Age: 15, Grade: 10
School Name: Collegiate School, New York, NY
Educator: Adam Bresnick
Category: Critical Essay
Sinful Virtues: Satan’s Evolution in Paradise Lost
John Milton’s depiction of Satan in Paradise Lost shifts over the course of the epic. As the character develops, the reader’s perception of Satan evolves from a righteous hero to a pitiful beast, and ultimately to a fallen creature who manipulates others and seeks revenge. Initially, Satan is the leader of the fallen angels who fights against God, whom he believes is tyrannical and unfair. Later, in Book II, Satan sits on the throne of hell, nobly willing to undergo danger on behalf of his companions. As the plot progresses, in Book IV, when escaping from hell, Satan confesses that he now sits on a throne of misery, lamenting his past pronouncements to his companions. Ultimately, in Book IX, Satan assumes his only choice is to regain power by descending into the form of a beast. Satan’s journey is a remarkable and protracted fall for one who once was second only to God. Neither hero, nor fiend, the transformation in Satan’s character, and the shift in his disposition, makes him a compelling and ambiguous adversary, going from brave to deceitful, from heroic to lowly, and from prideful to ashamed.
Milton’s primary portrayal of Satan evokes a sense of admiration and respect in the reader. Milton illustrates Satan’s notable leadership qualities: “till at last / Satan, whom now transcendent glory raised / Above his fellows, with monarchal pride / Conscious of highest worth” (II.426-429). Satan proudly embodies the heroic stature of a fallen angel whose glory surpasses the others. He demonstrates a clear ambition to be a powerful ruler. Pride, in another context, would be perceived as the sin that damns Satan, but Milton gives him a force of royal authority. Satan is cognizant of the vast power he wields and knows that he is responsible for the hundreds of angels who fought with him against God. He is the “highest” and remains “above” the others. Up until now, Beelzebub, Moloch, Belial, and Mammon, Satan’s peers, have offered various solutions as to what to do about their current dilemma in hell, but none of them exhibits Satan’s courage and bravery. Satan then fulfills his role as leader, explaining how he will act to help them out of their crisis: “But I should ill become this throne… if aught proposed / And judged of public moment, in the shape / Of difficulty or danger could deter / Me from attempting” (II.445-450). Milton describes Satan as a leader who understands the responsibilities he must endure for his peers. Previously Satan’s animosity toward God could be perceived as a private slight, but he is very aware of his newfound “public” responsibility. Satan goes on to explain that reigning entails accepting “as great a share / Of hazard as of honor, due alike / To him who reigns, and so much to him due / Of hazard more, as he above the rest / High honored sits?” (II.452-456). Satan conveys that he, as a ruler, cannot remain “above” everyone and obtain the “high” honor he possesses without accepting a greater share of danger on behalf of his subjects. He recognizes that for him to maintain his high authority, he must lead by example, accepting more danger and potentially enduring more pain than any of his peers. At the beginning of the epic, Milton depicts Satan with the noble and heroic qualities of a charismatic leader.
As the epic progresses, however, Satan’s character evolves into a failed hero who becomes aware of his shortcomings, particularly in having led his fellow fallen angels in vain against all-powerful God. He repents, boasting in ways that he cannot live up to. Satan concedes that he made rash decisions, and promises that he was not able to execute: “With other promises and other vaunts / Than to submit, boasting I could subdue / Th’ Omnipotent. Ay me, they little know / How dearly I abide that boast so vain” (IV.84-87). Knowing that he has guided his peers into their agonizing predicament in hell, Satan admits to understanding that the language of his complaint is antithetical to the style of heroism he embodied in Book II, in which he declared that his elevated status as a leader had been earned by his willingness to undergo dangerous situations on behalf of others. Satan becomes miserable, full of regret, in pain, and a pathetic, tragic leader. He has the self-awareness to understand how the decisions he vainly made have led to disaster. Satan is conscious that he carries the material trappings of a prominent leader, but then acknowledges his descent: “Under what torments inwardly I groan, / While they adore me on the throne of hell, / With diadem and scepter high advanced, / The lower still I fall” (IV.88-91). The more admiration Satan receives from his followers, “with diadem and scepter high,” the less they are able to recognize Satan’s true torment, and the more Satan acknowledges his internal misery and how far he has fallen. Though he is “high advanced” on the throne, Satan implies that he will only continue to decline. He reveals his failed heroism by admitting that he is only “supreme / in misery.” Satan laments his past decisions: the culmination that he failed his peers torments him. Milton’s characterization changes the reader’s view of Satan from a heroic leader with potential, to a fraud who recognizes his powerlessness.
Satan completes his decline when he assumes the form of a feral serpent in Book IX. He has focused his objective on corrupting Adam and Eve as a means to take his revenge against God in a way that does not require open combat that would inevitably fail. Instead, by subterfuge, he can contaminate God’s creation, but he must first change himself into a form far below his original angelic form: “O foul descent! That I, who erst contended / With gods to sit the/ high’st, am now constrained / Into a beast, and mix’d with bestial slime, This essence to incarnate and imbrute, / That to the height of deity aspired” (IX.163-167). Satan asserts that he at one time strove for the highest position in heaven but now serves as the lowest of beasts and, what is worse, one in the “bestial slime.” He has fallen as far as one can descend into the muck that defines his lowly character. Milton makes evident the contrast of “descent” and “height” in Satan’s understanding of just how far he has fallen: “But what will not ambition and revenge / Descend to? Who aspires, must down as low / As high he soar‘d, obnoxious first or last, / To basest things” (IX.168-171). Satan reveals that as an individual who used to be held in high esteem, he must eventually descend to the lowest degree. He no longer retains the “transcendent glory” or is “conscious of highest worth” that he carried in Book II. Prior to this moment, Satan had imagined a return to power by ascending out of hell towards heaven. Now, he reckons that to regain his former power, he must devolve “to [the] basest things.” This distinction almost seems like an acceptance of his extensive failure in challenging God directly; now, his only hope is to find ways to hinder God’s creations and thwart his achievements. The language of enduring as much “hazard” as “honor” now translates into sinking as “low” as once “high” he stood. Satan’s new identity—both psychologically and physically—renders him ignoble, lacking in the bravery he once espoused, a figure unworthy of compassion or sympathy.
The reader’s opinion of Satan, at one time an astonishingly charismatic character, shifts as the narrative evolves in order to offer a strong warning about hubris. By writing an origin tale that elaborates on facets of the Old Testament, Milton offers his readers a three-dimensional exploration of the path to avoid. Milton goes to great lengths in his attempts to redeem Satan, establishing convincing reasons to explain Satan’s transformation into beastly manipulator. It is ultimately Satan’s human qualities, his powerful emotions, his suffering, and his extreme efforts in service to his cause, that make him a figure who, though the Old Testament blames him, is not so easy to hate. Milton succeeds in cultivating the sinful virtues that define Satan in his dynamic descent.