Satan opens the debate in Pandemonium by claiming that Heaven is not yet lost, and that the fallen angels (or devils) might rise up stronger in another battle if they work together. He opens the floor, and the pro-war devil Moloch speaks first. Moloch was one of the fiercest fighters in the war in Heaven, and he anxiously pleads for another open war, this time armed with the weapons of Hell. He reasons that nothing, even their destruction, could be worse than Hell, and so they have nothing to lose by another attack. Belial speaks up to contradict him. He eloquently offers calm reason to counter Moloch’s fiery temper, and claims that God has not yet punished them as fiercely as he might if they went to war with him again. After all, they are no longer chained to the fiery lake, which was their previous and worse punishment; since God may one day forgive them, it is better that they live with what they now have. But peace is not really what he advocates; rather, Belial uses his considerable intelligence to find excuses to prevent further war and to advocate lassitude and inaction. Mammon speaks up next, and refuses to ever bow down to God again. He prefers to peacefully advance their freedom and asks the devils to be industrious in Hell. Through hard work, the devils can make Hell their own kingdom to mimic Heaven. This argument meets with the greatest support among the legions of the fallen, who receive his suggestion with applause.
Quiet falls upon the crowd as the respected Beelzebub begins to speak. He also prefers freedom to servitude under God, but counsels a different course of action than those previously advocated. Apparently, he says, rumors have been circulating in Heaven about a new world that is to be created, to be filled with a race called Man, whom God will favor more than the angels. Beelzebub advises, at Satan’s secret behest, that they seek their revenge by destroying or corrupting this new beloved race. The rest of the devils agree and vote unanimously in favor of this plan. They must now send a scout to find out about this new world, and in a feat of staged heroics, Satan volunteers himself.
While the other devils break into groups to discuss the outcome of the debate and to build other structures, Satan flies off to find Hell’s gate. When he approaches, he sees that it is actually nine gates—three each of brass, iron, and adamantine—and that two strange shapes stand guard in front. One looks like a woman down to her waist, but below has the form of a serpent, with a pack of howling dogs around her waist. The other is only a dark shape. Satan chooses to confront the shape, demanding passage through the gates. They are about to do battle when the woman-beast cries out. She explains to Satan who she and her companion are and how they came to be, claiming that they are in fact Satan’s own offspring. While Satan was still an angel, she sprang forth from his head, and was named Sin. Satan then incestuously impregnated her, and she gave birth to a ghostly son named Death. Death in turn raped his mother Sin, begetting the dogs that now torment her. Sin and Death were then assigned to guard the gate of Hell and hold its keys.
Apparently, Satan had forgotten these events. Now he speaks less violently to them and explains his plot against God. After Satan’s persuasion, they are more than eager to help him. Sin unlocks the great gates, which open into the vast dark abyss of night. Satan flies out but then begins to fall, until a cloud of fire catches and carries him. He hears a great tumult of noise and makes his way toward it; it is Chaos, ruler of the abyss. Chaos is joined by his consort Night, with Confusion, Discord and others at their side. Satan explains his plan to Chaos as well. He asks for help, saying that in return he will reclaim the territory of the new world, thus returning more of the universe to disorder. Chaos agrees and points out the way to where the Earth has recently been created. With great difficulty, Satan moves onward, and Sin and Death follow far behind, building a bridge from Hell to Earth on which evil spirits can travel to tempt mortals.
Just as Book I may be seen as a parody of military heroism, the devils’ debate in Book II can be read as a parody of political debate. Their nonviolent and democratic decision to wreak the destruction of humankind shows the corruption of fallen reason, which can make evil appear as good. Milton depicts the devils’ organization ironically, as if he were commending it. Satan, for example, diplomatically urges others “to union, and firm faith, and firm accord,” making Hell’s newly formed government sound legitimate and powerful when it is in fact grossly illegitimate and powerless (II.36). It is possible that Milton here satirizes politicians and political debates in general, not just corrupt politicians. Certainly, Milton had witnessed enough violent political struggles in his time to give him cause to demonize politicians as a species. Clearly, the debate in Hell weighs only different evils, rather than bringing its participants closer to truth.
This scene also demonstrates Milton’s cynicism about political institutions and organizations. The devils’ behavior suggests that political power tends to corrupt individuals who possess it. Even learned politicians, as Belial is here in Book II, who possess great powers of reason and intellectual discourse, have the power to deceive the less-educated public. In his other writings, Milton argues that political and religious organizations have the potential to do evil things in the name of order and union. After the debate in Hell is concluded, the object of parody shifts to philosophers and religious thinkers. Following the debate, the devils break into groups, some of which continue to speak and argue without any resolution or amenable conclusion. Similar debates over the sources of evil and of political authority were fiercely contested in Milton’s time. Milton calls the devils’ discussions “vain wisdom all, and false philosophy,” a criticism which he extends in his other writings to the words of the religious leaders of his time (II.565).
After Beelzebub takes the floor, it becomes clear that the caucus has been a foregone conclusion. Satan lets the sides rhetorically engage each other before he announces through Beelzebub the plan he had all along. Satan and Beelzebub conspire to win the argument, and do, without any of the other devils recognizing the fraud. Satan’s volunteering to be the scout then silences all possible dissent, since he is heralded as the leader of Hell. Here again is a parody of Hell mimicking Heaven: Satan offers to sacrifice himself for the good of the other devils, in a twisted imitation of Christ. The parallel is made even more blatant when Sin cries out to Satan at the gate of Hell: “O father, what intends thy hand . . . against thy only son?” (II.727–728). Sin’s statement foreshadows how God will send his only Son to die, for the good of the humankind. Satan believes he is free, and both Belial and Mammon celebrate the freedom of the devils even in Hell, and yet we see that they have no power to do anything except distort Heavenly things, twisting them into evil, empty imitations.
Satan’s encounter with Sin and Death is an allegory, in which the three characters and their relationships represent abstract ideas. Sin is the first child of Satan, brought to life by Satan’s disobedience. Since Satan is the first of God’s creations to disobey, he personifies disobedience, and the fact that Sin is his daughter suggests that all sins arise from disobedience and ingratitude toward God. To those who behold her birth, she is first frightening but then seems strangely attractive, suggesting the seductive allure of sin to the ordinary individual. Sin dwells alone and in utter torment, representing the ultimate fate of the sinner. That Death is Sin’s offspring indicates Milton’s belief that death is not simply a biological fact of life but rather a punishment for sin and disobedience, a punishment that nobody escapes.