Satanic Reason in Paradise Lost
By Amanda Jacobs '14
British Literature I
I asked students to write a kind of introduction to Milton’s Paradise Lost, addressed to members of the class, in which they worked out the major features of one of Milton’s concepts as it relates to the story of the fall of man. Because Milton is a poet of ideas, concepts and issues, a good introduction to Paradise Lost and Milton involves an understanding of how his major concepts are worked out in his most famous poem. And since this poem is such an important piece of world literature, it has generated a great deal of scholarly and critical discussion. Another goal for this assignment then was for students to join this very long and interesting conversation. Amanda’s essay on Satanic reason was a very helpful discussion for understanding the persuasiveness of Milton’s most interesting character.
“Reason is free, and reason he made right/ But bid her well beware and still erect/ Lest by some fair appearing good surprised,” (IX 352-354). With these lines, Milton laid the foundations of satanic logic. Satan’s reason holds a grain of truth that appeals to mankind. His logic is based on the concept of rising higher than his status and hiding truth behind a seeming good.
In Milton’s universe reason is one of the driving forces. His idea is that right or proper reason connects everyone to God. As Adam says “…But know that in the soul/ Are many lesser faculties that serve/ Reason as chief…” (V 100-103). It is clear that Adam and Eve understand the concept of right reason. They know that God intended them to know about evil, but not experience it. This allowed them to reason and choose for themselves. In Book V Adam comforts Eve by saying that it is all right for her to know about evil, as long as she doesn’t choose it. She must use her reason to choose what is right (115-120). God created man with free will; therefore it is up to them to choose good. Raphael says to Adam in the garden. “…Stand fast! To stand or fall/ Free in thine own arbitrement it lies. / Perfect within, no outward aid require,” (VIII 640-642) God’s intention was that Adam and Eve would use right reason to choose good over evil, therefore showing their love and obedience to Him.
Milton also includes the concept of hierarchies in his layout of right reason. Yet his set up of hierarchies allowed for more freedom among the members. By knowing their place, each of God’s creations was able to enjoy more freedom and choice. He in no way attempted to limit the freedom of his creations. The only ones able to do that were his creations themselves. By manipulating the hierarchy to their own purposes, a reversal occurs, forcing the creation to become the opposite of what they once were. It is Satan that shows readers how God’s reason and use of hierarchies can be twisted and manipulated.
Satan’s reason is built upon the idea of becoming better than he already is. He believes that it is always possible to rise higher. Satan was the highest among the angels, yet he still felt confined by the hierarchy God had set in place. He reasoned there was no harm in seeking to better himself and rise even higher in the hierarchy. “… Lifted up so high/ I’ sdeigned subjection and thought one step higher/ Would set me highest…” (IV 49-51). It was this manipulation of the natural order God had established that led to Satan’s fall. According to God, one cannot become more than they already are. Satan’s attempt to raise himself higher resulted in a complete reversal of his entire being and status. He once was beautiful and angelic, yet after his fall, he became ugly and twisted. He acknowledges that his intentions to become higher have left him lower than the lowest of those he used to rule: “Among the spirits beneath whom I seduced/ With other promises and other vaunts/ Than to submit…” (IV 83-85). He does seem to have some idea of God’s use of hierarchies, for he attempts to use similar reason to keep his followers under control. “By none, and if not equal all, yet free/ Equally free, for orders and degrees/ Jar not with liberty, but well consist” (V 791-793). Yet this show of understanding is clearly a ploy, because as Abdiel points out in lines 815-820, Satan is inconsistent with his views of hierarchies. At the same time he declares equality amongst his followers, he reprimands the Son for holding supremacy over equals. This shows Satan’s inability to truly understand freedom.
