Essays Theology

The Erotic Cosmos of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”

Is John Milton a man for our time or all time? The blind and pugnacious, indeed, radical, English poet arguably wrote the greatest epic in the English language. While claiming to “justify the ways of God to men,” Milton’s remarkable poem is not only a window into the battles of early modern English civilization, it is a gateway into the mind of a prescient man who served as a precursor to the English Augustan age—an age that confronted the sterile mechanicalism and materialism of the emergent “Enlightenment” philosophy, an era duly remembered as the “Age of Passion.”

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Eros, in Greek, does not singularly mean sexual passion as it does through our deracinated English inheritance. While eros does mean love, in ancient Greek from Homer down through Thucydides and Plato, eros could better be understood as the intensity of the passions which produce ecstasy—both sexual and non-sexual. At various points in the Iliad, Homer employs eros in non-sexual and sexual settings, and Thucydides incorporates eros in purely non-sexual ecstatic political contexts (especially in the Funeral Oration and Alcibiades’ speech advocating the Sicilian Expedition). We might better understand eros, then, as the passionate life force that moves affective creatures into “madness” or ecstasy—from which the intensity of the passions manifest themselves in sexual or non-sexual ways.

One might ask, then, why not consider Milton’s cosmos as “passionate” instead of “erotic”? To be sure, passion and passionate are more neutral terms that are not loaded with the potential negativity of eros and the erotic. However, passion and passionate fail to capture that august lebenskraft which eros and the erotic do. Moreover, at the end of Paradise Lost the love which the archangel Michael explains to Adam is more in line with the classical tradition concerning the connectivity of eros and theoria, which I shall return to at the end of this essay. So while I will use the terms somewhat interchangeably, know that the eros which I speak of is an ecstatic intensity of passion which the word eros more fully embodies and implies than does the word passion.

Milton’s grand epic is an intense poem, a passionate poem, an erotic poem. From the visual imagery to the very descriptive language Milton uses to portray his lively scenes to us, there is no escaping the reality of the life force which moves his poem. Why, however, does Milton choose to write such a poem, and to whom, or what, is he writing and responding?

By the time Milton was composing Paradise Lost, the Caroline era had come to a violent end in the English Civil Wars and the Restoration under Charles II was under way. Milton was a devoted nonconformist, an enemy of the “Popish” aspects of the Anglican Church but also a heterodox nonconformist rejecting the deterministic supralapsarianism of Cambridge Calvinism exemplified by men like William Perkins and William Ames. This is all reflected in his poem, which presents a theodicy of free will. The intellectual currents in philosophy are also important—if not overriding—for us. Francis Bacon had just published his Novum Organum and New Atlantis which charted out the modern scientific-materialistic outlook that would give birth to mechanical philosophy and utilitarianism. Thomas Hobbes had also recently published his Leviathan, which, among other things, continued the materialization of philosophy and denied Transcendent Morality altogether, strongly promoting (especially in the first part) a mechanical philosophy of causality. The emergent materialism of English philosophy was stripping the world of love, of passion, of eros, and turning it into a bland world of causality and motion without any zest. This intellectual reality must never be lost to the reader of Paradise Lost alongside Milton’s own political and theological radicalism.

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The focus on the individual and the individual’s genius to understand the reality of the world through private revelation and the poet’s reinvention of genres was, for Max Weber, the great creative cultural enterprise of Protestantism. Freed from the constraints of the priesthood, intermediaries, and defined forms and traditions to which one needed to belong, the shattering of old norms and established hierarchies gave the Protestant poet—even if, perhaps, still a practicing Catholic like Alexander Pope—a new power to embark on his own adventure. In all respects, Milton is, then, the very embodiment of the quintessential Protestant poet of individual genius and reinvention which reverberates down to the present day even with postmodern criticism.

Milton’s poem is a truly passionate poem. Passion bleeds through its pages from start to finish. The visuality of the poem, its ability to conjure up images in our mind, are intense. The poem begins with a sort of preface (re)stating the standard Christian theodicy of the Fall of Man and speaks of the promised coming of Christ, “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste / Brought death into the world, and all our woe, / With loss of Eden, till one great man / Restore us, and regain the blissful seat.” The poem then shifts into its true epic narration beginning with the defeated rebellious angels having been expelled from heaven for their rebellion, the construction of Pandaemonium, and the parliamentary-like debates over their next course of action.

