Is Milton’s Satan the hero of Paradise Lost?
WE ALL KNOW that Satan is the villain, synonymous with evil, not to be trusted, listened to, believed. We know his story, but we know it’s his fault.
So it was a surprise to me, when I read Paradise Lost for the first time during a graduate course in literature. The book seemed upside down: Milton’s Satan makes reasonable, intelligent arguments and is bullied into tragic submission by a scheming and manipulative God.
When I mentioned casually that Milton’s Satan had all the qualities of an epic hero, I was quickly corrected. Apparently, not only was that assertion flatly untrue, but it was also exactly the mistake that Milton purposely and cleverly lured me into – by presenting Satan with heroic qualities, the unsuspecting reader will let their guard down and be convinced by Satan’s rhetoric, proving just how crafty the devil really is.
I pointed out that Milton himself was a revolutionary; that he tried to overthrow the king and wrote political essays supporting regicide and the people’s right to self-govern; that he believed in rule by merit and was against rule-by birth on principle; and that Satan’s speeches in Paradise Lost exactly mimic Milton’s own political views.
Milton had created a marvelously shifty text, my professor replied, full of reader harassment and complication, and although on the surface Satan appears sympathetic, that’s just one of his many tricks. You can’t trust him, you can’t trust yourself, and you can’t trust the text.
It was obviously very complicated, and as I was just a graduate student I couldn’t be expected to understand, but take his word for it: the most reputable scholars in Milton studies agreed that we needed to be careful – that viewing Satan as the hero was a rookie mistake. I had been fooled, he told me.
We were at an impasse. Decades of literary theory had spoken, and I was the novice.
But questions remained: dilemmas churned up in the reading of Paradise Lost that were never resolved. Did Satan truly have free will in the face of God’s omniscience? Is God the hero of Paradise Lost because he’s morally superior, or simply because history is written by victors? Or is Paradise Lost really a subversive text, hinting at a hidden, secret history – the untold story of humanity’s greatest tempter (and ally) – which continues to be marginalized, buried, taboo?
I began to do independent research and discovered that Milton’s Satan was viewed as a hero for centuries – not just by common readers but by literary elites, philosophers, artists and poets. Satan’s proud leadership in the face of divine power was inspirational for educated Europeans turning away from Catholic control.
I learned that the revolutionary spirit sparked by Milton’s Satan had a massive influence on the political revolutions of Europe and America, and the philosophical and political thinking of America’s founding fathers and the Rationalist and Enlightenment thinkers that preceded them.
The fundamental human rights defined in the US Declaration of Independence “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are so similar to Milton’s prose writing (and to many of Satan’s speeches) that Alfred Waites published a side-by-side comparison of Milton’s writing with Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in 1903 to “impress the reader by the similarity of ideas and the sequence of thought.” Milton’s Areopagitica, a pamphlet defending the right to free press, is still cited as relevant to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Scottish poet Robert Burns, staunch supporter of the French Revolution, wrote of “my favorite hero, Milton’s Satan,” and talked of his “dauntless magnanimity; the intrepid, unyielding independence; the desperate daring, and noble defiance of hardship, in that great Personage, Satan.” On July 14th, 1790, Jacques Pierre Rissot, one of the Girondin leaders and a key figure in the French Revolution honoured Milton as a founding father of the French republic.
William Godwin asked in his Political Justice of 1793, “why did Satan rebel against his maker? It was, as he himself informs us, because he saw no sufficient reason for that extreme inequality of rank and power which the creator assumed.” Godwin’s daughter Mary – wife to Percy Blysshe, permeated her novel Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus (1818) with references to Paradise Lost. The nameless monster says to his creator: “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss from which I alone am irrevocably excluded.”
The eccentric, iconoclastic poet William Blake noted famously in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
In 1821, Shelly embraced the positive depiction of Satan even further:
Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil. Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments.
Robert Southey’s criticism, in A Vision of Judgment (1821) of the group of writers headed by Byron and Shelley as “characterized by a Satanic spirit of pride and audacious impiety” was well received: although meant as moral condemnation, Byron took delight in the description of him as the author of “monstrous combinations of horrors and mockery, lewdness and impiety.”
