It is with a certain sense of shame that I confess that until this summer I had never read Paradise Lost all the way through. I had eagerly read the excerpts assigned for class; I had read literary criticism on it with great earnestness; I had celebrated Milton’s 400th birthday gleefully; but I had never settled down and read the great work start to finish. Accordingly, as a last hurrah before school, I took out The Complete Works of Milton that my mother had used in college and began.
There was one trap that I was determined to stay away from: that of being too attracted by Satan. Blake once said, “Milton was of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” But surely a rigorously theologically-minded (if occasionally unorthodox) Christian would not write an epic poem in praise of the devil? Surely this is only reading post-Enlightenment, anti-Christian ideals back into the seventeenth century?
However, as I read, I was shocked by the contrast between the characterization of Milton’s Satan and Milton’s God. A nuanced Satan I can enjoy as an intriguing villain, although the Tempter in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, who scorns bravery and even intelligence as gifts of the God he hates, is perhaps truer to life. However, after Milton’s Satan, Milton’s God is simply unlikable. He is all-powerful, and so he does not need bravery; he is all-knowing, and so he does not need fortitude—he already knows that he will win. The meekness of Milton’s Son of God lacks charm, since it is not needed to withstand any pain.
To be blunt, absolute power is not imaginatively appealing. We are stirred by lost causes and perseverance where there is no hope of victory; we are not stirred by secure happiness that is won at no cost. This is not to say that secure happiness is not what we wish for our own lives; but it does not move our sense of beauty as much as victory tinged with sadness.
I do not think this is an accident; nor is it a manifestation of our broken natures. The cause of those who rebel against God is in the end hopeless, but we do not feel the wistful beauty of defeat because of them. It is God who, instead of crushing His enemies with strength, defeated them by giving up His strength and dying. It is Christ, not Satan, who was the king of the lost cause, who was defeated by the powers that control this world. Of course, we know that the defeat of God is not the end of all things, but the miraculous cause of His final victory—but this does not make defeat and weakness any less painful. Death is real, even if its power can be broken. Evil is real, even if all wrongs will be righted in the end.
Thus it is that we are moved by hopeless causes and victories that come against all odds. Our God, the creator and source of all beauty, somehow, miraculously, does not exercise his absolute power absolutely, but rather wins victory through defeat. God’s nature is unchanging from age to age; if He now delights to make his power perfect through weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), then He has always had this character, before time and forever. We are aesthetically drawn to lost causes and hope beyond despair because such is the beauty upon which Creation is founded.