milton and the war in heaven

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The War in Heaven: Milton’s Non-Pacifism and Purpose
While John Milton’s Paradise Lost deals with many interesting theological concepts and issues, I find the War in Heaven to be one of the most controversial subjects of the epic poem. Miltonists such as Ronald Bedford and Arnold Stein argue that the War in Heaven is largely a myth, an epic mockery of conflict. Others, like Stella P. Revard and Robert Thomas Fallon, take the opposite stance and vehemently claim that the war is far from a myth and essential to understanding Paradise Lost. Even within this debate there lies a second: whether Milton was aggressive, as James Holly Hanford and John Wooten assert, or a pacifist, as James A. Freeman and Revard declare. Although Milton never participated in actual combat, he was aware of what conflict meant, through extensive reading and witnessing it in his own country during the English Civil War. These experiences are clearly shown throughout Paradise Lost, especially during the War in Heaven episode, and are sure to have shaped his views of war. It is my purpose, then, that in this essay I will take the stance, and prove, that Milton intended the war to not be an epic mockery as well as argue that Milton was indeed not a pacifist which illustrates why he chose to include the epic conflict as an allegory with serious connotations, not a sarcastic conflict.

First, however, more light needs to be shed on the views Milton held of war and his experiences with them in addition to other militaristic ideas to provide a background of his non-pacifist views. As Milton grew up, he was sure to have heard of the wars taking place abroad. Because there was so much conflict during this time, one could say that if it did not affect him directly, it was surely a subconscious thought, always in the back of his mind. Once Milton had completed college, he voluntarily studied for five more years; this time, focusing mainly on Greek and Latin classics. As part of this generous, self-imposed education, he was sure to come across military books, not to mention seminal epic poems, ones that he was well-versed in previously, that include combat like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid. The war books that Milton took special note of were Machiavelli’s Arte della Guerra and Robert Ward’s Animadversions of Warre.1 Though these works along with the classics are antiquated (even in Milton’s time), he was familiar with contemporary, English military books dealing with the theory and practice of arms. It is through these various books that Milton learned a great deal of his military terminology and what the theoretical solider should be made of and act. Much of these two aspects can be found in during the War in Heaven episode and in the other books of Paradise Lost. Influenced by his own martial interests, Milton even included military discipline and study in his 1644 tractate Of Education. He claimed that it is an essential part of a definite education program developed under medieval chivalry.2

Hanford states that the biographer David Masson has even claimed that Milton underwent military training and drill considering the various militias and the Parliamentary Army were operating quite frequently during the turbulent times leading up to the Civil War.3 An image of Milton in with arms protecting his beliefs and fighting for his country does bring a pleasant image to mind, but most Miltonists have agreed that Milton was not trained for military purposes. Though he did exercise and practice archery, and firmly believed in military-style discipline, most of his knowledge of drill and maneuvers came from observation, associations with Parliamentarians like Sir Henry Vane and his own time serving on an executive board directing the military under Lord Oliver Cromwell’s government.4 A more true statement is that Milton participated in, “at least a literary proxy, in the ethics and practices of warfare which dominated the European” nations while...
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