Sin, Fall, and Redemption in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Part I

What follows is a lecture first delivered to a general audience at Deer Park Library in Toronto some years ago.  I post it now on Priceton because Milton’s Paradise Lost is a case in point of the way in which contemporary ideological fashions (i.e., prejudices) have so fatally interfered with our reception and understanding of the great works of Western literature and thought, not to mention our ability to be morally edified by them. 

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Let me say first what a delight it is to have the opportunity to speak to you this evening, about a poem that is surely one of the most majestic works in the history of English letters, indeed, in the history of literature in any language.

Like most of you, I come to foundational texts such as Paradise Lost as a non-specialist:  as one who is interested in the enduring monuments of literature and thought if only because their imprint is so deeply engraved into the cultural and spiritual DNA of the West; because, having been a part of the civilized conversation for centuries and millennia, they have laid down within us the psychic deposits that make us human.

I hesitate to begin on a polemical note, but I am not the first to lament that we are slowly losing touch with these old authors and traditions; not only because our young people prefer to stare at dancing pixels rather than read books, or because their guardians no longer consider a broad classical and liberal arts education essential to their development as citizens and human beings; but also because in the schools and the wider community of political correctness, the past is so readily dismissed as a miasmal swamp of prejudice, injustice, and unenlightenment.

We fondly imagine that because the march of technological and scientific progress is evidently inevitable, so the epoch in which we now live is by definition intellectually, morally, and socially more advanced that every previous one.  We are on that assumption quite beyond such benighted notions as sin, hell, the soul, right reason, and the contemplation of the invisible things of God– subjects that preoccupied Milton, as they did the most brilliant thinkers, writers, and artists in the Western Tradition for two and a half millennia before he took up his epic pen.

To the self-congratulatory certitudes of today’s triumphalist modernism, dead, white, patriarchal, Christian males like Milton apparently have little to say.  This is a brute fact with which old fuddy-duddies like myself are all too familiar.  These days undergraduates typically enter our elite universities never having read any of the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Plato, or St. Augustine, let alone obscure little Milton, and worse, blithely unaware of the cultural, intellectual, and moral impoverishment they have thereby suffered.

In one class I taught recently on Paradise Lost, following a lecture on the commonplace Christian theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, a befuddled young lady came up to me at the end of the hour to inquire in all earnestness, “Do you mean to say that pride isn’t a good thing.”  No, pride is decidedly not a good thing, at least not until recently, even if one can forgive this student’s confusion on the grounds that, like most of her peers, she had recently graduated from Self-Esteem High.

Living before the dawn of modernity, Milton, of course, would not have laboured under any such illusion as the inevitability of moral or social progress, but regarded human vice, injustice, and misfortune as the permanent conditions of life in a fallen world, to be borne with the sort of equanimity, trust in Providence, and Christian hope enjoined by the wise men of antiquity, and then again by such early-medieval Christian Stoics as Boethius.  Nor would he have imagined the possibility, merchandised to us by the modern democratic welfare state, of establishing a paradise of social justice and economic equality on earth.   Rather, as a Christian, he saw the modest end of human life as the spiritual regeneration of each man’s own soul, the building of “a paradise within thee happier far”, as the archangel Michael exhorts Adam as he departs from Eden in the last book of the poem.

Some of these perennial themes and ideas I will try to touch on, however briefly, in the short time we have together.  Their importance for us in the twenty-first century, like the importance of all pre-modern writers and ideas, resides in the Archimedean perspective they offer on the unconscious prejudices and uncritical assumptions of our own age.  There is no point, it seems to me, in arguing with Milton over his outmoded attitudes toward women, or his primitive Christian faith in the magical efficacy of the Incarnation.  Milton is dead, and thus quite past reforming.