As Satan reflects on his fall from grace he blames God for his actions. In his soliloquy in Book IV Satan says that he knows what he did was wrong, and even comes close to repentance (38-47). He swiftly turns this thinking around, however, and refuses to take any blame for his actions. The only fault lies with God. The logic of Satan says that if God had not created him so high above other angels, he would not have had the same ambition. “O had his pow’rful destiny ordained/ Me some inferior angel!” (IV 58-59). Satan ignores his close run with repentance and once again says that it is natural to become better. He feels that because God created him with such a nature, that to be punished is wrong. He cannot help what he is. These thoughts lead to Satan projecting his own tyranny on God.
Satan himself is obviously a tyrannical character. According to his reason, everyone else is as well. From the beginning he pushes his own tyranny on God. He sets God up as a grand tyrant whose only intention was to orchestrate the fall of Satan. “Irreconcilable to our grand Foe/ Who now triumphs and in th’ excess of joy/ Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heav’n” (I 122-124). He blames the war on God as well, and blames the loss of the battle on the trickery of God in lines 92-94 of Book I. In Satan’s mind it is only logical that God think like a tyrant, because Satan himself is a tyrant. He can’t understand what it means to be God. He justifies his attack on God by saying:
That with the Mightiest raised me to contend
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable forces of spirits armed
That durst dislike His reign and, me preferring,
His utmost pow’r with adverse pow’r opposed
In dubious battle on the plains of Heavn And shook His throne… (I 99-105)
Satan reasons that others felt as though God was a tyrant, therefore the attack was completely justifiable. He even seems to say that God purposely made him with the ambition that would cause his fall. He implies that it is all part of God’s plan to have Satan rise above his nature. “How due! Yet all His good proved ill in me/ And wrought but malice. Lifted up so high” ( IV 48-49). Satan, because he is a fallen angel, cannot understand the workings of God, therefore only sees Him as he views himself, a tyrant.
Satan even goes as far as to give God human qualities. The logic behind it is similar to that of his perspective of God as a tyrant. Since he cannot understand God’s ways, he compensates for his lack of knowledge through his own reason. This reason shows God possessing the same emotions and traits as a fallen angel or human. When Satan hears Adam and Eve talking about the forbidden tree, he wonders why they are not allowed to eat from it. Through his reason, eating from the tree of knowledge would make them better, which he sees as a good thing. The only way for him to explain God’s reason is that He is envious of his creations. “Envious commands invented with design/ To keep them low whom knowledge might exalt/ Equal with gods…” (IV 524- 526). This also shows Satan’s mistaken view of hierarchies. God cannot feel envy to his own creations, therefore would have no reason to keep them low and enslaved. Satan also equates God with selfishness. In Book IX Satan states that God’s whole plan is to keep everything for himself and keep all his creations enslaved. He makes it seem as though God feels threatened by his creations, and needs to withhold things from them in order to keep them under control. With the logic of Satan, God becomes almost human.
Satan also begins to pervert the good qualities of other characters. In Book IV he misunderstands the nature of God’s love and calls gratitude tiring. “The debt immense of endless gratitude/ So burdensome—still paying! Still to owe!—“ (IV 52-53). Love of God and gratitude are meant to be freely given and a positive concept, yet Satan turns it into a negative, forced task. According to Satan’s logic, love is connected to power. When he plans the temptation of Eve, Satan wants to use love against her. He wants to twist her love and use it to destroy, rather than celebrate it for the beauty it holds. In Satan’s eyes, love is another way to confine and hold back.
Satan’s logic is pressed upon Adam and Eve as well. C.S. Lewis talks about this in his article about Satan, saying “A fallen man is very like a fallen angel” (Lewis 405). This may help explain why Satan’s reason appeals so much to Adam and Eve, who are supposed to be created perfect. Satan thinks very much like a human would think, which helps him in his temptation of Eve. They understand his logic and therefore listen to what he says. Satan invading Eve’s dream can be seen as a sort of pre-temptation. He is getting a foothold in her command of reason and opening her up to the possibility of bettering herself. He introduces to her thoughts of the good of knowledge, subtly pushing her to want to know more. “Deigns none to ease thy load and taste thy sweet, / Nor god, nor man? Is knowledge so despised?/ Or envy or what reserve forbids to taste?” (V 59-61). When Eve wakes the next morning she is frightened of what she dreamed. She knew what she dreamt was wrong, yet this fear seems to coincide with the idea of Eve understanding satanic logic.
