Antaeus and Sphinx: Vanitas and Natura in Paradise Regained


Shigeo Suzuki

1.   Ethical Literature


      Benedetto Croce proposed to draw a line between rhetoric and arts so as to deprive poetry of morals.  We take his proposal legitimate, since we are familiar with the independence of the modern twentieth-century poetry from morality.  The case is, however, quite the reverse in the Renaissance poetry.  The poets and the readers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have shared the view that poetry should depict moral examples that man should follow.  In fact, the humanists in the Renaissance, Piccolomini for example, have argued again and again that man could improve his ability to resist temptations and other worldly notions by reading poetry.  Milton follows in their footsteps, strongly conscious of setting forth moral basis of our behavior.

     Jesus’ responses to a series of Satan’s temptations in Paradise Regained propose an ideal way man should make for.  The poem teaches us that man should learn what is indispensable for his salvation with help of light from above, which he has not completely lost yet (IV. 352).  It also tells us that we should behave in accordance with reason, another name for the light implanted in man: we should govern the inner part of us against whatever needs and desires the outward part of us might be obsessed with (II. 477).  These religious tenets and moral obligations will be branded on our memory when we read a series of fierce but poetical battles between Satan and Jesus.  Most of the metaphors and imageries in the poem are so arranged to guide us to those teachings.  The similes of the descents of Sphinx and Antaeus in the last part of the poem adequately represent some moralities in the defeat of Satan.

     The moment Jesus says that you should not tempt God, Satan falls from the top of the tower.  His fall is first compared to that of the strangled Antaeus (IV. 563-68: Fig. 1).  One of the symbolic meanings of Antaeus’ defeat was that man fortifying himself with right reason succeeds in overcoming desires enthralled by earthly things.  This idea is indicated in the inscriptions of Fig. 1, “deboli, carnis, & mundi typum” under Antaeus and “Christianus miles” just below Hercules: these two Latin captions refer to the Ephesians 2:2-3 and 6:11-13 respectively.  Since Satan in the poem is identified with Antaeus, he was considered to be an incarnation of immoderate attachment to this world.

     Followed by the fall of Antaeus is Sphinx’s throwing herself into a gorge (IV. 572-75).  The motto in one of the most popular emblems of Sphinx (Fig. 2) says that ignorance should be removed: submouendam ignorantiam. Satan in the poem is ignorant of the true significance of the birth of the Son of God and the beginning of his new reign to replace Satan’s flamboyant dominance over the world.  Actually, he is not sure that the man baptized in Jordan is the Christ he knew in Heaven until the moment of the pinnacle.  Throughout the poem his ignorance makes him obstinately refuse to admit that each of his hypotheses based upon the Son of God is wrong.

     An awareness of the visual sources will enrich our responses to the descriptive passages in the poem.  It is useful to find examples of visual arts which correspond to the metaphors and the imageries within the text especially when we try to grasp its moral connotations.  As sister arts of the poetry, paintings are also supposed to teach moral lessons with delight.  This requisite for the painting is overbearingly put forward in the Renaissance and the Baroque arts.  In the seventeenth-century, Dutch still life painting has inherited its technique of “disguised symbolism” of morality from the preceding fifteenth and sixteenth-century Netherlandish painting.[i]  In this new genre, familiar inanimate objects such as food, stationery, daily commodities are represented in minute details.  We cannot regard them solely as records of daily life.  The conventionality and the artifice of the painting provoke in the viewer meditative engagement.  Dutch still lifes remind the spectator of an allegorical significance embedded in themselves.  The painter alludes to concepts or ideas by subtly introducing a metaphoric dimension which functions as a moral lesson.  The surprising similarity in the moral tone between Paradise Regained and Dutch painting will emerge when we parallel the temptation scenes in the poem with those daily scenes of the genre-paintings.



2.   Iconography of Temptation


     The action in the poem begins when Satan hears the divine pronouncement at the baptism of Jesus.  Satan decides to carry out his mission of seduction to forestall Christ’s regime, though he is not sure his true identity.  Christ remains in the desert without any food, where Satan appears disguised as an old man in “rural weeds”.  Since he knows that Jesus has been fasting for forty days, he urges him to make bread from the stones.  He insists that Christ could easily accomplish as a capacity of the Son of God this miracle (the first temptation of hunger: I. 314-500).  Jesus quoting a text from the Scripture refuses to do this and declares that from now on inner oracle would enable man to free from his blind commitment to Satan’s words.  After this failed attempt, the devil returns to the mid-air for further deliberation with his legions over sly artifices to discredit Jesus’ ability as the Son of God.  Belial’s proposal “set women in his way and in his path” is scornfully dismissed by Satan, who perceives that the allurement of sexual desire willl be no of no avail.  He shows off his superior intelligence with proposing more attractive baits like honor, glory and praise.  When he departs to encounter Jesus suffering from sharper pangs of hunger, however, he first implements the stratagem to appeal to appetite and natural desire.  He brings into existence in front of Jesus a banquet with alluring women (a continuation of the first temptation of hunger: II. 302-403).  These two temptations constitute the first part of the whole tripartite temptations.

