An epic poem written in English blank verse, Paradise Lost spans a cosmic scope–from the rebellion against heaven to the creation of the world and man’s expulsion from Eden. Milton first sets himself the task of speaking in Satan’s voice, offering an inimitable perspective on exercising the will against the freedom for which it was meant. Then he tackles the interior movements and motivations of Eve and Adam, relating with sensitivity and scope their decision to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and what comes to pass thereafter.

A master of English verse and its classical forebears, Milton deals deftly with the complexity at the very root of being human.

Image: Temptation & Expulsion from Paradise, Sistine Chapel

Molly Brigid McGrath on Social Justice Rights: Sacrificial Politics and Sacred Victims

Faculty

Molly Brigid McGrath

Molly Brigid McGrath is a professor of philosophy at Assumption University. She specializes in phenomenology, social ontology, and political philosophy, with particular interests in the works of Husserl, Aristotle, Searle, and classic texts by Plato, Aquinas, and Montesquieu.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Readings:

Topics:

  • Paradise Lost as an Epic Poem
  • Satan’s Virtues and Motivations
  • Theodicy and the Problem of Evil
  • The Council of Devils and the Political Order of Hell 
  • Freedom as Political Ideal
  • Freedom of the Will
  • Anarchy, Chaos, and Discord

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the narrator Milton suggest about his goals in Paradise Lost? How does he situate it in the epic genre? Does he intimate having further—perhaps theological or political—goals? 
  2. How complicated is Satan, internally? What range of emotional reactions does he have to his failure and fall? What are his virtues?
  3. What do Satan and his legions fear and hope for, and do these fears and hopes make sense? 
  4. Several devils deliver speeches in hell. What are their various characters? What different strategies do they advocate for dealing with damnation?
  5. What, in political terms, was the rationale of the devils’ rebellion against God? Is Satan a ruler, and if so, what type is he? What do the devils do when Satan is away? Is Hell a constitutional monarchy?

Readings:

Topics:

  • The Poet’s Blindness
  • God the Father and the Son of God, as characters
  • The Political Order of Heaven 
  • Freedom 
  • Satan’s Internal Life and External Presentation

Discussion Questions:

  1. According to Milton’s God, what is the relationship between reason and freedom? Between grace and freedom? Between divine foreknowledge and creaturely freedom? 
  2. How, according to Milton’s God, do devils and human being differ in culpability for misuse of free will? Why are creatures (devils and men) given freedom at all? 
  3. What are God the Father’s motivations? What are the Son of God’s motivations? How should we describe God the Father and the Son of God as characters? In what ways do they seem divine? Are they likeable? Regal? Sympathetic? Admirable? Just? Merciful? Vulnerable? Heroic? Do they seem divine, or does Milton’s poem fail to depict them convincingly as divine? 
  4. What do we learn about Eve from her first personal origin story? How does Milton first describe Adam and Eve, and their relationship, in Eden? What do they do with their time? Where does Satan see their vulnerabilities?
  5. What, according to Satan, condemns him to Hell? Is repentance possible for him? What are Satan’s second-thoughts, and what are his ultimately decisive motivations?

Readings:

  • John Milton, Paradise LostBooks V-VI
  • Isaiah 14:4-17
  • Revelation 12:20-22

Topics:

  • The Desire to Know, or Human Curiosity 
  • Angelic and Human Nature 
  • Happiness and Dis/Obedience 
  • An Epic Battle
  • The Epic Hero

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Satan appear and tempt Eve in the dream? Why does God send Raphael to speak to Adam?
  2. How are angels and human beings alike and how are they different (e.g., in body, in loving intercourse, in eating, in reasoning)?
  3. According to Raphael, what change happens in heaven that spurs Satan to rebel against God the Father? What are Satan’s motivations and his tactics in organizing an army? Do these develop as the battle continues?
  4. In what ways are other angels—e.g., Abdiel or Michael—effective in their opposition to Satan and his legions? What are Milton’s God’s motivations for sending the Son of God and what are the Son of God’s motivations in fighting the rebels? 

