Free Essay on Milton's Paradise Lost - Paradise Lost as an Epic

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Paradise Lost as an Epic  


The Oxford English Dictionary defines "cosmos" as "the world or universe as an ordered and harmonious system," from the Greek, "kosmos," referring to an ordered and/or ornamental thing. Though Pythagoras is credited with first using this term to describe the Universe, probably since he is also the one most commonly cited for ideas of harmony and the Musica Mundana, cosmos is generally a contrast to "chaos"-"the first state of the universe." In explaining the theology and cosmology of Paradise Lost, Milton writes, "the heavens and earth/ Rose out of Chaos," describing the move from the formless mass to the ordered whole. (I:9-10) As much as this delineates the structure of the world, however, its culmination seems to appear in the Spirit, as Milton has conceived it-the free, reasoning, integrated Consciousness. Though many have found a hero in the English epic from its dramatis personae-from Adam to Satan to God/Son himself-the most encompassing heroism seems that of Milton himself, as a manifestation of this most supreme of creations: the wholesome mind.

        An instance in which Milton's views on the sovereignty of the Spirit appear in some of the conversations of the Arch Fiend himself with his fellows-which is quite ironic, considering that the story is an extrapolation upon Christian Scripture. One of Satan's "compeers" says, during a discussion after their exile from Heaven:

Too well I see and rue the dire event

That, with sad overthrow and foul defeat,

Hath lost us Heaven, and all this mighty host

In horrible destruction laid thus low,

As far as Gods and heavenly Essences

Can perish: for the mind and spirit remains

Invincible, and vigour soon returns,

Though all our glory extinct, and happy state

Here swallowed up in endless misery (I:135-140).

 

The invincibility of "the mind and spirit" is something which even the foes of God understand. Though the fallen angels corrupt their "heavenly Essences" with disobedience and revolt, they still have a keen understanding of the powers of perception, of personal reaction to one's environment-"for neither do the Spirits damned/ Lose all their virtue" (2:482-483). Satan boldly speaks to his fellows, asking

What though the field be lost?

All is not lost-the unconquerable will . . .

And courage never to submit or yield (I:105-108).

 

Like a true hero, Satan refers to conquest and courage, a response to the tyranny he and his cohorts have received from the hand of God.

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It is this attitude-of adventurous righteousness-which many cite as sufficient to show the fallen Archangel to be the hero of the work. However, working within the confines of the Biblical account, Milton could not reasonably-even if he wished-display Satan as the outright protagonist and epic hero. Therefore, it can only be his qualities of trust in the Spirit, in his own Consciousness as a fortress against the harms surrounding him, that can represent the truly heroic aspect.

        Satan is a deeply solipsistic character, well aware of the world and his situation in it. Though he becomes quite fatalistic at times and denies possibilities of recovery from his downfall, essentially, he knows that the loss of Heaven as a place is always permanent:

Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,

Receive thy new possessor-one who brings

A mind not to be changed by place or time.

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

What matter where, if I be still the same

. . . Here at least/ We shall be free . . .

we may reign secure; and, in my choice,

To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. (I:251-263)

 

        Whatever the reason for their revolt, when Satan and his armies are defeated by the Son, they lose their aspiration, revert to the disintegrated empty air from which they were made: "Exhausted, spiritless, afflicted, fallen" (6:852). In contrast, though Adam and Eve also fall like the Archangel, the difference between Satan and Man is their different choices in the application of their autonomy and spiritual sovereignty, especially after acting against God. Milton explains in his argument for Book X:

Adam more and more perceiving his fall'n condition heavily bewailes, rejects

the condolement of Eve; she persists and at length appeases him: then to evade

the Curse likely to fall on thir Ofspring, proposes to Adam violent wayes,

which he approves not, but conceiving better hope, puts her in mind of the late

Promise made them.

 

The dividing line between Man and Satan is demonstrated in Milton's summary with his juxtaposition of the proposal of "violent wayes" with "better hope . . . in mind of the late Promise made them." Instead of desperate, destructive means, like Satan and his minions, Adam and Eve are thus able to remain hopeful and humble.

        Adam even compares himself to the fallen Archangel, calling himself "miserable/ Beyond all past example and future;/ To Satan only like both crime and doom" (X:820-822). However, the pivotal difference comes later, when the actual consideration of possible choices-freedom-relents to create in Man hope, as opposed to Satan, who remains in "desperate revenge." An important concept here is that of Predestination, with which Milton himself vehemently disagreed, a strong proponent of free will and its acknowledgment. One of the devils in Pandemonium, Belial, describes Satan's justifications for rebellion: "we are decreed,/ Reserved, and destined to eternal woe" (II:160-161). But God charges this notion with sophistry, saying that

Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault . . .

