Milton Projected Satan as Hero of Book 2 Paradise Lost

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      Many eminent critics of the twentieth-century have explained the hollowness of the romantic attitude towards the character of Satan that was held in the nineteenth century.

      It was been pointed out very clearly that the speech of Satan is full of inconsistencies and his character has undergone a major change, change for the worse. Alan Rudrum has analyzed Satan’s opening speech in Book II: “The debate is opened by Satan, seated as Chairman ‘high on a throne of royal state’. The tone and substance of his speech is foreshadowed in the very first line, in which he addresses his colleagues as ‘powers and dominions deities of Heaven’. This in itself contains no direct statement, but the implication is that no radical change has occurred as a result of their rebellion and defeat at the hands of God. It is as futile as if a number of demoted officers were to agree that among themselves they should keep up the pretense of retaining their former rank, a comforting gesture but ultimately pointless because they are out of touch with reality.”

      Similarly, when Satan goes on to argue that Hell will be unable to hold them because of their angelic nature, the assumption is that they remain heavenly although expelled from Heaven, which seems somewhat unrealistic. When he continues with the comment that when they do rise, they will be more glorious than if they had never fallen, one notices that Satan is confusing military glory with the true glory of Heaven.

Position of Leadership

      From this it seems natural for him to go on to reassert his position of leadership among the fallen angels, and we certainly concede that he is audacious when we hear him deriving his leadership from the ‘fixed laws of Heaven’ - those same fixed laws against which he had rebelled.

      We cannot rebel against a government and at the same time derive our position among our followers from the dignity we once held within it. Satan seems on surer ground in pointing out that no one will envy him his leadership in Hell because leadership there involves pre-eminence in suffering, but note the argument he develops from this. He says that as no one in Hell will envy him his position, there will be unity and strength among the fallen angels, and they will therefore, be more likely to succeed in claiming their ‘just’ inheritance than if their initial rebellion had been successful.

      Quite apart from the fact that there is no evidence that their initial failure was due to dissensions within the ranks, this is simply ‘double think’ - unless we concede that God has treated them unfairly, had displaced them from a ‘just inheritance’, unless in fact we can see ground for agreeing that their rebellion had been justified.

Morale Booster

      Probably Satan’s speech should be read as a ‘morale booster’ and the true hopelessness of the matter can be gauged from its inaccuracy as an analysis of the situation. It will emerge later that Satan has a different idea in mind, but for the moment he wants his followers to discuss their ascent to Heaven, and invites their opinions as to whether open war or covert guile, will best bring this about.

      It is difficult to decide whether the logical flaws in Satan’s opening speech are the result of a conscious attempt to deceive his followers or due to genuine self-delusion. At all events, Satan’s recklessness, and his apparent inability to face facts are carried over into Moloch’s speech, which immediately follows. One critic has usefully suggested that the utterance of Moloch, Belial, Mammon and Beelzebub represent not merely individual contributions to a debate, but also a train of thought which passes through the mind of Satan. Between them they canvass all possibilities but repentance, and the conclusion they arrive at, given their initial assumptions, is the only feasible one. Revenge, on some terms, they must have and as they cannot hurt God directly they will injure man instead.

Father of Lies

      Macallum has drawn our attention to the inconsistencies in Satan’s speech in Book II and the change it reveals in his character. The contrast between what Satan says when he is alone with his second in command, Beelzebub, and what he says when he is speaking in public draws attention to this duplicity. He is, after all, the father of lies.

      Milton’s treatment of satanic deception is extremely subtle and deserves careful attention. Satan possesses the capacity that George Orwell, in his study of totalitarianism in 1984 described as the power of ‘double think’ - the power of entertaining two contradictory opinions at the same time.

      For example, the ideal member of the ruling class is convinced in part of his mind that his party is invincible and omniscient, while with another part of his mind he recognizes that constant vigilance is necessary to prevent its overthrow. In a similar manner Satan both does and does not believe in the ability of his army to strike back against God. His encouraging words to his troops are half deception. Like many dictators he shows a tendency to believe his own propaganda and it is impossible to distinguish clearly at any given moment between his real convictions and the sophistry by which he controls his followers. In cutting himself off from God, Satan has rejected the sources of reason and consequently he loses his grip on reality.

      Satan’s heroism, like his outward luster, grows less dazzling as the action proceeds: the general is not as impressive a figure as the defiant individualist of the first scene. Milton does not treat Satan as a static figure; on the contrary, Satan is constantly changing because he is caught in a process of self-destruction. The effects of his fall are made increasingly evident in the course of the action.

Downward Slide

      Although he still has a few moments of grandeur left, the general progress of his development is downward. Milton shows us Satan’s admirable qualities first, then explores the manner in which his denial of God perverts his virtues and turns his power into weakness. A further word has to be said on the paradoxical view that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost. This appears true only if we accept the traditional epic idea of the hero as a great warrior and leader. But Milton, as he stresses everywhere in the poem, had a very different idea of the heroic. The hero as martyr, who suffers patiently and refuses to the death to renounce his God, is the central idea of Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes as well as of Paradise Lost. His idea of the heroic, along with his own heroic temper, is what puts Milton among the great poets of the world.

University Questions

Do you agree with the view that Milton has projected Satan as the hero of Book II of Paradise Lost?
Evaluate Satan’s character as outlined in Book II of Paradise Lost.
Satan is shown as a dubious character by Milton in Book II of Paradise Lost. Do you agree?

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