Paradise Lost

By John Milton

Themes, Part 1

The Creation and Chaos

The world of Paradise Lost was created out of chaos ensphered by God's act of turning the pair of golden compasses, and suspended from heaven by a golden chain. Milton did not believe that the universe was created from nothing. Chaos also meant "yawning gulf" and with it came connotations of emptiness and formlessness.

The central stage of the poem is the inner tribulations of Adam and Eve, but the cosmic background is of great religious, imaginative and aesthetic importance. The whole Ptolemaic world is only a point in Milton's universe. Hanging in Chaos, it looks to Satan like a small star beside the moon. Chaos fills the space between heaven and hell.

The discussion of the Creation in Paradise Lost raises an obvious, though still topical in Milton's time, theological question: if God foreknew the Fall of man, why did he proceed with the Creation? The answer is partly made in traditional theological terms: that is that the Lord's ways are incomprehensible to mankind. However, since it is Milton's purpose to justify the ways of God to humankind, this does not suffice. Milton has Adam ask

"How first began this heaven which we behold

Distant so high…

What cause

Moved the creator in his holy rest

Through all eternity so late to build

In Chaos, and that work begun, how soon



In the context of Newtonian physics, Adam's question at first focuses on the process, or mechanics behind the universe, but also on God's motives for creating it. Raphael declares,

"Immediate are the acts of God, more swift

Than time or motion, but to human ears

Cannot without process of speech be told,

So told as earthly notion can receive."


In Dante this problem is non-existent; space, time and movement are only present as a means of talking about spiritual truth. Milton answers the question of how the universe works inside the answer to why God made it.

Raphael is clear that the universe mankind inhabits is not only made in chaos, it is also in part made from it. Chaos is insufficient for the process of creation, and in itself is not wholly good for that purpose; in Book VII we are told of the "black tartareous cold infernal dregs | Adverse to life" which must be "downward purged" before the universe can come into existence. "Tartareous" is a word that Milton twice used to allude to hell (II.858; VI.54). The raw material that constitutes chaos is made up of the four elements: earth, fire, air and water. It lacks the life that animates the universe, and it is devoid of light. God brings light (see VII.243-9). For Milton the arrival of light is a key moment; it divides the history of the creation, the created universe from the realm of Chaos and Night.

Milton reveals in Book I that the Creation of man was a project discussed in Heaven before the Fall, thus refuting claims that have been made by theologians and critics that God did so to repopulate his 'empire' after the war in heaven. Milton has his God refute this charge in Book III.

Milton's Theodicy

Miltondeclares in Book I that his purpose in writing Paradise Lost is to justify to mankind the ways and justice of God, a theodicy. The theological apologetic of Paradise Lost concerns God's nature, or 'character', rather than his existence. The latter, given Milton's own piety and religious convictions, is an unquestionable truth.

The 'problem' of evil in Milton's theodicy is essentially an attempt to balance three tenets of the Christian faith: the omnipotence and omniscience of God, His unwavering "goodness", and the existence of evil in the world. In the poem this also entails rhetorical balancing - that is, if God's ways are "justifiable to men", Milton must somehow manage to avoid alienating his readers, whilst still upholding the reality of Man's sinfulness and the limits to his understanding divine procedure. Milton's concern with the problem of evil is of its relation to the human condition, the very heart of the poem.

Thus Milton begins his epic with a declaration of Man's fallen status; of his and his readers' need for redemption because of this (I.1-26). Throughout the poem the reader is reminded of his or her fallen condition; however, complementary to this are Milton's continual declarations of the possibilities of Man for salvation.

The Fall (of Man) represents mankind's first transgression of the will of God. In narrative terms this involves the events that preceded the Fall and its consequences. Taken doctrinally, it concerns the cause and nature of mankind's wickedness. Historically these two strands had not been particularly interwoven; this is one of the areas in which Paradise Lost is remarkable. The Biblical source for the narrative is Genesis 2 and 3; outside this, the Old Testament makes no other explicit reference to the story of Adam and Eve, and St Paul's typological interpretation (i.e. seen in the context of Christ's redemption) is the only other Biblical account. Milton took both strands and interwove them into his epic, each informing the other. This develops in Paradise Lost as Milton magnifies the narrative details to expose further questions about the Fall story that are marginal in the Genesis narrative.

It is in discussing the issues of the foreknowledge of God and human free will that Milton encounters some of his greatest difficulties in reconciling narrative and doctrine. Free Will is vital to Milton's argument, it is what explains the fall of Satan and his retinue, and what allows the loss of Eden. God's omniscience means that he foreknows the choices that Adam and Eve will take, but allows them to do so through their own Free Will, as he had done with Satan. The question remains, why does God allow this?

God, for reasons that hold with His own wisdom and goodness, chose to create angels and humans with the capacity for Free Will, the freedom to obey or disobey his commands. Although He foreknows the choices angels and humans will make, this act of self-limitation on His part means that a certain amount of disobedience, and thus evil, will exist. Satan laments that he could return to heaven, to obey God, but chooses not to. For humans, and in the poem Adam and Eve, values such as love, honesty and loyalty would be devoid of content without freedom. In Areopagitica Milton outlined this: "when God gave him [Adam] reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had bin else a meer artificiall Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions [i.e. puppet shows]". Nowhere is this clearer than in Book III where God declares

"I made [man] just and right,

Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.

