Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Milton's Paradise Lost: Books 6 - 10

Discussion questions from Book 10, on May 8:
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1. Is Adam's argument against suicide convincing?

2. Why does all of nature suffer for Man's transgression?

3. Was Satan successful in his plan?

Discussion questions from Book 9, on May 1:
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1. How persuasive was Eve that she and Adam should work separately? Was Adam responsible for what eventually happened?

2. How persuasive was Satan that Eve should taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? How might Eve have refuted his arguments?

3. How did the relationship between Adam and Eve change after they tasted the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Discussion questions from Book 8, on April 24:
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1. What does it mean to be "lowly wise"?

2. Why according to Milton does God never get lonely, but people do?

3. Does Milton think marriage is a natural instinct?

Discussion questions from Book 7, on April 17:
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1. Who Does Milton intend to read his poem?

2. What is the purpose of knowledge, as defined in Book 7?

3. How should modern readers interpret Milton's story of creation?

Discussion questions from Book 6, on April 10:
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1. How is it that the angels had never felt pain before the war in Heaven?

2. How is the Son of God different from the good angels?

3. Is the concept of God given by Milton too primitive for modern readers?

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. How is it that the angels had never felt pain before the war in Heaven?
Two possible reasons: (1) They had just never been injured before and therefore had never felt pain, or (2) pain did not exist before the rebellion.

I find the first reason implausible and don’t believe that’s what Milton intended. One of the reasons we experience pain is to let us know that something is physically wrong and we may need to seek medical attention to alleviate suffering, or possibly even death. Before the rebellion in Heaven there was apparently no such thing as injury or death, so there would have been no reason for the angels to experience pain. The angels inhabit bodies that seem to have the power of self-healing and the wounds they received in battle are painful, but not life-threatening. Even after the Fall, the angels are incapable of experiencing death. Pain came onto the scene after the rebellion in Heaven, but before the Fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise. Therefore, in Milton’s view, pain seems to have existed before the beginning of the world, but not from all eternity.

2. How is the Son of God different from the good angels?
The Son of God is not referred to as “Jesus” in this poem, but is known as “the Messiah”.
I find little evidence up to this point in the poem to distinguish the Son of God as the Second Person of the Trinity as defined in orthodox Christian theology. I can understand that there would not yet be a “Jesus” because the incarnation had not yet taken place. The Son of God had not yet taken human form and come to earth announced by the angel Gabriel that the child should be called “Jesus”. However, it seems that Milton treats the Son of God similar to the rest of the angels, just more heroic. The Son of God appears to be to the good angels what Satan is to the fallen angels – the undisputed leader, but still of the same substance and general makeup as his companions.

3. Is the concept of God given by Milton too primitive for modern readers?
It depends on the reader. Satan himself likes to use sophistication in his rhetoric to make his own case appear better than it actually is. Can we trust one who says (Book 1): “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 Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”? This (as many things that Satan says) is wrong, but not so absolutely wrong that the reader can detect the immediate flaw. In fact, there’s something noble-sounding in the expression. A romantic defiance that is almost inspiring. Almost. Until we remember that it is God Who has been defied by rebellious angels. But this is where I think many modern readers may feel some admiration for Satan’s point of view. They may feel that God (as portrayed by Milton) is too authoritative and arbitrary for modern tastes. He rules like a despot. But I think Milton anticipates our attitude and is warning us: Beware! Better men than you have fallen for false rhetoric and false promises. Hell is not Heaven, no matter what you think.

4/20/2006 1:07 PM  
Blogger SMJ said...

Further reflections on Milton's Paradise Lost

Freedom vs. Happiness:

Milton's story of creation and man's fall from grace has an underlying theme which props up his theology. The assumption is that an unrestricted pursuit of knowledge leads to pain and suffering and, eventually, to one's doom. To help man avoid this fate, God has imposed certain limits on man's freedom, but not his desires. Insofar as good judgment allows him to overcome desire, man will prosper. But if he succumbs to desire, whether it be the desire for knowledge of good and evil or the desire for immortality, he will surely perish.

Under Milton's cosmology, the desire for freedom always moves contrary to the desire for happiness. Satan's rebellion is described as an eruption of pride, but it can also be understood as a demonstration of power (i.e., an expansion of personal freedom). By refusing to submit to God's will, Satan asserts a right to his own identity separate from God. In a sense, Satan's rejection of God's authority is analogous to every human son's rejection of his mortal father, prefigured by the original sin of disobedience. But Satan misjudges the awesome scope of God's power and is banished from heaven.

In Paradise Lost, Milton inhabits a moral universe whose template is the Copernican model of planetary motion. The sun represents God in the center of creation, around which revolve the planets and lesser bodies. The planetary bodies are held in their orbits by gravity, which in our example represents the force of God's authority. Thus, we see that our home, Earth, is not free to travel just anywhere, but moves in a prescribed orbit around its Creator. Milton would say that human happiness is like the limited path of our planet's orbit around the sun. If our planet is ever allowed to veer from that path, darkness and eternal night will follow. It is God's authority that sustains the conditions necessary for both our survival and our happiness. Thus, we see that the dimensions of human freedom move inversely to the potential for human happiness.

This might explain why the Tree of Knowledge appears in Paradise. God's law (i.e., his authority) imposes limits on Adam and Eve's freedom. They are free to do pretty much whatever they want except to eat of the tree of knowledge. Accordingly, the tree of knowledge represents God's sacred law which has been given to Adam. Yet, the law itself creates the possibility for sin. Notice, if there is no law there can be no disobedience, and no opportunity for sin. Thus, the institution of law creates the possibility for crime. And it is only our esteem for Adam's character (his original nature, unspoiled as yet by sin) that allows us to blame Satan for man's fall.

Here, at the very beginning of man's history, we confront the ambiguous character of sin. That man's freedom allows him to disobey God; that Adam's temptation could only result from God's law (i.e., no law, no temptation); that Satan manages to sneak into Paradise despite God's love for man; that man's evolution from a child (a state of grace) to an adult (burdened with sin and guilt) could only occur through banishment from Paradise; that all of man's struggle since the Fall is defined by his desire to return to his original home. Finally, we must ask if a man's ultimate liberation from God is required to achieve his greatest potential as a rational being; and if so, is the cost of such knowledge the loss of Paradise (happiness) forever? Or to put it another way, is the quest for self-fulfillment (enlightenment) worth the cost of eternal happiness? Of course, Plato would say that the apprehension of truth ( philosophy...philo=love + sophia=wisdom ) is the very meaning of happiness. And Milton would agree, but he would phrase things differently. He would say that truth comes only from God, and any prospects for human happiness depend on the love of that truth.

4/24/2006 3:24 PM  

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