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Satan in Paradise Lost | Unsung Heroes

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

To start our latest series honing in on 'Unsung Heroes', Neville takes inspiration from an unusual source: John Milton's depiction of Satan from Paradise Lost.

“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”
John Milton, Paradise Lost

Now hear me out: I know that claiming Satan is an ‘unsung hero’ sounds like a rather bizarre and dark thing to state. However, I am specifically referring to Satan in John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. For those who have not read the literary masterpiece, Paradise Lost is an epic poem that spans ten (or twelve, depending on what edition one reads) books. The plot effectively reworks the biblical story of Genesis and describes how Satan came to be in Hell, and eventually how Adam and Eve would fall out of the Garden of Eden.

So, when I refer to Satan, I am referring to Milton’s literary invention!

Of course, with a character such as Satan, it is no wonder that readers first think of him as the arch-villain of Paradise Lost. Indeed, the story begins with Satan falling down into Hell; he has been cast out for instigating a war in Heaven and questioning the Almighty. His rage is certainly unfettered, and he immediately begins how to plot some kind of revenge against God who has eternally cast him out. He plans to ruin God’s prized creation, humans – and then, over the course of the epic poem, he sets about to bring such a plan to actuality.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
John Milton, Paradise Lost

I grant, I am not yet painting Satan out to be a hero, unsung or otherwise, but bear with me! Satan’s redeeming qualities start to shine through as the poem reaches its adolescence. Satan is clearly dealing with some quite heavy issues. He resents God for passing over him for a promotion in Heaven, and he is suffering from an extreme case of alienation and self-doubt. Now, this does not absolve Satan of all his evil deeds and desires – but it certainly humanises him and makes us wonder whether he does have a genuine impetus to cause the destruction he does.

“Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely: and pined his loss”
John Milton, Paradise Lost

Clearly, Satan has some nuances to his character. He is able to question authority, notice the beauty of Earth (claiming it is more beautiful than Heaven), realise the beauty of Eve, and he has the introspective ability to comprehend his internal angst. This is where the unsung hero aspect comes in: Satan, although his methods and end goals might be undesirable, and certainly villainous – his impetuses, and some of his thought processes are valid, and indicative of a hero.

First, let us look at his supposed impertinence. The whole reason for Satan’s casting out of Heaven is down to the fact that he perpetually questioned and rebelled against God’s authority. Some might say that this was out of vanity, arrogance, and so on; however, I am inclined to think that Satan was working from a rationalist perspective. We are often told, do not freely accept that what you are told is true.

Just because someone tells you that President Trump is over 2 meters tall, does not necessarily mean he is (he is actually just under 2 meters). Speaking of the President, Satan’s rational attitude would work well in a post-truth/fake news age: it is in Satan’s nature to question authority, and not to take authority’s statements as gospel. This is a quality vital for any Politics or Philosophy student. Satan becomes a hero for actually having the courage to stand up to an authority he questions the strength and legitimacy of (yes, one could also blame Satan of having hubris for trying to take on God himself too…).

“All is not lost, the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and the courage never to submit or yield.”
John Milton, Paradise Lost

Furthermore, Satan is battling his own internal demons throughout the poem. He clearly suffers from a great level of pride, mixed with insecurity about himself. He resents the fact that he never got to sit at the table with God and was of diminished power in Heaven. His whole quest of destruction seems to be about Satan wanting to have some control over his existence – he can finally take ownership over a project, and even if it is destructive, so what? He is trying to show God that he can also enact change, he does not have to be ruled, or belittled in stature.

To a certain extent, the story of Satan mirrors that of a child growing up. Eventually the child grows into its adolescence and resents the parental authority over them. They will attempt to question and cast off such control in favour of making it in the world on their own. Whether the child gets the timing right, or does indeed succeed, is another matter – and this is what is up for debate with Satan. Did he attempt to leave the nest too soon?

In some ways, one can pity Satan – he may not be heroic in the usual sense, but one can see his problems as unsung; they are ignored and passed over without much thought. However, dare I say, Satan’s own problems are of equal importance to those of everyone else in the epic poem. At the beginning of the poem, Satan’s stature is physically ginormous – he is the size of a large bolder, or even a meteor. But, during the course of the poem, Satan has transformed from such a great form to a cormorant, to a toad, to a snake. He has become physically, and metaphorically, small.

“Knowledge forbidden? Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord Envy them that? Can it be a sin to know? Can it be death?”
John Milton, Paradise Lost

Even though Satan succeeds in causing Adam and Eve’s fall, he loses in the end – God transforms him and the rest of Hell into snakes, forcing them to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge which turns to dust in their mouths. His whole quest was one of independence and emancipation, yet he never achieves that ultimate goal. With this final divine punishment, one is inclined to share Satan’s hatred for the Almighty: despite the heinous nature of Satan’s plot, God punishes Satan with a pantomime trick, making a mockery of him.

Satan’s unsung problem was that he was insecure, feeling impotent and humiliated in the presence of God – and yet God’s final punishment is to further humiliate him, beating the underdog further down into his own issues. It seems excessively cruel on the behalf of a supposedly ‘omnibenevolent’ God.

So, what is to be learnt from Satan’s fated quest to damn humanity? Well, one thing is for certain, do not question or pick fights with an authority that is definitively stronger than you! However, provided you do not start a divine war, it is wise to question the authority of those above you. They will probably be correct, but it is still a good exercise in independent thought and critical thinking. Second, if the authority takes a dislike to you and punishes you, do not go an exercise revenge – even though your reasons might be completely valid, the quest of revenge fuels embittered actions. It would be far better to seek reconciliation with rational thought and action, or even to quietly go your own way.

"Never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep”
John Milton, Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost’s Satan is the unsung hero of those who have experienced the pressure of the quelling boot of authority on them. He is the ultimate rabble rouser and contrarian and seeks to rile those similarly oppressed to snatch back autonomy and authority. However, a better description of him might be that he is the ‘unsung anti-hero’: his goal is still ultimately destructive, and he ignores any redeeming parts of the authority, such that his quest is fuelled by his own purposefully blind bias.

So, when a teacher tells you to do your homework, your parents say, ‘don’t do that’, or your lecturer gives harsh criticism – stick up for yourself…but think twice and measure your reaction!

Blog Post Crafted by Neville

Neville is currently working towards his BA in Philosophy at Warwick University, having bagged three A* grades at A Level.

He has entered the Times Advocacy Competition three times, and each time was shortlisted into the top ~20 candidates in the country. In his free time he writes his own scripts, as well as other fictional and non-fictional works.



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