Notes on Milton’s Paradise Lost and Found.
We are now 401 years after Milton’s birth in 1608. For perspective, note that Shakespeare lived approximately 1564-1616. Eleven volume series of all Milton’s works is come out, edited by Thomas Corns and Gordon Campbell
Paradise Lost, is a dilation on a moment in Genesis, written by a blind man who had fallen into “evil days”, with respectable people saying awful things about him, and calling for his arrest.
He names Satan’s palace Pandemonium – “all the demons”.
In his defense of free speech published earlier –“Areopagitica” – the title alludes to an Attic assembly or court – he compares Truth to the broken body of Osiris. We can never know Truth until the Messiah comes; therefore we must all search in every way we can, each for himself. Compare this to the Arthurian epic Search for the Holy Grail. Censorship can play no role in the Search for Truth.
Milton’s unrelenting optimism runs through all of his writing, even as he faced personal conflict and limns the tragedy of The Fall. With an explosive imagination, and cool statecraft, he marches with martial vigor into the war with Evil, hunting for the jewel in the head of the ugliest toad, and prefiguring the Nietzschean reduction “That which fails to kill me, makes me stronger”. Milton says “That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.” This, during a time of terrifying anarchy, the world that also produced Hobbes’ “Leviathan”.
Milton was Unitarian. Did not see the Son of God as the same as God or part of a Trinity. In Paradise Lost, he places the Son at the Creation, as a Son, a competitor of Satan.
The question he poses in Paradise Lost – how did things go so wrong – starts back to the moment that Adam and Eve (“our first parents”) ate the apple and brought “death into the world, all our woe”. Note the way he bring us all in – “our” parents, “our” woe. Then he steps back before Adam and Eve, in the tale within the tale, to the narrative of Lucifer who grows jealous of the promotion of God’s Son to the position of Messiah. Lucifer organizes a revolt, loses, and is “hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky With hideous ruin and combustion down to bottomless perdition”. Cast into Hell with his many followers.
In Milton’s view, God creates earth with its “images” of Himself, to make up for the angelic absence. Then Satan, hearing of the new toy, determines to take it by cunning for himself and his demon horde. The theme of the plotting failed revolutionaries echoes the bitter irony of Milton’s role as apologist for the Puritans, and his support for the regicide. Place and power is what is “lost” in the personal Paradise.
Satan seems charismatic as a leader of minions, although a tortured soul, slinking away in shame after seducing Eve. Milton’s God is dull, fixed, and sends Gabriel to do his fighting. Gabriel of course, does it badly, and fails to protect Eve and the earth from the demon snare. Gabriel does some trash-talking, threatening Satan, who in turn calls him a “limitary Cherub”. Perhaps our next Milton hankering to explore an unforgivable tragedy should write the epic of Gabriel.
Milton shows great compassion for mankind. Adam and Eve are holding hands in the garden basking in love when we first meet them, and we leave them exiled to a fallen world, again holding hands together. Milton says he set out to justify the ways of God to men, but he ends up defending human dignity to God. The freedom to fail – here Milton rejects mainstream Puritanism (moving directly to the center of Unitarianism) with its predestination.
My mother once listened rather openly to a socio-biological narrative of how individual decision-making is reducible to chemistry. Animal instinct and knee-jerk reactions are locked into the molecular structures of ganglia and brain capacity. The uber-train of “choice” actually runs on a double-helix rail. Once she realized the story led to a kind of determinism, however morphological, she reacted viscerally, strongly rejecting any suggestion that human beings do not have unfettered free choice. When I suggested that her response was a possible predisposition rising from her Miltonian Christianity, not to mention its consistency with her chemistry, she did not see the ironic humor. The idea of choice playing a necessary role in salvation, the idea that choice asserts itself, remains fixed in certain minds, even long after other beliefs have shifted.
This concept of individual freedom is also at the heart of the relationship between Adam and Eve. Adam alone was warned about Satan, and sought to husband Eve by having her near. His very act of trying to protect her – and it is fair to observe she never understood From What? – moved her to seek her own solitude. He will not relent and let her go off by herself until she argues that she must have freedom, even at the risk of harm: “What is faith, love, virtue unassayed?”
Adam praises her logic. They both recognize that she is right about the importance of being exposed to the risks of being wrong. Once alone, Eve is immediately tricked by the snake, and is condemned to die. Adam then chooses to take his bite of the forbidden fruit and fall with her. He would rather die with her than live alone: “To lose thee were to lose myself.”
Milton’s depiction of the Son of God at the Creation, is one of the first attempts to create a coherency between the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament. And we see the nature of evil – a despondent Devil having no hope of a happy home, devoting himself to destroying the lives of others.
Milton died still revising Paradise Lost in 1674. Hounded by calumny and accusation to the end, and facing poverty, the plague, intellectual isolation, loneliness, and his own demons. But he left us with the greatest work of epic verse in the English tongue. And it rings with hope and imagination.
Things go terribly wrong. It's not just YOU, your life. The planet. The universe. The "broken-ness" of the Osiris body. The lack of Judgment or Justice. So... celebrate! There is not a moment to lose!
- Did Socrates say "Know Thyself", or was he misunderstood, as all are. Show Thyself is all we can do. The knowing is unknowable. I am filled with joy. It can't be helped.
Became a Farmer, Builder, Musician, Tank Commander, Librarian, Lawyer and Minister. I have failed at many things. And now retired. Filled, just filled, with Joy.