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Paradise Lost | Study Guide

John Milton

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Paradise Lost | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does Milton's Paradise Lost express the idea that too much knowledge is a bad thing?

In Books 5, 6, 7, and 8, Milton conveys the dangers of too much knowledge in several scenes. In Raphael and Adam's conversation about the creation of the new world and man, Raphael warns Adam, "Think only what concerns thee and thy being" and encourages him to be "lowly wise." Raphael's advice to Adam comes on the heels of a series of questions that Adam poses to Raphael about where he came from and how the world came to be. Raphael warns Adam that he is asking questions that are beyond man's scope of knowledge—which is exactly how God has designed it. He admonishes Adam against yearning for knowledge that is beyond his scope of understanding because there are some things that God means to be a mystery. There are some things that only God can know, and Adam would be "wise" to be grateful for the "lowly" things he does know, since only God can know the "high" things. In Book 9, by using fruit from the Tree of Knowledge as temptation for Adam and Eve, Milton points to the idea that knowledge is not always a good thing; sometimes ignorance is essential, as is trusting in an omniscient power.

What is Satan's attitude toward God at the beginning of Milton's Paradise Lost?

In Book 1, Satan's attitude toward God at the beginning of Paradise Lost is an attitude of a petulant child raging at a parent out of jealousy or a sense of unfairness. Satan is jealous of the Son, and that he will become King of Heaven. As one of the higher archangels in Heaven, Satan feels that he deserves more; this is the sense of pride that leads to his downfall. Milton argues that no one is more powerful than God and therefore no one should question God's actions. But that is exactly what Satan does. And though his jealousy and yearning for independence is understandable, readers see that his reaction is overwrought and unjustified.

In Paradise Lost, what does Satan mean in Book 9 when he says, "Revenge at first though sweet/Bitter ere long back on itself recoils"?

Revenge against God and Heaven has been Satan's sole aim up to this point, and the idea of it has been the only thing that has brought him pleasure. But here Satan contrasts the "sweetness" of revenge to another, more unpleasant taste: bitterness. Here, Satan seems to be admitting that, ultimately, his revenge was futile and that his aim will turn against him eventually. What Satan doesn't yet know is how true his statement will become when God turns him and the other fallen angels into snakes as punishment for their acts.

Who is most responsible for the fall in Paradise Lost: Man or Satan?

In Book 9, according to Milton, man bears most of the responsibility for the fall. Even though they were tempted by Satan, both Eve and Adam chose to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge by their own free will, despite knowing that this would be disobedient to God. Although it can be argued that God had foreknowledge of their mistake and could have intervened, his intervention would only have proved that man has no free will, and is therefore not responsible for his choices. Satan bears some responsibility in his temptation of Adam and Eve, but like God, he can't control their ultimate decisions.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, why is the battle between God's army and Satan's army futile?

In Books 1 and 6 the battle in Heaven between God's and Satan's armies is an example of dramatic irony, when the readers know something that the characters do not. God only allows his army to have the same number of soldiers as Satan's army in order to make it fair. However, Milton makes a point to let readers know that angels are immortal; they can be wounded but they cannot be killed. This means that the battle could go on forever. Satan's army spends a great deal of time fashioning weapons such as cannons that have little to no deterring effect on God's army. Ultimately God calls the battle off after the third day, a decision he can make at any time because he is the ruler of Heaven. This makes Satan's rebellion essentially pointless, although Satan, ruled as always by pride, is surprised by the "repulse" of his force.

In what ways can Paradise Lost be seen as a political allegory for Milton's era?

In many ways Paradise Lost reflects the political anxieties and questions of Milton's era. Milton himself was sympathetic to not only the religious revolutionaries of his time, but to political revolutionaries as well. He felt that rulers such as Charles I were ineffective and too absolute. In Paradise Lost, Milton questions what makes a good leader and ruler, and its clear that he believes that justness and allowing for individual free will are paramount. Milton holds God up as an example of a wise, benevolent leader who allows his creatures individual choice. For Milton, this was exactly the kind of leadership that Britain needed in order to succeed.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, how is the Garden of Eden before the fall similar to Heaven itself?

In Book 4 Milton portrays the Garden of Eden as earthly paradise. All creatures are vegetarian so there are no predators or prey. It is beautiful and lush, full of food and gentle animals. Adam and Eve face no threats, and their only work is to tend to the Garden. Eden is difficult for a modern reader to envision and this is Milton's point: after the fall of man, the world became a more dangerous and contentious place. He wants readers to understand the complete innocence and purity of Adam and Eve's existence before the fall. Like Heaven as described by Raphael, it "surmounts the reach/Of human sense."

What difficulties could a modern reader encounter in understanding the context of Paradise Lost and can it be understood simply as a poem?

Modern readers of Paradise Lost may find themselves lost in the many biblical references that Milton makes throughout the text. In order to fully understand the nuances of the poem and the relationships between the characters, some prior knowledge of the Bible is essential. The language of Paradise Lost is also from an earlier time, making it harder to understand and make inferences from. Milton also uses many dramatic poetic devices, such as character development, invocation to muses, and climactic scenes that invite the reader to understand and enjoy the poem without necessarily needing a deeper understanding of the biblical context.

In Paradise Lost, how does Milton succeed in making Satan a sympathetic character while at the same time condemning his actions?

In several books, including Books 1, 2, and 4, Milton succeeds at making Satan a sympathetic character by portraying him as complicated, interesting, and with human flaws of jealousy, doubt, and pride. Readers can relate to those feelings, as well as the justification by Satan that God is being unfair in his punishment of the fallen angels. Yet Milton also shows how erratic and inconsistent Satan's logic becomes, and how by choosing evil instead of redemption, he punishes not only God but all of mankind, which is unwarranted. The poet shows a clear distinction between the contrite Adam and Eve, who will "pardon beg, with tears," and the unrepentant Satan.

How is Milton's biography reflected in Paradise Lost?

Milton's background informs a great deal of his writing of Paradise Lost. Like most people of his era, Milton grew up in a religious household, and Puritan religious beliefs influenced him greatly. At one point Milton intended to become a minister, though he was suspended from his studies after disputing his teachers on their curriculum. This foreshadows the ways in which Milton went on to write a "different version" of the biblical story of Satan's fall from heaven. Milton's disputes with the ministry also led him to discover his passion for writing poetry—a discovery that ensured his style of writing of Paradise Lost. Milton also had an ongoing fascination with the scientific discoveries of his era, which is what lends Book 8 of Paradise Lost its questioning theme about the limits of knowledge.

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