no longer write. To the surprise of high officials he wrote the epic Paradise Lost: A poem in ten books. It sold millions of copies, and is still considered the greatest piece of English literature ever written.
On the 8th of November 1674 Milton died at the age of 66, due to gout-fever. He was buried the next Thursday beside his father.
As stated in the first book of Paradise Lost, Milton's intentions for writing his religious epic are to "assert Eternal Providence/And justify the ways of God to men" (Book I, ll. 25-26). Milton's audience, of course, is a fallen audience like the narrator of the epic, Therefore, because the audience is innately flawed there is a danger that we may not read the text as it is intended to be read. Some may think Satan is the hero of the epic. Others may be inclined to blame God for allowing the fall to occur. However, both of these readings are shortsighted and are not what Milton explicitly intended. Therefore, to prevent these deviant readings Milton has deftly interwoven a theme of personal responsibility for one's actions throughout the epic. As stated by Klender, Milton neutralizes God from any just blame, exposes Satan for the Arch-Deceiver he is, and Phillips 3
justifies the falls of both Angel and Man. (345) A careful reading by the post-lapsarian audience reveals the author's intentions.
Fist and foremost, Milton clears God' omniscience from any suspicion of blame by post-lapsarian readers for "letting" the Angels rebel or Man eat the forbidden fruit. Milton skillfully defends God's foreknowledge in Book III, when God says to His Son, "...they [rebel Angels] themselves decreed their own revolt, not I: if I foreknew, Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault, which had no less prov'd certain unforeknow" (Book III,ll.116-119). God establishes that His knowledge of future events is not the same has predestination. For example, we may know from the news that a murder will be executed next Thursday, this foresight does not mean that we forced the man to kill, nor are we the ones to execute him. We are simply bystanders to the situation. In this way, God is a knowing bystander to the falls. To force His Divine will on the Angels or Man would be an injustice to each particular creature's own free will. Instead, God must let each creature act on its own choices. In turn, God must act as a strict yet temperate, judge: He must honestly reward the faithful and Phillips 4
justly punish the sinners. For this reason, God's foresight cannot be charged with the falling of Satan or Adam and Eve or the reader. The responsibility for each fall resided in the active participant; that is, responsibility for one's action lies in his own free will. "The concept of free will is of utmost importance to God, and is the key to justifying the falls and properly placing blame. Free willing behavior is the wellspring of joy from which God drinks, but it is also the justification for His punishment against those who disobey his decree"(Thorpe 76).
As Milton continually notes, God takes His greatest pleasure in honoring and loving His faithful creations. Nowhere in the epic does Milton have God saying He thoroughly enjoys punishing the disobedient. Love, honor and integrity are the main reasons that angels and men are manifested with the ability to freely choose their actions in the first place. As God rhetorically speaks of His creation, I made him [Man] just and right,
Sufficient to have stood though free to fall.
Such I created all th' Ethereal Powers
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who fail'd;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have giv'n sincere
Of true allegiance, constant Faith of Love,
Where only what they needs must do, appear'd,
Not what they would do?what praise could they receive?
What pleasure I from such obedience paid,
When Will and Reason (reason also is choice)
Useless and vain, of freedom both despoiled,
Made passive both, had serv'd necessity,
Not me.(Book III,ll.98-111)
God does not desire empty servitude. Forced praise, allegiance, or adoration are hollow and bordering with forced predestination: it obliterates free will and any pleasure derived from it. Rather God enjoys genuine love and honest allegiance from his creations. Free will validates the reciprocity for the respect and praise of the faithful who adore Him. On the flip side, of course, free will also justifies the punishment for wrongdoers of His holy decree.