     The use of fowl, fish, and game spread out in lavish abundance is a frequent device in still life painting.  A painting of Jan Brüghel (fig. 3) is such a typical example.  The dazzling image of the countless earthly delights simply serves the corporeal pleasures.  Satyr engagingly smiling at the Lady was pouring wine into the bowl.  A dish of oyster close by the bowl was commonly held to be an aphrodisiac.  Her thoughts are completely captivated by mundane matters.  In other genre paintings (fig. 4 and fig. 5), various kinds of food like rich bread and succulent fruits are lavishly laid out on the table with sugared confectionery.  At first sight these numerous delicacies bulging out over the edge of the bowl and the plate strengthen the aspect of luxury.  The realistically represented material details of food even arouse new cravings in the viewer.  But they are more than meet the eye.  Those paintings have a religious dimension.  A half-torn pomegranates in fig. 4 is a symbol of Resurrection while a bunch of grapes stand for the Eucharistic wine.  Actually, in Flegels painting, the sugared fruit have been cut up in the shape of the letter A and O, the symbols of the First and Second Persons in Trinity (Revelations 22:13).  A merging of profane and sacred themes occurred within the paintings.  They admonish us against losing ourselves in luxuries and remind us of who is the ultimate giver of those bounties.  Their admonishment is like Christ’s reply in answer to Satan’s question whether he would enjoy the feast set before him: “Thereafter as I like /the giver”(II. 321-322).

     In the second part of the tripartite temptations, the temptation of kingdom, the fiend does not appeal to the physical needs of hunger any longer, but takes advantage of that enthusiasm for accomplishing great deeds on earth which he thought underlying in Christ.  By giving a premise that great enterprise on the earth should require large monetary fund, which he as the lord of the earth possesses, he entices Jesus with offering gold without any charge except Jesus’ willing consent to Satan’s offer (a temptation of wealth: II. 411-486).  Jesus in reply disparages riches without virtue.  The sovereignty which wealth can buy is not completely independent true kingship.  Self-government of man over himself must be first established.

     Since Quentin Massys' Money-changer and his Wife (1514)(fig. XXX), it has become a common idea that coins have overpowering allurement even at the time of daily prayer.  In the seventeenth century, with the rise of high economic growth, the immoderate concern for worldly riches was sharply criticized by the moralist of the age.  One of the emblems of Jacob Cats (fig. 6) shows how alluring money is: pecuniae obediunt omina (Everything is obedient to money).  The liege subjects in the emblem smiled complacently on expecting the large sum of money to receive from Lady Money, who appeared over and again in the century.  Cats successfully put an expression of unholy delight on their wicked faces to generate a great deal of moral discomfort.  We need the presence of a mind engaged in an immense effort at self-control.  Without it, we are easily prone to be a slave of money.

     Next, Satan attempts to arouse in Christ desire for glory.  It is high time for him to succeed in obtaining the glory that all the great men had hoped to acquire.  The devil cunningly persuades Jesus not to miss this golden opportunity (the temptation of glory: III. 25-145).  Jesus replies that glory and honor entitled by the people are transient at any ages whereas those of God are permanent.  In Renaissance period, the counterparts of those distinguished classical heroes Satan has mentioned might possibly be, to name the few, Queen Elizabeth, François I, and Charles V.  In fig. 7, Fame holding a cameo of Charles V on one hand and pointing the globe on the other, intends to show vast realm of his empire.  Nil omne (Everything is nothing) written above the sand-glass together with other remnants of the king suggests the eventual overthrow of the achievements he made.  Even Fame who commands the whole scene might vanish in the future.

