The Deceptions of Satan
John Miltonís Paradise Lost is a work that attempts, in part, to justify the ways of God to mankind. This is a tremendous undertaking, even for as skilled a craftsman as Milton. In his attempt to achieve his goal, Milton crafts the character of Satan with seemingly great accuracy and skill. His success in breathing life into the character of Satan may be his greatest success in the epic.
Part of the reason why Miltonís task is so ominous is that the seemingly indescribable pervades Paradise Lost. Throughout the epic, Milton is faced with the challenge of not only describing, but manipulating concepts and characters such as God, Paradise, and Satan. These concepts are difficult to work with because of their abstract nature. The difficulty arises from the inability of any human being to comprehend them experientially. No one can truly know what good or evil are in their purest forms. No one can describe the perfect place with total accuracy because no one has ever experienced what it is to live in such a place.
The finest example of this involves the depiction of Paradise throughout Paradise Lost. In his depiction, Milton uses his own experience and understanding to depict a place of perfection. Can he be accurate, however, without ever experiencing Paradise himself? In truth, he cannot. Each individual reader most likely has their own idea of Paradise. Whether or not these ideas coincide with those of Milton, all of them, including Miltonís, are incomplete. Everyone has certain characteristics in mind when they think of Paradise, but know one can possibly list all of the characteristics and argue concretely that theirs are the only ones that apply. In Miltonís case, one of the striking aspects of Paradise is that Adam and Eve must both work to maintain the garden:
With first approach of light, we must be risen
And at our pleasant labor, to reform
Yon flowíry arbors, yonder alleys green,
Our walk at noon, with branches overgrown
That mock our scant manuring, and require
More hands than ours to lop their wanton growth. (IV, 624-629)
It seems that Milton believes that labor is necessary in Paradise. This emphasis on work is congruent with his Puritan Faith. Idleness could lead to evil and wickedness.
This and all descriptions of Paradise are incomplete because human beings, without any experience of true Paradise, cannot conceive of a place that is perfect in every respect. How can a place, and life in that place be perfect? Would not such a place become somewhat monotonous? It would not be if it were truly perfect, but how could all the possible faults, almost infinite in number, be accounted for and corrected in Paradise? Questions and paradoxes such as these plague anyone who attempts to describe the perfect to any great extent. This is exactly the problem that Milton faces. Paradise, God, and Satan are perfect in their being. God and Paradise are perfect in their goodness and purity, while Satan is perfect in his imperfection. The focus here shall be, as it is in Paradise Lost, Satan.
While reading the first books of Paradise Lost, many disturbing questions concerning the character of Satan arise. The most predominant and most disturbing question seems ask, why is Satan such a charming and attractive character? Not charming and attractive in what he does, but rather in how he acts and how he carries himself. The answer to this question lies in the notion that Miltonís portrayal of Satan and his Evil is very accurate. In examining Satanís essence and his personality, it will become clear that Satan is likable because he must be so, in order to be what he isóEvil.
Satanís essence is embodied in the fact that he is a fallen angel. In heaven, he organized an army with the intention of dethroning God, whom Satan perceived as tyrant. After he and his minions are banished from heaven, having been defeated by God, Satan establishes new goals for his existence in Hell:
Nor will occasion want, nor shall we need
With dangerous expedition to invade
Heaven, whose high walls fear no assault or siege, Or ambush from the deep. What if we find
Some easier enterprise. (II, 341-345)
These lines, spoken by BeŽlzebub, at the instruction of Satan, close the argument among the fallen angels as to what course of action they should take, now that they reside in Hell. Satan clearly advocates the complete opposition of God: a position stemming from his hatred. The easier enterprise that they choose is the destruction or damnation of Man, Godís newest creation. BeŽlzebub hopes, as does Satan, that ďBy sudden onset: either with Hell-fire / To waste his whole creation, or possess / All as our own, and drive, as we were driven, / The puny habitantsÖĒ (II, 364-367). It quickly becomes clear that Satan selects the latter as his preferred method of opposing God. Because Satan revolts against God, in Heaven, and strives to oppose Him at every turn in Hell, Satan must embody complete Evil.
Since God is pure and total Good and Satan opposes God in every way, and, as he often indicates, burns with a hatred for God, Satan must logically be Evil, since Evil is the contrary to Good. In this reasoning, however, their exists the assumption that God is purest Good. This seems to be a valid assumption, in light of the authorís background as a devout Puritan, and despite Satanís claims to the contrary. Satan claims that his revolt against God was a response against His tyranny. He also claims that God concealed the true extent of His power, thus tempting and baiting Satan and his minions to attack. Upon closer examination of the text, these prove to be unfounded accusations.
