This is the third part of a series exploring John Milton’s treatment of Satan in his epic Paradise Lost. Find a link to the second part here:Milton’s Satan– A Lying Fool?
So is Satan just a foolish liar? Milton does not allow us to be so hasty in drawing conclusions. Satan is not just a liar, but a clever liar who turns the improbable into plausible in a matter of seconds. This aspect of his character is what has been arguably the most prominent of traits in Book I of Paradise Lost. Satan is a politician, a type which in itself imbues the necessity of him being a liar albeit with the added qualities of being a careful strategist, a fiery orator and an eternal sinner.
To ensure his fallen angels are airborne again, Satan conceals a threat in his speech while playing with the popular prejudices of his fallen comrades. He lies when he says God sees them in their vulnerable state and that God’s armies in Heaven will take advantage of their weakness to accelerate destruction. They will either tread them down or transfix them with thunderbolts to the depths of hell. He evokes an even pitiable picture than the one rebel angels are currently in. This is utter falsification and distortion of facts for his selfish gain. We have already been told God has left them to their own designs.
Later in his fifth speech, Satan addresses his risen army. His war-cry and proclamation is one where despite his monarchy; he entices those around him with the language of democracy. Even though he might call the rebel angels his “co-partners”, his power-hungry over-lordship turns to them as subjects first and then his army. Having seen the loyalty exuded by the fallen angels who organize themselves into military formation, Satan’s heart distends with pride. At the same time, he is overcome by sorrow and pity for the followers of his crime, who have suffered dire consequences and unimaginable pain, but still remain faithful. He implicitly feels responsible for their well-being. Despite having exacerbated their damnation in hell, they do not blame him.
His army surrounds him and closes in on him. Silence prevails as they listen in rapt attention. Satan attempts to speak thrice but falters as tears of pure compassion burst forth. The beginning of his speech is rather brave for someone weeping. It is here that Milton qualifies Satan as a theatrical rhetorician, a politician using emotion to exploit en masse.
As the commander of a bruised army, he has to offer some perspective on defeat, so that his regiments are not completely battered or demoralized. Addressing the sheer enormity of their numbers, he assures them that they are inimitable, rivaled by only the Almighty. He says that their rebellious foray into God’s sovereignty was not inglorious even if their loss of brightness and infernal surroundings deem it so. Milton uses the double negative to undercut Satan. Which(and not who), being armed by the foreknowledge and the power to foretell could augur their crushing defeat? Using this rhetorical question Satan engages his listeners, the fallen angels and they are completely drawn in. Satan conveniently distorts facts by saying heaven is empty after the rebel legions were exiled. In fact, the narrator has already told us that the rebel angels were only a third of the total. In his next rhetorical question, Satan plants the idea that it is possible to regain heaven’s throne.
Satan claims that if he had ignored the advice of his well-wishers or eschewed danger, the fault would have been his. This is true as attested to by Beelzebub– Satan led from the forefront and never shirked responsibility. Having done everything in his power to achieve victory, he now shuns responsibility for defeat. The rebellion in Heaven shattered the status quo God’s monarchy. So while God fully displayed his majesty, ceremony and incompetent authority, he acted deceitfully by concealing his thunder. He allowed them to be tempted into overthrowing him and therefore, the fault is God’s. Satan’s statements are contradictory but emotional and manipulative. While Satan projects himself as a consulting and democratic persona, the very fact that he takes his listeners’ agreement for granted testifies against it. There is intermingling of fact and fiction in his version of the battle.
Satan contends that he has seen the full extent of God’s might and knows his own prowess. He asserts that they shall not provoke further war with God for he is supreme in the field of physical battle. Henceforth, they shall be in cahoots with guile and seek to defeat God fraudulently. According to Satan, victory by force is only half the battle won. While consideration of his defeat has matured his thoughts, Satan chooses not the heroic way of combat but a dubious manner in cowardice. Herein, Satan’s character matures as a politician. As a final argument, Satan alludes to a rumour in Heaven that God intended to create a new world and plant a generation of “chosen people”. Just as you would expect a tactful politician to do, Satan too outlines the aim of his revenge plan, the corruption of mankind.
As is evident then, Milton incorporates several aspects of Satan to make him seem both intelligent and powerful as well as lying and foolish. What we choose to see in him is something he leaves for his audience to decide. In doing so, Milton breaks convention in blatantly depicting good and evil as all religious scriptures do, and exactly this demonstrates his ingenuity as a writer of his time.
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