Who Wrote the Epic Poem Paradise Lost?

ABSTRACT:  Milton seeks to answer the question of Theodicy and the existence of evil.  The dictionary definition of theodicy is the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.  This is a major theme in Paradise Lost as Milton seeks to sound the depths of the good purpose of a sovereign God in allowing the fall of man.

The epic poem Paradise Lost, was written by John Milton between 1658 and 1663.  Milton had become blind in 1652, so the poem was dictated to a friend.  In the prologue, Milton invokes the Muse of Astronomy, stating his purpose to write of the Fall of Adam & Eve from the state of grace.

In Paradise Lost and Paradise regained Milton presents certain positive effects of the Fall. However, he may have missed the most important one in Philemon 15:19. In this passage Jesus speaking allegorically as Paul to Philemon as God. He says, “For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you regard me a partner accept him as you would me.  But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything charge that to my account.  I Jesus, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it.”

I. Milton’s Semi-Arianism In His Epic Poem Paradise Lost

Milton actually started contemplating the poem earlier in life. But, it was completed as his magnum opus, during the third and final stage of his career after 1660.  Although generally orthodox in faith, Milton had a humanistic tendency. Thus, his writing contributed to the secularization of life in England over the course of the 17th Century. 

For example, Milton displays an Arian tendency throughout his epic poem Paradise Lost which makes Jesus less than God. Milton suggests He was elevated to sort of a Divine “vice-presidency.” This was by virtue of his merit in volunteering to die as the redeemer of mankind.  Such semi-Arianism virtually always works to elevate the divine aspirations of the earthly monarch. Ironicaly that was an outcome that undermines Milton’s arguments against the Divine right of kings earlier in his career.

II. Milton’s Alleged Sexism In His Epic Poem Paradise Lost

The interaction of Adam and Eve during the temptation has been construed as sexist by feminists of the 19th and 20th centuries.  The Bible itself is accused of sexism, which Milton conveys and magnifies.  Milton is said to be overly critical of Eve for allowing her feminine weaknesses to lure her away from Adam’s protective presence.  Thus, he has Adam inform Eve that she is “safest and seemliest by her” husband’s side. 

From the feminist perspective, the offending New Testament passages are I Timothy 2:12-14.  “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.  For it was Adam who was first created, and then eve.  And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression.”  Nonetheless, God approached Adam first in His correction, as the responsible party and head of the family. 

The theme is authority, which is encompassed by the Fifth Commandment, Honor thy father and thy mother.  This includes not only family relations, but also human relations regarding civil government. Milton dealt with these during the second phase of his career. 

III. Milton and the Forms of Government

1. Forms of Government

As noted, John Milton’s career was divided into three periods. Prior to 1640 he wrote poetry. From 1640 to 1660, the first phase of the Puritan Revolution, he wrote political prose and commentary. His purpose was to defend the British Commonwealth and Cromwell’s Protectorate. This included no less that three classic works. First, there was Areopagitica, a defense of the free press. Second, was The Tenure of Kings & Magistrates, a justification for regicide. And third, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, just prior to the Restoration of Charles II.

Paradise Lost and the Forms of Government by William Walker makes the connection of these earlier works with Paradise Lost.  He quotes Steven Zwicker, for example, [who] claims that the final books of this poem are controlled by ‘a political program,’ one which is committed to demonstrating that ‘the just are in perpetual battle with the forces of debauched kingliness.’ By associating all monarchies with each other, Zwicker claims, these books amount to ‘a rejection of kingship [which] is crucial to the poet’s confrontation with Restoration monarchy.’

2. Cromwell and Regicide

Milton worked for Oliver Cromwell, a devoted Christian commander, and supported him.   There was an opportunity for reconcilation after the first phase of the war when Cromwell’s army had defeated Charles I. Cromwell sought to restore a seemingly Reformed king to a Constitutional throne.  Here’s an example of how at certain points Cromwell relied on a subjective “internal voice of conscience” rather than the clear word of God.  But when Cromwell personally intercepted a secret message from Charles I to France, all empathy for King Charles I evaporated. The message stated “…. When the time comes, I shall know very well how to treat these rogues and instead of a silken garter, I will fit them with a hempen halter”     

How are we to respond to the threat of tyranny?  There’s a tendency to respond with a lack of humility like the zealots of Jesus’ day. They failed to recognize the hand of God’s judgment in the Roman oppressor.  Let’s consider Milton’s concept of revolution found in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. The biblical response to tyranny lies in prayer and the “doctrine of the lower magistrate.” It is an appeal to God for delivery in prayers of repentance. Any order to disobey God must be met by passive resistance. On the other hand, it is the duty of the lower ruler to lead the people against an unbearable tyrant. This goes back to Calvin and the Book of judges.  The lower ruler must be vested with lawful power from God. This was the pattern found in the book of Judges and other Scripture.

