In 1667 John Milton published the epic poem Paradise Lost. It stands alongside other pillars of literature such as the Iliad and the Divine Comedy and even seeks to surpass them all in prose, rhyme and subject. Rather than attempting to explain the merely human aspects of hubris or conversion, Milton addresses the chief source of our fallen nature and seeks to justify the ways of God to man. (PL 1:26) Although this book is primarily read by students in classical literature courses, its influence is as deep as that of Shakespeare.
Great writers and poets such as William Blake, Samuel Coleridge, John Keats, and Lord Tennyson all drew inspiration from his work. In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the epigraph is taken from a passage of Paradise Lost describing the relationship between maker and creator. Even Philip Pullman, the self-proclaimed atheist and author of the trilogy His Dark Materials draws heavily from Milton’s work. The title of this trilogy can be found twice in Paradise Lost (PL 2:916, 6:478) as well as the title for the first book, The Golden Compass. (PL 7:225) The premise of Pullman’s trilogy is what might have happened had Satan been triumphant.
Lest you be bothered by a Pullman endorsement, Milton’s image of angels and devils was the basis for Christian novels such as Piercing the Darkness and This Present Darkness by Frank E. Peretti as well as characters in That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis. Lewis also wrote a lengthy work called A Preface to Paradise Lost in which he defends Milton’s portrayal of spiritual beings. While there are easily a 100 favorite quotes from Paradise Lost, these are my top 10 in line order.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.
The great war of the angels has been settled and Satan and the other demons have been cast into hell. Satan is lamenting his loss and beginning to realize that he will be in hell for a very long time. At this point in the narrative Satan is still licking his wounds and not seriously considering revenge. Instead, he is deciding how to make the best of the situation. It is a few lines later when he utters the famous phrase “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n.” (PL 1:263)
Satan’s existential view of damnation does little to comfort him when faced with the reality of Hell. Just as the chosen people were never able to shake the myth of happiness in Egypt, so Satan can never forget the true happiness he experienced in paradise. Even as he plots to corrupt creation he wrestles with the impossible dream of returning to heaven. He must feed his own hate with lies to make his loss more bearable. In the end the very thought of happiness becomes a source of pain for him. In the garden he states, “the more I see / Pleasures about me, so much more I feel / Torment within me…”. (PL 9:119-121) Like many people who have fallen away from the Church, the problem is not so much one of issues, but one of pride and the fear of atonement. Sometimes the only way to justify this separation is by making the accusation that the Church is not all it claims to be. As if we can devalue the truth with our minds and somehow escape the reality. Satan discovers that hell will always be hell.
By force, hath overcome but half his foe.
The self-pity of Satan doesn’t last long and revenge is soon on his mind. Before his revolt Satan had thought that it was old repute and custom (639-640) that gave God his throne and he learned too late that while God’s regal state was fully revealed, his strength was concealed. Having been self-deceived in his pride, Satan announces these lines and suggests that God too is deceiving Himself if He believes war and punishment is the final solution.
Fitting lines for our times. As a country we struggle with the realization that defeating a nation’s leaders or a nation’s army does not guarantee victory over its people. In the John Mayer song Belief he writes: belief is a beautiful armor/ but makes for the heaviest sword. If there is to be any real change in people it has to stem from the heart. This is the same concept that the Jews missed when they chose Barrabas, whose message was one of revenge and insurrection, over Jesus whose message was one of love, sacrifice, and conversion. It is also the reason that in times of extreme Christian persecution, the faith has flourished instead of faded.