As early as 1846, the avant-garde salon poets of Paris were sharing paeans lauding Satan as a heroic leader of justified rebellion. One anonymous bard of that year wrote: “To thee, Satan, fair fallen angel, To whom fell the perilous honor Of struggling against an unjust rule, I offer myself wholly and forever, My mind, my senses, my heart, my love, And my dark verses in their corrupted beauty (qtd. in Maigron 187)
Baudelaire was put in the dock in 1857 for his volume of poems, Les Fleurs du mal (which included The Litanies Of Satan). According to Peter Gay, “With an indignant show of wounded propriety, the imperial government charged him with blasphemy and obscenity” (35).
In 1858, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon became perhaps the first true social revolutionary to employ Satan as a heroic personified symbol of rebellion and liberty:
Come, Satan, come, slandered by priests and kings! Let me embrace you, let me clutch you to my breast! I have known you for a long time, and long have you known me. Your works, oh blessed one of my heart, are not always beautiful or good; but you alone give sense to the universe and prevent it from being absurd.
In the late 1860’s, Giosue Carducci’s poem “Hymn to Satan” celebrated the Prince of Darkness as the symbolic champion of human reason and rebellion – “Hail, O Satan, O rebellion, O you avenging force of human reason!” – and was likely an anthem for republican forces of Italy overthrowing the secular influence of the Pope by force of arms (Merciless, R. 2000).
This literary and philosophical tradition of linking the mythical character of Satan, the rebel angel, with the human struggle for freedom, liberty and self-determination likewise featured in George Bernard Shaw’s 1897 play “The Devil’s Disciple” in which the main character, Dick Dudgeon, a fearless and brutally just American Revolutionary war hero explicitly proclaims himself a Satanist:
They call me the Devil’s Disciple…Because it’s true. I was brought up in the other service; but I knew from the start that the devil was my natural master and captain and friend. I saw that he was in the right, and that the world cringed to his conqueror only through fear. I prayed secretly to him; and he comforted me, and saved me from having my spirit broken in this house of children’s tears. I promised him my soul, and swore an oath that I would stand up for him in this world and stand by him in the next. That promise and that oath made a man of me. From this day this house is his home; no child shall cry in it; this hearth is his altar; and no soul shall cower over it in the dark evening and be afraid.
The portrayal of Dick, a self-proclaimed apostate who follows neither the laws of religion or society but rather a moral code of his own, as a hero, had become publicly acceptable: the production was so popular when it was staged in New York City that it became the first Shaw play to successfully earn a profit. It ran for 64 performances at the Fifth Avenue Theater, grossing $50,000 (Wilson, C.)
Milton’s Satan epitomized courageous refusal and heroic virtue – the image of him “Hurling defiance toward the vault of Heav’n” became a catchphrase of the era and was repeated by Captain Ahab of Moby Dick (1851) and the Futurist Manifesto of 1909.
I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. Of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee. (Melville 545)
“We fling our defiance at the stars… we hurl our defiance at the stars.” (F. T. Marinetti 16).
Nobel Prize winner Anatole France’s 1914 novel, The Revolt of the Angels, tells the tale of a guardian angel who educates himself by reading books in an earthly library, abandons his heavenly master, and joins a group of Lucifer’s demons plotting a renewed revolution. France is so comfortable with the positive and supportive depiction of satanic rebellion that he presents his story in an almost light-hearted tone.
On a deeper level, this cosmic refusal symbolized for modernist writers the essential problem facing mankind: how to become free from tradition and outside influences (including religion) in order to fully discover your true self (and hence create something new and worthwhile).
Georg Simmel, in The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), writes:
The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life. The fight with nature which primitive man has to wage for his bodily existence attains in this modern form its latest transformation. The eighteenth century called upon man to free himself of all the historical bonds in the state and in religion, in morals and in economics. Man’s nature, originally good and common to all, should develop unhampered (qtd. in Modernity and the City 182).
This aim of artistic independence, to create the new without being hampered, started as early as Baudelaire who in 1855 wrote “The artist stems only from himself… He stands security only for himself. .. He dies childless. He has been his own king, his own priest, his own God.” (qtd. in Modernity and the City 191)
In this sense, revolution is always real, human, necessary and good. According to Agamben (The Open: Man and Animal) “Dasein is simply an animal that has learned to become bored; it has awakened from its own captivation to its own captivation. This awakening of the living being to its own being-captivated, this anxious and resolute opening to a not-open, is the human” (qtd. in Santner, 12).
