With reference to a part of Paradise Lost, describe how Milton presents his conception of evil.

With reference to a part of Paradise Lost, describe how Milton presents his conception of evil.

Part Chosen: Book 10.

Paul Catherall

Throughout Paradise Lost, evil is presented as theodicean (*), rather than as a moral or ethical issue. The presentation of evil, as integral to cosmic order, is fundamentally linked to Milton’s concept of human nature itself.
Central to the argument of Paradise Lost, is the supposition that moral, or divine order is the pre-eminent power in God’s universe. The spiritual fabric of creation is a singularity, the divine order of an omnipotent God. It is this view of cosmic order that Milton defends in Paradise Lost.

Milton’s debt to the Civitas Dei of St. Augustine (1), is demonstrated in his presentation of evil as an inherent aspect of sentient nature, rather than as a cosmic force coeternal with moral good. For Milton, evil is not a manichaeistic force in its own right, a moral dimension in which the sentient being can find refuge, and impart spiritual allegiance. Instead, evil is a perversion or parody of moral order. To reject divine authority, and assert independence from God, is to exclude ourselves from the moral order of the universe, and the benevolence of divine justice.
Like Milton, Augustine suggests that rebellion, and independence from God is contrary to cosmic order, and the nature of sentient beings themselves:

‘What we call bad things are good things perverted. This perversion arises when a conscious creation becomes more interested in itself than in God and wishes to exist on its own… ‘ 2.

Fundamental to Milton’s concept of evil, is the nature of sentient will. Common to both Satan, and the inhabitants of Eden, is their ability to choose between obedience and rejection to God’s will. For Milton, the choice between divine order, and independence from God is an uncomfortable, but necessary aspect of sentient choice.
Milton wants to illustrate the conflict between the corrupt and divine nature in humanity; a conflict between the aspiration for individual power, as seen in Eve and Satan, and the knowledge that divine order is supreme, and cannot be challenged.
(*) – Term for the explanation of evil in Christian cosmology.
Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p.870
(1.) – St. Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 A.D. (Bishop of Annaba, Algeria.)
(2.) – St. Augustine, De Civitas Dei, XIV, II, (from A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C.S. Lewis, p.166)
Perhaps the most powerful example of Milton’s theodicean presentation of evil, is seen in the character of Satan. Satan believes he is a liberator, a rebel against the tyranny of an oppressive God. Instead, Satan’s rebellion is tolerated by God, and is used as an instrument to bring God’s plans for humanity to fruition. In Book X, God passes judgement on Adam, Eve and Satan. It is because Satan has fled God’s retribution that he is ‘condemned’:

‘The third best absent is condemned,
Convict by flight, and rebel to all law…’ 3.

Satan’s rebellion against divine authority is an assertion of self dependence from God. For Milton, independence of mind is power, and a challenge to divine authority. Satan constantly uses terms of authority to describe his retinue. After the corruption of Eden by Sin and Death, Satan greets the fallen angels, hailing them as lords of creation:

‘Thrones, dominions, princedoms, virtues, powers! ‘ 4.

Satan urges the fallen angels to become lords of God’s new creation. We realise that Satan’s desire for authority over creation is integral to his rebellion. Rather than submit to the hierarchical equality of heaven, Satan attempts to usurp the authority of God:

‘Thine now is all this world; thy virtue hath won…
With odds what war hath lost…
Here thou shalt thou monarch reign.’ 5.

Like the inhabitants of Eden, Satan is a sentient being, possessing independent thought, and the ability to choose between obedience, and rebellion.
Satan’s choice, unlike that of Adam or Eve, is to rebel, and remain rebellious. Unlike them, Satan cannot accept the primacy of divine authority; his choice, of evil, rather than moral order, reveals his inability to grasp the nature of cosmic reality. In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis suggests that by relinquishing the equality of heaven, and aspiring to heavenly authority, Satan has lost any real independence of mind:

‘Certainly he has no choice, he has chosen to have no choice. He has wished to be himself, and to be in himself and for himself, and his wish has been granted… ‘ 6.

