by Sam Buntz
The two major depictions of Satan in Western Literature are, without question, to be found in Dante and Milton—the Catholic poet and the Protestant poet, proper. After all, the Old Testament doesn’t really depict Satan as a character—he is more like a power, the angel representing God’s Justice or Wrath (since the name Satan means “Accuser”), than he is like a personality. He doesn’t so much rebel against God, as spiral off into persecuting innocent people like Job, and provoking God away from mercy and towards an unbridled form of justice, un-tempered by love and mercy. The Gospel of Mark continues to depict him as the “accuser”, tempting Jesus in the wilderness— until, a little later, Satan morphs into “the prince of this world”, the almost Gnostic fallen-angel-tyrant of John’s Gospel, and finally into the “Red Dragon” of Revelation. But he is never fleshed out as a character particularly well, and we never really see the events that Milton shows us – Satan’s rebellion against God – in the Bible since the Old Testament depicts Satan as still working for God (while being a basically lousy employee—though definitely no slacker) and the New Testament only supplies us with the wild Rorschach Test that is the Book of Revelation, as far as a more extended description of Satan’s activities goes… But I digress.
Appropriately, the two poets’ versions of Satan are wildly different, and yet come to converge on key points—they are getting at different aspects of the same Great Beast. Dante’s Satan comes as a sort of anti-climax—after having introduced the reader to sundry colorful examples of the damned, from Ulysses to Bertran de Born (who addresses the pilgrim with his [Bertran’s] severed head, held forth in front of him by his own hand), Dante plays a brilliant trick. All of the other denizens of hell were very chatty indeed, gabbing on endlessly about their own glory and various Florentine political concerns—but Satan has nothing to say. He’s too busy chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, for one thing. But Dante means to show us how hollow and vainglorious all such attempts at becoming “great” (in a worldly sense) really are—all the Tamburlaines and Tony Sopranos ultimately reduce to the figure represented by this almost mechanical Satan (Dante likens the beating of his wings to the regular motion of a windmill), gnawing on his followers with the mute button on, for all eternity. Such characters have surface flash and surface glitter, but they’re ultimately like robots driven by their own sick desires. Unlike Milton’s speechifying Satan, this Satan is a surprising bore (as his creator intends), and Dante gets him off the stage appropriately quickly. Thus the Eternal Pilgrim convinces his readers that if they really do want to be true to themselves and attain any kind of exalted individuality, they better start crooking their knees before the Divine Catholic Caesar (Dante’s version of God, more or less), instead of the worldly one (although, since Julius Caesar is Italian, Dante places that Caesar in Limbo rather than hell—which isn’t so bad… though it isn’t particularly good, either.)
Turning from Dante’s sublime propaganda, we now approach the far more vexed matter of John Milton. Milton’s Satan represents an ideological agenda superficially similar to Dante’s—except it an agenda that Milton expresses differently and far more confusingly, largely because he keeps undercutting it (since he really does admire his “Devil” more than he admires his stale and repetitive “God”). As everyone keeps observing, while Milton’s Satan should be at least a little eloquent, he is, in fact, ceaselessly eloquent, and far more so than he needs to be. Following William Blake, I see Paradise Lost as being an allegory for how human desire or energy (“Satan”) strains against the bounds set by reason (the impostor Milton calls “God”). But Blake, and Percy Shelley after him, describe what Milton’s imagination was doing and creating when it made Satan the secret hero, quite against the conscious intentions of Milton himself. And I mean to discuss what Milton the man thought he was doing.
Milton intentionally does depict Satan as a “great” personality—as moving and eloquent as Dante’s Ulysses—but he does so in order to show how hollow such greatness really is (again, like Dante). Yet he then proceeds to torpedo his own intentions by making Satan far more than this—since Satan keeps saying good and remarkably wise things like, “The mind is its own place, and of itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”, which is really very fine advice (though if one were to take a fundamentalist’s perspective, it’s probably just another kicked-up example of Satan’s arrogance). And Milton makes it pretty clear that the “irate schoolmaster” he calls “God” (as Blake put it) orchestrated the whole mess in the first place—Satan and everyone else being mere pawns caught in his sick game—and hence the sensitive reader continues to sympathize with Satan, despite the ugliness of his final transformation. Milton’s “God” is not the New Testament’s God of Love—or even the Old Testament’s tempestuously kooky nut (a character nevertheless continually redeemed by his considerable flare and “stage fire”)—but a second-rate bungler making it up as he fiddles along. Nonetheless, just as the talkative hellions of Dante’s Inferno eventually give way to his purposefully dull Satan, so does Milton’s Satan dwindle from the heroic battler and schemer of the earlier chapters into one serpent among many, slithering away with the other fallen angels to eat the “Apples of Sodom.” But Dante lets the reader believe that Satan sought out his own misery, and attained his own horrible anti-personality, by seeking his kingdom rather than the Kingdom of Universal Love—whereas Milton’s “God” actually steps in and transforms Satan into a serpent who eats weird Sodom apples made of ashes, which is just another reason why Milton’s version of God the Father is such a notorious disaster, continually taking the option to damn and scourge, while only pretending that Satan and Adam and Eve are doing it to themselves. Dante had the wisdom to keep God and Jesus off-stage, without speaking roles—but, since Milton didn’t, he was able to give us the brilliant madhouse of an allegory that Blake correctly saw in Paradise Lost.
But, despite not sticking to the point over-perfectly, I respect what Dante and Milton were both trying to say about Satan. They demonstrated the insufficiency of the self, considered as a discrete brain hidden inside a discrete head. If one fails to identify the self with a purpose that extends beyond one’s own imperatives for gaining worldly luster, one risks becoming mechanical—rather like falling into any cycle of dependency and need. So, it’s a nice moral lesson… But do I believe Satan’s really like that? I mean, allegorically—yes. But I think I know of something scarier than Satan, though it’s related to him—and that’s ‘Nothing’, the pit Satan’s falls towards when he cuts himself off from the Source. It’s the kind of hole someone can fall into indefinitely, the hole down which we plunge when we seek, in W.H. Auden’s words “not universal love, but to be loved alone.” As Dostoevsky also said: “I maintain that hell is the suffering of being unable to love.” Satan is scary because he exemplifies that Abyss of lovelessness—he is its archetypal citizen. Whether one interprets this allegory psychologically or spiritually, it amply demonstrates the perils of pursuing anything other than real, felt love—agape or caritas.