Similarly, Adorno in “Notes on Kafka” writes “The heroes of the Trial and the Castle become guilty not through their guilt – they have none – but because they try to get justice on their side. ‘The original sin, the ancient injustice committed by man, consists in his protest – one which he never ceases to make – that he has suffered injustice, that the original sin was done against him.’” (270)
But this defining characteristic of humanity, at least in the Christian tradition – is not human at all; feeling God’s authority as a burden and facing the choice to disobey was, we are told, an experience that started with Satan, and was passed by him, directly and deliberately, to Adam and Eve. We wouldn’t have ever been human, in Agamben’s sense, if we hadn’t “had our eyes opened” to our own free will, and its conflict with divine rule.
After the bitter and destructive impact of World War One, however, the progressive zeal, optimism and rationalistic confidence that had been present with the maddening growth of new technologies and a more connected world began to breed deep distrust, pessimism and fear.
A religious revival turned away from the liberating principles that had motivated social changes for decades and encouraged heated nationalism and blind allegiance to governmental offices. Revolution was not only discarded as a philosophical and artistic ideal; it became a criminal offense. The 1917 communist revolution in Russia, and the failed German revolution of 1918, provoked The First Red Scare (1919–1921): “a nation-wide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change Church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of Life” (Murray B. Levin).
Legitimate labor strikes were represented by the press as “crimes against society,” “conspiracies against the government,” and “plots to establish communism.” Adding to the hysteria were the very real terrorist plots involving 36 mailed bombs to prominent members of the U.S. political and economic establishment in 1919, and the bombing of Wall Street in 1920. Suspecting communists or anarchists (but ultimately indicting no one) several states enacted “criminal syndicalism” laws outlawing advocacy of violence in effecting and securing social change, which included free speech limitations. These laws provoked aggressive police investigation of the accused persons, their jailing, and deportation for being suspected of being either communist or left-wing.
The situation deteriorated further after World War Two with the Second Red Scare (1947–1954), also known as “McCarthyism.” Anti–communist fear, and fear of American traitors was aggravated by the Chinese Communists winning the Chinese Civil War against the Western-sponsored Kuomintang in 1949. Americans were taught to seek out invisible spies all around them, breeding an environment of paranoia and finger-pointing not seen since early religious witch hunts.
The Cuban Revolution of 1953–1959 and threat of immanent nuclear war (after the world had witnessed the massive destruction at Hiroshima in 1945) brought the conflict closer to home and led us into the height of the Cold War. Revolutionaries who had been championed by an earlier USA – whose history began by declaring and fighting for its independence – now reeked of communist idealism.
To weed out hidden conspirators and distance itself from the Soviet Union, “In God we trust” became the national motto in 1956 and added to the pledge of allegiance and the dollar bill. Atheism was a sign of anti-national terrorism.
During this period, in response to the obvious inability to treasure and support such a dangerously status-quo challenging revolutionary text, scholars began to “screen” interpretations of Paradise Lost to make sure it didn’t inspire readers to take it “the wrong way.”
Rather than allowing readers to form their own opinions of the text, these theoretical manipulations warn against “falling into the trap” of a “false” reading, and argue that Milton’s writing was meant as a temptation or challenge for the faithful, which must be met with caution and distrust.
Charles Williams, in his 1940 introduction to an edition of Paradise Lost, contended that Satan is not a hero but a fool. This stance was repeated by his friend C.S. Lewis, who wrote his 1942 preface to Paradise Lost with the aim of “preventing the reader from ever raising certain questions.”
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In 1967, Stanley Fish cemented this conservative reading of the text by claiming that the poem tempts the reader in the same way that Satan tempted Adam and Eve, but that the reader must overcome the temptation and see Satan as the villain: “The reader who falls before the lures of Satanic rhetoric displays […] the weakness of Adam and … [fails] to avoid repeating [Adam’s] fall” (Surprised By Sin 38). Fish claimed that Milton had created a program of “reader harassment”; designed to scold unwary readers who allow themselves to be tempted by grand rhetoric of Satan into momentarily pushing aside the “imperative of Christian watchfulness.”
When confusion arose, commenters on Paradise Lost would assume that Milton didn’t know what he was doing and that the book was simple inscrutable.
