Jessica Daye


Professor Burton

11 December 2013

Re-Orienting Milton

An oriental reading of Paradise Lost and other writings resolves certain longstanding paradoxes in Milton's great works and reorients readers to his initial and intended meaning. Such paradoxes have come about due to gradual changes in our own culture resulting in an ultimate disconnect from the original culture and paradigm of Milton's time and place. A specific cross-culture norm that existed in both the Far East and in the West at the time Milton was writing was a value placed on what Western culture now condemns and terms the "passive." After WWII, our culture shifted out of this value system while China remained the same, making our reading of Paradise Lost and other Miltonic works imperfect and biased. 

         By valuing what the West terms “passive” in the same way as Eastern culture while reading Milton's great works, we not only eliminate some of the false assumptions on which the West's Anglocentric view has founded arguments about Milton's culture but also recover the intended meaning of his work. One such assumption is that heroism is parallel with action. This assumption is the foundation of the all too common Romanticizing of Satan in Paradise Lost. As Satan is the most active, ambitious character in Milton's work, many critics have made the mistake of setting him as a Romantic hero; however, acknowledging the centrality of passivity in Milton's work (and perhaps in the Christian message itself) undermines the romanticizing of Satan as a character. In other words, by Romanticizing Paradise Lost (or aligning it with the foreign and exotic, specifically China), this de-Romanticizes Satan.

Historical Views of Eastern and Western Passivity

To better define the trait that was once of value to both East and West, it is necessary to look a little further into the culture of each hemisphere both presently and historically. Before World War II, America, England, China, and many other countries shared a viewpoint centered around what is often mistaken as “passivity.” However, Lung-Kee Sun , quoting Benzel, expressed findings of his research in these terms: “our Chinese colleagues objected strenuously whenever the word ‘passivity’ was used in connection with the Chinese preferences for a life of contemplation” (204).  The Chinese were offended at this term because in both English and Chinese “passive” or “被動” is defined as “acted upon by an external agency” with the connotation of “lacking energy or will” (Mirriam-Webster). If the Chinese are as adverse to being acted upon as the Americans, what, then, causes Western thinkers to view the East as passive and how is it that they view themselves?

In the same chapter, Sun cites another researcher on this topic “Gorer sees most American men under pressure to convince their fellows and themselves ‘that they are not sissies, not homosexuals,’ by shying away from ‘feminine’ interests such as art and literature. In fact, in America, ‘all intellectual pursuits and interests are somewhat tainted’. . . Small wonder that the ‘scholar,’ the Chinese hero par excellence, was suspected of latent homosexuality” (204). Because to be manly in Chinese culture is to be well-studied and well-cultured with little to no regard of the amount of territory taken in or display of physical strength, the West has often mistaken Eastern pursuits as passive. Perhaps the epitome of modern American ideal is truly summed up in Captain America, the small boy who hates bullies and is given a special power of super strength. Both as a scrawny kid and after treatment, he picks fights with injustice. His courage and valor are defined by his willingness to symbolically and physically stand against something unjust. The Chinese hero, on the other hand, does not rely on conflict in order to be esteemed worthwhile. Instead of standing against something unjust, he stands for something just. Take for example, the legend of Han Xin, proud Chinese warrior who, as a small orphan, was faced with a moral dilemma. Known for his strength in martial arts and sword fighting, he was once stopped in the middle of town by a man who gave him an ultimatum: cut off his head or crawl through his legs, the second being one of the most humiliating public acts of all. A crowd gathered and Han Xin made his decision. As he knelt in subjugation and crawled between the man’s legs, the crowd laughed and scorned, however, he knew the sacrifice made was a stepping stone on his way to greatness. Han Xin did not allow others’ opinions to govern him, but instead made a choice in line with his moral code and stood for something just even while kneeling before something unjust.

This sentiment has not always been so foreign to the West. It was not until “the immediate postwar era [that America] witnessed a censure of relativism, especially cultural relativism in anthropology, and the rise of a more affirmative attitude toward Western values vis-a-vis the totalitarianism of the Eastern Bloc” (Sun 208). It is this censure of relativism that led America and much of the West to have a view of heroism and activity deeply rooted in contention. A person, by this theory, must be opposed to something to be doing anything worthwhile. Good vs. Evil. Right vs. Wrong. According to modern, Western thought, if we are right, then we will fight everything that is wrong, even if it has no relation to us. The Eastern thought, on the other hand, is more that one should internalize truth and live it, but that it is unnecessary to display it. A Chinese proverb states “知者不言, 言者不知,” or “one who knows, doesn’t speak; one who speaks, doesn’t know.” To sum up, the West currently defines itself by contention with wrong and also by physical strength. The East, defines itself by harmony with right and also by intellectual prowess. Earlier in history (around Milton’s time), however, the West did not value contention as a rule.

