Milton’s warning: the danger of wishing to “be yourself”

Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels

William Blake, “Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels” (1808)

In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C. S. Lewis argues that Milton’s Satan should make readers be careful of what they wish for, lest God say to us, as He did Satan, “thy will be done”:

What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything. This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all. And thus, throughout the poem, all his torments come, in a sense, at his own bidding, and the Divine judgment might have been expressed in the words ‘thy will be done.’ He says ‘Evil be thou my good’ (which includes ‘Nonsense be though my sense’) and his prayer is granted. It is by his own will that he revolts; but not by his own will that Revolt tears its way in agony out of his head and becomes a being separable from himself, capable of enchanting him and bearing him unexpected and unwelcome progeny. By his own will he becomes a serpent in Book IX; in Book X he is a serpent whether he will or no.

Lewis adds:

Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament. Certainly, he has no choice. He has chosen to have no choice. He has wished to ‘be himself,’ and to be in himself and for himself, and his wish has been granted. The Hell he carries with him is, in one sense, a Hell of infinite boredom. Satan…is interesting to read about; but Milton makes plain the blank uninterestingness of being Satan.

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