SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL Evil comes in two distinct versions in John Milton's +quot;Pardise

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

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 " 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." (II,482-3) 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 Satan's appeal. 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 of Satan. 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, " 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, Devil. Peter J. Kennedy July 9, 1986


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank