Milton’s treatment of Satan in Paradise Lost



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Milton’s treatment of Satan in Paradise Lost


The poem Paradise Lost made John Milton to be considered an epic poet. Paradise Lost is one of the most contested works that has been both highly criticized and appreciated. Several critiques dispute almost all the aspects of the poem, which is mainly attributable to interpretive problems and differences. Milton’s work is quite difficult to understand and my own understanding of Paradise Lost is greatly shaped by criticism from critiques such as C. S. Lewis, Waldock, William Empson, William Flesch, and Regina M. Schwartz. This paper is a critique analysis of Paradise Lost. The paper will give an account of Milton’s treatment of Satan, while taking into account the critical tradition and debate represented by some of Teskey critics mentioned above.

Like other epics, Milton’s poem, Paradise Lost celebrates a culture or a religion he fervently fought for. Satan is one character who has and still provokes emotions such as loathe, despise, and terror. However, these emotions are mainly elicited by the societal reflections on Satan and not from individual experiences. Generally, Satan is a character who is admired by some writers due to his reputation of pursuing evil. Milton is one such writer who demonstrates Satan as a hero though in a negative way (Herman and Sauer 50-54).

Milton did not intend to popularize the evilness associated with Satan. On the contrary, he wants to establish Satan’s motive of wanting to be above his peers. While describing the Creation and Fall of Man, Milton focuses more on roles of Satan other than those of God. However, he is able to defend God’s superiority and virtuous intentions and portray Satan as malicious and compelling. Milton’s depicts Satan as one who understands our interests and plans to use this knowledge to deceive us into believing that he cares for us (“Answerable Style”: The Genre of Paradise Lost Web).

According to C. S. Lewis, “Every poem can be considered in two ways- as what the poet has to say and as a thing which he makes. From the one point of view it is an expression of opinions and emotions; from the other, it is an organization of words which exists to produce a particular patterned experience in readers” (Milton and Gordon, “Paradise Lost: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism” 404). Milton’s poem has different variations of epic conventions, which makes it prevalent. In Paradise Lost, Satan is one of the characters whom some critics such as William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley consider the epic hero of the poem. This is because Milton uses allusions from famous heroic poems to refer to Satan. However, others disagree with this view mainly due to the glitches associated with viewing Satan as a hero. Lewalski, who is opposed to the view of Satan as a hero argues that “ by measuring Satan against the heroic standards, we become conscious of the inadequacy and fragility of all the heroic virtues celebrated  in literature, of the susceptibility of them all to demonic perversion” (“Answerable Style”: The Genre of Paradise Lost, Web).

Satan is arguably the hero of Milton’s epic poem. However, he is more of a parody of the epic hero as most critics of Milton’s poem argue. As opposed to the positive success associated with epic heroes, Milton portrays Satan as an inverted epic with reversed epic conventions. By considering Satan as a tragic hero, Milton is able to draw the attention of the readers whom he exposes to the several flaws of Satan. He thus depicts Satan as the ultimate sinner by conferring the anti-hero traits in him. In Milton’s views, Satan is sinful but undermines God’s forgiveness. He is a person who acts at his own will, which is sinful (Milton , Paradise Lost Summary and Analysis Web).

Initially, Milton demonstrates Satan as a tester of faith. However, he is not as evil as depicted today. In some instances, Milton gives accounts of Satan working under God though as the highest angel in command. However, he eventually decides to limit his loyalty and starts questioning God’s authority. It is after his disobedience and dismissal from heaven that Milton starts to paint Satan as evil and source of all evil. As opposed to what many people believe, Satan has not always been evil. It is understandable why Milton appears to sympathize with Satan when he fails to acknowledge his mistakes and ask for forgiveness. Instead, Satan rebels and ends up falling into hell. Milton’s account depicts that it was not Satan’s intention to be extremely disloyal. Satan’s rebellious nature made him go too far and he eventually ended up being evil (“Answerable Style”: The Genre of Paradise Lost Web).

Right from the start, Milton ensures the reader understands that Paradise Lost is not just an epic poem but a theodicy meant to defend the omnipotence of God irrespective of the existence of the evil. Milton invokes the aid of his muse, the Holy Spirit, and requests for divine assistance. He goes ahead and states the purpose of his epic poem when he states

“Asserts eternal providence

And justify the ways of God to men” (Milton, Paradise Lost: A Poem, Volume 1, 5-6).

This demonstrates that Milton is religious and his views regarding Satan are based on his religious understanding. This is so because he makes use of biblical allusions to create an image of Satan. Additionally, he is supporting the greatness of his work and authority to write by comparing it with the inspiration possessed by the writer of biblical scriptures. In Satan’s speech to Beelzebub Milton clearly demonstrates the boastful nature of Satan. Even after being defeated by God, he stresses, “All is not Lost” (Milton, Paradise Lost: A Poem, Volume 1, 17-2) since he vows never to submit to God’s authority. Though he admits that God’s son is “the potent Victor” and recognizes the superiority of God, he declares he will never seek for forgiveness.

