Scholars have long suggested that the most appealing character in John Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, is not God, or The Son, or Adam or Eve, but Satan. The story starts with him, and is his alone for the first two books. Indeed, Satan in these first two books is a powerful, magnificent, beautiful, tragically “wronged” character whose brilliant depiction by Milton immediately captures the reader’s attention, and, even though we sense we should not root for the ultimate bad guy in the universe, we find it hard not to.
That is, until Satan utters his iconic line in line 263, “It is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
To get a sense of this, Milton leads the reader through almost 40 lines describing this Hell to which Satan has fallen: A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible. Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace And rest can never dwell, hope never comes That comes to all; but torture without end Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d: With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire...you get the picture.
Milton paints a picture of a place of eternal torment, despair, consumption, ruin, brokenness, sorrow, torture and imprisonment; in short, not a very happy place at all.
And it is here, in this Dungeon horrible, that Satan makes his “bold” claim: It is better to reign here (in hell) than to serve there (in heaven). The emphasis is on reigning vs serving. What Milton alludes to is what C.S. Lewis affirms in his Preface to Paradise Lost–the Satanic Predicament is believing that it is better to be one’s own “God”–set up as the center of one’s universe– than to live sacrificially for something other than one’s self.
And that, to me, seems to be the deep rub at the root of the human experience: will we live to reign as “gods” of our own worlds or lay our lives down for others in ways that are costly to that very sense of self? To grapple with this is to grapple both with our own biology and our most deeply held (American) myths.
Biologically, we, of course, must to a healthy degree pay heed to our “rational self-interest” for things like food, clothing, shelter, comfort, relationships, etc. Where this becomes “hellish” is when rational self-interest becomes “irrational self-interest”–we don’t just eat food for energy and sustenance, we overindulge beyond what anyone could possibly want or need in one setting (and, beyond that, we demand portions that point to irrational gluttony and our ever-expanding national waistlines); we don’t just purchase clothing for protection from the elements and our own sense of modesty, we purchase brand-names at outrageous prices and wear things that reveal our insatiable hunger for sexuality depicted in VMA dances by former Disney stars; we don’t just purchase homes for the shelter they may provide, but to “ooh” and “ahh” our neighbors (particularly those “neighbors” who don’t live in our zip codes); we don’t just pursue relationships, we exploit them. In short, we turn our biological needs into “hellish” desires to reign as “gods” among our fellowmen in ways that have serious consequences both for our own morality and for our collective living space.
The American “dream” has its own role to play here too: You, the individual, should get good grades, work hard, apply yourself, land a good job, and make a living in order to take care of you and yours (very tightly defined). Everything from education to the marketplace is rooted in this idea that “YOU” deserve the “good life” (typically defined as a life of comfort, ease, and luxury). There is much discussion of your rights, and very little discussion of your responsibilities to the good we all share in common. “Love thy neighbor” comes to mean hanging out with people in our own social class, ethnic group, and religious beliefs and not fasting for justice and righteousness on behalf of the poor, marginalized, and oppressed within our midst.
The danger, as Milton points out, is that Satan gets his wish; he gets to be “God”. He creates a kingdom (Pandemonium–literally, the house of all that’s demonic) and gets to rule as its lord. The problem is that, as we trace Satan throughout the rest of this story, the following becomes true of him (as he states himself): ““Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair? Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.”
The more he seeks to reign, the less of himself he has. He goes from being in hell, to bringing hell with him wherever he goes, to being himself all that is hell. And, in the end, he is consumed by the very things that consumed him, turning into a serpent condemned to eat ash for all eternity. In other words, everything he reached for (glory, fame, power, prestige, profit, revenge) turns, in the end, to ash in his mouth. It is both a terrifying and a fitting end to a life dedicated to “reigning in hell”.
Fortunately, Milton also gives us a counter narrative in Adam and Eve, two characters who, though they fall into despair, brokenness, envy, hatred and near-murder after they eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (a choice predicated upon their desire to be their own gods), make the choice Satan refuses to make: they repent, confess their brokenness, and walk, hand-in-hand together from Eden, a paradise within themselves happier by far.
The choice for either Hell (the pursuit of one’s own glory and gain) or Paradise (the sacrifice of self to higher, transcendent purposes), as Milton points out, is within each one of us:
“Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell. ”