Take for example, a sampling of Shakespeare’s main tragic and comedic heroes written between the years 1593 and 1610. It is the direct, active, maybe even unsolicited opposition to what they feel is evil that lead to the demise of Hamlet, Othello, and all their loved ones, while, on the other hand, acceptance, subjection, and humility lead both Leontes of The Winter’s Tale and Katharina of The Taming of the Shrew to peace and happy endings. In each of these works a central moral issue of marital fidelity is present and these pieces clearly value standing for what is just (namely spousal fidelity or trust) over standing against the unjust (or spousal infidelity). As shown by this sampling of plays, what the East values and West condemns and terms “passive” was of high moral appreciation just previous to Milton’s day. It is by reading Paradise Lost with this lens that we are able to extract Milton’s intended meaning and resolve certain longstanding paradoxes revolving around the passivity of Satan.

Paradoxes to be Resolved

The main paradox that has troubled scholars, critics, and students alike is that Satan, as a character, seems much more appealing to our Western minds than God or Christ. One of the most widely accepted critical pieces surrounding Paradise Lost is unquestionably Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin. In this critical reading of the work, Fish acknowledges that there have been two main theories among Miltonists: that Milton is either sympathetic with Satan or with God. The entire foundation of Fish’s argument is aimed at reconciling the two readings by focusing not on Milton’s sympathies, but on the reader and his reaction to sympathizing with Satan. Fish argues that as we sympathize with Satan, we are surprised by our own fallen nature and better able to examine and overcome our weaknesses. This and other readings take Milton out of cultural context and romanticize Satan, making him at once appealing and foreign. He is a Satan with which the West is entirely unfamiliar. He is either surprisingly close to us, or else he is a distant, Romantic hero. Perhaps he is both, but few find him evil. As we read Paradise Lost in parallel to Eastern values, we are able to resolve this paradox by discerning the actions of Satan as undesirable. As a result, this very clearly de-Romanticizes Satan.

Eastern Reading of Satan in Paradise Lost

By reading Paradise Lost in Eastern thought and comparing Satan with other characters, Satan’s Romantic appeal is diminished and many of his actions seem less heroic. One theme of Satan’s character seen throughout the work is his inability to submit to anyone or any idea he finds tied to a person. After falling from heaven, Satan declares“What though the field be lost? / All is not lost; the unconquerable Will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield: / and what is else not to be overcome?” (1.105-109 emphasis added). It is clear that Satan equates submission to weakness or lack of power. This concept, however, stands not only in stark contrast to Eastern thought, but also to the nature of Adam and Eve. In describing the idyllic pair, Milton gives the following illustration:

His fair large front and eye sublime declared / Absolute rule; and hyacinthine locks / Round from his parted forelock manly hung / Clustering, but not beneath his shoulders broad: / She, as a veil, down to the slender waist / Her unadorned golden tresses wore / Disheveled, but in wanton ringlets waved / As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied / Subjection, but required with gentle sway, / And by her yielded, by him best received, / Yielded with coy submission, modest pride, / And sweet, reluctant, amorous delay. (4.298-309 emphasis added)

It is interesting that what declares “Absolute rule” in reference to Adam’s features are his fair front and his eye. Mentioning Adam’s front, a rather vulnerable part of the human body, implies that rule comes from being open, straightforward, and honest. The eye is a symbol of wisdom and understanding.  Neither of these parts is associated with conflict, strength, or action. They have to do with being. Being a good ruler has more to do with understanding and openness than strength and action. Eve is also a clear contrast to Satan. Milton expresses that her appearance implies subjection, but in reality is gently requiring; his reception of her (not acceptance, but reception or perhaps understanding) is directly due to her openness or yielding. What makes Adam ruler is also what makes Eve’s influence so grand. While it could be easily overlooked or interpreted angrily by feminists that Adam rules and Eve must yield in order to be accepted, this is not Milton’s intended meaning. Milton’s meaning is in line with Eastern paradigms:

Vulnerability is the only authentic state. Being vulnerable means being open, for wounding, but also for pleasure. Being open to the wounds of life means also being open to the bounty and beauty. Don’t mask or deny your vulnerability: it is your greatest asset. Be vulnerable: quake and shake in your boots with it. The new goodness that is coming to you, in the form of people, situations, and things can only come to you when you are vulnerable, i.e. open. (Russell)

This relationship is intended to show that submission makes not only a good ruler, but is the main component of a functional relationship because it elicits positive reciprocation and has incredible influence. Submission, therefore, is power. Satan sees this grandeur and this power, but is confused by it. In reference to seeing Eve, Satan whispers to himself “Her Husband, for I view far round, not nigh, / Whose higher intellectual more I shun, / And strength, of courage hautie, and of limb / Heroic built, though of terrestrial mould, / Foe not informidable, exempt from wound, / I not;” (9.482-487). He attributes Adam’s apparent power to intellect, strength, and courage. He looks only on the advantages that seem to do with force, but these are not the real sources of Adam’s power.