(3.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.320, (Book X, lines 82-83)
(4.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.330, (Book X, line 450)
(5.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.327-328, (Book X, lines 372-376)
(6.) – C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, p.102

Milton’s theodicy is particularly evident in his interpretation of the Fall from Eden.
At the close of Book X, Adam bemoans the fate of humanity, suggesting that human nature, as conceived by God, is the cause of man’s corruption. Milton is obviously dealing with the fundamental problem of evil in the Christian or theistic universe, the question why humanity must ‘eat the bitter herb of the field’ (7). Adam has become susceptible to human uncertainty and doubt in the face of a hostile world:

‘Is this the end of this new glorious world,
And me the glory of the glory?’ 8.

The transformation of Adam from an unfallen, to a fallen state, is accompanied by a new material condition. For Milton, the human condition is inherent in our nature, and elemental to God’s divine scheme. Adam himself suggests the reason for evil and corruption on Earth; without the sorrows and trials of earthy misery, life seems almost without meaning.
Adam consoles himself with the realisation that he has been idle in Eden:

‘With labour I must earn
My bread; what harm? Idleness had been worse..
My labour shall sustain me… ‘ 9.

Milton comments that although God foresaw Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve, he allowed Satan to act. The advent of the human condition is elemental to God’s design for humanity. Milton mentions the fact that the unfallen Adam and Eve are ‘with free will armed,’ since they posses independence of mind, and the capacity to choose between good and evil:

‘God… who in all things wise and just,
Hindered not Satan to attempt the mind
Of man, with strength entire and free will armed…’ 10.

(7.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.323, (Book X, line 204)
(8.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.336, (Book X, lines 720-721)
(9.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.344, (Book X, lines 1054-1056)
(10.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.319, (Book X, lines 8-9)

Despite their inevitable Fall, humanity still possesses the legacy of Eden. God has shown paradise to humanity, as a promise for the future, to impress his justness, mercy and ultimate resolution of corruption in the universe. In The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Andrew Sanders suggests that this promise is the central meaning of Paradise Lost, and Milton’s most important theodicean defence of evil:

‘Despite the temptation presented by the poem itself to see the rebellion of Satan as a heroic gesture of liberation… Paradise Lost asserts to the reader the justness of a loving god’s eternal providence…’ 11.

The ultimate supremacy of divine order, is seen in God’s promise of a future paradise for humanity. Following the Fall, Adam and Eve submit to the authority of God. This obedience, unlike Satan’s rebellion, is an acknowledgement of divine authority and the reality of moral order. To purge humanity of material corruption, God empowers his Son to choose mortality and save mankind on Earth:

‘…the Son,
Destined redeemer of mankind, by whom
New heaven and earth shall to the ages rise…’ 12.

E.M.W. Tillyard suggests that Milton’s work is a vision of cosmic order, in which the necessity of obedience to God, is constantly stressed. Tillyard considers Milton’s work an appeal to reason, and a refutation of passion in human society. For Milton, the passion of Satan’s rebellion overcomes reason, blinding him to the true nature of divine order. Tillyard suggests that ultimately, Adam and Eve make the rational decision to accept divine order, and control their sentient impulse to assume self-dependency:

‘The theme of Paradise Lost is less that of obedience to God than of obedience… to temperance, to the rational against the irrational part of human nature… ‘ 13.

Perhaps the most important aspect of evil in Paradise Lost, is its relationship, not only to sentiency and free will, but to the nature of material life itself. In granting sentient beings independence of mind, and the capacity to choose between good and evil, God allows freedom of thought and action outside the singularity of divine order. In effect, God
relinquishes part of the universe he has created, to an external intelligence. Perhaps the most important aspect of this concession, is seen in God’s use of external, and sentient beings in the course of creation.

(11.) – Andrew Sanders, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, p.231
(12.) – John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.334, (Book X, lines 646-649)
(13.) – E. M. W. Tillyard, Milton, p.219

Satan himself corrupts Eden, without realising that he is serving divine purpose. Similarly, God empowers his son to choose mortality on earth, to redeem humanity from corruption through divine wisdom. When God discovers the Fall of Adam and Eve, he admits that he is responsible for creation. God asserts that he will ensure the ultimate salvation of fallen humanity. The price that God must pay for the Fall is the sacrifice of his Son to mortal pain and suffering:

‘For so I undertook
Before thee, and , not repenting, this obtain
Of right, that I may mitigate their doom
On me derived…’ 14.

