Paradise Lost a Bad Leader (Thank God) (Or “How Hell Operates”)

Paradise Lost a Bad Leader (Thank God) (Or “How Hell Operates”) October 22, 2019

Sometimes a work is so beautiful that you forget what is being said by the author for the sheer sound, the feeling of the words sliding through the mind, and collecting together building something magnificent: a monument of sound, words made music or mayhap music frozen in prose.

John Milton does this to words.

There are lines, whole sections, in Paradise Lost that are cathedrals in words. They are not cathedrals of a church I would wish to attend, the theology is often twisted, but when John Milton is right, truth is linked to sublime and beautiful English. Milton proves that English can rise to Homeric standards for an epic and his theology is, after all, much better than Homer’s!

Sometimes I have thought Dante’s image of Satan, frozen by his self-pity, endlessly chewing on traitors was more true to the nature of evil. Milton’s Satan gets a lot of good lines, acts a good bit like a Byronic hero, but then I consider how dreadful a Byronic hero is when you know one and I see John Milton’s wisdom. The poet is pointing out that the wordy romantic is often simply selfish.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

A Satanic Leader 

No better image of a deluded, narcissistic leader has ever been written than Milton’s Satan in Book II of Paradise Lost. who enthrones himself in Hell, setting up a false debate about policy where he has manipulated the outcome. Nothing shows humility in a leader who has just led his forces to damnation opposed to justice and the rightful ruler, than sitting on a throne based on “just right” and “free choice” of those angels he has made demons. Here is Satan’s cabinet meeting:

5 Satan exalted sat, by merit raised To that bad eminence; and from despair Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue Vain war with Heav’n, and by success untaught 10 His proud imaginations thus displayed. Powers and Dominions, deities of Heaven, For since no deep within her gulf can hold Immortal vigour, though oppressed and fall’n, I give not Heav’n for lost. From this descent 15 Celestial Virtues rising, will appear More glorious and more dread than from no fall, And trust themselves to fear no second fate: Me though just right, and the fixed laws of Heav’n Did first create your leader, next, free choice, 20 With what besides, in counsel or in fight, Hath been achieved of merit, yet this loss Thus far at least recovered, hath much more Established in a safe unenvied throne Yielded with full consent. The happier state 25 In Heav’n, which follows dignity, might draw Envy from each inferior; but who here Will envy whom the highest place exposes Foremost to stand against the Thunderer’s aim Your bulwark, and condemns to greatest share 30 Of endless pain? Where there is then no good For which to strive, no strife can grow up there From faction; for none sure will claim in Hell Precédence, none, whose portion is so small Of present pain, that with ambitious mind 35 Will covet more. With this advantage then To union, and firm faith, and firm accord, More than can be in Heav’n, we now return To claim our just inheritance of old, Surer to prosper than prosperity 40 Could have assured us; and by what best way, Whether of open war or covert guile, We now debate; who can advise, may speak.*

Milton’s Satan has the trappings of a monarch, but he is one of literature’s first committeeman: he of endless meanings, terminally tedious discussions with predetermined outcomes. He is going to do what he is going to do, but first his followers will be made to suffer through the farce of a “decision making process.” Milton prophesied every damnable modern power structure, most Human Resources meetings, and too much of our politics.

The Satanic leader in Milton (as described in the passage):

  1. Exalts himself at the expense of his followers.
  2. Delights in prizes, awards, and flattery.
  3. Does not mind the cost of his endless striving for power on those who follow him.
  4. Never counts the cost of the endless strife he creates around him on others or his cause.
  5. Has a delusional sense that “winning” is possible.
  6. Feels entitled to his position.
  7. Thinks the “team” loves him, but never really asks.
  8. Creates unity through fear, not love.
  9. Covets unearned success.
  10. Runs meetings, seeks council, all with foregone conclusions that exalt the leader or confirms the leader’s plans.

Hell is a talkative tyranny run by a deluded loser looking for a comeback.

Thank God few exhibit all these characteristics, but all of us, surely, sometimes exhibit some of these traits. Looking out for them in self (Lord have mercy!) is vital and avoiding organizations that have these sort of diabolical meetings (!) is a good idea as well. Later Milton will describe Satan, who is constantly churning about doing things or ordering that others do things, never really leaves Hell. He carries Hell with him.

So it is with the tyrannical leader: he delights in doing the big gesture or in action. The reality will be a true lack of motion under all the churn: less happens than the motion suggests. Why? Tyrants cannot go forward, only strain to keep from going backwards. Meanwhile, as Milton pictures God in Paradise Love, Divine Love seems quiet, still, calm, but accomplishes creation and wins. The divine Leader acts, but out of calm and peace from a unified heaven.

Nobody this side of King Jesus is that kind of leader, but all of us can strive to conform more to His image of leadership: calm action working in loving unity for the good of all.


*Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Book II.

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