SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
Evil comes in two distinct versions in John Milton's "Pardise Lost,"
Satan expresses the first and most obvious type--a fist-shaking,
blasphemous evil, flashy and glamorous. The other version of evil,
passivity, demonstated by Adam and Eve, carries less dramatic effect, but
equal damage. Adam does not sin in a rage of excessive pride, but submits
with resignation. Suprisingly, we sympathize with Satan more than with
Adam. Satan's aspirations, though admittedly warped, strike a responsive
chord. He fights heroically for freedom, democracy, and individualism--
beliefs we hold dear. In contrast, we almost disassociate ourselves from
Adam's all-too-common, selfishly passive behavior which seems unworthy of
such an important figure.
Milton portrays Satan in such a disturbingly sympathetic light that
some critics have suggested Milton actually wrote the poem in defense of
the Devil. Though this view may seem far-fetched and inaccurate,
substantial textual evidence supporst a less extreme claim of sympathy
created by the author to highlight the evil of Man. Satan performs
few of the stereotypically "demonic" acts usually associated with his name.
In fact, both his actions and his motives seem quite reasonable, given his
unique situation. Milton contrasts Satan with God who acts as the
unreasonable taskmaster, the dealer of pain and hardship, "Heav'n's awful
Monarch." (Gabriel,Book IV,Line 960) In this light, Satan's most
fundamental motivation, his unwillingness to be an obedient second best (and
with the arrival of the Son of God, now a distant third best) seems justified.
"Better to reign in hell, then serve in heav'n," (I,263) demonstrates Satan's
belief in self-government, though in a miserable land, as superior to
monarchy, albeit God's. His belief in freedom startles the Western reader.
Shouldn't the Devil be a professed totalitarian? All the Devil wants is
self-determination, freedom from an, "Eternity so spent in worship paid/
To whom we hate." (II,248-9)
Let us not then persue..our state
Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp. (II,249-57)
This speech expresses the universal assumption in the West about freedom's
high value. Those words sound mroe like Thomas Jefferson's than Lucifer's.
Another ingrained belief, voting, occurs not in heaven, but in Hell.
Satan, though the leader of the revolt, needs the inclination of the
"...popular vote..." (II,313) from his followers who, "...with full assent/
They vote." (II,389) Hell has free speech too. Satan urges, "We now
debate; who can advise, may speak." (II,42) Several demons then express
their clearly differing opinions about the proper plan of action. Also,
a sense of equality exists among the assembled fallen angels. In his
first speech of Book II (lines 11-34), Satan suggests that the natural
ambition for more (notice, a capitalistic assumption) will not place one
demon above the other, for Hell's only commodity is pain. Another vague
hint of capitalism enters when Satan accepts "...as great a share/Of hazzard
as of honor..." (II,452-3) Our society's individualistic economic system
generally rewards those who take risks; the greater the risk, the greater the
potential reward. Milton suggests that these devils are not so bad after all.
He even says, "for neither do the Spirits damned/Lose all their value."
Our sympathy for Satan increases when Milton brings God back into the
picture. God forbids Adam and Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Satan
asks, "Why should their Lord/Envy them that? Can it be sin to know,/Can it
be death?" (IV,11.516-8) Milton exploits our hatred of despotic dictators who
keep the people uneducated, for fear of exposing the truth, to strengthen
God doomed Satan to an eternity of punishment. Yet, rather than
supplicate for forgiveness, Satan heroically struggles on, making the best
of a bad situation. "So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,"
(IV,1.108) Satan pledges. Like the Alamo or the French resistance, he refuses
to submit. His refusal to obey arbitrary authority occures as a familiar
motif in American values; in theory at least, if not in everyday practice.
Unqualified obedience, which God explicity demands, sits low in the values
of modern America.
At the very least, Milton establishes Satan as fathomable. Perhaps
we don't succumb to the dark side of emotions as he does, but we can
recognize his motivations in ourselves and understand him as something akin
to us, though warped and intensified. Satan may not be a role model, but
he certainly merits our sympathy, if not a little admiration.
Satan clearly manifests the sins of greed, ambition, and defiance. He
admits his crimes and remains unabashed. In comparison, the sin of Adam
and Eve poses a problem. On the one hand, their sin resembles Satan's, i.e.
placing something above God's will. On the other, Satan deliberately put
himself before God, while Adam and Eve were duped into sinning for each other.
