Satan’s Moral Development: making sense of Milton’s Paradise Lost through the lens of modern theory

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ABSTRACT: Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), was originally interpreted as in line with traditional Christian themes; a moral piece of literature with the final conclusion that Satan (and man) must submit to the absolute authority of God. Near the end of the 18th century, William Blake challenged this view, relating Milton’s personification of Satan to Prometheus as a creature of nobility, righteously seeking justice and freedom. Later humanists followed Blake in claiming that Milton, as a poet, deliberately or unconsciously created in Satan a heroic character that demands sympathy for his deterministic pursuit of autonomy in the face of an absolute power.

These ‘Satanic’ understandings of the text were challenged in the 20th century by a resurgence of religious interpretations – from Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and most recently, Stanley Fish. It is revealing to compare the figure of Satan with Milton’s own biography, in particular his many clashes with the government and the church. It is hardly possible to read his 1649 Tenure of Kings and Magistrates without thinking of Paradise Lost: “…it is lawful, and hath been held so in all ages, for any who have the power, to call to account a Tyrant or wicked King, and, after due conviction, to depose and put him to death.” At the same time, Paradise Lost is a rich field for a theoretical interpretation: Satan’s relationship with God can be viewed, especially, through the lens of Foucault’s Resistance to Power (without resistance, power is absent), and Žižek’s view of Christ’s crucifixion as God’s revolution against himself (“The King of the universe is the supreme criminal Anarchist.”) Hence, this paper will attempt, first of all, to place Satan within the context of Milton’s political activism, and secondly, use contemporary theorists to argue that Satan’s rebellion is both justified and inevitable.

Keywords: Paradise Lost, Politics of Rebellion, Religious Studies, Lacan, Foucault, Zizek, Milton

(This is a work in progress: I’m posting it so that I will be motivated to finish. Below is the outline.)

OUTLINE: Fool or Hero? Revisiting Milton’s Satan in the 21st Century

1.       Classical reading of Paradise Lost is orthodox, but problematic

a.       Satan appears to be the main character/hero

b.      Milton’s politics (anti-monarchy should make him sympathetic to Satan)

2.       20th Century Theory supports the orthodox reading

a.       “Good” vs. “Evil”, i.e. Levinas’ Other

b.      Paradise Lost is a conflict between Good and Evil, and Evil must be bad, at all costs, regardless of   textual indication or author intention.

3.       Late 20th/21st century Theory revolutionizes the idea of Ethics

a.       Authentic act must break out of the totalizing realm of the symbolic register/power discourse; ethics becomes an act of resistance and revolution

b.      Psychoanalysis and cultural studies focuses on creation of the subject: where can the subject be said to be truly free?

4.       Hence, we need to reassess Milton’s Satan in light of modern theory.

a.       Satan’s resistance, rebellion and final degradation (terrorism) are responses to the totalizing symbolic order/power of God, which can be divided into three main parts:

I. Lacan: Satan’s mirror-stage creates anxiety and desire, which leads to resistance

II. Foucault: Satan’s rebellion against God is a natural and inevitable attempt to find freedom outside the power discourse, which cannot actually break free

III.  Zizek: Satan becomes evil in a violent, masochistic (and terroristic) purging of all subjectivity, by over-identifying with the power discourse.

5.       Thus, Satan’s act is profoundly ethical in several senses.

a.       It is justifiable and inevitable: Resistance, rebellion and terrorism were hardly acts of free will at all.

b.      In his final act, he has gained more subjectivity than any other character – if any character can be ethical (have the space for true autonomy or authenticity) it is Satan.

c.       In a higher sense, we can see that actually Satan never truly broke free of God’s symbolic order or power discourse: his resistance, rebellion and terrorism are necessary conditions to God’s final saving act. While Jesus suffers briefly before being elevated to heaven, Satan suffers permanently for a role which God has determined he play.

6.       Conclusion: Not only is Satan truly the Hero of Paradise Lost (for without his suffering the plot would never be completed), he is also, in light of modern theory, the only possible hero.


Milton’s God is out of balance because Satan is so magnificently flawed in presentation, and to account for the failure of God as a dramatic character the reader is compelled to enter upon the most famous and vexing of critical problems concerning Paradise Lost, the satanic controversy itself. Is Satan in some sense heroic, or is he merely a fool? (Bloom, 3)

*…are minor narratives seeking to tell their story, but destined to failure, necessarily foolish?*

Milton Revolutionary Politics/Unorthodox Christianity

•revolutionary, anti-censorship, anti-monarchy, rule by merit and election, anti-church power, pro-divorce, Arianism, reason and freedom above all else. Ends life proud, stubborn, blind, jailed (or exiled) unrepentant.

“…it is lawful, and hath been held so in all ages, for any who have the power, to call to account a Tyrant or wicked King, and, after due conviction, to depose and put him to death.”Tenure of Kings and Magistrates

Orthodox Views

•Text is unclear or meant to be puzzling.

•Must be on guard against over-reading any author’s biography or personal character (Nicolson, 186)

•C.S. Lewis, aim of 1942 Preface to Paradise Lost “Preventing the reader from ever raising certain questions.”

