Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost is Characterized by Arrogance, not Heroism

April 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

Milton dedicated his life to the war of good and evil; this is apparent in his epic poem “Paradise Lost,” but also in his political battles against the Royalists who abused the power of the monarchy and the Presbyterians who wanted to mandate religion. As a supporter of the Puritan cause, both were great evils in the mind of Milton. He believed both undermined the freedom that Puritans held prominent, and dedicated his hand to be “used with all its might in the cause of his country and of liberty” (A Brief Life of Milton, 327). However, the discernment of “evil” is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, shaped by political and cultural, as well as religious, values. By the time he created Paradise Lost, Milton had become all too familiar with darkness, both in a physical and social sense: his own political and religious beliefs had been cast in an evil light, and left him isolated from society and nearly blind. Similarly, in the light of Hell in Paradise Lost, Milton’s Satan seems somewhat valiant. He characterizes the “apostate angel” to be an underdog of sorts, and endows him with a tragic grandeur that can be interpreted as warranting sympathy (I: 125). Though the “infernal serpent,” Satan possesses virtues comparable to great epic heroes such as Achilles and Odysseus, for he perseveres in his quest for victory and equality (I: 34). Even more like Achilles, however, is his unwavering pride; an arrogance that is the backbone of every one of his “heroic” ideas and measures. Milton’s Satan in “Paradise Lost” should not be regarded as a hero, but as a malignant narcissist with outstanding leadership skills.Throughout the books of “Paradise Lost,” not a single word is uttered by the Arch-Enemy that is without some ulterior motive, namely to overthrow the Kingdom of Heaven. Dumped from the divine realm of God, Satan’s resilience is impressive; he immediately regroups his fellow fallen angels and begins to formulate a Plan B. In his first conversation with Beelezbub as he singes on the lake of fire, he is steadfastly unrepentant, asserting that “All is not lost, the unconquerable will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield: / And what else not to be overcome?” (I: 106-109). Even though he and his band of demons have been cast down in defeat, Satan remains obsessed with fantasies of unlimited power and success and shuns any thought of servitude: “Satan exalted sat, by merit raised / To that bad eminence; and from despair / Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires / Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue / Vain war with Heav’n, and by success untaught / His proud imaginations thus displayed” (II: 5-10). Like a military war hero, he exemplifies the “never give up, never surrender” mentality, rallying his demonic troops with assertions that “We shall be free” (I: 259) and urges them “to union, and firm faith, and firm accord” (II: 36). His efforts to find the most feasible plan of action through the political debate seems diplomatic and just, but it is a mere ploy that Satan uses to deceive and work by his own agenda — a conspiracy hidden by a mask of virtue. Beelezbub presents Satan’s previously devised strategy in a rhetoric that is intended to seem to be the median between the extremes of Moloch’s and Mammon’s arguments, and it appeals to the crowd as a perfect compromise. The decision conveniently presents the opportunity for Satan “whom now transcendent glory raised / Above his fellows, with monarchal pride / conscience of highest worth” to nominate himself for the voyage (II: 427-429). Milton cleverly portrays Satan as a protagonist who exhibits virtuous qualities typically attributed to heroes. As Satan himself is the ‘great deceiver’, he is possessed by qualities that Heaven finds most despicable: a deep sense of entitlement and a need for excessive admiration.The quality self-righteousness is one most derided by Milton. He fought against the monarchy that abused the power that they claimed to be a “divine right.” Milton insisted on human rational freedom and the intrinsic ability to make responsible decisions. In his Second Defense of the People of England, Milton articulates his idea of true liberty: “Unless your liberty be of that kind, which can neither be gotten, nor taken away by arms; and that alone is such, which, springing from piety, justice, temperance, in fine, from real virtue, shall take deep and intimate root in your minds; you may be assured, there will not be wanting one, who, even without arms, will speedily deprive you of what it is your boast to have gained by force of arms.” Milton’s dramatic depiction of Satan and his demonic council iterate those behaviors, by members of the monarchy, church or otherwise, that only demonstrate a superficial sense of liberty with an underlying vein of “evil” intentions. The democratic decision to pervert mankind demonstrates how an evil act can appear good; the means by which the decision was made justifies the decision itself. This scene both satirizes and demonstrates Milton’s cynicism towards political establishments and their abuse of power. Ironically, in his attempt to mock the arrogance of English monarchy in their belief of the divine right of kings, Milton himself falls prey to arrogance in his own belief of his divinely guided intellect.Milton proclaims that “Paradise Lost” would be the greatest epic poem written, and that his song would “soar / above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues / things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (I: 16-17). He invariably succeeds, but Milton asserts that the great epic was conveyed to him by the Holy Spirit. William Blake, another poet and political activist, states that Milton was “a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Blake, although having great respect for Milton, points out that Milton mirrors some of the characteristics of the “Devil’s party” that he created. Milton resembles his own Satan not in his deceitful or treacherous mannerisms, but in arrogance. Milton, too, craved admiration and grandeur, and believed his poetic skills were less than divinely inspired.Milton’s purpose in “Paradise Lost” is to justify the ways of God to man, yet Satan is the focal point of the majority of the poem. In contrast to a God that is perpetually ambiguous throughout “Paradise Lost,” Milton’s Satan is guiltily tangible, possessing qualities that we are not only familiarize with, but respect. Heroes, such as the great Achilles and Odysseus, are known to be arrogant in certain respects, and perhaps it is that heightened self-confidence that is so reassuring. Milton ingeniously creates a web of belief that Satan is in fact the protagonist to exemplify his point that those who may be esteemed as heroes, or who that are “raised / above his fellows with monarchal pride” be possessed by less than virtuous motives (II: 428).

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