Milton pp 136-150 | Cite as

The Motivation of Satan’s Rebellion in Paradise Lost (1945)

Part of the Modern Judgements book series (MOJU)


Though, until very recently, critics have paid scant attention to the motivation of Satan’s rebellion, it must be clear that this motivation is of cardinal importance to Paradise Lost. Without Satan’s rebellion, man would possibly not have been created and would certainly not have fallen, and no justification of the ways of God to man would have been necessary or possible.1 A proper understanding of the rebellion of Satan is likewise essential to the whole philosophic meaning of the epic. When Satan summons his followers to council in the North, evil enters the cosmos. Satan’s action initiates the whole sequence of the expulsion of the rebel angels, the creation of man to take their place, the temptation and fall of man, and finally his regeneration by grace. So much hinges on the motivation of Satan’s rebellion that an organized inquiry should be conducted into the methods by which Milton motivates Satan’s rebellion, the exact meaning of Satan’s actions, the sources on which Milton drew, and the dramatic validity of the account in Paradise Lost of the fall of the angels. This study attempts to sketch such an inquiry.2


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  1. 2.
    Throughout this article I am under exceeding obligation to Grant McColley, Paradise Lost (Chicago, 1941),Google Scholar
  2. to Maurice Kelley, This Great Argument (Princeton, 1941).Google Scholar
  3. and to Allan H. Gilbert, ‘The Theological Basis of Satan’s Rebellion and the Function of Abdiel in Paradise Lost’, in Modern Philology, XL (1942) 19–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, ed. R. H. Charles (Oxford, 1913) II 163.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Denis Saurat, Milton Man and Thinker (New York, 1925) pp. 257–8.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Vita Adae et Evae, xii–xvii, ed. L. S. A. Wells, in Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, ed. Charles. According to Wells, there are numerous manuscripts of the Vita dating from the Middle Ages (pp. 124–4). Two Middle English versions are given by Carl Horstmann, Sammlung Altenglischer Legenden (Heilbronn, 1878). Ancient versions of the Vita are found in Armenian, Syriac, Syriac and Arabic, and Ethiopic. All these go back, thinks Wells, probably to a Hellenistic Jew who wrote between A.D. 60 and 300. The legends are even more ancient and are represented elsewhere in Jewish literature:Google Scholar
  7. Louis Ginzburg, The Legends of the Jews, trans. Henrietta Szold (Philadelphia, 1913) 162–4. Jung, Fallen Angels, pp. 56–6, in keeping with his theory, does not take these legends as authentic Jewish tradition.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    The Junius Manuscript, ed. G. P. Krapp (New York, 1931, ‘Genesis’, lines 247–90.Google Scholar
  9. 19.
    Sir Walter Raleigh, Milton (1909) p. 86. Raleigh writes that Milton ‘flies in the face of the Anasthasian Creed by representing the generation of the Son as an event occurring in time’. Saurat in a review of H. J. C. Grierson’s Milton and Wordsworth, in Review of English Studies, XIV (1938) 225–8, writes that Milton ‘means the reader to take this quite literally, since otherwise there can be no drama’. To those who point out the inconsistency between this understanding of ‘begot’ and the numerous passages in both Paradise Lost and De Doctrina which speak of the Son as generated from the beginning, Saurat replies that Milton is writing poetry, not theology. This seems to me a false opposition of the two forms Milton was seeking to combine: he was writing theology in poetic form.Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    David Masson, Poetical Works of John Milton (1890) III 473;Google Scholar
  11. H. F. Fletcher, Milton’s Rabbinical Readings (Urbana, 1930) pp. 150–6;Google Scholar
  12. H. J. C. Grierson, Milton and Wordsworth (New York, 1937) pp. 98–9. Masson distinguishes between the Son existing eternally as the divine Logos and the Son begotten as the Son in point of time. Fletcher thinks the passage reflects the rabbinical notion that all things were created at one time but revealed only at their appointed times. Grierson quotes a passage from De Doctrina (15) which distinguishes between two senses of ‘begot’, the one literal and the other metaphorical, referring to the exaltation of the Son. Grierson takes the ‘begot’ of v 603 as the metaphorical begettiug. Kelley, This Great Argument, pp. 94–101 attempts to harmonize Grierson and Saurat by taking ‘begot’ as metaphorical, but at the same time conceding that, since Paradise Lost is poetry, not theology, it contains inventions that go beyond the doctrinal statement of De Doctrina. Below I shall show that Milton’s motivation of Satan contains relatively little invention and does not go far beyond other seventeenth-century treatments of the same theme.Google Scholar

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© Macmillan Publishers Limited 1968

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