Satan addresses his armies from a magnificent golden throne. He claims that Heaven is not yet lost for them, and that they might reclaim it by returning to battle. He praises the “firm accord” of all the rebellious angels, and their seemingly democratic state. He then opens the floor, asking whether they should fight God openly or with “covert guile.”
Milton satirizes political debates in this devilish council. Milton opposed the monarchies in England and was a proponent of individual freedoms, and he wrote Paradise Lost while in hiding from King Charles II.
The first speaker is Moloch, who was one of the fiercest fighters in the war. Moloch argues for open war, as he reasons that nothing – not even total annihilation – could be worse than the devils’ current state in Hell, so they have nothing to lose by fighting “the Torturer” (God) and trying the weapons of Hell against him. At the very least they might disturb the peace of Heaven and wound God on his throne, and so have revenge “if not victory.”
The devils never name God, instead describing him with epithets. This shows the power of names in Paradise Lost, as the devils’ original, angelic names are erased from Heaven as part of their fall. The devils’ debate is by necessity a choice between several evils, as is most politics in Milton’s mind. For him God was the only rightful ruler, and any human government was inherently partly unjust.
The next speaker is Belial, who was always beautiful and eloquent but whose words rang hollow even in Heaven. He contradicts Moloch’s advice, and suggests that God can always punish them in a worse way if they attack him again. Belial makes the best of the devils’ current situation, pointing out that they are no longer chained to the lake of fire, but are sitting and peacefully debating. Belial describes a Hell many times worse, and in the face of this he advocates that the devils submit to “The Victor’s will.”
Belial is the epitome of the learned politician, but in him Milton shows how political power corrupts, and religious and political leaders deceive the public or do evil things in the name of the greater good. This “debate” between the devils is in reality a farce, as Satan has already made his decision and is simply letting his followers play at democracy.
Belial suggests that if they do not attack, then God might eventually abate in his anger, and so lessen the devils’ suffering. Belial defends his own hatred of Heaven, but overall he advocates that they take no action so as to avoid further pain. Milton points out that this is “ignoble ease and peaceful sloth, / Not peace.”
Everything is relative in the shifting world of Hell, and Belial perhaps wisely suggests that there can always be worse punishment from an omnipotent God. Sloth is one of the deadly sins, and Milton notes that Belial does not propose making peace with God, but simply being lazy and avoiding pain.
Mammon speaks next, and describes how futile it would be to submit to God and try to return to Heaven. Now that they have known revolt and freedom, they can never again submit to God’s rule and sing “Forced hallelujahs,” “in worship paid / To whom we hate.” Mammon also rejects war as hopeless, and instead proposes that the devils peacefully expand their own freedom in their new realm of Hell. He proposes that they mine more of the gold and minerals they have found, and work hard to build a world and society that will rival Heaven.
Mammon echoes Satan’s feelings that the devils are still too proud to submit to God, even though they recognize that they have been defeated. By presenting the devils’ critiques of God first, Milton “tempts” the reader into sympathizing with them and also finding God tyrannical, requiring “forced hallelujahs.” The question is whether Milton will later undercut these criticisms and “justify God,” or whether his God remains legalistic and unsympathetic.
When Mammon finishes speaking all the devils applause, clearly favoring his argument above the rest. They all fear a worse Hell than the one they live in now, and they also fear “thunder and the sword of Michael” should they go back to war. Beelzebub then stands to speak and the crowd falls respectfully silent. Beelzebub says that he also would prefer freedom in Hell to servitude in Heaven, but he warns that they are not free here – they are God’s “captive multitude.”
Milton reminds us that though the army of devils is terrible and huge, they are all still afraid of Heaven’s army, which was far more powerful. Beelzebub acts as Satan’s mouthpiece here, keeping up the appearance of a fair political debate. Satan’s great argument against God is that God restricts his freedom, which connects to the theme of free will and predestination.
Beelzebub then proposes an “easier enterprise” – he returns to Satan’s rumor that God planned to create a new world. This world will be filled with a race called Man, who will be less powerful than the angels but more favored by God. Beelzebub suggests that the devils find this new world and either corrupt or destroy it, thus having revenge on God by ruining his joy and making him “Abolish his own works.” Milton says that Satan first came up with this idea, as he is the “author of all ill,” but God still plans to use the devils’ spite to further his own glory.
