“A Slight Comment on Milton’s Paradise Lost,” by Andrew Schatkin
I read Milton’s poetry for the first time in a college course and of course read his great epic poem Paradise Lost with amazement and wonder. Milton’s epic poem was an attempt to fully understand history. For Milton the Christian and Puritan imbued in the Classics and the Bible and the Greek and Latin Patristic writings history had its beginning in the creation. For Milton the crucial point and cornerstone of all history was the Fall of Man into sin bringing death, pain, suffering, war, famine, and all forms of wickedness into what was meant to be a world of perfection and in harmony and in true relationship to God and Christ. God gives us all free will since he wants humanity in a free and voluntary relationship to the creator. Thus, Satan, his creation, the fallen angel, was allowed to enter the Garden of Eden and tempt our first parents to fall. The failing of Satan and our first parents was pride and ego. Satan and his angels were cast from heaven because they did not want to be under God and one might say take orders.
Satan and his fallen angels did not want to serve but to rule. Satan says in Book ll of Paradise, better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. The failing of Adam and Eve was that like Satan they were lured to think they could be like gods or God. The appeal of Satan to Adam and Eve was to their pride. This was the tool this was the appeal to human weakness our pride that brought about this fallen and imperfect world evil in part. And to this day Satan seeks to lure us to share his suffering in Hell and to share his separation from God and love by this appeal to out egos and pride. Milton in this epic sought and correctly did so to understand cosmic history and to account for our present fallen world.
There are people who would say Milton and his poem are backward antiques with little relevance to our present secular material and science-based culture. After many would say what does this fanciful if not mythological story of angels, demons, a Garden, a Snake, and some sort of cosmic fall have to do with my life, of cars, money, sex, and some entertainment. The answer is that for Milton who not only was a first class poet but also a first class thinker, much in every way. For Milton, the stakes are higher than how we choose to entertain ourselves.
And I say Milton’s definition of the problem with human nature and how it came about not only is relevant but strikes at the heart of truth. We know after six genocides in the twentieth century–Pol Pot, Rwanda, Communism, Mao, Bosnia, Terrorism, the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust–that there is not only a problem with human nature but there is a gross failing in most men and women emanating from our essentially selfish self-involved nature.
And taking the position that Milton in his position in this epic poem correctly tackled and analyzed the problem with us as human beings and how we have failed and why we have failed. I now wish to speak about a preface in an edition of Paradise Lost that I ran across in a small bookstore where I live in Queens. Let me say that I have only good words for the store and the book I bought. I was however shocked by certain elements in the Preface to this edition of Paradise Lost. The introduction to the book was by Edward Cifelli, Ph.D. This professor asks what can this version of the Garden Story possibly say to 21st century readers or is it really worth the bother. Dr. Cifelli fails to understand Milton or understand the depth and profundity of the s described in Genesis. This was not a fanciful story for Milton and for all Christians and thinkers but an account of how and why evil, death, suffering and pain came into the world and came to stay. Milton as a Christian and a man imbued in the history of thought and in the Biblical worldview knew that what is described did happen was history and that Milton correctly understood its meaning and its continued relevance. The Biblical worldview from beginning to end presents us with history which Milton well understood Paradise Lost is a great poem because the author knew that there was and is more to understanding this life than atoms, molecules, the latest TV show, or the current fad. Paradise Lost presents us with an explanation of who we are, and why we are in our current predicament. Paradise Lost and John Milton far, from being backward and antiquated, are ahead of and in advance of all of us.