Why Milton's Satan is Retro

Why Milton’s Satan is Retro.
Hugh Macrae Richmond U.C. Berkeley

In my sequence of Miltonic images on Flickr the most popular is one of Milton’s Satan – he may even out-rate Vampires. And I worry that this image appeals so much because recent discussion of Satan’ s “psychology” in “Paradise Lost” often seems too literal - absolutely anthropomorphic and archaically “realistic.” For he is not a human being, but an angel – and angels are not complex, variable human psychologies, just an affirming agency of a higher power.

However, that ultimate power (i.e. Milton’s “Father”) also envisions some contrasting, more flexible beings, ones necessarily more finite, but nevertheless autonomous - no doubt for reasons seen in the epic’s revelation of a universal desire for meaningful company. Lacking omniscience, these autonomous entities, or humans, invite failure, so the ensuring of ultimate salvation for this alternative type of being requires a paradoxical addition to the pre-determined absolutes of the Father, explicit in traditional angelic names, natures and functions.

Incidentally, the roles of the angels in the epic corroborate the strict limitations of angelic nature. Not only cannot Satan function definitively, but the Archangel Michael cannot win the Battle in Heaven; and Raphael’s attempt at educating Adam and Eve against sin fails, weak in comparison with the definitive educational impact of their actual experience with consequent suffering. As Aeschylus perceives: “Zeus has ordained that man by suffering shall learn.”

This situation involves a creativity reflected twice over in Milton’s “Son”: first, in creating these autonomous, if necessarily fallible human entities; and second, in achieving a costly divine reconciliation with these new beings’ lapses (which are not just likely but inevitable, as conceived in the doctrine of original sin). For humanity’s finite knowledge cannot invariably succeed in realistically anticipating the full consequences of any of its acts (a fact merely epitomized in the forbidden apple-eating).

The Son’s first creative act, of making humanity, thus requires recognition of a second necessary resource for its survival: a transcendent consideration over-riding any absolute moral principles and metaphysical entities implicit in ultimate divine omnipotence (or the Father, as visibly expressed via his angels). These supposedly absolute moral entities such as God’s Justice thus prove unavoidably subordinated in application to this modifying principle of Mercy, that limits their authority over fallible humanity (limits which Satan wishes to overthrow). The Son accepts the extreme form of such subordination for himself (i.e. death) as divine validation of such a discontinuous, indeed paradoxical moral sequence.

Satan’s resentment is essentially Milton’s anthropomorphic allegory to objectify and concretize for his readers this reductive effect on absolute principles - as seen similarly in the famous passage in Langland’s Piers Ploughman, when Justice bitterly denounces Mercy as if both were human debaters. Allegorically, Satan’s resistance to the Son’s authority reflects the severe constraints imposed on absolute Justice by the Christian doctrine of Mercy, which leaves the Justice principle defeated, eternally impaired. The situation therefore seems, as Milton’s Satan repeatedly says, unfair – leading to expression of the alternative which Satan’s role illustrates: a counter-movement for a single, absolute and self-sufficient authority, not a paradoxical trinity. To vindicate this pattern Satan necessarily imagines that such an absolute nature as he embodies must have been existentially self-generated, not dependent on some alternative, ambiguous power claiming false supremacy.

This tense metaphysical situation leads to trouble conceptually, socially, and psychologically, as demonstrated by a variety of episodes in Milton’s poem. As Shakespeare’s King Lear discovers, an absolute concern for Justice proves ruinous, both to society and to the individual. Realistically Lear, and symbolically Satan, both suffer because they are devoted to an archaic universe of unmitigated absolutes. That obsolescence is why Satan is tricked-out superficially by Milton like an archaic pagan hero – a guise that makes him so stylishly retro, and so compatible with archaic concepts of worth. But basically he just reflects the tensions of subordination (such as we all suffer at times), but seen in the epic more realistically in Eve’s initial situation under Adam’s authority. However, being less rigidly consistent than the angelic Satan, her behavior can evolve from Satanic egotism to the beneficient if paradoxical choice of self-sacrifice that she offers to save Adam, an act prefigured in the Son’s own acceptance of self-sacrifice. This self-penalizing submission is something that Satan’s inhuman absoluteness of identity cannot accommodate. In her personal initiatives Eve thus incarnates realistically the metaphysical implications of both Satan’s identity initially, and the Son’s vision ultimately. She is the realistic core of the epic, in which Satan is only a procedural and archaic fragment. Admiration of him may prove damnable - or at least critically unsound.