This morning I finished reading another selection assigned in Religion and Theology, Reading Plan 4 of Encyclopedia Britannica’s The Great Ideas Program—Books I-III of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. This was at least my third encounter with Paradise Lost, my having studied it or part of it in grade XIII or first year of university (in 1955-56 or 56-57, I can’t remember which) and my having read it when working through The Great Ideas Program sometime after being given The Great Books of the Western World in 1967. The Great Ideas Program considers the whole poem in Reading Plan 7, Imaginative Literature II.
Of Milton and Paradise Lost, Encyclopedia Britannica says: “John Milton stands next to Shaekespeare among English poets; his writings and his influence are a very important part of the history of English literature, culture, and libertarian thought. He is best known for his long epic poem Paradise Lost, in which his ‘grand style’ is used with superb power; its characterization of Satan is one of the supreme achievements of world literature.” (Encyclopedia Britannica: The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 12, page 204)
Books I-III of Paradise Lost concern Satan’s plan to bring about the fall of man and are a good companion to our recent family reading about man’s fall in Finis Jennings Dake ‘s God’s Plan for Man (https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2019/07/25/the-dispensation-of-innocence-the-fall/). In Religion and Theology Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain introduce Paradise Lost; consider how Satan, God, and the Son are pictured in Books I-III of it; and discuss five questions about the three books. Here I’ll sketch Milton’s life, summarize what Adler and Cain say about Paradise Lost, and pose the five questions which they discuss.
John Milton was born in London, England, on December 9, 1608. His father, who had been disinherited by his father when he converted to Anglicanism, was a successful scrivener. Milton was educated at home and at St. Paul’s School. He took to studies with a zeal, saying later, “From my twelfth year I scarcely went to bed before midnight, which was the first cause of injury to my eyes.” At the age of seventeen he entered Cambridge, where he worked diligently and by the time that he received his MA degree in 1632 had won recognition and esteem. Abandoning his original plan of entering the service of the Church, he spent the next six years with his father, studying classical literature, history, mathematics, and music. Then he spent fifteen months travelling in France and Italy, where he was widely received. He returned to England in 1639, settled in a house in London, and began taking in students.
In 1642 Milton, who was 33, married Mary Powell, the 17-year-old daughter of a Royalist squire. After a few weeks she returned home, but two years later she came back. They had three daughters and a son died in infancy before she died in childbirth in 1654. In the year that she left him Milton wrote The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce asserting that marriage being a “private matter” could be dissolved in cases of incompatibility. Because he published it without a license, proceedings were instituted against him. He responded with Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, published the following year without a license.
After his wife’s death in 1654 Milton’s personal life was lonely. Totally blind at the time of her death, he was dependent on his daughters, who resented and neglected him. In 1656 he married Katherine Woodcock, who died in childbirth less than a year later. Then in 1663 he married the young and amiable Elizabeth Minshull. She brightened his life, which was passed in quiet study tempered with music and the company of friends. He died from complications of the gout on November 8, 1674, and was buried in St. Giles Cripplegate Church in London.
Milton was a prolific writer. While still at Cambridge he wrote “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” and while with his father he wrote the companion poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso”; the masques Arcades and Comus; and an elegy for a college friend who had drowned in a shipwreck, “Lycidas.” (He wrote many other works while at Cambridge and with his father, but these are the most famous.) He returned to England with plans for an Arthurian epic, but for 1641-60 (a period including the English Civil Wars and government by the Commonwealth under Cromwell and ending with the restoration of the monarchy) devoted himself almost wholly to writing pamphlets in the cause of religious and civil liberty. He became totally blind in the winter of 1651-52, the great poem still unwritten.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 Milton was arrested and heavily fined for his writing on behalf of Cromwell and the Commonwealth, but he was released after a short while. At the age of fifty-two, after nineteen years of stormy political activity, he turned again to the studious and literary pursuits of his youth. To this last period of his life belong his greatest poetic achievements—Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671)—and a miscellany of scholarly and historical works.
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden…
(Encyclopedia Britannica: Great Books of the Western World, 1952, volume 32, page 93)
Thus Milton introduces Paradise Lost, in which he tells the story of Genesis 3. In doing so he imagines scenes that are not in Genesis. Like Paul, he presents the story of the fall in light of the crucifixion of Jesus, which he sees as atonement for and redemption from man’s original sin. He also introduces many pagan and mythological allusions that are out of date with regard to the story in Genesis. Moreover he introduces a Devil (Satan) and demons that are not in the Biblical account; those devils have definite names and characters and add colour to his story. [Adler and Cain note that you must read the whole poem to get the full sweep of Milton’s rendition of the story of Genesis 3, but they say that their discussion of its first three books will help get you started. I’ll consider the whole poem when doing Reading Plan 7 of The Great Ideas Program.]
The first three books of Paradise Lost describe the journey of Satan from the depths of Hell, where he has been cast for leading a rebellion against God, to Earth to tempt God’s new creation, man. Satan dominates this part of the poem, having more speeches and being displayed more forcefully than any other character. His opening speech to Beelzebub sets the stage:
“…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?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me.…” (ibid., pages 95-96)
Satan’s mood is that he has just lost a battle and the war is to be continued. He gathers his chiefs together and proposes that they carry on the fight. He urges that they do it by guile rather than by war and they agree. He then offers to go alone on a mission to discover the new world and subvert man and they bow to his will.
Satan finds the gates of Hell guarded by a woman-serpent and a shapeless monster. The monster challenges Satan, who prepares to give it battle. However the woman-serpent tells Satan that the monster is their son, she being Sin and the monster being Death. Satan pleads with them to let him through the gates of Hell, promising them freedom and prosperity on Earth. They let him through and he begins the hard and risky journey to Earth.
From His throne the Father and the Son see the bliss of Adam and Eve in Paradise and Satan speeding to put an end to it. In their conversation the Father distinguishes Satan’s purposeful sin through self-temptation, which is unforgivable, and Adam’s sin through being tempted, which is forgivable. The Son urges mercy for man, but the Father answers that man cannot by his own power redeem himself from sin and so is utterly condemned unless someone suffers vicariously for him. The Son offers to do so.
The Father hails the Son as the new Adam and the redeemer of the world, proclaiming:
“And be thyself man among men on Earth,
Made flesh, when time shall be, of virgin seed,
By wondrous birth; be thou in Adam’s room
The head of all mankind, though Adam’s son.
As in him perish all men, so in thee,
As from a second root, shall be restored
As many as are restored, without thee none.”
(Ibid., page 141)
The Father goes on to say that the Son will be judged and die, will rise (and with him his ransomed brothers), and will rule over the universe until the final judgment. A hosanna by the heavenly host of angels follows.
Questions about the Reading
1. Is Satan like Prometheus? (See https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/1-aeschyluss-prometheus-bound/)
2. Is Satan’s fall analogous to Adam’s?
3. Why are sin and death linked in Milton and in the Bible?
4. Why is the portrait of Satan so much more vivid than that of God and the Son?
5. What is Milton’s portrait of Christ in this poem?