Satan Ambition


Satan: Ambition’s Slave Essay, Research Paper

A tragedy can come in a variety of forms, but is usually the end result of an imperfection

that the protagonist cannot overcome, a tragic flaw. In John Milton’s poem, Paradise

Lost, Satan succumbs to his own vaulting ambition to be equal in power and glory to

God. As a result of this perverse ambition, his actions lead to the greatest tragedy ever,

the downfall of numerous angels and the race of mankind. Satan, however, is not

concerned with the fact that he is responsible for the loss of paradise both in heaven and

on earth, in fact, in his opinion it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n” (Milton

I.263). Although this flaw signifies the beginning of the tragedy, according to Aristotle

the main emphasis is to display unyielding courage against overwhelming odds:

In drama, a play in verse or prose which depicts the downfall of a

protagonist who is noble and elevated in status yet moves from happiness

to misery because of an error in judgment or a character flaw. A

revelation of human strivings and aspirations, tragedy arouses fear and

pity, yet its purpose is to celebrate the courage and dignity of the human

spirit in the face of defeat (Aristotle)

Satan certainly fits this description because his courage never subsides, even when it

becomes clear that he and his followers face looming destruction at the hands of God.

This bravery sets him apart from his fellow, fallen angels and is what makes him the

tragic hero, rather than just the instigator of a tragedy. As a result of his tragic flaw,

ambition, Satan falls from Heaven to an eternal and inescapable Hell, yet his courage

remains resolute, and therefore he becomes the tragic hero in Paradise Lost.

Lucifer, like all tragic heroes according to Aristotle, begins existence very

powerful and elevated in status. Prior to the arrival of Christ, Lucifer serves directly

under God and his power and magnificence are unmatched by the other angels. As a

result of this status, Lucifer is highly regarded by God, “Satan, so call him now, his

former name/ Is heard no more in heav’n; he of the first, If not the first Archangel, great

in power/ In favor and pre-eminence” (Milton,IV.558-560). The authority and power he

formerly held in heaven is further illustrated when it is stated that Satan is no longer

called his onetime angelic name, Lucifer. Lucifer means “light-bearer”, a meaning that

creates allusions of grandeur and the ability to “light” the way for others, or provide

leadership for other angels(Paradise Lost: Milton’s Long Epic). In fact, according to

Stella Revard, leadership over inferior angels is one of Satan’s roles in heaven:

In Heaven Milton first and foremost shows us Satan not as the most

beautiful, but as the most powerful of the angels. He describes him as

potentate with great name and high degree, whose angels obey his

superior voice without demur. He is the one whose power easily

conveys one third of God’s angels away from God ( Revard, 200).

The fact that all other angels are subordinate to Satan and obey his orders just as they

would God’s displays his unmatched power. We finally see an entity under God with

higher ranking and more power, however, with the arrival of Christ.

(Paradise Lost: Milton’s Long Epic).

Jesus was willing to give his life for man’s salvation and as a result is raised above his

fellow angels, “Second to thee, offered himself to die/ For man’s offense. O unexampled

love/ Love nowhere to be found less divine!” (Milton IV.409-411). Satan is still a

high-ranking angel at this point, but he was accustomed to being second under God.

Therefore he resents Christ’s high status and his initial feelings on the matter are ones of

envy and revenge (Milton, 1.35). This event, the lowering of Satan’s position in Heaven,

becomes a key point that arouses Satan’s rebellion.

As with most tragedies, Satan’s courage and heroic qualities, in the face of

imminent defeat, are glorified. It is a foregone conclusion that Satan and his followers

cannot overcome God and his great army (Milton I.622-624). An substantial edge that

God has over Satan is that as an omnipotent being, He knows of Satan’s impending attack

which gives Him ample time to prepare:

Nearly it now concerns us to be sure

Of our omnipotence, and with what arms

We mean to hold what anciently we claim

Of deity or empire, such a foe

Is rising, who intends to erect his throne

Equal to ours, throughout the spacious north;

Nor so content, hath in his thought to try

In battle, what our power is, or our right (Milton V.721-728).

Upon learning that Satan will try earnestly to steal God’s throne in battle, Jesus makes a

proclamation displaying his unmatched power:

…when [Satan's army] see[s] all regal power

Giv’n me to quell their pride, and in event

Know[s] whether I be dexterous to subdue

Thy rebels, or be found the worst in heav’n (Milton V.739-742).

It is evident that Jesus is highly confident that He will be able to crush the rebel angels,

and if he cannot then he feels he is the “worst in heav’n”. These words exhibit the

overwhelming superiority that God possesses, yet Satan maintains his ambition and will

to win in spite of the odds. This point is exemplified when after a day of defeat in battle,

Satan, instead of retreating or waving the perverbial white flag, invents a new weapon

which he hopes will lead his army to victory, ” Not uninvented that, which thou aright/

Believ’st so main to our success, I bring [the cannon]” (Milton VI.470-471)

Satan will continue “raging against fate” (Broudbent, 72) at all costs and as a result

draws sympathy and pity from the reader. According to Revard the best example of his

bravery and heroism is the confrontation between him and Michael:

In his speech to Michael, moreover, he sounds, as Taubmann’s and

Valvasone’s Lucifer had sounded before him, like the epic hero

defending the ethic of heroic battle. He turns aside what he calls

Michael’s threats and calls for deeds to answer words. He exalts war

as a strife of glory. Finally he dares Michael to expend his utmost

force and vows to stand firm against him (Revard, 228).

