Paradise Lost Themes

The main themes in Paradise Lost are justice, free will, and obedience.

  • Justice: The fall of man is presented as justice for humanity's transgression. God clearly outlined the consequences of disobedience, and Adam and Eve's punishment fits their crime.
  • Free will: Adam and Eve's ability to betray God's sole commandment indicates that people are responsible for their own decisions. Rather than being controlled by fate or divine determinism, humans have free will.

  • Obedience: God's sole command to Adam and Eve is not to eat the forbidden fruit. The fall results from disobeying God rather than acquiring forbidden knowledge.

Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Puritanism and his broad Christian humanism transform all aspects of the epic poem. His blindness (since at least 1651) presented no impediment to his achievement. The style, technique, and features of the epic were derived from Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e. ; English translation, 1611),...

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In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Puritanism and his broad Christian humanism transform all aspects of the epic poem. His blindness (since at least 1651) presented no impediment to his achievement. The style, technique, and features of the epic were derived from Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), and Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). Milton, however, asserts the uniqueness and superiority of his epic because of its Christian truth rather than pagan myth. In books 1, 3, 7, and 9, the blind Milton indicates that, if he receives the inspiration he seeks and if he can attain an “answerable style,” he will surpass the ancient epics in importance of subject and in majesty of language. He invokes God’s spirit that he may glorify him by showing his power and asks for aid in the task to “assert Eternal Providence/ And justify the ways of God to men.” He combines his inspiration with vast sacred and secular learning. Paradise Lost reconciles the justice of God’s providential design with human freedom and responsibility, defending it with respect to the existence of evil, a form of literature known as theodic.

Milton’s defense of God’s ways, as far as they fall within the scope of human comprehension, is centered in book 3, where God the Father explains why the Fall occurs and how it shapes all human history. He announces that justice must be exacted for sin; that though deceived by Satan, man has free will, the power not to sin; and that man shall find mercy. God the Son offers himself as payment for sin, that God’s authority and mercy be upheld; otherwise evil would go unpunished and justice be betrayed. The dialogue between the Father and the Son presents salvation as a gift of God, eternal life through the Son, who fulfills God’s law “by obedience and by love.” The dialogue closely follows Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and the Hebrews; Pauline theology was central to Milton’s Puritanism. Milton rejects the Calvinistic view that God created each individual for salvation or damnation. He stresses man’s freedom to choose and that whatever evil does, God will make good of it.

In addition, Milton’s presentation of the Son redefines the epic hero as one who overcomes evil with good, patiently suffering in the hope that God’s larger plan is fulfilled. In Milton’s seventeenth century epic, Christian values of love, faith, obedience, and humility superseded the heroic codes of the ancient Greek and Roman epics. In book 12, Adam and Eve and their children must follow in the “Redeemer” to secure salvation. They will thus subvert “worldly strong, and worldly wise” by “things deem weak” and by “small” accomplish “great things.” Also, after the death of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit, directly received, will guide and support believers in the wisdom and truth of salvation, since the teachings of the Gospel become corrupted. In book 1, Milton writes that the Spirit prefers “before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure.” Milton’s Puritanism remained strongly anti-institutional, as expressed in De doctrina Christiana libri duo Posthumi (wr. c. 1658-1660, pb. 1825; a treatise on Christian doctrine).


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1372

Paradise Lost is essentially the story of two parallel falls; the fall of Lucifer and his rebel angels, and the fall of humankind. The poem thus relates the story of the revolt of the rebel angels in Heaven, and their subsequent banishment to Hell, and the story of the creation of the world, the temptation and disobedience of Adam and Eve, and their subsequent banishment from Eden.

Milton's stated purpose is "to justify the ways of God to man,'' and he does so by placing responsibility for the fall squarely on the shoulders of the first human pair. They are cast out of Eden because their banishment is necessary to fulfil the demands of divine justice. Their punishment is just, because God placed only one condition upon them and they failed to fulfil it, in spite of the fact that God gave them the means to do so. As Adam warns Eve, God's "creating hand / Nothing imperfect or deficient left/ Of all that he Created, much less Man..." (IX.344-346). By providing them with reason and free will, God gives humankind both the choice to obey or disobey, and the means by which to exercise that choice wisely, for ''within himself/ The danger lies, yet lies within his power: / Against his will he can receive no harm" (IX.347-348).

Having created man free to fall, yet able to resist, God goes one step farther. He sends Raphael to warn Adam of the danger which threatens him, and to remind him of his duty of obedience. Adam is thus completely without excuse, and God himself reinforces Adam and Eve's responsibility for their own fall: "whose fault? / Whose but his own?... I made him just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall" (111.95-98).