“Might we not grant that Milton’s text is unclear? This is at odds with what most readers recognize as Milton’s prodigious control over his material, but perhaps the epiphany on the pinnacle of the temple is meant to be puzzling. Perhaps Milton’s praxis is in the service of a theory which aims to point out certain expressive and cognitive limits” (McMurray, 262).
Things began to fall apart when the fear tactics stopped working, and Americans began to question and refuse to obey their corrupt government. The Vietnam War saw the rise of student protests and conscientious objection. The Watergate scandal destroyed the faith many Americans had put in their elected officials.
The hippie movement and the addition of increased interest in Eastern philosophy witnessed the birth of a number of new “cults” with charismatic leaders, and the dissolution of the nuclear family as young people went off to live together in communes. In 1966 Anton Szandor LaVey founded the “The Church of Satan.” Even though LaVey’s church viewed Satan as “a symbol of pride, liberty and individualism, and as an external metaphorical projection of our highest personal potential” and did not believe in Satan as a being or person, the explosive media attention shocked Christian conservatives, who began to look for a conspiracy of hidden Satanist groups, secretly worshipping the devil.
An interest in hypnosis and “recovered-memory therapy” brought out “witnesses” who believed they’d been the victims of ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of international Satanist organizations. Books like the mega bestselling Rosemary’s Baby (1967) by Ira Levin, which turned into a 1974 movie by the same name, warned of the dangers of secret Satanists living among us. William Peter Blatty published The Exorcist in 1971 and it was made into a horror film in 1973. Steven King published Carrie in 1974 – to cash in on the hysteria trend now referred to as the “Satanic Panic.” Michelle Remembers, in 1980, led to wide-spread allegations of satanic child abuse. Misplaced fears were further aggravated by the 1980’s “death metal” rock music was so frequently denounced by Christian conservatives that it began to deliberately work in Satanic themes and names.
But gradually, the characteristic ideals of the hippie movement (peace, acceptance and love) matured into a New Age spirituality that replaced more conservative social elements. We’ve evolved from the cowboy and Indian movies of the early 50’s to reach Last of the Mohicans and Dances with Coyotes, reimagining historical conflict to assuage (or heighten?) our sense of cultural guilt at being founded on violence. There’s been a shift from conservative religious ethics to broader, humanist values embracing non-mainstream sexuality, individual gratification and fulfillment, and self-direction and empowerment.
Mirroring this shift in popular culture, for the past several decades literary theory has focused almost exclusively reading between the lines, tearing down status quo readings, and championing the voices of “subaltern” minority voices, including colonized territories, gay and lesbian, and historical victims. Universal meaning has broken down into fragmented, traumatized, unrepresented narratives – the subaltern, the colonized, the victims. The battle cry of contemporary literally theorists, based on Foucault, Derrida, Badiou, and Zizek, is to challenge authority, to resist definitions, to be fluid, to cross boundaries, to “Deterritorialize.”
Within just the past decade, there has been a rapid shift in the characterization of the Other – from monstrous, to misunderstood; from frightening to friendly. Thus, vampires, werewolves and witches have changed from being evil creatures of the night, to tragically misunderstood victims of judgmental traditionalist organizations who are constantly challenging their right to exist. These themes are often used as a platform to encourage racial tolerance, sexual liberty, and above all else, the pursuit of freedom.
This theme is carried to its extreme in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which begin with dirty pirates pillaging and stealing, but as the saga continues, they are increasingly engaged in fighting off the imposition of regulation and government. They want the freedom to be outlaws and criminals – and yet we readily side with the pirates. We understand that the cause for “freedom” trumps the cause to establish rules and regulation.
Our ideological alignment with revolutionaries has become even more dramatic in just the past few years; political revolutions including the Arab Spring have earned our respect and support, and burgeoning dissatisfaction with bipartisan politics, economic frustrations and the collapsing real estate market, and Wall Street corruption has led to new levels of dissatisfaction… leading to the Occupy Wall Street movement closer to home. To compensate, the plot of our entertainment machinery are converging into one story, replayed everywhere: a powerful but corrupt government and an unlikely hero who leads a revolution – a theme repeated by a handful of major Hollywood films every year. One of the biggest commercial successes in recent years, the Hunger Games trilogy, ends after the protagonist takes down one government but then assassinates the head of the new government as soon as it appeared: underlining perhaps Foucault’s argument that power, in any form, must be resisted.
