In 1667 John Milton published the epic poem Paradise Lost. It stands alongside other pillars of literature such as the Iliad and the Divine Comedy and even seeks to surpass them all in prose, rhyme and subject. Rather than attempting to explain the merely human aspects of hubris or conversion, Milton addresses the chief source of our fallen nature and seeks to justify the ways of God to man. (PL 1:26) Although this book is primarily read by students in classical literature courses, its influence is as deep as that of Shakespeare.
Great writers and poets such as William Blake, Samuel Coleridge, John Keats, and Lord Tennyson all drew inspiration from his work. In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,the epigraph is taken from a passage of Paradise Lost describing the relationship between maker and creator. Even Philip Pullman, the self-proclaimed atheist and author of the trilogy His Dark Materials draws heavily from Milton’s work. The title of this trilogy can be found twice in Paradise Lost (PL 2:916, 6:478) as well as the title for the first book, The Golden Compass. (PL 7:225) The premise of Pullman’s trilogy is what might have happened had Satan been triumphant.
Lest you be bothered by a Pullman endorsement, Milton’s image of angels and devils was the basis for Christian novels such as Piercing the Darkness and This Present Darkness by Frank E. Peretti as well as characters in That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis. Lewis also wrote a lengthy work called A Preface to Paradise Lost in which he defends Milton’s portrayal of spiritual beings. While there are easily a 100 favorite quotes from Paradise Lost, these are my top 10 in line order.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.
The great war of the angels has been settled and Satan and the other demons have been cast into hell. Satan is lamenting his loss and beginning to realize that he will be in hell for a very long time. At this point in the narrative Satan is still licking his wounds and not seriously considering revenge. Instead, he is deciding how to make the best of the situation. It is a few lines later when he utters the famous phrase “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n.” (PL 1:263)
Satan’s existential view of damnation does little to comfort him when faced with the reality of Hell. Just as the chosen people were never able to shake the myth of happiness in Egypt, so Satan can never forget the true happiness he experienced in paradise. Even as he plots to corrupt creation he wrestles with the impossible dream of returning to heaven. He must feed his own hate with lies to make his loss more bearable. In the end the very thought of happiness becomes a source of pain for him. In the garden he states, “the more I see / Pleasures about me, so much more I feel / Torment within me…”. (PL 9:119-121) Like many people who have fallen away from the Church, the problem is not so much one of issues, but one of pride and the fear of atonement. Sometimes the only way to justify this separation is by making the accusation that the Church is not all it claims to be. As if we can devalue the truth with our minds and somehow escape the reality. Satan discovers that hell will always be hell.
By force, hath overcome but half his foe.
The self-pity of Satan doesn’t last long and revenge is soon on his mind. Before his revolt Satan had thought that it was old repute and custom (639-640) that gave God his throne and he learned too late that while God’s regal state was fully revealed, his strength was concealed. Having been self-deceived in his pride, Satan announces these lines and suggests that God too is deceiving Himself if He believes war and punishment is the final solution.
Fitting lines for our times. As a country we struggle with the realization that defeating a nation’s leaders or a nation’s army does not guarantee victory over its people. In the John Mayer song Belief he writes: belief is a beautiful armor/ but makes for the heaviest sword. If there is to be any real change in people it has to stem from the heart. This is the same concept that the Jews missed when they chose Barrabas, whose message was one of revenge and insurrection, over Jesus whose message was one of love, sacrifice, and conversion. It is also the reason that in times of extreme Christian persecution, the faith has flourished instead of faded.
With impetuous recoil and jarring sound
Th’ infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
Harsh thunder, that the lowest bottom shook
Of Erebus. She opened, but to shut
Excelled her power; the gates wide open stood
Satan and his council of demons have decided that to avenge themselves Satan will travel to earth and corrupt God’s new creation. Barring his exit are the fortified gates of hell guarded by his offspring Sin and their offspring Death. Satan convinces Sin to unlock the gates by promising her a new home on earth for her and Death.
At first glance this seems like a simple reference to Pandora’s Box; the locked-up monsters seizing their opportunity for escape. But this is more of a metaphor for what happens when we allow sin into our lives rather than an explanation for how evil entered the world. Before the Philistines cut Samson’s hair and he lost all his strength, he had been toying with Delilah as she tried to unmask his secret. Every time he lied about the source of his strength he came just a little closer to the truth while knowing that each time Delilah would try to weaken him and turn him over to the Philistines. Yet, eventually he gave in, told the truth and was captured. This is the same thing that happens when we court sin. We expect our strength to protect us without realizing that it has been eroded away and once we say yes to sin it is almost impossible to return to a state of innocence. This is why we end the Act of Contrition with the resolution to sin no more, and to avoid the near occasion of sin. To shut the gates excels our power.
