Does the epic voice in John Milton's Paradise Lost say that we must be skeptical of Satan's ideas and words?
I'm wondering if Milton is warning us through the epic voice not to be seduced by his charms.
Early in Paradise Lost, Milton creates an “epic voice” that warns readers not to take Satan at his word or even to take him especially seriously. C. S. Lewis, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, does an especially fine job of showing how Milton constantly undercuts Satan’s pretentions, repeatedly showing him to be not only a liar but a fool. Similarly, Stanley Fish in his book Surprised by Sin, does much the same thing.
Consider, for instance, the following examples of warnings by the epic voice:
- When Satan is first described, he is called
Th' infernal Serpent; . . . whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv'd
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav'n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels . . . (1.34-38)
Notice how many different warnings are quickly delivered here. First, Satan is deceptive (full of “guile,” he “deceiv’d” Eve) and is thus fully capable of deceiving the reader. This, in fact, is largely Fish’s argument: that we must be constantly vigilant not to fall for Satan’s lies as easily as Eve did. Second, Satan is full of “Envy,” a word that in Milton’s time not only could mean a particularly sick kind of jealousy but could also refer to hatred in general. An envious person is more than merely jealous: a jealous person wants what someone else has; an envious person doesn’t even want anyone to possess the thing that inspires envy. Third, Satan is capable of “Revenge,” and Milton’s readers themselves (according to Milton’s theology) are the victims of that vengeful impulse. It is thanks to Satan’s desire for revenge that all of Milton’s readers are suffering sinners. Fourth, and in some ways most important, is the reference to “Pride.” “Pride,” in Milton’s era, was considered synonymous with selfishness. Pride, in fact, was considered the root cause of all sins. Thus the sins of envy, deception, guile, and revenge are all the result of pride. It would be hard to ask the epic voice to give a clearer or more compressed assessment of the dangers posed by Satan than the assessment provided here.
- In the very next line, the epic voice tells us that Satan sought “To set himself in glory above his peers” (1.39) – a self-contradictory project in at least two ways. First, Satan revolts against God precisely because he cannot stand the thought of having a more glorious superior, but then he sets about trying to become a more glorious superior himself. Second, another reason that Satan’s project is self-contradictory is that if he does manage to “set himself in glory above his peers,” they will no longer be his peers. He stirs up rebellion among the rebel angels by attacking God’s superiority, but his ultimate goal is to be superior himself.
- Next, the epic voice tells us that Satan “trusted to have equaled the Most High” (1.40) – another self-contradictory ambition, since to be equal to the Most High would, by definition, mean that there would no longer be a “Most High.”
- The clearest indication of Satan’s foolishness is the description of him as a creature who “durst defy th’Omnipotent to arms” (1.49). This ambition is logically contradictory: by definition, God is “Omnipotent” (that is, all-powerful). Therefore, by definition he cannot be defeated. No wonder, then, that the epic voice refers to Satan’s “vain attempt” (1.44) – a phrase that means both a futile attempt and an attempt rooted in vanity and pride.
This is a good question. It's important to think about how the poem would have been read by its original audience. John Milton was himself a Puritan, writing to an audience that was overwhelmingly Christian. That means that readers would assume that Satan was evil before reading the book. Thus the task of Milton was not so much to hint that Satan was evil as to make him sufficiently charming so that we could believe that the angels and Eve were led astray by him. Essentially, if Satan were overtly evil from the beginning, the narrative of the rebellion would be implausible, but if Satan were the "good guy" God would be unjust and Milton would fail to justify God's ways to man.
On a contemporary note, think of a used car dealer or real estate salesperson who tries really hard to be charming and make you trust her/him so that you will buy the things they are selling. I think Milton is setting up Satan as a character of that sort -- where he has a sort of superficial charm that makes you distrust him even more than you would if he were less slick.