At a Glance
Paradise Lost key themes:
In Paradise Lost, Milton combines Christian humanism with the Greek epic.
Milton stresses Man’s free will and God’s mercy.
Paradise Lost replaces the values of the Greek and Roman epic with Christian values.
Milton emphasizes Adam and Eve’s responsibility for the fall of man and their free will in acting against God’s wishes.
The fall results from disobeying God rather than acquiring knowledge.
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).
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...
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