Milton as Metaphysician: “Paradise Lost” as a Map of Heaven and Hell
John Milton published Paradise Lost in 1667. The epic poem consisted of ten books. What we know today as the complete, twelve book version of the epic, was published in 1674.[1] Paradise Lost: A Metaphysical Map of the Structure of Good and Evil Given its literary richness and philosophical complexity, Paradise Lost cannot be easily… The post Milton as Metaphysician: “Paradise Lost” as a Map of Heaven and Hell appeared first on VoegelinView.

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John Milton published Paradise Lost in 1667. The epic poem consisted of ten books. What we know today as the complete, twelve book version of the epic, was published in 1674.[1]

Paradise Lost: A Metaphysical Map of the Structure of Good and Evil

Given its literary richness and philosophical complexity, Paradise Lost cannot be easily exhausted by critics. The best that good-willed critics can accomplish with a work such as this is to isolate some of its dominant themes and discuss these in relation to the meaning and purpose that its author infused into the work.
Milton’s seminal work is acclaimed by readers and scholars as a poem that has many virtues: literary, moral, Christian, and philosophical. For some, the poem is a complex literary masterpiece. For others, the work by the blind bard serves as the inspiration for man’s moral foundation, a moral compass and map of the structure of good and evil, right and wrong, and heaven and hell.
As a road map of life and death for man in the physical universe, Paradise Lost is a metaphysical-existential work that puts on display the patent as well as latent structure of human reality. Ultimately, Milton’s depiction of good and evil is best understood as a work of essentialism, for good and evil are essences that inform every facet of human reality.
Some secular critics stretch the limit of interpretation by assigning the epic Christian poem a political meaning that, they believe, reflects life in England during the poet’s life. This interpretation is also a violation of literary prudence, critical license and intellectual honesty. If Milton’s intention was to write a political treatise, why bother to dedicate twelve books and about 400 pages to a discussion of God, Genesis, the creation of man, the temptation of Adam and Eve, and Lucifer and his legion of demons?
Lamentably, a political interpretation of the poem is a lazy and uninspired exercise that only serves to downgrade the classic poem by consigning it to the transitory, social-political realm, where everything is discarded and forgotten. Good and evil cannot be discarded or argued out of human existence by crafty practitioners of skepticism, for good and evil are a perennial and essential reality of human experience.
Secularist political interpretations of Paradise Lost level the work to the dustbin of everything trivial and banal. The literary and philosophical qualities of the poem are subjected by such interpretations to the whim of political efficiency. The permanent things, furthermore, are eviscerated through ignorance of the essences that make their presence known through their manifestation for people of flesh and blood. In the current social-political milieu, when the Western Canon is subjected to de-construction, a political interpretation of Paradise Lost not only misses the point of the work altogether but also downgrades it to the trite level of discussion that current events are subjected to.

Milton as Metaphysician

Paradise Lost is a visionary portrayal of man as a cosmic being. Within this poem, Milton offers the reader a viable philosophical anthropology that answers the timeless question: What is man? Man is created by an omnipotent God, but only after the Creator infuses the universe with preternatural beings, angels, who were never meant to have physical bodies. Milton delves into the nature and differences between the supernatural, preternatural and physical aspects of creation. Milton offers a plausible explanation about the nature of creation vis-à-vis differentiation and the inherent metaphysical problems that time, finitude and the infinite pose for human existence.
At face value, Paradise Lost is a work about good and evil. Yet, that alone conveys little about the interplay of these cosmic forces. Readers with a greater appreciation of Paradise Lost must embrace the realization that the work is truly about the nature and origin of evil. An explanation of how evil enters the universe and becomes a point of contention for philosophical anthropology seals the reputation of Milton’s seminal work as a masterful treatise on philosophical perspicuity. The epistemological component of Paradise Lost is an aspect of the poem that is neglected by many critics. In addition, the metaphysical-existential breath and originality of this classic work is its ability to present readers with an aspect of the perennial philosophy that most philosophers neglect and often muddle due to their scientistic biased presuppositions.
Equating good with creation as a great Being, as Saint Augustine asserts, is not a difficult concept to understand and put in perspective in relation to human existence. How evil enters the universe, affects the lives of the unsuspecting, and battles God, good, virtue, and corrupts innocence, often in a stealth manner, remains a fundamental theological and philosophical question.
A devious, arrogant and narcissistic angel — Lucifer — who is considered the ‘bearer of light’ decides that God has cheated him out of what he believes to be his greater potential: the experience of possessing a physical body and sensation. Lucifer decides not to be second fiddle in God’s kingdom. He revolts against God. Lucifer is a self-possessed narcissist of untold vile conceit. He opts to rule over his own kingdom. This necessitates that he enlists an army of naysayers, lesser angels that will become his lackeys, servants and agents of mayhem and destruction that help him undermine God’s creation. These lower angels will make up Lucifer’s legion of demons, his dogs of war against love, beauty, and goodness.