The actual temptation of Eve shows how it is possible for humans to connect with Satan’s reason. Satan first appeals to Eve’s vanity. Eve is aware of her beauty, because she discovered it by looking in a stream in Book IV. Satan plays off this awareness of beauty, and calls her “empress of this fair world,” (IX 568). He seems to be trying to ingratiate himself with Eve, and she goes along with it. Then he begins to twist God’s reason into his own. He knows that Adam and Eve are supposed to choose for themselves between good and evil. So he reasons to Eve that the choice between the two would be more clear if she actually knew of evil. “To happier life, knowledge of good and evil?/ Of good, how just? Of evil (if what is evil/ Be real) why not known since easier shunned?” (IX 697-699). Satan continues on by including his perversion of God’s hierarchies. Knowledge would make Eve more perfect. It is obviously impossible to become more than perfect, but Satan draws Eve in. He says that the only reason God keeps them ignorant is his jealousy of them. All these reasons made sense to Eve. They seemed good and true to her. “Yet rung of his persuasive words impregned/ With reason (to her seeming) and with truth” (IX 736-737). She was pulled in by the seeming good of Satan’s reason, just as Adam warned her not to be. Eve then begins to use Satan’s logic to justify the eating of the fruit beginning in line 745 of Book IX. This helps show that humans are more subject to satanic reason than to God’s. Satan’s logic appeals to the reason of humans.
Adam and Eve clearly begin to think like Satan. Both of them fell for selfish reasons. Eve wanted to become better and have more knowledge, while Adam wanted to stay with Eve. They began to put themselves before God, and they lost what made them perfect. After she ate the fruit Eve experienced a noticeable change. She was debating whether she wanted to share her newfound knowledge with Adam, or keep it all to herself. The concept of being more then him appealed to her. Then she realized God would just kill her and make Adam a new Eve and jealousy overcame her.
And Adam wedded to another Eve
Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct
A death to think! Confirmed then I resolve
Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe. (IX 828- 831).
Adam begins to presume to know the mind of God. When Eve tells him what she has done, he worries that God will take Eve away from him and make another. Adam doesn’t want another Eve and feels like he can’t live without her, so he too ate the fruit. He thought to thwart what he assumed God would do by falling himself.
After the fall, Adam and Eve are no longer ruled by their reason. As with Satan, they experience a reversal in their status. They once had all the freedom they could want as long as they followed God’s one order. But they presumed to make themselves higher and ate of the fruit for completely selfish reasons. They lost their freedom and were forced out of the garden because they went against their nature. God made them perfect, but they presumed to become more than perfect, as corresponds with Satan’s reason. The way they thought was reversed as well. In the beginning they used their reason first and made their decisions that way. In Book IX, Reason in overcome by the other faculties of the mind. “To sensual Appetite who from beneath/ Usurping over sov’reign Reason claimed/ Superior sway…” ( 1129-1130). Adam and Eve gave way to lust and desire, ignoring right reason. They became even more like Satan through their selfishness and lust. Satanic reason is one of the driving forces in Paradise Lost. Milton uses Satan’s concept of raising himself higher to provide logical cause for the both the fall of Satan and of Adam and Eve. By masking his reason with a sliver of truth Satan is able to manipulate the fall of man. Milton draws a correlation between the reason of Satan and the logic of mankind by using Adam and Eve as examples of Satan’s influence on the human race.
Lewis, C.S. “From ‘Satan’: On Satan”. Paradise Lost: An authoritative text, sources and backgrounds, criticism/ John Milton. Ed.
Gordon Teskey. New York: W.W. Norton: 2005.
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” Paradise Lost: an authoritative text, sources and backgrounds, criticism/ John Milton. Ed. Gordon
Teskey. New York: W.W. Norton: 2005.