Nature Of Sin Inferno And Paradise Lost English Literature Essay
“It is a man’s own mind,” the great religious figure Buddha says, “not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways,” (Quotes on Evil). This idea, in essence, is what the two great religious writers of Dante and Milton argue over in their monumental works Inferno and Paradise Lost. Dante maintains that the evilness in mankind is derived from the innately wicked nature of every man and the appealing nature of sin while Milton argues that mankind strives to do good, being itself God’s favored creation, but is brought down to evil acts by the malicious intent of the devil. Therefore, the main difference in the two authors’ stances is the degree of optimism or hope for the future that each work contains. The authors’ argue their points on the matter through the different literary techniques employed in each poem, like the imagery invoked to describe Satan, the personification of the demons in Hell, and the plight of humans when confronted with evil. Compared to Milton, Dante makes a more convincing argument through his masterful characterization, symbolism, and ability to evoke emotion.
Satan, evil personified, has been utilized for hundreds of years by man to explain the nature and cause of the misfortunes of the world, so it is only natural that this figure be so central to both poems. Dante spends less time describing the figure of Satan, but his one focus on the ruler of Hell is so vivid and detailed that it successfully can be compared with Milton’s own vision of the Devil. As both Dante and Virgil—his guide through Hell—approach Satan, Dante describes, “That it my Master pleased to show to me the creature who once had the beauteous semblance,” (Alighieri XXXIV.17-18). This passage hints at the fact that even Satan is not the source of evil, but rather the unfortunate first victim to fall into its snare. Dante makes clear that from Satan’s first ‘beauteous appearance’ as Lucifer, the angel, he falls prey to sin the same way as many men also do. Dante goes on to describe the strange appearance of Satan, observing, “I beheld three faces in his head! The one in front, and that vermillion was… And the right-hand one seemed ‘twixt white and yellow; the left was such to look upon as those who come from where the Nile falls valley-ward,” (XXXIV.38-45). The point in Dante’s description of Satan as having three faces on one head is to contrast with the also triform nature of the traditional view of the Christian God. The typical traits associated with God are those of love, omnipotence, and omniscience. The three faces of Satan’s heads are given the specific colors of red, yellow, and black to correspond to the converse of each of these godly virtues. Black obviously can be seen to represent hate or evil, the opposite of love; yellow is closely related to cowardice—which most closely contrasts omnipotence. Red then is left to represent ignorance, the opposite of omniscience, which makes sense as red is often used to symbolize passion or anger—both emotions that impair thought. Dante assigns these three traits to Satan through his skilful usage of color symbolism so that it is understood that Satan himself has no real power, and that evil controls him—and not the other way around. Finally, the reader gets one last powerful glimpse at the powerlessness of Satan with Dante declaring, “Underneath each [face] came forth two mighty wings…he was waving them, so that three winds proceeded forth…thereby Cocytus was wholly congealed,” (XXXIV.46-52). Through this whole scene, Satan has been described as being trapped within ice, struggling in vain to escape. Dante makes it clear that these escape attempts merely keep Satan frozen in place, highlighting his truly weak and ignorant nature. Even though he must only stop beating his wings and wait for the ice to warm to free himself, Satan blindly continues his struggle. This final image of the Devil proves that Dante considers him much too weak to control the fates of mankind, and that man’s corruption lies elsewhere than in the powers of Hell.
John Milton, on the other hand, spends much of Paradise Lost giving his portrayal of Satan. The narrative describes the strong-minded leadership of Satan in Hell. After being thrown out of Heaven for his sins, Satan and his supporters are found dismayed and broken in the bowels of Hell. Making a grand speech to stir up his followers, Satan urges, “All is not lost; the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and courage never to submit or yield…that glory never shall [God’s] wrath or might extort from me,” (Milton I.106-111). Already, with his first words, the reader is presented with a vastly different portrayal of Satan than in Dante’s imagery. This Satan is free to plot and take revenge, and more importantly still has the strength of will command the millions of demons that followed him. Having thus established himself as the dominant figure in Hell, Satan goes on to elaborate that “[his] labor must be to pervert that end, and out of good still to find means of evil” (I.164-165). Thus, Satan in Paradise Lost is described as the controller of evil, rather than just as a conduit. Satan means to destroy anything that God so chooses to create, merely to bring his evil into the world. This contrasts with Dante’s version of Satan, who is shown to be evil’s first victim and helpless to even escape the confines of Hell. Satan is seen gaining the throne of Hell through skillful manipulation, as in the debates raging in the halls of Pandemonium, the demons’ council chamber. When the demons begin arguing about who should be sent to carry out the task of mankind’s perversion, Satan speaks out, saying, “Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light…but I should ill become this throne, O peers!...if aught proposed and judg’d of public moment, in the shape of difficulty, or danger, could deter me from attempting. Wherefore do I assume these royalties, and not refuse to reign,” (II.432-451). Satan thus emphasizes his bravery in offering to go on this ‘dangerous’ voyage, and quickly claims the throne as recompense for his valiancy. Therefore, Milton maintains that it is Satan’s mastery of evil and wicked ways that can overpower even other demons in Hell, which makes it no surprise that he is the cause of sin the world of man.
