Although Paradise Lost was written by John Milton more than three centuries ago, it remains an important fixture in the Western literary canon, and its central subject continues to be a cause for scholarly debate: Is Satan a heroic figure and more importantly, how can Satan be described as an epic hero ? While this question has occupied literary critics and scholars for generations, this question remains controversial, for it provokes responses that arise from closely held religious or moral values, on the one hand, and a commitment to strict literary interpretation, on the other. In biblical and mythical texts, as well as in popular culture, Satan is consistently portrayed as an evil and antagonistic figure in Paradise Lost who attempts at every turn to undermine the true hero of the story. In such texts as Paradise Lost, Satan is objectified and demeaned; he seems to have no redeeming qualities and is painted as a completely unsympathetic figure. Yet in Paradise Lost, Milton plays with this tension that the character of Satan in “Paradise Lost” provokes, thereby forcing the reader to consider the possibility that Satan may actually be a hero, or at the very least, a character worth seeing in a more complex light. As the plot unfolds, there are moments when the reader can identify with Satan’s desires and his disappointments. At the same time, Milton introduces a God in Paradise Lost who is wrathful and distanced, which makes Satan even more appealing and heroic, if not something of an “everyman" heroic figure that the reader has the possibility of identifying with. When one applies Aristotle’s notion of hamartia to a reading of Paradise Lost, it seems entirely reasonable to interpret that Satan, having been a good person who fell from grace, is indeed a hero.
What makes the debate about Satan as a hero in Paradise Lost so charged for many readers is that the traditional image of a hero is a figure, generally a man, who is a fundamentally good person confronting challenges and overcoming them successfully. In Paradise Lost, however, this hero archetype is challenged completely, especially by the character of Satan. All of the characters are complex, containing contradictory dualities. Perhaps what is even more notable is that in Paradise Lost, even God himself cannot be classified as a hero according to the traditional definition. In fact, He may be the most anti-heroic character of all in this epic and is presented in a way that makes the reader fear (or even resent) him rather than see him in the traditional religious way we are expected to see God. Along with this theme from Paradise Lost, it should be noted that Milton’s God is not a friendly God seeking intimacy of any kind with his followers; He is a powerful ruler for despot who will bestow blessings if His will is followed and eternal damnation if it is not. God sets the rules because He can; He does not need to justify or explain himself to any living being. If these rules are violated, however, God is capable of terrible wrath, as evidenced when Satan is expelled from His kingdom forever. God cannot be the hero of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, at least not according to the definition of a traditional hero.
Heroes are more complex, Aristotle argued, than the classical archetype permits. They are good, appealing people who make mistakes; they are people who enjoy favor and prosperity but who are inhibited and limited by a character flaw which jeopardizes their situation and forces them to test their own competence. In short, heroes are human. This is Aristotle’s concept of hamartia, and it is a useful construct for analyzing Milton’s Paradise Lost. The concept of hamartia permits the reader to identify the dualities of the characters that are not on immediate display. Satan epitomizes hamartia. He has profound ideas and questions, but his tragic flaw is that he becomes misguided so easily. Nonetheless, he is heroic because he is earnest and persistent in pursuing what he believes to be true, which is made clear in one of the important quotes from “Paradise Lost” by John Milton, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven./What matter where, if I still be the same…." (Book I, ll. 254-256), he asks. He wants to be different, transformed by knowledge about God’s true nature, as well as his own. Satan dares to challenge God, articulating the doubts and questions that he has because he thinks that doing so is the only way to find answers. He did not challenge God with the intent of being deceptive, rebellious, or hateful, although all three of these characteristics emerge later, after he has been sent into perpetual exile. On the contrary, Satan in Paradise Lost seemed to want to invite conversation as a means of understanding himself and the world better. For the reader of Paradise Lost who can identify and empathize with Milton’s Satan, he can be seen as a heroic figure, for he gives voice to what we ourselves might think or feel but are afraid to articulate. Although he is a bit naïve in this representation in Paradise Lost, Satan raises legitimate philosophical questions: Is it wrong for humans to think that they are equal to God, since humans were supposedly created in God’s own image? The question is a bold one, and the honest reader might secretly admire that Satan was courageous enough to ask God this question.
The other problem that one might have in conceptualizing Satan as a traditional hero in Paradise Lost is that he does not, in the end, prevail or achieve his goal. Nevertheless, the reader can admire Satan’s fearlessness and tenacity in pursuing the answers to his questions. He is bitter, but he also acknowledges the reality of his circumstances. As Satan himself says, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven" (Book I, l. 263). This acceptance of his conditions and the commitment to moving forward despite them makes him heroic, and an analysis of some of the events in Book II of Paradise Lost by John Milton reveals some of Satan’s heroic characteristics, especially when contrasted with God. As ruler of Hell, Satan strives for equality and fairness. In Book II of Paradise Lost, Satan calls his band of rebel angels to a community forum so that they can voice their opinions and strategize with him in plotting against God. He asks his followers, “[B]y what best way…Whether of open war or covert guile,/We now debate; who can advise, may speak" (Book II, ll. 40-42). Various angels add their opinions and the community votes on the strategy. Satan then asks for volunteers to help implement the strategy, a point which is important because it demonstrates how democratic Satan is. He does not draft or otherwise compel his followers to do his will simply because he says so; in fact, because none of his followers volunteer, Satan decides he will implement the plan himself. His followers are almost embarrassed, so profound is their awe, as evidenced by this and other important passages from Paradise Lost: “Towards him they bend/With awful reverence prone; and…/Extol him equal to the highest in heaven" (Book II, ll. 477-479). The fact that he stops along his journey to reflect upon his decision reveals that Satan has the capacity for heroic insight. He pauses at Mt. Niphates, where he“torments inwardly" (Book IV, l. 88), considering what has happened to him so far. He wonders, “[I]s there no place/Left for repentance, none for pardon left?" (Book IV, ll. 79-80), and decides, based upon his experiences, that there is not: “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,/Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost" (Book IV, ll. 108-109). Satan, like any true hero, experiences this profound existential despair but pushes forward. Even though he is misguided, perhaps, he remains faithful to his own ideals and beliefs, as incongruent as they are with social norms.
Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost starts out whole and good, just as all human beings do, but he undergoes a transformation. The transformation, however, does not diminish him as a heroic figure as long as the reader is willing to reject the traditional archetype of the hero. When the reader of Paradise Lost can embrace the concept of a hero as a basically good person who has either a flaw or a challenging experience that is not simple to resolve, the notion of a hero is permitted to expand substantially. Satan is ultimately a heroic figure in Paradise Lost because he is able to bear the weight of impossible pain and suffering while still moving forward and fighting for what he believes in. In the process, he attempts to empower others and he successfully elicits the reader’s identification and empathy. The reader of Milton’s Paradise Lost need not agree with Satan’s plan of revenge in order to consider him a hero. A hero is someone who persists against all odds, someone who is willing to plunge into the depths of his or her inner being, as frightening and as dangerous as that process might be. He recognizes the risks of his decisions, and he acts anyway. Aristotle’s concept of hamartia helps the reader to acknowledge that a true hero is not one who is wholly good. Instead, a true hero is an individual who is willing and able to acknowledge his or her human complexity and to continue facing the challenges of life regardless of the obstacles placed in one’s path. Satan is such a hero.