In light of these changes, the mainstream reading of Paradise Lost no longer syncs up with contemporary ideology or values. We’ve been told that Satan is a temptation: that no matter what he says, no matter how rational, backed by evidence, and apparently true it is – even if his arguments convince and persuade us, we must close our ears entirely and refuse to believe him. We must distrust our own reading of the text and place faith in scholars.
Unsurprisingly, given the changed political climate, not all scholars are willing to continue this academic charade, and have begun resurrecting a more obvious, immediate reading of Paradise Lost.
Neil Forsyth’s The Satanic Epic (2004) argues “Paradise Lost is not an orthodox poem and it needs to be rescued from its orthodox critics.” Blake’s aphorism about Milton being “of the Devil’s party” (quoted above), Forsyth writes, “like much Romantic criticism, is right, or at least helpful, except for the implied accusation of ignorance. Milton knew quite well what he was up to.”
Forsyth’s book, which sparked a collection called After Satan: Essays in Honour of Neil Forsyth, has changed the face of contemporary Milton research, allowing serious scholars the possibility of reclaiming Satan as a hero from beneath decades of complicated deferrals and redirections that obfuscate the text.
In The Tyranny of Heaven (2004), Michael Bryson writes “Satan seems heroic because he is heroic. If Satan is not heroic, Paradise Lost becomes a farce, not an epic whose literary roots lie in tragedy.”
A new foreword to Paradise Lost appears in the Oxford World’s Classics edition, by Philip Pullman, whose award-winning Dark Materials trilogy has been called the “anti-Paradise Lost” but is clearly indebted to the humanistic interpretation of Milton’s work, which recognizes the heroism of Satan. Included is the story of a country squire from the time of Blake whose reaction to hearing the poem read aloud mirrors Pullman’s own feelings:
Suddenly he bangs the arm of his chair, and exclaims, ‘By God! I know not what the outcome may be, but this [Satan’s a] fine fellow, and I hope he may win!’ (1)
Milton’s Satan was based heavily on Prometheus; the pre-Christian a light bringer, stealing from the gods to save humanity. This makes Paradise Lost complex and interesting… especially in light of contemporary social revolutions. It is particularly fascinating that the “face” of revolution has become the Guy Fawkes mask (as designed for the movie V for Vendetta – a fictionalized account loosely based on the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot). Guy Fawkes was a dreaded terrorist who has become an international hero and revolutionary symbol: he was also a major resource for the young Milton, who at only 17 wrote In Quintum Novembris to commemorate the event. This was a time of rapidly shifting allegiances; the same figure could be both divinely appointed revolutionary hero or a terrorist sent by the devil, in the same lifetime, depending only one which competing force took power. The stylistically similar representations of Guy Fawkes and the devil suggest that a blurring of archetypes is taking place; like Fawkes, Satan can be viewed as revolutionary hero or the embodiment of evil, depending on our political leanings.
Why it matters
This is why Paradise Lost matters perhaps more than any other text. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “of no other poet is it so difficult to consider the poetry simply as poetry, without our theological and political dispositions… making unlawful entry.”
How we read Paradise Lost is a political issue, with real-world practical consequences. Just as interpretations of Paradise Lost shift from era to era in response to political ideologies, so are we entrenched in a repeated cycle of racial abuse, social discrimination, and violence – a pattern which can only be repeated because we refuse to look Satan in the face and re-assess his right to a fair trial.
The worldview in which evil exists and his name is Satan is an extremist worldview that allows us to accept absolution for otherwise unimaginable violence. Satan is pure evil, irredeemable, unworthy of investigation. Indeed, any investigation at all into the fall of Satan implies that injustice is possible – but this implied lack of faith in a Just God is impermissible, especially in the face of an omniscient God who is very sensitive to crimes against him. This fundamentalist worldview is used by governments eager to seize more power and deny basic human rights. It was used during the Red Scare and the Satanic Panic, and it allowed Bush Jr. the freedom to declare war on the ill-defined “Axis of Evil” without popular approval or senate permission.
As long as there is a Satan undeserving of justice, fair treatment, charity or empathy, we can, merely by shifting the lens from democratic equality and assumed innocence, to a religious worldview believing that agents of Satan are engaged in a spiritual battle, strip individuals of rights that would otherwise protect them. It is thus possible to ‘dehumanize’ human beings by wrapping them in the label of Satan, and with it Satan’s magical cloak of taboo.
