John Milton, Paradise Lost

 

Milton’s Satan

 

With John Milton, we find much more of interest.  Milton was a radical revisionist when it came to the Christian religion.  His conclusions are laid out in a Latin treatise, De Doctrina Christiana (DDC),

 

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which was not published during his lifetime (he died in 1674).  An effort to publish it in 1675 failed, and it only saw the light of day in 1823.2

Milton’s most important revisionizing was his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity.  The Son of God, who became incarnated as Jesus Christ, was indeed the First Begotten of God, but He was not Himself God.  Milton could not decide whether the Holy Spirit was a real Person or not, but if so, He was a creature like the Son, not identical with the Creator.

Angels are either good or bad, Milton says, for it is evident that some of them rebelled against God before the Fall of Man.  To establish the fact of this rebellion, he is too literal-minded to refer to Isaiah 14, the Lucifer passage, as having anything to do with Satan.  Rather, he cites John 8.44, which he interprets thus:  “He [the Devil] did not abide in the Truth, for the Truth is not in him.  He is the Father of Lying, speaking out of his own nature.”  In addition, he cites 2 Peter 2.4:  “He did not spare the Angels who sinned”; Jude 6:  “Angels who did not keep their origin”; and 1 John 3.8:  “The Devil sins from the beginning.”  For some reason he also cites Psalm 106.37:  “They sacrificed to Demons”—which would not establish a Fall of Angels before the Fall of Man (DDC, Book 1, chap. 9).

The Leader of the Angels, Milton continues, seems to be Michael, as in Revelation 12.7-8 (Michael and his Angels fighting against the Dragon and his Angels).  Many think that Michael is to be identified with Christ, an interpretation that Milton himself decisively rejects.  For Christ is the sole conqueror and trampler of the Devil (Christus victor solus et conculcator Diaboli), whereas Michael is spoken of here as the Leader of the Angels against the Prince of Daemonia in an almost equal conflict.  Milton also cites the Devil’s dispute with Michael over the body of Moses in the Epistle of Jude (chap. 5.3 above), where Michael is clearly not Christ.

 

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The Bad Angels are “reserved” for punishment.  The punishment is set for the future (he cites the Daimones of Matthew 8.29:  “Have you come to torment us before the constituted time?”); but, according to 2 Peter 2.4, they have already been thrust into Tartarus, to be kept in chains of foggy darkness, awaiting damnation, while Jude speaks of reserving them in eternal chains of foggy darkness for the Judgment of that Great Day (for these Angels, see chap. 5.4 above).

However, the Bad Angels are at times allowed to traverse the entire Earth, the Air, and even Heaven, in order to carry out the judgments of God, as we see from the Book of Job.  There is also the Evil Spirit who disturbs King Saul (1 Sam. 16.15), as well as Peter’s characterization of the Devil as a roaring lion (1 Peter 5.8), and Christ’s reference to Satan as the Prince of this World (John 12.31), and so on.  But the proper place (proprius locus) of the Fallen Angels is the Abyss, from which they cannot emerge without permission (referring to Luke 8.31:  the Legion of Demons begs not to be sent back to the Abyss).

The Bad Angels, that is, the Daemones, have great knowledge, but it is a source of pain to them rather than consolation, for they despair of ever being saved (once again Milton cites the episode of the Gadarene demoniacs, Matt. 8.29).  They are headed by a Prince, variously called Beelzebub (Matt. 12.24), the Devil (Matt. 25.41), the Dragon (Rev. 12.9), and many other names.  He is the author of all maleficium and the impeder of good.

Moving on to Chapter 11 (of DDC Book 1), which deals with the Fall of Man, we see that Milton accepts without need for argument that the Serpent of the Garden of Eden is the Devil.  He asserts that the sin of the First Parents was committed at the instigation of the Devil, as is evident from the account of Genesis, and from what John says in his First Epistle:  “Whoever commits sin is from the Devil, because the Devil sins from the beginning” (1 John 3.8).  Man (here including both Adam and Eve), like the Devil, “did not abide in the truth” (Jesus speaking of the Devil, John 8.44) and “did not keep his first estate, but left his own habitation” (Jude 6, speaking of the Angels who fell—meaning the Angels who mated with women in Genesis 6).  Milton

 

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argues at great length against the opinion of “certain moderns” who believe that only physical debility was passed on to the human race, and he upholds the traditional view that all humanity inherited moral guilt and punishment.