 

Since I am not a literary critic, let alone a specialist critic of Milton, I don’t intend to give you my interpretation of Paradise Lost, even if we had time for itI won’t be concerned with whether, as the Romantic critics argued, Milton was secretly of the devil’s party, and Satan was his real hero.   I’m not particularly interested in the transient political circumstances in which Milton wrote, whether he was a royalist or a republican, whether his Satan was a Cromwellian leader in either the good or bad sense of the adjective; and unlike the Freudians, I don’t care in the least about Milton’s domestic life or toilet habits, all of which may be of interest to specialized Milton scholars, although I tend to regard such matters as generally peripheral to the craft of the pre-modern poet, who as our own Northrop Frye has shown, made literature, not out his own private experiences, but out of other literature.

In what follows, then, my interest is in understanding and appreciating Paradise Lost in the context of the regnant Christian, pagan-mythological, Platonic, and Stoic ideas of Milton’s seventeenth-century milieu, with which Milton expects his readers to be familiar, and which Milton evidently shares, whether or not his later critics are right in arguing that he secretly believes otherwise.   And though I don’t deny for a moment that the meaning of a poem cannot be confined to the prison of the poet’s personal and conscious intentions, or even to those of his historical age, I note also that–by sheer coincidence, of course–the Romantic critics thought Milton was a prophet of Romanticism, the Freudian critics of Freudian psychology, the critics of the early twentieth century, of Modernism, and those of our own time, of Post-Modernism.

As advertised, my specific topic this evening is beatitude, sin, and the fall of man—if you can call a topic “specific” that has been the universal preoccupation of Western thought for two millennia before Milton took it up.  How, we must wonder, could Milton have found anything new or original to say on such a theme?  But then, since Milton lived in a time well before “originality” had become the artistic fetish it is now, the problem would hardly have crossed his mind.

On the contrary, having been bequeathed so vast and rich a legacy of thought on these subjects, Milton would have regarded the attempt to be “original” as an act of monstrous hubris and ingratitude.  As C.S. Lewis has described it, the vocation of the medieval and Renaissance poet was “to hand the matter on”, a vocation that Milton would have been quite content to accept.

Milton’s attitude toward sin, fall, and redemption was thus utterly and capaciously traditional.  Indeed, that celebrated Miltonic amplitude of mind–that inordinate capacity to digest and synthesize the entire history of Western literature, symbolism, and thought,– is why I tell my students that reading Milton’s Paradise Lost offers them a complete liberal arts education in miniature.

 

There is no better place to begin to explore Milton’s contentedly (and for some, exasperatingly) unmodern attitudes than at the point at which, in book IV, after his enumeration of the bounteous flora and fauna of the earthly Paradise, he first describes Adam and Eve, the original human pair, as they step forth amongst them.

Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,

Godlike erect, with native Honor clad

In naked Majesty seem’d Lords of all,

And worthy seem’d, for in thir looks Divine

The image of thir glorious Maker shone,

Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure,

Severe, but in true filial freedom plac’t;

Whence true authority in men; though both

Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem’d;

For contemplation hee and valor form’d,

For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,

Hee for God only, shee for God in him:

His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d

Absolute rule; and Hyacinthine Locks

Round from his parted forelock manly hung

Clust’ring, but not beneath his shoulders broad:

Her unadorned golden tresses wore

Dishevell’d, but in wanton ringlets wav’d

As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli’d

Subjection, but requir’d with gentle sway,

And by her yielded, by him best receiv’d…

Now, if the women and wives in the audience are still sitting down, let me try to assure them that this has nothing to do with Milton’s, or Christianity’s, inveterate patriarchal misogyny, and everything to do with the hierarchical order in which the components of every healthy soul, male and female alike, was thought to be disposed.  Here, in fact, in the very first words Milton chooses to describe them, Adam and Eve are not so much individual human beings as universal psychological or moral types, personifications of masculine Reason and feminine Sensuality.

