March 28: Paradise Lost Books III & IV

Given that Milton has spent┬ámuch more time and effort thus far in portraying Satan’s character and plight, what do you make of the portrayal of God and the goings on in heaven in the beginning of book III? What do you think are the implications of Milton’s┬áless complex and less powerful portrayal of God? Feel free to draw in a particular moment, detail, or example.

11 thoughts on “March 28: Paradise Lost Books III & IV

  1. I think this particular betrayal of God and Satan is representative of Milton’s feelings about the monarchy during the English Civil Wars. He believed that the monarchs did tend to abuse their powers, and he would have been more in support of Satan’s monarchial methods of governing Hell than in God’s more autocratic rule of Heaven. God in “Paradise Lost” possesses certain powers, like the ability to see past, present, and future all at once. Satan has no such powers. God is sitting on a throne, with his Son by his side, but he is also much more humble and self-aware than Satan. He states “I form them free and free they must remain… I else must change / their nature, and revoke the high decree / Unchangeable, eternal which ordained / Their freedom” (124-8). He knows that he is the one that gave man free will, and thus their fall due to their ability to give into temptation will be his fault. However, he is unwilling to change man because they are his favorite creation. Thus, God is perhaps acting selfishly (he allows his Son to die to save the race of humans which he is so proud of creating). In my opinion, Milton’s portrayal of God as almighty, but also flawed in some ways, does not subvert his faith, but rather increases it. He is not commenting directly on his God’s weaknesses, but the weaknesses of a monarch who reigns with good intentions but has less notable character. This would have been a prevalent opinion during the English Civil War era.

    • I do not think Milton portrays God as either selfish or weak, but completely just. While Milton’s description of God may be concerned with the present political situation, I think his description of God acts more of a way to “Justifie the ways of God to men”, as he wrote in the first book. There is certainly a line of thinking that can attack God, and question His goodness wondering why God, if He is all powerful, let sin into the world. Some attribute it to weakness, but Milton writes, in the persona of God “I made him (man) just and right/, sufficient to have stood, though free to fall”. For Milton, it was not God’s weakness in creating mankind that brought sin into the world, it was man’s own decision to fall. Milton further writes about the importance of man’s freedom, and by that freedom they were made to live, and by that freedom they fell. Thus Milton’s description of God serves to justify the ways of a faultless and powerful creator to those who would misunderstand His ways.

      • I agree that Milton was trying to explain God’s actions to mankind, to defend God against those who would challenge Him, but I do not think he was completely in favor of God as a monarch, because of his political views. Milton was definitely in favor of God and His purity, His just nature; I think that God is meant to demonstrate the ideal monarch, who is unselfish and dedicated solely to His subjects, in contrast to the monarchs of the physical, material world. God does make decisions Himself, without democracy, but He gives man free will so that they may choose whether or not to follow Him. Because of this, sin is not a fault of God, but a choice of mankind. This does increase Milton’s faith, but because God is perfect, not because He is flawed. God is depicted as having a perfect character, as well as being a perfect ruler. The perfect monarchy and stasis of God and Heaven may distance readers because of their contrast to the apparrent democracy and change of Hell, making readers relate more to Satan and his demons, but this is only to further the point that mankind is flawed, that we have inherent sin. God is distanced from humans to emphasize our imperfections, not to suggest that there is any question of God’s character.

  2. I’m not sure if Milton is trying to portray God as less powerful or complex, rather he is choosing to focus on Satan and thus does not see a point in putting too many lines into God’s well known story. All of the elements that make God who He is (letting the humans decide their fate, sending his son) are there and described as plenty dramatic, I just feel as if Milton knew his readers and understood that he didn’t need to go into too much retelling of the story.
    I think an important detail that describes God and Satan in this story is when God spots Satan with “wearied wings, and willing feet” (73) outside of the world. This to me makes him seem like a war hero of sorts, which sort of clashes with God not interfering to give his people their freedom.

  3. As I read it, John Milton here isn’t really interested in giving us a characterization of God that might be thought of as conventionally compelling like Satan’s more Byronic appeal, rather, the way he interprets God’s dominion over Heaven and the new creation is supposed to present a less orthodox theology than the Calvinism or Anglicanism, focusing on the mercy of God, rather than arguing for His justice.
    “On the bare outside of this world, that seem’d
    Firm land imbosom’d, without firmament,
    Uncertain which, in ocean or in air.
    Him God beholding from his prospect high,
    Wherein past, present, future, he beholds,
    Thus to his only Son foreseeing spake.”
    We also should see from Milton’s understanding and attempts to portray the Divine that God is in full control and possesses great power, not less, even if God the Father’s watchful eye is passive in relation to Satan’s machinations. Remember the angels constantly reaffirm God’s power, pointing to the new creation (Earth), brought out of Chaos. God’s foretelling and affirmation of Man’s free will reflect Milton’s own convictions, emphasizing a sort of Christian humanism.
    “All he could have; I made him just and right,
    Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
    Such I created all the ethereal Powers
    And Spirits, both them who stood, and them who fail’d;
    Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
    Not free, what proof could they have given sincere
    Of true allegiance, constant faith or love,”

