Three Takes on Satan

First, there Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, the guy who would famously rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He created quite a stir in his neoclassical age. The critics of that age liked for everything to fit into their symmetrical boxes, but there was some conundrum about what to do with Satan. Everyone naturally wanted Adam or the Messiah to be the hero of the poem, but no one could deny that Satan was the most interesting, most memorable, the dominant character who lingers in the imagination. Not that Milton had anything subversive in mind, at least not when it comes to the Christian world view. (His regicidal politics are another matter.) Milton is no doubt a God-fearing Protestant, but Satan steals the show nonetheless.

A century later, William Blake finds a way out of the conundrum. Blake also identifies as Christian, but his way out of Milton’s knot gave no succor to more orthodox Christian souls. Blake had his own visions of divine history – quite literally, as a result perhaps of some psychotic or paranormal power – which, he claimed, confirmed Milton’s epic vision in every respect but one: Milton misnamed the Messiah “Satan” and misnamed Satan “The Messiah.” Blake could not deny his own essentially religious visions of divine reality but he could not accept the principles of orthodox Christianity, which he found deadening and counter to the spirit of the human soul. He and Milton would probably agree that Milton’s Messiah represents restraint and reason, and that Milton’s Satan represents an unrestrained desire, a passion that exceeds all accepted bounds. It’s just that for Blake, that means Milton’s “Messiah” represents everything deadening to the human spirit and Milton’s “Satan” represents the liberating and redemptive power. At first glance, indeed, it seems like Blake puts a lot more energy into debunking Christian orthodoxy than offering anything favorable to Christianity. (The archetypal figures in his visionary works can be interpreted in a way that is commensurate with the Christian mythos but they are not limited to that interpretation.) Blake, however, reminds us in a letter to Thomas Butts: “I still and shall to Eternity Embrace Christianity and Adore him who is the Express image of God.”

Leave it to Percy Bysshe Shelley, the man who was kicked out of Oxford in his youth for writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism” and mailing it to every Bishop in England, to take the next move. Shelley keeps Blake’s archetypal structures intact, embracing the Romantic view of imagination and passion and desire as liberating forces and conventional thinking and restrained rationalism as deadening, but Shelley breaks the whole mythos free of the Christian shell. Shelley agrees that Milton’s Satan is morally superior to his God, but he would prefer to draw his archetypal heroes from the likes of Prometheus, as someone who can represent the great forces of our collective unconscious without the risk of pulling the reader into the realm of nominal superstition.

So is that the end of Satan? I doubt it. Even today, Milton’s Satan can capture the imagination of readers – both professorial and everyday ones. And I know religious philosophers after Shelley – Kierkegaard and Husserl come to mind – have wrestled with the role of imagination and desire in a religious framework (although I can’t recall them bringing Satan into it in the same concrete way).

Then there’s Dracula and such villains who seem carved from Satanic stone, but I’m not sure we should start down that road. After all, Satan may be the ultimate reference point for all villains (but especially for gothic villains). So maybe we’d better stop here and ponder 😊

“Meanwhile the Adversary of God and Man,
Satan with thoughts inflam’d of highest design, 
Puts on swift wings, and towards the Gates of Hell
Explores
 his solitary flight.” (Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, 1667)

 “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ca. 1790-99)

 “Milton’s poem contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system [Christianity], of which … it has been a chief popular support. Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost.” (Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, 1821)

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From Boethius to Blake

“The relationship between the ever-changing course of Fate and the stable simplicity of Providence is like that between reasoning and understanding … or between the moving circle and the still point in the middle.”

Embedded in this quote from The Consolation of Philosophy, beautiful to contemplate in its own right, is a code that solves all of Boethius’s philosophical problems. Writing just as the classical period gave way to the medieval (late 5th/early 6th century), while he was personally awaiting execution, Boethius struggled with many common questions: (1) how do we explain fortune’s wheel, which turns up and down quite irrespectively of what one deserves; (2) how do we deal with the problem of evil; (3) can we justify our belief in free will when everything seems logically predetermined by external and pre-existing forces?

Boethius views Fate and Providence as descriptions of the same reality but from different orientation points. From the point of view of one who exists in time, events often seem to follow each other by chance, with no rhyme nor reason to rewards and punishments. But the point of view of the eternal sees the full history of the universe simultaneously. The question of how one thing leads to another is irrelevant, as time has evaporated and the whole of eternity lies before one like a unified tapestry with all threads woven as they should be.

If we accept the premise of these two orientation points, this solves problem # 1 directly. Problem # 2 he solves with the supplemental argument that all men strive for happiness, that true happiness is consonant with goodness, and evil is never actually rewarded, as evil people mistake their goal and must always fall short of happiness by virtue of their own evil. Problem # 3 is a bit more indirect. From the point of view of Providence, from the still point in the middle, all things are simultaneous. In Boethius’s sometimes theological diction, all things are “foreseen.” But from the point of view of people moving along the circle, they need to make decisions every day with practical and ethical implications. To Boethius, foreseen is not the same thing as fore-ordained. The omniscience at the center of the circle in no way mitigates the urgency of making the right decisions for those of us in motion.

Although one can detect concerns here that would occupy the Christian age, Boethius remains classical in a couple of key ways. His intellectual guide is always reason, his moral compass moderation and tranquility. Combine these with the sense of Providence and Plato’s metaphysics, and you have the basic framework of Christian Platonism that looms over the next millennium.

One could argue that John Milton’s Paradise Lost takes this medieval Christian worldview into the Renaissance. Milton’s Satan is the great Renaissance humanist, the high achiever who thinks it “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Satan’s villainy, and his undoing, is his all-too-human pride, his tragic belief in his own self-sufficiency.

Whereas in this (necessarily simplified) line of reasoning, Milton smoothly transitions to the Renaissance, just as Boethius had smoothly bridged from classical to medieval, there is nothing smooth about William Blake’s emergence at the beginning of what would be called the Romantic period. Here we get a real rupture. Blake praised Milton for his concrete vision of divine reality, a panorama that rang true to Blake’s own visionary experience. Milton’s only flaw, to Blake, is that he misnamed the characters. The character Milton calls “Satan” is actually the Messiah, and the character Milton called “the Messiah” is actually Satan.

Shock value aside, there is a method to Blake’s madness. Milton’s Messiah represents reason and restraint, the chains that bind the human spirit in Blake’s cosmology. Milton’s Satan represents passion and excess and unrestrained will, all the redemptive forces that enable maximum human achievement and self-actualization.

All great writers, each with something to offer the questing spirit, but after Blake it’s suddenly a long way back to Boethius.