In Paradise Lost (PL), Milton follows the long-held interpretation that Satan himself sinned out of pride, and then, acting out of envy and revenge, enticed Man to sin (PL 1.35-44).  In dramatizing Satan’s rebellion, Milton runs the risk of making him seem anything but intellectually acute, and even mentally retarded, when he shows him believing that he would be able to wield authority in opposition to God’s will.  It is obvious that he has no idea of God’s omniscience (God can read Satan’s mind), not to mention His omnipotence.

Satan’s original name is never mentioned.  He was the highest Archangel, it seems (PL 5.660), his countenance was like the Morning Star (5.708)—remember, that’s Lucifer!—and the headquarters of the Rebel Angels can be called, in human dialect, “The Palace of Great Lucifer” (5.760).  In telling Adam and Eve of Satan’s fall, Raphael refers to him as Lucifer, and explains:

So call him, brighter once amidst the Host

Of Angels than that Star the Stars among.  (PL 7.132-3)

The fall of Satan like lightning from Heaven, which Jesus will witness (Luke 10.18), clearly does not refer to Satan’s original fall from Heaven, but rather to his defeat at the hands of Jesus.  It is part of the predicted bruising of the Serpent’s head by the Seed of Eve.  This bruising was verified

When Jesus, Son of Mary, second Eve,

Saw Satan fall like Lightning down from Heaven,

Prince of the Air.  Then, rising from His grave,

Spoiled Principalities and Powers, triumphed

In open show, and, with Ascension bright,

Captivity led captive through the Air,

 

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The Realm itself of Satan long usurped,

Whom He shall tread at last under our feet,

Even He who now foretold his fatal bruise.  (PL 10.183-91)

There is no visiting of Hell between the death of Jesus and His rising, and, accordingly, no rescuing of souls or binding of Satan in Hell.  Rather, Jesus meets only with a personified enemy, Death:  “He dies, /But soon revives; Death over Him no power / Shall long usurp” (PL 12.419-21).

The great encounter with Satan comes only now:

Then to the Heaven of Heavens He shall ascend

With victory, triumphing through the Air

Over His foes and thine–there shall surprise

The Serpent, Prince of Air, and drag in chains

Through all his Realm and there confounded leave (PL 12.451-55)

Of course, Satan will not really be put in chains when Jesus ascends to Heaven.  He will continue his activities on Earth, and the Son will send His Spirit as a Comforter to guide the faithful and make them “able to resist / Satan’s assaults and quench his fiery darts” (PL 12.491-92).  These helps, however, will not prove very effective, and things will go from bad to worse until at last the Savior and Lord at His Second Coming returns to Earth at the end of time “in glory of the Father, to dissolve / Satan with his perverted World” (PL 12.546-47).

Milton never speaks of “Demons” in Paradise Lost.  Nor does he speak of “Devils” (in the plural) in that work, though he does use the expression once (1.373), and in Paradise Regained he once refers to the Fallen Angels as “Demonian Spirits” (2.122).  The only “Lucifer” in Paradise Regained is Jesus Himself:  “So spake our Morning Star, then in His rise” (1.294), in keeping with the New Testament usage (see chap. 6.4 above).

 

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The whole of Paradise Regained is taken up with Satan’s three temptations of Jesus in the Desert.  Or, actually, it deals almost entirely with the first two temptations in the Lucan order (bread, kingdoms).  The third temptation is over as soon as it begins:  taking Jesus to the top of the Temple, Satan tells Him that he, Satan, is a genuine Son of God, and that, if Jesus too is a Son of God, He should cast Himself down and trust in God to protect Him.  Jesus simply tells him not to tempt God, and Satan himself suddenly falls, “struck with dread and anguish” (PR 4.576).

Thereupon Angels bear Jesus to a place of refreshment, and then they address Satan:

But thou, Infernal Serpent, shalt not long

Rule in the Clouds; like an Autumnal Star

Or Lightning thou shalt fall from Heaven, trod down

Under His feet.  For proof, ere this thou feelest

Thy wound, yet not thy last and deadliest wound

By this repulse received, and holdest in Hell

No triumph.  In all her Gates, Abaddon rues

Thy bold attempt.  (PR 4.618-25)

Abaddon here is the female personification of Hell, like Sheol of old.

