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Introduction to Paradise Lost
- by Ian Johnston -

Justification of God's Ways: Part 2

Now, what is particularly curious about this aspect of the poem (the poetic presentation of a rational justification of God's ways) is that Milton's treatment of it tends significantly to complicate and confuse an already complex and difficult issue. There are places where a character in the poem clearly wants to offer us a rational defense of God's conduct (God himself does this at the opening of Book 3), but the more the poem tries to sort out the complications, the more blatant the contradictions appear (I shall be attending to some of the more important ones shortly). It's as if (to adopt a metaphor from Empson) Milton is determined to work out a solution but the more he wrestles with the issue within his dramatic narrative, the more frustrated he gets because his poem is making the entire fabric of the story even more absurd and irrational and unacceptable than the Genesis account.

Let me cite just a single example. It is the first moment in the poem when, as I read, I get a serious jolt about the curious logic of the story. In itself this moment does not add up to much perhaps, but it initiates an issue which keeps surfacing and is never satisfactorily resolved. This is the passage which describes Satan's moving off to find an appropriate place for himself and his followers now that they have been defeated in their attempts to overthrow God:

Chained on the burning lake; nor ever thence
Had risen or heaved his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How all his malice served but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy shown
On man by him seduced, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath, and vengeance poured.

The problem with this (from a logical point of view) is clear enough: how does one reconcile the goodness, mercy, justice of God with such a diabolical plan? At the very least, this seems an unnecessarily complicated way of achieving divine ends, and the notion that God is deliberately releasing Satan to commit more evil so that He can punish him further seems to violate some basic principle of rational justice. The reasonableness of God's plan seems very suspect. And these questions multiply as we continue.

Well, if the poem does not deliver a suitable rational justification for God's ways, then what about its aesthetic justification? Does the story carry with it an emotional intelligibility that encourages us to accept God's ways as justified and satisfactory, even if we do not fully understand the reasoning behind them? In order to answer this question, we have to look at the story as a drama involving a cast of characters; we have to weigh each character and assess, as best we can, where our sympathies go and how the particular actions of God and the various reactions to them shape our emotional response to the poem.

If we start to do this, we may make a remarkable discovery. The parts of the poem which are most excitingly alive, which most truly move us, which fully transcend the Parnassian style and deliver the most astonishingly powerful poetry consistently emerge from the mouths of those people defying God: Satan, various rebel angels, Adam, and Eve. By contrast, the poetry describing God, the angels, and the heavenly host is consistently uninspired, flat, Parnassian. A selection of the best poetry from Paradise Lost would feature the rebellious characters to the virtual exclusion of all else.

If what I have claimed earlier in the discussion of imagination and will has any merit, this feature of the poem clearly and consistently suggests that Milton's imagination was must fully alive in rebellion against God rather than in worshipful poetic service to Him. As William Blake observed long ago:

"The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it." (Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

The point is made again in a very well-known remark by Shelley, which is worth quoting in full:

"Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil. . . . Milton's Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments. Milton has so far violated the popular creed (if this shall be judged to be a violation) as to have alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his god over his devil. And this bold neglect of a direct moral purpose is the most decisive proof of the supremacy of Milton's genius." (Defence of Poetry)

What Blake and Shelley are pointing to here presents the single greatest critical challenge of the poem. How do we account for it? Blake's response, that Milton's imagination is on the Devil's side, in opposition to his conscious intention, is a fascinating one and makes sense out of this remarkable difficulty. It is worth exploring further.

We might well ask, "Who is the hero of Paradise Lost? Who, that is, takes the place of Achilles in the Iliad or Odysseus in the Odyssey or Aeneas in the Aeneid? What character holds our attention as engaged in the most intense and important dramatic conflict for the longest period?" Various answers suggest themselves: Satan is clearly the most magnificent character (until he is degraded and turned into a snake); God is the most powerful controlling presence in the poem; Adam and Eve are the human protagonists; and the reader needs to make a heroic effort to finish the poem. Which of them is the central figure? Empson, picking up on Blake's suggestion, makes the intriguing suggestion that the hero of the poem is none of the above: the central character of the greatest interest in the poem is the narrator himself, who spends the entire poem wresting with the divided nature of his understanding, trying to sort out the deep conflict between his imaginative sympathy for the rebels and his deep abhorrence of God's justice and his willed belief that this story requires God to be just, merciful, and justifiable. What make the poem fascinating in Empson's view is the moral confusion of a narrator wrestling with questions which he cannot resolve because he is divided between his unconscious imagination and his willed belief:

"The recent controversy about the poem . . . has largely been conducted between attackers who find it bad because it makes God bad and defenders who find it all right because it leaves God tolerable, even though Milton is tactless about him. Surely this is an absurd spectacle; the poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions, which ought to be clear in your mind when you feel its power. I think it horrible and wonderful; I regard it as like Aztec or Benin sculpture, or to come nearer home the novels of Kafka, and am rather suspicious of any critic who claims not to feel anything so obvious. Hence I also expect that most of the attackers would find their minds at rest if they took one step further and adopted the manly and appreciative attitude of Blake and Shelley, who said that the reason why it is so good is that it makes God so bad." (Milton's God 12-13)

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"Lecture on Milton's Paradise Lost"

Author: Ian Johnston

Site: johnstonia


Paradise Lost As an Epic Poem

Milton as a Protestant

The Critical Debate over Paradise Lost: Some General Comments

Some Initial Interpretative Considerations: Will and Imagination

Some Narrative Considerations

Justification of God's Ways: Part I

A Digression: The Problem of "Philosophical" Poetry

Justification of God's Ways: Part 2

The Opening Drama



Adam and Eve

Some Final Observations

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