Sunday, June 06, 2010


An analysis of John Milton's 'Paradise Lost'

By The Erudite Redneck
for a seminary class

1. What is the central theme of the book?

The central theme of John Milton’s Paradise Lost seems to be God’s determination to love the humanity he has created, whether that meant the originally intended couple or their descendants through the ages, and God’s determination to keep providing a means for relationship. “Determination” could be too strong a word, however, considering God’s apparent readiness to let free will take its course: The woman and Adam chose unwisely, and so either humanity must die or Justice must perish. It is a complicated love, to be sure: In Milton, the Son volunteers to go and die in humanity’s stead, to still the Father’s hand from killing humanity off. The Son thereby defeats the Death humanity deserves and thwarts Satan’s plans to ruin humanity. It galls Satan, whose very rebellion was sparked by God’s appointment of the preexisting Son to a position of equality with God. A further nuance to the theme is that the Son’s love and willingness to die in humanity’s place is rooted in the Son’s love for the Father, and not simply his own love for humanity. In other words, the Son steps up to save humanity for the Father’s sake as much as for the sake of humanity. This theme raises Christological questions and issues surrounding the meaning of the Trinity, but as with the rest of Paradise Lost, the fleshing out of characters and intentions left inadequately contextualized in the Scriptures, to me, enriches the sense that there is more to the words than meets the eye.

2. Where does the author position himself in the narrative?

Milton selected the epic poem over other forms to deliver this message to an audience of English Protestants who knew his work. The selection suggests that he intended readers to interpret the narrator in Paradise Lost as a kind of ventriloquist for Milton. Within the work itself, the narrator starts out praying for wisdom to write a great work unlike any penned before. Milton’s narrator, then, is also an author, another hint that readers should hear Milton’s own voice. He also is a narrator of narrators, a sort of host for all the storytellers who follow. He converses at times with characters as they appear, coming in and out of the narrative to tie together sections and ideas as he, and Milton, deem necessary. It seems at first to be a haphazard literary device, but occasionally the chief narrator’s overt appearance in the story is as effective at drawing in the reader or hammering home a point as an actor in a film suddenly looking directly at the camera and drawing in a viewer.

3. Where do you see reformation influences – politically, ecclesially or theologically?

Politically: The whole idea of Satan leading rebellious angels in a revolution in the Kingdom of Heaven has to be informed by the Protestant nobles who rebelled against the Roman church and Catholic monarchies in the name of Christian freedom. That Milton, a Protestant, places Satan in the role of rebel chieftain, espousing republican ideas no less, seems odd, if not scandalous, and certainly was provocative. It still is. On the other hand, Milton’s disgust with monarchy could very well have extended as far as the metaphor of God’s “kingdom.” Further, putting Satan in the position of fighting for “liberty” itself could be seen as a faint indictment of free will run to the extremes and radical reformers who would cast off all government, even the Parliament, not just the crown.
Ecclesially: Milton compares Satan’s sneaking into the Garden to Satan’s allies’ later infiltration of the Church: “So clomb this first grand Thief into God’s fold: So since into his Church lewd hirelings climb” (Paradise Lost [1674 ed.] and Selected Poetry and Prose, intro. Northrop Frye, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1951, Book 4: 192-193, p. 85). Milton holds up the marriage bed as a holy place for honest love-making, in a swipe at priestly celibacy: “Far be it that I should write thee sin or blame, or think thee unbefitting holiest place, perpetual fountain of domestic sweets, whose bed is undefiled and chaste pronounced, present, or past, as saints and patriarchs used” (Book 4: 758-762, p. 100). Raphael, talking to Adam, compares heaven to the physical medium that carried the reformation far and wide from its origins, the book: “To ask or search I blame thee not; for heaven is as the Book of God before thee set, wherein to read his wondrous works, and learn his seasons, hours, or days, or months, or years” Book 8: 66-69, p. 180).

Theologically: God says some people will be saved if they want to be saved, but because he enables them to want to, that is, by his Grace they will want to, which Catholics would say abrogates free will: “Man shall not quite be lost, but saved who will; yet not of will in him, but Grace in me freely vouchsafed. Once more I will renew his lapsed powers, though forfeit, and enthralled by sin to foul exorbitant desires: Upheld by me, yet once more he shall stand on even ground against his mortal foe, by me upheld, that he may know how frail his fallen condition is, and to me owe all his deliverance, and to none but me” (Book 3: 173-182, p. 63). Immediately following is an explicit reference to the Elect, a nod to Calvin.

