A Debate in Hell
By Jimmy Maher
The first part of Book 2 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost tells of a great debate in Hell among Satan and his minions concerning what should be done now that they have been cast from Heaven. Two advocate another attack on Heaven, albeit by very different methods, while two advise against it. The whole exchange can be read as a parody of the democratic process, as the fallen angels decide in the most nonviolent, "civilized" of manners to bring destruction down upon all mankind. Perhaps the debate is a reflection of Milton’s disillusionment with Cromwell and his failed experiment in English republicanism. In this essay, however, I will set aside Milton’s possible ironic intentions and evaluate the debaters’ arguments on their own merits, with the objective of answering a simple question: did the best man win?
The first minion to speak is Moloch, "the strongest and the fiercest spirit" (44). He is a warrior, a being of action, not given to thought or nuance. He rather allows his emotions and his pride to guide his actions, and the emotion he feels at the moment is anger, for his pride has been sorely wounded. I believe that Lydia Dittler Schulman characterizes him quite well:
Of all the devils, Moloch most resembles a stoical military leader of classical times. Subjection is abhorrent to him. Moloch’s sense of identity and his stature among the devils is based on his military prowess; open war, therefore, is in his self-interest (78).
Therefore, Moloch advocates immediate attack, with no more thought or debate whatsoever on the subject:
My sentence is for open war: of wiles,
More unexpért, I boast not: them let those
Contrive who, or when they need, not now (51-53).
He feels that Hell is a "den of shame" (58), and that it would be deeply shameful for Satan and his lieutenants to simply accept their fate and remain there. Moloch briefly addresses those who might advocate caution, who might say that "the way seems difficult and steep to scale" (71), by saying that their descent from Heaven and their forced exile in Hell are far, far worse than any battle could possibly be, and so there is really nothing left to fear. Moloch is not sure if the fallen angels are immortal. If they are not, and the forces of Heaven defeat and kill them in battle, that will be "happier far / Than miserable to have eternal being" (97-98) as outcasts in Hell. If they are immortal, then they have absolutely nothing to lose, for no fate could be worse than their current outcast state. Moloch certainly does not appear to be a deep thinker, yet the logical construction he has just formulated here is actually quite clever. He concludes by stating that, even if the fallen angels attack heaven again and lose, they may nevertheless gain a certain revenge if they can just "alarm / Though inaccessible, His fatal throne" (103-104). Moloch’s hatred is such that attacking Heaven just for the sake of causing its inhabitants even brief distress and fear is reason enough for him.
The next devil to speak is Belial. He appears to be kind and wise, but his refined manner hides a black heart:
A fairer person lost not Heav’n: he seemed
For dignity composed and high explóit:
But all was false and hollow… (110-112)
Belial is almost a caricature of the slimy politician. His words are honeyed, his appearance pleasing, and his arguments persuasive, but "his thoughts were low" (115). He uses his oratorical gifts to counter Moloch’s arguments for an immediate attack upon Heaven, addressing each of Moloch’s points in turn. First of all, he asserts that the whole enterprise would be not just doubtful, as Moloch characterized it, but fundamentally hopeless. Whether they attempted to sneak into Heaven or launch a full frontal assault, the ultimate result would be the same. After they had done their worst, "yet our great Enemy / All incorruptible would on his throne / Sit unpolluted" (137-139), for even Hell has no power to destroy that which created the world. Of course, Moloch had himself allowed a strong possibility of defeat, but claimed that even this would be better than a life of exile. Belial dismisses these claims. He does not accept that to die, to be "swallowed up and lost / In the wide womb of uncreated Night" (149-150), would be superior to continued existence under present circumstances. This is an arguable point, being as it is something of a value judgment. More compellingly, though, he notes that the devils’ present circumstance is hardly the worst that God could do to them if they angered Him again. Indeed, they have already experienced much worse:
What when we fled amain, pursued and strook
With Heav’n’s afflicting thunder, and besought
The deep to shelter us? This Hell then seemed
A refuge from those wounds: or when we lay
Chained on the burning lake? That sure was worse (165-169).
In addition to these torments that the devils already have firsthand knowledge of, Belial can imagine many more, and takes time to describe them quite graphically to the group. Thus he consuls that the devils not anger God further by attacking Him again.