The creation of Adam and Eve is similarly a sacrifice of God. By creating material beings, God imparts free will and independence of action within his creations. Like Satan, Adam and Eve are deliberately created as fallible beings, subject to passion, pride and blindness. E. M. W. Tillyard suggests that God’s concession of independent thought, also represents the purification of cosmic order. By imparting sentient beings with the capacity to choose evil, God purges cosmic order of evil, and exalts, or defines moral good:

‘God has intensified his own existence, raising to glory the good parts of himself, casting outside of himself the evil parts of himself… ‘ 15.

The presentation of evil in Paradise Lost, is therefore theodicean, in the sense that Milton is trying to demonstrate how evil contributes to the greater good of humanity and creation.
When God and the angels learn of the arrival of Sin and Death on earth, God reassures the angels that divine will is being played out in the events on earth:

‘…be not dismayed
Nor troubled at these tidings from the earth
Which your sincerest care could not prevent…’ 16.

In Paradise Lost, the dimensions of good and evil are entirely subject to the will of the creator. Evil and good are both essential to the human condition, since without the capacity to choose evil, sentient thought cannot exist.
For Milton, everything in creation is initially good, i.e.: obedient to the will of divine order. When sentient beings choose to reject divine order, and assert their own authority,
they exclude themselves from the moral fabric of the universe, and from the benevolence of God. For Milton, no real rebellion can be achieved against the divine will, and acts such as the revolt of Satan are mere parodies of divine nature.

(14.) John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.320, (Book X, lines 74-77)
(15.) E. M. W. Tillyard, Milton, p.233
(16.) John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.319, (Book X, lines 35-37)

Despite their capacity for independent thought, sentient beings are fallible, and require God’s guidance to exist successfully in creation. Milton reveals his rationalism in the assertion that evil is passion, or emotion, and good is reason. This assertion is seen in the portrayal of Satan’s unrepentant rebellion, as opposed to the embrace of divine order by Adam and Eve.

Although Milton clearly supports the rationalism of Adam, and stresses the self destruction of Satan, many writers and critics, such as Shelley and Blake, have identified Milton’s Satan as a Promethean hero. However, it does seem that the role of Satan, in the theology of Paradise Lost, serves as a personification for the irrational nature of evil, in contrast to the rational decision of Adam and Eve.

Milton presents evil as a fundamental aspect of human nature, which he clearly identifies with the irrational, the passionate and emotional. Milton pleads for humanity to embrace reason, thereby recognising the divine nature of cosmic order, and the destruction and tyranny that results from disobedience, both to reason and God.

Although Paradise Lost is primarily a religious work, and not a polemic allegory, we can make some comparisons between Milton’s republicanism and his theological argument in Paradise Lost.
In Satan’s rebellion, and the Fall of Eve, we are conscious of individuals who desire, not only liberty from the authority of God, but authority over creation themselves.
Milton seems to suggest the relationship between self-interest and despotic power. Like the hereditary rulers of 17th century Europe, Satan is a ‘monarch’ or ‘sultan’, an ambitious prince who dreams of conquest and dominion over others. Through the ambition of Satan and Eve, Milton seems to suggests that the choice of sentient beings is not so much between good and evil, or between between obedience and rebellion, but between equality and oppression.

At the end of Book X, with the promise of redemption through Christ, Milton defends his theodicean view of divine order, suggesting that evil, although painful, is necessary to the nature of humanity. The promise of new life, in the form of a new generation suggests the superiority of the fallen, rather than unfallen condition:

‘Remember with what mild
And gracious temper he both heard and judged,
Without wrath or reviling…
And bringing forth, soon recompensed with joy,
Fruit of thy womb… ‘ 17.

(17.) John Milton, Paradise Lost, p.344 (Book X, lines 1046-1049)


Primary Texts

Milton, John, The Works of John Milton, (Wordsworth Press, Hertfordshire, 1998.)

Secondary Texts

Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995.)

Lewis, C.S., A Preface to Paradise Lost, (Oxford University Press, London, 1971.)

Sanders, Andrew, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.)

Tillyard, E.M.W., Milton, (Peregrine, Harmonsworth, 1968.)

Hill, Christopher, Milton and the English Revolution, (Faber, London, 1977.)

Barker, A.E., Milton and the Puritan Dilemma, (Toronto University Press, Toronto, U.S.A., 1976.)