(to return to PL Table of Contents, click here)
21. Satan Responds, First Essay, PL 1.156-191
Preparing to Move off the "Fiery Waves"
Fall'n Cherube, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil; [ 165 ]
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from thir destind aim.
But see the angry Victor hath recall'd
His Ministers of vengeance and pursuit [ 170 ]
Back to the Gates of Heav'n:
Satan perceives the potential of a slight prevarication in Beelzebub's response to him in lines 143-155; hence the poet emphasizes that he answers "speedily" (156). After all, Beelzebub had softened the directness of some of Satan's words and had so redefined matters in what was, to Satan, a timorous manner [i.e., maybe God is just waiting to 'play' with us or subject us to worse slavery], that Satan can't let it go unchallenged. But Satan also demonstrates other skills in this passage--the skill of redefining the question and the desire to build a coalition--that makes us see why he, indeed, is the ringleader of the opposition.
Immediate Answer to Beelzebub
Satan begins with two lines that are often memorized (157-58):
"Fall'n Cherub, to be weak is miserable
Doing or suffering"
If people learn these words at all, they learn them as words independent of context, as if they constitute a sort of generic moral apothegm. In this way, the words become a floating text that carries meaning with it regardless of where it is lodged. That approach ignores the context in which Satan delivers them. What Satan is doing is trying to "win" Beelzebub back to his interpretation of things, and he does so in two ways. First, he calls his companion a name that emphasizes his weakness, and second, he articulates a sentiment to which both can readily assent but which is, in fact, beside the point. Yet, by building assent, or at least laying the groundwork for it, Satan then can develop his oppositional strategy of lines 159-168.
By beginning with the words "Fall'n Cherub," Satan rubs his companion's nose quite directly in the fiery lake. We recall earlier that Satan had mentioned how "fall'n" his companion looked before quickly retreating to the word "chang'd" (84), a more neutral word. Here he returns to "fall'n" as if to stress Beelzebub's lost condition. He thus "reminds" his companion that he is, in fact, lost and therefore probably has a distorted perspective. As if to add injury, he calls him "Cherub," when, in realty, those who led the opposition were Seraphs. Again, break him down a little. Make him realize his low estate.
Then comes the statement about how miserable it is to be weak. It is as if Satan is both winking his eye here and stating a noncontroversial general principle. He has just called Beelzebub weak, and then he says, in effect, "Miserable situation to be in, ain't it, Beelz?" The statement both "reminds" Beelzebub of his condition while, at the same time, saying a word to which he could readily assent. "Yep, being weak sucks. I agree with you there, Satan."
The Contrarian Strategy (159-168)
Satan then is ready to articulate his vision of things. Previously he had just stated, in good Promethean fashion, his defiance. Now he will nuance that hostility with an action plan that flows directly from his oppositional stance. The plan, quite simply, is to oppose God at every turn, to pervert the ways of Providence so as to bring evil out of good. It is beautifully stated in 162-65:
"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"
Rather than the theory of containment, articulated by diplomat George Kennan in a significant 1947 Foreign Affairs article, which laid out a philosophy for the US to oppose Soviet Communist aggression at targeted points where interests collided, Satan here is laying out a theory of total opposition to God. It is total war. He is like Churchill in WWII (or was Churchill like Milton's Satan?), who said after the Fall of France in 1940:
"We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, will carry on the struggle until in God's good time the New World with all its power and might, sets forth to the liberation and rescue of the Old."
Now we can see one of the sources of that most eloquent British Prime Minister!
Satan is relentless in that strategy. He will tell us more about it in Book IV, where he explains how he has changed his entire moral compass. "Evil be thou my good" (IV.110). He not only is in Hell; he carries Hell with him, as if it is some kind of never-ending cough or virus ("myself am Hell"--IV.75). But he also mentions more of it in Book IX in a passage so redolent of psychological insight that the whole is worth citing. After stating how he finds no more pleasure in "Hill and Valley, Rivers, Woods and Plains" (IX.116), he says (118-130):
"but in none of these
Find place or refuge; and the more I see
Pleasues about me, so much more I feel
Torment within me, as from the hateful siege
For only in destroying I find ease
To my relentless thoughts. . ."
One might wonder where Milton derives this view of Satan. We know that the mere statement of defiance, described earlier, comes in large part from Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. But here Milton has raised Satan to a level far beyond Prometheus. In that classical drama, Prometheus is punished for two reasons: his gift of fire to humanity and his refusal to divulge a seret to Zeus about the future. But all he does is "hold out." He is the iron man of endurance.
That portrait of Prometheus served Milton's needs partially--but it didn't stand behind this well-defined theory of opposition. Some of it, no doubt, came from the Scriptures, where Milton could have read Genesis 50 and just reversed the words of Joseph to his brothers ("you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good"--v 20), but I think the real source for this oppositional stance is Milton's nearly 20 years of hearing political speeches and taking part in political dialogue and intrigue. For this is actually how a beleaguered minority party speaks, or how some of its more frustrated members speak when they are alone in caucus and are trying to pursue a strategy that works. Milton had, no doubt, heard Puritan-leaning politicians in the 1640s talk about opposing the Royalists at every stage of the fight. Now he was just putting those thoughts into Satan's mouth. A great desideratum in Milton studies might be to lay out not simply the polemics of the 1640s-1650s, but to use knowledge of current (2020) political realities to illuminate what Milton must have heard. For what he heard, and read, ended up in PL.