Re-Reading Paradise Lost: In Which Th’ Arch-Enemy Falls

So I’m sitting here at my computer, wondering how I begin this series (the last post doesn’t really count because that was more a history of my experience with the poem rather than any actual discussion of it), and it seems to me that the device of in medias res is a really useful one.  You don’t have to do too much to establish your topic, and you’re free to jump in at a point of high excitement.  The background details can be filled in later; for now, what’s important is that you hook your readers.

Hell at last, Yawning received them whole. By Gustav Dore. (Image credit: University of Buffalo Libraries)

For Milton, I think that hooking his readers was a pretty important thing, considering what he wanted to accomplish in Paradise Lost.  This was going to be the English epic, the poem that defined what was so great about Milton’s native language, and for its subject, Milton picked what he considered to be the most important story in all the world.  That’s a lot of pressure to put on one’s shoulders, but I’ve always understood that John Milton had more than a slight ego, so he probably felt himself up to the task.

That desire to really set his poem apart doesn’t stop Milton from hitting all the typical epic conventions, including the real biggy: the invocation of the Muse.  Of course, Milton’s not dealing with any heathen muses here; he goes straight for the Holy Spirit as his inspiration.  And how does he ask the Holy Spirit to help him?

[…] What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
That to the heighth of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence
And justify the ways of God to men. [emphasis mine]

– Book 1, ll. 22-26

Okay, so maybe Milton has a little bit more humility than I give him credit for.  He does ask the Holy Spirit to augment him so that he can better explain God’s ways.  Justify them, even.

This is a strange way to begin, asking for help in justifying how God works to men.  Milton’s writing in an age where the universal hierarchy is pretty uniformly accepted by Western thinkers.  Under that model, there’s not much need for justification when it comes to explaining why someone who’s your superior does the things they do; they’re better than you, so shut up and accept it.  God, being at the top of the chain, should naturally be above reproach here, and yet Milton still feels like his purpose is to explain God’s ways.

I guess theodicy’s one of those questions we just can’t get away from, no matter how much our theology may teach us to bury our heads in the sand over it.

And should we even try to get away from it?  In Christian thought, God is supposed to embody love.  That’s the creative force of the universe, and yet we’re constantly bombarded with experiences that demonstrate how love gets so easily thwarted, to say nothing of the purely destructive forces that exist around us and seem to strike without any real reason.  In our worst moments, all the things we can characterize as being of God seem to operate with no justification at all.  I suppose that doesn’t sit well with Milton (which is good; if it sits well with anyone, then they’re either not thinking very hard about what’s happening around them, or they’re psychopaths who lack basic empathy), so he’s going to buck the system with the kindest permission of the Holy Spirit who’s going to do everything in its power to make Milton not suck at justifying God to people.

Alrighty then.

So with the purpose established, Milton finally gets to setting the scene.  We come in just after the rebellious angels have landed in hell,

Such place Eternal Justice had prepared
For those rebellious, here their pris’n ordained
In utter darkness and their portion set
As far removed from God and light of Heav’n
As from the center thrice to th’ utmost pole.

– Book 1, ll. 70-74

What’s really interesting here is how Milton’s personified Justice as an entity separate from God.  The personifications of Death and Sin that appear later in Paradise Lost are pretty famous, but they make sense as separate things.  They’re supposed to be byproducts of Satan’s rebellion (Sin is born directly from Satan’s rebellion, and then she births Death after Satan rapes her), and so it makes sense that they would be their own entities.  Regarding Justice, her separateness is intriguing because it suggests that she’s a created entity, subservient to God.  Milton’s cosmology is a little unusual because he refers to the Son as the first creation of the Father (I remember freaking out the first time I read that bit because it seemed to counter the doctrine of the coeternal Trinity, although now I think there’s probably something more subtle going on; besides, no one really understands the Trinity that well), so Justice has to be something that came afterwards.  I just find it interesting that here she’s characterized as being apart from God, when there are multiple very popular strains of modern theology that say God’s character exists in the tension between his need for justice and his desire for mercy (penal substitutionary atonement, anyone?).  Perhaps Milton is just being poetic, or perhaps he’s making a statement about the need for justice to act in service to God’s primary characteristic of love.

Of course, that reading doesn’t fully explain why God, after so easily subduing an upstart rebellion (we’ll learn much later that he ended the conflict single-handedly after three days of fighting among the angels) sees fit to punish the rebels by casting them into hell.  The best explanation I can come up with leans on Satan’s famous declaration that it’s “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven!” (1.263).  Milton seems to be making a case that Satan’s damnation stems from his own pride and refusal to submit to his place within the hierarchy.  God would be willing to take the fallen angels back if they would repent, but they’re incapable of choosing that option.  It’s a more or less Arminian reading of damnation (which generally posits that God hasn’t predestined us to salvation or damnation, but leaves the choice up to us individually; it’s the most palatable interpretation of hell as eternal punishment that I can imagine, though I still think it has flaws).  Of course, Satan’s mental state might call into question how fair it is to leave the decision of damnation up to him.

In Satan’s first speech, Milton establishes that our subject has a very special discursive style.  It involves complicated (and often convoluted) phrasing with multiple digressions (as though Satan just can’t keep focused on a single train of thought for very long) that tend to distract from the central point that’s being made.  It’s not unusual for Satan to carry on for more than twenty lines with a tangent before he finally gets to the point he started with (for an excellent example, look at lines 84-105 in Book 1; it’s a difficult passage to parse, even with a good edition that takes care to include clarifying punctuation).