Lewis considers Milton’s depiction of Satan as one suffering from a poor self-worth a “State of mind which we can all study in domestic animals, children, film stars, politicians, or minor poets.” He claims that a “sense of injur’d merit” (Milton and Gordon, Paradise Lost: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism 401) tends to be laughed at when it cannot hurt for example when possessed by a jealous dog. However, the same sense can be dangerous when possessed by politicians where “it escapes ridicule only by being more mischievous” (Milton and Gordon, Paradise Lost: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism 401). Lewis view of Satan as one with impaired self-image is stirring. In my opinion, Milton, wants to depict Satan as one seeking for attention by thinking that he was impaired. He is able to demonstrate his Satanic predicament through his actions.

Just as Regina  Schwartz argues, Satan’s Narcissism is most powerfully evidence in his refusal to acknowledge the Other, his Creator. His claim to be self-begotten, his resistance to the Son, all bespeaks a towering self-love” (Milton and Gordon, Paradise Lost: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism 429). This is depicted from Milton’s treatment of Satan as one who failed to acknowledge the power possessed by God. He repeatedly questions God’s authority. He advocates for equality and opposed monarchism.

William Blake argues that Milton depicts God as inferior to Satan. He thus considers Milton to be Satanic. On the contrary, Milton does not depict God as lesser. He wants the reader to understand that Satan speeches appear impressive and logic but are nonsensical and perverted. This is clearly spelt when Milton lets Satan trick and seduce Adam and Eve leading them to sin. Readers are thus able to realize that Satan’s motives are evil though they appear appealing. By focusing much on Satan, Milton manages to portray his true nature (Blake 1435-1436).

William Flesch appears to defend Satan when he argues that “There is no reason to doubt that Satan’s expectations were encouraged by a genuine belief that God ruled through what Milton scornfully calls “custom and awe” and Satan calls “Consent of Custom”  (Milton and Gordon, Paradise Lost: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism 426). Flesch opposes most of Milton’s religious allusion. However, he agrees with the idea that Satan has his own problems and adversities. Flesch views are intriguing and provide insights on some of the factors that could have contributed to Satan’s disloyalty towards God. He failed to understand the existence of hierarchy and that there is no power other than God. He thus gets an urge to revolt against God, whom he considers tyrant other than a worship icon.

Although Satan is not human, Milton’s poem portrays him as a Renaissance man by emphasizing on his wisdom and achievements. Just like the Renaissance man, Satan is only concerned about his self-advancement. Everything he does is aimed at getting what he wants irrespective of the results, most of which are destructive (Milton and Gordon, Paradise Lost: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism, 408). In some areas, Milton appears to sympathize with Satan. This drives William Blake to posit, “Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it” (Blake 1430). He considers Satan brave for rebelling against what he calls “God’s tyranny.” Milton justifies this as he considers it a sign of bravely and courage. In my opinion, this is mistaken since Satan is acting out of God’s will out to demonstrate his animosity. Satan’s rebellion against God parallels Adam and Eve’s disobedience, which brought sin and death into the world. Satan’s selfish nature is demonstrated by his act of manipulating Hector and his wife who are considered his son and daughter (Blake 1430-1433). I differ with T. S. Eliot when he posits that “Many people will agree that a man may be great artistic and yet have a bad influence. There is more of Milton’s influence in his badness and the bad verse of the eighteenth century than of anybody else: he certainly did more harm than Dryden and Pope” (Milton and Gordon, Paradise Lost: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism 400). This is in relation to Milton’s portrayal of Satan as a hero in Paradise lost. As opposed to Eliot’s view Milton aims was to demonstrate the evilness of Satan. The depiction of Satan as a hero is mainly found in commentaries on Milton’s work. It is thus not Milton’s opinion that is destructive but the different conflicting opinions regarding his work. If interpreted appropriately portrays Satan as a hero in a negative way. Milton, descriptions of Satan reveal hero who destroys other than constructing (Milton Web).

Waldock feels that Milton’s speeches on Satan “lifts Satan a little beyond what Milton Really intended” (414). This is accurate and it leads to the view that Milton supported Satanism. However, Milton tries to explain the speeches and in the process suppresses Satan. Milton allegiance is authoritative. When reading the Paradise Lost, one has to think critically to understand what he meant when he argued that Satan was in deep despair. Such statements demonstrate Milton’s disgust towards Satan.


Like demonstrated by Milton’s story and the criticism it causes, Satan has a reputation as being evil. Milton’s Paradise Lost attempts to explain how Satan, who was once an angel of God, turned into a being associated with evil. Milton sympathizes with Satan whose envious tendency and self-love altered him into a villain. Milton depicts Satan as the hero in his poem. This enables Milton to show where Satan strayed and ended up being evil. Many critics feel that Milton had some satanic tendency and is protective towards Satan. However, others like Regina Schwartz argues, Milton successfully manages to expose Satan’s Narcissism. Milton alludes to biblical scriptures and works from previous poets to demonstrate the nature of Satan before and after he disobeyed God. In his attempts to rebel against God, he was cast aside and banished from heaven. Satan fits the role of epic hero in Milton’s poem since he is the one who fights against different odds including God, the insuperable power.


Works Cited

“Answerable Style”: The Genre of Paradise Lost. 2011. Web. <>. 17 Oct 2012.

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1994. Print.

Herman, Peter and Elizabeth Sauer. The New Milton Criticism. London: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.

Milton , John. Paradise Lost Summary and Analysis. 2012. Web. <>. 17 Oct 2012.

Milton, John and Teskey Gordon. Paradise Lost: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost: A Poem, Volume 1. New York: Sharpe, 1821. Print.

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