Our anthology presented a nice background on Milton’s life focusing on his political position going in and out of favor. A good lesson involved comparing the dangers of political writing in Milton’s day with contemporary freedom of speech. On His Blindness and the excerpt from Paradise Lost provided for good discussion material.
“On His Blindness”
Excerpt from Paradise Lost
John Milton has been called the most erudite of all English writers. Influenced by John Donne—both men emphasize the passage of time, and their dependency on God’s grace, which Donne implores to help save his soul, and which Milton expects will help him achieve his life’s work.
“On His Blindness”
The poem is a philosophical and religious reconciliation to conditions imposed by fate. Do physical impairments necessarily hinder artistic production? (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was written after he was totally deaf; paintings of Toulouse Lautrec who was crippled at the age of fourteen. Some claim Beethoven’s deafness allowed him to concentrate more on his writing of music, and that Lautrec’s painting was therapeutic.)
Paradise Lost (excerpt—Beezlebub and Satan argue about what to do after they lost the rebellion to God); Milton, because of his blindness, dictated Paradise Lost to his daughters in the backyard. We visited Milton’s home and the tree under which he dictated the poem in Stoke Poges outside of London.
The poem relates the “heroic deeds” of God and Satan in the two most vital battles ever fought—the struggle for Heaven and the fight for man’s soul. Satan says that God is He “Whom thunder hath made greater.” (Satan is implying that he is God’s equal in all things, excepting power in battle.)
Because of his characterization of Satan during much of Paradise Lost, Milton has been accused of making Satan the hero of this epic. Ask your class to examine Satan’s speech in Hell and discuss the noble characteristics revealed in this speech. (Satan, in this passage, wins our admiration because he reveals, first of all, that he is a noble loser—he does not become obsequious because he has been defeated. He has gambled and lost, but he is willing to suffer the consequences. Instead of despairing over the painful environment of Hell, he immediately takes the attitude that his mind can make a Heaven, eve of Hell. He also reveals that he is willing to suffer any punishment in order to be free—a goal which seems noble, and is rhetorically presented in his stirring “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
Khan, the villain in Star Trek’s The Wrath of Khan, says the same thing about being exiled to a deserted planet. Is there a similarity among the heroic qualities of Satan, Captain Ahab, Beowulf and Khan?
Although Milton claimed to “justify” the ways of God to men, and attempted to do this by showing that the punishment of Adam and Eve was contingent upon their freely committed sin, the arguments he gives for Satan to use are so convincing that we cannot help sympathizing with Eve. In a subtle way Milton uses Satan to show us how unexplainable God’s ways are to men, since on a purely human level Satan’s arguments are quite rational. To illustrate just how convincing Satan’s arguments, ask half the class to imagine themselves as Eve in the garden just after her sin. Ask them to write a short defense of her action. (They can defend themselves with the arguments used by Satan or they can expand on them.) Ask the other half of the class to write Adam’s reaction to his wife’s sin. What arguments could Adam use to attack her action?
Ask students in the class to ponder if they would like someone to love them because they “had to love them” or because they loved them out of their own free will.
Then discuss the theological notion that Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden as punishment, but now they have free will. While previously loving God because they were not aware of choices, now they have choices. The argument continues that while the story of Adam and Eve is a lesson in obeying God, at the same time it was a good thing (the expulsion) because men and women now have a choice to be good or to be evil. When they choose good (God), then the Almighty appreciates their good actions even more. At least, that is one argument.