The War in Heaven

While Paradise Lost is a literary work that takes its inspiration from Genesis, this is only one aspect of the poem that serves as the backdrop to the plot and motifs that the author employs. Milton’s broader and profoundly perspicacious philosophical project has the effect of being an exploration of essences that, somewhat akin to Leibniz’s monads (logical ‘soul-atoms’), establish a grand narrative of creation and its associated forces. Paradise Lost is a map of heaven and hell, and the essences that make man a self-reflective, metaphysical-existential entity. This aspect of the work alone makes it a profound epistemological contribution to human knowledge and man’s capacity for self-reflection that leads to self-knowledge (autognosis).
Milton’s presentation of the war in heaven is an enlightening metaphysical explanation and justification of God in light of evil, what some philosophers call the ‘problem of evil.’ Unlike the stale analytic manner with which many myopic philosophers address the problem of evil, Milton is not coy in his presentation of evil as pertaining to a human dimension that science has no dominion over. The imposing scale which Milton utilizes as his arena to explore this perennial metaphysical question is a prescient and poignant understanding of qualitative phenomena, not quantitative physical reality. The latter is the purview of science.
Milton’s description of the war in heaven serves to establish an epistemological argument that relies on a priori truths in addition to the facts of human experience. The poet makes the case for the existence of evil as a viable rendition of forces and dimensions, other than the four dimensions that inform human reality, as we know these. Today, quantum physics suggests that there are multiple dimensions that man does not suspect exist, given some physical evidence for a priori notions of truth and reality.
Essences which the mind picks up in an intuitive, a priori, manner, but which make their physical appearance factual, and are thus objective and verifiable in human experience (for instance, good and evil) are explored by Milton in a novel metaphysical tone in this section of the poem. Milton’s exploration of evil is a moral and intellectually honest enterprise, for he attempts to justify God, goodness and beauty, and the majesty of the hierarchy of Being with evil’s brazen manifestation in human experience and its stealthy, slippery nature.
Milton shows how the demonic force of evil counters benign qualitative phenomena, namely Being. The poet demonstrates how Satan attempts to neutralize Being with the ever-tempting and contradictory nature of becoming. This alone affords Paradise Lost universal significance. The universal and essentialist nature of the poem paints a picture of creation and the essences that inform man’s condition, especially in regard to the fabric and interplay of good and evil in human experience. While Milton is not considered a metaphysical poet per se, as John Donne, Paradise Lost is recognized by intuitive and reflective readers as a philosophical, that is, metaphysical rendition of man’s strife to live authentically.

Satan in Chaos: Epistemology and ‘Darkness Visible’