Adam and Eve are “Godlike erect”, because alone among the animals, as Ovid had depicted him in his myth of the creation of man in book I of the Metamorphoses,–alone among the animals, man, uniquely endowed with the rational intelligence that is a particle of the divine Reason itself, gazes upwards toward heaven as the birthplace of his soul and his true home, the realm of God and Plato’s eternal incorporeal realities and truths, upon which the focus of man’s attention must continue to dwell throughout his exile in the world below, rather than downward upon the earth, with its false and transitory goods and pleasures.

But only Adam, says Milton, is made, “for contemplation” of these high mysteries.  What Eve is made for is implied clearly enough by the luxuriant golden tresses she shares with the wanton goddess Venus, and which are for extra emphasis compared by Milton to the twining tendrils of Bacchus’ intoxicating vine.  Adam’s hair is by contrast virtuously short, long hair (in men especially) being a conventional emblem of sensuality going all the way back to David’s riotously Epicurean son Absolom.

As a symbol of the senses and the flesh, Eve is made, as Milton says, for “subjection”, subjection that is, to Adam’s Reason:  “He for God only; she for God in him”.  The idea that the ordered soul is a hierarchy—the souls of both men and women—in which the Sensuality must be subject and obedient to the sovereign Reason is, of course, traditional, going back at least as far as Plato’s allegory of the soul in the Phaedrus and Republic, in which reason’s role in controlling the passions and senses is figured forth by the charioteer who must manage the reins of his rebellious horses.

Milton’s image of the triple hierarchy of Eve subject to Adam subject to God is also a commonplace, rehearsed again and again throughout the Christian centuries, as for example, by Chaucer’s Parson (one of the few non-scoundrels on the road to Canterbury).  Having explained that, in the biblical story of the Fall, Adam is an allegorical figure for Reason and Eve for Sensuality, the Parson admonishes:

And ye shall understand that in man’s sin is every manner of order or ordinance turned up-so-doun.  For it is sooth that God, and reason, and sensuality have been so ordained that each should have lordship over the other; as thus:  God should have lordship over reason, and reason over sensuality…But soothly, when man sinneth, all this order or ordinance is turned up-so-doun.

We will return to the Parson’s Tale and other allegorical interpretations of the Fall in due course, but until then, please keep an open mind when I say that Milton’s insistence upon Adam’s “absolute rule” has nothing to do with an oppressive patriarchal establishment, and everything to do with the traditional allegorical interpretation of Adam and Eve as symbols of Reason and Sensuality, and the idea that the soul, when properly “married”, is hierarchically ordered with the husband Reason at the head, and the female sensuality obedient to its rational decrees.

 

As yet in Milton’s narrative, Adam and Eve are still in the honeymoon stage, both literally and allegorically speaking, and Milton next describes their recreational morning gardening, followed by their pleasant afternoon lunches reclining on the flowery banks watching the lions, and tigers, and bears (oh my!) at play, ferocious beasts who had not yet been taught by fallen man’s example to be ferocious.

Amongst those herds Satan alights from his perch in the Tree of Life, changing shape, as is the devil’s special power, from lion to tiger to fawn, so as not to be conspicuous to his human prey, whom he now observes from a closer distance.  From Adam, in conversation with Eve, he hears of God’s sole prohibition against eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  Eve then replies to Adam, her “Guide and Head”, that what he has said is “just and good”, and then recalls awakening for the first time, after her creation, and wandering to the side of a still pool, in whose waters she becomes fixated by her own reflected image. Ominously enough, Eve’s first experience re-actualizes the classical myth of Narcissus, who staring into what in the thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose is called the Mirror Perilous, falls in love with his own incomparably handsome visage.

As the poet of the Roman admonishes after retailing the myth:

The Mirror Perilous it is, where proud

Narcissus saw his face and his gray eyes,

Because of which he soon lay on his bier…

Many a valiant man has perished thence;

The wisest, worthiest, most experienced

Have there been trapped and taken unawares…

There neither moderation nor reason holds

The reins; there desire is all;

There no man can take counsel for himself.

