IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Satan's War Council

John Milton’s Paradise Lost portrays an epic struggle between God and Satan. It seems to foreshadow a prolonged Cold War between remorseless antagonists whose object is to capture hearts and minds in some faraway borderland. The speeches in Satan's war council, as his confederates plot strategy in the shadow of defeat, give a sort of typology of foreign policy choices and bear a strong family resemblance to other “real life” historical debates. (Article length: 3400 words)
 In the first book of Paradise Lost, we find Satan—a.k.a. the Arch-Fiend, the Apostate Angel—expelled with his followers from heaven, and plunged into the dark abyss of Hell.  Yet Satan has undeniable appeal; anyone who has admired an underdog has got to appreciate his pluck. He is hardly inferior to the ancient heroes in bravery, resolution, and strategic skill. “Satan is a classic war leader of the epic kind,” notes Charles Hill. “He holds court from his royal throne. He is rhetorically elegant. He rallies and inspires his men at times when all seems lost. He embodies the heroic ideal: finding meaningful life by fighting for glory and pride.” (1) By describing him as a military hero, however, Milton seems to intend a satire on the tradition that had so elevated war and warriors into glory. By making Satan appealing, “Milton forces us to question why we admire martial prowess and pride in literary characters. Ultimately he attempts to show that the Christian virtues of obedience, humility, and forbearance are more important.”(2)

* * *
In the aftermath of the battle that expelled them from Heaven, Satan’s followers are, many of them, demoralized. His good pal Beelzebub laments:

Too well I see and rue the dire event,
   That with sad overthrow and foul defeat
   Hath lost us Heaven, and all this mighty Host
   In horrible destruction laid thus low.

But Satan is determined “never to submit or yield” and stirs his compatriots to action—“Awake, arise, or be forever fallen”—all the while casting about for a strategy that will defeat God’s purpose. In the following speeches from Book I, Satan displays steely determination and unconquerable will. He is as eloquent as Demosthenes, as brave as Achilles:
His utmost power with adverse power opposed
   In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven,
   And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
   All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
   And study of revenge, immortal hate,
   And courage never to submit or yield:
   And what is else not to be overcome?
   That glory never shall his wrath or might
   Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
   With suppliant knee, and deify his power
   Who from the terror of this arm so late
   Doubted his empire, that were low indeed,
   That were an ignominy and shame beneath
   This downfall; since by fate the strength of gods
   And this empyreal substance cannot fail,
   Since through experience of this great event
   In arms not worse, in foresight much advanced,
   We may with more successful hope resolve
   To wage by force or guile eternal war
   Irreconcilable, to our grand Foe,
   Who now triumphs, and in the excess of joy
   Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven. (I, 103-24) 

Fallen Cherub, to be weak is miserable
   Doing or suffering: but of this be sure,
   To do aught good never will be our task,
   But ever to do ill our sole delight,
   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 labor must be to pervert that end,
   And out of good still to find means of evil;
   Which ofttimes may succeed, so as perhaps
   Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
   His inmost counsels from their destined aim. (I, 157-68)

Seest thou yon dreary plain, forlorn and wild,
   The seat of desolation, void of light,
   Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
   Casts pale and dreadful? Thither let us tend
   From off the tossing of these fiery waves,
   There rest, if any rest can harbor there,
   And reassembling our afflicted powers,
   Consult how we may henceforth most offend
   Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
   How overcome this dire calamity,
   What reinforcement we may gain from hope,
   If not what resolution from despair. (I, 180-191)

So stretched out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay
   Chained on the burning lake, nor ever thence
   Had risen or heaved his head, but that the will
   And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
   Left him at large to his own dark designs,
   That with reiterated crimes he might
   Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
   Evil to others, and enraged might see
   How all his malice served but to bring forth
   Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shown
   On man by him seduced, but on himself
   Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance poured. (I, 209-20)

“Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,
   Said then the lost Archangel, “this the seat
   That we must change for Heaven, this mournful gloom
   For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
   Who now is sovereign can dispose and bid
   What shall be right: farthest from him is best
   Whom reason hath equaled, force hath made supreme
   Above his equals. Farewell happy fields
   Where joy for ever dwells: Hail, horrors, hail
   Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
   Receive thy new possessor: One who brings
   A mind not to be changed by place or time.
   The mind is its own place, and in it self
   Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
   What matter where, if I be still the same,
   And what I should be, all but less than he
   Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
   We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
   Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
   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 Heaven. (I, 242-63)
 * * *

