Although almost all the great writers prior to the mid-seventeenth century had been Catholic in either sympathy or practice, John Milton (1608-74) took up the Protestant cause with revolutionary zeal. Following the victory of Cromwell’s Puritan army in the English Civil War, he supported and defended the execution of King Charles I. Then, in 1660, when he was in the middle of writing Paradise Lost, he had strongly opposed the Restoration of the monarchy, which had signalled the ultimate demise of the Puritan “Commonwealth” that Cromwell had established and to which Milton had pinned his political and theological hopes.
Milton became so heterodox, denying the Trinity and therefore the true divinity of Christ, that it is arguable that he cannot justifiably be called a Protestant or even a Christian of any sort in C.S. Lewis’ “merely Christian” sense of the word. And yet, Paradise Lost is indubitably one of the true masterpieces of world literature, following in the noble epic tradition of Homer and Virgil and, in consequence, demands inclusion in any series focusing on the great works of literature.
Nonetheless, and irrespective of positive readings of its indubitable literary merit by estimable critics, such as C.S. Lewis, Catholic readers of Milton’s epic need to be aware of the heterodoxy that animates it. This heterodoxy will be our focus, therefore, even though such a critique should not blind us to the glorious sweep of Milton’s use of the English language, or his gifts as a storyteller, or his wonderful depiction of marital love in the prelapsarian Garden.
At the dark heart of Paradise Lost is the looming and alluring presence of Milton’s Satan, whose powerfully portrayed characterization has elicited sympathy from many readers of the poem, from Percy Shelley’s eulogizing of him in the early nineteenth century to modern manifestations of sympathy for him in our own time. With respect to the latter, an article in The Atlantic, in March 2017, discussed the fascination that Americans feel for the character of Lucifer in Milton’s epic and how it manifests itself in the characterization of thoroughly modern anti-heroes on contemporary television, especially in The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, all of which are seen to reflect in some manner the dark side of the American dream. This morbid fascination with Milton’s archetypal anti-hero prompts the article’s author, Edward Simon, to ask a provocative question: What’s So “American” about John Milton’s Lucifer?
There is, however, another provocative question that must be asked if we are to avoid misunderstanding and misconstruing Milton’s Satan. Regardless of how “American” he is, we need to ask how Christian he is.
At the heart of such a question is a paradox. From an orthodox Christian perspective, the real Satan is, at one and the same time, a Christian and an anti-Christian. He is a Christian in the sense that he knows that Christ is the Incarnate Son of God; he is an anti-Christian because he hates the Son as he hates the Father. He knows the Trinitarian God, and he hates him. He is not an unbeliever. He is a rebel who is at war with the reality in which he has no choice but to believe.
The demons in the Gospel do not deny the authority of Christ. They defy Him, as far as they are able, and despise Him, but they do not and cannot deny Him. We see the same paradox in the manner in which Dracula, in the old movies, recoils in horror from the sight of a crucifix. He hates the symbol of the power of Christ, but he cannot help but retreat from it because the power he despises is real.
The problem with Milton’s Lucifer is that he is not synonymous with the Lucifer of the Bible or the Lucifer of Christian tradition. He is a figment of Milton’s heterodox imagination. Milton’s God is not the Trinitarian God of the Christians but a Unitarian God whose Son is a mere creature, albeit the greatest of all creatures.
Considering Milton’s theological break with orthodoxy, his denial of the Trinity and, in consequence, his denial of the Incarnation also, it is grievously erroneous to see Paradise Lost as a Christian work. Except for its biblical trappings, it is no more Christian, in an orthodox sense, than the earlier epics of Homer and Virgil, and arguably less so. It might be argued, for instance, as we have done earlier in this series, that Homer and Virgil were groping in the right direction, toward the light of the Gospel, whereas Milton, rejecting the Church and the traditions of Christendom, was groping in the wrong direction, away from the light of the Gospel. Homer and Virgil might be seen as virgins awaiting the coming of the Bridegroom, whereas Milton is the disgruntled divorcé who turns his back on the marriage.
Regardless of whether William Blake was right when he said of Milton that he was “of the devil’s party without knowing it,” Milton was indubitably doing the real diabolus a service in inventing a mythical devil who has proved so attractive. Milton’s Lucifer has what he perceives to be a just grievance and rebels against the perceived injustice with great courage. By way of contrast, it is hard to feel much sympathy with Milton’s God who is not loved because he is not loveable. He is an omnipotent Puritan prig who is right because of his might. A Pharisee himself, he might well have been the sort of God whom the Pharisees worshipped, but he has little in common with the God of the Christians.
Meanwhile, Milton’s Son is not worshipped because he is not God. In marked contrast to the biblical Jesus, he is depicted by Milton as a warrior who boasts of his martial prowess. It is little wonder that an atheist, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, could claim that Milton’s Satan was morally superior to his God. Perhaps nobody in history has done more to evoke sympathy for the devil than John Milton, even though we may presume that he would have been appalled at this dark side of his legacy.
In answer to the original provocative question, Milton’s Lucifer is not Christian. He is no more Christian than the poet who gave him life. In consequence, those who feel that they have sympathy for the Miltonian devil are not sympathizing with the real Satan any more than they are rebelling against the real Christ. They are merely pursuing the shadows of Milton’s dark and unenlightened theology.
Editor’s Note: This is the twenty-third in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”
[Image Credit: The Paradise Lost of John Milton with Illustrations by John Martin]