Introduction to Paradise Lost by John Milton

Table of Contents

Overview of the Epic Poem

Have you ever gotten really angry or sad thinking about all of the suffering in the world, about how many people struggle just to exist? Have you ever cried out in frustration, "Life is not fair! What's with all the injustice in the world?"

Well, you're not alone. Nearly four hundred years ago John Milton struggled with the same questions in Paradise Lost. At the very beginning of the poem, Milton claims that he will "assert Eternal Providence" and "justify the ways of God to men." In other words, Milton says he'll explain and defend God's ways, and will show us how everything in the world is part of a grand plan, a plan in which everyone will live happily ever after in the end.

While he believes in a grand plan, Milton also tells us how important freedom and choice are; there is no such thing as fate or predestination in the world he describes. Now, to review for a moment, predestination is an idea held by some Protestants which claims that everyone is already predestined for salvation (Heaven) or damnation (that would be Hell) when they're born. So the idea is that people are either born good or bad. According to this belief, there is nothing a person can do to escape his or her fate in the next life (good works, charity, penitence and the like won't get anybody into Heaven because everything has already been decided). For Milton, God doesn't predestine anybody, and his God's "ways" turn out to be just reactions to human decisions: God banishes Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and evil enters the world because Adam and Eve broke the rules. Simple as that. In Paradise Lost the point is not that Adam and Eve were unlucky or unjustly treated; they knew the rules and were given the gift of freedom of choice; they were "free to fall," as Milton's God puts it.

So now we get down to why we should care: choice. Such a tiny word for such a gargantuan idea. Why, you might ask, were Adam and Eve given this choice? Wouldn't it have been better if there were no Tree of Knowledge? The short answer is yes, the long answer no. You see, Adam and Eve's obedience to God doesn't mean much if there's no way to disobey him. It's more meaningful and more significant if there is temptation that must be resisted; virtue, Milton feels, is nothing if it isn't tested. The same is true in real life; how can we know how good someone is if we don't know how they respond to "bad" or "sinful" things? How do you know how strong your friendships are until they are tested?

You may not agree with Milton's ideas, and you may not believe what he believes, but thinking about our own freedom of choice is important. Milton challenges us to define our own views on this, and what we believe shapes our everyday actions. While it may seem "mean" to sit by and watch people suffer or make bad decisions, Milton suggests that only a God willing to give people free will can be considered good and "justified." What do you think about this and about freedom of choice in general?

An Introduction to the Text