As Book II opens, Satan has convened a council at Pandemonium, his high capitol in Hell, with a thousand demi-gods on golden seats in close attendance, Seraphic Lords and Cherubim looking on with rapt attention (rendered in 1824 by John Martin as Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council).(3) So begins “the great consult.” Satan was exalted, sitting high on his throne, claiming his own proud eminence in courage and leadership. There unfolds a sort of parliamentary assembly, or a scene out of Thucydides, in which various speakers set forth alternative courses of action, and justify them in relation (mostly) to fear, honor, and interest. Satan does not proceed like a dictator but invokes the advantages he and his confederates will gain in union and good faith with one another. Such union would allow them “to claim our just inheritance of old.” He opens the floor to discussion. The topic: "by what best way/Whether of open war or covert guile” to accomplish resistance to Heaven.

The first speaker, Moloch, was a sceptered prince who had been the strongest and the fiercest spirit in the battle for Heaven. He was careless of death; “with that care lost/ Went all his fear: of God, or Hell, or worse.” He counsels stout resistance, open war. The troops, for one thing, were very restless, and would not brook the delays incident to a policy of guile.

For while they sit contriving, shall the rest,
Millions that stand in arms, and long wait
The signal to ascend, sit lingering here
Heaven’s fugitives, and for their dwelling-place
Accept this dark opporbrious den of shame,
The prison of his tyranny who reigns
By our delay?  

No, says Moloch, let’s fight fire with fire. To those who think that “the way seems difficult and steep to scale,” Moloch invokes the humiliations of their fall, and suggests that God fears their resistance, uncertain that he can prevail. In any case, there’s nothing worse than the existing situation:
what can be worse
Than to dwell here, driven out from bliss, condemned
In this abhorred deep to utter woe;
Where pain of unextinguishable fire
Must exercise us without hope of end 

The alternatives are death or glory, both better than abject submission. Moloch does not promise victory, but instead invokes  
Our power sufficient to disturb his Heaven,
And with perpetual inroads to alarm,
Though inaccessible, his fatal throne;
Which if not victory is yet revenge. 

Belial, the next speaker, Milton treats with harshness, though he acknowledges that Belial’s language was beguiling. He “could make the worse appear/ The better reason,” says Milton, and was industrious only in vice. But Belial’s advice should not be so readily dismissed. He satirizes Molloch’s argument by noting that he grounds the whole enterprise “on despair/ And utter dissolution, as the scope/ Of all his aim, after some dire revenge.” In Belial’s view, the cause was hopeless, the Almighty seven times stronger and presiding over a well fortified domain. About the best that could be hoped for was death in such a hopeless struggle. But who could be sure that God would countenance that result and thus gratify the wishes of his enemies? Besides, the existing situation is hardly intolerable, with the fallen angels sitting around and chatting with one another. It’s a damn sight better than being “Chained on the burning lake; that sure was worse.” And Belial could imagine things far, far, worse. What about being
Under yon boiling ocean, wrapped in chains;
There to converse with everlasting groans,
Unrespited, unpitied, unreprieved,
Ages of hopeless end? this would be worse.
War therefore, open or concealed, alike
My voice dissuades; for what can force or guile
With him, or who deceive his mind, whose eye
Views all things at one view?  

Rejecting both force and guile in contending with God, Belial holds out some hope that conditions would improve after a surrender to their inevitable fate. He wants them to accept the reality of their situation.
This is now
Our doom; which if we can sustain and bear,
Our supreme Foe in time may much remit
His anger, and perhaps, thus far removed,
Not mind us not offending, satisfied
With what is punished; whence these raging fires
Will slacken, if his breath stir not their flames.  

