Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2252
After the vision of Noah and the destruction of the world by flood, Michael pauses for a moment to give Adam an opportunity to ask further questions. Since he does not respond, Michael hurries on to resume the story of human history, but instead of showing the events he will now tell about them.
With the judgment of God by flood still fresh in their minds, Noah’s descendants live righteous and peaceful lives, Michael says, until Nimrod, ambitious for power, rises up in rebellion to God. To make a name for himself that will be remembered throughout the world, he gathers a crew to help him build the Tower of Babel “whose top may reach to Heaven.” It is made from brick and the bituminous elements that boil onto the plain from the mouth of Hell. Before the tower is completed, however, God intervenes, confusing their native language so that the builders cannot communicate. Feeling mocked by God, they angrily leave the ridiculous tower unfinished.
Displeased with his descendant, Adam criticizes Nimrod for usurping the authority of God who has given Man dominion over beast, fish, and fowl but has not made him lord over other men. Adam is appalled at the insolence of a wretched man who would think that he could encroach upon Heaven and defy God. He argues that the air is too thin above the clouds, and there is no food to sustain men at that height. Michael replies that Adam’s accusation of Nimrod is justified, but he must remember that “rational liberty” along with “right reason” was lost after the fall, and men and government are often controlled by their passions. Sometimes nations become tyrannical as is the case with the “irreverent son” of Noah, Ham, whose people and their succeeding generations are cursed to become a race of servants.
The world goes “from bad to worse” until God, weary of people’s immorality, resolves to leave them to their own wicked ways and focus his attention on “a mighty nation,” Israel, that springs from “one faithful man,” Abraham. His race is blessed with the seed that will produce the “great Deliverer, who shall bruise/ The Serpent’s head,” Michael says, but this will be revealed to Adam more clearly at another time.
Moses is later sent by God to deliver his people out of captivity in Egypt and into the promised land. Extending his rod over the Red Sea Moses with God’s power, parts the sea and the Israelites march safely through on dry land to Canaan on the other side. The Egyptians, led by Pharaoh, follow in pursuit but are swallowed up by the sea as Moses bids the waters return. The Israelites found their government in the wilderness, and Moses establishes the Ten Commandments, ordained by God on Mount Sinai, as their laws. A tabernacle is built to house the ark containing the testimony of God’s covenant “promised to Abraham and his seed.”
Adam replies that he now sees how all the nations will be blessed through Abraham, but he still does not understand why so many laws are needed. Many laws indicate sins, and he wonders how God can tolerate such sinful people. Michael tells Adam that the laws govern them only until they can move “from inposition of strict laws, to free/ Acceptance of large grace.” It is, therefore, not Moses who leads his people into Canaan, Michael says, but Joshua, who comes later. Judges and kings then rule the Israelites, and from the royal stock of King David, the “Woman’s Seed” will produce a kingdom without end. David’s son Solomon, famous for his wealth and wisdom, builds a “glorious temple” where he places the Ark of the Covenant. The “foul idolatries” of Solomon’s subjects “so incense God,” however, that he allows them to be taken to Babylon and held in captivity for 70 years. Upon return, they live moderately for a few years, but dissension, starting among the priests, soon grows among them, and they lose the kingdom to foreign powers. “Barred of his right” to inherit the royal kingdom, the Messiah is born of a virgin, and his Sire is the “Power of the Most High.”
Adam now understands God’s divine promise concerning the future “Seed of Woman” but is still confused about “what stroke shall bruise the Victor’s heel.” Michael tells him the Serpent is not overcome in a duel with Christ. Satan’s head is not literally trampled under Christ’s heel, but, metaphorically speaking, Christ bruises the head of Satan by rising from the dead and in this way crushes his strength by defeating Sin and Death. Through his death on the cross, Christ pays the ransom for Adam’s sin which brought Death into the world, Michael says. Ironically, he is “slain for bringing life” to mankind.
Christ is raised from the dead and enters Heaven to sit at God’s right hand. In the last days he will judge the living and the dead and reward the faithful. At that time this Earth will be a far happier Paradise than the present Eden. Adam responds joyfully, praising God that so much good can come out of evil, but wonders what happens to the faithful followers of Christ left on Earth after His ascension into Heaven. Michael tells him they have been persecuted, but God sends his Spirit to guide them to truth as faith works through love in their hearts and gives them power “to resist/ Satan’s assaults.” The Holy Spirit is first given to the Apostles and then to all who are baptized. When the Apostles die, corrupt priests take over as teachers and, like sly wolves, pervert the truth of the Scriptures with man-made traditions. Those who persevere, worshipping in Spirit and in Truth, bear “heavy persecution.” The world will go on like this until the day that the wicked will be avenged and the just rewarded with eternal life.
Adam feels he has all the knowledge he can absorb and is comforted by the fact that he will now leave Paradise with peace of mind. He has learned that “to obey is best,” and he must continue to love the only true God. “Suffering for truth’s sake” is the “highest victory” and to those who remain faithful, Death is the gate to eternal life. Michael commends him for attaining “the sum/ Of wisdom.” If he adds faith, virtue, patience, temperance, and love to his knowledge, he will not mind leaving Paradise, for he will possess a Paradise within himself.