The first sort by their own suggestions fell,
Self-tempted, self-depraved: man falls deceived
By the other first: man therefore shall find grace,
The other none
God the Father is discussing the fall of Satan with the Son and the angels. He says that all the angels were created with free will and that to have prevented their sin would have been to change their nature. The same is true for Man, but his future will be different because his sin was not from within.
The nature of angels has captured the fascination of everyone from St. Thomas Aquinas to people in New Age cults. While many aspects of angels have been deduced through logic and philosophy or disclosed in private revelations, there remains a sort of cloud about the whole business since very little is revealed by Sacred Scripture. One question often asked is why good angels are incapable of ever choosing evil (when they once could) and why fallen angels are eternally fallen without hope of redemption. Aquinas suggests that there was a time when angels did not share in the full beatific vision and that before they could see God in all His glory they had to make a choice, just as we will have to make a choice. Milton says that the reason the fallen angels can not be redeemed is because they chose not to serve and had no outside influences to form their decision. Were life a basketball game, interference would have been called on the devil and mankind would have gotten a penalty shot. Instead we were given a Savior.
do they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?
Satan has entered God’s new creation and has found it more wonderful than he imagined. With a certain amount of effort he must persuade himself to continue his mission to corrupt earth. When he sees Man and overhears God’s warning about the Tree of Life, Satan reflects on his own lost state of bliss and suggests that God uses Man’s ignorance to keep them subservient. What riles Satan is that they are rewarded for their imposed obedience with happiness and immortality.
This is an ironic passage because John Milton was not a Catholic. In fact, Paradise Lost contains a few lines that speak quite critically of the Church. The irony is that the question that Satan asks is the same that many people ask when challenging Papal authority. They suggest that, rather than think for themselves, Catholics blindly follow the Pope wherever he leads. But a Catholic who takes his faith seriously is informed and educated, not blind. And just as Adam and Eve were created with a nature sufficient to have stood, but free to fall (PL III:99), so the Church guides us with direction that is just and right and we are free to fall away and accept the consequences. Quite opposite to this criticism, the Church has always taught that it is our responsibility to learn the Faith and that we can be held accountable for our ignorance. Blind faith will save no one.
Greedily she engorged without restraint,
And knew not eating death;
After hearing an impressive array of lies and flattery, Eve is convinced that the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil will be a source of enlightenment and virtue.
One of the arguments Satan uses to persuade Eve into tasting the fruit is that since she is a reflection of the Maker, if she becomes enlightened it can only serve to increase the glory of God. 1 Samuel tells the story of Saul’s rise to kingship and ultimate fall from greatness. He lost his dynasty because he also fell for this lie. On the first occasion the Lord told Saul to wait for Samuel to arrive before offering a pre-battle sacrifice. Impatient when Samuel didn’t arrive on time, Saul offered the sacrifice himself. (1 Sam 13:10-14) His second mistake came after the defeat of the Amalekites. The Lord had commanded Saul to destroy the entire city, its people, animals, and its king. Rather than destroy everything, Saul spared the king and kept the finest animals. When Samuel questioned him, Saul said that he saved the animals to offer as a sacrifice to the Lord. (1 Sam 15) The unfortunate outcome of his disobedience was that God chose to establish His eternal covenant with a different family and Saul died an ignoble death. As fallen humans it is easy to justify our actions by claiming that our hearts have the best intentions and that the rules don’t really apply in this particular case. That, at least, is what certain liturgists claim. I always think of Samuel’s reply to Saul, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” (1 Sam 15:22)
Not well conceived of God, who though his power
Create could repeat, yet would be loath
Us to abolish, lest the Adversary
Eve has eaten the fruit and now Adam must decide whether to join her in sin or live without her. Eve was tricked into thinking that knowledge would would make her life better; more equal with Adam. (PL 9:820) Adam is not interested in knowledge, rather he is afraid of death. The thought that Eve might die is too much for him, but he reasons that God’s warning is just a bluff and that he would never kill them, lest Satan be triumphant.