•Milton’s program of “reader harassment”; a poem designed to scold unwary readers who allow themselves to be tempted by grand rhetoric of Satan into momentarily pushing aside the “imperative of Christian watchfulness” (Stanley Fish)

Redefining “Good” and “Evil”

•20th century theory’s orthodox reading

–Levinas, etc. Ethics or morality is obligation/responsibility to “Big Other”

–Same as core religious paradigm).

•(post-)Postmodern ethical revolution

–Badiou, Zizek: ethics of event/essential encounter –attempt of subject to get outside of the Grand Narrative, Totalizing Power Discourse, Symbolic Register, etc.

–This is an act of authentic subjectivity,a violence, refusal, rebellion or resistance to those powers that regulate/organize my experience.

Satan’s Fall in Three Stages

A re-assessment of Milton’s Satan in light of modern theory

1.Lacan-Resistance: Satan’s mirror-stage (Jesus), destroys symbolic register, causes anxiety and desire.

2.Foucault -Rebellion: Satan’s rebellion against God is a necessary and expected attempt to find freedom outside of the discourses of Power.

3.Zizek-Terrorism: Satan becomesEvil: True freedom can only be found in a terroristic act; a violent, masochistic purging of all subjectivity

Why does Satan Fall?

“Just and right; sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (PL III:98-99).

•Perfectly Ordered Hierarchy. “Native sons of heaven, possess’dbefore by non, and if not equal all, yet free, equally free; for orders and degrees jar not with liberty, but well consist.” (5:790-794)

•No need for commands or orders, no need for ethics, no conflict. (Lacan’s‘Real’)

•God introducesconflict when he promotes his Son, to be worshiped –not by merit or order, but because God says so. An arbitrarily command of Power.

–“This day I begot whom I declare My only Son…your head I him appoint” (5:603-606)

–“New laws thou seestimpos’d; new laws from him who reigns, new minds may raise in us who serve” (5:680-681)

–“Or can introduce law and edict on us, who without law err not?” (5:790)

Resistance (Lacan): Satan’s Mirror Stage

1.Formation of ego via process of objectification. Ego is result of conflict between perceived visual appearance and emotional experience. Alienation.

–Satan becomes “alienate from God” (5.877)

2.Perceives self as fragmented body in contrast to wholeness of image –leads to aggressive tension

–Satan becomes aware, from Son’s promotion, of his own demotion (why wasn’t he chosen?)

3.To resolve, child identifies with image; this identification forms ego.

–Satan is open to the possibility of his own elevation, through force, based on concept of arbitrarily change, which God introduced

4.Jubilation + depression

Jesus as Gaze

•Gaze = point of failure in visual field that causes anxiety

•Symbolic Register fails to convey let alone impose guidelines for subjectivity

•Source of gaze is stain –point that we try to apprehend but which seems to elude us; in the strong sense of lacking a precise identity.

•The arbitrarily elevation of Jesus, for Satan is an incomprehensible act of tyranny; a new law passed which suddenly makes him a subject forced to pay allegiance. Satan continues, in Paradise Regained, to figure out Why and How Jesus is better than him –an answer he is never given.

Rebellion (Foucault): Discourses of Power

•Power is everywhere, and it produces resistance.

•It is almost impossible to escape from Power.

“In short, resistance becomes a sham –even where it exists, it is taken into account in advance; indeed, merely serves to incite new and more subtle processes of oppression” (Kripps,95)

•The demons try to set up a copy of heaven, a new kingdom, based on the hierarchy of heaven. “Live to ourselves; though in this vast recess, Free, and to none acountable; preferring Hard liberty to the easy yoke of servile pomp.” (2: 254-257)

•Satan recognizes that even this will be defeat; if God rules in heaven, they are still leaving under his domination.

•Satan plans to attack God’s new favorite creature, who is meant to replace the fallen angels, causing a disturbance in the Power discourse.

“Common revenge, and interrupt his joy in our confusion, and our joy upraise in his disturbance” (2:371)

Zizek’s Ethics of Rebellion (Terrorism / Overconformity)

•Experience of radical self-degradation.

•Free will implies the paradox of a frightful disconnection from the world, the horror of a psychotic confrontation with the radical negativity that ultimately defines the status of the subject. •True revolution revolutionizes its own starting presuppositions

•Only an act of random, intentional violence with no objective aim can break free.

Satan becomes Evil, against himself

•“there is… something inherently ‘terroristic’ in every authentic act, in its gesture of thoroughly redefining the ‘rules of the game’, inclusive of the very basic self-identity of its perpetrator –a proper political act unleashes the force of negativity that shatters the very foundations of our being.” (Zizek)

•Satan becomesevil, as an over-identification and thus act of terrorism to symbolic order.

Experience of radical self-degradation.

Free will implies the paradox of a frightful disconnection from the world, the horror of a psychotic confrontation with the radical negativity that ultimately defines the status of the subject. True revolution revolutionizes its own starting presuppositions

Only an act of random, intentional violence with no objective aim can break free.

“For Lacan, there is no ethical act proper without taking the risk of…. A momentary ‘suspension of the big Other’, of the socio-symbolic network that guarantees the subject’s identity: an authentic act occurs only when the subject risks a gesture that is no longer ‘covered up’ by the big Other (Zizek, qtd. Feldner 110)

“Common revenge, and interrupt his joy in our confusion, and our joy upraise in his disturbance” (2:371)