Monday, December 27, 2010

Paul Stevens: "Milton's Satan"

Paul Stevens
Department of English
University of Toronto
St. George Campus

I rarely watch videos because I find them so time-consuming, but I took Christmas Day off and watched a video of a 45-minute lecture by Paul Stevens on "Milton's Satan," recommended to the Milton List by one of the experts on Paradise Lost, Feisal Mohamed.

When I clicked on the link, I discovered that the video is one in a series of Competition Lectures for Best Lecture sponsored by TVO, which is Ontario's public educational media organization. I take it that "TVO" stands for "Television Ontario."

But to cut to the chase . . .

The lecture is outstanding if you like Milton, and maybe even if you don't, because Stevens demonstrates Milton's contemporary relevance in showing how the poet has bequeathed to the modern age its psychological understanding of a deeply ambivalent, conflicted, quasi-heroic Satan who is somehow an enormously appealing, compelling figure.

Why did Milton portray Satan as such an appealing figure? Stevens notes three main answers proffered over the centuries since the publication of Paradise Lost:
1. The Romantics' Satan -- that Milton was in fact of the Devil's party without realizing this fact (Percy Bysshe Shelley [Correction: William Blake]).

2. The Academics' Satan -- that Milton created a Satan to seduce readers into identifying with the evil one, only to be disillusioned by evil, thereby bringing readers to experience within themselves the fall first experienced by Eve and Adam (Stanley Fish).

3. Milton's Satan -- that Milton modeled Satan after himself and his own failings (Paul Stevens).
That third Satan is the one favored by Stevens, obviously, and though there's something a bit too cocky about calling it Milton's Satan -- wouldn't those who support the first or second Satan also consider their Satan Milton's Satan -- Stevens makes an intriguing, almost entirely persuasive case that I cannot easily reproduce here, so I urge you to click on the link and see for yourself.

I say 'almost' because I'm still partial to Fish's argument in Surprised by Sin . . .

UPDATE: As my friend Carter Kaplan graciously points out, the first Satan interpretation is not Percy Bysshe Shelley's but William Blake's, so I stand corrected of my 'senior moment'.

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At 6:25 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

'Milton's Milton-Satan' is a very good and interesting key, though I think that there were further reasons to create such a character in PL. Being currently off home, I have no copy of the poem letting me quote the exact verses, anyway a clear parallelism can be noted between Satan's "bold enterprise" (or similar phrases) and Milton's, i.e. the poem itself. See also, respectively, their words praising Light etc.

At 8:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that Stevens's Satan is compatible Fish's Satan. Even if Milton were reflecting on his own flaws, he intended them to reflect every man's . . . and woman's.

We are seduced . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:32 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I think all three of those Satan's are interesting, but a mature analysis will show Satan as a more multi-dimensional and transformative figure, and key to understanding this Satan--Kaplan's Satan--is connecting with Milton's anthropological concerns, and his analysis and exercise of mythopoetic language.

I believe, BTW, that the first one is Blake's rather than Shelly's--isn't that line from Marriage of Heaven and Hell? It's been sometime since I read Shelley's introduction to Prometheus Unbound, but there is enough there, as I recall, to show he did not share Blake's opinion entirely. I would further suggest that the Romantics were interested in Milton's Satan because he _resembled_ a liberal and a rebel, but he remained for them a diabolical figure. As I recall, in his Introduction to Prometheus Unbound Shelley criticizes Milton's Satan, and argues that Prometheus is a more fit exponent for the treatment of the liberal political vision Shelley is seeking to express. I believe Milton would agree. Miton's Satan is an unsuccessful rebel, and Milton shows us why. And then of course Milton's hero is the more morally intelligent and more politically capable Son.

At 4:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, you're right. It is Blake. I must have had a 'senior moment.' I'll post an update.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:29 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

From his preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley on Satan:

The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.

A little lower, Shelley has this to say on Milton:

We owe the great writers of the golden age of our literature to that fervid awakening of the public mind which shook to dust the oldest and most oppressive form of the Christian religion. We owe Milton to the progress and development of the same spirit: the sacred Milton was, let it ever be remembered, a republican and a bold inquirer into morals and religion. The great writers of our own age are, we have reason to suppose, the companions and forerunners of some unimagined change in our social condition or the opinions which cement it. The cloud of mind is discharging its collected lightning, and the equilibrium between institutions and opinions is now restoring or is about to be restored.


