Satan and his followers wage an ill-fated war against God, only to be subsequently doomed to a life of unending pain by Him. In your opinion, is Satan, in Paradise Lost, inherently evil, or is he more of an anti-hero? Could he even be considered a hero? How so?
In my opinion, Satan is not inherently evil, but he is an anti-hero. When encouraging Beelzebub, his second-in-command, to wage an eternal war against Heaven, he explains his philosophy. He says, ” To do aught good never will be our task, / But ever to do ill our sole delight, / As being the contrary to His high will / Whom we resist” (159-162). This sentiment is basically the definition of an anti-hero, or a protagonist who lacks conventionally heroic traits. Satan in “Paradise Lost” clearly lacks morality and wants to twist the virtuous purposes of Heaven, so he cannot be a true hero. He specifically states that he delights in causing havoc, and he rallies his legions of demons to corrupt humankind as a means to defeat God and his followers in Heaven. These actions display his skewed moral compass. However, he is more of an anti-hero because we still see him presented as the leader of the demons, of someone who is determined to raise the morale of his followers and inspire courage and passion in them as well. The Satan presented in “Paradise Lost” falls under the category of a self-interested anti-hero, encouraging his legions to serve his desired purposes.
I think something we should call into question before we make judgments on Satan’s status as either a heroic or villainous protagonist (and we should also allow room for more nuance beyond this binary) is establish motive for Milton’s epic itself, which we can find in “The Argument to Book 1”. Pay special attention to the language in the explanation of Satan being thrown out of Heaven.
“To these [the fallen angels] Satan directs his speech, comforts them with hope yet of regaining Heaven, but tells them last of a new world and new kind of creature to be created, according to an ancient prophesy or report in Heaven; for that angels were long before this visible creation, was the opinion of many Fathers. To find out the truth of this prophesy and what to determine thereon, he refers to a full council.”
I find it difficult to find textual evidence that prescribes any kind of morals beyond Satan rebelling and Man disobeying God. In sum, I agree with your own analysis – Satan is presented as a compelling anti-hero with a worthy, if self-interested, cause, rather than a one-dimensional devil.
While I agree with the conclusion that Satan is an anti-hero, I think the bigger question should be what defines him as such. An anti-hero is someone who is self-serving, someone who fights for themselves and perhaps those that they consider comrades. Is Satan fighting against Heaven and creating evil simply because it is in his interest to weaken God’s efforts, or is he doing it purely because he wishes to spread evil? In lines 159-160, as seen above, he is saying that the only purpose of himself and his demon horde is to create evil, to do ill to all of mankind. In lines 161-162, also above, Satan clarifies that his purpose is to fight against God, who he sees as an oppressor. The reason Satan is an anti-hero is because he sees evil as a means to an end, instead of the traditional interpretation of Satan as a purely evil being who creates chaos and strife simply because it is his nature.
I think the characterization of Satan is strange here, because clearly we are not meant to like him, but it some ways he appeals to our Western morality more than God might. For instance, he seems to be more democratic with his demons. Satan says, “Be it so, since He / Who now is sovereign can dispose and bid / What shall be right: farthest from Him is best / Whom reason has equalled, force has made supreme / Above His equals” (245-249). He is claiming that God seized control through conflict and has no more claim to authority than the angels, “His equals.” He even calls God a monarch in line 638, which would be less of a controversial word in Milton’s day, but for modern audiences, I think most people would be against the monarchical rule were it not for the religious context of the text.
I would classify Satan as more of an anti-hero, but I still think that that term may be putting it a little too nicely. He is definitely intended to be an evil character, but unlike other depictions of Satan we get to see more of where he’s coming from. Or more specifically, Satan gets to state his case for why he wanted to rebel against God in the first place. While it that doesn’t end up being enough for him to be considered an “anti-hero” it does give us some insight into his character that at least makes him more relatable. He’s supporting the idea of free will over God’s will, which is kind of admirable in a way, but he then twists that concept of free will into his own desire for power when he says “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n” (line 263). Satan also seems to eventually be consumed by a hatred of God over a focus on trying to do things his own way, as can be seen when decides that he will try to counteract all of God’s good acts with his own acts of evil. I think that because he is the lord of all evil and that he and his followers take joy in that evil that he can’t be seen as a hero. But that doesn’t mean that we as readers can’t understand where he’s coming from and see a sort of tragedy in his character given how he’s become completely lost in his desire to best God and obtain power.