Once the Fall has occurred, the consequences are fixed. God set the rules when he pronounced his one prohibition: Adam and Eve are not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, or they will die. Having made the rules, God is now bound by them, and once Adam has eaten, he must die: "Die he or Justice must; unless for him / Some other able, and as willing, pay / The rigid satisfaction, death for death" (IH.210-212). The Son's death, then, is freely offered out of mercy, to satisfy the demands of justice and offer grace. In the Incarnate Son Jesus "Man, as is most just, / Shall satisfy for Man" (UI.295-6).

It is important that, while God made Adam and Eve "sufficient to have stood," he also created them ''free to fall." This freedom is rooted in their very nature, for God "formed them free, and free they must remain" (III. 124). For Milton, humankind's obedience is proof of their love and service to God, and obedience therefore must be free, for obedience which is not free is not obedience but slavery. It is for this reason that Adam is free to fall, and for this reason that he must leave Eve free to make her own choices, even if that choice be to leave him and work alone and vulnerable, ''for thy stay, not free, absents thee more" (IX.372). But in this very freedom lies the possibility of disobedience, for in the freedom of will lies the possibility of choice.

Choice and Consequences
The freedom of the will is associated with freedom of choice; yet freedom implies responsibility, and the freedom to choose brings with it the responsibility to choose correctly. It is reason which gives humans the ability to choose between obedience and disobedience and, after the fall, between good and evil. Thus, "Against his will he can receive no harm. But God left free the Will, for what obeys / Reason is free..." (IX.350-52). The Fall, then, is the consequence of failing to choose wisely. The events which follow are the logical consequences of the choice which Adam and Eve make when they choose "knowledge" over obedience. The full consequences of the Fall are made clear in the final vision of the future which Michael shows to Adam: the political upheaval, strife, toil, and anguish which result from being cast out of Eden, but also the redemption of humankind, which only the Fall makes possible.

The only condition placed on Adam and Eve is a simple prohibition: not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil. It is important, however, to recognize that it is not knowledge which causes the fall, it is disobedience. The commandment is not meant to prevent knowledge, but to provide the opportunity for obedience. As Adam reminds Eve, God "requires / From us no other service than to keep / This one, this easy charge,... The only sign of our obedience..."(TV.419-21, 428). Ironically, this ''one easy prohibition'' is both so easily kept and so easily broken, and man will ... easily transgress the sole Command, sole pledge of his obedience" (HI.94-95) That the Fall must be understood as a failure of obedience, not the acquisition of forbidden knowledge, is made clear in the first lines of the poem, where Milton states his theme as being "Of Man's First Disobedience" (1.1).

Obedience is also an integral part of the maintenance of the natural hierarchy, which depends on the proper exercise of authority: God rules over Adam, and Adam must rule over both Eve and himself. The theme of obedience is thus tied to the question of authority, which is exercised through reason.

Knowledge and Ignorance
The Fall, then, is not the acquisition of knowledge, but the failure of obedience, which is caused by the failure to exercise reason. The belief that it is knowledge itself which is forbidden is a misunderstanding of both the nature and purpose of the prohibition, and Milton emphasizes this by putting all his statements about forbidden knowledge into the mouth of Satan before the Fall, and into the mouths of Adam and Eve only after the Fall. In fact, it is knowledge which should prevent the Fall, and knowledge which Raphael imparts in his warning to Adam. Satan's deception lies not in his claims that knowledge is a good thing and therefore to be desired, but in the idea that the knowledge of good and evil is enclosed within the tree and its fruit. Adam clearly knew of evil prior the Fall, and was well aware of the dangers of evil. The knowledge of good and evil which comes with the Fall, then, is not simply a new knowledge of evil, where before there was only the knowledge of good. What is gained is rather the "Knowledge of Good bought dear by knowing ill'' (IV.220), or ''knowledge of good lost, evil got.'' The consequence of eating the fruit is that the knowledge of good and of evil has become inseparable, and humankind can now know good only by knowing evil as well. This is consistent with Milton's conviction, expressed elsewhere, that all knowledge is valuable, and even necessary. After the Fall, the free choice with which humankind is endowed is exercised in the choice between good and evil, and that choice can only be established and maintained through the knowledge of both.

The Human Condition
The human condition is thus the condition of fallen humanity, knowing not just ''good and evil,'' but the inseparable nature of the two in a fallen world. Yet, humankind was created in the image of God, and still retains this innate characteristic. It is reason which is most fully the image of God in humankind, reason which enables humankind to choose between good and evil, reason which both establishes and preserves free will. Fallen humanity is thus characterized still by reason, but it is an impaired reason, for although God created humankind perfect, they are not immutable and the most obvious consequence of the Fall is indeed change. Even reason impaired, however, is still reason which need not fail, and Milton's final word is one of hope. Michael's revelation of God's redemptive purpose brings Adam to a new understanding of the proper role of obedience and virtue in a fallen world, reconciling him to his expulsion from Paradise and enabling him to possess "a paradise within, ... happier far" (XII.587).

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