Paradise Lost by John Milton is an epic poem universally considered a masterpiece of English literature. It retells the Old Testament story of the Fall of Man. Interestingly, in this version Satan, who tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, while disguised as a serpent, is not a one-dimensional villain, but a complex personality who has his virtues, as well as vices. The deeply psychological portrayal of Satan as an embodiment of fallen greatness in Paradise Lost allows the readers to understand that even the best ones can ruin their lives through ill choices, to sympathize with Satan’s suffering, and thus to better learn on his mistakes.

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When the readers first encounter Satan in Paradise Lost, his appearance is still mostly the one of a beautiful and mighty angel, but it slowly deteriorates throughout the poem. In the First Book, the Fallen Archangel is said to be “above the rest / in shape and gesture proudly eminent” (589-90). His description provides a grand image that is only beginning to show the signs of ruin:

. . . his form had yet not lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
less than Archangel ruined, and the excess
Of glory obscured . . . (1.591-93)

Another significant feature of Satan’s appearance is that he is gigantic, “as huge / As whom the fables name of monstrous size” (1.196-97). This may be an identification of his cosmological importance and immense power, which is second only to God. So Satan’s huge size may be a visual representation of his greatness. On the other hand, this feature may just be a homage to Greek mythology and a reference to Titans who rebelled against Jupiter, as the text further implies (1.198-200). Or it may be an identification of his monstrosity – as confirmed by the comparison to Leviathan (1.201) – because monsters are traditionally described as huge. While Satan’s appearance still inspires awe and admiration at the beginning of the poem, the more time he spends in Hell, the more his looks get corrupted. When he is caught by the Heaven Guard, while trying to tempt Eve for the first time, one of the angels, Zephon, scorned by Satan for not recognizing the King of Hell, tells the Fallen Archangel, “That glory then, when thou no more wast good, / Departed from thee; and thou resemblest now / Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foul” (4.838-40).

Satan’s personality also shows many praiseworthy features at the beginning of the play. He is a good leader who deeply cares for his peers. Although losing the war and being thrown to Hell cause him extreme physical and psychological suffering, Satan starts worrying about the state of his followers and tries to help them as soon as he finds a safer ground. With his motivational speech, he manages to give them some comfort and to encourage them not to give up in the dire situation: “[Satan] gently raised / Their fainted courage, and dispelled their fears” (1.529-30). Only when the Fallen Archangel looks at his peers, do his eyes display warmth and compassion: “. . . cruel his eye, but cast / Signs of remorse and passion, to behold / The fellows of his crime . . .” (1.604-6). Satan’s feeling of guilt towards his followers because, in a way, he can be blamed for their fall, may be one of the causes of his continued loyalty to them. In his conversation with the Heaven Guard, the Fallen Archangel states that he considers himself “a faithful leader” (4.933) and recognizes the importance of being one. Another virtue that Satan possesses is his courage. All his endeavors (the rebellion against God, leading his army into battles, and his two infiltrations into Eden) require much bravery and disdain towards various dangers and powerful enemies. Satan also possesses an extremely strong will and the power of determination. No matter what happens to him, he never gives up and always thinks how to turn the situation to his benefit. When Satan talks to his closest ally, Beelzebub, for the first time after the fall, he tells his follower, “All is not lost – the unconquerable will, / . . . And courage never to submit or yield – / And what is else not to be overcome” (1.106-9). Facing the dire situation, the Fallen Archangel insists it is important to determine “What reinforcement we may gain from hope, / If not, what resolution from despair” (1.190-91).

Despite the virtues Satan possesses and all the good that remains in him, the vices that determine his personality lead the former Archangel to irreversible damnation. Among those that are the most important for Satan’s character are his pride and his hatred towards God. One more defining feature of Fallen Archangel condemned in Paradise Lost is his ambition. Satan himself blames “pride and worse ambition” (4.40) for his fall from Heaven. “Obdurate pride and steadfast hate” (1.68) are the features that propel him not only to endure the calamities he faces, but also to indulge in more and more evil deeds. After some time spent in Hell, Satan starts regretting his rebellion and viewing it as a mistake that ruined him. His “conscience wakes despair / That slumbered, wakes the bitter memory / Of what he was, what is, and what must be” (4.23-25) bringing him so much suffering that Satan starts considering repent and pleading for God’s forgiveness. However, his pride and ambition make it impossible for the Fallen Archangel to ever submit. He feels disdain towards the very idea of it and shame towards his peers for thinking about repent after his pride, determination, and self-confidence led them to their fall (4.81-86). Pride and hatred towards God first motivate Satan to dedicate himself to evil to disturb the plans of God, although doing evil by itself does not seem to be his natural inclination: “. . . ever to do ill our sole delight, / As being the contrary to his high will / Whom we resist” (1.160-63). Later the Fallen Archangel starts viewing being evil as the only purpose that remains for him in life because he is unable to repent and is still mostly defined by his pride and ambition:

So farewell hope, and with hope, farewell fear,
Farewell remorse! All good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my Good; by thee at least
Divided empire with Heaven’s King I hold . . . (4.108-11)

In the end, although somewhat regretfully, Satan confesses, “. . . only in destroying I find ease / To my relentless thoughts . . .” (9.129-30). The suffering the Fallen Archangel goes through also brings forth one more of his vices, envy. Satan envies the angels who are still able to enjoy their living in Heaven and even more he envies the first people. When witnessing the happiness of Adam and Eve and their love towards each other for the first time, “Aside the Devil turned, / For envy, yet with jealous leer malign / Eyed them askance . . .” (4.503-5), and this destructive feeling only intensifies for Satan with time.

Milton’s Satan is the character that encompasses good and evil, greatness and downfall. On the one hand, he is almost an ideal leader and a hero, courageous and strong-willed. On the other hand, he is filled with pride, hatred, destructive ambitions, and envy, which turn a once bright, graceful, and powerful angel into the tortured Devil. The fact that he has both flaws and virtues makes Satan more human-like, as people are also never completely good or bad. This allows the readers to be able to identify and sympathize with him; therefore, Satan’s suffering and his sad fate have greater impact on them. Being moved by the Fallen Archangel’s misery, which he mostly brought upon himself, the readers are more inclined to learn from his experience and avoid his mistakes. This may be the reason John Milton made Satan a complex and sympathetic character.

  • Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Penguin Popular Classics, 1996.