Paradise Lost : God’s adversary?

Meanwhile the adversary of God and man,’ (Book II, 629)

The word “adversary” (2:629) is carrying a lot of thematic weight in the poem. Initially, “adversary” can be defined in its classic sense, that of the traditional, epic antagonist, such as Grendel, or the Dragon of the horde, or even in the romantic sense of the jealous husband who locks up his young and pretty wife. Milton is drawing on this traditional view of the word “adversary” to build the character of Satan up in the same tradition as the old epics and romances so that the character will be instantly recognizable, and sympathetic.

An example of “adversary” in the classic definition can be seen in such lines as “That glory never shall his wrath or might / Extort from me.” (1:110) where we witness Satan’s defiance against his enemy, God. We know this will be a good fight, and we also know that any great hero has to have a foe worthy of his attention because in vanquishing such a mighty foe is for the greatest of all glory and eventual reward, “The world shall burn, and from her ashes spring / New heaven and earth, wherein the just shall dwell,” (3:334).

Another example of Milton’s use of “adversary” comes in the later definition we have explored in the genre of the romance. Satan, in his temptation of youthful and naive Eve, prays on her innocence as well has her vanity to capture her, “Taste this, and be henceforth among the gods / Thyself a goddess,” (5:77). Satan is like the jealous old husband of Chaucer who against all odds manages to score a wife who is out of his accepted social position – in other words, he is grasping for more than he is has been allowed by society, or in this case, God.

This then leads us into the use of the word “adversary” as playing directly into how the character of Satan sees himself. Satan defines his worth through this adversarial relationship with God, his pride blinds him into thinking he is equal enough to actually be an “adversary” of God. Yet we know he is lacking all the facts, specifically God’s existence outside of all time, “Wherein past, present, future he beholds,” (3:78) and thus is unaware of the inevitable outcome. Satan is unaware just how doomed he is since God has already seen Satan’s failure, but he does not have this knowledge and so we watch as he fights a battle he cannot win.

All this helps build up a character we are familiar with from the tradition of literature (from epic to romance and the medieval) which creates an antagonist who is powerful enough to be dangerous (and also entertaining to read about), but relatable enough through his flaws so that we can empathize with just how dangerous Satan can be in our own lives. Milton has personified evil and humanized it, he is showing us how evil is ultimately a human adversary which is a part of our very nature. Evil is transformed from an ambiguous, or monstrous concept outside of ourselves into something entirely human capable of great evil within ourselves.