April 25, 2016
Satan Revealed: Lewis’ Preface to Milton’s Paradise Lost
Any serious discussion or interaction with Milton’s Paradise Lost involves the character of Satan and how he is defined. He can be romanticized and made endearing or sympathetic, he can be discarded as imaginative and irrelevant, he can be admired and praised, or he can be identified as he is in reality according to the Scriptures—that is as the Father of Lies, murderer and thief. Because Milton created an epic poem that reaches the heights of poetry and prose, his main character naturally appears eloquent, wise, praiseworthy and elicits sympathy. C. S. Lewis identified this tendency, especially among 18th and 19th Century critics who had became enamored with Milton's Satan as something of a tragic, misunderstood protagonist. Other critics and scholars since Milton's time had come to disbelieve in Satan altogether. Lewis took the opportunity in writing his Preface to Paradise Lost to provide a masterful introduction to Paradise Lost and to broadcast the truth of the character of Satan in light of the very real Satan.
Every now and then, I will hear someone quote Satan's line from Paradise Lost,
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.(PL I, 254-255)
People say it as if it was a completely valid axiom to base one's life upon, and I feel like screaming, "You are quoting Satan! It's a lie!" This type of misunderstanding of Satan led Lewis to write the following observation and warning,
To admire Satan is to give one's vote for a world of misery and a world of lies and propaganda, wishful thinking and incessant autobiography. Yet the choice is possible and hardly a day passes without some slight movement towards it in each one of us. That is what makes Paradise Lost such a serious poem. The thing is possible, and the exposure of it is resented. (Lewis Preface 102)
Lewis sets out to expose the seriousness of Paradise Lost and its relevancy to people. He knows that the poem's Satan reveals truths of the real Satan, and in his Preface, he blatantly writes as if they were the same. Lewis describes Milton’s scene in Paradise Lost of Satan's temptation of Eve as being so subtle and close to reality that readers may fail to realize the severity of the temptation. He writes, "Milton's truth to nature is here almost too great, and the reader is involved in the same illusion as Eve herself. The whole thing is so quick, each new element of folly, malice and corruption enters so unobstrusively, so naturally, that it is hard to realize we have been watching the genesis of murder." (Lewis Preface 126)
Lewis asserts that many readers and critics of the poem will quote Satan's lines regarding Hell as if Milton means them as valid arguments. When cast to hell, Satan proclaims,
Here at least
We shall be free…
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n.(PL I, 258-263)
Such critics who accept such a statement as valid have missed the insipid evil and self-deception of Satan. Lewis writes of the above suggestion, "Some, to the very end, will think this a fine thing to say; others will think that it fails to be a roaring farce only because it spells agony." (Lewis Preface 103) Lewis writes that when Milton wrote Paradise Lost people still believed that there really was a Satan and that he was a liar. According to Lewis, Milton did not foresee a day when his work would be read by critics who take for gospel the things said by the Father of Lies in public speeches to his troops of demons.
Lewis' description of Satan centers on the two qualities of his evil nature: his absolute ridiculousness and his evil destructiveness. These Lewis suggests are what the world misses when examining Satan. They are both present in Milton's Satan; although, the latter quality is sometimes hidden in subtlety. In his Preface, Lewis devotes a chapter to showing how the main themes of Paradise Lost, including Satan's character, find their roots in Augustine and in Christian redemptive history. Lewis writes, "Milton's version of the Fall story is substantially that of St. Augustine, which is that of the Church as a whole." (Lewis Preface 66) In the very first lines of the poem, Milton writes that the Fall is simply disobedience resulting from pride, what Lewis describes as "being too big for your boots, forgetting your place, thinking that you are God." (Lewis Preface 70)
Lewis emphasizes the orthodox principles in Milton's poem, so that he may then discuss Milton's Satan and the real Satan without distinguishing between the two. Geib writes that in Paradise Lost "Ultimate evil was posited as the exaltation of self-will above the will and Person of God, which exaltation historic Christianity and Lewis discovered to be found in the angel known in the Bible as Satan." (Geib 151)
God is the true protagonist of the poem. Lewis sees Satan coming to Eden to pervert his creation. Milton shows that anyone who rebels against God produces the exact opposite result as was his or her intention. Lewis emphasizes that God allows Satan to do anything he does. He is allowed to produce evil, but in the end God uses it to produce a greater good. Lewis cites Adam's exclamation at the end of the poem,
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! (PL XII, 469-473)
Lewis clarifies the total failure and futility of Satan's endeavors; however, he also points out the evil intention and effect of all he does. Because of this view of Lewis', Stutz concludes, "The notion that Satan is or ought to be an object of admiration or sympathy is for Lewis wholly erroneous." (Stutz 208) According to Lewis and Milton, Satan cannot defeat or even attack his enemy, so he sinks to the design to ruin humans to annoy God. In the meantime, he becomes a serpent by his own will and remains one of increasing deformity whether he wills it or not. Lewis disavows any sense of giving honor to Satan. He writes, "Christianity commits every Christian to believing that the devil is (in the long run) an ass." (Lewis Preface 95)
Milton asserts that Satan is the first to commit the sin of Pride. Lewis describes the act as a conscious creature becoming more interested in itself than in God and wishing to exist on its own. Pride leads Satan to believe his own lie that he exists on his own and had not been created by God. In the poem, he claims that he and the angels have been "self-begot, self-raised" by their own power and by what Lewis calls "the kindly assistance of a chimera that Milton’s Satan calls 'fatal course.'" (Lewis Preface 77) Satan rejects God's authority and exalts himself as one who should rule and have subjects for his own. Lewis points out that Satan's rebellion in Paradise Lost begins with talk about liberty but soon proceeds to his own dominion, honor, glory and renown. (Lewis Preface 78) Satan's ambitious heart will not admit equals but desires underlings. Lewis asserts that Satan has become more a Lie than a Liar. He calls him a "personified self-contradiction." (Lewis Preface 97) He is too proud to accept that he is created by God but delights in thinking he sprung up like a plant with the help of his "fatal course."
