning. Turn back now if you have not finished the show.*

“Mr. White, he’s the devil” -Jesse Pinkman, 5.12

As Breaking Bad came to its climactic conclusion, much dialogue occurred on at what point one could consider the series’ protagonist, Walter White, “gone.” At what point, many wondered, does Walter recede into Heisenberg? Some, as it has become clear to me upon traversing the enormous world of Breaking Bad social media, held out hope for Walter deep into the fifth season and even after the season had ended.  After all the violence, domestic and otherwise, some still supported Walter as a vigilante against omnipotent force, one with “unconquerable will” and the “courage never to submit or yield” (PL. I.). Of course, these famous lines were used to describe the prideful Arch-Fiend of Milton’s Paradise Lost  as he gazed over his host of rebellious demons, thrown flaming through the ethereal sky into the burning pits of Hell.

Much like Milton’s epic, Breaking Bad was pedagogically involved with its audience from the start. Walter and Satan in their first appearances to us are vulnerable and courageous, warriors against fate made to feel deep regret at the plight soon to be and presently being suffered by their family and comrades . First impressions, as they say, are important.These first images, of Walter pointing a gun at arriving police in his underwear and Satan lamenting the pain and disfigurement of his once beautiful friend, attach themselves to our imaginations with an anchor of precedence. These original images residing in the heads of viewers and readers serve as a point of comparison for every contradictory piece of information we will discover, explicitly and interpretive, in both show and epic. This contradiction is a function of theodicy; the catalyst with which the ways of god and evil are textually reconciled. 

Theodicy, a text that seeks to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it, and more generally, explain the existence of evil in a universe with a God, was a form popular in Early Modern Europe. Theodicy’s popularity at the time is seemingly a historical singularity, born of the interchange between an Enlightenment desire to explain the machinations of man and nature and a Protestant urge to render an omnipotent and distant god. Certainly the Early Modern theodical projects to reconcile these two things are no longer as apt as they were then. How, then, can the two theodical projects be compared in any way? How can Breaking Bad be considered a “Miltonic” theodicy, if it was born in such disparate historical circumstances? We can begin to find the answer, an answer rooted in the two periods’ fundamental yet obfuscated similarity, in what each story uses as a catalyst for its core crises.

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Milton’s and Gilligan’s catalyst in the dialectical exchange that is theodicy is choice. Evil exists because we have the power to chose, a power inherent in possessing consciousness, a power that takes us to the highest summit and the deepest pit, depending. Choice is the solvent both  Milton and Gilligan apply to the fundamental theological and ideological impasse of a good man turned to abject evil. Choice is at the center of each work, as both anti-heroes consciously ponder their choices in light of personal and social limitations. Satan, in his memorable lament at the beginning of book IV, remarks,

“Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?”(PL. IV. 71-74

Satan’s inner torment is said by some critics to separate the reader from our once heroic warrior, yet to this critic, the tragedy of his character becomes crystallized in this scene of weakness.  Indeed, many Breaking Bad fans celebrate Walter’s journey to “take control of his life,” to, in effect, chose as Satan does in the face of known consequences. Satan elucidates the relationship between his choices and their inevitable consequences, and the outcome tempers his heroic nature and tempers, more importantly, the power of choice in the epic. This unhappy lineage of choice is the precise relationship Walter comes to have with his own choices. Satan has chosen poorly, and his initial choice has limited him to but one choice; infinite wrath or infinite despair. Walter comes to a similar conclusion as Satan, to face what will come with courage and malevolent darkness to ease his woeful condition (PL. IV). Walter remarks before his climactic and character changing battle with Gus Fring, “I’ve made choices. I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices, and those consequences, they’re coming.” (4.12). The fatalistic acceptance of consequences contrasts starkly to Satan’s heroic and rousing speeches and Walter’s once innocent desire for choice, typified by his early expression, “But, what I want, what I want, what I need, is a choice. I feel like I never actually make any of my own, choices, I mean. My entire life, it just seems like I never, you know, had a real say, about any of it.” (1.05)

So we see that choice is central in each epic, but more importantly, that choice in both is refracted through a lens of past choices. These past choices are themselves refracted through a foreknowledge of concrete consequences, consequences bred of a break with society, heavenly and non. Satan breaks with angelic hierarchy, and Walter breaks with civil law to ease their “suffering” (PL. IV) born of a tragic flaw (pride in both cases). The consequences, as each character predicts, come down upon them with tremendous effect. Satan writhes as a deformed serpent for all eternity, and Walter fades into his feared death as a look of relief emerges from his disheveled features. Such is the price for waging war against omnipotent force.