One might imagine that Milton should be sympathetic to a defeated adversary who urged submission to God, hoping for a bit of mercy; instead, he writes that Belial’s words, “clothed in reason’s garb,/ Counseled ignoble ease, and peaceful sloth,/ Not peace.” Here is one of those instances in which Milton seems to be of the devil’s party, without exactly realizing it. (4)
Next up was Mammon, who asks what place there could be for them in Heaven unless they won, overpowering “Heaven’s Lord supreme.” Secondary status would not do. Mammon could not abide the humiliation this would entail, and imagines a dreadful scene in Heaven (rather closely resembling the situation in Rome after Augustus pardoned his enemies.)
Suppose he should relent
And publish grace to all, on promise made
Of new subjection; with what eyes could we
Stand in his presence humble, and receive
Strict laws imposed, to celebrate his throne
With warbled hymns, and to his Godhead sing
Forced halleluiahs; while he lordly sits
Our envied Sovereign, and his altar breaths
Ambrosial odors and ambrosial flowers,
Our servile offerings? This must be our task
In Heaven, this our delight; how wearisome
Eternity so spent in worship paid
To whom we hate. Let us not then pursue,
By force impossible, by leave obtained
Unacceptable, though in Heaven, our state
Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp.
Mammon’s preference for “hard liberty” over the easy yoke of servility recalls Satan's professed desire to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. It also evokes the old republican religion. Mammon’s language imitates the great Scotsman, William Wallace, “I tell you true, liberty is the best of all things; never live beneath the noose of a servile halter (Address to the Scots, c. 1300). So, too, it resembles John Ray’s English proverb, “Lean liberty is better than fat slavery,” and the following couplets by Joseph Addison and Alexander Pope:
A day, an hour of virtuous liberty,
 Is worth a whole eternity in bondage. (Addison, 1713)
 Give me again my hollow tree,
  A crust of bread, and liberty. (Pope, 1714)
Liberty and independence, then, are at the core of Mammon's republican security theory, but his call is not to arms. Instead, he insists that the resources in Hell are not bad, sufficient indeed for great enterprise. It may even be that, just as Heaven resembles Hell when a great storm rages in the skies, so Hell might yet resemble Heaven (recalling the Arch-Fiend’s observation in Book One). He intimates the existence and possibilities of a system of interdependence, with light and darkness making regular use of one another. He seems to suggest that a policy of “live and let live,” sustained by the possibility of steady and laborious self-improvement, would be a viable way of addressing their predicament. Would this Great Game, this epic international competition, between God and Satan need contrivances like spheres of influence, institutions like the balance of power, norms like non-intervention? Could the Cold War avoid becoming hot? Something like that is suggested in Mammon's projections, though he does not say so directly.
As he our darkness, cannot we his light
Imitate when we please? This desert soil
Wants not her hidden luster, gems and gold;
Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise
Magnificence; and what can Heaven show more?
Our torments also may in length of time
Become our elements, these piercing fires
As soft as now severe, our temper changed
Into their temper; which must needs remove
The sensible of pain. All things invite
To Peaceful counsels, and the settled state
Of order, how in safety best we may
Compose our present evils, with regard
Of what we are and where, dismissing quite
All thoughts of war. 

At this point, we have a standoff among resistance, containment, and acquiescence or, put differently, between war, stalemate, and surrender. The typology is of considerable theoretical interest and reflects an oft-recurring choice in foreign policy. Examples include the problem of American policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the response that the North might make to the expansion of slavery before the American Civil war, and the debate between Edmund Burke, William Pitt, and Charles James Fox over English responses to the French revolution. Perhaps too a conclave of contemporary Islamists might be imagined as having a dialogue along these lines.  
The assembled hosts applaud Mammon’s speech advising peace, “for such another field/ They dreaded worse than Hell.” Appealing, too, was Mammon’s invitation to the founding of a
            nether empire, which might rise
By policy, and long process of time,
In emulation opposite to Heaven. 

Alarmed by the drift of the argument, Beelzebub steps into the breach, refuting Mammon. Milton’s evocation of Beelzebub rising is sublime. He is the model of the Machiavellian statesman, infused by reason of state. Kissinger never looked so good.
            With grave
Aspect he rose, and in his rising seemed
A pillar of state; deep on his front engraven
Deliberation sat and public care;
And princely counsel in his face yet shone,
Majestic though in ruin: sage he stood,
With Atlantean shoulders fit to bear
The Weight of mightiest monarchies. 

Beelzebub dismisses the prospect that they might build a growing empire beyond God’s potent arm, “to live exempt from Heaven’s high jurisdiction.” The objection was not that it was undesirable, but impossible, as God would not allow it. No, God would keep them in strictest bondage and would not forgive their injuries.  
            For he, be sure
In highth or depth, still first and last will reign
Sole king, and of his kingdom lose no part
By our revolt, but over Hell extend
His empire, and with iron scepter rule
Us here, as with his golden those in Heaven.
What sit we then projecting peace and war?
War hath determined us, and foiled with loss
Irreparable; terms of peace yet none
Vouchsafed or sought; for what peace will be given
To us enslaved, but custody severe,
And stripes, and arbitrary punishment
Beelzebub's strategy is "not losing" rather than "winning"--he projects a war of attrition rather than the annihilation of enemy forces. They were to take their own sweet time while "ever plotting how the Conqueror least/ May reap his conquest, and may least rejoice/ In doing what we most in suffering feel?" There was no need for hasty measures, only determined malice. Beelzebub relates that there is a place,

another world, the happy seat
Of some new race called man, about this time
To be created like to us, though less
In power and excellence, but favored more
Of him who rules above. 

