What is Freedom?

The following piece was an academic essay written on the John Milton's Paradise Lost:

How does Milton understand the notion of freedom? Why does Milton’s Satan have a different understanding of freedom than Milton’s God? The central tension in Paradise Lost lies in the existence of free will and eternal providence, as it relates to justifying the existence of evil. The clash between God and Satan begs the question: why do Satan and God have different interpretations of freedom? How are they different?

Satan seems to believe that supreme freedom is freedom of the mind. “A mind not to be changed by place or time!/ The mind is its own place in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” (I. 253-255, pg 10)  Why is Satan so determined to rebel? Why does he want to break away from God’s rule? Perhaps it is because, in rebelling, Satan feels most free as he is exercising freedom and authority over his thoughts and actions. Maybe this is why Satan values and prides himself on his reasoning capabilities. Perhaps Satan views his situation as a peculiar one; if God was omnipotent, why would he allow Satan to continue having such rebellious thoughts? Yet on the other hand, Satan also seems to propose the notion that free will is an illusion. Aside from what Satan reasons, we could also ask why Satan reasons. In Book 4, Satan expressed a bittersweet sadness and malice towards Eden and man, saying “That I with you must dwell or you with me/ Henceforth. ” (IV. 377-378, pg 88) Satan’s use of the word “must” is very interesting: Satan announced that man “must” fall to sin. Is he saying that the moment man falls is when he succeeds? Or does Satan suggest that it is inevitably in God’s plan to allow Satan to enter Eden and taint man with sin, thus he must dwell with man?


Further, after Satan’s speech, Milton writes “So spake the Fiend and with necessity/ [...] excused his dev’lish deeds.” (IV. 393-394, pg 89) Satan asserts his freedom but he also claims his actions are done out of necessity. What is necessary? Milton’s use of the word “necessary” echoes similar questions of its interpretation as the word “must” above. Are Satan’s claims to necessity referring to achieving his goals of revenge? Or does he mean this rebellion is the only choice he has in God’s world? Previously, Satan says that “Me miserable! Which way shall I fly?/ Infinite wrath and infinite despair?/ Which way I fly is Hell, myself am Hell” (IV. 73-75, pg 79) His desperate soliloquy suggests that he is aware of the futility of his “free will” because regardless of his actions, ultimately he is damned by God; Satan seems to believe that God’s eternal providence does trump free will.

We can infer some of Milton’s intentions from the scene in Book IX where Satan is preparing to execute his plan of causing man to fall:

“But what will not ambition and revenge
Descend to? Who aspires must down as low
As high he soared, obnoxious first or last
To basest things. Revenge at first though sweet
Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.
Let it! I reck not,
Spite then with spite is best repaid.” (IX. 169-178, pg 201-202)

From these lines, Satan exposes his subconscious understanding that his revenge will not entirely succeed, at least, not the way he would have liked. By saying “bitter ere long back on itself recoils. Let it!” Satan acknowledges that he will not be able to defeat God because he seems to be aware that his actions will only drive him back to the “basest things”—literally, in Hell, the bottom-most part of the universe, and in God’s world, to the lowest point of morality. Another intriguing aspect of these lines is Satan’s choice of the word “spite.” Why does he say that God was spiteful towards him? To say that God was spiteful, Satan is suggesting that God had malicious desires towards him. Satan is denying the idea that he was the aggressor in this clash with God. In fact, it could be suggested that Satan thinks the reverse is true: God’s punishment is unjust because God was the one who wronged him by denying him the highest position available. Analyzing Satan’s contrasting attitudes in context, it is worth noting that his speech in book IV was delivered without an audience; it was purely for himself. Hence there could be an element of propaganda and pretense laced into his speech in book II. So we could conclude that more weight should be given to Satan’s thoughts in book IV than those said in book II.

How then does Milton’s God perceive freedom? On the topic of free will, God says that “I formed them free and free they must remain/ Till they enthrall themselves.” (III. 124, pg 59) God seems to suggest that free will was His “gift” to His creations. Yet there seems to be a subtext that the freedom He bestows comes with a condition—remain obedient to God:

“And easily transgress the sole command,
Sole pledge of his obedience. So will fall
He and his faithless progeny. Whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate! He had of Me
All he could have. I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood though free to fall.” (III. 94-99, pg 58-59)

By saying “the sole command,” God implies that obedience to Him is given in exchange for the “gift” of free will. This interpretation would concur with Satan’s attitude that his free will is an illusion. Further, God contemptuously calls the rebel angels “ingrates,” implying that He did expect His creations to choose Him, even when given the option not to. The fact that those who did not choose God are punished begs the question whether God’s love and His gift of free will is truly free? There are really only two predetermined options available to man—namely, love God or not. Not loving God invites damnation, so how can obedience to God be free?