Not only is it the bravery that Satan embodies that makes him appealing, but also the

manner in which he is described, “Milton’s presentation of him makes it very difficult not

to respond to him with some admiration and sympathy” (Johnston). This observation

made by Ian Johnston is supported through passages of Satan preparing for battle, “Satan

with vast and haughty strides advanced/ Came tow’ring, armed in adamant and

gold” (Milton VI.109-110). Although Satan is unable to gain victory in battle or stand his

ground against Michael, he did not waver in his courage and as a result gains admiration

and pity. This action is what makes Satan a tragic hero, not an epic one. An epic hero

would have been able to maintain his ground in one last stand against the enemy, but

Satan is missing this quality, he lost it as a result of his tragic flaw.

Satan further demonstrates the qualities of a tragic hero, in that an unhappy

ending is created through moral weaknesses that cause his fall. The main flaw that

clouds Satan’s judgment is his pride, “…His pride/ Had cast him out of heav’n, with all his

host/ Of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring/ To set himself in glory above his peers”

(Milton I.36-38).

Satan’s pride is the direct result of his perverse desire to be a separate and more powerful

entity than God. The result of this wicked action is the creation of a horrific, new

consequence to evil behavior: Death (Revard 61). This conduct will achieve nothing for

Satan, but sorrow and pain, yet he continues to demonstrate this behavior because

“[pride] makes Satan so resolve” (Revard 28). Broudbent takes the effects of Satan’s

pride one step further by suggesting that it signals changes that block his angelic

impulses, and therefore, prevent him from being saved (Broudbent 76). In fact, the view

that Satan’s pride threw him down from heaven and prohibits his return is supported in

scripture, “I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most

High. But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit”

(Isaiah 14:13-15).

Along with pride, Satan’s vaulting ambition also fuels his fall, “…Pride and worse

ambition threw me down” (Milton IV.40). According to Ciotoli, this ambition is born

because Satan feels he has been bumped down the “hierarchical chain of command”

when God names Christ second in command (Ciotoli). It is clear that Satan’s chief goal

in fleeing heaven is not to be separate from God, instead Satan desires to be God’s equal

(Revard 44-45).

Although, as a result of forsaking God, Satan does not achieve the goal he desires, he is

still content with the end result because he becomes his own master, “Our being ordained

to govern, not serve?” (Milton V.802). Whether it be in Heaven or Hell, Satan just wants

to fulfill his ambition to be in control, “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”

(Milton I.261-263). This type of specious reasoning is also a factor that leads to both his

and humanity’s fall. According to Frank Kermode, Milton wants the reader to

comprehend the fall in this order, “The Fall from heaven. the Fall from Paradise, and

finally the effect of the Fall in the life of humanity in general” (Kermode, 588). Satan is

the chief cause of each of these three falls, he stirs the revolt in heaven, tempts man, and

is the reason for mortality in humans. The effects of the fall are not solely felt by the

human race, however, Satan and his followers also feel the effects.

As a result of his evil desires, Satan loses all angelic impulses and is doomed to

an internal and everlasting Hell. The physical confines of the hell Satan is given as a

result of his fall are torturous and seemingly unbearable:

At once as far as angels ken he views

The dismal situation waste and wild,

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round

As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible

Served only to discover sights of woe (Milton I.59-64)

As intolerable as the physical description of hell seems, Satan seems to focus on the

effects that the intellectual and private hell create. Unlike the physical place, Satan

cannot escape the hell within that he has created for himself, “Which way I fly is hell;

myself am hell” (Milton IV.75). Satan is the instigator who created this damnation for all

of his followers and therefore he carries the burden of being the one in control of this


Hell’s totalitarianism is most obvious in the devils; but Satan, though in the

created world he occasionally turns humane, in Hell is predominantly a

fuhrer. Hell is of his own ordering and he carries its essence about with him.

The device is familiar; but what Satan cannot escape is self-domination.

(Broudbent 78)

It is ironic that Satan wants to be both in control and free, yet the only thing he gains

control of is the ball and chain that bind him. This, however, is not the only consequence

Satan feels within the confines of his personal hell, his intellect is also shattered and

therefore he can no longer experience joy:

His wish to soar in happiness through his own powers is a perverting

chemical that has mutated his nature, destroying the fabric of sound

intellect. Wishing happiness from self makes Satan no longer able to

experience happiness from God. Satan has become a being who is

‘unable’ in his very nature, and this ‘unableness’ is aptly illustrated when

he persists in seeking elevation after the ‘goal’ of elevation – being one

with God – has disappeared (Revard 61).

Satan realizes that as a result of his actions, or more importantly his pride, he is no longer

his former angelic self and “…thought himself impaired” (Milton V.665). The loss of

intellect and the burden of an inescapable hell lead Satan to invert his associations of

good and evil and make the proclamation that “Evil be thou my good” (Milton IV.108).

Satan’s plan for evil is to extract revenge on God by destroying man’s obedience to Him

(Paradise Lost: Milton’s Long Epic).

It is evident that Satan believes that momentous consequences for his evil cause will

happen as a result of the tempting of man, “Out of our evil seek to bring forth good/ Our

labor must be to pervert that end” (Milton I.163-164). The only momentous consequence

that occurs, however, is that man gains knowledge and Satan falls further into his own


His overbearing pride and ambition lead Satan to forsake God and become

trapped in a self-made hell. Yet, his courage remains resolute, even in dire times,

making him the tragic hero in Paradise Lost. This rare form of undying courage in the

face of impending defeat arouses pity and understanding. As a result of tempting man he

feels he has damaged God’s new creation, but in reality he has given them a great tool:

knowledge. This form of specious reasoning represents how far he has truly fallen since

the beginning of time, when he was a high ranking angel, before he became a slave to



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