Milton: Character of "Satan"

Milton: Character of "Satan"


The character of Satan holds a prominent position in Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost. While the main theme of the poem revolves around "Man's first disobedience," it is the portrayal of Satan that adds a touch of greatness to this literary work. Milton skillfully utilizes his poetic prowess to depict the majestic personality of Satan, the enemy of both God and humanity.

Satan's Complex Character

In Paradise Lost Book I, Satan's character is portrayed as a blend of noble and ignoble qualities, displaying both exalted and base traits. Consequently, it becomes challenging to categorize him as either a hero or a pure villain. Nevertheless, Book I leaves little doubt regarding his heroic qualities, showcasing his exemplary willpower, unwavering determination, unshakable confidence, and unbelievable courage. Religious sources provide further insight into Satan's character, defining him as the arch-enemy of humanity, the adversary of God and Christianity, a rebel against God, and a fallen archangel.

Satan's Rebellion and Defeat

Milton himself confirms Satan's status as an archangel. When God appoints the Holy Christ as His viceroy, Satan refuses to accept this divine order, considering himself a suitable candidate for the role. His false strength and pride lead him to revolt against God, driven by his lust for power. However, Satan and his army suffer a crushing defeat and are cast headlong into the depths of hell.

Satan's Heroic Attributes

Milton vividly describes Satan's imposing physical stature, his formidable weaponry, his towering presence, and his commanding gestures, all of which contribute to his heroic aura. In his first speech, Satan boldly declares his lack of remorse for his actions, asserting that defeat has not changed him in the slightest. His words resonate powerfully:

"What though the field be lost?
All is not lost – the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield."

Unwilling to submit to the will of God, Satan remains determined to wage eternal war by force, refusing to compromise. He proudly claims possession of the deepest pits of hell, proclaiming his mind to be unchangeable, impervious to the passage of time or the exertion of force. Satan declares, "The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."

Satan's Debased State

Despite enduring perpetual mental and physical torment in hell, Satan finds contentment in his unrestricted freedom to indulge in whatever he pleases. His concept of freedom is encapsulated in the line, "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." While Satan exhibits remarkable leadership qualities, earning the admiration of Beelzebub and the fallen angels, his character embodies evil, leaving us torn between appreciating his views on honor, revenge, and freedom and sympathizing with him for his disobedience to God.

Satan's Degeneration

As the poem progresses, Satan's character gradually deteriorates, and he fails to sustain his impression of true heroism due to his moral degradation. A close examination of his speeches to his followers reveals a series of contradictions and absurdities, as he attempts to deceive his comrades. On one hand, he encourages them to wage war against God, while on the other hand, he secretly desires peace through submission. Upon reaching Earth, Satan assumes the form of a serpent, descending into complete degradation. His pride is ultimately the cause of his fall from Heaven, as it has elevated him to challenge the mightiest. Yet, where is that pride when the Archangel willingly enters the mouth of a slumbering serpent, hiding within its "Mazy folds"? From his initial grandeur, he descends into a cunning and manipulative being, attempting to tempt Eve through deceit. Thus, Satan devolves from a brave hero to a crafty villain, as C. S. Lewis aptly remarks:
"From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at a bedroom or bathroom window, and thence toad, and finally to a snake – such is the progress of Satan."


In light of the aforementioned observations, it is clear that Satan emerges as a powerful and imposing hero in Book I of Paradise Lost. However, in Book IX, he appears before us as an unadulterated villain, driven by his malevolent intentions and confessing his chief pleasure lies in the destruction of mankind. This transformation diminishes our estimation of him as a hero.
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