Choosing Darkness: Satan’s Search for Freedom in Milton’s Paradise Lost (It’s Lit #22)
Maybe it’s just because I’m an American, but I have always felt that freedom is a fundamental human need. In some form or another, everybody is chasing liberty. Perhaps you want the freedom to own whatever business you want. Perhaps it’s the freedom to do what you wish with your body. Perhaps it’s the freedom to speak out against perceived injustice. Perhaps it’s simply the freedom to watch television seven hours a day and eat ice cream for every meal. Whatever freedom means to the individual in question, we are all seeking it to some degree.
I would define the freedom I seek as the ability to act within my own best interest. I wish to be free to choose what’s best for my health, my relationships, and my livelihood. By this definition, I have noticed I experience the most profound freedom when I act in accordance with what best serves me. This is a freedom won through discipline. The nature of existence is such that you must make choices. By using discipline to direct my choices, I bind myself in order to pursue a more profound freedom. For instance, if I exercise daily, I am not free to lounge about all day. If I wish to feel my healthiest, I am not free to binge on junk food. If it were the other way around, however, I would find my mind and body limited in consequence. Thus, I try to choose these intentional restrictions to avoid unintentional restrictions down the road.
In Paradise Lost, published in 1667, John Milton explores this paradox, among other aspects of Free Will, through the story of Lucifer’s, and subsequently Adam and Eve’s, fall from heaven’s graces. In both cases, the choice to transgress God’s Law was done in the name of freedom. Lucifer specifically seeks freedom by acting in complete opposition to the Lord’s doctrine. Milton, however, comes to a conclusion similar to the one I have made above: the greatest freedom is not won through acting in accordance with expedient desires—the greatest freedom is won through following the Lord.
Early in the epic poem’s narrative, Lucifer, one of heaven’s most powerful angels, becomes frustrated with his servile station, and collects a band of like-minded angels to fight against those who would defend the throne of heaven. During this confrontation, Lucifer accuses these heavenly angels: ‘I see that most through sloth had rather serve,/Minst’ring Spirits, trained up in feast and song!/Such hast thou armed, the minstrelsy of Heaven,/Servility with freedom to contend’ (VI.166-8). Lucifer implies that the angels are satiated with heaven’s food and comforts and have blinded themselves to the reality of their situation—that they are living as servants. The angels have been bound as slaves because they cannot think for themselves. Presenting himself with this dichotomy between freedom and servitude, Lucifer chooses the former, stating, ‘better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’ (I.263). With that, Lucifer assumes the name Satan and begins his plan to create a new, freer society apart from Heaven.
Though it has never been done before, Satan is confident that he can find a better life through his freedom from Heaven’s doctrine. He states, ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven’ (I.213-4). Having assumed that the servility of the heavenly angels was due to laziness, Satan assumes that he can create a better situation than heaven through applied effort and imagination. If successful, he says of God, ‘fallible, it seems,/Of future we may deem him, though till now/Omniscient thought’ (VI.428-30). Here, Satan shows his arrogance. He believes that if anyone can prove the Lord’s omniscience wrong, it will be him. The only reason it has not yet been disproved is that none as capable as Satan have tried.
This arrogance is rather presumptuous. After all, God is responsible for the creation of the Universe. It would be foolish to spurn the rules of the Creator within his own system. God, of course, recognizes this, and in order to drive the point home, He creates human beings in his image, allowing them to exercise their own free will ‘till, by degrees of merit raised,/They open to themselves at length the way/Up hither, under long obedience tried’ (VII.157-9). This experiment allows God to prove that, even given explicit freedom of choice, the greatest happiness, along with the greatest freedom, comes through the rules which he laid out in the creation of the Universe itself.
God voices his expectation that choosing his divine route will not be easy. He expects humans to fail on the way. It is those who, like Satan, directly choose to act in opposition to his doctrine that are forever kept from Heaven. He warns:
‘They who neglect and scorn, shall never taste;
But hard be harden’d, blind be blinded more,
That they may stumble on, and deeper fall;
And none but such from my mercy I exclude.’ (III.199-202)
Thus, those who seek the path may find it, but those who insistently stumble away will only compound their misfortune.
This situation, of course, is exactly where Satan finds himself. He sums up his intentions after the fall: ‘To do aught good never will be our task,/But ever to do ill our sole delight’ (I.158-9). To prove God wrong, Satan must find freedom through acting in complete opposition to his former master. If that is possible, he can then be the master of his own realm, where he will rule with greater freedom and happiness than he had in heaven. When Abdiel hears this wish, however, he warns Satan, ‘To serve the unwise, or him who hath rebelled/Against his worthier, as thine now serve thee,/Thyself not free, but to thyself enthralled’ (VI.179-181), concluding, ‘chains in Hell, not realms, expect’ (VI.186). Though Satan expects that serving as a king in Hell will be a greater freedom than serving under God, Abdiel warns that this freedom is illusory. Instead, he will find that a life apart from God will be binding itself, with chains that he can not yet imagine.
Of course, by the end of the poem, Abdiel is proven correct. The consequence of Satan’s choices bind him to a fate worse than that which he had ‘suffered’ in heaven. After living outside of heaven, Satan describes his inner state: ‘all pleasure to destroy,/Save what is in destroying; other joy/To me is lost’ (IX.477-9). Though he acts freely against God’s will, Satan consequently finds himself incapable of feeling joy. He is trapped in a new, inferior state of being. Though he is aware of his state, he still chooses it over serving God. He famously muses, ‘Revenge, at first though sweet,/Bitter ere long, back on itself recoils,’ then adds, ‘Let it’ (IX.171-3). Satan has committed to his evil ways, even after seeing firsthand the inferior nature of such a life. As was outlined earlier by God himself, Satan’s stubborn straying from proper principles cements him deeper and deeper in Hell.
Milton, thus, confirms the thought I briefly touched on above, one I’ve often had over these past couple years of intense self-inspection: True freedom is found through discipline and acting in accordance with what is right. To act otherwise is not to pursue freedom, but to use free will to bind yourself to other, less desirable consequences. Whether your proper principles come from the Bible or elsewhere, seeking a path to ‘Heaven’, though it may feel confining, can help lead you to Paradise. And any Paradise I come up with is, by definition, the ultimate freedom.