Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Milton -- Paradise Lost: Book 1

Discussion questions from the meeting of March 6:

1. Is Satan a good leader?

2. What kind of creatures are the fallen angels?

3. Why do they hate God?


Blogger SMJ said...

Satan, having brought an ill-advised rebellion against God, finds himself cast out of Heaven, and languishes in the eternal darkness of Hell, along with his defeated army of fallen angels. What inspired Satan to rebel against his Creator is not explained, though pride is identified as the cause of his disgrace. Satan's rebellion failed because his power was not sufficient to oppose God. In other words, he underestimated his opponent, for one assumes that if Satan had realized the true scope of God's power, he never would have embarked on such a hopeless mission. Thus, one could argue that the real cause of Satan's downfall was a lack of proper judgment, or, in military jargon, "bad intelligence."

It is unclear what Satan wished to accomplish through his rebellion. Either he wished to replace God on the throne of heaven (i.e.,. become God himself), or he might have desired to rule as God's equal, being a kind of twin sovereign of the universe. In either case, Satan wished to advance his own position in the heavenly ranks, while reducing God's status. This arrangement of a dual kingship suggests the Manichean vision of two equally opposed forces, one representing good and the other representing evil, which rule over the created world for all eternity, neither having sufficient power to vanquish the other. But instead of replacing God or sharing power with him, Satan, along with his horde of minions, is utterly defeated and banished from his Father's presence.

Now, having lost his position as God's most favored angel, the immortal Satan faces a bleak future as a creature forever cursed by God. Blasted from heaven, he lives in a foul, nameless dungeon, devoid of light or substance, with nothing but unquenchable flames to soothe his infinite misery.

At this point, we might expect Satan to indulge in a little whining self-pity or even regret at his horrific mistake in challenging God. But, nothing of the sort. Satan is neither discouraged nor repentant. He looks upon his fallen state as a confirmation of his nature, of his absolute conviction to serve no one but himself:

What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.

No signs of resignation or discouragement from this devil. He is determined to "make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." So, his courage and resilience cannot be faulted. And if leadership requires a stout heart and unyielding determination, then Satan is truly a leader.

What though the field be lost? [ 105 ]
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:

Thus, he rallies his troops, his despondent devils:

Awake, arise, or be for ever fall'n. [ 330 ]

So, having lost his "coup d'etat" in heaven and being banished for all eternity to the fathomless deep of Hell, what is Satan's response? To continue his failed rebellion. Either he has a secret plan for victory which has not yet been revealed, or we must assume that Satan is a consumate fool with a martyr complex, for only a fool would continue such a hopeless war against an unbeatable foe.

In the end, leaders must be judged on results, not passionate speeches. In Book 1, Milton has not yet given us the ultimate result of Satan's rebellion. The expulsion from heaven is only the opening gambit of a continuing struggle. Already, we know that Satan will try to thwart God's plans for humanity. This strategy suggests Satan's uncanny resilience. If he cannot overpower God directly, then he will do whatever he can to corrupt and spoil God's creation. But are these the machinations of a great leader or the tantrum of a petulant child? To injure or destroy what you cannot have for yourself is not a rational plan for success. A desire for revenge is not noble, but it is certainly a recognizable human emotion. In this respect, Milton's Satan shares many of the characteristics of everyday humanity in its fallen condition.

The most troubling question about Satan's rebellion is why was he allowed to do it. Either God was aware of Satan's ill will and allowed it to unfold, or He was taken by surprise, which could only mean that God is not omniscient. The textual reference to pride offers some intriguing possibilities. Pride, of course, is a form of self-love or self-glorification. It presumes a continuing state of identity or Being apart from some other thing. We imagine that in the original act of creation, God separated some portion of himself, investing it with existence and a nature (free will) of its own. But insofar as the created being possessed life and a will of its own, it seems natural to assume the possibility of a motion in opposition to its creator. Otherwise, if such contrary motion is not possible, the created entity could not be described as having a will or mind of its own.

If this be true, then it seems to follow that freedom (which allows for the possibility of dissent) is embedded into the fabric of creation. But this implies that God's creation was, in its infancy, something less than perfect; for if rebellion against the Creator is allowed, then discord (or its possibility) lies at the very heart of the cosmic design. This raises a very troubling theological problem. How do we reconcile the appearance of disharmony (chaos) in God's creation?

