Paradise Lost Themes
The main themes in Paradise Lost are the omnipotence and omnipresence of God, free will and responsibility, and the fortunate Fall.
- The omnipotence and omnipresence of God: Milton presents God as an all-powerful, all-knowing entity who orchestrates the events of the epic.
- Free will and responsibility: The poem understands Satan, Adam, and Eve as having free will, making them responsible for their respective misdeeds.
- The fortunate Fall: Milton suggests that the Fall of Man is inevitable and even beneficial, giving rise as it does to knowledge and culture.
Last Updated on October 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 860
The Omnipotence and Omniscience of God
From the very beginning of Paradise Lost, Milton is determined to explain that Satan’s plans are and have always been doomed to failure, though God will allow him temporary success in order to defeat him more fully in the future. In book 3, God the Father and the Son see Satan flying across the abyss towards the new world, and God explains that Adam and Eve will listen to his lies, leading to the Fall of Man. Long after this, mankind will be redeemed by the sacrifice made willingly by the Son.
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Milton’s God is constantly surrounded by blinding light. His supreme power and wisdom are most often conveyed to the reader through the other characters. This occurs, for instance, when Raphael gives an account of the war in heaven and the creation of the world to Adam in Books 6 and 7. However, it most often happens when the poet describes Satan and his schemes. The central paradox of Satan’s character—how he can be so low and vicious at the same time as he is magnificent and compelling—is best understood as an indirect illustration of the glory of God. Satan’s splendor is appropriate for God’s chief adversary. He is a match for even such a powerful and brilliant archangel as Michael. The only beings in the universe with whom he cannot be compared are God the Father and the Son. Next to them, he is equivalent to the lowest creatures, a toad or a serpent. This is because Satan, though powerful, is limited, whereas God’s power and wisdom are limitless.
Free Will and Responsibility
Milton was a Puritan but not a Calvinist. Free will was essential to his theology, and he continually emphasizes that Satan, Adam and Eve all exercise agency in deciding to rebel against God’s commands. Satan has the greatest responsibility of all, since he was “self-tempted, self-depraved.” Abdiel’s lone refusal to follow him shows that although millions of angels rebelled, they too had free choice, even though Satan exercised his demonic powers of persuasion against them, as he did against Eve.
Though Eve is the first to fall, Adam’s guilt is particularly great, since he has just been warned against precisely the sin he commits. Raphael warns him that he must not allow Eve’s physical beauty to beguile him into loving her more than he loves God, but this is precisely what he does when he decides to eat the forbidden fruit because he cannot bear the thought of life without her. Instead of the possibility of being separately from her, he freely and knowingly chooses separation from God. Just as Satan, a pure spirit and a superior being, is more fully responsible for his fall from grace than any mortal, so Adam is more responsible than Eve, as the Son points out when rebuking him in book 10.
Although the principal focus in the poem is on the disobedience of Satan, Adam, and Eve, God looks forward to a time when mankind will freely choose to obey and worship him again. He refers to this several times, first of all during his earliest appearance in book 3. This future exercise of free will on the part of some men will make their devotion to God worth more than any coerced obedience, with a correspondingly greater reward in the form of admission to heaven.
The Fortunate Fall
Although Adam and Eve sin by disobeying God, it is clear throughout the poem that the Fall of Man is part of God’s design and that he could easily have prevented it if he had wished to do so. Instead, God chose to bring good out of evil, allowing man ultimately to live in heaven, a “far happier place” than the Garden of Eden.
Apart from being a poet, Milton was a famously learned and curious man. It would be strange if he thought that the acquisition of knowledge by mortals was altogether a bad thing. Paradise contains no violence or lust—but no civilization either, no drama or poetry. There would have been no place in Paradise for Paradise Lost. By the time he has heard the archangel Michael telling him of his descendants in book 12, Adam declares that he now has enough knowledge, but he has also seen the opportunities presented to mankind by the Fall, exclaiming:
O Goodness infinite, Goodness immense!
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! Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done, and occasioned; or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring.
It is soon after this that Michael tells Adam he has gained wisdom and will always carry Paradise within him, a greater gift than merely living in Paradise. This clearly recalls the Biblical passage (Luke 17:21) in which Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is within you. Without Adam’s fall from grace, there would have been no Bible, no incarnation, and no redemption either.