Satan (through Beelzebub) finally makes the proposal that will lead to the Fall of Man and the poem’s main plot. The devils continue in their sin (and so their punishment) by refusing to submit to God even after their defeat, and insisting on trying to ruin his creation and bring evil out of good. God, being eternal, can foresee these plans and so will look farther ahead to bring good out of their evil.
The devils agree to Beelzebub’s proposal and vote for it unanimously. Beelzebub speaks again, describing how they might find a better home in this new world of Man, and heal themselves of the pains of Hell. Then he asks for a volunteer, as they need someone to first cross the great abyss and find the “happy isle” of the new world. There is a long silence, as all the devils are afraid to take this “dreadful voyage.” Finally Satan grandiosely volunteers himself, promising to undergo all the hardships of the journey and earn his place as ruler of Hell.
The devils succumb to Satan’s tricks without even realizing it, as Eve will later. This next scene also becomes a parody of a Heavenly scene in the next book, where the Son volunteers to die for humanity’s sake out of love for them. So Satan volunteers to “sacrifice” himself for the other devils, risking his safety to cross the abyss and corrupt Earth. The devils still hope for a happier home, not realizing they carry their suffering with them.
Satan commands the other devils to work at making Hell “more tolerable” while he is away, and to tend to their wounds. He stands and the other devils bow to him, honoring him as a god “equal to the highest in Heav’n.” They especially praise his bravery at sacrificing himself for the good of all. Milton comments how even the devils of Hell could come to such peaceful accord, while humans fight endless wars against each other.
Again Hell acts as a grotesque mirror of Heaven, where Satan is worshipped as a selfless, heroic God. Milton mockingly praises the devils’ “accord” (which was actually just a clever fraud by Satan) to further satirize the political evils he saw in the world.
The council is dismissed and the devils exit Pandaemonium. Some devils tear up the earth in a frenzy, others sing songs of their lost glory, and others discuss the council or the concepts of fate and free will, but these last always end up “in wand’ring mazes lost.” Other devils fly over the rivers Styx, Acheron, Cocytus, and Phlegethon, and explore the geography of Hell, discovering new horrors and punishments everywhere.
Milton then moves to satirizing philosophical debates. The motif of the “maze” will recur throughout the poem, as Milton associates it with a quest for forbidden knowledge that leads nowhere. Part of the lesson of Paradise Lost is to accept the knowledge God has given and not delve too deeply into philosophy or conjecture, but live in simple obedience.
Meanwhile Satan flies off towards the gates of Hell, and sees that there are actually nine gates – three of brass, three of iron, and three of adamantine. In front of the gates sit two strange guards. One has the upper body of a woman, but her lower half is a serpent, and a pack of howling “Hell-hounds” circles her waist. The other is just a black, terrifying figure. Satan confronts the dark figure first and demands passage through the gates. The figure mocks Satan’s defeat in Heaven and commands him to return to his “punishment.”
The gates of Hell echo the gates of Heaven, but God seems to purposefully allow Satan to escape Hell so that he can tempt Adam and Eve. These two monsters (revealed as Sin and Death) are physical figures in the poem, but also symbols of the concepts they represent.
Satan burns with anger and the two are about to do battle, but the “snaky sorceress” intercedes, calling Satan “father” and the dark figure his “only son.” Satan asks her to explain, and the woman-beast says that she is Satan’s daughter – in Heaven, when Satan was still an angel, she had sprung forth from his head when he first conceived of rebelling against God. She was called “Sin,” and she was beautiful then and soon won over the other angels. Satan himself became “enamoured” with her and incestuously impregnated her in secret.
The relationship between Satan, Sin, and Death is symbolic of both a perverted Trinity and the concepts themselves – Satan, the father of disobedience and revolt, gives birth to sin, and therefore all sin is the product of disobedience against God. Sin is at first frightening but then beautiful and seductive, like the lure of sin to humans.
