Paradise Lost Book 2: Line 201-203 - Explanation

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Line. 201-203: This was at.....what might fall.

      Belial answering the arguments of Moloch in Hell's conclave advises perfect acquiescence in their present lot, because he believes it to be the decree of Fate, a power more mighty than God. It is impossible to resist Fate, and Moloch's advice to go on a further expedition against Heaven in vain. It is true their present condition is one of suffering, but angels have a limitless power of endurance even as they have strength to wage war with God. And suffering is what seems to have been ordained for them. If they had only cosidered about it earlier, they would not have ventured on a foolish war with God, who is admittedly more powerful than they. They could then have meekly submittted to His will and remained in Heaven. But they have lost happiness by their foolishness, and now at least they should learn wisdom, and not think of contending against a great foe, the issue of a fight with him being very doubtful.

      This appears to be the trend of Belial's argument. According to this interpretation, "was" will yield the meaning 'should have been': first would refer to the time preceeding the war they waged in Heaven before they fell; if we were wise must be understood in the sense 'had we been wise' when we made up our minds to fight against a great foe. The wisdom, according to Belial, would consist in their ability to have foreseen what Fate had ordained for them, as well as the superior might of God. But they had been foolish and taken no account either of the ordination of Fate, or the strength of the Almighty; they had madly rushed into a foolish war. Doubtful of what might fall': 'fall' is used in the sense of 'befall', the result of the battle being dubious so far as we were concerned.

      Various other interpretations have been suggested, but they are all confusing. The lines yield clear sense if 'was' is interpreted as 'should have been.' It is quite in keeping also with the character of Belial, who must have clearly regretted the loss of his place in Heaven, with all its delectable sights and its absolute freedom from worry and suffering.

      This interpretation implies that Belial had foreknowledge of the greater might of God, a fact which dawned on the mind of Satan only after his overthrow. But Belial with all his speciousness, and his love of argument for its own sake, could assume that knowledge. This is also in perfect keeping with his character. What he is after all most anxious about is that they should not stir from their places, but take their ease in suffering.

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