Does Satan in John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost deserve any sympathy?
Satan, the chief villain of John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, deserves little sympathy, despite the efforts of some critics not only to see him as a sympathetic character but also to argue that Milton himself found Satan sympathetic. The best quick antidote to such views is a reading of C. S. Lewis’s wonderful little book titled A Preface to Paradise Lost. In that work Lewis, far from seeing Satan as a tragic hero, instead emphasizes the ways in which Satan is a laughable fool – the buffoon in his own self-constructed comic tragedy. Yet it should also never be forgotten that Satan, at bottom, is tremendously vain and fundamentally evil.
Here are some specific reasons that Satan arguably deserves little sympathy:
- He leads others (not only other angels but also Eve) into a temptation that results in enormous pain and suffering for them.
- He refuses to ask God for forgiveness, thus illustrating the pride that caused his fall in the first place.
- It never occurs to him to ask God to let him suffer in place of his followers. In that sense as in many others, he truly is an antichrist.
- Rather than confining suffering to himself and others, he determines to make Adam and Eve and their descendants suffer as well.
- He impregnates his own daughter; he is literally a child molester and is also guilt of incest with his own child (2.765-66).
- He promises Sin and Death that, once he has accomplished his mission on earth, they
“. . . shall be fed and filled
Immeasurably, all things shall be your prey” (2.844).
- After he seduces Eve, he is filled with joy (10.345).
- On his return to hell in Book X, he explicitly urges Sin and Death to “kill” human beings (10.402).
- Once he returns to hell, he shows continued contempt for God (10.488).
Satan deserves little sympathy, then, because he never seeks sympathy, mercy, or forgiveness from God, nor does he ever acknowledge his wrongdoing, nor – most significantly – does he ever show sympathy for anyone else. One potential exception to this latter statement occurs in Book 4, 358ff., where Satan seems to show some sympathy to Adam and Eve. Ultimately, however, he chooses to proceed with his plan to corrupt them and make them suffer. He never accepts personal responsibility for his choice but instead tries to blame God for this decision. Little wonder, then, that the narrator comments,
So spake the Fiend, and with necessity,
The Tyrant's plea, excus'd his devilish deeds. (4.393-94)
Something extra: Paradise Lost lends itself very well to approaches using historical criticism. Anyone familiar with the literature and theology of Milton’s own era – including with Milton’s own writings in prose and in verse besides Paradise Lost – would have a very difficult time believing William Blake’s claim that
"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 Devils party without knowing it."
Even this famous assertion does not really suggest that Milton actually sympathized with Satan; instead, it implies that Milton felt at greater imaginative liberty when depicting Satan than when depicting God.
This is a highly Romantic notion, not the sort of thinking that Milton himself embraces or even implies.