Freedom and Satan in Paradise Lost Satan’s primary operational problem in Paradise Lost is his lack of obedience. The fundamental misunderstanding which leads to Satan’s disobedience is his separation of free will from God’s hierarchical power. In the angel Raphael’s account, Satan tells his dominions, “Orders and Degrees/Jarr not with liberty” (5.792-93). Tempting as this differentiation seems, Satan is mistaken. Free will and hierarchical power are not mutually exclusive, as Satan suggests, but overlapping concepts. Even though Satan has been created with sufficient freedom to choose to disobey, he tacitly acknowledges God’s sovereignty when he exercises his choice. Satan is constrained existentially, from the outset, by having a specific choice to make about whether or not to obey God.
Satan, just as all angels, demons, and humans, may exercise his freedom as assent or dissent, for God had created him “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall./Such I [God] created all th’ ethereal powers/And spirits . . . /Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell” (3.99-102; cf. 5.549). If Satan would choose neither to assent nor to dissent, thereby refusing to exercise his free will, he would be discarding his free will. But this is impossible, as the demons determine in counsel in Book II; so long as he exists, Satan must make choices with respect to his possible obedience to God.
If Satan’s first mistake was to completely divorce his free will from God’s power in giving him that freedom, his second mistake occurs in his conception of what it means to exercise that freedom. God says that “Not free, what proof could they [Satan et al.] have given sincere/Of true allegiance”? (3.103-04). But Satan has exactly the…
…lthough one can choose, as Satan does, to dissent and disobey, such purportedly self-creative acts are in fact merely an acknowledgment of God’s hierarchical power. When pride and ambition to be like God prevent humans from hearing the “umpire Conscience” God has placed within us (3.195; Satan likewise has been given conscience enough to remember the call to obedience, 4.23), we become like Satan, for the same reasons constrained to listen only to the Satanic voice dissenting in our ears.
Scott Elledge, ed., Paradise Lost, second edn. (NY: Norton, 1993).
Millicent Bell, “The Fallacy of the Fall in Paradise Lost,” PMLA 68 (1953), 863-83; here p. 878.
Northrop Frye, The Return of Eden (Buffalo: Univ. of Toronto, 1965), 39-40, 43
Barbara Lewalski, Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms (Princeton: Princeton U. , 1985), 174.