The organization of this book has been arranged with great care to maximize the impact of the argument: that a great ethical inversion has occurred in Western culture since the Enlightenment, which caused the redefinition of values like striving and ambition. During this shift the term “satanic” was used as a positive virtue against conservative religious doctrine; later the terms “satanic” and “evil” were redefined as unmotivated, violent malice. To fully understand the weight of the moral arguments and parallels in the fourth chapter, it’s paramount to first understand the history and factors behind this inversion. Each chapter is roughly chronological, tracing the evolution of the subtopics that will allow us to see the full picture.
The main problem is this: as a poem about man’s fall from grace and subsequent restoration, Paradise Lost doesn’t on the surface go against orthodoxy, so it was, with minor objections, accepted. But Milton’s political tracts—his activity in overthrowing (and justification for killing) a king, his tracts on freedom of speech and press—those were politically dangerous and needed to be kept hidden and cut off from his poetry. He needed to be sanitized; a process that continues to this day. Our task, then, is the desanitization of Milton; first by demonstrating the process through which his true voice has been silenced; secondly by restoring his remarkable place in history, both political and literary; and thirdly by removing the key questions from the limited field of Milton scholarship (which focuses almost exclusively on close examination of the text) and regarding them instead in the context of a much broader comparative analysis, as well as a more inclusive critical theory (something that is very commonly done with most other books, but rarely done with Paradise Lost).
Chapter One will begin with a literature review, to demonstrate that the controversy surrounding Paradise Lost is neither resolved nor simple, and that the nature of this controversy is unique in the field of literary criticism for its focus on the “temptation” and “subtlety” of the text. I will demonstrate how responses to Paradise Lost fluctuate with the political climate of the times, and show how reaction to Paradise Lost inevitably boils down to the subject of Satan’s culpability through close textual analysis. As such, a fresh reading that focuses less on the text and more on the contemporary ideologies that shape reception of Paradise Lost is warranted. It is also important to recognize that Paradise Lost has been uniquely treated in the history of literature as a text that’s not to be trusted—and that responses to Paradise Lost sometimes have nothing at all to do with the text, and everything to do with a preconceived skepticism towards the literary character of Satan (a skepticism that is instilled by the orthodoxy before new readers have a chance to form personal opinions). After proving that response to Paradise Lost is often a political issue, we have compelling reason to tie the text in with the radical political changes happening during Milton’s lifetime.
In Chapter Two we will focus on Milton himself: his early political writings, his contemporaries and influences, and his personal experiences. Paradise Lost was written during a quickly shifting epoch of European history, when the Vatican’s ethical authority had cracked, allowing space for diverse minor literatures united daringly under appeals to liberty and the right to self-govern—ideals which Milton supported, and for which he was incarcerated. Milton’s bitter experience of failed revolution and wrongful imprisonment shaped his views on the right to seek freedom.
As the voice of the Cromwellian government and writer of the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates to justify the public execution of King Charles I in 1649, Milton had much to fear from a changing political climate that began to revert back to Monarchism. Indeed, for his propaganda writings, Milton had to go into hiding, for fear of retribution from the followers of King Charles II. In June, 1659, his defenses of regicide and criticisms of monarchy were publicly burned. In The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth published at the end of February, 1660, Milton raises a last and desperate warning against the dangers inherent in a monarchical form of government, and also stresses the importance and the right to individual liberty.
Milton wrote Paradise Lost after his ardent pleas to the English public against a resumed monarchy had been ignored. It would have been easy for Milton, whose political writings focused on free speech, free press, and freedom of conscience, to sympathize with his character of Satan—who was also fighting a lost cause against hereditary rulership and seeking a small measure of personal liberty. Since it was no longer safe for Milton to continue his public campaign for governmental reform, Satan’s rhetoric can be thought of as a secret text against Milton’s accusers and incarcerators (the proper way to read Paradise Lost in Milton’s time would have been to see the king as God, justly putting down a rebellion through force: but Milton had written several times explicitly against this association, because viewing the king as God was a form of idolatry).
Three of Milton’s texts, 5th of November, Paradise Lost and Samson Antagonists, all show revolutionary terrorism, but with evolved ethical sensibility. Comparing the differences will allow us to see Milton’s evolving response to the just use of force in the fight for freedom. I will also briefly trace Milton’s personal background, his beliefs and early political writings, to see whether his opinions match up with Satan’s musings about justice, resistance and revolution.