Belial’s speech is quite powerful, but it has something of a fatal flaw, which perhaps mirrors a flaw in the personality who has crafted it. Although he does a very good job of telling the other devils why they should not attack heaven, he offers no alternative plan of action. His argument is entirely a negative refutation of Moloch’s position. Apparently the devils are to simply accept their fate and do nothing. In Milton’s own words, he "counseled ignoble ease and peaceful sloth, / Not peace" (227-228). Schulman notes another problem with Belial’s argument: namely, he is not addressing the point of the debate at all, for "the entire council has already approved Satan’s declaration for continued war against the Tyrant of Heaven" (Schulman 79). She thus feels that Belial, true to Milton’s description of his character, is being rather disingenuous in arguing this point at all. I am not quite sure that this analysis bears up, however, for I am not at all sure that the question of continued war is as decided in the minds of the devils as Schulman, and perhaps Satan, believe. Certainly it is hard to account for the reception that the next speaker is given if war is indeed irrevocably decided on in the minds of the rank and file.
That next speaker is Mammon. Like Belial, he feels that another attack on Heaven would be foolhardy. Indeed, he actually accepts virtually all of Belial’s principal assertions, but goes a bit further by offering his opinion on not just what should not be done, but also on what should be done. First, he points out that there is no scenario by which the devils might find happiness outside of Hell. He agrees with Belial that victory in a war with Heaven is impossible, and he also says that even if there were a way to be reconciled with God, this would not lead to peace of mind. Forevermore they would have to:
Stand in his presence humble, and receive
Strict laws imposed, to celebrate his throne
With warbled hymns, and his Godhead sing
Forced hallelujahs (240-243).
An eternity of such deference "to whom we hate" (248) is absolutely unthinkable. And so, since further conflict with Heaven would be hopeless and reconciliation unbearable, he advises that the devils accept their present circumstance. He rejects Belial’s essential nihilism, though, in advocating that they make their exile into a happy, fruitful existence by industriously building Hell into a place that might someday rival Heaven in beauty and splendor. The devils can "seek / Our own good from ourselves" (252-253). They will choose "hard liberty before the easy yoke / Of servile pomp" (256-257).
Mammon’s argument has a very positive reception among the devils, and appears ready to carry the day, when Beelzebub, second in stature only to Satan himself, rises to speak. He refutes Mammon’s argument by noting that, no matter how splendid a kingdom the devils make of Hell, they will always remain subservient to Heaven, allowed to exist only by God’s indulgence. Any notion they may have that they are independent is mere illusion. They will in fact remain "in strictest bondage, though thus far removed" (321). There can be no discussion of peace:
War hath determined us, and foiled with loss
Irrepparable; terms of peace yet none
Vouchsafed or sought; for what peace will be giv’n
To us enslaved, but custody severe? (330-334).
In stating that war with Heaven is the only possible course, Beelzebub might seem to be agreeing with Moloch at this point. However, Beelzebub is much more devious and clever than that rash warrior, and advocates something considerably different than another direct frontal assault. Hell cannot defeat Heaven on the battlefield, but it might achieve a victory of sorts through wile. Beelzebub notes that God is about to create a new race of beings known as Man, less than the angels "in power and excellence, but favoured more" (350). The implication is that God loves these new creations of his more than anything else, and therein Beelzebub sees opportunity. He suggests that the devils investigate this new race carefully to see if it might be possible to wound God through them, for "though Heav’n be shut, / And Heav’n’s high Arbitrator sit secure / In his own strength, this place may lie exposed" (358-360). It may be possible to lay waste to man’s kingdom through hellfire, or, even better, to seduce this God’s most beloved creation into joining the devils in war with Him. Beelzebub’s plan is almost classically cruel, using as it does God’s own loved ones against him. Unsurprisingly, it is received with great enthusiasm by the assembled devils, thus setting in motion the events that will propel the plot of the remaining ten books of the epic.
In an aside that is very important for our purposes, Milton mentions that Beelzebub’s plan did not in fact originate with him, but was "first devised / by Satan" (379-380), then apparently given to Beelzebub to propose to the group. Thus is Satan shown to be a consummate diplomat and politician, an "astute propagandist presiding over the debate" (Hamilton 21). Schulman believes that this revelation effectively invalidates the entire proceeding debate:
Numerous commentators have pointed to the rigged nature of the supposedly democratic debate in Pandemonium: it was a sham from the beginning, contrived by Satan to provide the infernal oligarchs with a false sense of their equality and rights and thereby to secure his autocratic rule (79-80).
Achinstein makes the same point, saying that "Satan’s tyranny consists partly in not allowing free debate" (203). However, I feel both overstate their case somewhat. While Satan is certainly guilty of manipulating the forum to his advantage behind the scenes, this is also something that every politician in modernity and antiquity engages in. Everyone was allowed to speak their case, and the assembled devils were allowed to choose freely among the options presented. This is the essence of the democratic process; the rest is simply the inevitable politics that go along with that process.