Satan is the rock that hides our fears, insecurities, prejudices and violent tendency. Satan is humanity’s closet – the dark place we stuff the things that don’t fit in our living rooms, the things we don’t want to display. He is our collective blindspot – the space that doesn’t matter, the place that can’t be talked about. It’s the label we use to deny, denigrate, strip and punish.
Satan is the personified place-holder, the boogie monster, the conscious manipulator who is using this or that evil thing to wreak disaster and havoc on humanity. Thus “rock and roll” is Satanic, as is dancing, gay marriage, and in more conservative countries, revealed skin, holding hands, educated women… But these definitions are fluid. What definition applies completely to Satan himself – is evil by itself, is what made Satan evil?
The desire for personal autonomy and freedom, and the belief that he had a right to pursue it.
According to Milton, “They who seek nothing but thir own just libertie, have always right to win it and to keep it, whenever they have power, be the voices never so numerous that oppose it” (Milton 1974 p. 455).
This revolutionary idealism applies most fittingly to Milton’s portrayal of Satan, but does Satan have the right to, in Milton’s terms, “win and keep” his own liberty? If so, was he repressed, treated unjustly, denied basic rights? If not, why not – who is responsible for his nature, which condemned him by assuming a right that was not his to seize?
The basic premise of this book is that a defense of Satan is not a defense of evil: it is a defense of tolerance, moderation, justice without pre-condemnation, resistance to inhumane punishment and all forms of torture – even mythological.
It should not be necessary to point out (although of course it really is) that this book is dealing with the subject of the devil as a literary construct. If I refrain from going so far as to make the atheistic and blasphemous claim that I don’t believe in Satan, it’s only because I don’t see the relevance my spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof) has with the literary history of this specific character. Although “disproving Satan” and thereby challenging religious doctrine is not in any way the aim of this thesis, tracing the complex, surprising, convoluted history of the devil – who has been championed, scorned, celebrated and loathed – cannot help but open eyes and minds, perhaps in an irreplaceable way.
Originally I’d planned to call this book “Satan is my Hero” – which is actually a more precise reference to my main claim: that all contemporary heroes are revolutionaries, rebels, lawbreakers and freedom-chasers that owe a direct line of allegiance to the scandalously progressive and liberal ideas first voiced by Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. The text is fascinating because, by purporting to be orthodox and depicting God as just victor and Satan as wretched loser, religious authorities allowed the whole text to be published, in a way that a “pure rhetoric” of Satan would not have been.
Although it is difficult to pin down Milton’s own views with certainty, there is no doubt that Milton’s Satan directly inspired a new age of artists, poets, philosophers, dreamers and revolutionaries, and that this line of transmission has continued in modern thinking, however due to a resurgence of religious political power, and a witch-hunt campaign against first Communist sleeper cells and then Satanic cults, the link between revolutionary heroism and Milton’s Satan has been completely buried.
In the end, however, I went with the much less inflammatory “Evil Be My Good” – the shifting ethics of Milton’s tragic hero and how his struggle for autonomy was played out in real world history.
So farewell hope, and, with hope, farewell fear, Farewell remorse! All good to me is lost; Evil, be thou my Good: by thee at least Divided empire with Heaven’s King I hold, By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign…
Available soon! (2016 update)
I started planning this book, which became my PhD Thesis, about 5 years ago.
It didn’t turn out to be exactly what I expected – it’s a mashup of Paradise Lost scholarship and a comparative history of the influence Milton’s Satan had on politics, art, literature, revolution and social progress over several centuries.
It’s a response to the bizarrely conservative academic readings of Paradise Lost that continue to be taught in many universities.
It’s a summary of historical and contemporary depictions of the devil, and an argument that Milton’s tragic figure is more hero than villain. It’s that and much, much more. I put it up for preorder and will make the print book available soon.
If you’re interested in these topic – satanism, comparative religion, freedom and revolutionary politics, Milton and Paradise Lost, modernism and literary theory – and are willing to post a review, sign up to my newsletter and I’ll send you a free review copy.