Chapter Three will demonstrate how Milton’s Satan became a revolutionary symbol for the next two centuries, during a time when liberal ideologies faced strict repression, and scientific progress was commonly seen as hubris against God. Milton had a direct influence on the French (1789–1799) and American (1775–83) revolutions, and his political language justifying the right to rebel can be found in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
In the 18th century, Milton’s Satan was associated openly with liberal values including the right to personal autonomy, the right to control one’s own destiny and future, and the positive virtues (courage, knowledge, ambition) necessary to seek out our own happiness. Satan was with the educated libertines of the north who wanted to abolish slavery, rather than the religious conservatives of the south for whom the tradition was biblical sanctioned; he was with the democratic revolutions intended to give power back to the people; he was with technological invention and scientific experimentation; and the freedom to choose our own, personal values—like who to love and what we can put in our own bodies.
Chapter Four will show that by the beginning of the 20th century, the tradition of Satan as a tragic but righteous hero punished by a tyrannous and irrational God was commonly accepted and often repeated in literature, as Modernist writers and poets adopted the revolutionary legacy left to them. Sensory enthusiasm, dissolution of traditional social classes and moral mandates led to an artistic liberty that was often openly associated with the satanic. In the early 20th century, when conservative religious elements fought diligently against the unchecked pursuit of knowledge and technological advancement, Satan was with the revolutions towards racial and sexual equality, and in support of those daring to speak out against overreaches in political power.
However, after the First World War, this unchecked optimism in Faustian (and Nietzschean) values was tempered by the realization that human beings had the capacity for extreme and systematic violence. While previously, “evil” was mostly seen as the product of misguided human ambition or desire, or negative traits like malice or jealousy, in the 20th century advanced weaponry made death impersonal, and mankind had a glimpse of its own destruction, rather than the utopian future long expected.
The Marxist tradition of glorious, violent revolution, celebrated by Russian authors especially, led to assassination attempts and terrorist attacks, and was often conflated with the rise of worker strikes or political movements in the United States. Free market capitalists and religious ideology created a culture of fear and paranoia against the “foreign” influences of ungodly communism. After World War Two, literature became more jaded and cynical about the inherent goodness of mankind, and there was a conservative backlash against progressive humanistic tendencies. The climate of skepticism and censorship led to a warped, repressive reading of Paradise Lost, which—due to the isolationism of university departments—continues to be mainstream even though the political climate has since radically changed.
In the 1970s, counter-culture activity, the rise of new forms of spirituality and increased drug use led to the idea that Satan was real; in the 1980s, thanks to sensationalistic “exposés” and a belief in repressed memories, this morphed into widespread fear of an underground Satanic conspiracy. Since then, however, xenophobia and repressive politics have given way to an inclusive, postmodern pluralism which embraces all forms of truth and seeks compassion and understanding rather than violent conquest. The values of Milton’s Satan have now been deeply assimilated into Western culture; both the right to political resistance when necessary, as well as the absolute sovereignty of the individual over his or her own personal choices (these values are guaranteed in the US Declaration of Independence as the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—although they are often challenged in specific cases, few today would see those as inherently satanic).
In Chapter Five we’ll finally take a closer look at Paradise Lost itself, and show how Milton’s unique innovation regarding the impetus for Satan’s rebellion makes it justifiable and sympathetic. I’ll show how hubris and other “sins” Satan is commonly criticized for are no longer seen as negative in most cases, and that Satan—uniquely in the field of literature—is being held to an outdated standard of ethical mastery.
I will also dig deeper into critical theory to first demonstrate how Satan, as a literary character, perfectly embodies the essential quest for personal autonomy that is not only justified by contemporary philosophers, but mandated—for there can be no moral action outside from a free subject. Satan’s quest for justice can easily be read as a metaphor for the self’s journey towards self-awareness (even more so because postmodern theorists are replying to a tradition of philosophers that were heavily influenced by Paradise Lost, and as such continue to use Milton’s poetic imagery to describe psychological functions). These reflections will show how pervasive the influence of Milton’s Satan continues to be in contemporary society.
The Conclusion of this book stresses the importance and relevance of the topic and subject: far from an ivory-tower consideration, the way we understand, sympathize with and tolerate the title of “satanic” allows abuse of the title as an ethical blindspot to strip rights and liberties away from anyone who doesn’t agree with our definition of what’s “right” or natural human activity.
The Original Plan…
This was my plan for the book when I started. It’s been condensed and reorganized, but most of the same topics are there.
In order to properly understand the traditions Milton drew upon when writing Paradise Lost, Chapter One will begin with an extensive overview of classical literature. I will demonstrate that the gods, as personifications of natural forces, were seen as capricious and fickle – quick to violence and jealousy. Those punished by the gods were not evil; often they were just too good (too skilled, too beautiful, too intelligent) and so the gods “cut them down to size.” Prometheus’ sin was providing mankind with the means to survive in a dangerous world. Years later, the Greek hero Hercules would free him of his punishment.