The evidence against this accusation begins and ends with Satanís own words: ďThe mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of HeavenĒ (I, 254-255). While these lines are profound at the time when they are said, they become even more important in terms of coming to understand Satan, in light of his soliloquy in Book IV. In this soliloquy, Satan chastises himself for ďWarring in Heaven against Heavenís matchless KingĒ (IV, 41), and realizes the root of his hatred, and why it is flawed:
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burdensome, still paying, still to owe,
Forgetful what from Him I still received;
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and dischargedówhat burden then? (IV, 52-57)
Satan understands that he owes God a irreconcilable debt for creating him and giving him life. He also comprehends that in being grateful, and in understanding the severity of the debt, one is discharged of it. And yet, Satan still hates all that God embodies. He carries Hell with him in his mind, and his fall from grace and banishment to Hell was merely a change of venue. Satan, at one point, ventures that a reconciliation with God and a return to Heaven would only constitute only a brief sojourn. He believes that his hatred for God could not be suppressed for very long, and that the Hell he carries within himself would soon rise to the surface, damning him once more. Satan condemns himself with his own hatred, and his hatred, despite his knowledge of what is right, holds him accountable for his own actions. Thus, despite Satanís accusations, God is not at fault, and remains the embodiment of Good.
Now the personality of Satan begins to come into clearer focus. Satan is not a grotesque monster, at least in outward appearance. He is an intelligent, pensive, and alluring creature throughout the epic. The reason for this seemingly contradictory depiction, contradictory in the sense that Satan does not seem to embody supreme Evil, lies in the methods Satan utilizes to oppose God.
Satanís best chance at revenge involves the subjugation of Man. As BeŽlzebub says, Heaven cannot be taken by force, but Satan understands that because of the free will given by God, mankind will be subject to temptation. If mankind is subject to temptation, it too may sin and fall from grace. According to the Bible, Satan does not hold to the truth: ďWhen he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of liesĒ (John 8:44). His greatest lie is the contention that evil is in fact good. In Book IV, Satan adopts Evil as his Good: ďAll good to me is lost; / Evil, be thou my goodĒ (IV, 109-110). He deceives in order to convince his prey that sin is neither wrong nor harmful. Essentially, he deftly proposes that sin is not really sin at all. This allows him to guide his prey away from God, without compromising their own free will. This free decision to turn away from God, as Adam and Eve do, is the greatest injury that can be inflicted on God: His own creation willfully chooses to disobey Him. They willfully chose to disobey Him who gave them life. They disobey and oppose Him as Satan did. Thus, Satanís struggle against God does not end with his exile from Heaven. It continues on earth, and in his war to oppose God, deception is Satanís most potent weapon.
Deception is the foundation upon which Satanís character is built. His most effective and damaging lies lead those whom he tempts to believe that the evil path that he espouses is really good, and that it will do no harm to follow it. Milton understands Satanís methods and depicts his character accordingly. If Satan was outwardly a monstrous and foul beast upon whose visage no one could even look without revulsion, who would follow his path? Whom could he convince that his way is the harmless and the good? Few would be deceived by someone who is clearly vile and repulsive. In essence, Satan would lose his ability to tempt because he would not be able to offer anything desirable as a temptation.
A counter-argument could be formulated which would propose that, indeed, Satanís outward appearance is changed after his fall from Heaven. As Satan contemplates his situation and his plans for Adam and Eve, Uriel spies him and notices marked changes in his countenance. He later describes these changes to Gabriel as a warning of his possible intrusion into Paradise:
I described his [Satanís] way
Bent all on speed, and marked his airy gait;
But in the mount that lies from Eden north,
Where he first lighted, soon discerned his looks
Alien from Heaven, with passions foul obscured. (IV, 567-571)
While Satanís appearance is corrupted by the bitterness and hatred that torment him, the corruption must be evaluated in a relative manner. His new countenance must be compared relative to his previous one, which was that of an angel. Uriel describes Satanís looks as ďAlien from Heaven.Ē While this clearly describes a corruption, it is a corruption of the angelic. A normal human being can be considered a corruption of the angelic, as well, for he is also subject to ďpassions foul.Ē Thus, it is doubtful that Satanís visage was corrupted to the point where he would be grotesque; at least he would not be so in the eyes of humans.
It seems logical that Satan would not be utterly repulsive to humans, especially in light of his goal: He wants to tempt mankind into turning away from God. If he were clearly and outwardly Evil, Satan would convince very few people of his lies. This would be an ineffective manner of striking back at God, Satanís hated enemy. Satan is, therefore, portrayed with some noble characteristics. He repulses neither Adam and Eve, nor the reader. Even though he tempts Eve as a serpent, his words are clever and convincing, not blunt and demanding. He tempts Eve as a snake, not because he must hide his true self from her, but because it presents a stronger temptation: if this snake ate of the Tree of Knowledge and learned not only to speak, but to speak wisely, it would surely benefit Eve as well.
In the same fashion, the reader is deceived by Satan. Because of Miltonís masterful crafting of this character, Satan appears as a likable character, even to the reader. If his noble soliloquies, his seemingly tragic demise, and his intelligence do not endear him to the reader, then they at least evoke the readerís respect. By creating Satanís character so expertly as to deluded even the reader at times, Milton very precisely, but at the same time very subtly conveys the true danger and evil of Satan.