According to Bloom, the most blatant deceitful transgressor of God's will is Satan. (45) Milton portrays Satan as a seemingly powerful and regal character who claims to have been wrongfully mistreated by the Almighty. His speech is loaded with semblance to reason and his arguments appear to make sense to a thoughtless reader. One of many examples of his twisted speech occurs in the first book, in which Satan says, Nor... Do I repent or change,
Though chang'd in outward luster; that fixt mind
And high disdain from sense of injured merit,
That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of spirits arm'd
That durst like his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd
In the dubious Battle on the Plains of Heav'n,
And shook his throne.(Book I, ll. 95-105)
"Contrary to his speech, Satan was not mistreated by God, nor was his force innumerable, nor the outcome of the battle dubious, and neither did they shake God's throne"(Crosmen 121). A close reading of Satan's deeds, Phillips 7
exposes his false claims and lies. Perhaps Milton purposely creates the persona of Satan as an attractive smooth conversationalist in order to show how easily one may be duped by seeming reason. However an attentive and moral post lapsarian reader, one of Milton's "fit audience , though few"(Klender 13), will understand that Satan and his host fell from grace through their own folly. Even Satan admits this. In a hesitant moment in Book IV, Satan finally admits that his fall is not God's fault, but his own, and that the punishment he and his followers are suffering is just. This occurs at a crucial point in the epic: Satan reaches the boundary of Eden and notices the splendor of the sun, and debates with himself about going through with his plan of deceiving man. In this vital passage, the Arch deceiver and father of sin, admits that he has fallen through his own pride and ambition. Just as important, Satan also sounds remorseful for rebelling against God. Therefore he not only admits personal responsibility for his fall, but also validates the faithful angels' reward for choosing to remain true to God. Finally he admits that his punishment is justifiable, thus approving God's decision to cast them from Grace. But
Satan's admittance of his fault should not be confused for repentance. Satan says there is no pardon, "...left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among that Spirits beneath.. ."( Book IV, ll. 81-83). Alas the Arch Deceiver has again deceived himself. Once again, he views the due service to God as "servitude", and he cannot repent for fear of shame by his peers. Finally, forever damned Satan seals his evil course by saying, "Evil be thou my good"(Book IV, l. 110). Satan surprising soliloquy is an outright attempt by Milton to solidify Satan's personal responsibility for his own actions. At this point, even an obtuse post lapsarian reader, or a reader who is often swayed toward Satan's deceptive arguments, will undoubtedly admit that Satan by his own choice. And by accepting this fact, the reader must also clear God from any possible blame for the fall of Satan and his followers. By doing this, Milton then sets the stage for the fall of Adam and Eve. As with the angelic fall, Milton adroitly contrasts Adam and Eve's pre/post lapsarian behavior, there by reminding that they rightly fell by there own hand.(Adams 53) Phillips 9
Adam and Eve are already conscience of their free will, and they initially choose to praise God for his own benevolence in giving then life and food. In turn Milton's audience should be aware that if this is how "perfect" man acted, then this should be the behavior that fallen man should try to strive achieve. However, there is a marked change in Adam and Eve's behavior immediately after their fall. After the excitement and lust have worn off from eating the forbidden fruit they begin to blame each other for their fallen state and impending punishment. Adam blames Eve for willingly wondering off in the Garden when she knew the Foe was lurking somewhere nearby. Eve accuses Adam that he could have been tempted just as easily, and that it was Adam's fault for not forcing her to stay by his side. As the narrator woefully notes: "Thus they in mutual accusation spent
The fruitless [pun] hours, but neither self-condemning
And of thir vain contest appear'd no end"(Book IX).
"This scene stands in vivid juxtaposition to their earlier scenes of conjugal love to each other and their love and praise for God"(Crosmen 19). However, the accusatory emotions of this scene are all too familiar to
the world today, and should remind the reader of his fallen state. So when Adam and Eve finally admit their responsibility and repent, that too should remind the reader that he controls his fate.
From the start Milton makes his intentions for Paradise Lost crystal clear. Milton intends to explain God's Providence and His ways, not to glorify Satan or shift the blame for the falls away from the individual and onto God. Of course there will always be the danger of a reader getting wrapped up in the drama of the epic or misreading the author's intentions, but through skillful descriptions, beneficial narrative tags, and striking examination of scenes, Milton makes sure he aims the reader in the right direction.
1. Adams,Robert M. Ikon: Milton and Modern Critics. Ithaca, 1955.
2. Bloom, Edward. John Milton. New York, 1986.
3. Crosmen,Robert. Reading Paradise Lost. Bloomington,1980.
4. Klender, Scott. Milton Essay. New York, 1992.
5. Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Merrit Y. Hughs. New York: Macmillan publishing Co.,1957.
6. Thorpe, James. Milton Criticism. New York, 1970.