The world of Hell is populated by a seemingly endless wave of demons, those angels who chose to follow Satan in his defiance of God. Through the examination of how each author chooses to portray these demons and their relation to evil, the writers’ differing viewpoint on Hell’s control of sin in the world of man can be seen. One of the first sights confronting Dante and Virgil in their descent into Hell proper is that of Minos, the infernal judge of sin in humans. As Dante relates, “There standeth Minos horribly, and snarls; examines the transgressions at the entrance; judges, and sends accordingly as he girds him,” (Alighieri V.4-6). From this glimpse into the workings of the underworld, it is clear that even the demons of Hell do not take active roles in causing sin, but act as only passive judges of the sins that they see in the condemned humans. Hell is shown to be in no way responsible for evil in the world of men, but instead fills the necessary role of punishing men that fell victim to sin just as Satan himself did. This is further evidenced in Dante’s description of the centaurs that roam a circle later on in Hell, who guide him through a passage over a lake of boiling blood. Pointing the way to Dante, the centaur Chiron notes, “I wish thee to believe that on this other more and more declines its bed, until it reunites itself where it behoveth tyranny to groan. Justice divine, upon this side, is goading that Attila, who was a scourge on earth,” (XII.129- 134). This passage illustrates that Dante believes that the demons of Hell are serving a divine purpose, that of punishing the sinful. The demons themselves are aware of this, which explains Chiron’s comment on the fact. If God planned for Hell to come into existence to punish sin, then Satan himself must not be the ultimate source of evil as Milton claims. Dante further backs his point up in the characterization of Malacoda, another demon in Hell. When Virgil tells Malacoda that “in Heaven it is willed that I another show this savage road” Malacoda quickly calls the demons under his command off an attack on Virgil, saying, “Now strike him not,” (XXI.83-87). Clearly, the demons in Hell realize the importance of any will of God and are quick to submit, underlining that they are not in opposition to God and humans in Dante’s view, but rather a part of the divine plan. Since the demons of Hell willingly let God send Dante through their domain, this shows the submission of Hell under Heaven and the ultimate impotence of Satan.
John Milton, of course, paints a much different picture of Satan through his demons in Hell. First, as Satan speaks of the misfortunes that have recently befallen him and his company, Beelzebub responds, “O Prince; O chief of many throned powers, that led th’embattled seraphim to war under thy conduct; and in dreadful deeds fearless,” (Milton I.128-131). The demons still recognize Satan as their leader, even though he has lost them the eternal bliss of Heaven. All of Satan’s followers strongly believe him to be godly, who can still challenge God from the depths of Hell. Milton never adequately explains why the demons have such unshakeable faith in Satan, and why they never try to usurp his rule. Therefore, his demons seem flat in character, having no ability to reason for themselves. Other creatures of Hell found in Milton’s epic are those of Sin and Death themselves, near the gate to the underworld. Sin herself is personified as the offspring of Satan, as she states, “Out of thy head I sprung: amazement seiz’d all th’host of heaven; back they recoil’d, afraid at first, and call’d me Sin,” (II.758-760). In Milton’s poem, Satan himself is the originator of sin, as he creates it when his pride causing him to plot God’s downfall. It is he who causes humankind to fall to misery, as his own offspring follows his path into the world to wreak havoc. Sin informs Satan of his role in the eventual downfall of man, prophesying, “[Thou] wilt bring me soon to that new world of light and bliss, among the gods who live at ease, where I shall reign at thy right hand voluptuous,” (II.866-869). This prediction of Sin of Satan’s victory over mankind shows how he is motivated to gain power and destroy God’s works. Unlike in Inferno, the demons of Paradise Lost do not recognize Heaven’s mastery and refuse to submit to God’s will. Moloch, fiercest of the demons, embodies this air of defiance, as he incites, “My sentence is for open war…let us rather choose, arm’d with hell-flames and fury, all at once o’er heaven’s high towers to force resistless way, turning our tortures into horrid arms against the Torturer,” (II. 51-64). There would clearly be no demons willing to let someone such as Dante pass into Hell in Milton’s poem, as the demons are too petulant to obey God’s will.