As they descend from the hill, they find Eve awake and well-rested. God has given her a comforting dream in which she “the Promised seed shall all restore.” They are now ready to leave Paradise as the Cherubim stand watch, and God’s brandished sword blazes like a comet high in front of them. Michael takes each of them by the hand, leading them through the eastern gate and down the cliff to the plain and then disappears. “Looking back,” Adam and Eve shed “some natural tears” as they “through Eden took their solitary way.”
The dramatic structure of the last two books of Paradise Lost is considered the denouement or the unraveling of the plot of the narrative. After the climax, the fall of Adam and Eve in Book IX, the final books give Adam a vivid clarification and a necessary perspective of the dire consequences of his fall. Michael has used the device of visions in Book XI to drive home to Adam the far-reaching extent of the misery and suffering in a sinful world. He now shifts to a strictly narrative approach, changing his emphasis from a “world destroyed” to a “world restored.” Adam’s moral instruction must necessarily include hope for his lost condition to prepare him for his expulsion from Paradise. He comes to a full understanding of that hope when Michael helps him realize that it is Christ’s resurrection that crushes the Serpent’s head by defeating Sin and Death. He sees the significance of his own role in God’s master plan of redemption when he finally comprehends the lineage of Christ.
yet from my loins
Thou (Virgin Mother) shalt proceed,
and from thy womb the Son
Of God Most High; so God with Man unites.
Michael’s education of Adam accomplishes God’s intent for Adam and Eve; to send them out of Paradise “though sorrowing, yet in peace” (P. L., XI, 117). Adam himself verifies this. “Greatly instructed I shall hence depart,/ Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill/ Of knowledge.”
After the destruction of the world by flood, Michael says, Noah’s descendants, still living in fear of God’s judgment, lead their lives peacefully and productively. One man, “a mighty hunter,” soon rises up in rebellion against God, however, building a tower “whose top may reach to Heaven.” This alludes to the Scriptures. “He began to be a mighty one in the earth . . . Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel” (Genesis 10:9–10). Nimrod, who built the Tower of Babel, was also building a powerful empire and held men in “subjection to his empire tyrannous.” Many commentators see Milton’s contemporary reference to Charles I in the story of Nimrod.
Or from Heaven claiming second sovranty;
And from rebellion shall derive his name,
Though of rebellion others he accuse.
By claiming to receive his divine authority from God, the tyrant (Charles I) not only rebel falsely but also accuses the leaders of the Puritan Revolution of rebellion. Milton is sure to point out that Nimrod was dealt with by God just as he will deal with tyrants of his own time who attempt to destroy Man’s liberty. He punctuates this idea through Adam. Remembering God’s earlier injunction before the fall, Adam says that God has given authority over beast, fish, and fowl, “but man over men/ He made not lord.” This type of tyranny can only be attributed to the fall, Michael says.
After Christ’s ascension into Heaven, the Holy Spirit is sent to the Apostles to evangelize the nations. They baptize people and after they have performed Christ’s ministry, they die. In their place “Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves.” The metaphor of “wolves” as clergymen is Milton’s reference to the corruption of the Anglican as well as the Catholic church. Michael lists their many hypocritical practices. Priests and clergymen have held to traditions rather than the truths of the Scriptures; they have concerned themselves with their own positions and titles; they have used secular power under the guise of spiritual power to quiet dissenters; and the “Spirit of Grace itself” is bound by the observance of ritual in the church. These were all points that Milton had touched on in his earlier writings. The passage alludes to the condition of the Anglican church in the wake of the Protestant Reformation which had already become corrupt and ritualistic by the seventeenth century. When Milton writes about “secular power, though feigning still to act/ By spiritual,” we are reminded of the political power of Archbishop Laud whose suppressive practices in the Anglican church were given complete support by Charles I.
Michael finishes his account of the “world restored” in which Christ will reward the faithful ones and create for them a new Heaven and Earth. In his enthusiasm about the news of salvation and the prospect of eternal happiness, Adam is suddenly overcome with joy when he sees that God is merciful.
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness.
Adam feels that his fall has created an even better Paradise than the one that was lost. This is often referred to as the felix culpa or “fortunate fall,” translated literally from the Latin as the “happy fault.” It is a paradox that the fall is the worst human misfortune, but at the same time it is God’s highest opportunity for good. God has chosen to turn evil into good. It is Adam’s hope and sustains him as he prepares to face his ultimate expulsion from Paradise.
When Eve awakes from her restful sleep, she is prepared to leave with Adam. “With thee to go,/ Is to stay here; without thee here to stay,/ Is to go hence unwilling.” These words echo those of Ruth in the Bible who says, “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge” (Ruth 1:16). Eve has made peace with her guilt. Though she is still aware that “all by me is lost,” she also finds hope in the knowledge that “by me the Promised Seed shall all restore.”
As Adam prepares to leave Paradise, we reflect on his development from his innocence before the fall, to his sin and consequent repentance and reconciliation with God, and finally to his realization that God is just and “to obey is best.” This is the sum of all his wisdom. He now knows his place as Man in a world filled with woe, but he also has hope that Christ will restore that world. As Adam and Eve slowly find “their solitary way” on a foreign plain, their feelings of hope are mixed with sadness as they shed “some natural tears” over their loss of Paradise.
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