In enthusiastically embracing Beelzebub and Satan’s evil scheme, the other devils reveal their fundamentally corrupted natures. They have been given an opportunity to begin to heal the breach with Heaven, or to recuse themselves from Heaven’s affairs entirely, or at least to choose an honorable, direct battle with Heaven. They reject all of these options, choosing instead the low road of treachery and deceit. This trope of unwise choices leading to bitter consequences occurs over and over again in Paradise Lost, and indeed is perhaps the epic’s most consistent theme. The devils’ present situation was of course precipitated by Satan’s rebellion and fall from Heaven, and Adam and Eve’s mutual moral weakness come to dominate the later sections of the work. Similarly, the devils here have free will and perhaps even an opportunity for redemption of a sort, yet make the wrong choice again. In doing so, they in a sense fall yet again. Satan’s own moral transformation from an honorable if far too proud warrior to a depraved schemer is reflected in his physical appearance. Even here in Book 2 the moral transformation has begun. The Satan of Book 1 who claimed it was "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n" (263) now in Book 2 plots his depraved, petty little schemes for revenge upon Him who is stronger than he. Over the course of Paradise Lost, Satan is physically transformed from an angel of heart-stopping beauty to a lowly, utterly debased serpent, groveling before Eve and even offering to lick her feet. Milton’s refusal to make Satan into a caricature of evil lends the epic much of its multifaceted complexity. "Having introduced the complexity of a Satan who still has the potential for good, one can hardly accept the crudity of straightforward evil" (Newlyn 74). Satan’s story is almost Shakespearian in its tragic pathos, and the epic as a whole thus becomes the story of Satan and his lieutenants’ fall as well as Man’s.
If we accept as Milton seems to that the choice the devils end up making is not just the wrong one but the worst possible one, we are still left with another question, namely: Which choice, if any, was most correct? To me, the answer seems fairly obvious. While Moloch’s argument carries with it a certain warrior’s integrity, it hardly holds up to real scrutiny. Both its assumptions and its conclusions seem hopelessly flawed, as Belial points out more than ably. Belial gets closer to a solution in pointing out those flaws, but he does not go far enough. He argues that the devils essentially give up, accept their fate, and languish away in Hell as defeated beings for eternity. Mammon does not so much disagree with Belial as expand upon his argument. He agrees that further conflict with Heaven would be very unwise, but goes on to offer a credible alternative, the remaking of Hell into a land of which the devils’ can be proud. This seems to me not only the best choice but in fact the only choice which is even remotely tenable, and the devils in fact are largely in agreement with him before they are seduced by Beelzebub’s assertion that a devious form of revenge against God is still possible.
Of course, in judging Mammon’s argument the best I am looking at Paradise Lost through the eyes of a twenty-first century American to whom Mammon’s arguments have a distinct "contemporary ring" (Schulman 79). Whether Milton or his contemporaries would see the subject in the same way is a bit of an open question. It is however interesting just how perfectly Mammon’s argument mirrors our modern Western notion of moral virtue, particularly as it exists here in the United States. In essence, Mammon argues that the devils should simply accept their present circumstances, put both the past and the bitterness it often engenders away, and make the best of their situation. Many would see such an approach as almost synonymous with the "American way" of industry, optimism, and hard work. If nothing else, the situation is delicious for its irony: here we have a fallen minion of Satan expressing some of the core values of a nation that is still largely Christian. It also points to one of the most compelling aspect of Milton’s work, his refusal to completely demonize Satan and his followers. They in fact often appear as rational, even appealing characters. In doing so, Milton most likely meant to illustrate that the way to Hell is an easy one which is not followed only by those who set out with evil in their hearts. The same approach, however, also allows a different and dramatically different reading of the epic as a whole, one which would likely have shocked Milton himself. Satan is in fact the most compelling and charismatic character in the story, and he and the other devils can be seen as brave souls who have chosen freedom and self-determination over a life of servitude, albeit comfortable servitude. This multiplicity of viewpoints that it allows helps to make Paradise Lost the fascinating work that it is.
Achinstein, Sharon. Milton and the Revolutionary Reader. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1994.
Hamilton, G. Rostrevor. Hero or Fool? A Study of Milton’s Satan. George Allen and Unwin: London, 1944.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Penguin: New York, 2000.
Newlyn, Lucy. Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader. Clarendon: Oxford, 1993.
Schulman, Lydia Dittler. Paradise Lost and the Rise of the American Republic.
Northeastern University Press: Boston, 1992.