The story of Narcissus, then, like so many other myths similarly moralized in classical antiquity and down through the Christian centuries, was conventionally interpreted as an admonitory tale of the overthrow of the sovereign reason by the desire for the false beauty of the flesh and, by extension, all worldly and physical things.

As Eve’s reminiscence continues, however, she is rescued from Narcissus’ fate by Adam, who calls to her, and takes her hand.  “I yielded”, she recalls, “and from that time see/ How beauty is excelled by manly grace/And wisdom, which alone is truly fair.”  And so the male-female, rational-sensual hierarchy is still preserved, things are not as yet “up-so-doun”, though, having heard from Adam’s lips about the proscribed tree, Satan now sees the way to destroy this marital harmony.

 

But before the tragedy begins in earnest in book IX, Milton recounts (in book V) a homely little episode in which the archangel Raphael descends to Eden to visit the happy couple, who blush at the honour Raphael has paid them, and struggle to entertain him worthily, in a scene deliberately reminiscent of the visitation of Abraham and Sarah by the angel of the Lord in Genesis.

With the infinite bounty of Paradise lying at hand, Adam and Eve have no trouble sticking to the hundred-mile limit prescribed by the local food movement, and indeed serve up a feast as sumptuous as any enjoyed by Homer’s Achaean heroes or the culinary groupies of Susur Lee.  Nonetheless, Adam apologizes that the humble human fare of his table can hardly compare to the purely spiritual delicacies that Raphael, as an incorporeal being, must be fed upon in heaven.  And he begs to learn of the transcendent mysteries of the world above his own.

Raphael’s response is a rehearsal of another traditional topos, a literary set-piece, in fact, on the theme of the great chain or ladder of being:  the “gradual scale of nature”, as Raphael calls it, that rises step by step from inanimate matter at the bottom, through the plants endowed with the capacity for life and growth, through animals, capable also of sensation and locomotion, through man–“whence the Soul Reason receives, and reason is her being”,– upward through the angels, incorporeal beings who share reason with men but are also endowed with intuition (a direct grasping of truth), and finally to God, the pure Spirit “from whom All things proceed, and up to him return”.

This “gradual scale of nature” is described by Raphael to Adam as the key to a spiritual method through which man himself may convert his gross, carnal body

all to spirit,

… and wing’d ascend

Ethereal, as wee…in Heavenly Paradises dwell.

There isn’t time, unfortunately, to dilate upon this ancient spiritual method, by which man can slough off his body and become a purely spiritual creature like the angels, except to say that it goes back ultimately to Plato’s Phaedo, the seminal dialogue in which Socrates famously defines philosophy as a “rehearsal for death”.  What Socrates describes, in fact, is a method for the salvation of the soul, a soteriological regime under which the rational soul withdraws as much as possible from the deceptive and seductive influences of the body, the senses, and the world, and thus lives in the closest possible approximation to death, when the senses are finally put to sleep, the flesh withers away, and the rational intelligence persists by herself, “pure and unalloyed”.

The same promise, of course, was evangelized to Christians by St. Paul, for whom the redeemed life was also a dying life, in which, in conformity with Christ’s death on the cross, the Christian adherent mortifies the body and senses and dies to the world, “puts off the old carnal man”, becomes dead with Christ to the whole historico-temporal order in which the progeny of Adam had lived as a prisoner to the body and sin, so that rising with the Resurrected Christ, he may “put on the new man” of the spirit, live “in the spirit alone”, and finally become, as Paul says, a “new heavenly being”.

For St. Paul, for the early Christian Apologists and Fathers of the Church, as for the Christian theologians and philosophers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, dying with Christ on the Cross continued to mean substantially the same thing as philosophy meant to Socrates, whereby, in a more or less permanent state of ecstasis–standing, that is, outside of the body and the world–, the soul may, even in this life, achieve the vision of God and the invisible things of God.

