From Lael, Commentary on Literature, week 1
If he wasn’t a Puritan, John Milton could have been a successful Hollywood screenwriter. Like a blockbuster movie that begins with James Bond skiing off a cliff or Indiana Jones losing ground to the massive boulder at his back, he begins Paradise Lost in the middle of the action—Satan rising from the dark, molten flames of hell to survey the wreckage of his fall and regroup. His courageous and defiant speech to rally his battered troops, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n,” has inspired generations of romantic writers and aging rockers.
William Blake was the first, I believe, to famously depict Milton’s Satan not as the villain but rather a romantic hero when he wrote that Milton, “was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Prefiguring today’s chorus of new atheists, Blake wrote that “Milton’s devil as a moral being is…far superior to God” because he “perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture.” This “heroic” view of Satan has inspired generations of literary controversy and far too many term papers which can be downloaded at www.echeat.com. Somehow that is entirely fitting.
But what is a hero? Blake and other romantics recast the classical role of a hero, the general Maximus-style protagonist who overcomes adversity by courage and self-sacrifice for some greater good, in the mold of Rousseau’s radical individualism still popular today. This view of a hero applauds the pursuit of freedom and the triumph of the individual over the God of church tradition and all theological, moral and social restraints.
But while this self-styled hero chooses courage and liberty, it is not so that he might be free to love and sacrificially give himself for others. Milton, clearly in disagreement with the Romantics, exposes Satan’s motive. The Devil himself confesses that his rebellion grows from the grudge of “injur’d merit.” God appointed the Messiah as chief of his angelic legions rather than Satan. The rack and ruin of the universe, according to Milton, can be traced back to the guy who got passed over for the promotion. Satan was dissed. Not the sort of grievance that inspires people of goodwill to sympathy or support.
In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis chronicles the degradation of the former Prince of Heaven turned Peeping Tom who roils in envy of Adam and Eve locked in loving embrace. “From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to Secret Service agent, and thence to this thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake—such is the progress of Satan…it was the poet’s intention to be fair to evil…to show it first at the height…and then to trace what actually becomes of such self-intoxication when it encounters reality.” Those who want to interpret Satan as hero must play fast and loose with the text. Both Milton’s and God’s.
But a hero is not merely a literary term. A true hero grabs your heart. I couldn’t read about the literary argument over the “heroism” of Satan without recalling a TV character we often watch: Greg House. Dr. House shares much in common with Milton’s Satan: intellectual brilliance, cunning, sophistication, magnetic attraction (I wonder if Satan had “dreamy blue eyes”), seductive and cynical, mysterious and moody, a renegade prized for his great gifts and the excitement he generates, but not for his heart. (No track record of loving sacrifice here…just a white-hot trajectory of success.) It makes for great entertainment. A lot of drama. We love to watch. Fun place to visit, but would we really want to live there?