Why do we like the guys who seem not to care whether or not what they’re doing is right, but who often manage to do what’s right anyway? In the Star Wars series, Han Solo is introduced as a mercenary, concerned only with monetary reward. In the first episode of Mad Men, audiences see Don Draper saying to a woman that they should get married, and then in the final scene he arrives home to his actual wife. Tony Soprano, Jack Sparrow, Tom Sawyer, the list of male characters who flout rules and conventions, who lie, cheat and steal, but who nevertheless compel the attention, the favor, even the love of readers and moviegoers would be difficult to exhaust.
John Milton has been accused of both betraying his own and inspiring others' sympathy and admiration for what should be the most detestable character imaginable. When he has Satan, in Paradise Lost, say, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” many believed he was signaling his support of the king of England’s overthrow. Regicidal politics are well and good—at least from the remove of many generations—but voicing your opinions through such a disreputable mouthpiece? That’s difficult to defend. Imagine using a fictional Hitler to convey your stance on the current president.
Stanley Fish theorizes that Milton’s game was a much subtler one: he didn’t intend for Satan to be sympathetic so much as seductive, so that in being persuaded and won over to him readers would be falling prey to the same temptation that brought about the fall. As humans, all our hearts are marked with original sin. So if many readers of Milton’s magnum opus come away thinking Satan may have been in the right all along, the failure wasn’t the author’s unconstrained admiration for the rebel angel so much as it was his inability to adequately “justify the ways of God to men.” God’s ways may follow a certain logic, but the appeal of Satan’s ways is deeper, more primal.
In the “Argument,” or summary, prefacing Book Three, Milton relays some of God’s logic: “Man hath offended the majesty of God by aspiring to godhead and therefore, with all his progeny devoted to death, must die unless someone can be found sufficient to answer for his offence and undergo his punishment.” The Son volunteers. This reasoning has been justly characterized as “barking mad” by Richard Dawkins. But the lines give us an important insight into what Milton saw as the principle failing of the human race, their ambition to be godlike. It is this ambition which allows us to sympathize with Satan, who incited his fellow angels to rebellion against the rule of God.
In Book Five, we learn that what provoked Satan to rebellion was God’s arbitrary promotion of his own Son to a status higher than the angels: “by Decree/ Another now hath to himself ingross’t/ All Power, and us eclipst under the name/ Of King anointed.” Citing these lines, William Flesch explains, “Satan’s grandeur, even if it is the grandeur of archangel ruined, comes from his iconoclasm, from his desire for liberty.” At the same time, however, Flesch insists that, “Satan’s revolt is not against tyranny. It is against a tyrant whose place he wishes to usurp.” So, it’s not so much freedom from domination he wants, according to Flesch, as the power to dominate.
Anthropologist Christopher Boehm describes the political dynamics of nomadic peoples in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: TheEvolution of Egalitarian Behavior, and his descriptions suggest that parsing a motive of domination from one of preserving autonomy is much more complicated than Flesch’s analysis assumes. “In my opinion,” Boehm writes, “nomadic foragers are universally—and all but obsessively—concerned with being free from the authority of others” (68). As long as the group they belong to is small enough for each group member to monitor the actions of the others, people can maintain strict egalitarianism, giving up whatever dominance they may desire for the assurance of not being dominated themselves.
Satan very likely speaks to this natural ambivalence in humans. Benevolent leaders win our love and admiration through their selflessness and charisma. But no one wants to be a slave. Does Satan’s admirable resistance and defiance shade into narcissistic self-aggrandizement and an unchecked will to power? If so, is his tyranny any more savage than that of God? And might there even be something not altogether off-putting about a certain degree self-indulgent badness?