Readings:

Topics:

  • Milton’s Muse
  • Human Curiosity, or the Desire to Know
  • Ode to Nature as Creation and to God as Creator
  • The Place of Theoretical Reason and/or Natural Science in Human Life
  • Human Desire for Companionship 
  • Conjugal Love and Edenic Gender Roles

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is the narrator Milton claiming a form of inspiration? How does he situate himself vis à vis the classical muses? Who is his muse? In beseeching the muse, what seems to be his motivation? 
  2. Adam seems naturally desirous for knowledge. Why might Adam be doubtful of aspects of Raphael’s story thus far? Is his doubt sinful? What is the line between the questions Adam can justly ask and those he shouldn’t?
  3. What is God the Father’s plan in creating the world, and how does he do it? What is man, according to the description of his creation? What is Milton’s God’s plan for man and what are God’s motivations in creating him? 
  4. What is Eden like as a place? What is its structure? What is the tree of life and what is the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and why have they been put in Eden? 
  5. What do we learn about Adam from his first-personal origin story? How does he interact with God? What type of companion does he ask for? Does Eve satisfy this request? What is the view of the proper relation between the sexes in Eden? Why is Eve created? 
  6. How does Paradise Lost portray erotic attraction and intercourse? What is the significance of the description of how the angels express love to each other? Does this suggest anything about Milton’s metaphysical views or about the way humans can (or cannot) or should (or should not) love each other erotically?

Readings:

Topics:

  • The Devil’s Inner Dialogue 
  • The First Two Marital Disagreements
  • Eve’s Sin vs. Adam’s Sin 
  • The Degradation of Devils 
  • A Model of Postlapsarian Marriage

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are Satan’s feelings about what he has done and what he plans to do? What are his motivations? How does this depart from his exterior presentation? How well does he understand himself? Does his self-knowledge help him? 
  2. How does Eve’s beauty affect Satan? What does this tell us about Satan’s nature, about his character, about the essence of Hell? How does Satan-in-the-Serpent tempt Eve? How does he craft his speech rhetorically for her? What ultimately convinces her? 
  3. What does the episode between Eve and the Serpent tell us about reason—who has it, about its use or misuse, about its relationship to vanity or pride? What is the significance of Satan-in-the-Serpent calling Eve “mother of science”? What effect does the fruit have on Eve? What new temptations arise? 
  4. What convinces Adam to eat of the fruit? How is his sin different from Eve’s? What effect does the fruit have on Adam? What new temptations arise? 
  5. How does Adam and Eve’s second disagreement differ from their first? 
  6. What is God’s curse on Adam? On Eve? How is nature changed as a result of the sin? What did Satan win by winning in Eden? What do Adam and Eve do in Book X that Satan has not done? What allows them to do what Satan seemingly cannot?

Readings:

Topics:

  • Who is the Hero of the Epic? 
  • Foreknowledge and Freedom
  • Hierarchy, Republicanism, Tyranny, and Obedience

Discussion Questions:

  1. C.S. Lewis comments on the final two books: “The poem as a whole . . . suffers from a grave structural flaw. Milton, like Virgil, though telling a short story about the remote past, wishes our minds to be carried to the later results of that story. But he does this less skilfully [sic] than Virgil. Not content with following his master in the use of occasional prophecies, allusions, and reflections, he makes his two last books into a brief outline of sacred history from the Fall to the Last Day. Such an untransmuted lump of futurity, coming in a position so momentous for the structural effect of the whole work, is inartistic” (A Preface to Paradise Lost, 125). Is Lewis too harsh? What might be the most redeeming features of these last two books? 
  2. Why is Michael supposed to give Adam a vision of the future of human events? What good does this do? Given Adam’s responses to the visions, and Michael’s corrections, what does Adam learn? Does this serve any purpose within the story, or is it more didactic? What effect might foreknowledge have on human freedom? 
  3. What is Michael’s attitude toward heroic virtue? How does Michael explain tyranny to Adam? Why must law exist and how efficacious is it? 
  4. How does the poem conclude regarding the relationships between equality, freedom, happiness, and obedience? Does the poem imply any political theory?
  5. How does the poem conclude regarding the use of reason and Adam’s desire for knowledge? Does the poem imply any attitude toward philosophy and science? 
  6. Does Paradise Lost have an epic hero? What does the poem say about epic heroism? Why might some view Satan as the hero of the work?

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