Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the four great epic works of the Western world, vying with Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, and Goethe’s Faust for the supremacy. Only these four in European literature have taken the universe as their field of discourse.

Contrary to what we consider to be normal procedure, Milton chose his medium of expression before he chose his subject. It was one of his long cherished desires to leave a great epic poem behind him, one that would stand as an enduring monument. Later, as he sought for the proper subject matter, he decided that no less a stage than the universe and no less than the drama of the ages would suffice in magnitude for his proposed work. The work became universal in its scope, reaching from the beginning to the end of history and penetrating to the highest reach of heaven and the lowest pit of hell.

The Greatest Tragedy

In making his poem embrace all time, from scenes in heaven to the consummation of all things, Milton forced himself to grapple with some knotty problems.

As Buxton writes, “The poet who makes the Universe the subject of his poem, undertakes a work so supremely difficult and complicated that without an extraordinary, an apparently miraculous combination of powers and sympathies, he must ignominiously fail” (Prophets of Heaven and Hell, p. 3). But Milton was seeking a solemn and edifying subject for his epic, and his spirit revolted from the frivolous and untrue. His mind naturally turned to the greatest tragedy of all time, the fall of the angels and of man. What was more real and dramatic than the fall of man, and what better medium was there for his moral purposes and the justification of the ways of God to man? With masterful arrangement and seductive style, Milton causes the reader to view with him the drama of Satan’s fall and his cunning schemes. One’s eyes also see the portrayal of man’s pristine beauty and grandeur, his ruinous fall, and finally a preview of the history of his redemption.

Satan’s fall is so extensively treated that some have called him the hero of the epic. He is shown to be an angel, highly endowed by his Creator. But because of his lust for greater glory, he rebels against the rightful lordship of God. Hence he must be cast from heaven and suffer torment in hell, bearing the fruits of disturbing the order of creation which God had ordained. In his plight we do not find him repentant, however. He and his followers only plot how they may further war against God. Though he sees his fortunes changed, he boasts of “the unconquerable will, the study of revenge, immortal hate, and courage never to submit or yield” (Paradise Lost, book I, ll. 106–108).

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Yet there is the problem of making hell a livable place. Satan consoles himself with the thought, “Here at last we shall be free” (book I, l. 258), and takes a subjective view of punishment in his words, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n” (book I, ll. 254–255). Then he and his followers consult with one another and plan their strategy. Their deliberations, however, only reveal further the scope of their tragedy, for they reveal the successive depths of satanic predicament. The freedom in which they boast is really no freedom at all; instead, their actions are self-frustrating. Their parley serves to disclose how much they are bound, as the result of their rebellious spirit. From holding counsel to wage open war against God, they are reduced to the doubtful glory of trying to seduce others to suffer the same fate.

Satan’S Sophistry

The whole situation of Satan and his host is filled with grim humor. Satan is certain that there will be no faction or strife in hell, for none will wish to claim precedence in being tormented. To escape the lordship of God, Satan gladly submits himself to an idea of fate. He consoles himself with the idea that he can make a heaven out of hell; but as he comes to the garden of Eden, it is said of him, “… within him Hell he brings … nor from Hell one step, no more than from himself, can fly …” (book IV, l. 2022). And Satan admits, “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (book IV, l. 75). The one who sought freedom from God and his order finds himself bound as he never was before. There is a comic ring in Milton’s portrayal. He wishes to characterize a Satan who is not simply pitiable, but ludicrous and contemptible.

Some have accused Milton of making his devils too gentlemanly, and they have been compared unfavorably to those more directly fiendish powers in the Divine Comedy. But if Milton were to have made his devils mere brute powers that buffeted man, he would have lost much. Their brute character would have destroyed that blending of logic and illogic, reason and insanity, which makes for irony in the persons of sinful creatures. As it is, he is able to portray the self-defeating character of rebellion from God and the subtlety and apparent reasonableness of the great Tempter. Besides, some of the most devilish sins are committed by “gentlemen” and some of the worst sins are “refined.”

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Source Of Tragedy

The situation is similar in Milton’s portrayal of the fall of Adam and Eve. Their idyllic condition before the fall is painted in glowing colors, and it is contrasted vividly with the degradation and misery of their fallen estate. Harmony is changed to discord, and joy is replaced by pain. Their efforts, too, are self-frustrating. Wishing to know, they learn only the sin and misery which disobedience brings. Wishing to be free, they are enslaved. Adam shows his “love” for Eve by eating the fruit with her; then they fall to hating one another and bickering. They spurn the worship of God, yet turn to the worship of the tree and its fruit.

Though the central theme of the poem is the origin of human tragedy in willful rebellion against God, there is some sort of organic connection between the will of man and the course of nature. When Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, “Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat, sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe, that all was lost” (book IX, ll. 782–784). When Adam ate, “Earth trembled from her entrails, as gain in pangs and Nature gave a second groan” (book IX, ll. 1000–1001).

We see, therefore, that the ultimate source of tragedy, whether in angel, man, or nature, is one. The source of tragedy is not blind accident or fate; tragedy is fundamentally derived from conscious choice. There was no tragedy before the first disobedience. The deepest source of all tragedy, therefore, is personal. The rebellions of Satan and of man are rebellions of will against a beneficent God, albeit it a God who demands reverence and obedience from his creatures.