3. The Lower Magistrate

But, there is a potential for anarchy in Milton’s theory of revolution. While quoting Scripture and church authority profusely in The Tenure, the essay is somewhat tedious and unclear.  On the final page he notes, “that to do justice on a lawless King, is to a private man unlawful, to an inferior Magistrate lawful.” Yet his appeal is for “any who have the power to call to account a tyrant.” This has led some to conclude that the “treatise is therefore a justification of extralegal revolution” (Encyclopedia Americana).   This ambiguity is found in other Milton pamphlets where he seems to take Luther’s “priesthood of the believer” to the extreme. That is to say, he, recommends that not only the office of bishop, but of priest, be abolished thus leading to a radical individualism. This would be a Democratic rather than a republican politic.

4. The Essential Oath

Another key question Milton addressed in his epic poem Paradise Lost is related to the purpose of the oath of office. What is the biblical purpose of the oath? In II Kings 23:3….The King stood by the pillar and made a covenant with the Lord to walk after the Lord and keep his commandments, and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his should, to carry out the words of the covenant that were written in this book.  And all the people stood to the covenant.”

According to Milton, the purpose of the oath of office is to provide a means by which the king might be held accountable to the people. This would give them recourse subsequent to their original grant of power.   This challenges the theory of Divine Right under which the king is held to be responsible to none but God.  But, in the Bible the oath of office is a promise rendered before God that invokes His blessing or cursing depending on performance of the promise. The name of God is invoked not merely as a ceremonial formality or cloak of religion. Most important, it is a solemn vow to rule in accordance with the law of God by the King. Thus, the oath governs primarily the vertical relation between God and king-people. But, it also governs the horizontal relation between king and people.

IV. Milton’s Anti-Nomianism In His Epic Poem Paradise Lost

1. Reasonable Government

But how does Milton’s theory for the source of law in his epic poem Paradise Lost, compare with that of the Bible in I Tim 1: 8-11?  According to Milton, laws are invented by the people “either framed or consented to by all, that should confine and limit the authority of whom they chose to govern them…” Milton ties together “Law and Reason”, which he declares would be abstracted or summarized from “personal errors and frailties.” In other words, he seems to be saying that law is derived by trial and error in the crucible of human experience. By contrast, the Bible insists that the only source of civil law in New Testament times must be the Old Testament law. It lists several examples as murder, sodomy, and kidnapping (I Tim. 1:9-11).

Furthermore,  Milton says that governing power is derivative of the people. As the US Declaration of Independence puts it, “deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.”   But, the Bible does not teach that the just power of government is derived from the consent of the governed. According to Rom. 13:1, kings derive their just power from God, not from the people. It says, “…the powers that be are ordained of God.” It is more accurate to state that kings “derive their just nomination from the consent of the governed.”

A man may not advance to the point of ordination without having first been “picked out” (Acts 6:3) from among the congregation by the congregation. To assert that power is derived from the people is to embrace the fundamental axiom of democracy.

2. Constitutional Government

In a Democracy the operative principle is the will of the majority, not the Word of God. This is the essence of the social contract, which stands in opposition to the covenant model of civil government.

However, Milton ignored the law of God in his epic poem Paradise Lost, de-emphasized hierarchy, and demoted Christ. Thus he promoted a secularized republic and simultaneously the human rights of the individual, as in a democracy.  He took his place as one of the British Commonwealth Men, along with James Harrington. A written constitution is believed to secure these rights. These men were emulated by American founders such as James Madison. The U.S. Constitution a Republican skeleton and a Democratic, social contract heart divorced from God.

Turning back to the family, because his first wife deserted him Milton argued for desertion as breaking the marriage covenant and grounds for divorce, in addition to immorality.  This would be supported by passages such as Exodus 21:10, where even a slave wife must be released if her husband refuses to provide food, clothing and conjugal rights.  The shoe is on the other foot in I Co.r 7:11 where a woman who habitually deprives her husband physically is described as being “unmarried.”


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