The biggest pyrotechnics of Paradise Lost come in Books I and II, while Books IV and IX have the most pathos. That’s why these are the parts of Milton’s epic assigned to students in English Lit survey courses, where the reading is prefaced by that throwaway line from Blake about Milton being secretly of the devil’s party (since Satan is the most interesting character in the poem). But on rereading Paradise Lost for the first time in twenty-five years, I most enjoyed the long conversations Adam has with the archangels Raphael and Gabriel. Here the best of Milton’s philosophy comes out, countering his supposed infernal sympathies.
Too bad Milton was a heretic. He ought to have been a Catholic (as, of course, I think all Christians should be, even bishops and popes), but he was pretty clearly an anti-Trinitarian. Bad theology aside, however, Milton knew bad philosophy when he saw it. You might say that in Paradise Lost it’s the seduction of bad philosophy – in the form of Pride – that leads to Satan’s rebellion, the transgression of Adam and Eve, and all the death and suffering in the world. The first hint of the theme comes in Book II when, not long after being cast into the flaming abyss, the demon philosophers debate their situation:
Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and apathy, and glory and shame,
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy:
Yet with a pleasing sorcery could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Meanwhile Milton’s Satan, scoping out the freshly made Earth for means of spoiling it, discovers you can take the devil out of hell but cannot take hell out of the devil:
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.
This brings to mind the Stoic notion that we set the conditions for our own misery or happiness. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” says Hamlet. But Milton’s Satan cannot think himself into anything other than what he has become. A nearer match, perhaps, comes from one of Seneca’s letters: “What good does it do you to go overseas, to move from city to city? If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you need is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.” Satan’s totalizing pride – the philosophical proposition that makes the self the measure of all things – permanently imprints hell upon him.
Philosophy is, in the classical sense and rather counter to its academic use, the love of wisdom that bears fruit in a life well lived. But because we humans are a certain kind of thing, a creature of specific limited faculties and not of unbounded intellect, there is a particular kind of wisdom suited to us, and other “wisdoms,” perhaps, that are wildly unsuited to us. Be careful, therefore, which wisdoms you pursue, lest you graft yourself onto a philosophy at odds with your nature and so become – like Satan – a sort of flailing monster without place. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, in this respect, is pride in action. Beyond our proper scope it is wasted or distorting. As Raphael says to Adam in Book VII:
But knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain,
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.
It’s hard not to smile at that last line: unsuitable knowledge converted to intellectual farts. Though first in place of honor on Earth and within the concentric spheres of stars and planets to the very frontier of God’s heaven, Adam’s state is still humble. He is formed of earth (humus) and the wisdom proper to him lies in earthiness, humility. Warning Adam of the tempter lurking on the bounds of Paradise, Raphael recommends practical knowledge as that which most accords with his nature:
[H]eaven is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowly wise:
Think only what concerns thee and thy being…
Grateful for the natural curiosity given him by his creator, Adam nevertheless acknowledges the mazes into which intellectual intemperance might lead him:
But apt the mind or fancy is to rove
Unchecked, and of her roving is no end;
Till warned, or by experience taught, she learn,
That not to know at large of things remote
From use, obscure and subtle, but to know
That which before us lies in daily life,
Is the prime wisdom, what is more, is fume
Or emptiness, or fond impertinence,
And renders us in things that most concern
Unpracticed, unprepared, and still to seek.
Anticipation, however, is no preventative and of course Eve falls prey to the lure of Pride, the promise of more than merely human wisdom, and Adam follows her into their joint fall from grace. You know the story, but Milton’s telling really is sublime. After the intoxication and debauchery into which sin leads them, Adam and Eve wake in self-horror. Created nature revolts around them. They blame God, then blame each other, then blame themselves, and spend a miserable interlude debating the whys and wherefores of it all on their own version of that diabolical philosopher’s hill.
But where the Genesis account rushes through the expulsion from Eden, Milton lingers. Gabriel is sent to counsel our first parents before shutting them out of Paradise. The archangel describes all that is to come upon mankind – a long litany of hubris, error, violence, disease, suffering, and death. Adam despairs and laments until the grand theme of redemption begins to assert itself in Gabriel’s story. When the whole arc of Christian salvation is laid out before him, Adam takes hope, recovering the philosophy of humility and praising God for the divine inversion that will bring good from evil, best from worst, life from death:
Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek…
The path of lowly wisdom lies open still, and he is ready to walk it. Gabriel blesses his intention and, inverting the image of Satan’s portable hell, he says:
[T]hen wilt thou not be loth
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A paradise within thee, happier far.