Then the war had broken out in Heaven, and Sin was cast into Hell with the other rebel angels, but before she fell she was given a key to Hell’s gates and instructed to keep them shut forever. After she arrived in Hell, Sin gave birth to the dark figure, who is called “Death.” Death immediately pursued Sin and raped her, and she then gave birth to the hounds that now torture her, gnawing constantly at her insides. Now she and Death sit guarding the gates together, hating each other but bound together by fate.
Sin’s ultimate fate shows the result of all sin – loneliness and torment. Death is sin’s offspring, showing Milton’s point that Death was not originally part of Earth, but was the product of disobedience (Satan) and sin (Sin). The incestuous trio of Satan, Sin, and Death is also a grotesque mirror of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – though Milton did not believe the Spirit was equal to the Father and Son.
Satan, who seems to have forgotten all of this, now speaks more kindly to Sin and Death. He reveals his plan to find God’s new world and corrupt it, and he promises to bring Sin and Death with him once he has made it ready. Sin and Death both seem pleased at this, especially Death, as his hunger is insatiable and he always desires new lives to take. Sin repeats her instructions to guard Hell’s gates, but then declares that she would rather obey her father Satan than God, whom she hates. She takes out “the fatal key, / Sad instrument of all our woe,” and unlocks the gates.
In giving Sin the key to Hell, God seems to implicitly encourage Satan’s escape and therefore the temptation and fall of humanity. This is one of the situations where Milton wrestles with free will and predestination – if God is all-powerful, then nothing can happen against his will, but many evil things do happen, so God must at least allow this evil or plan for it.
The gates open and remain open, as Sin does not have the power to close them again. On the other side is a dark abyss of Chaos and Night. These are the raw materials of all creation, and the atoms of “Hot, Cold, Moist, and Dry” do battle constantly there. Chaos personified rules this realm, the “dark materials” that God used to create the universe. Satan spreads his wings and leaps into the abyss, but he immediately starts to fall. He might have fallen forever, but “by ill chance” a fiery wind catches him and blows him upward.
Chaos and night are a departure from traditional Christian dogma, as Milton portrays this chaotic matter as uncreated and existing before the universe along with God himself. In describing the scope of humanity and Heaven, Milton also includes some of the science of his day, like the elemental makeup of the universe. Again “ill chance” helps Satan – but by necessity this must be also condoned by God.
Satan flies over the strange, “boggy” landscape and then hears a great cacophony of noise. He approaches the noise and sees Chaos himself, along with his consort Night and others like Chance, Confusion, and Discord. Satan speaks respectfully to them, asking for directions to Earth and promising to return it to its original state of disorder, thus bringing it back under Chaos’s power. Chaos recognizes Satan and tells him where the universe of Man is, hoping that Satan will create “havoc and spoil and ruin” there.
Chaos also becomes personified as a mysterious, vague figure who is the antagonist of all God’s order and hierarchy – yet Chaos is not God’s personal adversary like Satan is, but is allowed to have his realm of darkness and confusion. Even though Chaos stands against all order, he still accepts his place within God’s hierarchy and does not try to overstep his bounds, which is Satan’s great sin.
Satan moves onward, but his path grows very difficult and dangerous. Milton compares it to the voyages of Ulysses or the Argonauts, but says that Satan’s journey was even more perilous. Sin and Death follow behind him, as “such was the will of Heav’n,” and they start building a bridge from Hell to Earth. They make the bridge wide and easy so that devils can enter earth and tempt mortals, and so that mortals will easily be lured down to Hell. Finally Satan approaches the new world and his journey grows easier, and he can see the far-off light of Heaven. The whole universe of humanity is just a small star in the huge darkness.
Milton again compares his epic to those of the past but expands the scale and grandiosity. Satan isn’t just travelling over dangerous seas, he is travelling over the vast abyss between Hell and Earth. With Sin and Death’s bridge, Milton tries to justify the immense suffering caused by Adam and Eve’s later disobedience. They don’t just offend God’s sensibilities, they also allow these monsters to enter Earth and infect every living thing. Milton changes his focus, reminding the reader of Earth’s insignificance as he prepares to describe Heaven.