There are other elements present in early literature that were profoundly influential in the formation of the Christian story of Satan, and which also inspired Milton’s creative process. It will be helpful to bring these to light before we move into Christian worldview.
- Antigone and Medea as revolutionary terrorists
- Heroes slaying serpents (Medusa, Hydra)
- Mystery cult gods with serpentine symbolism
- Saturn and Chronos, Zeus, Titans (world formed in revolution)
- Of Enki and Enlil, and Zoroastrianism
- Hesiod’s Theogony, Aescheslos and other accounts Prometheus references
- Revenge as Noble and Required: Justice demands revenge
- Hubris tales: Icarus, Arachne, Phaeton, Medusa, Bellerophon
- Hubris and class/racial segregation
Chapter Two will focus on Old and New Testament literature, surrounding what I call the first inversion. Jewish belief was a reaction, a deliberate retelling, of the myths of their enemies. The garden story of temptation by the snake is not really Jewish; traces of the same motif can be found in Mesopotamian texts like Gilgamesh, which also deal with themes such as sex, death, the yearning for immortality.
In the Bible (and apocryphal texts) we can witness the transition from many gods into one, and the merging of titles, roles and behaviors. When force-of-nature gods were replaced by Yahweh, a single benevolent deity, the Prometheus story was reversed. Technology and big civilization was evil. Lucifer the light-bringer was reversed to Satan, the deceiver. The Tower of Babel had to be struck down. Questioning Yahweh was forbidden. Desperate to hold onto traditional values when faced with rapid social progression, integration and dissolution, Jews viewed progress as the enemy. Prometheus, suffering for our salvation became Satan, justifiably punished for his pride.
Things were already changing: Stoics were turning away from Hero Cults towards “anti-heroes.” A philosophical monotheism (or atheism) was becoming popular – since Plato, philosophers were searching for the one, true God, and recognized that all of the other Gods, the personable Gods like Zeus, any Gods that got angry and Jealous, were simply fables to scare the weak-minded.
In the Indian, Jewish and Pagan philosophies that mingled in the melting pot of Roman Civilization, there was one true God who was eternal, nameless, and incommunicable. In that system, evil didn’t exist. There were only varying degrees away from God.
As a minority race in occupied lands, Jews used their wit and often trickery to passively resist (or through the use of outright assassination and violence) their enemies. Cultural heroes included outlaws, murderers and political rebels. Jesus himself was a revolutionary, his movement a mixture of violence and peace… in many ways a repetition of the Prometheus mythology, or a pagan ideology of a suffering savior reconstituted for a Jewish audience.
The rise of Christianity brought with it unprecedented social revolution, using extremely subversive tactics like urging slaves and children to disobey authority figures. The old traditions were treated with derision, their temples and idols burned. But as Christianity became the norm, the early, revolutionary Christianity became a church of orthodoxy and obedience. Dissension was forbidden, heresy prohibited.
- Samson and biblical terrorism
- Judith as sexual assassin
- Yahweh as vengeful and jealous God
- God destroying Babel
- Cosmos not founded on revolution (YHWH was never overthrown, but is eternal)
- Diogenes, cynics. Stoicism (self-sufficiency), trend toward Atheism
- Jeremiah, Jonah, Moses – attempt to resist God
- Job, God and Satan
- Jesus as revolutionary, neo-promethean model
- Martyrs as suicidal terrorists – using the “horror” of their deaths to spread their message
- Early church controversies
- From revolutionary to orthodoxy
- The dissolution of the Roman Empire
- The legacy of the Catholic Church
Chapter Three will trace a quick history of Christianity, focusing on the major writings, synods, heresies and controversies from the beginning of Christianity to Milton’s birth in the year 1608.
I will focus on instances of demonic possession or summoning, the label of “Satanic” to all pagan religious and customs, or literatures giving Satan a voice to speak for himself.
I will look at the major characterizations of Satan that came before Milton’s from the European literary tradition, with special attention to the early Enlightenment period and its conflict with church authority, the Inquisition, and massive religious upheavals such as the Protestant Reformation.
- Robin Hood, early precursor to revolutionary class struggle
- The myths of Loki in Poetic Edda (13th century)
- Inquisitions and Witch-hunts
- The Crusades
- Dante’s Inferno
- Malleus Maleficarum (1486), Daemonologie (1597), Doctor Faustus (1604)
- Shakespeare and the “School of Night”
- The Protestant Reformation (1517)
In Chapter Four we will focus on Milton himself: his early political writings, his contemporaries and influences, and his personal experiences.
