You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost is John Milton's epic poem on the fall of man as told in Genesis from the Old Testament. I decided to read it after listening to the lecture series on epics. It stands up to its reputation.

The story traces Satan's rebellion against God, his imprisonment and escape from Hell, the temptation of Eve, and Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden. Milton expands on the Genesis story, starting with Adam's creation. There are sequences where an angel tells Adam about events prior to his creation, namely the creation of the universe and Satan's rebellion.

Milton starts the poem in medias res, like a true epic. He also begins several sections with calls to his muse, Urania, whom he transforms into a Christian muse. I like these forms which give the poem an epic feel. Milton draws from the epic tradition with skill. Another epic element is iambic pentameter. Even though it sometimes gets a little repetitive, it's a solid rhythm that keeps a steady feel of the heroic. I found myself enjoying the meter.

One epic feature that I did not appreciate is the awkward grammar. I found it difficult to read lines that had the verb at the end, with lots of noun phrases between subject and verb. It can be very hard to understand such a sentence, especially across multiple lines. Join that with Milton's appreciation for Greek or Latin style grammar and vocabulary, and some sections become nearly unreadable. Many of the words are archaic, odd usage, or Latin words translated. With the notes, some of the words or phrases were often enjoyable. Milton was very educated and could read nearly every major European language. He brought an immense depth to the poem.

One of my favorite epic elements is the extended metaphor. It's just not something that you find anywhere else. Some of Milton's metaphors go on for several lines. They really help illuminate descriptions.

The theme of the poem is one of the biggest in mythology: the fall of man from God's Paradise. Milton elaborates the myth, bringing important characterization and motivation. I find it fascinating that the Bible does not have any details of what happened before God created Earth, Eden, Adam and Eve. Yet there is a large Christian mythology of the events in Heaven that led to Satan's downfall. Milton, along with Dante Alighieri, is largely responsible for defining our view of Hell. Dante presents an extended Catholic view of the punishments of Hell (including his contemporaries), while Milton presents a Protestant view of Satan and his fallen angels living in Hell. Milton takes existing mythology and creates some of his own.

Milton was also into science, especially astronomy. His knowledge of astronomy comes out in his description of the Earth and other planets. He touches on the controversy of the day, the beliefs about the motion of the Earth around the sun as opposed to the sun moving around the Earth. It is interesting to read about the motion of the Earth as an actual new idea. It gives me hope that today's evolution "controversy" will be settled, at least within another two hundred years or so. However, I wasn't entirely pleased with Milton's approach. There is a scene where Adam asks the angel Raphael about how the planets move, basically casting the question of the seventeenth century. Raphael replies: "To ask or search I blame thee not, for heaven/Is as the book of God before thee set,/Wherein to read his wondrous works, and learn/His seasons, hours, or days, or months, or years;/This to attain, whether heaven move or earth/Imports not, if thou reckon right: the rest/From man or angel the great architect/Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge/His secrets, to be scanned by them who ought/Rather admire;" Milton is basically saying, through Raphael, that the details of how the universe works is beyond man's understanding, and we should just be satisfied with its beautiful elegance. Much of God's creation is not fit for man to comprehend. I think this is a big copout. I believe Milton wanted to have it both ways by acknowledging scientific truth without offending religious orthodoxy. Instead of saying, yes, this is the way the universe works, he says, it could work either way, so just don't worry about it. In a sense this could be called a deeper truth, but I don't really believe that dismissing the importance of scientific discovery should be called a deeper truth. In as much as religion and science are at odds, I think he did a disservice to both. If religion is making scientific claims, then it has to be treated with scientific judgment.

The cause of Lucifer's rebellion is jealousy of God's Son, whom God has set over all of Heaven's host. Lucifer, now Satan, decides to rule Hell, and take over Earth by corrupting Adam. Adam adores Eve, and decides that if she is to be cast out of Eden, then he will join her, because he would rather be with her than in Paradise. Eve's choice for eating the forbidden fruit is that she is taken in by Satan. She wishes to gain knowledge to make her more like God.

Since Lucifer, as a creation of God, and Adam and Eve, created in God's image, go against God's word, part of the nature of God's creation is to rebel. God knew that his creation would decide to go against him, and really it was part of the master plan. Man, even as a rebel, is doing God's work. There must be something similar in God's nature if man is made in his image. Milton touches on the contradiction of the Son saving mankind, but only through the fall of Adam. It seems that the universe would not be complete without man's fall. It's part of the long term goal.

Then again, I always wonder why God waited so long to bring his Son to the world. Why did so many people have to go without being saved? Book X is a quick ending, almost rushed, telling of the Son's kindness to Adam and Eve despite their breaking their covenant, Satan's return to Hell only to see his fellow fallen angels turn to serpents, and Adam and Eve's reconciliation. The last two books follow Michael as he tells Adam what is to happen in the rest of Genesis and Exodus. It is interesting as a poetic summary of the Old Testament, but it's really outside the narrative. It only emphasized to me the strange story and the mystery of why it goes on for so long until the Son finally arrives four thousand years (or whatever) later. So much tragedy could have been avoided had the Son been sent earlier.

The poem is definitely an A+. Milton was daring to write about such a grand subject. Satan's struggle against God is part of Man's struggle to be independent. The temptation and fall were part of the definition of what it means to be human, a crucial element in history. The main moral problem I have with the whole story is the notion that all of Adam's descendant's have to suffer for his transgression. There is a natural cost for one's actions, but forcing others to accept responsibility for one man's sin is not moral. Though I reject the notion of original sin, the story of man's fall as it is mirrored with Satan's fall is fascinating and fundamental to understanding Western literature.


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