It is true, however, that the original decisions led Satan and man into a play of necessities. They are now at the mercy of powers set awry by their disobedience. Furthermore, they can never undo what they have brought about. We see this plainly in the case of Satan. It is assumed that Satan’s decision is irrevocable, and that he will never be reinstated into God’s favor. Though it is never said that a necessity outside his own proud and stubborn will prevents him from turning again to God, the practical issue of his rebellion is considered to be sure. He will continue to think it better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.

Satan And Greek Heroes

Some have thought that the character of Satan and his Promethean rebellion from God is at the center of the drama. As Milton’s hero, Satan is supposed to resemble greatly the heroes of Greek drama. But there are some prominent differences between Milton’s Satan and the Greek heroes. We gain the impression from reading Greek drama that the heroes were justified at least in part for their rebellion against their fate. Prometheus brings fire to men, and for this deed of kindness he is bound to a rock by the angry Zeus. The attempt is made by the dramatist to make the audience feel admiration for the nobility of Prometheus, and finally the chorus is moved to suffer his fate with him. Here there is the possibility of questioning the goodness of Zeus; but in Paradise Lost there is no occasion given to doubt the beneficence of God, and Satan is shown to be the epitome of sin.

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Furthermore, in Greek tragedy there is proper cause for the heroes to rebel against their fate because it is a prophecy of doom apart from their real wishes. In Oedipus Rex, for instance, the hero’s fate is foretold apart from his conscious desire, and the tragic situation is precipitated by trivial incidents. But in Paradise Lost the rebellion is against the just and wise God.

Concept Of Freedom

The picture Milton portrays of Satan can stand only if we consider it a proper claim of God to have dominion over his creatures. One suspects that those who sympathize with Satan feel that all reality is based on a democratic political platform. But the concept of freedom can be applied too abstractly. That is what Satan tried to do, but he found that he could not carry through his case.

We have noticed that Milton represented Satan as being self-frustrating and unable to maintain a consistent position. This makes his open rebellion not only tragic but comic, and makes his violent acts not simply a pitiable but a ludicrous spectacle. But the comic in Satan would disappear if we were not given the impression that his tragic situation ultimately depended upon his own will. The tragic in Milton is therefore not stark; tragic situations are not ultimately brute, just there, apart from their original source in a choice against the all-wise and good God. Only for this reason can Milton lead us not simply to pity Satan and man in their rebellion, but also to feel derision.

How did Milton wish his solemn epic to be taken? Was it to be read literally or was it a typical representation of the struggles and failures of the human soul? Buxton inclines to a view that regards Milton’s work as an epic of man in general. It is required of a cosmic story, he says, that it have a central figure, human enough “to be imagined as representative of mankind in its strivings and failures” (Op. cit., p. 38). On the basis of this judgment, he makes a criticism of Milton’s Adam: “It is perhaps the one inherent weakness of Milton’s myth that Adam, in his perfect innocence before the Fall, is a figure so remote from all our experience that it is well-nigh impossible to invest him with real interest” (Ibid.). But we cannot think of Milton’s purpose as being identical with that of Goethe in Faust, to portray a symbolic figure representing humanity in the abstract. What Milton first of all wished was to describe a unique history which he accepted on the basis of his belief in the authority of Scripture. Adam is not so much the symbol of humanity as he is its head, plunging it into sin. The remoteness or nearness of the prelapsarian Adam could not have been the first question then before Milton’s mind. His aim was to base his epic in the main on sober history.

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The foregoing implies that Milton was writing something he regarded not merely to be a story but to be a fact. It is true that Milton embellished his writing with all sorts of imagery drawn from historical sources and his own imagination. The personifications of Death and Sin are imaginary, for instance. But Milton’s living in a rationalistic age did not influence him basically. As Willey says, “… his work is much like an isolated volcano thrusting up through the philosophic plains, and drawing its fire from deeper and older levels of spiritual energy” (The Seventeenth Century Background, p. 226). There are, in Milton’s work, many purely imaginative elements and much symbolic meaning which he wished to be taken as such. But Willey is closer to the truth than Buxton when he says: “On the whole I think we must conclude that whereas the pagan myths were to him but husks from which truth could be winnowed … the biblical events, if allegorical at all, were the deliberate allegories of God himself; and when God allegorizes he does not merely write or inspire parables, he also causes to happen the events which can be allegorically interpreted” (Ibid., p. 239).

Milton’s thoughts do not stop at Paradise Lost. Like the biblical record itself, Milton’s work looks forward to a paradise regained. By the seed of the woman, man is to be saved from sin. Tragedy is not just there; it can be overcome, and it will be overcome finally in Christ,

“… for then the Earth Shall be a Paradise, far happier place Than this of Eden, and far happier daies” (book XII, ll. 463–465).


Robert D. Knudsen is Instructor in Philosophy at Westminster Theological Seminary. He holds the Ph.D. from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is author of The Idea of Transcendence in the Philosophy of Karl Jaspers (Kok, 1958).

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