Paradise Lost was written during a quickly shifting epoch of European history, when the Vatican’s ethical authority had cracked, allowing space for diverse minor literatures united daringly under appeals to liberty and the right to self-govern – ideals which Milton supported, and for which he was incarcerated. Milton’s bitter experience of failed revolution and wrongful imprisonment shaped his views on the right to seek freedom.
As the voice of the Cromwellian government and writer of the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates to justify the public execution of King Charles 1 in 1649, Milton had much to fear from a changing political climate that began to revert back to Monarchism. Indeed, for his propaganda writings, Milton had to go into hiding, for fear of retribution from the followers of King Charles II. In June, 1659, his defenses of regicide and criticisms of monarchy were publicly burned. In The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth published at the end of February, 1660, Milton raises a last and desperate warning against the dangers inherent in a monarchical form of government, and also stresses the importance and the right to individual liberty.
But King Charles II was restored to the throne, and Milton was arrested and put in prison, to be spared and released by order of Parliament months later.
Milton wrote Paradise Lost after his ardent pleas to the English public against a resumed monarchy were ignored. It seems apparent that Milton, whose political writings focused on free speech, free press, and freedom of conscience, sympathized with his character of Satan – who was also trying to bring down a hereditary rule in favor of an enlightened republic, but also fighting a lost cause.
Milton’s work was written in a time when it could be met by fierce retribution such as imprisonment or torture. Satan’s rhetoric may be thought of as Milton’s secret text, a hidden message against his accusers and incarcerators. I will trace in brief the history of Milton’s personal background, his political beliefs and friendships, early political writings, the conditions which would eventually land him in jail, to see whether they match up with Satan’s musings about justice, resistance and revolution.
Other landmark literature will be identified, such as The King James Bible (1611), and the Jacobean play The Devil is an Ass (1667). I will spend time with Roger Williams’ disputes in the new colonies and his quest for a true separation between Church and State, and question whether Milton’s Eden isn’t based on the discovery of a New World and the social experiments taking place there.
- The King James Bible (1611)
- Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes as Hero/Villains
- Civil wars and the flip-flopping of moral virtue
- Vondel’s 1653 Lucifer
- The Jacobean play The Devil is an Ass (1667)
- Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes
- Milton’s political prose and early poetry
- Roger Williams and the New World politics
Chapter Five will begin with an outline of the conditions leading to the “Golden Age of Piracy” in order to demonstrate that pirates (despite being full-time bandits) relied on unprecedented democratic principles and values which were becoming culturally accepted, before exploring Milton’s direct influence on the French (1789–1799) and American (1775–83) Revolutions, as well as the political ideology of the right to rebel that is ingrained into the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. It will not be out of place to refer to the writings of the “Founding Fathers” of America, to show how sympathetic they were to Satan’s views in Paradise Lost.
In the 18th century, Satan was with the educated libertines of the north who wanted to abolish slavery, rather than the religious conservatives of the south for whom the tradition was biblical sanctioned.
We will also look at Romanticism including the “Satanic School” of poetry (1800~1850), and related literatures such as Goethe’s Faust (1808) and Byron’s Manfred (1816), Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Keat’s Hyperion, Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience (1849) and some of the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
I will show that by the beginning of the 20th century, the tradition of Satan as a tragic but righteous hero punished by a tyrannous and irrational God was commonly accepted and often repeated in literature.
- Thomas Paine, 1776 Common Sense
- 1791, Bill of Rights, “congress shall make no law…”
- Blake, 1790, Marriage of Heaven and Hell
- John Keats, Hyperion in Lamia (1820)
- Tennesse Williams, The Red Devil
- Thoreau, Walden, Resistance to Civil Government
- Washington Irving, “The Devil and Tom Walker” (1824)
- Hawthorne, Devil in Manuscript, Young Goodman Brown
Chapter Six will show how Modernist writers and poets adopted the revolutionary legacy left to them; how sensory enthusiasm, a dissolution of traditional social classes and moral rules led to an artistic liberty that was often openly associated with the Satanic. Key texts will include Baudelaire’s The Litanies Of Satan (1857) George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple (1897), Giosue Carducci’s Hymn to Satan, Mikhail Bakunin (1870), Anatole France’s 1914 novel, The Revolt of the Angels.
To a large extent the entire mood of Modernism is infused with, on the one hand a jubilant spirit of rebellion, deviousness and a self-conscious, deliberate deviation from the traditional moral codes grounded in religious authority; and on the other a sad, introspective awareness of the inability to generate a meaning or purpose to life once reason has pushed us beyond the grand mythologies of faith.