This is the familiar spiritual method employed most famously by the Christian mystics and called, appropriately enough, “purgation”.  But there was another method by which the mind might ascend to the visio dei, which also went back to pagan antiquity, and Plato in particular.

 

At the end of our passage from book V, Adam acknowledges it, when he says gratefully to Raphael,

Well hast thou taught the way that might direct

Our knowledge, and the scale of Nature set

From centre to circumference, whereon

In contemplation of created things

By steps we may ascend to God.

Adam here perceptively understands that the entire “scale of nature” that has been the subject of Raphael’s dissertation, was provided by God as a contemplative ladder by means of which the mind might ascend by degrees to the Divine.

In these lines, Milton alludes self-consciously to the famous verse in Romans, l: 20, in which Paul writes, “For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the temporal things that are made.”  This idea, too, has its origins in Plato, specifically in the majestic speech of Socrates’ teacher, the priestess Diotima, at the end of the Symposium in which she explains how, by contemplating beauty in the hierarchy of created things, the mind may rise by steps to the contemplation of the divine Idea of Beauty itself, the universal, incorporeal Source in God from which all worldly and sensible instances of beauty are derived, in which they participate, and of which they are “copies”, “imitations”, or “reflections”.  But I don’t have time to say much more about this seminal text, other than to urge you read it.

 

Besides the importance of these themes in Western thought, their relevance to the theological problem of the Fall will become clear enough in a moment, since, as it was understood in the centuries before Milton, the Fall was occasioned by a defective attachment to the sensible beauty and pleasure of this world that rendered the saving ascent to the vision of God all but impossible.

On that theme, and by way of preparation for a discussion of two typical medieval interpretations of the Fall, I need to say something about  St. Augustine, who wrote c. 400 A.D., and who was probably the most influential of all Christian thinkers throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  In his De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine formulated a crucial and endlessly repeated distinction that was the foundation not only of medieval and Renaissance morality, but also of Western literary theory and aesthetics.

Let me begin by reading a short paragraph from the De Doctrina, which will serve at the same time to demonstrate the obvious Platonic cast of Augustine’s mind.

Some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used…To enjoy something is to cling to it with love for its own sake.  To use something, however, is to employ it in obtaining that which you love, provided that it is worthy of love…Suppose we were wanderers who could not live in blessedness except at home, miserable in our wandering and desiring to end it and to return to our native country. We would need vehicles for land and sea which could be used to help us to reach our homeland, which is to be enjoyed.  But if the amenities of the journey and the motion of the vehicles itself delighted us, and we were led to enjoy those things which we should use, we should not wish to end our journey quickly, and entangled in a perverse sweetness, we should be alienated from our country, whose sweetness would make us blessed.  Thus in this mortal life, wandering from God, if we wish to return to our native country where we can be blessed, we should use this world and not enjoy it, so that the “invisible things” of God, “being understood by the things that are made” may be seen, that is, so that by means of corporeal and temporal things we may comprehend the eternal and spiritual.

Augustine thus differentiates between things that are to be used and things that are to be enjoyed:  to enjoy a thing is to cling to it with love for its sake; to use it is to refer it to that which should be loved:  otherwise, that use becomes an abuse of beauty.

What should be used and what should be enjoyed or loved?  Augustine writes that “we should use this world and not enjoy it, so that the invisible things of God, being understood by the things that are made, may be contemplated, that is, so that by means of corporeal and temporal things we may contemplate the eternal and the spiritual”.

This text is, once again, a paraphrase of Romans 1: 20; but the argument, as I’ve said, is originally Platonic.  The essential idea is that all beautiful things should be referred to–should be used as a stepping stone–, to the contemplation of the otherworldly Source and Ground of worldly beauty which is God, the Creator of the order, and harmony, and beauty of this world.  In this way, then, sensible beauty should not be enjoyed in itself, but used as a vehicle for the rational contemplation of what Plato called the “intelligibles”, and what Paul called the invisibilia dei, the “invisible things of God”.

