In a previous post I discussed one of Satan’s most recognizable attributes: pride. This post I want to focus on a close second: Satan’s rebelliousness.
While it may have been pride that lead to her later actions, it was the Devil’s rebellion against the forces of god that directly resulted in her being cast from heaven. While we see the beginnings of what would later become the rebellion myth in biblical works such as Isaiah and Revelation, it is in John Milton’s Paradise Lost that the story has its most definitive treatment. Milton’s version of Lucifer would forever change the literary character of the Devil and would provide the basis for later, more positive interpretations of the character.
It is beyond the scope of this post to treat Milton’s most famous work fully. For our purposes it is enough to understand that Lucifer’s rebellion is instigated by god the father handing over rule of all existence to his unproven and untested son, Christ. Satan, who thinks rule should be determined by merit rather than heredity, is appalled and disillusioned with regard to god’s infallibility. It is this state of affairs that sets the stage for the conflict to come.
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers—
If these magnific titles yet remain
Not merely titular, since by decree
Another now hath to himself ingrossed
All power, and us eclipsed under the name
Of King Anointed; for whom all this haste
Of midnight march, and hurried meeting here,
This only to consult, how we may best,
With what may be devised of honours new,
Receive him coming to receive from us
Knee-tribute yet unpaid, prostration vile!
Too much to one! but double how endured—
To one and to his image now proclaimed?
But what if better counsels might erect
Our minds, and teach us to cast off this yoke!
Will ye submit your necks, and choose to bend
The supple knee? Ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know yourselves
Natives and Sons of Heaven possessed before
By none, and, if not equal all, yet free,
Equally free; for orders and degrees
Jar not with liberty, but well consist.
Who can in reason, then, or right, assume
Monarchy over such as live by right
His equals—if in power and splendour less,
In freedom equal? or can introduce
Law and edict on us, who without law
Err not? much less for this to be our Lord,
And look for adoration, to the abuse
Of those imperial titles which assert
Our being ordained to govern, not to serve! – Paradise Lost 5.772-802
To understand Milton’s Lucifer it is important to understand the context in which Paradise Lost was written. Milton wasn’t just writing a Christian fantasy, but was drawing from his own political beliefs and experiences. In 1649 the reigning monarch of England, Charles I, was beheaded by republican insurrectionists and a commonwealth was formed, which would rule England for the next eleven years with Oliver Cromwell at its head for eight. Milton was a supporter of the Commonwealth, serving as its Secretary to Foreign Tongues. Part of his duties were to write propaganda for the anti-monarchical government, including making an explicit defense of the regicide of Charles I. In 1658, however, Cromwell died, and the commonwealth fell into disarray. Monarchy was restored a mere two years later.
It is lawful and hath been held so in all ages, for any who have the power, to call to account a Tyrant or wicked King, and, after due conviction, to depose and put him to death. – John Milton The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.
Milton, lucky to escape with his life, went into hiding. It was in the shadow of all this that he wrote Paradise Lost, whose protagonist, Satan, is himself another failed and exiled revolutionary. There’s much debate amidst literary circles as how best to interpret Paradise Lost, but for many revolutionaries and poets it was clear: Satan was a tragic hero and champion of liberty. Mikhail Bakunin writes in God and the State:
Jehovah, who of all the good gods adored by men was certainly the most jealous, the most vain, the most ferocious, the most unjust, the most bloodthirsty, the most despotic, and the most hostile to human dignity and liberty – Jehovah had just created Adam and Eve…He generously placed at their disposal the whole earth, with all its fruits and animals, and set but a single limit to this complete enjoyment. He expressly forbade them from touching the fruit of the tree of knowledge. He wished, therefore, that man, destitute of all understanding of himself, should remain an eternal beast, ever on all-fours before the eternal God, his creator and his master. But here steps in Satan, the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds. He makes man ashamed of his bestial ignorance and obedience; he emancipates him, stamps upon his brow the seal of liberty and humanity, in urging him to disobey and eat of the fruit of knowledge.
It is Lucifer’s outrage at injustice and overbearing authority, and her struggle against it, that forms the basis of her moral superiority. Better to struggle in vain than to bend the knee to oppression and tyranny, Lucifer says.
This isn’t rebellion as a pose or to fulfill an emotional need to be perceived as different, nor is it an adolescent need to rebel for rebellion’s sake. It is insurrection with a purpose. We are participating in satanic rebellion when we look upon our reality and—deeming what we find there unacceptable, unjust, and absurd—go forth in battle to change it.
That Satan’s rebellion is doomed from the start makes it no less heroic, only tragic. But life is tragic. We westerners move amidst a popular culture that often strives to escape that fact, but it’s there, staring us in the face if we care to look. The best and brightest and most fair and just and most deserving don’t always win. Quite the opposite, in fact. We all play a hand in creating our own futures, however, and while the forces that oppose us may seem and in fact be insurmountable they will most certainly never be defeated by acquiescence. Like the Devil, who is defined by her opposition to heaven—the original meaning of Satan is “adversary” after all—we too are shaped by what we choose or fail to struggle against. Resignation is, as Nietzsche says, the happiness of the weakling after all.
Image: “Battle of the Angels” by Alexey Steele