     Since Jesus is not moved by the examples of Greek and Roman rulers, the devil resorts to the Old Testament, claiming that Jesus could be a glorious liberator of Israel which has been suffering from the oppressive reign of the pagan Rome (III. 152-203).  Christ sticking to the God-centered point of view retorts that he could sense behind his suggestion a scheme to subvert God who has the initiative in liberating people: it is God who appoints time for action.  Satan, perplexed at his steadfastness, conceives that Jesus would change his mind once he has had practical experiences.  He suddenly takes him out of the desert onto the mountain which provides a breathtaking telescoped panorama of various historical scenes within its vista (III. 263-385).

     Calvinism of the Dutch Reformed Church encouraged the emergence of secular art forms, one of which is landscape art (Fig. 8).[ii]  Landscape was one of the subjects Calvinists were permitted to depict and enjoy.  The high demand for landscape painting in seventeenth-century Holland was not simply a reaction against the ban of Catholic religious art.  Relish for the landscape painting was based upon the idea that God’s immanence and benevolence was revealed through nature.  Instead of appreciating Divine creation, the fiend makes Christ behold man-made countries artificially selected in distinct ages.  He makes an effort to instill in Jesus much respect for strategy to win the rule of this world.  Even after he is shown many rulers who has left behind them names remembered long in history, Christ replies that all arms are vanity.  Jesus invalidates Satan’s assumption with saying that Israel having brought its troubles on its own head is not worth ruling, and that the prophesy of his rule would be fulfilled only when God finds the time is ripe for it.  He discloses that God’s rule to intervene in human history comes first before man’s will to change the course.

     Like the globe in Preda’s Allegory (fig. 7), the crown with the scepter left behind the banner in fig. 9 is a clear reference to the potentate’s power.  The individual piece of armor worn by rulers and privileged noblemen are scattered on the sarcophagus.  These parts of a coat of mail together with a skull on the right-hand corner are symbols of remnants of an existence doomed to death.  For Christ whose weapons are spiritual, the armor and weapons are “that cumbersome/ luggage of war" (III. 400-401).

     Satan is now more irritated with Jesus’ unwavering obedience to God’s way.  At the same time he has become desperate at his failure in his consecutive temptations.  He takes him to the other side of the mountain to show off the adorable Roman Empire, the epitome of the supreme human society for the Renaissance man.  He even offers him to hand over its whole property to him (IV. 44-108).  Against this offer Jesus points out that grandeur and magnificence of Rome are vain ostentation of man who is deceived by Satan.  He sees through him that Satan has self-consciously deceived himself into believing that he has the right to transfer anything to him.  He is like Satan in Paradise Lost (IV. 43-44; V. 860-861, who insisted in public that he was self-begot, but deep down inside reluctantly admitted that any right of possession lies in God the creator.

     At this point Satan changes his strategy to attract Jesus with social and political allurements.  He brings forth the inner man which Jesus has been paying much tribute to.  The fiend suggests that he should learn philosophy for cultivating intellect and become well versed in classical poetry and music for exercising his mind (the temptation of classical learning: IV.196-284).  Jesus thinks nothing of knowledge abounding with misconceptions against God and lacking in the idea of man facing toward God.  What is important for him is only the Scripture, the source of all knowledge.

     Many popular musical instruments like lute, recorder, and virginal frequently appear in still life painting, but there they are no longer a symbol of harmony like in Giorgione’s Concerto in the Country (c. 1510) .  In fig. 10 the dim candlelight is cast upon the instruments to cause the melancholy mood.  The large scorpion on the celestial globe which directly faces us is associated with death because the insect has been believed to stand at the gates of Hades.[iii]  Music might gives relief to somber soul, but we are sure it may stop at any time and that musical players are destined to pass away.  In fig. 11 there silently lies a violin with a bow which nobody uses.  A wild jumble of half-torn books and documents, which are bent out of shape by the damp, proclaims that death would reduce achievement of learning into nothing.  The futility of learning is also detected in the ink bottle whose quill for writing books has gone away.  Books are piled up in more disarray in fig. 12, where we identify the works of Suetonius and Livius.  These paintings might well have the inscription of Christ’s reply: “Deep versed in books, and shallow in himself/ Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys/ And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge”(IV. 327-329).  Modern readers are still torn asunder by Jesus’ dismissal of classical philosophy and culture.  Douglas Bush read into the passage the conquest of the puritan over the humanist.  In the seventeenth century, the enormous increase in production of books made it possible to buy books at low price.  We hear lamentation from Barnaby Rich and Robert Burton that the superabundant supply of books is the greatest malady of the age.[iv]  Books were regarded as useless junk, and in still life painting it was a symbol of futility.  Naturally, Jesus exalts above classical literature Hebrew one, which was inspired with true illumination.  Reading many books, of which there is no end, does not guarantee acquisition of wisdom.