The use of beautiful things for the sake of the love and contemplation of the invisible things of God is what Augustine calls caritas; to love beautiful things for their own sake, to enjoy them and derive sensual or carnal pleasures from them, or any other similar form of personal satisfaction, is what Augustine calls the sin of cupiditas.

 

With Augustine’s doctrine mind, let’s now look at a seminal exposition of the Fall of Man in a celebrated ninth-century work entitled On the Division of Nature, by the Christian Neoplatonist known as John the Scot.  (John’s exposition shows unmistakable Augustinian influence, and is also closely related to the Parson’s aforementioned moral allegory of the Fall, to which I will return in a moment.)

John envisages the biblical Paradise as a figure for the human soul in its totality.  The garden of the soul is divided into an inner and outer region, the inner region, as John explains, being the “Man”, also called by him the Nous or Mind, hence the habitat of the rational or intellectual component of the soul.  In this inner region of the garden dwells the Logos, that is, the eternal Reason of God, as well as the Tree of Life and the Fountain of Life, from which flow the four rivers of Paradise, which symbolize the four cardinal virtues.  This interior region should be “married”, says John, to the exterior region of the human garden, in the same way that Christ, who is the head and sovereign, is married to the Church, his body.

The outer region, then, as you can guess, is the “Woman”, called Aesthesis, which John translates as “delightful thought”, since it is the region of the corporeal senses and, as John writes, the “vain and false fantasies” that arise from them.  In this part of the garden are also placed the Tree of Knowledge and the Serpent.

Now it is obvious that in a figural garden of this kind, true beauty can be found in the inner region, and whatever sensible image impresses the outer region as beautiful must be referred to the inner region for judgment.  But this does not always happen, since men are frequently inclined to act, as John says, using another commonplace moral formula, “effeminately” rather than virtuously.

John explains these moral antinomies using the hypothetical example of a golden, gem-encrusted vase which is presented to two men, one wise, the other avaricious.  The beautiful image of this precious object enters the corporeal senses (the Woman; the outer garden) of both men; but the wise man immediately refers this image “to the praise of the Creator of natural things”.   The avaricious man, on the other hand, instead of understanding it as a symbol of the supernal Beauty of God, retains the sensible image of the vase in the “Woman”, which delights in its beauty for its own sake, or for the sake of personal vanity or gain, so that it becomes lodged as an object of fascination in the memory and the thought, whence the avaricious man eventually “plunges into a foul pool of cupidity”.

Needless to say, John’s allegory of the Fall is to be understood as an exemplary description of a process that is re-enacted by every sinner:  the critical stage occurs when the image of a beautiful thing is received in the corporeal sense (the “aesthetic” or sensual region; the Woman) and then becomes fixed there, as the focus of pleasurable thought with a view to fleshly satisfaction.  If this delight is not nullified by the reason; if the reason, that is, consents to it, the result is the corruption of the inner garden, just as the biblical Eve corrupted Adam.  If, on the other hand, the image of beauty becomes the vehicle for the contemplation of the Beauty of the Creator, the “Man” remains “married” to the “Woman”:  the reason retains its proper hierarchical ascendancy over the senses, the spirit continues to guide its servant, the flesh, and there is no “adultery” committed.

 

Now, as promised, let me turn to one final allegorical exegesis of the Fall, that of Chaucer’s Parson.  The Parson’s Tale, as you may know, stands as the last of Chaucer’s late-14th century Canterbury Tales, and being a little treatise on penance in fact, provides an antidote to the sin and folly that have preceded it on the Canterbury road.  As one would expect, the language in which the Parson purports to summarize the bare events recorded in Genesis is already freighted with the old moral oppositions of caritas and cupiditas, reason and sensuality, as they had been rehearsed by Augustine, John the Scot, and innumerable others:

The woman then saw that the tree was good for feeding, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to the sight…

And retelling the story in this idiom, the Parson then proceeds to the allegory proper:

There you may see that deadly sin hath, first, suggestion of the fiend, as showeth here by the serpent; and afterward, the delight of the flesh, as showeth here by Eve; and after that, the consenting of reason, as showeth here by Adam.  For trust well, although the fiend tempted Eve—that is to say, the flesh—and the flesh had delight in the beauty of the forbidden fruit—yet, certainly, until reason—that is to say, Adam—consented to the eating of the fruit, yet stood they in the estate of innocence.