Especially facing the horrors of the first and second World Wars, this enthusiasm gave way to a deep pessimism and futility. Kafka’s novels, and later Camus’ writings on the absurd, as well as his 1951 book The Rebel, will aid the discussion.
In the early 20th century, when conservative religious elements fought diligently against the “Dragon of Rationalism” and the unchecked pursuit of knowledge and technological advancement, Satan was with the revolutions towards racial and sexual equality, getting the vote to women (1920), challenging government injustice and violence, daring to speak out and to oppose power.
- Nietszche, Zarathustra, 1884
- The Taiping Rebellion
- Great October Socialist Revolution (1917)
- “The Sorrows of Satan” Marie Corelli (1895)
- The Devil’s Dictionary “reference” book written by Ambrose Bierce. (1906)
- My Tussle with the Devil and Other Stories (1918) by O. Henry’s Ghost
- Futurist and Dadaist Manifestos
- Symbolists Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Dali
- Mark Twain’s satiric novel The Mysterious Stranger (1916)
- George Méliès’ 1896 film La Manoir Du Diable (The Devil’s Manor)
- The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937) by Stephen Vincent Benét
- Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891
- Zorro a fictional character created in 1919
Chapter Seven. At this point it should be easy to see that there have been two basic ideological systems vying for power throughout most of Western history: a conservative movement, usually grounded in religious foundations, that urges people to be humble, accept their fate, obey authorities and suffer abuse. The other is a revolutionary principle based on the idea of innate human rights. Although it is possible (and likely) for people to mix these views (be loyal to one authority but resist another), I will demonstrate that globalized western social values are heavily weighted in favor of revolutionary heroes – even failed ones. Very few Hollywood blockbusters feature a powerful government successfully repressing a lone individual, while hundreds of them show the opposite (the lone individual who refuses the system, who sparks a revolution, who destroys the totalitarian government). Ethical difficulties related to race can even be avoided by sending in a “white hero savior” to defend the persecuted, less technologically advanced natives (as was done in Dances with Wolves or Avatar).
American citizens are constantly negotiating a balance with their government between a preservation of rights, and privacy invasions that may lead to more security. The fact that this balance is influenced by potential external fears has perhaps dictated US foreign and internal policy. By rebranding America as a Christian nation in the 1950’s (“in God we Trust” was added to the dollar bill in 1957) the US had a way of distinguishing itself from Atheistic Communists at the height of the Cold War. McCarthyism was a neo-witch-hunt which taught people that fear and persecution could persist even in a first world, modern society: also that it’s not OK to be agnostic or atheist in America. Hence the playful view of Satan as a literary symbol of revolution could no longer be maintained. In the 1970’s, a viral new Christian movement arose out of the “Satanic Panic” – the unfounded fear of clandestine groups of Satanists practicing in America, most probably provoked Anton Szandor LaVey The Church of Satan (founded around 1966). Although the organization makes very clear that it views Satan as fictional – a mental/mythic archetype closely aligned with the Satanic traditions I’ve outlined in this book – Christian propaganda such as the 1967 best-selling horror novel Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (made into a movie in 1968) convinced citizens that their neighbors were baby-eating Satan worshippers. Similar movies regarding demonic possession continue to this day.
But from the perspective of modern theory, Satan’s quest for justice in Paradise Lost seems to have been vindicated, even unavoidable. His evolution of freedom begins with the recognition of the self as separate and capable of self-direction; the limits of freedom within a structured system of power; and the necessity of a non-rational, terroristic event to rupture the boundaries of obligation and obtain a sincerely “free” act. Paradise Lost is rich field for a theoretical interpretation: Satan’s relationship with God can be viewed, especially, through the lens of Foucault’s Resistance to Power (without resistance, power is absent), and Žižek’s view of Christ’s crucifixion as God’s revolution against himself (“The King of the universe is the supreme criminal Anarchist.”) Hence, the conclusion of my argument will use contemporary theorists to argue that Satan’s rebellion is both justified and inevitable.
- Maoist revolutions, 1949 Communist China
- Cuban revolution, 1952
- “Satanic Controversy” regarding literary interpretation of Paradise Lost
- The respectable prostitute ; Lucifer and the Lord / Jean-Paul Sartre ; (1965)
- Red Scare and Satanic Panic
- Segregation Issues, Martin Luther King, Black Panthers
- The New Age Movement
- The 80s – Rock and Roll as Satanic
- Contemporary Revolutionary Heroes (Hunger Games, Lightning Thief, Clash of Titans)
- Wikileaks founder Julian Assange