Freedom and Its Boundaries
“…[F]rom what state
I fell, how glorious once above [the Sun’s] sphere;
Till pride and worse ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav’n against Heav’n’s matchless King:
Ah wherefore! He deserved no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard.
What could be less than to afford him praise,
The easiest recompense, and pay him thanks,
How due! Yet all his good proved ill in me,
And wrought but malice; lifted up so high
I ?sdained subjection, and thought one step higher
Would set me highest, and in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burdensome, still paying, still to owe…”
(Paradise Lost, IV. 38-53)
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is presented in an innovative manner; he is seen from an entirely new perspective. He is not the thoroughly evil embodiment of depravity, which he had previously been depicted as, but rather a character with whom readers can sympathize and relate. Satan is clearly the principal character in the opening books of this epic poem, but in Book IV, Milton begins to delve even more deeply into Satan’s psyche, and Satan becomes a character with whom the reader is increasingly apt to identify. In this book, from which the above passage is selected, Satan arrives before the Garden of Eden and is seized by intense doubt and guilt, regret and pain. The beauty and perfection of this place stand in stark contrast to Hell and bitterly remind him of his past?a past, which in many ways, is his Hell, forever reminding him of what he was, but will never be again.
Gazing “towards Heav’n and the full-blazing sun” (IV. 29), Satan says, “…[F]rom what state / I fell how glorious once about thy sphere…” (IV. 38-39). In this passage, it as though he is watching the past itself. The sun in all its splendid radiance beats down on Satan, each ray burning through him to the core of his being, setting his heart aflame with the agony of all that he has lost. Through Milton’s language, it is simple for one to picture a resplendent midday sun, blazing in all its power and strength, reveling in its intensity. As things once were, it was Satan himself who shone more brightly than all else, who was elevated above all else. Yet now, he has fallen and, thus, forfeited everything. From the brightest angel in Heaven, he has been reduced to just another thing creature under the sun.
The torturous anguish that wracks his being is obvious to the reader and makes the character of Satan more human and, therefore, more sympathetic. In his despair, he exclaims, “Ah wherefore!” (IV. 42). This detracts from his supernal aura, and makes him more relatable on a human level. One can almost hear the hopelessness and desperation in his voice. As all people do, he then goes on to lament a mistaken choice, despite knowing that nothing can be done to reverse the situation and dwelling on it will not help in any way. It is almost as if he wishes that he could go back in time and act differently?a feeling many people are familiar with.
He continues to torture himself by questioning and regretting the extremely difficult choice that he has already made, and which he cannot change. Only after the fact, has he begun to consider the possibility that he should have acted differently. He knows that praising God would have been “the easiest recompense… [and] how due!” (IV. 47-48). His own ingratitude becomes painfully apparent and he says, “Yet all his good proved ill in me, / And wrought but malice; lifted up so high / I s’dained subjection, and thought one stop higher would set me highest…” (IV. 48-50). In being God’s highest angel, he was used to being the center of attention, the best, the greatest. When his position was threatened, it was a natural reaction for him to react the way in which he did and rebel against God. This was his wounded pride reacting. Part of his decision to rebel, however, was also driven by the very fact that he owed so much to God. He is aware of the fact that “pride and worse ambition threw [him] down” (IV. 40), and yet, at the end of this passage, it also becomes apparent why he acted as he did, when he describes “[t]he debt immense of endless gratitude, / So burdensome, still paying, still to owe” (IV. 52-53). This is a very powerful and insightful description because it relates so convincingly the sense of overwhelming servitude that such a debt signifies. It was a debt that Satan would never be able to repay or slough off?it was as if he owed God his life. Satan’s only choice in this situation then, was to rebel and liberate himself.
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