Belial points out, not unreasonably, that if God is omnipotent and omniscient, than there is no point in trying to fight him either by force or by guile. It’s far better to sit quietly down here, in time we may get used to the heat and who knows, maybe if we behave nicely, God is going to relent and pardon us. “Thus Belial, with words clothed in reason’s garb/Counseled ignoble ease and peaceful sloth/not peace”. Milton may have had a thing for Satan but he certainly does not like Belial in particular and conformists in general. After him speaks Mammon, who also advises against war, but he notices that even if God granted amnesty, can they really imagine them around their throne, singing “forced hallelujahs”? No, they can’t and neither can I. So Mammon’s advice is, similarly to Belial’s, getting used to the heat, and not yearning after light – after all, the sun also sometimes hides behind the clouds. Besides, Hell has plenty of precious metals and gems, and with them they can easily master the fires and make light for themselves. So his advice is, in a nutshell, to make the best of a bad situation.
Moloch continues his speech. “We cannot be any worse off than we are now, unless we are completely destroyed, and that is preferable to our present condition. Anyway, even if we lose, we are going to have the satisfaction of giving our enemy trouble.” When he ends, Belial rises to speak. He seems graceful and dignified “but all was false and hollow”; his honeyed words lead others astray but he is “to vice industrious, but to nobler deeds/Timorous and slothful”. Accordingly, he advises to desist with declaring an open war. The reasons that Moloch puts forward, desperation, is the one that dissuades him most. Any revenge that Moloch dreams of is impossible because Heaven is well-guarded, and even if they managed to push past the first defense, the pure ethereal substance of Heaven would soon expel them. Complete anihilation is not preferable to their present condition, because who of them would like to give up their “intellectual being”, even if their life is now full of pain. As for the argument “it can’t get any worse”, of course it can, just remember when you were chained and drifting on this burning lake. Imagine the fires of Hell increase sevenfold, or we are chained each to a rock while the fiery tempest rains on us. In comparison with that, our present condition – sitting here, disputing and in arms – seems quite comfortable.
Satan begins the debate. He claims that he is even more happy than in heaven because in heaven he would be afraid other angels would envy his exalted position, but nobody is going to envy him being the first in hell, so they are going to be united more than ever. He wants to wage war on heaven, the only question is whether it’s going to be open or “by covert guile”. Moloch is the first to speak and he advises open war. His arguments are that while they sit here plotting, the multitudes of other devils are suffering. The ascent is natural for the fallen angels, while the descent, like the one they just suffered, is very painful to them. Besides, what worse thing can happen to them?
The other group of devils melts the ore into metal and yet another pours the liquid metal into molds in order to make construction elements for the future palace. Milton seems to have anticipated here the cast-iron architecture of the 19th century, except that this building is made of gold. It is a mixture of classical Greek form and baroque ornaments, reminiscent, as the Helpful Footnote points out, or Saint Peter’s in Rome. It surpasses anything that Egyptians or Assyrians ever built. Once it is done, the summons are sent about the general meeting and the gates are open. The thronging crowd admires the beauty of the interior. There are so many of them they are like swarming bees in May, but then miraculously they shrink into the size smaller than dwarves, because they can change their size at will. However, those highest in the hierarchy retain their size. They sit in a secret chamber and they start “the great consult”.
Satan looks at his troops with a mixture of pride, regret and pain caused by the realization they are all banished from heaven forever. They are like a mountain forest where the tops of the trees are singed by a thunder. He tries to speak and he chokes up three times before he manages to do so. Finally he speaks. His point is again: who could have foreseen anybody could withstand such power as is now assembled before me? He describes God as sitting “on his throne, upheld by old repute/Consent or custom, and his regal state/Put forth at full”, which are also the words one could use to describe Charles I (indeed, the editorial introduction points out that Milton describes the conflict in the way seemingly contradictory to his political sympathies, with God in the role of the monarch). But now at least they know better than to provoke God, but also know theirr strength enough not to be afraid of another war. He who overcomes by force, overcomes but half his foe. Now, since there are rumors in heaven about how God is going to create the Earth and put another race on it, which he is going to make equal with angels, Satan is going to plot against it because this war is never over. The devils respond with applause, banging their fiery swords on their shields, like Roman soldiers. Now they all repair to a nearby volcano, led by Mammon, who even in heaven was the least spirtually developed of angels because he kept on looking down, admiring the golden pavement, instead of looking up. He was also the one who later on taught men to rip up their mother earth in search of precious ores. Under his direction they dig up a hole in the side of the volcano and excavate gold. We shouldn’t be surprised, Milton says, that you can find gold in hell, that’s where it belongs. They start a construction with the speed which would put to shame both Egyptian kings and the builders of the Tower of Babel.
The Egyptian gods are followed by Greek ones, but Milton gives them relatively little space and does it in such a tortuous syntax that I am not quite sure whether he refers to Greek gods or Titans. I think it’s significant that he is so easy on Greek gods after spending two pages on condemning the Phoenician ones: his whole education, which was based in these times on classical studies, conditioned him to – how should I put it? not exactly worship Greek and Roman gods but sympathize with people who worshipped them. After all, Homer, Virgil, and the rest, they were all his heroes. In contrast, he learnt about Phoenician gods from the Old Testament and of course this source does not have a good word to say either about them or their worshipper. Now the army of Satan gets back into a formation and raises its ensigns. Satan feels a sort of pride looking at them – all the earhly armies are in comparison with them like Pygmies fighting with cranes (a popular legend from Pliny), they are bigger than all the armies of mythological Greece put together, or all the armies from chivalric romances and chansons de geste. He himself, looking at them, with his original beauty still not quite gone, is like sun rising through mist or during an eclipse. This is one of these passages where Milton gets dangerously close, in the words of William Blake, to being “of Devil’s party without knowing it”.
The catalogue of false gods continues: Astoreth or Astarte, “the queen of heaven” and the moon goddess (Milton does not say it explicitly, but this is all very reminiscent of the Catholic worship of the Virgin Mary), Thammuz, whose death was mourned every spring by women, Dagon the sea-god whose statue was destroyed when Philistines placed the stolen Ark in his temple, and the Egyptian gods, half-human and half-beasts. Finally Belial, who is not a god but a personification of depravity. The description of his activity in present tense makes one think Milton is making a point about the moral laxity of the Restoration London. “The rest were long to tell”, but the list also includes the gods worshipped by the ancient Greeks.