Sympathy for the Devil

On March 27, 1667 the English poet John Milton published Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost was Milton’s attempt to create an epic poem in the great tradition of Homer, Virgil, and Dante. Whether or not he succeeded in joining such august company is a matter that critics still debate. The subject he chose was epically grand enough certainly: the creation of Man and humanity’s fall into sin. Milton’s ambition was clearly to produce a Protestant work that rivaled the Catholic Divine Comedy . If he fell short in the attempt, well, to say that one’s work doesn’t quite measure up to Homer, Virgil, and Dante is not exactly to say it is junk, is it?

In writing Paradise Lost, Milton gave us one of the great literary depictions of the Devil, to join Dante’s icy, upside-down monster and Marlowe’s and Goethe’s dealmaker. But since Milton was going for the epic effect, we might ask who the hero of his drama — his Achilles or Odysseus — is in Paradise Lost. Not a few readers have ventured to say that Milton gives the devil all the best lines. God comes off as arbitrary and tyrannical, while the devil comes across as almost heroic, standing against all odds to confront the powers that be.

William Blake ventured that Milton was unconsciously of the Devil’s party. Percy Bysshe Shelley remarked that: “Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil… Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy.”

Milton seems to have given permission for sympathetic treatment of the Devil in literature and subsequently in film, where the Devil is likely to come off as rakish or even just a fun guy.

Well, not so. Neither is he the personification of evil. See, when someone calls the devil “the personification of evil” what he is saying is that there is this thing called evil, which exists and is not attached to a person, in the way, say that an echo is an impersonal thing. Now the ancient Greeks made up story about a nymph named Echo, a folk tale to explain why an echo repeats what you say. The nymph Echo is therefore the personification of the thing — an echo. To call the devil the personification of evil implies that people have made up a story about a personal spirit who is evil to explain the existence of evil.

But as Catholics, we reject that explanation. The devil is a real spirit person. He is, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “the relentless enemy of mankind and the determined opponent of the Divine economy of redemption. And since he lured our first parents to their fall he has ceased not to tempt their children in order to involve them in his own ruin. ”

If you are ever tempted to feel sympathy for the devil, you would do well to remember that he feels none for you.

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