4. Where do you find instances of social satire?

Milton mocks those who build great edifices – great churches? – and are so proud of themselves for it, as well as those who are so impressed with them, which could be the Roman church or monarchs and the wealthy in general: “And here let those who boast in mortal things, and wondering tell of Babel, and the works of Memphian kings learn how their greatest monuments of fame and strength, and art, are easily out-done by Sprits reprobate, and in an hour what in an age they, with incessant toil and hands innumerable, scarce perform” (Book 1:692-699, p. 24). Milton mocks the rich again by depicting Mammon, although in Satan’s service, as advising against war against God and his angels because stirring up trouble would disrupt the order and complacency that wealth prefers, because, after all, “what can Heaven show more?” (Book 2: 273, p. 35). Milton, with civil war still ringing in his and his readers’ ears, mocks war itself in light of how Satan and his followers came to agreement so readily and still wait hungrily for humanity’s destruction: “O shame to men! Devil with devil damned firm concord holds; men only disagree of creatures rational, though under hope of heavenly grace, and, God proclaiming peace, yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife among themselves, and levy cruel wars wasting the earth, each other to destroy: as if (which might induce us to accord) man had not hellish foes enow besides, that day and night for his destruction wait!” (Book 2: 496-505, p. 41-42).

5. How are moral dilemmas addressed? Resolved?

Adam faced a moral dilemma between the time the woman ate of the fruit and his own decision to do likewise. His dilemma was over love and divided loyalties, whether to accept the ruin of his relationship with her or to join her in sin and sully his relationship with God. Adam resolved his dilemma by rebelling against God – while at the same time rebelling into the woman. And so they both were together, but in rebellion. For the reader, in Milton’s time as well as ours, a moral dilemma is presented in Satan’s claims to seeking liberty in the face of what he insists is an unfair royal system in heaven, and God’s resignation to humanity’s fate absent the Son’s eventual volunteering to make things right. The resolution here comes in the form of Satan’s exposure as a selfish fraud and God’s joy over the work of the Son to save humanity. Finally, the whole crux of the matter, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil presents, to me, the mother of all moral dilemmas: Why is inquisitiveness a sin? As Milton has Satan say, “Knowledge forbidden? Suspicious, reasonless! Why should their Lord envy them that? Can it be sin to know? Can it be death? And do they only stand by ignorance? Is that their happy state, the proof of their obedience and their faith?” (Book 4: 513-520). For Adam, resolution had come earlier, from Raphael, who emphasized Adam’s free will: “God made thee perfect, not immutable; and good he made thee; but to persevere he left it in thy power – ordained thy will by nature free, not over-ruled by fate inextricable, or strict necessity” (Book 5: 524-528). In other words, Adam was more advised against eating than commanded not to eat. For the reader, in Milton’s time and now, resolution of the dilemma in any advice against gaining “knowledge” comes with the realization that rather than simply “knowledge,” or even “knowledge of good and evil,” the advice not to eat was a warning against self knowledge – Adam and the woman knew their nakedness, representing their helplessness before their Creator, only after defying him – which at once did make them “Godlike” in their knowledge of themselves yet cost them the Godlike attributes with which they were created. For the reader, then, resolution comes with the first couple’s very act of defiance: In striving to be like God, they lost their Godliness, which both explains why they were advised against eating and presents a cautionary tale for all times.

6. What truths are revealed?

Among other subjective thoughts … Milton brings out the truth that strength does not equal righteousness and evil, eventually, will be silenced: “For strength from truth divided, and from just, illaudable, nought merits but dispraise and ignominy, yet to glory aspires, vain-glorious, and through infamy seeks fame: Therefore eternal silence be their doom” (Book 6: 381-385). To me, Milton brings out the depths of the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, and the promise that, as the Son says to the Father, “in the end, Thou shalt be all in all, and I in thee for ever, and in me all whom thou lov’st” (Book 6: 631-633). Milton illuminates the power of temptation, the role of imagination in it, and the allure of the unknown in his depiction of the woman eating with “such delight till then as seemed, in fruit she never tasted, whether true or fancied so through expectation high of knowledge” (Book 9: 787-789). Finally, Milton brings out twin results of sin, increased knowledge but decreased wisdom, in his depiction of the revelations that came to both Adam and Eve after they ate: They “soon found their eyes how opened and their minds how darkened. Innocence, that as a veil had shadowed them from knowing ill, was gone; Just confidence, and native righteousness, and honour, from about them, naked left to guilty shame” (Book 9: 1053-1058).


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