Anybody want to write an essay on this sort of thing for Emanations?

At 1:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry . . ."

Shelley anticipates Stanley Fish!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:04 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I took my above and cobbled together a blog entry:


Thanks again for stimulating discussion, Jeffery.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks to you, instead. I'll check your blog link.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:17 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

A further hint: Satan as an "alien" character who destroys a supposedly perfect world, which however needed to be turned upside down.
This could inspire many stories by EA Poe: Metzengerstein (the horse), Red Death, Bon-Bon, The Devil in the Belfry, Hop-Frog.

At 7:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Immer ein Verrückter! Some troublemaker always there to get a story going . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:05 PM, Blogger Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Even though they've been at it for decades, no one has surpassed Lewis' explanation of Satan in A Preface to Paradise Lost: Satan is a progressively degenerating buffoon.

That makes him a lot like us, and that, in turn, makes him a seductive character to fools like us. In other words, I agree with you, Jeffrey, that Stanley Fish is very good on this point.

At 9:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael, good to hear from you again. I really need to read more of Lewis on Milton. I'm familiar with his views, but mostly secondhand or in snatches of quotes. I've probably imbibed a lot from Fowler.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:55 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Satan is a progressively degenerating buffoon

Alas, that's true! his heroic side disappears completely right after his victory. But also God, and the Christ, and the angels, one by one, lose their own importance as characters. Until only Adam and Eve are left --- who, "contrariwise", become deeper and more heroic as the poem goes by, after their "postcardish" beginning.

At 3:40 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...


I am reminded of Humbert Humbert early in Lolita describing his boyhood family holidays (where he met "Annabel Lee", Lolita's precursor) and in describing the Mediterranean resort he tells his reader: ". . . In a few moments I am going to pass around some picture postcards . . ."

At 7:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting suggestion, Dario. Perhaps we respond to Adam and Eve this way because they become more and more like us.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, that's another book that I ought to read . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:15 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Perhaps we respond to Adam and Eve this way because they become more and more like us

... and a bit better than us, I would say.

At 7:15 PM, Anonymous Michael Bauman said...

Again I go back to Lewis' little book: He says that pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve were towering figures -- and they were. For example, Eve's virtuous beauty was so powerful that it could, and did, stop Satan's colossal evil in its tracks, as if, at least momentarily, he were stone.

Don't try that now.

At 8:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, if they become better, then they've received grace . . . in Milton's scheme of things.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael, my 'fallen' experience with beauty is that it has never been very successful in warding off evil . . . rather the opposite.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:01 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

if they become better, then they've received grace

My sentence was too brief and therefore blurred. I wanted to point out that Adam and Eve, after the Fall, behave with more dignity than most current people would. A&E accept the consequences of their acts and 'make the best of the worst'.

At 2:32 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

But Adam and Eve aren't real until after the fall. Or, one might say that before the fall Milton, writing with a fallen language, is merely writing about archetypes. After the fall, Adam and Eve become like real people, or anyway his language is now describing two people that are at least "like" real men and women.

One of the problems with Paradise Lost is that the characters are poetic figments--except maybe the Son, or Adam and Eve after the fall--but beyond being "our first parents" they are not really the stuff of "supple" literature--for the stuff of supple literature in PL we have to go to the poet. The poem is about the poet's mind. Adam and Eve are well done, they allow Milton to say very interesting (and funny) things, but they remain rather abstracted from our experience, even after the fall

No, the English novel has to develop first, and only then we can find language which can bring us into contact with those "real" flesh and blood characters . . in The Scarlet Letter, I'd say, and through the contemplation of the careers of Hester and Dimmesdale we can at last descry (and feel) the compassion, the philosophy, the politics--and the wicked humor--that drive Milton's occupation in PL.

At 5:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, Adam and Eve at first act rather badly . . . until Eve pleads with Adam to forgive her, which softens him somewhat.

I now wonder how that happens since it precedes even the prevenient grace that enables the two fallen ones to freely accept God's saving grace.

I could cite book and line on this, by you probably know the parts of Paradise Lost better than I.

This sets up a puzzle for me. The fallen couple are at first depicted as seemingly totally depraved, in nearly Calvinist terms, and are as bad as -- or even worse than -- we are, but appear to recover some goodness, and act better than we might. How does Milton understand this? Does free will survive the fall?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, has anything been written on this issue of fallen language? I'd assumed it obvious that language falls with the fall, but some scholars on the Milton List vehemently disputed my assumption. I still think that I'm right, but I've fallen silent on the point . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:50 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

"Does free will survive the fall?"