Dante and Milton both focus their poems on the human struggle against the evils of the world, giving numerous examples of sinners being punished for their misdeeds. This is particularly so in Dante’s case, whose main focus in writing Inferno is to describe what punishment is given to those that bring sin on themselves. In the first circle of Hell, Dante sees how the lustful in life are punished, being constantly thrust about by violent winds. Dante comes to understand why these sinners were punished so, saying, “I understood that unto such a torment the carnal malefactors were condemned, who reason subjugate to appetite,” (Alighieri V. 37-39). Here Dante makes it clear that it is by the sinners’ own misjudgments in life that they got such a punishment, not through any third party like the devil. Just as they allowed themselves to be driven aimlessly through life by their passion and sexual appetites, now the sinners are sentenced to be blown around wildly by strong tempests. Dante carries this theme throughout his poem expertly, examining each sinner in Hell and how they caused their own downfall. Even the demons in Hell are shown to understand why the sinners belong in their respective circles, as when Chiron notes people suffering in rivers of boiling blood, stating, “Tyrants are these, who dealt in bloodshed and in pillaging. Here they lament their pitiless mischiefs,” (XII.104-106). These people are despised even by the demons of Hell, as in this passage when Chiron refers to the sinners as tyrants. The demons in Hell in this way can be seen as carrying out the unsavory parts of God’s plan—punishing those who refuse to accept the righteous life and instead indulge in sin. Dante further enhances the revolting nature of these immoral men upon his description of Count Ugolino, who describes his imprisonment along with his sons. As the count and his family runs low on food, Ugolino begins to bite his own flesh off. Upon seeing this, the count’s sons plead, “Father, much less pain ‘twill give us if thou do eat of us; thyself didst clothe us with this poor flesh, and do thou strip it off.” Though he refuses to engage in this deed, Ugolino eventually succumbs, saying, “Then hunger did what sorrow could not do,” (XXXIII.61-75). Dante very adeptly employs disgusting examples of sin, making the victims of punishment as unsavory as possible so as to back up his argument that it is man’s own weakness that causes his fall from grace. That is not to say that only the seedy, unscrupulous type are those that sin overcomes, as Dante has skillfully provided an example to the contrary. As Dante explores a circle of Hell, he finds Pope Nicholas III under the punishment of being stuck upside down in a rock, who explains his condition, saying, “So eager to advance the cubs, that wealth above, and here myself, I pocketed. Beneath my head the others are dragged down who have preceded me in simony,” (XIX.71-74). Even those in high positions cannot fight the baser instincts of the human spirit. This forms a test that God applies to all mankind, those that refuse to engage in egregious amounts of sin are rewarded with a place in Paradise upon death.
John Milton only has two human characters in his epic poem, those of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. However, even these supposedly innocent and pure forefathers of the human race still cannot avoid being enticed by Satan upon his entrance into the human world. This downfall is explained away as entirely Satan’s fault, as Adam and Eve had no inclination to immorality before he appeared. Satan again is described practicing his art of deception when angels patrolling the gardens find him next to a sleeping Eve, with Milton writing, “Squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve; assaying, by his devilish art, to reach the organs of her fancy, and with them forge illusions, as he list, phantoms, and dreams,” (Milton IV.800-803). Satan is taking a more active stance in the corruption of mankind than Dante detailed, as he inserts thoughts of immorality into Eve’s mind, preparing to later totally dominate her will. Eve, of course, again comes into contact with Satan, this time awake and away from Adam. As she talks to Satan in the guise of a snake, he implores, “[Do] not believe those rigid threats of death; ye shall not die; how should ye? by the fruit? It gives you life to knowledge; by the threat’ner...will God incense his ire for such a petty trespass,” (IX.684-693). Much to the opposite of the vainly struggling Satan presented in Inferno, here Satan actively opposes mankind and God. Like in the earlier passage where Satan skillfully manipulated the demons in Pandemonium to make him prince of Hell, here he uses verbal trickery to make Eve taste of the Tree of Knowledge. After these actions, Sin is literally released into the world as she realizes that Satan has made it possible for her dominion over the otherwise innocent man. Sin, speaking to her son Death, proclaims, “O son, why sit we here each other viewing idly, while Satan our great author thrives in other worlds, and happier seat provides for us his offspring dear?” (X.235-238). Thus, Satan has successfully released evil into the world, which unlike Inferno is one born entirely out of Satan himself. Upon his victory, Satan gloats to his demons in hell, saying, “[Man] by fraud I have seduc’d from his Creator, and, the more to increase your wonder, with an apple…he hath given up both his beloved man, and all his world, to Sin and Death a prey,” (X.485-490). Having caused mankind to become separated from God, Satan revels in what he sees as his ultimate accomplishment and the fulfillment of his earlier vow to oppose God in all his plans.
Having considered these three features in both epic poems, those of the imagery corresponding to Satan, the demons’ characterizations, and the conflict between the forces of Hell and humans directly it becomes clear that Dante is able to employ literary technique more successfully to convince the reader of his point. Using symbolism, like that seen in the colors of Satan’s faces, and expert characterization of both demons and sinner, Dante is able to paint a persuasive picture of mankind dragging itself down to Hell through its own sinful nature. While John Milton cannot be said to be no less a great author than Dante, his literary technique is less skillfully employed in Paradise Lost. Although Milton does illustrate Satan’s meteoric rise to power, he never adequately explains why there is no opposition in all of the millions of his followers. With constant failure following Satan’s ultimately futile struggle against God’s plan, it is not evident why the demons of Hell continually worship Satan as their rightful leader. This major area of weakness undermines the rest of Milton’s argument, as his supporting characters come across as flat and forced. Therefore, with this failing in mind, Milton’s point of view on the nature of sin comes across as an implausible explanation, whereas Dante is able to convince that his outlook is nearer the point. These two author’s conflicting beliefs serve to highlight the centuries old struggle between cynics and pessimists over the evils found in humanity. This debate will likely rage on into the future, but surely those who argue then will look to the texts of landmark works such as these and judge for themselves how well each answers the question of whether sin is external or internal.
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