“The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.” –
Nearly the entire modern discussion around John Milton’s seminal epic poem Paradise Lost centers on Satan’s role as hero, or rather, anti-hero. Academics, critics, writers, and artists have debated whether Milton intentionally wrote Satan the juiciest part of the poem or whether, as Blake said, it was a repressed product of his unconscious. One could endlessly debate whether or not Satan is the “hero” of Paradise Lost, but more importantly he represents a very early prototype of the 20th and 21st centuries’ existential protagonist. Like Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost is an allegory, heavily steeped in Christian mythology and scripture, and supposedly meant to be read as an exegesis upon the scripture, a companion to the bible used to help explain moral lessons to contemporary readers. But, also like Dante’s masterwork, Paradise Lost contains within it more than perhaps even the poet himself knew at the time he penned it.
In 1667, the year Paradise Lost was published, the concept of existentialism as we know it did not exist. That’s not to say mankind was fundamentally different, lacking the existential qualities of being, but as evidenced in the very subject matter of the poem, organized religion served as the locus of universal meaning for the western world. Heresy and blasphemy were (more) severely punished and therefore, writers and thinkers were not at liberty to espouse dissenting views, even if they did hold them. However, Milton’s Satan has all the qualities of the modern existential protagonist and expresses some of man’s deepest doubts and questions about the nature of his existence and the universe he inhabits. What better expression of existential rebellion than “Better to reign in hell, than to serve in Heaven” has been espoused since? Writers and thinkers have elaborated on it endlessly, but in this one simple statement, Milton has summed up the core philosophy of someone like Albert Camus, who, in his Myth of Sisyphus defends an open-eyed life in hell (the absence of God, the absence of objective external meaning) as noble, meaningful, and ethical, while condemning a life of blind subservience to a questionable authority.
Camus and other existentialist philosophers promote the idea of man taking the reins of his own ethical responsibility, regardless of the objective situation in the universe. As Slavoj Žižek writes in The Parallax View, “What we find at the end of this road is ... insight into the irrelevance of the divine.” Whether or not God exists, it is up to each individual to carve his or her own ethical existence from the depths of anxiety by confronting the void and using his or her own creative and logical faculties to fill that void with meaning. Milton writes:
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav'n.
O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me
Does this not sum up the modern human condition? To interpret Milton’s poetry – I am miserable. Where can I go? I feel this infinite and traumatic excess of wrath and despair over the paradoxical situation of absolute helplessness in the face of existence and absolute freedom of action and solitude. I cannot physically (or psychologically) flee from the human condition. It is within me, an integral piece of my conscious awareness, just as the fear of something even worse always lurking around the corner (death, perhaps) fills me with anxiety. Is there no way to overcome this, save blind devotion to an unknowable and unproveable divine, a devotion to which I can never wholly commit myself due to the ever-present doubt that lingers at the core of my being?
For Milton’s Satan, everything hangs on freedom. His initial rebellion against “divine tyranny” stems from a desire for total autonomy. What Satan didn’t count on was his success. Despite losing the battle of the angels and being cast into hell, Satan operates within the poem as a wholly autonomous creature. In fact, he is the only character of the poem with true freedom and insight. But instead of this freedom being jubilant, it is instead rife with anxiety. He finds himself in what Žižek calls “the uncanny abyss of freedom without any ontological guarantee in the order of being.”
Before Immanuel Kant, freedom was maintained by prohibition. The law existed in order to facilitate its own transgression. Fulfillment could be attained by having strict prohibitions in place, so that when one engaged in a prohibited activity, one was filled with the jouissance of transgression. However, once Kant postulated a world in which an individual must be responsible for defining his or her own limits, we reached, as Žižek says,
a point of no return in the history of ethics: there is no way of undoing this revolution, and returning to the good old times of prohibitions whose transgressions sustained us. This is why today’s desperate neoconservative attempts to reassert “old values” are ultimately a failed perverse strategy of imposing prohibitions which can no longer be taken seriously. No wonder Kant is the philosopher of freedom: with him, the deadlock of freedom emerges. That is to say: with Kant, the reliance on any preestablished Prohibition against which we can assert our freedom is no longer viable, our freedom is asserted as autonomous, every limitation/constraint is completely self-posited.
Satan is infinitely more relatable than the inchoate Adam and Eve precisely because of his horrible, absolute freedom. It is no coincidence that criticism of Paradise Lost skewed toward the character of Satan only in the 20th century, when the existential subject as such came into the fore. But simply because Satan has become the subject of focus in modern criticism, that doesn’t imply that his deeds are glorified. Satan chooses evil, which some men do and some men don’t, but the situation in which he finds himself – abandoned, outcast, alone, longing, defiant, unsure, and irredeemable – is the situation for all men, and it is Milton’s brilliant illustration of the existential human condition that makes his Satan and his poem so important for modern readers.