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SURPRISING QUOTES FROM FAMOUS PEOPLE
I’ve picked out a few of the less common quotes I discovered while researching this book. I had to dig deep for these, so enjoy!
“A sin is anything one does or thinks which causes one to be unhappy!” —Napoleon Hill
“I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. Of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.” —Herman Melville
“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” —Oscar Wilde
“With Satan I have struck my deal, He chalks the signs, beats time for me, I play the death march fast and free.” —Karl Marx
“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” —Thoreau
“Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil. Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments.” —Percy Blythe Shelley
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment… Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself… Go forward and make your dreams come true… Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it… Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant… Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” —John Stuart Mill
“There is nothing. That there is no God and no universe; that there is only empty space, and in it a lost and homeless and wandering and companionless and indestructible Thought. And I am that thought. And God, and The Universe, and Time, and Life, and Death, and Joy and Sorrow and Pain only a grotesque and brutal dream, evolved from the frantic imagination of that insane Thought.” —Mark Twain
“In you there is much to be laughed at, and especially your fear of what hath hitherto been called “the devil.” So alien are you in your souls to what is great, that to you the Superman would be frightful in his goodness. Ye highest men who have come within my ken! This is my doubt of you, and my secret laughter: I suspect that you would call my Superman—a devil!” —Friedrich Nietzsche
“Limitation is the true devil.” —William R. Alger
“My prodigious sin was, and still is, being a nonconformist. Although I am not a Communist, I refused to fall in line by hating them… Secondly I was opposed to the Committee on Un-American Activities–a dishonest phrase to begin with, elastic enough to wrap around the throat and strangle the voice of any American citizen whose honest opinion is a minority one.” —Charlie Chaplin
“The big problems are still unsettled. It is an intellectual hell, layer upon layer of it, with everything fitfully gleaming and pulsating; and the outline of Lucifer-Amor coming into sight at the darkest centre.” —Sigmund Freud
“I am the courage that creates resolution in man. I am the source that provokes originality of thought. I am the hand that moves man’s hands. I am Satan everlasting. I am Satan whom people fight in order to keep themselves alive. If they cease struggling against me, slothfulness will deaden their minds and hearts and souls, in accordance with the weird penalties of their tremendous myth.” —Kahlil Gibran
A history of fallen angels, pirates, revolutionaries and other daring insurgents who liberated humanity and founded the modern world.
Paradise Lost is a unique text in that responses to Milton’s epic have not evolved in line with trends in literary theory, and instead rehash the three hundred year old disagreement on whether Milton’s Satan is, in any sense, either by accident or deliberation, the hero of the story. This dialogue, like the biblical story of the Garden of Eden on which the epic is based, centers on the theme of temptation: in Paradise Lost Satan’s deliberate and malicious destruction of Adam and Eve seems to guarantee his guilt, yet it is hard not to sympathize with the heroic passion of Satan’s daring odyssey. Many modern critics read this as exactly the genius of Paradise Lost, that it is a seductive text, and that Milton’s Satan must be resisted.
On the other hand, it’s easy to argue that this orthodox reading is medieval–a duty towards obedience to inherited wisdom and the strict containment of your own passionate tendencies; and that this reading is also completely at odds with the liberal, Faustian values of contemporary society. In this thesis, after exploring the orthodox response to Paradise Lost (and the reaction it generates), I’ll demonstrate how Milton’s writings are symptomatic of an ethical inversion in Western culture, which first caused Satan to be celebrated (as a symbol for revolutionary politics) and later condemned (as humanity confronted the depths of its unrestrained depravity). After tracing how responses to the character of Satan have evolved in literature and entertainment in line with political sympathies, my original contribution to knowledge will be a comparative reading of Paradise Lost through the lens of postmodern thought and existentialism as Satan’s over-proximity with the Real (the abyss of freedom creates anxiety which demands action).
Satan’s crisis of identity can be divided into three major shifts: the development of subjectivity through a crisis of alienation; his resistance to a totalizing power discourse that defines his being; and his ultimate failure to exempt himself from the systemic order that relied on his transgression. The aim of this book will be to show how universally modern thinkers agree on the concept of evil as a negation of what is, in favor of anything else but this–a negation that is paradoxically the source of all human liberty and creativity (which nevertheless leads to death); and also to demonstrate how the silencing of so-called satanic elements allows and perpetuates social injustice and the marginalization of minority voices.
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