Milton’s Satan and the Grammar of Evil

By Kimberly Johnson

In the long tradition of literary villains, no figure towers with such gleeful, scene- chomping menace as the character of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan the arch-fiend, the über-villain, elaborated out of the bare-bones narrative of Genesis by New Testament writers into a primeval malevolence that Milton combined with epically heroic qualities. Satan the dauntless, who in the first book of Milton’s opus strides imperiously across the lake of burning marl, rallying his vanquished followers to a brave resurgence against God’s favorite creation. Satan the guileful, who seduces Eve into humanity’s “First Disobedience” (1.1). The plot of Paradise Lost offers plenty of opportunity for Satan to scheme, beguile, attack, and otherwise subvert the designs of Milton’s God. But I’d suggest that such narrative exploits are mere caricatures of evil, and distract from Satan’s most damnable offense, which inheres not in any particular action in his own interest or against God’s. Rather, Satan falls under the text’s greatest condemnation for his refusal to act as a morally self-determined agent. In Milton’s poem, Satan exposes his deepest villainy in his denial of his own agency. 

Rather than looking to some episode of valor or vaunting on Satan’s  part, in order to suss out Satan’s particular brand of indolent evil in Paradise Lost we can alight with him atop Mount Niphates, where he perches at the outset of Book 4 and delivers a monologue. Unobserved by either loyal minions or intended dupes, Satan mutters his words to himself without thought of being overheard, thus introducing into the midst of this headlong and familiar tale of the Fall a moment of lyric dilation. Time suspends, plot events pause, and Satan reveals his tragic flaw not in his actions but in his language. He begins with an apostrophe to the unresponsive sun,

                                                                                  to thee I call,
                                  But with no friendly voice, and add thy name,
                                  O Sun! to tell thee how I hate thy beams,
                                  That bring to my remembrance from what state
                                  I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere;
                                  Till pride and worse ambition threw me down

                                  Warring in Heaven against Heaven’s matchless King:
                                  Ah, wherefore! he deserved no such return
                                  From me, whom he created what I was
                                  In that bright eminence, and with his good
                                  Upbraided none; nor was his service hard.


This passage would seem to express remorse, Satan recognizing that his rebel- lion against God was unprovoked and undeserved. But see how Satan distances himself from responsibility, from the agency of his own rebellion: I once was glorious, he muses, “Till pride and worse ambition threw me down.” Grammatically, Satan displaces himself from the subject position into the object position, a shift that renders him a hapless victim of free-floating  abstractions.

This pattern of self-exculpatory grammar continues as Satan’s speech unfolds. First, he objectifies himself with regard to his ill repayment of divine good:

                                  What could be less then to afford him praise,
                                  The easiest recompence, and pay him thanks,
                                  How due! yet all his good prov’d ill in me,
                                  And wrought but malice; lifted up so high
                                  I sdeind subjection . . .


Even as Satan admits to malice here, his language assigns that malice not to himself but rather to “his good”—that is, to God’s  goodness, which “proved ill   in me, / And wrought but malice,” as if Satan were a mere object upon which God ‘s force had wrought rather than doing any wrighting of his own. Satan, again occupying the grammatical object position, was “lifted up so high” not by his own determination but by God, which elevation, he claims, could only have resulted in his rebellion. Later, he rejects seeking pardon as an option, using the same grammatical sleight:

                                                                                    is there no place
                                  Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
                                  None left but by submission; and that word
                                  Disdain forbids me . . .


Here again, Satan relocates himself from nominative actor to passive recipient of the action: He is the powerless object of “Disdain,” which intangible prohibits him from choosing to make  amends.

The degree to which Satan absents himself from his own agency is made explicit when he laments, climactically,

                                  O had his powerful Destiny ordaind
                                  Me some inferiour Angel, I had stood
                                  Then happie; no unbounded hope had rais’d


In other words, it’s not because of his own choosing but the fault of divine des- tiny that he is ruled by such exorbitant ambition. Little wonder, then, that Satan arrives finally at this decisive moment of self-scrutiny—which Satan transmutes into an incongruous indecision:

                                  Hadst thou the same free Will and Power to stand?
                                  Thou hadst: whom hast thou then or what to accuse,
                                  But Heav’ns free Love dealt equally to all?
                                  Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate,
                                  To  me alike, it deals eternal woe.


Satan’s question to himself in line 66, and his response in the line following, would seem to make space, finally, for a candid self-assessment: Didn’t you have the agentive capacity—the “free will”—to choose for yourself? Satan demands     of himself. Affirmatively comes the immediate reply: “Thou hadst.” Whom . . .   to accuse, then, for your fall? And then, over line 67’s break, the surprising and whiplash response: “Heaven’s free love dealt equally to all.” Though it seems  not to logically follow from the premise that has given rise to it, Satan’s conclusion again deflects blame, and deflects agency, away from himself. He frames himself, once again, as someone who just didn’t have a   choice.