But what if he our Conquerour, (whom I now
Of force believe Almighty, since no less
Then such could hav orepow'rd such force as ours) [ 145 ]
Have left us this our spirit and strength intire
Strongly to suffer and support our pains,
That we may so suffice his vengeful ire,
Or do him mightier service as his thralls
By right of Warr, what e're his business be [ 150 ]

The proposed answer is the subject of yet another mystery. Evil (i.e., disharmony or chaos) is simply a device which God uses to accomplish some deeper, incomprehensible purpose. As philosophically unsatisfying as this answer may be, it echos the response which Job receives from God: i.e., where were you when I created the universe? Yet, what other answer is possible? Most attempts to justify evil result in statements such as...(1) that which appears to be evil to our human faculties is really not evil; perfect wisdom, if it were available to us, would reveal its true nature; or (2) all evil is the consequence of original sin entering the world; or (3) evil is simply a measure of the distance separating us from God's grace. All of these are attempts to rationalize the presence of evil in the world we live. This assumes, of course, that the world we inhabit is rational itself. Yet, not everyone is convinced the world is rational. Existentialism, for example, makes no such assumption. If the world is not rational, then how can it be the product of a rational mind? Thus, either God is not rational or He has real limits to his power. If God's power is not infinite then there is some possibility (however slim) that evil could someday overcome good. Is this the looming dark secret behind Satan's confidence?

That God exists and is all powerful and rational is something that Milton believes absolutely. But we must read further into Paradise Lost to find evidence for his conviction.

3/09/2006 3:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. Is Satan a good leader?

The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “a good leader.” Satan as presented by Milton is courageous. He sees the situation clearly. He’s a brilliant speaker and knows how to inspire and rally his troops. In this sense, he is a good leader. But if by “a good leader” you mean one who has the best interests of his followers in mind, then Satan is a miserable failure. It was Satan who led the fallen angels in a disastrous rebellion against God. He’s courageous, perhaps even so far as to be what Aristotle labels foolhardy – an excessive amount of courage. Satan does see the situation clearly. They’re in Hell. But he’s the one responsible for getting them there in the first place. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to have a backup plan. There was no apparent strategy for dealing with defeat, which is a bad mistake for immortal creatures. What did he think would happen if they weren’t successful in overthrowing the Almighty? It’s true he’s a brilliant speaker, but speaking well for a wrong cause is no virtue. Of course it’s not virtue that Satan is seeking, but power. Satan is a “good leader” only in the oddly inverted sense of being effective in a doomed effort to destroy both the natural and the spiritual order of the universe.

3/21/2006 12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

2. What kind of creatures are the fallen angels?
The fallen angels are like human beings in some ways, and different in other ways. First, angels have free will just like people do. They freely choose to do one thing instead of another and then live with the results of their decisions. In the case of the fallen angels, they chose to rebel against God and suffered the consequences of being driven out of heaven by force into a new place called Hell. In Hell they once again rallied to the banner of Satan and decided to continue their rebellion in more subtle ways. Instead of chancing another open battle they decided to thwart God’s will by subverting plans for the new world being created in Eden. Obviously these are creatures that make their own decisions by carefully weighing the consequences of their choices, and calculating what will happen if they do X instead of Y. Brute creatures aren’t capable of doing this. Human beings are. Also like human beings, these angels feel physical pain. They get angry. They become afraid. Most of the passions human beings feel can also be felt by them.

But the fallen angels are different from human beings in many other ways, and even different from the other angels in some ways. Angels are immortal, human beings are not. These fallen angels, though defeated, could not (or at least were not) killed. Death is a powerful motivating factor in human decision-making. It is not so much a factor for angels, though there seems to be the possibility that even though they can’t die they could somehow cease to exist in some other way. The fallen angels, and presumably all angels, can take on various shapes and sizes and then change into another shape or size apparently whenever they want to. Earthly creatures generally can’t do this. Although some species on earth can vary their shape and size to some limited extent, this ability usually seems to be an evolved survival mechanism; to scare away predators, for example. But even with these earthly creatures the change is strictly within the physical limits of material bodily structure. The change is wholly dependent upon the biology involved in the process. Angels seem to be on some other dimension of physical change that is unearthly and so seems strange to us earth-bound creatures.

It should also be noted that the fallen angels differ from the rest of the angels in significant ways. The big difference is that 2/3 of the angels did not rebel against God. The fallen angels represent 1/3 of the millions of angels that they are, a not insignificant number to be in rebellion. The question is why some wanted to rebel in the first place. They were already in heaven, what more could they want? They were jealous of God’s supremacy and didn’t want to be inferior to anything. But why didn’t the other 2/3 of the angels feel the same way? There is something fundamentally different about the creatures we call angels and the ones we call fallen angels. Even though they’re both made of the same substance, there’s something inside, some inward motivation, which makes an enormous gulf between them. There’s an implacable hatred (on both sides?) that will not be reconciled. The mystery of hatred by angels is the same as the mystery of hatred by human beings.

3/21/2006 12:49 PM  

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