Presented with these circumstances, it is only fitting for Adam to ask: “Did I request Thee, Maker, from my clay/ To mold me Man? ” (X. 743-744, pg 250) Beyond simply creating man, Adam laments the expectations God has placed on him: “unable to perform/ Thy terms too hard by which I was to hold/ The good I sought not.” (X. 750-753, pg 250) Adam’s point seems to directly respond to God’s scorn towards Satan when he rebelled in Book III. None of God’s creations asked to be created nor did they ask to seek for God’s “good.” Why does God seem to have a transactional notion of freedom? If He was aware that His creations were created with qualities that made them “sufficient to have stood though free to fall”, then why was He upset at Satan’s disobedience? If there exist these constraints within God’s world, then how can one be truly free? The archangel Michael also reminded Adam that men only have true liberty when they obey “right reason,” or reason tempered by conscience. (XII. 84, pg 286) This again emphasizes that man is not really "free" and seems to suggest that free will was only an illusion created by God to further His will on the people.

Perhaps this speaks to Milton’s idea of how he views free will: given that the structure of God’s kingdom exists, we are free insofar as we are permitted by God. Extending this idea further, we can ask how does Milton portray freedom within a hierarchy? What is it about hierarchy that makes us less free? Is it a question of privileges? Of strength? Recall that when God chained Satan to the Stygian lake in Hell, he was still able to escape. So what about Satan really changed when he fell? Satan seems to retain his former powers, he is still able to reason like an angel. The main change seems to be his faith or sense of closeness to God. Each time we encounter Satan throughout the epic poem, he becomes progressively degraded in his appearance. In Book II, Satan retains his majestic angelic form and strong resolution. Then in Book IV, we meet an internally-conflicted Satan, whose soliloquy exposes a very vulnerable, almost-pitiful personality. He later transforms into a cherub, a lower angel, then takes on the forms of hideous beasts, first a serpent and later a toad. Satan’s degrading physique is symbolic of his degradation as a being—how unbridled freedom leads to straying further away from God.

If rebelling—even in the name of freedom—meant that Satan would create a rift between him and God, why does he not seek repentance? When he first fell, Satan argues:

“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 choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven!” (I. 258-263, pg 10)

Is Satan more "free" as Satan than he was as Lucifer? Satan himself seems to think so when he says “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” But what is it about Heaven’s structure that makes it feel so confining? Satan claims that “in my choice, to reign is worth ambition,” suggesting that at least to him, Heaven is restrictive because of the power dynamics between the Creator and His creations. In this universe, every other being is less or inferior to God in terms of strength, control and influence. God also seems to acknowledge the role of hierarchy on the degree of freedom—or rather, the leniency of punishment—He bestows on His creations. Contrasting the severity of punishment between Satan’s disobedience and Adam and Eve’s disobedience, God says:

“The first sort by their own suggestion fell
Self-tempted, self-depraved. Man falls deceived
By th’ other first: Man therefore shall find grace,
The other none. In mercy and justice both” (III. 128-131, pg 59)

Remember that Satan was Lucifer before he fell, one of God’s closest angels while in Heaven. Perhaps it is an issue of proximity that Satan’s betrayal was so grave in God’s eyes. Could it be that being downgraded on the hierarchy implies that Satan had lost something in the process? Is it a matter of his pride or freedom? Certainly, Satan seems to enjoy the freedom he gained after escaping from the structures of Heaven. But could it not be said that Hell is merely an extension of God’s control since He was the maker of that realm? This dilemma hints at Milton’s interpretation of God’s universe—a thought to entertain is whether Milton exposes his attitude aligns more with Satan’s or with God’s?

William Blake once commented that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” (Teskey, pg 389) Perhaps Milton’s view of freedom does resonate through Satan’s reasoning. Despite Milton’s intentions of proving God’s justices, key scenes explicating Satan and God’s thoughts convey otherwise. Much ambiguity still remains within the clash between God and Satan. If free will is an illusion as Satan proposes, then God’s benevolence comes into question. And if God truly did bequeath free will to His angels and man, then Milton suggests that we “owe” God for His benevolence. A holistic picture of Milton’s understanding of freedom cannot be fully extracted through the scaffolding of Paradise Lost, but at the very least, we are offered illuminations of ideas through his portrayal of Satan, God and the relationship between them.


If Roses are Red