Week 352: From ‘Paradise Lost’, by John Milton

One of the problems for modern readers with Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is that Satan doesn’t actually seem to be that bad a chap. He is not shown as espousing, still less committing, any of the things that seem particularly evil to us: torture, genocide, child abuse – he doesn’t even run through a cornfield. All he seems to do is encourage a spirit of enquiry in mankind by extending ‘Nullius in verba’, the motto of what was at the time of writing the newly-founded Royal Society, to the word of God, which may seem to the modern mind a perfectly reasonable thing to do, especially when the said word is mediated through such an unreliable vehicle as man. Still, ‘Paradise Lost’ has its impressive moments. I like this passage from Book V where at the time of the rebellion in Heaven the angel Abdiel, possibly having written two speeches the night before, one weighing up the pros of rebellion and one the cons, decides to stick with God:

So spake the Seraph Abdiel, faithful found
Among the faithless, faithful only he;
Among innumerable false, unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified,
His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal;
Nor number, nor example, with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind,
Though single. From amidst them forth he passed,
Long way through hostile scorn, which he sustained
Superior, nor of violence feared aught;
And, with retorted scorn, his back he turned
On those proud towers to swift destruction doomed.

John Milton

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