     Finally Satan brings Jesus from the mountain to leave him in the desert.  He brings on the terrible storm and eerie apparitions to inspire Jesus with distrust toward God’s protection (the temptation of storm: IV.393-483).  Thus far is the second part of the whole temptations.  In no time Satan shows himself again in front of Jesus.  He demands to stand on a pinnacle of a temple in order to ascertain whether the Son of God simply refers to a man born out of God, the creator of all things on the earth, or has a special connotation as was prophesied in Paradise (IV. 499-559).

     Almost all the temptation scenes in the poem have their corresponding paintings and engravings of Milton’s contemporary Dutch still life.  The allegories of these works of art subtly admonish us for the indulgence in luxury above his means, the insipid devotion to God for preoccupation of glory and power on the earth, and the futility of avid accumulation of wealth and knowledge in terms of the soul’s salvation.  Those degraded aspects of human nature are sharply contrasted with everlasting faith in God.



3.   Prosperity and Moral Depravity


     One of the reasons the poem and the paintings bear these striking similarities both in visual form and morality is the readily recognized influence of rapid economic growth upon religio-ethical ideas.  In the historical backdrop of the still life lies the material wealth which resulted from prosperous commerce. With the successful independence from exploited Spain, the seventeenth-century Holland has become the commercial center of European economy.  It is by far the largest financial market to sway the monetary trend in Europe.  Dutch people have been enjoying the riches.  Even the commoners have made a large amount of investment to the paintings and the tulips.[v]  The independence from Spain also means Holland’ separation from Catholicism.  The theory of predestination in Calvinism, which is widely believed in Holland, drives people to measure personal salvation in terms of amount of material wealth or possessions.  One of the most popular themes of the sermons was that an accumulation of wealth through industry would ensure God’s salvation.  Wealth was considered as a sign of God’s elect: Abraham and Job were rich because they were God’s chosen people.  Unfortunately, people tend to worship wealth instead of God.    Satan in the poem is right as long as he insists that money should not be an end in itself nor separate aim of life.  The preachers always warned their audience of the danger of wealth, since it could easily instigate indulgent luxurious life.  They repeatedly gave the strongest warnings found in 1 Timothy 6:10.  Temperance against the seductively enticing lure of objects has become an indispensable virtue.  Wealth has the double nature: the sign of God’s favor and the temptation to moral depravity.

     The Netherlands’ commercial success caused resentment in England: Dutch “gives us the law at sea, and eate us out of all trade” (Sir Thomas Overbury).[vi]  Thomas Munn issued a call for competition with the Dutch.  England has suffered depressions for forty years prior to the Civil War.  But around 1640, The economy in England began to enjoy its rapid growth.  The reserve of gold, for example, has risen three times larger than that in the reign of Elizabeth.  During Cromwell’s government the deregulatory measures for the limitation of enclosure and the enforcement of Navigation Act encouraged more economic activities.  Metalworks had advanced from an artisan basis to large-scale production.  The commercialization of agricultural products had been rapidly going on, because the enclosure movement drove the farmers away from small peasant plots and communal lands.  The enjoyment of the riches has not become a privilege monopolized by Dutch.  English people like his neighboring country began to feel “the embarrassment of the riches.”

     Satan in Paradise Regained presents various objects out of nowhere.  Satan, all of a sudden, arouses luxurious food and charming ladies in the desert.  He also conjures up many kingdoms before Jesus’ eyes to show off their glory, splendor and force of arms.  With using a magical telescope he exhibits a sophisticated Roman world enjoying its wealth.  Moreover, his continuous display of exemplary incidences and heroes in the classical and the Biblical worlds underscores in what great extent acquiring land and wealth is indispensable for accomplishing Jesus’ mission.  Those things are hard to come by, but quite easy, once Jesus consents to kneel down to Satan: “All these, which in a moment thou behold'st, /The kingdoms of the world, to thee I give” (IV. 162-63).  Satan, like a great conjurer, spins objects one after another out of nowhere without doing appropriate labor.  Satan, like a glib salesman, knows how to handle orator’s techniques with consummate ease so that he never stops eloquently tempting him with a variety of alternative plans even when he is disturbed with Jesus’ refutations.  Satan, like a busy merchant, is restless with going to and from between the earth and the mid-air, resourceful in ideas without paying much attention to plagiarism or thievery, and active in putting those ideas into practice and spending all his energies on overwhelming Jesus.  As a result, even the third temptation, traditionally a trial of presumption to take advantage of God’s power for his own profit, takes place at a luxurious golden temple, which “far off appearing like a mount/ Of alabaster, top’t with golden spires”(IV. 547-48).  When we put this view in mind, Satan turns out to an evaluator who ascertains the real value of Jesus by extricating Jesus’ talent hidden in himself,.  Naturally, like a shrewd merchant who watches vigilantly for a change, he even persuades Jesus to trust in the economy of time: “on Occasion’s forelock watchful wait”(III. 173).