The debate in Pandaemonium begins to reveal Milton’s cosmos as being governed by eros, intense passion, through the speakers involved. Belial, one of the speaking demons whose advocacy mirrors that of the defeated Latitudinarians, gives an uninspired speech calling for submission and peace before God who has expelled them. Belial’s name, in Hebrew, means “Worthless.” He gives a truly worthless speech because it is not a passionate speech. The counterweight to Belial’s speech is the intemperate Moloch, who gives an impassioned plea, more than a speech, about trying once more to storm heaven with greater vigor and resolve than before. Beelzebub also speaks, advocating an “easier enterprise” by seducing the heart of the new race of man created on earth. Beelzebub’s speech is passionate but also seductive; Satan decides that Beelzebub’s course of action should be followed but he is the only fallen angel capable of making the ascent out of hell onto earth to see, with his own eyes, this new race created by God.

Satan’s “heroic” journey to Eden draws on many classical parallels. It is a journey of trial, visions, and encounters much like Odysseus or Aeneas. Milton was well-read in the classics and had a knowledge of not only the canonical classics like Homer and Virgil but also recently rediscovered poems of antiquity like Silius Italicus’ Punica. All of this influenced his rather scandalous re-imagination of the heroic journey/descent/ascent trope with Satan’s laborious struggle through the chaotic watery void of the earth and entry into Eden. Satan swims through primordial chaos and overcomes the dangers to eventually spot Adam and Eve perched in each other’s arms in paradise but not without first meeting Sin and Death, who ominously foreshadow the malevolent intentions of Satan. Satan is no hero; his journey is an inversion and cruel parody of the classical heroic sojourn.

The encounter with Adam and Eve sparks a sort of jealous love triangle. The real reason why Satan is so filled with resolve to destroy God’s new creation is because he beholds all the good things that the new world holds of which he is deprived. We witness, then, a passionate Satan, rather than some banal villain with plans of vainglory and egoism. The Satan who looks over Eden, Adam and Eve, and the beautiful world just created is a jealous figure, a figure filled with emotion and passion just like the rest of creation—but passions that are manifested through deprivation rather than fulfillment. And this is one of the remarkable achievements of Milton, for Milton informs us that evil and sin are the byproducts of the deprivations of our passions rather than mere attempts to fulfill them.

Satan’s spotting of Adam and Eve strike us as peculiar, perhaps thanks to our puritanical sentiment, but the image is very moving because it is scandalously erotic:

From this Assyrian garden, where the Fiend
Saw undelighted all delight, all kind
Of living creatures new to sight and strange:
Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native honour clad
In naked majesty seemed lords of all.

The second image of our earthly parents is an equally sensual one:

So spake our general mother, and with eyes
Of conjugal attraction unreproved,
And meek surrender, half-embracing leaned
On our first father; half her swelling breast
Naked met his under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses hid; he in delight
Both of her beauty and submissive charms
Smiled with superior love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles when he impregns the clouds
That shed May flowers; and pressed her matron lip
With kisses pure: aside the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained.

What we witness, with Satan, is an Eden—a world, a whole cosmos—that is teeming with radiance and life. The cosmos which Milton has just described, from the storms of primordial chaos to the wondrous and sex-filled Garden of Eden, is a world antithetical to the mechanical philosophers and scientists who see only material objects moving and bouncing off each other as predetermined laws of physics demand. The cosmos that Satan journeys through and sees, the cosmos which fills him with intense jealousy and envy, is an erotic cosmos moved by love, passion, and intimacy. The world in its ecstasy and radiance is Milton’s poeticized fruitio Dei. Milton’s material world is not dry or sterile but governed by the passions which bring life to the dirt, trees, and leaves, and, most of all, to our human father and mother.

Milton is confronting the sterile materialistic cosmos emerging from the proto-scientific intelligentsia which is stripping the universe of its mystery and beauty just as much as he is offering theological criticism. The world we witness is a steamy world of life, spirit, and zest. It is a world of grandeur and beauty; pleasure and erotica; intensity and intimacy…

As part of my monthly literary column at The Imaginative Conservative, I explore, explain, and defend John Milton’s erotic cosmos as crafted in Paradise Lost and how it serves as a precursor to the English Augustan Age of literature. Read the rest here: Milton’s Erotic Cosmos (2/1/2020).

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