        Satan seems to believe that with enough force, anything is possible. Shortly after his descent to hell, he exclaims “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n. / What matter where, if I be still the same, / And what I should be, all but less than he / Whom Thunder hath made greater?” (1.254-258). This, too, is in direct opposition to God in Milton’s work. For, while both make a point of valuing the unchanging, what Satan doesn’t realize is that God is also subject to law. In reference to the respective falls of Satan and Adam and Eve God mourns “I formed them free: and free they must remain, / Till they enthrall themselves; I else must change / Their nature, and revoke the high decree / Unchangeable, eternal, which ordained Their freedom” (3.124-128 emphasis added). God is submissive. He is unable to change nature even of his own creations. How then can Satan assume that he can change the creations of any other Being, let alone God? Later we see Satan pine “the Hell I suffer seems a Heav'n. / O then at last relent: is there no place / Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left? / None left but by submission; and that word / Disdain forbids me, … In miserie; such joy Ambition findes” (4.78-92). He does recognize that submission brings pardon, but concludes that joy is found in ambition.

        Satan continues playing out the thought of his repentance in these words:

But say I could repent and could obtaine / By Act of Grace my former state; how soon / Would higth recall high thoughts, how soon unsay / What feign'd submission swore: ease would recant / Vows made in pain, as violent and void. / For never can true reconcilement grow / Where wounds of deadly hate have peirc'd so deep: / Which would but lead me to a worse relapse / And heavier fall: so should I purchase deare / Short intermission bought with double smart. / This knows my punisher; therefore as farr / From granting hee, as I from begging peace: / All hope excluded thus, behold instead / Of us out-cast, exil'd, his new delight, / Mankind created, and for him this World. (4.93-106 emphasis added)

Satan ultimately decides against repentance on the grounds that not only will he fall again and harder, but that it was planned that way by God himself. He blames others for his place in life and assumes that he can make it where he needs to be on his own. After blaming others’ actions for his fall, he blames nature itself for putting them there saying,  “And put to proof his high Supremacy, / Whether upheld by strength, or Chance, or Fate, / Too well I see and rue the dire event, / That with sad overthrow and foul defeat / Hath lost us Heav'n” (1.132-136 emphasis added). God addresses and refutes these ideas directly when speaking with the Son.“so bent he seems / On desperate revenge, that shall redound / Upon his own rebellious head. And now, … So will fall / He and his faithless progeny: Whose fault? / Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of me / All he could have; I made him just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (3.84-99). Instead of opening his eyes to the results of his actions, Satan blames. He blames God. He blames nature. He blames strength, Chance, Fate. Eastern thinkers might draw a parallel between Satan and this man:

If a man is crossing a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff, even though he be a bad-tempered man he will not become very angry. But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear. If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing. And all because there is somebody in the boat … [this] is the perfect man: His boat is empty. (Merton 114)

It may seem that this is not a position of power or perhaps that the water is not controlled, which is true. It’s not controlled, but it is influenced. “The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences. What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore? The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished.” Such is the power of the passive. Christ’s passive work as stated in his conversation with the Father “Behold me then: me for him, life for life / I offer: on me let thine anger fall; / Account me Man; I for his sake will leave / Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee / Freely put off, and for him lastly die / Well pleased; on me let Death wreak all his rage” (3.236-241). allowed mankind the ability to be passive in redemption and allow Christ to “restore us and regain the blissful seat” (1.5 emphasis added). Fall and Redemption, like the ebb and flow of a tide, are better followed in Eastern passivity than Western force. According to Milton, we cannot quite control either, but that is not important because it is only after we’re willing to relinquish control that we can follow the flow of the river towards redemption itself.

Works Cited

Fish , Stanley Eugene. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 2nd ed. Canada: Macmillan

Press Ltd., 1998. Print.

Kerrigam, William, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon. The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose

of John Milton. New York: Modern Library, eBook

Merton, Thomas. The Way Of Chuang Tzu. 29. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation,

1969. 14. Print.

. N.p.. Web. 8 Dec 2013. <>.

Russell, Stephen The Barefoot Doctor’s Guide to the Tao: A Spiritual Handbook for the Urban

Warrior.  New York. Times Books, 1999. Print.

Sun, Lung-Kee. The Chinese National Character: From Nationhood to Individuality. New York:

East Gate, 2002. 204-208. Print.