Good question.

One possible answer (or complication): in Book Ten Eve suggests they commit suicide, and Adam disapproves the idea because, fearing God's wrath, he believes suicide could make the situation worse for them. Freewill?

Interestingly enough, the idea of suicide itself isn't disapproved, but rather the possible consequences.

I guess in this instance they were free to choose to not "make" God kick their hind ends some more.

Before the fall, however, God was set on kicking their hind ends no matter what. So perhaps one could say they had no free will before the fall, but afterwards they did.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

We'd need to consider Milton's definition of free will, which is likely implied in his remark that "reason is but choice" and also that "God left the will free" (wherever he stated these), along with the view that the will must be informed by reason (again somewhere).

Since reason was impaired by the fall, then one's choice would more often be misled by reason, but would that make the will less free? What would Milton say to that?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:09 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

But of course my answer is sophistic; as well and in the same way, might the question itself be the problem? That is, perhaps we might "hose this down" with a bit of Hume, and instead of talking in terms of cause and effect and free will, instead talk in terms of the "surreality" of sequence.

Fallen language: I thought this was one of the classic problems with the poem? For isn't Milton writing from the perspective of a fallen being and using a "fallen language" and hence unable to accurately portray the events in the poem? I thought this was ground well gone over? And I have been assuming this was central to his anthropology: Milton knows he is writing myth, and wants us to regard everything that happens in the poem as myth? That is, everything is subjective and tentative--the next mythopoetic transformation is always close around the corner. The only thing that is real, of course, is the hero's (that is the Son's) ability to separate reality from myth, and do the right thing. This is one thing I think Blake has right. Whenever the Son appears on the scene, things get straightened out. Perhaps C. S. Lewis's essay "Is Theology Poetry?" has some bearing here--at least the first part of the essay.

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I suspect Poole in "Milton and the Idea of the Fall" might have something on fallen language. This isn't one of my own notions--I'm very sure I got it from somewhere.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suppose that I have to clarify my question. When I asked if free will survives the Fall, I meant free will as Milton understood it.

Once that has been established, we can judge whether we agree with Milton.

As for Hume, doesn't he deny both free will and causality?

On fallen language . . . that was something that I remarked upon, too, Milton 'quoting' the unfallen discourse of Adam and Eve in the fallen language of his own time.

I got bashed for assuming that Milton believed language to be fallen.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Your Poole comment slipped in while I was composing my comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:30 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Eve's beauty:

I think you're right Jeffery, and after he is stunned, Satan becomes even more angry because of her beauty.

Much like Gollum coveting his "precious." That is, and as all Led Zeppelin listeners know: "Thou shalt not covet thy lover's presence when she's gone."

Mine's a tale that can't be told,
my freedom I hold dear
how years ago in days of old
when magic filled the air
'twas in the darkest depths of Mordor,
mmm-I met a girl so fair
but Gollum and the evil one
crept up and slipped away with her
her, her, yeah,
and ain't nothin' I can do, no

At 3:38 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I am sorry I don't know Hume on free will, but he does deny causality. Instead, he says we observe "sequence".

Anscombe in her essay on "Modern Moral Philosophy" calls Hume a sophist, but nevertheless his (let's call it) "realism" is something she finds refreshing--compelling because Hume has a way of clearing the air of nonsense, and in her school, of course, clearing off the nonsense is what it's all about.

At 3:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I recall that line from way back in the early seventies. Thanks for the reminder.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You slipped another comment in. I'd also have to look into Hume, but I do think that without causality, even free will is problematic.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:08 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

How does Milton understand this? Does free will survive the fall?

The whole discussion is intriguing: unfortunately I am following it very badly, since I am on vacation with a slow web connection, and just seldom. Anyway I would not be able to reply much, since my own views on free will are different from Milton's, so that I did not study this side of Paradise Lost thoroughly.

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Alas, poor Dario! I, Horatio, knew him in his unfallen state. But now, he exists in a fallen realm, his very language corrupted by a faulty internet connection . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:05 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

hmmm, by rereading it some hours later, it looks quite "fòl" (pron. like "fall": it means "idiot" in my native dialect) in fact...

At 4:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suppose that's where the English "fool" comes from.

Jeffery Hodges

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