Sympathy for the devil: Milton's Satan as political rebel

In the 17th century, John Milton wrote his epic poem Paradise Lost. He created the most sympathetic Satan in literary history — a complex character with legitimate grievances against a repressive God. In part one of a two-part series, IDEAS explores how Satan has resonated with people at moments of rebellion throughout history — from the Arab Spring to Communist Yugoslavia.

In Paradise Lost, Satan embodies 'the ultimate definition of a tragic hero,' says scholar

circa 1850: Satan, the Fallen Angel is flung from heaven and nears the confines of the Earth on his way to hell. An engraving by Gustave Dore from Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

* Originally published on March 13, 2020. 

In 2011, in the early days of the Arab Spring, the Syrian government began to worry a new publication could foment dissent and ignite a revolution. 

The text was a new Arabic publication of John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, which was first published in England in 1667. 

Charismatic and sympathetic, Milton's Satan leads a rebellion against God and rails against what he perceives as the tyranny of heaven — little wonder, then, that he has often been interpreted as a revolutionary figure. 

"The Syrian government decides that it can't take the chance of this new Paradise Lost translation being interpreted as an anti-authoritarian work," said Islam Issa, a scholar at Birmingham City University and the author of Milton in the Arab-Muslim World. 

"So fascinatingly — almost unbelievably — there is a state-run newspaper that [publishes an article] about Milton. The columnist tells readers to remember that Satan's rebellion against the father was unsuccessful — that Adam and Eve, by overreaching, had fatal consequences, and that Milton's anti-monarchical stance ended up in disaster," Issa added.

During the English Civil War, Milton advocated for the execution of King Charles I and served in Oliver Cromwell's republican government. But by the time he wrote Paradise Lost, the monarchy had been restored and Milton was under house arrest. He had also lost his sight, and had to dictate the poem to his daughters. 

English poet John Milton (1608 - 1674) composes the epic poem 'Paradise Lost', circa 1666. By then he’d lost his sight and had to dictate the poem to his daughters. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Syrian columnist was leveraging that back story — to use Milton's fate as a warning. 

"The [article] suggests that the result is political divisions, religious divisions, civil unrest and basically says to people: 'Go home, because the Syrian regime will overcome things' — in the same way that the Father does in the poem, in the same way that the English monarchy does as well," said Issa.

Issa describes Paradise Lost as a poem about "questioning unshakable authority and unshakable hierarchy, questioning the unquestionable."

"For example, Satan questions why the Son, who's just been created, is elevated above him almost without any explanation. He questions why the fallen angels are killed in their numbers. He questions why God can test people in these almost nonsensical ways," he said. 

For him, it's no wonder Satan is often perceived as the hero of the poem in the Arab world. 

"We have a history of colonialism, and then we have these long decades of dictatorship in some countries, and then we have supreme monarchies in other countries and then we have military figures, religious figures that are kind of divine, unquestionable in their status… So a character who appears to question unshakable authority is attractive," Issa explained.

Translating Milton behind bars

According to Issa, Paradise Lost has been translated more times in the last 30 years than in the previous 300. 
And whenever the established political order is cracking open, that's also when Milton's character of Satan assumes new life.

Issa is the co-editor of Milton in Translation, a book which examines how the poem has been received and adapted around the world. It features the story of Milovan Djilas, who began translating Paradise Lost into Serbian in his jail cell.

"He uses the prison's toilet paper to do so. He has a three-inch pencil, and he hides it from the guards inside an orange … There's a journal entry that reads, 'I finished the ninth chapter of the third part of the second book in Paradise Lost on page 3,126 of toilet paper,'" said Issa. 

"He starts to translate Paradise Lost as a critique of the authoritarian rule of the Communists at the time."

1865: 'The rebel angels' from John Milton's epic poem 'Paradise Lost'. Original Artwork: Engraved by Gustave Dore, 1865. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Djilas had been a committed member of the Yugoslavian Communist Party and a commander in the resistance against the Germans and Italians during World War II. He later served as Tito's vice president after the war, but then lost faith in the party and began to criticize the Communists for replicating the power structures they were supposed to replace. 

"In Paradise Lost, [God] claims to have created a fair society. That resonates with a lot of people who live through Communist societies, because in reality they see that actually it's not as fair as it may appear, especially if you dare to challenge the powers that be," said Issa. 

'A very human vision of what evil is'

Satan isn't appealing solely because of his anti-authoritarian rhetoric. He's also eloquent, psychologically complex and morally ambiguous. 

"The most fascinating thing for me about Satan is he's neither fully good nor fully bad, but a mixture of both, which is actually the ultimate definition of a tragic hero in some ways," said Issa. 

Satan and Beelzebub in Milton's 'Paradise Lost', as illustrated by Gustave Dore. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As Paradise Lost continues, Satan becomes less sympathetic. He starts to appear more like a populist figure who uses the rhetoric of challenging the status quo — but really wants to seize power for himself or destroy all that which he can't have. 

Yet many readers retain their initial attraction to Satan. 

Gabby Samra, a graduate student at McGill University, said Milton's Satan is a "very human vision of what evil is."
"Satan is this really charismatic, transfixing image of evil that differentiates from the previous medieval depictions of the devil as this slavering, demonic monster," she said. 

Her research involves searching for Miltonic devil figures in popular culture — like Roy Batty from Blade Runner, Al Pacino's character in The Devil's Advocate, and the titular characters in the TV shows Lucifer and Hannibal

She said the Miltonic devil figure is defined by cunning, eloquence and the ability to manipulate others into bringing about their own ruin. 

"He doesn't often act through direct violence. By deceit and lies is how the Miltonic devil ensnares his prey," she said. 

I think humanity intrinsically knows the allure of evil and how easy it is to slide into it.- Gabby Samra, McGill graduate student

Samra is fascinated by why audiences are drawn to these villain-heroes. 

"When you have this great sympathy and empathy with the devil — on the one hand, it might be because I think humanity intrinsically knows the allure of evil and how easy it is to slide into it," she said. 

She said it could also be an invitation to examine our own capacity for evil — rather than viewing evil as something totally foreign to us. 

"When you thrill to see what Hannibal the Cannibal is doing, and you root for him to win, I think you're also supposed to take a much deeper look at what it is about that that you recognize in yourself," she said.

Guests in this episode: 

  • Islam Issa is a literary scholar and historian at Birmingham City University, the author of Milton in the Arab-Muslim World and co-editor of Milton in Translation.
  • Gabby Samra is a Master's candidate at McGill University, whose research focuses on Milton in popular culture. 
  • Maggie Kilgour is Molson Professor of English Language and Literature at McGill University, and an expert on Milton and the gothic novel. 
  • Ken Hiltner is a professor in environmental humanities and director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author of Milton and Ecology.
  • Manuel Cárdenas is a PhD candidate at McGill University who recently facilitated a workshop on Paradise Lost and survival narratives. 
  • Hannah Korell is a PhD candidate at McGill University who recently facilitated a workshop on Paradise Lost and survival narratives. 

* This episode is part one of a two-part series. It was produced by Pauline Holdsworth. Here is Part Two.

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