Satan is portrayed as evil incarnate. He condemns himself when he proclaims”Hail horrors! hail Infernal world! And Thou profoundest Hell, Receive thy new possessor (250-2520). Satan glorifies and praises that which most every human would call detestable. If we were to see someone out on the street advocating for horrors and the infernal world, which in the poem is described as “regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace and rest can never dwell”, we would call that person evil even if he had a large band of minions following him. Having followers does not earn him the title of anti-hero. Arguing with that logic, one could justify Hitler or Stalin as being an anti-hero because they inspired courage and passion in the hearts of their followers as well. Satan himself declares that his sole delight is to do evil (160). Satan has no redeemable qualities; he is pure evil.
I’d have to agree that Satan is much more of an evil character than any sort of hero. It is clear that among his demons he is a clear leader. He inspires them to do his will and motivates them to continue in it despite their recent loss to God in the war. However, I believe that leadership alone is not a “good” quality. Rather, it is what one does with that leadership position that makes it a good or bad quality. If one simply uses that leadership to spread hate and evil, as Satan does, it cannot be considered a good quality. Thus, since he has no good qualities and displays only evil, he cannot be considered an anti-hero.
I see Satan as an anti-hero not as an inherently evil character. An anti-hero is a character who lacks the characteristics that would make him a hero. While he is still mean to be considered evil, we see the rational of Satan. He gets an opportunity to explain why he is the enemy of God in general. He says, “to do ill our sole delight, as being the contrary to His high will, whom we resist” (169-162). His actions show that he has no morals and thus are one of characteristics that he lacks which make him an anti-hero. He is also presented as a leader of the demons, but is also shown as very self interested. And thus in my opinion, Satan is considered to be an anti-hero.
I think Satan becomes evil simply through two lines: “To do aught good never will be our task,/ But ever to do ill our sole delight” (lines 159-160). In this line, Satan chooses only to do evil, and to never do “good” again. An anti-hero does heroic things in a non-heroic way, like the Punisher or Deadpool. Satan doesn’t want to do good at all, not even in the results of actions. Later on he says: :If then His Providence/ Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,/ Out labor must be to pervert that end,” (lines 163-165). So not only does he resign himself to evil, he wants to turn all other good into evil! He’s definitely not a hero, and he’s not an anti-hero either. He’s just pure evil, hell-bent (so to speak) on vengeance and bringing all good to its end.
I think that we have been raised to see Satan as the biggest example of someone who is inherently evil and will stop at nothing. However, Milton, who wanted to provide the people of his era with a new way of viewing this, and wanted to break their binary thinking (for example, good vs. evil) wanted to show that Satan isn’t solely evil. His intentions definitely make him an anti-hero though, who is the opposite of God. Satan exclaims “Here at least / we shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built here for his envy / will not drive us hence: / here we may reign secure ….. better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n” (258-263). This is an interesting way to build an anti-hero because we are given his side of the story and can better understand why he wants to rebel against God, he often comes off more like an aspiring conqueror or underdog that we could pity and rally with rather than the bringer of evil and temptation.
I believe we are meant to perceive Satan as a hero or at least an anti-hero at the beginning when we read how optimistic he is after his defeat and how he remains positive that he can overthrow God in someway. There is also a sense that he was rejected because he did not like God’s intentions for the Son because he wishes it was his status. He even finds the strength to rally up the rest of his followers and encourages them to stand behind him again despite defeat His decision to take the good that God is and performs and somehow make it evil is where he changes from the anti-hero to the villain. He no longer has a goal that ends in a way that benefits anyone other than himself. His goals now go against all that is good, which an anti-hero is willing to dabble in occasionally, and try and disrupt and corrupt it.
The way Book 1 is structured actually makes Satan seem more like a hero, as it details his struggles and makes him the central character and depicts him as the underdog against God. The fact that he is evil seems to be an afterthought. For instance, in lines 159-160 Satan states “To do aught good never will be our task,/ But ever to do ill our sole delight,” only after he remarks, “What can it then avail though yet we feel / Strength undiminished, or eternal being / to undergo eternal punishment?” (lines 153-155) as if to reason with the idea of being evil and amoral, since it doesn’t really matter if they are good. To quote William Blake, Milton is “of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” which explains why the depiction of Satan in this book is often controversial and inconclusive.