Such I created all the ethereal powers

And spirits, both them who stood and them who failed;

Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.

Not free, what proof could they have given sincere

Of true allegiance, constant faith or love,

Where only what they needs must do, appeared,

Not what they would? What praise could they receive?

What pleasure I from such obedience paid,

When will and reason (reason is also choice)

Useless and vain, of freedom both despoiled,

Made passive both, had served necessity,

Not me."


God follows to assert that angels or humans that fall cannot blame "Their maker, or their making, or their fate, | As if predestination overruled | Their will, disposed by absolute decree | … they themselves decreed | Their own revolt, not I" (III.113-23). Here Milton uses God to repudiate the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and assert that of the Free Will. The doctrinal or philosophical question surrounding the possibility for God's foreknowledge and human free will to coexist was a contentious theological issue in Milton's day. To accept any form of divine determinism is to abandon the logic necessary for the application of free will. Foreknowledge is not, however, determinism. God has no control over the choices angels or humans make, merely knows the outcome. Milton was unprepared, like his contemporaries the Socinians, to concede restrictions to God's omniscience because of the existence of free will.

Milton's account of the Fall in Paradise Lost resembles that of Boethius, probably the most influential treatment of divine foreknowledge. We are told in Book III that God foreknows that man "will fall" (III.95) but that he has adequate means to avoid doing so, and that "foreknowledge had no influence on their fault" (III.118). Milton also had to make the Fall credible; historically Christianity has emphasised the ideal of the prelapsarian condition (that which existed before the Fall) raised problems - if everything was so perfect, how could it have happened at all?

Simply, Milton had to build his narrative on the necessary conditions for Adam and Eve to fall and to remain faithful to God. Milton first presents the potential for Adam and Eve to fall, their fallibility, rather than their 'fallenness'. In the environment of Eden both Adam and Eve face challenges, difficulties, temptations and the possibility of failure and loss. Elsewhere Milton wrote about the necessity of natural and moral evil in the world in what he called "the constituting of human vertue".

Heaven & Hell

In Books I and II Milton introduces his readers to Satan, his retinue of fallen angels, and Hell. The perverse demonic destruction in creating hell directly opposes the divine Creation. In Book I "Angel Forms, who lay intrans't | Thick as Autumnal Leaves" (l.301-2) "Op'n'd into the Hill a spacious wound", "Rifl'd the bowels of their mother Earth" (l.689), and "tore Hell's Concave" (l.542) to construct Pandaemonium. It is here that

"High on a Throne of Royal State, which far

Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind

Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand

Show'rs on her Hings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,

Satan exalted sat, by merit rais'd

To that bad eminence."


Following the picture of Satan, Pandaemonium, and the design to "adventure" and expand the Satanic domain to God's new creation, in Book II Milton introduces his reader to heaven (II.1037-55) and in Book III, God. In heaven there are no illusions or disguises, it is a realm where false appearance is derided, yet the overall reality is overwhelming. Milton sought to disclose the mystery of heaven with rational lucidity.

On his return to hell Satan announces he will lead his followers "forth | Triumphant out of this eternal pit" (X.452-64). Satan transformed by the power of God, emerges metamorphosed as a hideous dragon. The devils too are transformed, and the deceivers finally become the deceived.

"Deceiv'd; they fondly thinking to allay

Thir appetite with gust, instead of Fruit

Chew'd bitter ashes."

Satan had boasted to Sin and Death his own creation would rival God's, claiming that in founding "Th' Infernal Empire … so near Heav'n's door" finally "Triumphal with triumphal act have met". The final anti- triumph turns Satan's empire into an even more terrible hell, his conspiracy for the Fall of Adam and Eve being his one fleeting victory. Milton ends the demonic grand illusion with Satan and his retinue condemned to eternal punishment, and the promise that at the Apocalypse hell will be sealed forever.


At the beginning of Paradise Lost Milton declares his interest in establishing,

"what cause

Moved our grand parents in that happy state,

Favoured of heaven so highly, to fall off

From their creator…"


Eden is central to the plot of Paradise Lost. It is there that action so relevant for the fate of humankind Milton seeks to explore and explain occurs. Through his choice of language, Milton successfully manages to impose upon his reader awareness or expectancy of the Fall. We are introduced to Eden and Adam and Eve only after learning of Satan's ambitions and the divine plan for postlapsarian renewal. Essential to the effectiveness of the pastoral genre is the feeling or literary experience of the idyllic state that came before; in Paradise Lost Milton has purposefully excluded this.

Among early modern Protestants overconfidence in God's grace was an issue that merited significant discussion, even considered a sin by some.

"This Paradise I give thee, count it thine

To till and keep, and of the fruit to eat"


"Frail is our happiness, is this be so,

And Eden were no Eden thus exposed."


