The first time that I read Milton’s Paradise Lost I was transfixed not just by the beauty of the language but by the beauty of his Satan. Familiar only with images of Satan as a horrifying devil replete with horns and a pointy tail, I was at first stunned by Milton’s Satan. Here was a version of Satan that didn’t scream out “I am evil, follow me anyway” but one who was gorgeous and eloquent and (yes) sublime. Some of the most beautiful speeches in this epic poem are written for, given by Satan. His rhetorical genius is unparalleled, his arguments compelling. We can understand fully and completely why Eve falls, and we even feel empathy for Satan, this most misunderstood paragon of Heaven who sought only his rightful, just place in Heaven. We are drawn in, even with the speaker’s early warning:
“Th’ Infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile / Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived / The mother of mankind, what time his pride / Of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring / To set himself in glory above his peers / He trusted to have equaled the Most High” (Paradise Lost, I. 35-40).
The more I thought about it, though, the more I understood that for Satan–be it a biblical Satan, a literary Satan, or a figurative Satan–to “work,” he must be attractive, appealing, and of course, tempting. He cannot skulk around in bright red skin, baring his fangs, and spewing venom.
When we are first, in our teens, tempted to misbehave, pressured by peers or hot boys (or girls) to sample drugs, alcohol, sex, we are not presented these things by slathering strangers in trench coats or by balding middle-aged men in dark vans who promise us candy and a puppy. We are tempted by people whom we trust, whom we admire, whom we wish to emulate. Temptation is never tempting if it’s presented to us by an “undesirable.” Even our (those females among us) propensity in our youth to be attracted to the “bad boy” is evidence of the charm and attractiveness principles at work. Part of the “bad boy” attraction is, of course, that bad boys are hot (in the gorgeous, sexy sense), they are slick, they are smooth. Their attractiveness and their ability to croon sweet nothings are what draw us in. If these “bad boys” looked on the outside like many are on the inside, we’d run screaming for the hills.
We tend to trust people who are attractive, who say what we want to hear, who appeal to our higher selves. We are drawn in by beauty and pretty pretty speeches. We just are. We haven’t learned, as a people or as people, that the most gorgeous, the most eloquent, the most charming are also, often, the most dangerous. So we are charmed by a veneer of grace, good manners, and platitudes. We are drawn in by idealistic dreams and pie in the sky dreams, we want to believe that it’s okay, really really okay, to take this one step down a dangerous path. What’s one step? And it’s being taken for the best reason, with the best intention. Right? Surely it’s not bad for us if it looks and sounds so good.
But Milton knew, and on some level, we all know that those things that are most dangerous are also the most appealing. Who would eat junk food if it were foul tasting? Who would drink alcohol or do drugs if there weren’t that euphoric “high” to be attained? Who would ever do anything that was bad for them if it weren’t alluring in some way, didn’t appeal to our sense of justice or morality or ego? Who would support tyranny and tyrants if they weren’t attractive and didn’t couch their motives in flowery speeches and compelling, even tempting, rhetoric?