    Most notably, in this following passage, we see the stress of God’s greatest power, which Milton says is Love.
    “The first sort by their own suggestion fell,
    Self-tempted, self-deprav’d: Man falls, deceiv’d
    By the other first: Man therefore shall find grace,
    The other none: In mercy and justice both,
    Through Heaven and Earth, so shall my glory excel;
    But Mercy, first and last, shall brightest shine.
    Thus while God spake, ambrosial fragrance fill’d
    All Heaven, and in the blessed Spirits elect
    Sense of new joy ineffable diffus’d.
    Beyond compare the Son of God was seen
    Most glorious; in him all his Father shone
    Substantially express’d; and in his face
    Divine compassion visibly appear’d,
    Love without end, and without measure grace,”

  4. God is portrayed as a man who had given men of the world the choice to follow God or to follow Satan. Unlike the Torah, where God expects obedience and punishes those who do not follow him, God has set up a sort of “plan”: the choice to follow good or to follow bad is out there. Humans will hear the call of God to follow and if they don’t listen, he’ll have a sacrificial angel die for the sins of mankind. Though that burden falls to Jesus (he volunteers, but that’s out of necessity- nobody else volunteered), God is very passive compared to other versions of him, like the one who forced Moses to wander the desert for 40 years because he broke the rock to bring water to his people.

    I believe God is portrayed this way because of Milton’s personal beliefs. He wants God to be all-knowing and all-powerful, but to ultimately give humans the choice to follow good or evil. By writing Satan as almost sympathetic and by making Jesus a self-sacrificing immortal, Milton gives his readers the choice to follow whomever they choose. Ultimately, the choice is null because Jesus died for all our sins, according to the Bible and to Milton. But having the choice is important to him none-the-less, or else he wouldn’t have included it in “Paradise Lost” in such a big way.

    • I would agree that Milton certainly portrays the characters of good and evil in a way that is relatable to the reader. By including Satan’s consideration of asking for God’s forgiveness, we are able to see Satan in a way that connects to humanity’s brokenness. He represents more than the physical Hell; his character demonstrates a hell that is a separation from God. I don’t think Milton is intentionally making God seem less powerful; instead, he is focusing on the story of Satan, who offers a warning to humans about the power of their free will. Ultimately God’s power is shown to override Satan’s power when Heaven sends a sign saying that Satan will not defeat Gabriel.

  5. I wouldn’t say that Milton portrays God as less powerful than he is traditionally portrayed but he certainly does portray God in a slightly less glorious light than one is accustomed to. It could simply be Milton trying to make God sound all-powerful, but God comes across as a bit pompous. This would make sense, as he is God, but one would expect God to be a bit more humble in tone. But on multiple occasions God seems to spout off about his virtues and how man is helpless without him (which according to Christianity is true) – indeed, he seems to show a real lack of confidence in man’s ability to resist temptation. Because of this, God essentially asks for a scapegoat for man’s sins. His Son tells God that he’s willing to sacrifice himself for mankind, saying “on Me let Thine anger fall” (237). I found this choice of words to be interesting, as one would expect God to be unblemished by worldly emotions like anger. Though the Bible itself is full of examples of God’s wrath, despite wrath being one of the mortal sins.

  6. As some of my class mates have pointed out, I think that Milton has chosen to really illustrate Satan’s character, not God’s. Milton wants to really elaborate on Satan’s fall, his personality, his character, as this is often not talked about and I think this is what Milton really wanted to write about and it interested him more. But, I think it’s interesting that he made the point of including the fact that all of this was possible through God. God gave Satan, and everyone, free will so really all things are possible through God.
    As bestbw above me pointed out, God’s wrath and anger is prevalent throughout this chapter and throughout the Bible. However, this doesn’t make me look down on him or make me think less of him, it has the opposite effect. I think it makes him more relatable and the fact that he has emotions also makes him more relatable.

  7. In portraying God, Milton faces a challenge: is God all-powerful, and yet allows Satan to tempt humanity? Or is God not all-powerful, and thus has no control over the Devil? Milton answers this challenge by creating a God who is omnipotent, and therefore knows about Satan’s deception and the fall of man beforehand, but also allows His creatures free will, and so they choose their own paths. He denies that “predestination overruled / Their will,” which follows the theological teachings of the Puritan church (line 114-115). In order for Satan’s exploits to be menacing, we the readers need to know that God cannot or will not simply step in and stop him in his tracks. Therefore, Milton’s God cannot be all-powerful, or Satan would not be a viable threat to humanity.

  8. I think that the more complex characterization of Satan has to do with the fact that he is a flawed character. God is completely just and pure; there is not much more to say character-wise. Complex characterization arises from flaws and complex emotion. According to Milton’s faith, God should be perfect. This in no way diminishes God, but when you have a perfect character, you can’t really go beyond this perfection. Satan, however, has many flaws; he is consumed by jealousy, contempt, and vengeance, which naturally leads to a more complex character. I would not say that God is presented as less powerful; rather, I think that God’s immediate knowledge of Satan’s plan and the impact it will have on his creation proves that he is just as powerful of Satan, if not more so.

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