Milton’s Paradise Lost describes the Judeo-Christian story of the “fall of man”. In Christian mythology, Satan (the devil, epitome of evil) leads a revolt of angels against God in heaven, which leads to his banishment to Hell (and hence, he and his army are known as Fallen Angels).

Paradise Lost begins shortly after this Fall from heaven, with Satan justifying to his army of “Rebel Angels” why the paradise of Heaven should indeed have been lost. To their credit, the others are initially suspicious of the lies and rationalizations. And yet, they finally do succumb to his arguments. Their submission speaks to the tempting, persuasive allure of these rationalizations, and reveals that there are perhaps hooks for them to latch onto built deep into human nature. Further, pain makes these hooks especially easy for malicious arguments to grab.

Note that, even for atheists and non-Christians, the messages Satan delivers may be general enough so as to be a useful set of warnings for navigating post-Hell pitfalls and fallout. Since the rationalist world-view often tends to neglect such questions of human nature, one may find the new questions asked and persepective given enlightening.

I break down my take-aways from Satan’s opening discourse below.

A Truth: Twice Fallen

The narrator begins with a glimpse into Satan’s true heart:

To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:

Externally, a naive mortal would see Satan defeated - writhing in fire, agony, “Confounded though immortal.”

Internally, however, a more nuanced look reveals pain, and perhaps regret, over the dual fall. If the first drop from “lost happiness” was painful, the second plunge into “lasting pain” was doubly so. Satan’s internal reaction to this now twice-fallen state is critical to understanding his future desparate (although futile) attempts to escape his defeat: namely, how he chooses to redirect his pain towards destruction, through unbending pride and hate.

In truth, losing heaven hurts as much as landing in hell; this double-pain motivates some of the bad hallucinations explaining away Hell that follow.

Misconception: The War is Not Over

Satan begins his great speech of misconceptions with the claim that, though the battle is lost, the great war is not:

… 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? ..


In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe

On the surface, Satan’s words sound like a rallying cry. Brushing off one defeat, he vows never to be defeated. Despite his proud posturing, however, he does make one crucial lie of omission: Satan never suggests there is a distant, yet attainable, future victory. The only hope he grants is the satisfaction of struggle and refusal to surrender, perhaps indicative that he does understand the perpetual string of failures bound to come from re-enacting the same battle forever.

To their credit, his demon following also realize they cannot win: they rebut that if the demons lost once already, that proves their enemy Almighty, and they must be more wary that their “grand Foe” is luring them into yet another trap, with yet another fall to come. However, the subtlety of the ommision is lost to them, because in defeat, there is a powerful urge to continue the old fight, to cling to the struggle precipitating the fall.

Therefore - to know if one is in Hell or not, ask which has more value: the struggled-for, or the struggle itself? If the former, one may have found himself a noble though difficult cause - the struggle is a means to an end. If the latter, then it is likely one has found some form of Hell, filled with ceaseless battle for no clear end.

The demons are forever hopefully drawn to redirect the pain they feel into the bottomless, hopeless pit of eternal fighting.

Misconception: Hell is Just Fine

Satan continues to posit that Hell is purely mental.

… Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,

At first, he reasons, Hell is fine. One can and should embrace the loss of Joy, and Hail the “infernal world” because the new state is purely psychological, and at least the final sanctuary of the mind is not lost, not “chang’d by Place or Time.” This denial is powerful, and backed up with a certainly true statement: at least, the mind can make a “Hell of Heav’n.” The demons’ own destruction of their “Fields of Joy” provides a case-in-point existence proof of that possibility.

However, it’s not clear the extent to which the converse is true, that the mind can make a “Heav’n of Hell.” While mental state is clearly important, there is an external reality apart from the mind holding powerful influence. Wallowing for any time in the great sulfur lake, the “infernal world,” proves that the mind is in fact changed in this suffering.

In truth, Hell doesn’t go away simply by ignoring it - escape requires both some degree of external change, and change in heart.

Misconception: Hell is Freedom

Satan claims a new freedom in Hell:

Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Of course, Satan is correct on the surface: one should (and, in some sense, must) move his or her own life voluntarily, in pursuit of unique, individual aims. However, there is a critical and intentionlly obfuscated distinction here between a voluntary and forced departure. In conflating the two, Satan can ignore the very lack of freedom in his compulsory expulsion, and rather than facing them, cloak the evil actions causing the exile with a thin veil of post-hoc rationalization masquerading as noble agency.

The rationalization works: this call rallies the fellow demons to follow Satan, hypnotized by the false promise of mastering their fate. One wonders how long it will take for a small group of these demons to apply Satan’s logic recursively to betray him, and once banished, find themselves brushing off their exile with claims that it’s “better to reign still lower Here, than to serve in Hell.”

The truth is, there is no freedom in eternal banishment. Later in the poem, however, an angel reveals to Adam that Humans do, in fact, hold such freedom to choose between Heaven and Hell:

Because wee freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall:
And som are fall’n, to disobedience fall’n,
And so from Heav’n to deepest Hell; O fall
From what high state of bliss into what woe!

The contrast to the false freedom Satan preaches is the true freedom of standing in love.

Misconception: If Only We’d Known

Satan begins his final call to arms in two parts. Amidst “Tears such as Angels weep”, he finally acknowledges the inevitable loss of battle:

But he who reigns
Monarch in Heav’n, till then as one secure
Sat on his Throne, upheld by old repute,
Consent or custome, and his Regal State
Put forth at full, but still his strength conceal’d,
Which tempted our attempt, and wrought our fall.

Although Satan finally acknowledges his failure, he still places the the blame squarely on the hidden strength of the opponent, and off of the poor, fallen angels who didn’t know of this strength. While the demons may indeed have been unaware of some aspects of their enemy, the lie is once more in where Satan stops short: that given this knowledge of the enemy, the overthrow would have been successful.

In truth, although there can be seemingly clear causes for a loss, it’s tempting to fantasize the degree to which the “if only"s and “would have been"s could have changed the outcome. The allure of clinging to hypotheticals distracts from a true understanding of the underlying, possibly hellish, reality in which one finds him/herself.

Misconception: Revenge Will Work This Time

Satan concludes his new, master plan for revenge:

Henceforth his might we know, and know our own
So as not either to provoke, or dread
New warr, provok’t; our better part remains
To work in close design, by fraud or guile
What force effected not: that he no less
At length from us may find, who overcomes
By force, hath overcome but half his foe.
Space may produce new Worlds; whereof so rife
There went a fame in Heav’n that he ere long
Intended to create, and therein plant
A generation, whom his choice regard
Should favour equal to the Sons of Heaven:
Thither, if but to prie, shall be perhaps
Our first eruption, thither or elsewhere:
For this Infernal Pit shall never hold
Caelestial Spirits in Bondage, nor th’ Abysse
Long under darkness cover. But these thoughts
Full Counsel must mature: Peace is despaird,
For who can think Submission? Warr then, Warr
Open or understood must be resolv’d.

If the open revolt is over, then the understood indirect revenge must now begin. The enemy (God) has no direct weakness, but perhaps creating pain around Him can achieve the desired effect. Human kind is the vessel through which Satan plans to wreak his self-righteous havoc.

Interestingly, the same logic that Satan has just used to rationalize the prior failure (“If Only We’d Known”), still applies to this new, current project of concealed attack: at least in the Christian understanding, although humans did indeed fall, ultimately, Christ provides a way out.