Of note, this bringing of destruction from a combination of personal choice from within and environmental consequences from without brings to the fore the crux upon which both stories move to their grander underlying narrative. It is where choice meets society that both show and epic connect across time and place, where they illuminate the same human struggle in Milton’s time and in our own; and that struggle is the power of the individual to battle the “omnipotent force” of a perceived unjust society.

It is here that we must make the distinction between the show and epic, as the former urges the viewer to oppose this unjust society and the latter urges the reader (as Stanley Fish highlights brilliantly) to see how just society falls to the ignorant and the prideful. They are, ultimately, different sides of the same coin. Where Gilligan endeavors to elucidate the fallen ideals of a society, Milton highlights the fall itself and the conditions upon which its occurrence was understandable and “justifiable.” Critically, both anti-heroes fail in their efforts. Their failure, itself a contradiction of that first image we are given, is pedagogical; a pedagogy deeply involved with the material conditions of a fallen society surrounding both epic and show.

To that point, in both Milton’s society and ours, irreconcilable contradictions erupt every day. The value of a hard day’s work and outsourcing, the american dream and growing static unemployment, the value of the individual and skyrocketing medical costs, puritanical destiny and counter-revolution, the eternal rule of the saints and Charles II, the Areopagus and the hangman. Satan attempts to solve these contradictions, but he goes about it in the wrong way and fails, just as Walter does. Both epic and show, in short, exist to navigate and illuminate these contradictions and counsel us through the pedagogical, theodical process of plotting the course of one who breaks free from the shackles around them, only to contradict this with their inevitable re-shackling under the mounting pressure of consequence. Each’s course is a failed one, and in our, the readers, traversing of this path, lies a profound message. We are to, like our grandparents Adam and Eve, walk forth from this failure. Yet each tale counsels us to walk a different path, the course of which is only ours (with a little help from providence, literary and non)”to choose” (PL. XII 647).

So we return to choice. A fitting way to end, as is it choice that moves both epic and show to their own tragic and satisfying endings. In its use of Miltonic theodicy in secular American society, in its reappropriation of Miltonic choice (a tempered choice) and Miltonic renderings of man and society, Breaking Bad and its creator Vince Gilligan have achieved something extraordinary in modern television and fiction at large. As Milton did for his fallen Restoration readers, Gilligan reminds us of our ultimate power to choose. The power is ours to choose against Walter and Satan, to choose against their creation and rise to power, to choose against their torments.

Our sympathy for each character is nothing to be ashamed of (as some Miltonists are a little too eager to suggest), but rather it is to be rendered as the beginning of an understanding of both show and epic’s true purpose. We admire Walter and Satan’s courage and bravery, and we admire their battle against unjust societies and hierarchies (in the case of Milton’s epic certainly a product of an increasing secular interaction with the work). We admire their ability to choose. In their failure and their incorrect choices, we discover the power residing in the text of Paradise Lost and the movements of Breaking Bad. It is a power that resides there because it resides in both author and reader; it is the power to chose a path, together not alone, where a Walter or a Satan would never have come to be.

Further Reading on Milton’s Satan and the Theodicy of Paradise Lost: (If you like Breaking Bad and haven’t read Milton, read Paradise Lost!)

Carey, John. “Milton’s Satan.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 160-74. Print.

Danielson, Dennis. “The Fall and Milton’s Theodicy.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 144-59. Print.

Fish, Stanley Eugene. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997. Print.

Hill, Christopher. “Paradise Lost.” Milton and the English Revolution. New York: Viking, 1978. 354-412. Print.

Rogers, John. “The Political Theology of Milton’s Heaven.” The New Milton Criticism. Ed. Peter C. Herman and Elizabeth Sauer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 68-84. Print.

Von Maltzahn, Nicholas. “Milton’s Readers.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 236-52. Print.

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