More than his serpentine wiles or trash-talking mutinies, it is this reluctance to own his actions that characterizes Satan’s villainy in Paradise Lost. For this is  a text whose greatest investment is in the cultivation of agency. Milton’s priority on the moral necessity of deliberate choice dominates both the plot and the language of the text. It is the capacity to choose, and to own the consequences   of that choice, that governs Milton’s conception of both the Fall and its redemption. As God explains in the poem’s third book,

                                  Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
                                  Not free, what proof could they have givn sincere
                                  Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love,
                                  Where onely what they needs must do, appeard,
                                  Not what they would? what praise could they receive?
                                  What pleasure I from such obedience paid,
                                  When Will and Reason (Reason also is choice)
                                  Useless and vain, of freedom both despoild,
                                  Made passive both, had servd necessitie,
                                  Not mee.


Though readers have long recognized the troubling tension between free will and the notion of an omniscient god in Milton’s text (a conundrum Milton him- self recognizes and incorporates into the fruitless diversions of the fallen angels at 2.557-561), the text nevertheless continues to champion the exercise of reason as both materially consequential and morally formative. In its advocacy for agency, Paradise Lost echoes Milton’s great prose treatise against the censorship of books and printed materials and in favor of the free exercise of reason, the Areopagitica. In that text, Milton writes against the state of dumb marionettery that must follow from the denial of agency by invoking   Eden:

                               many there be that complain of divin Providence for suffering Adam to
                               transgresse, foolish tongues! when God gave him reason, he gave him
                               freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had bin else a meer
                               artificiall Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions.

By “the motions,” Milton here means the puppet shows, in which the only action is governed by some force beyond the “meer artificiall” players. For Mil- ton, agency is constitutive of morality, and the act of choosing is more determi- native than what is chosen.

Indeed, Milton’s commitment to reason and choice as fundamental theological principles explains his innovative rendering of the Fall in Book 9 of Paradise Lost. Milton’s version significantly amplifies the Genesis narrative, and one feature of his imaginative expansion is that while Satan suggests the appeal of the forbidden fruit to Eve, it is in fact Eve who talks herself—reasons herself—into eating (see 9.745-779). And, later, it is Eve who begins the process of reconciliation by taking responsibility for her earlier choice (10.162, 930-936). Where Satan’s method is to defray responsibility, Eve’s is to own it, which in Paradise Lost—in despite its blockbuster battles and epic warriors—amounts to true heroism.

Milton extends the argument he makes about agency to the labor of the reader as well. Critics have long recognized the work of deliberate choosing that Paradise Lost places before the reader (see, for example, Stanley Fish’s seminal work Surprised by Sin), but the interpretive deliberation required extends beyond the biblical plot into the poem’s language. One example of such readerly choosing occurs in Book 4, when Satan first leaps over the wall into Eden:

                                                                                     As when a prowling Wolfe,
                                  Whom hunger drives to seek new haunt for  prey,
                                  Watching where Shepherds pen thir Flocks at eeve
                                  In hurdl’d Cotes amid the field  secure,
                                  Leaps o’re the fence with ease into the Fould:
                                  Or as a Thief bent to unhoord the cash
                                  Of some rich Burgher, whose substantial dores,
                                  Cross-barrd and bolted fast, fear no assault,
                                  In at the window climbs, or o’re the tiles . . .


Here, Milton offers his readers two distinct metaphors, balanced across line 188’s confrontational “Or.” Is Satan like a wolf entering God’s sheepfold? Or is Satan like a thief entering a mansion? As we look at the metaphors, they become more complex; for Milton’s wolf acts not from malice but from “hunger,” and the “ease” with which the fold is breeched impugns the shepherd’s preparation—and the thief whose target is to “unhoord” the hoarded “cash” of “some rich Burgher” sounds uncomfortably like Robin Hood. Each of these metaphors is challenging on its own, and Milton’s “Or” confronts the readers with the responsibility to decide which one is more apt, which one more revealing about the complicated dynamics of the Fall. There’s no way, in these lines, to wiggle out of choosing and its consequences.

Given the poem’s—and the poet’s—thoroughgoing investment in reasoned choice as the foundational moral principle, Satan’s lyric meditation is most re- markable not for the way it reveals a sympathetic villain who harbors regret about his actions but for the way the grammar of this passage belies Satan’s own claims about his regrets by annulling his actions as actions. In his speech  on Mount Niphates, Satan’s grammar exposes his continued refusal to imagine himself as a fully-formed moral agent. His persistent self-positioning as passive, as merely the complacent object of the actions of others rather than a deliberate and answerable actor in his own right, flouts the moral education that Paradise Lost narrates. Moreover, it defies the moral education that the poem seeks to cultivate in its reader by presenting irreconcilable interpretive choices and demanding that the reader engage them. Satan’s evil isn’t the finger steepling nastiness of matinee schemers. His villainy doesn’t derive from his rebellion against heaven—that’s just a plot point, a biblically-inspired caricature with some ancient Greek seasoning. His more insidious crime is to use the rational system of language as an instrument toward abdication, toward indifference, toward inertness. More than the enemy of God, Milton’s Satan is the enemy of reason.

Kimberly Johnson’s most recent collection of poems is Uncommon Prayer (Per- sea, 2014). With Jay Hopler, she edited Before the Door of God: An Anthol- ogy of Devotional Poetry (Yale University Press, 2013). Her poetry, literary criticism, and translations from Latin and Greek appear widely in publications including The New Yorker, Slate, Kenyon Review, and Milton Quarterly. Re- cipient of grants and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA, she lives in Salt Lake City.

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