     The rapid growth of economy in the seventeenth-century Holland and England enabled people to pursue for money sanctioned as a reliable indicator of divine favor.  Wealth is, however, a web of temptation spun by Satan in which only the spiritual hero will not be entrapped.  Both still life painting and Paradise Regained teach favorable but sinful riches.


4.   Satan’s Double Figure: Prompter of Vanitas and Agent of Natura


     There is, however, a decisive difference between these two forms of arts, whatever similarity in their representations and their moral contents they might share with each other.  A clue to the difference is apparent in the fact that it is no other than Satan who conveys the moral message in the Dutch painting: “let pass, as they are transitory”(IV. 209).  In Dutch visual arts, clear recollection of vanitas, a key word characterizing the transience of earthly pleasures and achievements, works as a counteractive to restrain unbridled indulgence.  In Milton’s poem, on the other hand, it was Satan who instigated Jesus to take vanitas into consideration.

     Satan, after his consecutive failures with using things of vita activa, dismisses them as a form of vanity and the transitoriness of all things.  Satan’s dismissal might possibly be a rhetorical device to make Jesus flattered that he has made right choice.  It might also works as a shock absorber to admit that his previous offers are not worth biting.  In this way the demon persuades Jesus more convincingly than ever before that his next offer is the right choice.  We cannot take at a face value his dismissal, but the most prominent moral message in the painting is so inserted as to imply that further temptation is waiting even after the observance of that moral.  In the painting man’s strong instinctive hold on the earthly things and his obliviousness on transitoriness will prove his weakness in his nature.  Human attachment to mundane matters is considered a temptation through the corruption of human nature.  The keen awareness of vanity is enough to justify and support the way of man’s life.  But in Paradise Regained, the reader is expected to go further than mere awareness of vanity.

     The creation of wealth by means of Satan’s never-stopping speeches and dexterous skills does not necessarily arouse pleasure in our mind, nor arouse admiration.    We enjoy ourselves watching the magic, though we are aware that the conjurers make the most of the tricks that we cannot detect.  In the magic, the deceived are willing to be cheated for a while to forget his daily value system and the deceiver gives a pleasure. 

Satan’s true character as an opponent to God’s rule and man’s welfare has been unmasked from the beginning of the poem.  Our empathy with Satan is checked so as not to increase, though not in the way Paradise Lost works.  In the grand epic, the narrator described enchanting scenes and made the characters present convincing speeches so that the readers began to feel committed to those scenes and speeches.  Immediately after the readers felt strong sympathy, the narrator intervened to give warnings to them and restrict their sympathy.  This sympathy-checking narrative method was used in the contemporary sermons as “good temptations.”[vii]  In this brief poem, however, the narrator is supervising from the beginning of the poem so that no sympathy with Satan and his colleagues might not arouse in the reader’s mind. 


In the magic, in general, this assumption is so shaken and twisted that the gap between the assumption and its warped phenomena causes our innocent laughter.  But here in the poem

Moreover, Jesus plays the role of a prosecutor to point out what tricks are hidden behind Satan’s plausible speeches.  Jesus’ eminence proceeds from a series of identification of the Biblical texts with their definitive meanings.  The Bible itself is a book of innumerable contrarieties, which in one way of reading affords a body of systematic view and in another also affords a contradictory view.  This characteristics, however logical an argument on any texts from the Scripture might be, may leave room for total different explanations.  However, in this poem, because the speaker is Jesus, the ultimate authority over the text, a message of the Bible is always solidified with a particular meaning within a determined structure.  Jesus in the poem levels off many variegated layers of connotations in the Biblical texts with his own authority.  In the whole process of the confrontation with Satan, he has never let the meaning of a passage remain hanging in midair.  His authoritative propositions are all in line with the absolute frames of reference that man’s value is dependent upon inner man, not outer man, and God appoints time, and the Creator’s grace constantly circulates through the creature’s gratitude toward the Creator.  H He thrusts under Satan’s nose the immovable fact that the storm and the phantoms are created as fakes by Satan.  He opposes against