Actually, Satan’s oratory reminds me a lot of my own informal writing (though I lack all the fancy diction that Milton’s prone to putting in the devil’s mouth).  I wonder if that means that I’m in the same boat, where my salvation is up to me personally, but I just… can’t… get to that ever important thought (I mean, how could I when so many other interesting thoughts occur along the way?) that puts me in the proper doxological category.  The point I’m trying to make is that Satan’s a bit of a loon, and his mental capacity continuously diminishes throughout the poem, so having a salvation model that requires him to come to a place of right belief isn’t the most fair setup.

Also, Satan’s kind of full of himself:

That glory never shall His wrath or might
Extort from me: to bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee and deify His pow’r

– Book 1, ll. 110-112

Here Milton intends for Satan’s redemption to be impossible because of his own pride and inability to acknowledge his place in the divine hierarchy.  It goes back to the free will factor, which I still think is the least problematic form of a model of eternal damnation, though I believe modern thought has eroded the defensibility of this position.  In our postmodern society, the existence of God is no longer something that people are able to treat as a given which they must deal with in their approach to the way of the universe.  It’s harder to blame a person for rebelling against God (and consequently bringing about their own damnation) when they don’t necessarily have to believe that God is something against which they are in rebellion.  Contemporary non-Christians are usually not angry apostates who shake their fists in rage against a God in whom they still bear a grudging belief, but people who just don’t accept the premises of the faith as axiomatic.  God’s not worth fighting because God might not even exist (or if God does, he might not bear any resemblance to the person described in Christian tradition; he might not even be a single entity).  I think that Milton’s exemplar of spiritual rebellion comes across as a little dated here.

But the question of Satan and the other fallen angels’ agency in their damnation isn’t the only question that Milton grapples with in this first chapter.  He also hits in a slightly oblique way the whole issue of a cosmology where evil, as embodied in the rebellious Satan, is allowed to run free and thwart good.  Beelzebub, Satan’s chief lieutenant, brings it up like this:

But what if He our conqueror (whom I now
Of force believe almighty since no less
Than such could have o’erpow’red such force as ours)
Have left us this our spirit and strength entire
Strongly to suffer and support our pains
That we may so suffice His vengeful ire
Or do Him mightier service as His thralls
By right of war, whate’er His business be:
Here in the heart of Hell to work in fire
Or do His errands in the gloomy deep?

– Book 1, ll. 143-152

Just prior to Beelzebub’s rumination on why God might allow the fallen angels to continue in their full strength, Satan discusses how it’s fortunate that they still have their power, because this means, with the new knowledge of God’s true strength, that they can continue to wage war eternally, even if they can’t really hope to ever overthrow God (funny how quickly Satan’s goal changes from conquest to just constant agitation; the diminishment of his ambitions is a regular motif throughout Paradise Lost).  Beelzebub, though faithful, has a little bit more sense to be wary of the fact that all the fallen angels are being punished for their rebellion, and that the reason for their current state probably figures into that punishment somehow (if I had to hazard a guess, it might go back to Satan’s pride; being beaten but not weakened would feed into his inability to repent; of course, that’s kind of a crappy move on God’s part, since it means he’s stacked the deck against the fallen angels’ own free will).  Alternately, Beelzebub reasons if their strength isn’t anything to do with punishment, then it’s probably to do with some other plan that God has which requires them to operate in hell apart from him (here we get hints of predestination and the adage that “even the devil is God’s devil”).  Either way, things don’t look too good for the fallen angels.

I guess they’ll just have to build themselves a giant demon palace and hang out for a bit.

One last thing I want to note (and this doesn’t speak so much to the framework Milton’s trying to build around hell and the fallen angels’ natures, which I think is the major theme of the first book) is a passage from the catalog of demons who comprise Satan’s vast infernal army.

With these came they who from the bord’ring flood
Of old Euphrates to the brook that parts
Egypt from Syrian ground had general names
Of Baalim and Ashtaroth, those male,
These feminine, for spirits when they please
Can either sex assume or both, so soft
And uncompounded is their essence pure,
Not tied or manacled with joint or limb
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones
Like cumbrous flesh but in what shape they choose,
Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,
Can execute their airy purposes
And works of love or enmity fulfill.

-Book 1, ll. 419-431

This passage is a description of the various Baals and Ashtaroths who appear in the Old Testament as local gods of the nations surrounding and mixing with Israel.  It’s part of a much larger list (the majority of Book 1 is this catalogue of the fallen angels) that re-frames various pagan deities from antiquity as fallen angels who posed as gods in order to lead people away from the true God.  The thing I want to note here is how Milton is pretty explicit in saying that sex is a biological trait bound up in our physical bodies.  The fallen angels (and by extension, the faithful angels as well) are creatures without a fixed sex, because they’re purely spirit.  This idea probably has its roots in Platonism with the concept of ideal forms, and seems to have a twinge of disparagement for the physical world in general, but I like this passage because it seems to be Milton saying that sex and gender are fluid, at least on a spiritual level.  To put it another way, there is nothing intrinsically gendered about a man’s spirit or a woman’s spirit.  Furthermore, Milton seems to be noting this detail as just a neutral fact.  Spirits may change their sex as they wish to serve whatever purpose they have, for good or ill.  From the perspective of gender dynamics, it’s a pretty progressive stance.

I wonder how it’ll hold up when we get introduced to Adam and Eve.


One thought on “Re-Reading Paradise Lost: In Which Th’ Arch-Enemy Falls

  1. There’s also an element of political commentary in Paradise Lost. England had gone through a decade of Civil War at the end of which the king was overthrown and executed by the forces of Parliament. Milton was definitely on the side of Parliament against the king, which makes Paradise Lost very ironic, because God is the symbol of absolute monarchy and the fallen angels are much more parliamentary.

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