Essay on Predestination in Book III of John Milton's Paradise Lost

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Predestination in Book III of Paradise Lost

Milton's purpose in Paradise Lost is nothing less than to assert eternal providence and justify the ways of God to men - a most daunting task.  For Milton to succeed in his endeavour, he has to unravel a number of theologiccal thorns that have troubled christian philosophers for centuries.  Since his epic poem is, essentially, a twelve book argument building to a logical conclusion - the 'justification of the ways of God to men' - he will necessarily have to deal with these dogmatic problems, and, in doing so, reveal his own take on the Christian theology.

What we receive in Paradise Lost, however, is Milton's final conclusion concerning these issues; to discover how he worked a number of them out, and the supportive proofs he employed, one must turn to another text, De Doctrina Christiana.  This means that certain words, concepts and statements that Milton puts forward within his epic poem carry a heavy weight, being nothing less than the intense compression of a massive theological argument.  Take, for instance, a brief passage from Book III: the lines 96-134 consist of an argument put forth by God, exonerating him from the implication that foreknowledge and predestination placed the onus upon him for the Fall of Mankind.  God's defence is a good one:

 " They therefore as to right belong'd,

 So were created, nor can justly accuse

 Thir maker, or thir making, or thir Fate;

 As if Predestination over-rul'd

 Thir will, dispos'd by absolute Decree

 Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed

 Thir own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,

 Foreknowledge had no influence on their faults,

 Which had no less prov'd certain unforeknown." ...

... middle of paper ...

...le River: Prentice Hall, 1957.


    1Though the permissive will of God is secondary to the notion of predestination in this snippet of Paradise Lost, the concept does arise in passing in Chapter IV of De Doctrina Christiana: "... God did not decree sin, but only its permission [...] he who permits a thing does not decree it, but leaves it free.  Therefore, just as he was aware of Satan lurking near Heaven in the opening of Book III, so is he aware that mankind shall fall; yet, since implication does not follow necessarily follow from awareness, he is blameless in the consequences that follow.  In Milton's view, anyway.

    2Footnote to Paradise Lost (Book III, l.199)

    3Justice being the quality that drove us from Eden, and required the sacrifice of God's only-begotten son; Mercy is the quality by which Paradise can be regained.

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