So without least impulse or shadow of fate,

Or aught by me immutably foreseen,

They trespass, authors to themselves in all

. . . I form'd them free . . . Their nature . . . ordain'd

Their freedom: they themselves ordain'd their fall (III:118-128).

 

Satan later becomes conscious of his freedom, cursing himself who "Chose freely what [he] now so justly rues," but he cannot take this further to repentance and pardon, for which "there [is] no place/ Left . . .but by submission" (X:70, 79-81). This he cannot embrace because of his "disdain [for God] and dread of shame/ Among the Spirits beneath" (X:82-83). All of this is due to the utter perplexity and discord of Satan's situation; Belial sums this up in a bitter paradox: "our final hope/ Is flat despair" (II:142-143).

        The difference between Satan and Man emerges in the unfolding of the plot. Instead of taking Satan's view of utter despair and want of death and eternal unconsciousness, Adam and Eve decide to take a submissive place in God's plan. Diametrically opposed to Satan's vengeful schemes to seek war of "the offended Deity," Man seeks Peace-submitting to the Almighty because he is almighty, hoping for "The Spirit of God, promised alike and given/ To all believers" (XII:519-520). Repentance and supplication are things which Satan-in his desperation-could never accomplish. Though the Arch Fiend was strong of Spirit, it was crushed in his attempts to act against Divine Will, destroyed by the "Spirit and Might" given to the Son by God himself.

        Whether or not we take a "side" in determining the true victor(s)-Satan and his army in their spiritual "martyrdom" or Adam & Eve in their submission or the Son in his military conquest-Milton's insistence on the inner state as the final determinant of one's position is apparent throughout. Though Satan loses the battle, he is inwardly convinced of his own inability to do otherwise in the face of such extreme circumstances as his. Additionally, though Adam & Eve know that Paradise is lost as a place, their hope is to reach it as a state of mind, to reside there in Spirit. And the Son-though obviously the champion of the battle-was decreed to be victorious by the Almighty, and did not necessarily experience the sort of spiritual change or adventure like the other characters.

        This ambiguity by Milton-of not making the hero of his work apparent-is too pervasive to have been unintentional. Rather, it seems that Milton wishes to share his own "heroism" in composing such an epic to his culture-both English and Christian-by taking the reader on a trip through the Consciousness of each of his constructed characters, exploring the different facets of freedom and responsibility. In fact, in his role as narrator, Milton says to the Son:

Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing,

Escap'd the Stygian pool, though long detain'd

In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight

Through utter and through middle darkness borne

. . . I sung of Chaos and eternal Night;

Taught by the heavenly Muse to venture down

The dark descent, and up to re-ascend (3:13-20).

 

Milton describes his allegorical trek through the heavens and the earth-an "obscure sojourn" quite similar to that of Aeneas or Odysseus or Achilles. Though he is blinded physically, Milton explains-as narrator-that he, like other blind prophets, is granted other boons to recompense for his loss:

with the year . . . Seasons return; but not to me returns

Day . . . So much the rather thou, celestial Light,

Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers

Irradiate; there plant eyes . . . that I may see and tell

Of things invisible to mortal sight. (3:40-55)

 

It is this "celestial Light" which allows Milton to see things which others cannot, which allows him to be like "Thamyris . . . Maeonides . . . Tiresias, and Phineus" (3:35-36).

        Though many arguments and counter-arguments can be made as to who of the figures in Paradise Lost is its hero, as a whole, it is the Spirit, the inward wholesomeness, intellectual autonomy, and strength of character of the individual which appears as the most wide-ranging "epic virtue" in the work, displayed by many of the characters. Essentially, in this piece, Milton takes the entire concept of an epic and transforms it into an engaging experience, one which is not at all an attempt at flattery and sycophantic pandering to his own culture and beliefs, but rather, one which takes the reader's own Spirit to task. Centuries before Milton, Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica: "In the very gift of sanctifying grace, it is the Holy Spirit whom one possesses, and who dwells in man." Milton's epic awakens anyone who participates in this mental voyage from whatever depths of gloom he may reside, transforming the shapeless darkness therein into the integrated Consciousness, the illuminated Spirit, which formed the Son, but lives in us all:

Hail, holy Light, offspring of Heaven firstborn

. . . Before the Heavens thou wert . . .

Won from the void and formless infinite (3:1-12).


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