Paradise Lost: Theme Analysis
Justifying the Ways of God to Men
Milton announces his subject (Man’s Disobedience) and the overall theme of his epic poem (Justifying the ways of God to men) in the opening paragraph. Milton tells the epic story that explains the place of men in the universe, their relationship with God, and the origin of suffering. Man himself was to blame for suffering through “disobedience.”
Justifying God’s ways means Milton must chiefly demonstrate “providence,” that the nature of God is to turn everything, even evil, to good, as when he creates earth and men to replace the bad angels (VII, 602-618) or when he sends Christ to redeem fallen humans (III, 281-301). Some events may seem cruel, such as the eviction of Adam and Eve from paradise after they sinned, but if one understands the whole story, one sees God’s mercy at work (the fortunate fall XII, 469-478). This differentiates God from Satan, the great egotist, who thinks of his own interest, and who has vowed to revenge himself on God by turning all good to evil ( I, 162-65). On the surface, God may seem arbitrary in setting and fulfilling the law, and Satan, reasonable in his rebellion. That is why the poet is compelled to speak God’s case to us.
God is the Creator who made the orderly universe by taming Chaos and Chance (VII, 163-173). Without His intervention, there would be only randomness, and nothing would exist, as we observe when Satan flies through the warring atoms of Chaos (II, 890-919). Once divine order is established, Providence is the means by which everything in the universe turns out for the best, because God, the Supreme Ruler, is wise, just, merciful, compassionate, all-knowing and all powerful, as the angels sing (III, 373-415).
Satan, on the contrary, speaks in the language of democracy but does what he pleases, creating misery wherever he goes (Books I and II). God and Satan are the two extremes of behavior, and humans have both tendencies, to act for the good of all or to create suffering. ‘Man is made in the image of God’ with all possibilities open. Raphael explains man’s place on the Great Chain of Being. Humans may evolve up to God or fall to Hell (V, 469-540).
So, what could obedience mean to one with free will? “Obedience” is the voluntary union with God. God says that disobedience is “breaking union” with Him (V, 621-22). He means, breaking union with the Creator, the source of life. To break union with one’s source of life is suicide. The demonic trinity in Hell (Satan, Sin, Death) proves this. Satan commits Sin in his mind (separation from God) and that leads to Death (destruction, suffering) (II, 646-699).
We see an example of obedience in the righteous angel, Abdiel, who refuses to follow Satan (V, 805-end, and VI, 1-188). Satan pretends that the laws are made by God to keep Him in power and subjugate others (V, 772-802). Abdiel explains that it is not subjugation to follow God; it is bliss and unity (V, 828-848).
We see disobedience in Satan and the bad angels (Books I and II and the war in heaven, Books V and VI). Everywhere Satan spreads his lies about God’s tyranny and his own “injured merit.” In fact, God allows Satan his freedom and only protects Adam and Eve through education (Raphael’s lessons, Books V-VII). God does not interfere with the free will of angels or man, though He has foreknowledge of the fall (III, 100-131).
The two ways, the two tendencies, God’s way and Satan’s way, are represented by the two trees in paradise (IV, 216-222). The Tree of Life is the source of life, bliss, union with God. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the path of duality, of knowing good only with its opposite. This duality creates suffering. It is the path of “forbidden knowledge,” of experience, rather than faith. By taking the forbidden fruit, breaking the laws of union with God, Adam and Eve must take the consequences (separation and death) because God in his justice has to uphold the law. Yet He is a God of mercy as well, by sending his Son to become man and transform the punishment into salvation. The Incarnation, or descent of God on earth, joins human and divine natures, thus fulfilling the law and defeating death. This is why Adam, after seeing how God creates an even greater good from evil, declares the fall “fortunate.”(XII, 469-484).
God predicts the end of time when Christ will judge, all bad cast out, all good shall be reunited in oneness, and there will be a new heaven and earth, Joy and Love triumphing (III, 315-341). Until then, each soul has free will to choose its path.
Freedom is a major theme of the poem, perhaps because Milton himself took part in the English Civil War on the side of the rebel Puritan force, serving under Cromwell. England was changing from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Ideas of freedom and democracy were under discussion, including Milton’s own treatises on various topics.
The poem opens with Satan’s view of freedom. He has just fallen from heaven and claims “Here at least we shall be free”(I, 258-9). From the beginning he has the illusion that freedom means freedom from God. He rebels against “the oppressor” in heaven and blames God for imprisoning him in Hell, though he is the one who separated himself from God, claiming he is “self-begot”(V, 800).
Satan thinks he can create his own heaven: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”(I, 254-55). While this is certainly Milton’s own point, Satan is incapable of creating a heaven in his mind, because he is an egotist. He can only create Hell, and despite his claims, there is no freedom in Hell because true freedom requires Right Reason (XII, 79-100), and Satan lost his when he embraced Sin.
Satan stirs his fellow devils with talk of freedom: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n”(I, 263). Yet, in moments of soliloquy he comes to self-knowledge: “Myself am Hell”(IV, 75). He admits that gratitude to God is not a burden; his pride and ambition have been the cause of his woe (V, 37-113).
One of Satan’s recurring arguments is that until one knows evil, one does not know good and therefore is not free (IV, 885-901). The angel Gabriel, catching Satan sneaking into Eden calls Satan “sly hypocrite, who now wouldst seem/ Patron of liberty” (IV, 957-58).
Abdiel, the faithful angel, voices the true meaning of freedom in answering Satan’s taunts that he is a mere servant of God: “God and Nature bid the same . . . This is servitude/ To serve th’unwise . . .Thyself not free, but to thyself enthralled” (VI, 176-181). Satan is not free because he cannot change, even when he knows it is in his best interest.
Free will and Right Reason are the two gifts from God that allow man to be free. Reason is the discriminative higher faculty possessed by humans and angels, so they are able to choose the right. Free will is the condition of their being, for God wants “obedience” freely given. He made man “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (III, 99-130).
Once humans are fallen and Reason overshadowed, they must go by conscience and God’s grace, which He mercifully gives to those who desire to be just (III, 174-202).
When Michael shows human history to Adam, he reminds him Liberty and Right Reason go together, and when Reason is lost, governments rule through passions (XII, 82-90). Tyranny is a natural result, and then laws are made to keep people in check, though the laws do not remove sin (XII, 285-290).
Adam’s despair over human history mirrors Milton’s, especially since his own political aspirations for freedom had failed. It did not seem possible to fix the wrongs of the world through revolution (Cromwell’s Commonwealth). Book XII thus concludes that the only solution is a new covenant with God(Christ’s redemption). At the end of time, the faithful will once again be free with God (XII, 386-465). Until then, the virtuous person could create “a paradise within, happier far.