Earlier in the story after Eve has eaten the fruit, but before she had given it to Adam, she is very troubled by what her next move should be. Eve considers not sharing the fruit with Adam because for the moment she believes she is his intellectual superior. This idea quickly fades when she remembers that the price for disobedience is death. She becomes jealous with the thought that if she dies God could create another Eve for Adam. This is interesting because right now it is Eve who is trusting God, even if it is only trust caused by fear. Adam does not share the same fear as he makes his decision. He does not fear separation from God or even death. His only fear is losing Eve. In this way he makes Eve a false idol and breaks the first commandment that God will later give to Moses. “I am the Lord your God, you shall not have false gods before me.”
Was she thy God,
lovely to attract
Thy love, not thy subjection
Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and they are being questioned by God. As in the book of Genesis, everyone has passed the blame. Adam tells God that this woman whom He made to be his help gave him the fruit. How could such evil be expected from one so fair? God tells Adam that his fall was not Eve’s doing, but his personal choice and responsibility.
This is such a great passage because in the Bible God does not reply to Adam’s accusation. In Genesis, God listens to Adam and then turns to Eve (who also passes the buck). One of my favorite G. K. Chesterton quotes is, “Love is not blind, it is bound. And the more it is bound, the less it is blind.” This is also a central theme in the Theology of the Body. It was the responsibility of Adam to protect Eve and he knew this. Just minutes before Eve met the serpent, she and Adam had been arguing about whether or not they should tend the garden together since they spent more time flirting and chatting than they did working. Adam affirmed that they should stay together because the Archangel Raphael had warned them about the intruder, but he let Eve go off to pout on her own. And so in this moment when Eve was upset and Adam had let his guard down, Satan weaved his lies. Adam’s fault was his inability to say no to Eve. He let her wander off and he followed her in her sin because he had become her subject.
So many and so various laws are giv’n;
So many laws argue so many sins
The sentence has been passed onto Man for their disobedience and they have accepted their responsibility for the Fall, but they are not left without hope. St. Michael stands with Adam and reveals the future of man from Cain and Abel and the Israelites to the Incarnation and the the Second Coming. This passage refers to the extensive laws given to the 12 tribes.
In the Old Testament, some of the drier parts to read are the lengthy collections of rules and regulations for the Israelite people. As Milton suggests, these laws tend to follow sharply on acts of disobedience and distrust. For example, in Numbers 12-14 first Aaron and Miriam challenge Moses’ authority, then the twelve scouts sent to reconnoiter the promised land come back and say they were too weak to enter the land, and finally the people become discouraged and threaten to march back to Egypt. It is not surprising then that in Numbers 15 there is a new set of laws for the people. This pattern is seen once again in Numbers 16 with the revolt of Dathan and Abiram followed by laws about tithing in the next chapter. Since rebellion and idolatry was a constant temptation for the Israelite people, by the time Jesus came the number of laws that had to be followed had become oppressive and the spirit of the law had generally been overlooked. It is particularly meaningful then that it was Jesus, clean from all sin, who came to reform the law.
Not by destroying Satan, but his works
In thee and in thy seed; nor can this be,
But by fulfilling that which thou didst want,
Obedience to the law of God,
St. Michael is explaining the prophesy from Genesis 3:15 about striking the serpent’s head and he tells Adam not to expect another angelic war. The Son’s victory over Satan will come by doing what Adam and his descendants so often failed to do. Victory would come through obedience.
It is through Christ’s obedience and sacrifice that Satan is defeated. The disobedience of Adam and the disobedience of the Israelites is rectified when Christ submits to the Will of the Father. Satan tempts Christ in the desert in much the same way he tempts Eve in the garden. He offers convincing arguments that make the sin seem like a noble action. In the case of Jesus, Satan tempts Him to turn the rocks to food and feed the hungry, to “trust in the Lord’s protection” by leaping from the parapet and letting the angels support Him, and to make himself king over all the world. As Pope Benedict XVI points out in Jesus of Nazareth, all these things were part of the mission of the Messiah. However, the devil twists these good actions and asks Jesus to use them in selfish, self-serving ways. As soon as Jesus dismisses Satan, the Father sends angels to minister to Him and the Lord’s true protection is already manifested. Just as Milton’s lines suggest, the defeat of the Satan comes not from open war and violence, but from the grace given by obedience to the Father.
All quotes from Paradise Lost have been taken from Paradise Lost: A Norton Critical Edition 2nd Ed. edited by Scott Elledge. Unfortunately, this particular edition is out of print, but the Penguin Classics edition of Paradise Lost is still available. If you’re interested in reading this book and other classics but would like some guidance, please check out the Questions for the Thinker Series.