Stutz alleges that Lewis came to believe that Milton's Satan was softened in a way that blinds readers to the evil and perverse end to which Satan devotes his efforts. He suggests that Lewis' science fiction novels and Screwtape Letters offer the grotesque and absolutely perverted nature of Satan that Milton's character lacks. Stutz also draws from Lewis' 1961 preface to Screwtape Letters in which Lewis implies that Milton's Satan may have done harm by being too acceptable. Stutz does also, however, note that Lewis' writing of evil includes the subtle, deceptive and seducing evil in which Milton's Satan strives. He writes, "Lewis devotes much of Screwtape Letters to the sort of evil marked by craft and cunning—the very kind at which Milton's Satan excels…This is the stuff of shadows and whispers, of inner depths of mind and heart; this is the kind of thing for which words like "evil" and "sin" seem almost too grandiose, but which both Milton and Lewis insist are just that." (Stutz 218)
I agree with Tanner who writes that Lewis was a student not only of the Bible but of Paradise Lost. (Tanner 133) It was necessary for Lewis to become intimate with the poem to write an adequate preface to it. Tanner writes that “It was from Milton that Lewis learned how to think about unfallen motives for evil and indeterminate causes of sin.” (Tanner 133) One can see Milton's influence on Lewis in the 1961 preface to Screwtape Letters when Lewis describes the greatest evil in the following way: "The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid dens of crime that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see the final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices." (Lewis in Stutz 228) Such places of evil could not be better suited for Milton's version of Satan. Conversely, Lewis himself credits Milton with wanting to make readers feel "the full obscenity of Satan's presence in Eden." (Lewis Preface 44)
There can be no doubt that in his Preface to Paradise Lost Lewis is sending a stern warning to Christians to take heed of this poem and its portrait of Satan. He knows that even Christian readers have been negatively influenced to avoid the reality of Satan. He writes, "It would not be surprising if we, who were mostly brought up on egalitarian or even antinomian ideas, should come to the poem with minds prepossessed in favour of Satan against God and of Eve against Adam, and then read into the poet a sympathy with those prepossessions which is not really there." (Lewis Preface 78-79)
In his 1941 preface to Screwtape Letters, Lewis summarizes one of the main points he makes in his Preface to Paradise Lost. He writes, "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them." (Lewis SL preface) These are the two views he attacks in his Preface to Paradise Lost. He also advises readers of Screwtape Letters to remember that Satan is a liar. This is undoubtedly a response to reading and hearing people proudly quoting Satan's lines from Paradise Lost to justify themselves or to make an argument.
I agree with Lewis’ assertion that all humans have their place in the plot of Paradise Lost. He sees each of us at any given moment as moving towards the Messianic position or towards the Satanic position. Lewis sees it as a true story that is too near us to be taken any way but seriously. Milton's Satan reveals the satan in each person that through self-assertion rebels against God and wants to be its own god. Lewis writes that even though we, like Satan and Adam, are damnable, it is not necessary that we must, like Satan, be damned. Satan has chosen to have no choice but to be damned. For humans, the escape from evil and hell exists, but as Lewis writes there is only one way: "the way of humiliation, repentance, and (where possible) restitution." (Lewis Preface 105) This is the way that is only through Jesus Christ, the Son, whom Satan refused to worship but chose to rebel against in serving himself.
Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1942.
Lewis, C.S. “The Screwtape Letters.” The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2002. 121-204.
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merrit Hughes. New York: MacMillan Publ Co., 1957. 173-470.
Schmidt, Richard H. Glorious Companions. Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002.
Stutz, Chad P. “No Sombre Satan: C.S. Lewis, Milton, and Re-presentations of the Diabolical.” Religion & the Arts 9.3/4 (Sept. 2005): 208-234.
Tanner, John S. “The Psychology of Temptation in Perelandra and Paradise Lost: What Lewis Learned from Milton.” Renascence 52.2 (Winter 2000): 131-141.
Geib, John David. “C.S. Lewis’ Ontological View of the Demonic: Satan as an Explanatory Postulate.” Inklings Forever Vol II. Ed. Rick Hill. Upland: Taylor University, 1999. 146-160.