Satan and Beelzebub III
Bill Long 4/28/08
From Paradise Lost, Book I: Satan's Response
This essay focuses on Satan's response, in I.157-91, to Beelzebub's observations in I.128-55. Beelzebub had gently disagreed with Satan's assessment of their situation in hell, articulated in I.84-124. Satan's point was that even though they had suffered a severe defeat at God's hands, "All is not lost." They had, to be sure, been dealt a harsh loss, but it was like losing a single battle in a long and contentious war. Satan, therefore, is the optimist, always trying to fashion a reason for hope. Not so his lieutenant Beelzebub. His point was that God might have left them their "strength entire" so as to further their torment. After all, slaves with their strength intact can be impressed into service in the "gloomy deep." In response to Beelzebub, Satan speaks once more before they mosey off to join the rest of the demons weltering on the lake of fire. This essay examines that speech (I.157-191) with special emphasis on how Satan argues in response to Beelzebub. My points are these: (1) Satan ignores the force of his companion's argument; (2) Satan reiterates his defiance, though in different words; and (3) Satan notes signs of hope already in front of them. Let's turn to each of these briefly.
I. Ignoring Beelzebub
Sometimes when you disagree with someone, all you can do is ignore or downplay what that person says, and reiterate your own point. That is what Satan does here. First, however, Satan acknowledges that his companion has made an argument:
"Fall'n Cherub, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering," I.157-58.
In other words, he is saying, 'yep, it would be a miserable thing for our situation to be as you have just described' (where Beelzebub described them as "thralls" to God). But Satan, never to be distracted by difficulties, just lays that argument to the side. How so? By the next few words:
"but of this be sure..."
So, he acknowledges that Beelzebub has made an argument, but he won't dwell on it. He goes elsewhere.
II. Reiterating the Argument
Satan's defiance reaches new levels in his following words. Though Milton, as an epic writer, never repeats himself using the same words, he will have Satan say a very similar thing twice so that we catch his spirit of contempt for God. He says:
"To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist," I.159-62.
Satan sounds a bit like a sullen little boy who has been caught doing something wrong and whose privileges have been taken away. He isn't precisely saying that the goal of the demons will be to oppose everything that the divine power does; rather, every deed of Satan and his foes will be a resisting one. Total resistance, all the time. Lest the reader or Beelzebub miss Satan's determination, he speaks further:
"If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labor must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil," I.162-65.
The idea is the same as before, though Satan's words differ. God's aim is to make all things work for good (cf. Rom. 8:28); thus, the role of Satan will be to pervert that end. Ingenuity and patience will be needed, but Satan will certainly be able to muster those.
II. Signs of Emergent Hope
Rather than simply declare his philosophy of defiance and opposition, Satan looks around and notices good things happening. The hail has stopped, and the thunder, which raged over the plains "winged with red lightning and impetuous rage," has now ceased. The bellowing through the "vast and boundless deep" is now over. Satan isn't sure why this has happened ("whether scorn,/ Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe"--I.178-79), but he isn't one to miss an opportunity. Entrepreneurial evil requires response when opportunity arises.
Rather than lose the moment, then, Satan looks over the "dreary Plain" in order to see how "our afflicted Powers" (i.e., the other fallen angels) are doing. Satan will resolve to consult with them, to determine how best to get back at God. Again, rather than just saying this in a one phrase, Milton says that they ought to consult:
"how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope,
If not what resolution from despair," I.187-91.
There really is a lot on the agenda of the demons, and so we move to identifying them and then, at the end of Book I, the building of Pandemonium, the "high capitol of Satan and his peers."
Milton has "hooked" us. The "personalities" of the demons begin to appear. No wonder Satan is commander-in-chief--he never wants to give up. The scene now shifts to the other fallen angels, and Milton's vivid imagination of them and their encounters with Satan.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long