Neither Adam nor Eve intentionally blasphemed, but in many respects Milton
presents their sin as more insidious, less deserving of sympathy, than that
Before demonstrating the nature of Man's sin, an examination of
causality is in order. Milton insists upon God's absolute supremecy and
"Omnipresence" (VII,590) in space and time. To quote God, "...necessity
and chance/Approach me not, and what I will is fate. (VII,11.172-3)
Logically then, all that exists in the world, including evil, results from
God's will. One could conclude that since good and evil, happiness and
sorrow, exist side by side in our world, God is neither good nor bad,
benevolent nor malicious. Milton carefully avoids this conclusion by
introducing the concept of free will, bestowed by God. Using free will as an
excuse, God claims that Satan and Man are responsible for the consequences of
their own actions (III,98-115) Thus, the fall and evil are entirely our own
fault. However, Milton does not want to carry free will to the extreme case,
lest Spirits and people completely determine their own fate, previously
established as God's will. Evil rests somewhere between a divine
predestination and a new invention of Lucifer's and anybody willing to follow
him. Milton eludes a pin-point determination of responsibility:
So streched out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay
Chained on the burning lake, nor ever thence
Had ris'n or heaved his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Had left him at large to his own dark designs,
That which with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How malice served but to bring forth
Infinite goodness... (I,209-218)
Passages such as this illustrate Milton's elusiveness. In the passage, God
"left him at large to his own dark designs" (i.e. granted Satan free will)
while still channeling Satan's "reiterated crimes" to the opposite of his
intention (i.e. pre-determination of action). Milton needs free will to
create a struggle, but must maintain hings of predestination to show God's
ultimate supremacy. My elaboration upon the cause of evil serves as a
qualification to any future conclusions about the nature of Satan's or Man's
sin. The very use of the possessive "Satan's" or "Man's" must be tempered
with the knowledge that God's will and responsibility never leave the picture.
That said, the nature of Man's sin, especially in relation to Satan's, is
subject to examination.
"He scrupled not to eat/Against his better knowledge, not deceived,/But
fondly overcome with female charm," (IX,997-9) serves as Milton's brief
explanation of Adam's sin. It ambiguously blames Eve for her "female charm,"
yet states Adam was "not deceived." After his initial amazement at Eve's
fall, Adam quickly agrees to eat of the fruit. He says to her,
And me with the hath ruined, for with thee
Certain my resolution is to die;
How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined
To live again in these wil woods forlorn? (IX,906-10)
Here then, lies the fall of Man; Adam takes the easy way out. He
refuses to overcome Eve's charms and reject her as "fallen." He ignores
that God will probably honor his obedience with another mate. The bond of
love and marriage has to strong a grip on Adam. Again, problems with the
will of God arise. Love of one's wife ranks high on the list of God-given,
natural, predestined characteristics of Adam. God condones the very
emotion which casts Adam out of Paradise. "And they shall be one flesh,
one heart, one soul." (VII,499) God knowingly bestows upon Eve a beauty
which, Adam admits, can warp judgement. "all higher knowledge in her
presence falls/Degraded, wisdom in discourse with her/Loses discount'nanced,
and like folly shows;" (VIII,551-3) confesses Adam sheepishly. Leaving aside
God's obvious role in "creating" the mutual attraction and, thus, the fall,
we can examine Adam's mistake. Looked at from a broader perspective, Adam
never got angry with Godor swore against him: he simply was caught up in all
the actions, forgot his morality, and spinelessly sinned. Eve says as much
after the fall:
Being as I am, why didst not thou the head
Command me absolutely not to go,
Going into such danger as thou saidst?
Too facile then thou didst not much gainsay,
Nay didst permit, approve, and fair dismiss.
If thou had been firm and fixed in they dissent,
Neither had I transgressed, nor thou with me. (IX,1155-61)
At key junctures, Adam submits to the most expedient, not the most
prudent path. Despite angelic warnings to the contrary, he allows Eve to
roam alone. Eve, too, shows a lack of good judgement. Her sin is a mixture
of desire to please her husband, and desire to improve her own state. Her
rationalization, "...so to add what wants/In female sex, the more to draw his
love,/And render me more equal..." combines a desire for pleasure coupled with
the love of her husband. The former rationalization vaguely resembles that of
Satan, but differs in one important way. Her sin of personal edification,
unlike Satan's desire for knowledge, not for the destruction of God. She ate
for the Tree of Knowledge, ostensibly to gain knowledge. Just before she eats
the fruit, she convinces herself that to eat the fruit merely means to "feed at
once both body and mind," (IX,779) not to disobey God's capital law. Even
though she was pursuaded into eating, we can't just belittle her sin as one of
inexperience. Her desire for knowledge was unnatural, disrupting. Though
several passages (VII,267-8;VII,61-2;VII,8) refer to Adam's inborn curiosity,
which Raphael even condones, (VII,66) Eve naturally seems to shirk from such
endeavors (VII,39-57), so her desire for knowledge is sin.
Milton portrays Adam and Eve in a relistic manner. They have acutely
human faults of narrow perception, equivocal morality, and rather inglorious
desires. Eve's desire for knowledge, while an extremely common human trait, is
not a heroic one. Adam's attachment to Eve is quaint, but shouldn't his grace
and the grace of future Mankind take precedence if we are to view Adam on
heroic or even above-average terms? We expect Adam to act like Aeneas and
leave the female obstacle behind for the greater good.
The distance created between the reader, on the one hand, and the
thundering God and Satan on the ohter, comes as a comfort. Satan remains
undaunted, a strident figure battling against an equally absolute figure.
Their actions and mistakes, like those of heroes in other poems of such
magnitude, seem noble and unapproachable. Adam and Eve's simple sins look us
right in the face. We like Satan because he is strong and this terribly
important story calls for strong characters, which Adam and Eve are not. This
disappointment in our original parents compels us to examine the evil within
ourselves. This unpleasent reflection highlights similar traits which we and
our first parents share. We find that unlike the fallen angels, we have no
virtue in evil. In short, we find ourselves contemptible, God too abstruse,
though basically good, and our sympathy with the rebellious, though misguided,
Peter J. Kennedy
July 9, 1986