Paradise Lost | Study Guide

John Milton

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Paradise Lost | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


Which elements of the epic form does Milton include in Paradise Lost to align it with epics from earlier eras?

In Books 1, 3, and 7, Milton makes use of the invocation of muses, which is an epic tradition that can be found in ancient Greek tales such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. In Books 1 and 6, Milton also positions the warfare of God and Satan to be on par with that of the warfare covered in ancient tragedies, though his warfare involves immortals who cannot be killed. In Book 3 Milton refers to himself as a blind prophet in the vein of Homer and Homer's blind characters Tiresias and Phineas. Milton hoped to write the definitive English epic, and felt that the largest scope he could cover was the struggle and fall of all humankind—a story with a big enough topic to be considered epic.

In Paradise Lost, how can the lines "The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n" be interpreted concerning Satan's choices?

In this famous quote from Book 1, Satan says that the mind can decide what is Heaven and what is Hell—that humans have the power to create misery or happiness wherever they go. This supports Milton's depiction of God's creatures as having free will. Here, Satan is reconciling himself to his new dwelling place in Hell and, characteristically, comparing himself to God with his mind that is "in its own place." Yet when Satan finds himself in the Garden of Eden, he admits to himself that he brings Hell wherever he goes: "which way I fly is Hell." While he wants to believe this is a choice, it is not, since Satan is now beyond redemption. In a way, this brings up a conundrum that many have pointed out: If Satan is beyond God's redemption (and has therefore sealed his fate), how can his choices still be of his own free will? The quote implies that the mind can make the choice to be a Heaven or Hell, but Satan has no choice other than Hell at this point. In this light, Satan's free will is an illusion, as is his belief that he has control over his mind's "own place."

In Milton's Paradise Lost, what case might be made for the claim that God is portrayed as a tyrant?

It would be easy to make the case that God is portrayed as a tyrant in Paradise Lost, since he appears at first to have absolute control over the universe and his creations. At various points in the epic the "scales of God" appear in the sky to remind God's creatures and the reader that God is the one who gets to decide what is just and what isn't when he weighs punishments and rewards on the scale. God also claims to offer all his creatures redemption if they ask for it, but Milton hints that Satan is "beyond redemption." It would seem that if God was really a benevolent ruler, he would allow Satan endless chances to repent. However, Milton also portrays God as fair and just. For example, in Book 1 when Satan goes to war with him, God ensures that his own army not exceed Satan's. God also remarks that Adam "had of Me/All he could have; I made him just and right"—in his own image. To be just with his creatures seems to be God's highest priority.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, is the knowledge that Adam and Eve acquire when they eat from the Tree of Knowledge portrayed as worthwhile?

By Books 11 and 12 the knowledge that Adam and Eve acquire after eating from the Tree of Knowledge seems double-edged. In Book 9 both claim to feel more god-like after eating the fruit, but they also acquire knowledge of shame, lust, and regret. They have their first fight and blame each other for what has transpired. Though at first their punishment from God (painful childbirth, toil, generations of suffering, sin, and death) seems to be a steep price to pay, Adam ultimately declares that "all this good of evil shall produce/And evil turn to good." He announces this only after he is shown the future sorrows and suffering of his offspring, and realizes that by repenting and obeying God, good things can still come.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, how can Raphael's advice to Adam about not seeking too much knowledge be applied to the pursuit of scientific truths?

It's debatable whether or not Raphael gives Adam good advice. In Book 8 he tells Adam, "Heav'n is for thee too high/To know what passes there," meaning that some kinds of knowledge should remain beyond man's grasp.Though his advice foreshadows the mistake Adam will make during the fall, he doesn't explicitly tell Adam what knowledge is good and what knowledge is bad. Therefore, it's impossible for Adam to know whether he is seeking the wrong kind of knowledge. Though God has ordained that particular things will remain a mystery from man, Adam doesn't eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge because he wants to know more—he eats it so that he can stay with Eve. As applied to the pursuit of scientific truths, it may mean that no matter how hard human try to understand the universe, such pursuit is ultimately futile and "designed" to remain a mystery.

In Paradise Lost, what difficulties does Milton face in turning a religious entity such as God into a literary character?

Milton's biggest hurdle in depicting God as a literary character lies in the fact that God is one of the most recognizable religious names, and most people—religious or not—have a preconceived notion of him as a religious figure. Though it may seem blasphemous to reduce a divine entity to a character in a book, Milton needed to depict God as a character in the same way he had to depict Satan as a character. If he left God as an abstract religious concept, readers would have a difficult time understanding the relationship and battle between God and Satan. However, Milton faces the possibility of criticism from readers who might disagree with his depiction of God or his interpretation of his actions.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, why didn't Adam or Eve take accountability for their actions during the fall and are they right to blame each other?

In Book 9, by having Adam and Eve refuse to take accountability for their individual roles in the fall, Milton seems to be suggesting that it is the fall itself that has corrupted their ability to own responsibility for their actions. They both willingly ate the fruit for different reasons and therefore blaming each other is incorrect. Eve eats the fruit because she is tempted by Satan in the form of a snake and also because of her desire for knowledge. However, Adam eats the fruit because he is weakened by his love for Eve. Milton hints here that this is the beginning of deception.

Based on the portrayal of Eve in Paradise Lost, how could Milton be considered anti-feminist?

Milton's stance on feminism is a matter of interpretation. Milton reflects the gender and religious beliefs and prejudices of his era, when a woman was considered the property of her husband and was expected to submit to his will. At the same time, in Book 9 Milton shows Eve as desirous of knowledge in a bid to become Adam's equal, though she is ultimately punished for this desire. The Bible also portrays Eve as weak and less wise than Adam, and for Milton to rewrite the story otherwise would have been unacceptable to his readers.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, why does God allow Satan to wage a war in Heaven?

In Books 1 and 6 it seems paradoxical that God would allow Satan to wage a war in Heaven when he has the power to stop it at any time. It's likely that God wants Satan to realize the futility of his rebellion—since all angels are immortal, there is no way that Satan can "defeat" God's army of angels and overthrow him. As Abdiel, the only fallen angel to return to God, points out in Book 5, God "formed the Powers of Heav'n/Such as he pleased, and circumscribed their being." In fact, God even limits the number of his soldiers to match Satan's to make the battle more fair.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, how does Satan's physical transformations over the course of the poem reveal his character?

Milton is careful not to fully describe Satan when the reader first encounters him in Hell in Book 1. Milton describes Satan as large, but his scale is unknowable. From that point on, Satan shrinks in his transformations. He disguises himself as a cherub, or a small angel, and then as a bird, a mist, and finally a snake in Book 9. Each transformation reveals something about Satan's capacity for deception, and also how much he himself has fallen from his time as an angel—from a being with wings to a serpent that slithers on the ground. This diminishing aspect of Satan's physical form also shows how much power he loses over the course of the poem.

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