Book 1 begins with a prologue, including a synopsis of the entire poem’s plot, a plea to the Holy Spirit to aid Milton in composing this work, and a statement about the purpose of the poem. Milton’s goal is to “justify the ways of God to men” (line 26). Then he drops us into the middle of the epic story: Satan awakens from a stupor, having been cast out of Heaven. He finds himself floating in the lake of hell, along with the other rebel angels, all of whom are still catatonic. Satan wakes them from their thunderstruck confusion and gives a rousing speech, instilling within them a renewed hope of reigning in Heaven. He tells them of a soon-to-be new world (i.e., earth) and a new creature to be created (i.e., man), according to an ancient prophecy. Satan leads his minions to dry land, where they build a place called Pandemonium. From this meeting hall, they sit as a council in order to determine what they should do next.
One thing that sticks out about Satan is that he is defined by what he is against. He cannot stand the goodness of God and he devotes his existence to the destruction of such goodness. In lines 159-168, Satan assures Beelzebub, his right hand man, that
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to [God’s] high will
Whom we resist. If then his providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labor must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which oft-times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destined aim.
Satan’s “sole delight” is to do evil. This involves resisting all the good that God does. Satan aims to “grieve” God through perverting good, to “disturb His inmost counsels from their destined aim.” Of course, our experience in this world shows that he doesn’t want to come across as a killjoy, so he employs a heavy dose of slight-of-hand with humanity.
Indeed, one of Satan’s great tricks is to make society see God as against humanity, as the ultimate killjoy: anti-sex, anti-pleasure, anti-fun. God’s boundaries are seen as stuffy and tyrannical, whereas the restraints-free approach to life advocated by the world, which is under Satan’s sway (1 John 5:19), is made to look appealing and attractive.
The truth, however, is vastly different from this illusion. Satan abhors sex, pleasure, and fun. He desires to pervert the good that God created so that mankind will have “an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure” (as C. S. Lewis so aptly put it in The Screwtape Letters).
But Satan’s power to pervert is no match for God’s power to turn all things for good, which brings us to another idea found in Paradise Lost—the idea of felix culpa, a Latin term meaning “fortunate fault.” The principle behind this phrase is that God, in His infinite wisdom, has decreed that it is better to bring good out of evil than to disallow evil completely. Or, as Thomas Aquinas put it, “God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom.” Somehow, the existence of evil will, in the long run, bring about the greatest good.
The idea of felix culpa first appears in lines 213-220 of Book 1, where God is said to have
Left him [Satan] at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How all his malice served but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy, shown
On Man by him seduced, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath, and vengeance poured.
Yes, Satan is evil and opposed to all the good that God designs. But so great is God’s love and wisdom and power that, in the end, Satan’s opposition only serves to bring about the very good he desires to destroy. He can rage with all the malice of hell, but his efforts will be used by God to “bring forth infinite goodness.”
(For an in-depth look at this principle, you may want to read Spectacular Sins by John Piper. If memory serves me right, the phrase felix culpa is never used in the book, but Piper is working within the same theological framework.)
Next week, we will look at the debate—and Satan’s manipulation of events—in the council of Hell.