The Fall

Milton follows the Bible in calling the forbidden tree the "Tree of Knowledge". The consequence of eating the fruit was knowledge of a certain kind: that good could be gained only by knowing evil. Adam and Eve gained knowledge of evil and knowledge of God's providence when they fell from grace. Part of the sin in the Fall was the attempt to attain knowledge to equal God's. Adam says,

"Full of doubt I stand,

Whether I should repent me now of sin

By me done and occasioned, or rejoice

Much more, that much good thereof shall spring,

To God more glory, more good will to men

From God, and over wrath grace shall abound."

One critic labelled this "the paradox of the fortunate fall". It is the pendant of Satan's earlier soliloquy on his free will; Adam has the choice, as did Satan, to obey or ignore God.


Of all theological issues treated in Paradise Lost it is that of salvation that receives the most attention. From the era of Luther Protestants answered the question under the terms of Sola fide, viz. the doctrine 'By Faith Alone'. This doctrine was one of the principal divisions between Protestants and Catholics (the Roman church upholding the value of 'good works', intercession of the saints, and receipt of the sacraments), and even within the Protestant faith, up until Milton's own times. The Lutheran position made for an interiorisation of the believer, removing the physicality and visibility of the Christian's search for salvation.

Salvation in Calvinist theology was governed by the doctrine of double Predestination. This was a deterministic interpretation of God's foreknowledge. Calvinists believed that God had made prior judgement of mankind. Hence there were those 'saints', or the 'just' - viz. those who would receive God's grace and ascend to the divine spheres - and the 'reprobate', or the 'unjust', who were damned beyond all efforts at redemption. Understandably, this doctrine had a major impact on individuals' lives, particularly psychologically, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It raised many theological problems about the nature of God and the workings of salvation. That is not to say that the Calvinist theologians formulated the concept of Predestination; the doctrine is not explicitly taught in the Bible, though there are numerous allusions and adumbrations towards the concept in books of the Old and the New Testament.

Predestination had been a particularly controversial issue since the late Roman period, with the Pelagian controversy. Through the medieval period the concept received attention from the Schoolmen, but it was fully revived during the Reformation. There was debate and disagreement within the Lutheran faith over the doctrine, but it was Jean Calvin who gave new vitality to the doctrine and his 'disciple', Theodore Beza, made it the cornerstone of the Calvinist faith. It was imposed on the United Provinces (the modern Netherlands) by the Synod of Dort (1618-19), and the Westminster Assembly of Divines imposed the doctrine on the Church of England in 1647. The Assembly declared that after the Fall, God does not will the salvation of all men, and that Christ died only for the elect.

During the early seventeenth century in the United Provinces there emerged a strong challenge to the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination with Arminianism. The Synod of Dort condemned the Arminians and their theology, principally on the grounds that the Jacobus Arminius's interpretation of salvation was antithetical to Calvinism. Arminius argued for the role of human Free Will, that mankind could in fact have some part to play in salvation.

The doctrine of salvation was the controversial area that Milton could express his beliefs about openly. The process of Arminian salvation is expounded in both the exchange between the Father and the Son, and the Father's speech (III.173-202), and on a practical level, is demonstrated by Adam and Eve. The Father's position is essentially Ramist - he first divides those to whom "peculiar grace" extends unto, and then further distinguishes the rest as those who hear his call. This second group is subdivided by its response to God's call: those who hear and respond, and those who do but choose to ignore it. 'Peculiar' is a word that is frequently found in Calvinist discourse - e.g. Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion notes God reserves "some peculiar thing concerning his electes". For Milton, salvation is a process; it requires the interaction of God and man - that is, man must show God the endurance of his faith, and God take mercy and deem his faith worthy of divine enlightenment.

With the story of Satan and his retinue of fallen angels, Milton demonstrates the process of moral and spiritual degeneration. This serves as a pendant to the process of salvation, the path to exclusion. The case of the fallen angels replicates the Calvinist doctrine of reprobation; that however, for Milton, does not apply to humankind. The story of Adam and Eve exemplifies the Arminian concept of regeneration. Adam's monologue and his dialogue with Eve in the tenth book (X.720-) reveals the workings of this process.

Adam initially poses a series of questions and exclamations in which he is searching for reproach for God's justice and recognition of his own liability. Hence, Adam asks: 'Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay | To mould me man…?' (X.743-4) before realizing that, '… Inexplicable | Thy justice seems; yet to say truth, too late | I thus contest' (X.754-6). Adam however struggles with the knowledge that he has condemned mankind.

"Ah, why should all mankind

For one man's fault thus guiltless be condemned,

If guiltless? But from me what can proceed,

But all corruption…"


The immediate outcome of this is Adam's recognition and acknowledgement of his own sinfulness. Adam's initial presumptions about God's justice are not repudiated until he debates with Eve rather than originating with inner deliberation. This is a familiar feature of Milton - compare the resolutions of both Samson and Abdiel.

Eve reasons they "Both have sinned, but thou | Against God only, I against God and thee" (X.930-1). In forgiving Eve, Adam makes the first step in regeneration, enacting a central tenet of Christianity :by forgiving he too will be forgiven.