Paul Stevens believes, quite literally, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
So much so, in fact, that the literature professor at the University of Toronto has given a dissertation on the ultimate biblical bad guy, Satan, set to air on March 14 on TVO’s Big Ideas, as part of their Ontario’s Best Lecturer series.
The lesson, entitled Milton’s Satan, analyzes the devil’s role in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Written by 17th Century English author John Milton, the work sets the foundations of Judeo-Christian literature to epic poetry, chronicling Satan’s open defiance of God to his fall from Heaven to the temptation of Adam and Eve.
“Milton’s Satan is an intensely attractive figure, especially today. He’s one of the earliest examples we have of the anti-hero who doesn’t submit to authority, in this case God’s will,” Stevens says. “But it’s all deception, all part of how seductive the character can be. His actions are greatly based on his own arrogance and delusion and as the books progress, you realize how disastrous a figure he really is.”
The book has been interpreted in a seemingly infinite number of ways since it was first published in 1667, and has inspired artists down the generations (from William Blake to Salvador Dali to scores of heavy metal bands). But for his take on it, Stevens points to the importance of who Milton was and the world in which he lived when he wrote the epic.
Milton lived a great deal of his life bucking the status quo. His Catholic father disinherited him for embracing Protestantism. Milton also supported the overthrow of the English monarchy, writing defences of Oliver Cromwell’s republican government and suggesting regicide during the English Civil Wars.
The armed conflicts between parliamentarians and royalists devastated Britain and Ireland from 1642-1651, leaving hundreds of thousands dead in their wake according to historical estimates.
Which brings Stevens to his point: Milton isn’t writing about Satan so much as he’s using him as a kind of allegory for self-analysis.
“He’s writing about himself,” says Stevens. “Milton wrote in support of events that eventually led to atrocities.
“In this he’s leading the reader into the very nature of evil itself, of how an individual can go wrong if they don’t step out of the narrative they set up for themselves.”