Satan established Pandemonium as a hierarchical structure of evil. Early in the poem Milton sets up the contrasting realms of heaven and hell, and good and evil. Evil is a counterforce to good, while hell mimics heaven in a perverse way. For everything sacred and good, Satan sets up its destruction, if not its opposite: becoming versus Being; existence versus essence, darkness versus virtue, and matter versus consciousness.
‘Darkness visible’ is a negation of Being, when the latter is understood as goodness. ‘Darkness visible’ makes present the absence of Being-as-essence, while raising to prominence its mundane expression as naked existence: becoming. By making darkness a visible category of human reality, Satan’s inversion of truth (Alētheia) into falseness (the lie) and appearance through cunning dialectical calisthenics, he believes that he has essentially levelled the playing field between truth and its negation: anti-truth. In addition, Satan hopes that by taking Being and presenting it in what he believes to be its antithesis, non-Being, which does not exist, he can make man believe that non-Being and becoming are equivalent terms. The logical and moral implications of accepting non-Being, not as relative to what exists, but rather absolute non-Being as becoming, have dire consequences for man’s ability to decipher the difference between appearance and reality.
Milton exposes Satan as a master sophist that corrupts life-affirming intelligence with mundane craftiness; human existence, not as self-reflection, but rather as here-and-now praxis. Satan corrupts intelligence, turning it into the sophistic art of immoral calculation.
Hell has a hierarchical structure, just as heaven. This is indicative of Satan’s sinister plan for man. Satan’s inversion of good into evil is a testament to the counter-world (dimension) to heaven that he creates: “No light, but rather darkness visible/ Served only to discover sights of woe, regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace/ And rest can never dwell, hope never comes/ That comes to all; but torture without end/ Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed/ With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.”[2]
Satan’s negation of God necessarily turns into negation of God’s creation. It turns out that post-enlightenment philosophy has taken this route, especially in the secular presentation of the ‘problem of evil’ to philosophy students. A fine example of the latter is Jean-Paul Sartre’s fanatical insistence that because God does not exist — that is both his presupposition and conclusion — therefore human existence is devoid of purpose and meaning.
On the contrary, the temptation of Adam and Eve serves a philosophical end that often escapes critics. Given that Adam and Eve were initially conceived as pure and innocent, unaware of the possibility of sin, their consciousness is unsuspecting of the vast implications of free will, namely responsibility and self-rule (autárkeia). Adam and Eve’s fall strips away the protective veneer that consciousness has over self-awareness (self-reflection), thus exposing metaphysical-existential self-reflection to what would turn out to be the seat of man’s conscious intending: the human person’s perennial need to make choices.
The latter brings to light the question of the relation between sensation and choice-making. While it appears on face value that free will is partly ‘tempted’ by the flesh, the role that consciousness plays in good and evil takes precedence over a mere mystical description of evil. Ultimately, consciousness in human beings cannot simply be described as the seat of knowers capable of knowing objective reality. Instead, consciousness makes us aware that the difference between persons and objects, the physical world, and objective reality is the introduction of subjectivity (not to be confused with subjectivism). Man’s subjectivity is an existential category. Satan appears to attest to this when he utters, “And thou, profoundest hell/ Receive thy new possessor – one who brings/ A mind not to be changed by place or time. The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”[3]

The Perennial Question of Being and Becoming: ‘United Force of Gods’

Satan creates his legion of followers, demons that will do his bidding, and in doing so, conceives that sheer quantity will serve as a virulent force that neutralizes good. The demonic beings that he enlists take on the power of God and his Archangels, namely Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. This is Satan’s recognition of the difference between qualitative and quantitative aspects of creation. Satan confuses qualitative essences with mere quantity to oppress man. He achieves this with the earthly application of the power of his legion of demons — for they are many.
In book I, lines 616-649 Satan gloats over his prowess in understanding the corrosive effect that quantity can have over quality, especially when the sheer force of quantification stunts the cultivation of goodness and virtue by human beings. Consider the perspicuity of the following lines:
‘O myriads of immortal spirits! O powers
Matchless, but with the Almighty! And that strife
Was not inglorious, though the event was dire,
As this place testifies, and this change,
Hateful to utter! But what power of mind,
Foreseeing or presaging, from the depth
Of knowledge past or present, could have feared
How such united force of gods, how such
As stood like these, could ever know repulse
?[4]
The key to this passage is the “united force of gods, how such as stood like these.” Satan is hopeful that the force and violence of many demons will, at best, equal the power of God; at worst, neutralize it. This is an example of quantity over quality and becoming over Being. Satan goes on to say that the power of his legion of demons lies in its ability to defraud goodness through evil guile: “Our better part remains/To work in close design, by fraud or guile? What force effected not; that He no less/ At length from us may find, who overcomes/By force, hath overcome but half his foe.”
Craftiness and guile are effective in confusing people of the difference between good and evil because good will is patient and unsuspecting. Good will is uninterested. Contrast this with vileness and virulent desire to obfuscate and lie in order to attain power. Evil is anxious in its desire to corrupt good, like a fast-moving brush fire that decimates vast swaths of land. Evil is also blind, given that its main purpose, especially in relation to Lucifer, is to destroy God’s creation, namely man’s ability to remain faithful to God, even in drastic moments.
Because Satan is an archangel that is privileged with knowledge of God’s intent and purpose in creating man and the universe, he is privy to the force of thought in understanding. Thought that is not articulated and manifested in physical reality is the essence of God’s restraint and prudence as omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent.  The latter is akin to Leibniz’s Monadology, where the German thinker describes God as possessing middle knowledge., i.e., vision of future events that can come to fruition if, and only if, certain conditions arise. In human terms, the latter depends on human agency — free will — bringing about or addressing contingencies that create specific outcomes. Satan manipulates the clash of free will, prudence and moderation.

Endnotes:

[1] John Milton, Paradise Lost. Illustrations by Gustave Doré. (London: The Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2007).
[2] Ibid, 12.
[3] Ibid, 20.
[4] Ibid, 33.

The post Milton as Metaphysician: “Paradise Lost” as a Map of Heaven and Hell appeared first on VoegelinView.

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