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Milton's Great Argument | David Scott Kastan

Red Bull's online benefit reading of John Miltons's Paradise Lost will premiere LIVE at 7:30 PM EDT on Monday, April 12. With its exquisite language and Shakespearean scale, John Milton’s epic poem explores the fundamental questions of the human experience. Dubbed "an immorality play" by adaptor and director Michael Barakiva, this presentation will be presented in two parts:

Part 1 : THE FALL OF LUCIFER will premiere LIVE on Monday, April 12. A recording of that livestream will be available until 7:00 PM EST on Friday, April 16 – then it disappears.

Part 2 : EVE AND ADAM will premiere LIVE on Monday, April 26. A recording of that livestream will be available until 7:00 PM EST on Friday, April 30 – then it disappears.

Paradise Lost is a great poem—to my mind the greatest written in English, or possibly in any other language. And I am hardly the only one to think this about John Milton’s epic. In 1667, as the poem was still being printed in London, it was said that Sir John Denham, a member of Parliament and himself a fine poet, walked into the House of Commons waving a sheet from Paradise Lost, “still wet from the press.” This, he excitedly proclaimed, was “part of the noblest poem that was ever wrote in any language or in any age.”

Certainly it is the most ambitious. Milton insists he will accomplish “Things / Unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (though typically he makes this claim of radical originality by quoting an earlier poet). He writes an epic -- the genre, as he says, “of highest hope and hardest attempting”—or, rather, he rewrites the epic, undermining its deepest logic and claiming the form as his own.

Milton writes about God and about Satan, about Heaven and Hell, about the beginning of creation and about the end of time; and of course, he writes about warfare, but also about love, sex, food, music, prayer, anger, sadness, appetite, ambition, temptation, free will, and even farts. That is, he writes about almost everything that makes us human, created in the image of God but fallen, potentially noble but often falling (as one might say) so very short of that perfection.

But the poem’s “great argument,” as Milton says, is nothing less than to “justify the ways of God to men.” The always presumptuous Milton will at once imply that God’s ways need justification and that he is capable of providing that.

Milton refuses to hide behind the familiar mystifications of God’s ways. Suffering, death, inequality, and injustice are all too evident in the world to be accepted as the just results of the Fall. Certainly, Milton felt them powerfully and personally. He had gone blind in 1652, and by 1660 the political cause for which he had served as the chief propagandist—the “hot” Protestant and anti-monarchical Republicanism of the 1640s, which he thought would herald the coming of the Kingdom of God--had clearly failed. The Monarchy was restored, and Milton was probably lucky not to have been killed. He knew, as he writes, that he had “Fallen” (there’s that word again) “on evil days” and that now he lived “In darkness and with dangers compassed round.”

No wonder God’s ways seemed to him in need of justification. And he makes it hard for us to think any differently. If God is the creator of all things, how does He escape responsibility for the evil one sees around us? Monotheistic religions have that problem. If God is good, where does evil come from?

Unde malum” is the Latin phrase for that question—and that, by the way, explains why the forbidden fruit of Genesis and Milton’s poem becomes an apple. Genesis says only that it was a fruit; and in Milton’s poem, it is worth remembering, it is only Satan who calls it an apple. Why an apple? Because in Latin the word malum means both evil and apple.

But the real problem is with the unde (“from where”) not with the malum. God cannot be responsible for evil if He is good, and God isn’t God if there is a rival principle of creation. The orthodox answer provided by some of the Church Fathers is that evil exists only in relation to the good. It comes into being only by the conscious turning away from the good (which is more or less what the word “perverse” etymologically means). Good is primary; evil is secondary. God doesn’t create evil. Angels and humans, created with “free will,” may reject the good, and, in that choice, they bring evil into the world.

But even if Milton ultimately believes that, he struggles—and makes us struggle—to get there.

Evil in the poem, as so often in the world, seems every bit as real as good does. Satan seems a worthy antagonist for God, and often seems dramatically more compelling—so much so that a later poet, William Blake, could say that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” I don’t think Milton was, but I do think he knew that being “of the Devil’s party” might be a plausible reaction to the world as we experience it.

Maybe even an inevitable one. How could a God who was perfectly good allow the suffering and misery that is all around us? If humans are created “sufficient to have stood though free to fall,” as God insists in the poem, why, almost immediately after He speaks, does Milton show us an archangel fooled by Satan? His hypocrisy is “unperceived,” since, as Milton writes, it is the “only evil that walks / Invisible, except to God alone, / By his permissive will through heaven and earth.” If Satan can fool an angel, what chance of standing did Adam and Eve have? Why is it that evil here, and so often in the poem, seems to succeed only through the cooperation of God’s “permissive will”?

These are just some of the unsettling questions Milton asks, and that he makes us ask—and which do seem to demand that someone “justify the ways of God to men.”

Does Milton successfully do it? Well, readers of Paradise Lost must decide that for themselves. But whether he does or does not, he succeeds in making us feel the urgency of the questions he poses. He makes us feel the pressure of the hard choices forced upon us as we make our uncertain way in the postlapsarian world we call “history.” But he ensures that we are somewhat better prepared for our “wandering” by the very act of reading his great poem

David Scott Kastan

Yale University

On Thursday, April 26, join an interactive discussion of Paradise Lost with adaptor and director Michael Barakiva, scholar Kathleen Dimmick, and members of the companies. Register Now



Although I teach broadly across the field of Renaissance literature, my primary academic concern has been with the relations of literature and history in early modern England, considered from a variety of perspectives. This interest has in large part focused on the production, transmission, and reception of texts (a focus that I like to think of as “the new boredom”). I am one of the general editors of the Arden Shakespeare, for which I edited 1 Henry IV, and I edited both Milton’s Paradise Lost and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus for other publishers. I was the co-editor of the Bantam Shakespeare and the series editor for the Barnes and Noble Shakespeare. In addition, I edited The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, and also (with John Cox), A New History of Early English Drama and (with Peter Stallybrass) Staging the Renaissance. Among my scholarly publications are Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time,Shakespeare after Theory, Shakespeare and the Book, and A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion. Recently I have begun writing about the visual arts, including of number of essays written for art museum catalogues. My most recent book, entitled On Color, written with the painter Stephen Farthing, was published by Yale University Press in 2018. I am now working on a book tentatively entitled In Search of Rembrandt, as well as a book (perhaps) to be called The Problem of Beauty.


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