His strategy formed, Beelzebub gives the charge to the assembly. Though the scene in Pandemonium has been likened to an oriental despotism, once a term of art in political theory, Beezelbub's role seems here more like that of a prime minister in a constitutional monarchy, setting forth the government's agenda.  
Thither let us bend all our thoughts, to learn
What creatures there inhabit, of what mold
Or substance, how endued, and what their power,
And where their weakness, how attempted best,
By force or subtlety. Though Heaven be shut,
And Heaven’s high Arbitrator sit secure
In his own strength, this place may lie exposed,
The utmost border of his kingdom, left
To their defence who hold it; here perhaps
Some advantageous act may be achieved
By sudden onset, either with Hell fire
To waste his whole creation, or possess
All as our own, and drive as we were driven,
The puny habitants; or if not drive,
Seduce them to our party, that their God
May prove their foe, and with repenting hand
Abolish his own works. This would surpass
Common revenge, and interrupt his joy
In our confusion, and our joy upraise
In his disturbance; when his darling sons,
Hurled headlong to partake with us, shall curse
Their frail original, and faded bliss,
Faded so soon.  

All the fallen angels seemed to fall in with this clever strategy, with Earth and Hell to mingle and perhaps become indistinguishable, “done all to spite/ The Great Creator.”  They hold a vote—democratic peace theorists, take note—and confirm Beelzebub’s strategy, infernal joy sparkling in all their eyes. On this new being called man there was much material to work! Very promising indeed! Satan concludes the assembly by evoking the promise of better days, when they would be lifted up “nearer our ancient seat.” Even if they didn’t make it all the way to Heaven, they might find some place with “soft delicious air,/ To heal the scar of these corrosive fires.” Satan then put himself forth, with impressive fortitude, for the first mission. The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in a “lay sermon” written in 1816, just after the end of the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, sees the character of Satan as embodied in a host of military commanders “from Nimrod to Napoleon,” giving “a dark and savage grandeur to the historic page.” The besetting sin—“the fearful resolve to find in itself alone the one absolute motive of action"—finds the human will “in its utmost abstraction.” In that state,
the will becomes Satanic pride and rebellious self-idolatry in the relations of the spirit to itself, and remorseless despotism relatively to others; the more hopeless as the more obdurate by its subjugation of sensual impulses, by its superiority to toil and pain and pleasure; in short, by the fearful resolve to find in itself alone the one absolute motive of action, under which all other motives from within and from without must be either subordinated or crushed.
This is the character which Milton has so philosophically as well as sublimely embodied in the Satan of his Paradise Lost. Alas! too often has it been embodied in real life! Too often has it given a dark and savage grandeur to the historic page! And wherever it has appeared, under whatever circumstances of time and country, the same ingredients have gone to its composition; and it has been identified by the same attributes. Hope in which there is no cheerfulness; steadfastness within and immovable resolve, with outward restlessness and whirling activity; violence with guile; temerity with cunning; and, as the result of all, interminableness of object with perfect indifference of means; these are the qualities that have constituted the COMMANDING GENIUS! these are the marks that have characterized the masters of mischief, the liberticides, and mighty hunters of mankind, from Nimrod to Napoleon.
And from inattention to the possibility of such a character as well as from ignorance of its elements, even men of honest intentions too frequently become fascinated. Nay, whole nations have been so far duped by this want of insight and reflection as to regard with palliative admiration, instead of wonder and abhorrence, the Molochs of human nature, who are indebted for the larger portion of their meteoric success to their total want of principle, and who surpass the generality of their fellow creatures in one act of courage, only that of daring to say with their whole heart, "Evil, be thou my good!" (5)

* * *

Milton was blind and impoverished when he composed Paradise Lost. The portrait below is by Eugène Delacroix, ca. 1826, “Milton Dictates the Lost Paradise to His Three Daughters," via Wikipedia commons.

1)  Charles Hill, Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order (Yale University Press, 2010), p. 103
3) John Martin, Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council, 1824 (from Wikipedia Commons)
4) Blake
5) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Statesman’s Manual; or The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon, Addressed to The Higher Classes of Society . . .  (London, 1816), Appendix, ix-x.

* * *

Source: The Portable Milton, edited and introduced by Douglas Bush (New York: Viking, 1949). See further John M. Steadman, "The Idea of Satan as the Hero of 'Paradise Lost'," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 120 (1976): 253-94.