The Angels go on to say that Jesus will chase Satan and his Legions from his “Demoniac holds” (that is, the bodies of possessed persons):

Yelling they shall fly,

And beg to hide them in a herd of swine,

Lest He command them down into the Deep,

Bound, and to torment sent before their time. (PR 4.629-32).

There is no mention of the battle of Revelation 12.  Milton must surely have read this text as literally occurring in the future, or at least at the time of Christ’s death, as he did Satan’s fall like lightning.  But in having Michael be prominent among the military

 

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opponents of Satan in Paradise Lost, he yielded to the force of tradition in retro-jecting the battle with the Dragon to a time before the beginning of time, something that both Luther and Calvin refrained from doing.

In not rendering the Daimonia of the Gospels as “Demons,” Milton was following Luther’s example and that of the English Protestant translators, beginning with William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 and continuing through the King James Version of 1611:  these Possessing Demons are all called “Devils” (when they are not called “Unclean Spirits” or “Evil Spirits”).  This is in contrast to the much earlier Wycliffite New Testament, which is dated to 1388:  here the Latin Demonia is rendered as “Fiends.”

There is no appearance of the word “Demon” (or any of its derivatives) or the word “Fiend” in the entire King James Bible.  Instead, by pluralizing “Devil,” the earlier identification of the Devil with the Possessing Spirits of the New Testament was solidly reinforced.

Thus, when Daniel Defoe came to treat of Satan in his satirical work, The Political History of the Devil, which he published in 1726,3  he says that both “Devil” and “Devils” appear in the Bible:

It is thus expressed in Scripture, where the person possessed (Matt. iv.24) is first said to be possessed of the Devil (singular) and Our Saviour asks him, as speaking to a single person, “What is thy name?” and is answered in the plural and singular together, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”  (Part 1, ch. 2, p. 18)

Defoe must be reciting from memory here.  The episode appears in not in Matthew 4 but 8, not verse 24 but 28ff., and without “Legion.”  He is thinking of a combination of Luke and Mark:

 

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Luke:  He had commanded the Unclean Spirit to come out of the man. . . ; he brake the bands, and was driven of the Devil into the Wilderness.  And Jesus asked him saying, “What is thy name?”  And he said, “Legion,” because many Devils were entered into him.  (KJV Luke 8.29-30)

Mark:  He said unto him, “Come out of the man, thou Unclean Spirit!”  And He asked him, “What is thy name?”  And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”  (KJV Mark 5.8-9)

Defoe’s work is in two parts, and the beginning of the long subtitle to Part 1 reads:  Containing a State of the Devil’s Circumstances and the Various Turns of His Affairs from His Expulsion out of Heaven to the Creation of Man, with Remarks on the Several Mistakes concerning the Reason and Manner of His Fall.  He is particularly at pains to correct the errors of “Mr. Milton.”

He states it as his purpose to write Satan’s story impartially, “to do him justice” (1.1, p. 7)—a goal that I sympathize with!  He starts from the premise “agreed by all writers, as well sacred as profane,” that the Devil was “originally an Angel of Light, a glorious Seraph, perhaps the choicest of all the glorious Seraphs” (1.3, p. 26).  He was vanquished by God and expelled from Heaven, leaving him the implacable enemy of God.  He is also Man’s irreconcilable enemy, motivated not by any hope of profit for himself, but solely out of sheer envy because Man has been appointed to replace Satan in Heaven (1.4, p. 45).

Defoe faults Milton for making Satan’s motive for rebellion his resentment at God’s declaration that the Son of God was to be Generalissimo of all the Heavenly Host.  This “lays an avowed foundation for the corrupt doctrine of Arius, which says there was a time when Christ was not the Son of God” (1.5, p. 57).  Defoe would doubtless have been surprised to know that this really was Milton’s view.

He agrees with Milton that Satan and the other Angels rebelled for some reason and were expelled, but he disagrees that he was

 

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immediately cast into Hell; rather, he was left free to roam about on Earth.  “He is more of a vagrant than a prisoner” (1.6, p. 61).

Defoe has many other shrewd and entertaining views, but it is time to move on.

                2Merritt Y. Hughes’s edition of John Milton’s Complete Poems and Major Prose (Indianapolis 1957) includes excerpts of the English translation of De Doctrina Christiana, including 1.9, on Angels (pp. 990-92).

                3Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil, published in 1726, has been edited by Irving N. Rothman and R. Michael Bowerman (New York: AMS, 2003).