The Parson thus explains that the three principal characters in the biblical drama of the Fall are in fact allegorical figures for certain typical and endlessly recapitulated motions that take place within the soul of every sinner:  the serpent symbolizes “suggestion”, as he tempts Eve with the forbidden fruit; finding the fruit “fair to the eyes, and delectable to the sight”, Eve thus corresponds to John’s “female sensuality” or  “delightful thought”, as she dwells upon and takes pleasure in the sensual beauty of the fruit; and Adam symbolizes the reason, which fallibly consents to Eve’s illicit desires by taking and eating at her invitation.  The rest, as they say, is history:  since then, as the Parson laments, men have always felt the “fire of fleshly concupiscence”.

The Parson leaves no doubt that every sin runs the same course, from the initial stage of suggestion, to pleasurable thought, to rational consent.  The crucial stage, as he emphasizes elsewhere in his treatise, is the second, when the sinner “delighteth him long to think on the object of his desire”; “and yet his reason refraineth not his foul delight”; for “such delight that dwelleth long in man’s thought is full perilous”.  Indeed, whenever a man’s “Adam” (symbol of the reason) fails to restrain his “Eve” (the delight of the senses), but rather consents to her desires, the result is a sin that merely re-actualizes the Fall as recorded in Genesis; and then the proper hierarchical order of the soul gets turned, as the Parson says, using a favourite Chaucerian phrase, “up-so-doun”.

 

This, then, is the conventional moral schema that so obviously informs Milton’s own treatment of the Fall in book IX.  As we’ve already seen, Adam and Eve first step onto the stage in book IV, in Milton’s description of them, not as characters, as real, verisimilar human beings in the modern novelistic sense, so much as moral abstractions or types of Reason and Sensuality.  And in what ensues, Milton never fails to remind us that we must read his little drama, as Genesis itself was read from the nascency of the Church, as a moral allegory.

To be continued…

One thought on “Sin, Fall, and Redemption in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Part I

  1. Dear Harley, please accept my thanks and devotion to your inspiring (and inspired) writing on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Please excuse my random thoughts below as provoked by you. Thank you! Peter

    The topic of sin, fall, paradise and redemption basically deals with the perfectibility of man. Your treatment of John Milton and his foundational faith is stunning in content, scholarship as well as charm and humanity.
    John Henry Newman reminds us that we are children of wrath, but through our blessed Lord we become children of grace. Our Lord tells us: be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.
    “The law of man’s fall is at war with the law of man’s reason. It subjects the Law of Reason to the Law of Error.” (St. Ambrose)
    The perfectibility of man appears impossible, then why our Lord’s command to be perfect?
    St Thomas Aquinas describes three types of perfection. The third type of perfection answers to a totality neither on the part of the object served nor on the part of the lover… Such perfection as this can be had in this life, and in two ways. First, by the removal from man’s affections of all that is contrary to charity, such as mortal sin. Secondly, by the removal from man’s affections, not only of whatever is contrary to charity but also of whatever hinders the mind’s affections from tending wholly to God. …. ( However charity is required by all Christians and) charity is possible apart from this perfection….. ( Peter Kreeft: Practical Theology, Spiritual Direction from Saint Thomas Aquinas). Saint Paul also instructs us not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewal of your heart to Christ Jesus. As unattainable as this radical transformation may be, we still can and should cultivate in this world the desire for that heavenly transformation.
    Robert Browning wrote, ”A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, for what’s a Heaven for?”

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