Milton–Epic Evil

The Great Courses
Why Evil Exists
Lecture Eighteen
Milton–Epic Evil

I want to explore the nature of “evil” and popular ideologies. It is, of course, impossible to ever really understand evil, but I think that even scratching the surface of the nature of evil will broaden my horizons. 🙂 I have found what looks like an excellent set of lectures from The Great Courses called Why Evil Exists. I plan on using these lectures as a guide during my quest. I will record my adventures here in my blog. The course’s introduction states: people have been addressing the problem of the existence of evil in a “divinely governed or morally ordered world” for millennia. The course aims to chart the answers that the Western world has outlined throughout time. I suppose I am to be left in the dark about the Eastern world’s answers to these questions? How evil. 😉

Because I have already started my study of Milton, I will skip ahead to Lecture 18: Milton–Epic Evil. *Watches lecture while taking notes.*


John Milton was a political revolutionary as well as a poet (see also: Milton and Paradise Lost: A Quest to Understand). All of Milton’s writings, even the political ones, were centered around how humanity can avoid corruption by evil. As a Calvinist and a republican,1 Milton meant Paradise Lost as an allegory for the failure of Oliver Cromwell’s rebellion. “Paradise Lost is the story of a rebellion gone terribly awry, and a leader horribly mutilated by his own revolt.” 2

Milton suggests in Paradise Lost that he intended the epic to “justify the ways of God to men.” He views God as timeless and eternal–existing at once in the past, present and future. So, although God knows all that has been or will be, it is not preordained. Adam and Eve had free choice, and they chose sin. But their sin was different from the sin of Satan, who represents Evil’s self-understanding in Milton’s epic.

In order to depict the embodiment-of-evil as a character, Milton had to display Satan in all his alluring charisma–for that is the nature of evil, it charms and tempts the unwary. It is easy to sympathize with Milton’s Satan. He oscillates between self-doubt (God has tempted me to fall thus!) and self-confidence (I am acting out my own ambitions, while God thinks he can control me!). Even though his emotions are self-contradictory, they make him more real to the reader…they make him someone the reader can understand. Along with Satan’s oscillating paradoxical motivations, Milton also uses paradoxical metaphors to represent evil. One of the most famous examples is Milton’s description of Hell as a “visible darkness.”

Milton had the difficult task of portraying self-aware evil (as opposed to portraying man’s perception of evil, as in Dante’s work). Because of this, he portrayed Satan as a much more interesting character than God or Jesus. Many critics believed that Milton himself sympathized with Satan. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Other critics, like C. S. Lewis, insisted that Milton’s poem complimented Christian faith.

Unlike Satan, Adam and Eve are “surprised by sin.” Even though the angel Raphael warns them about sin, they are incapable of understanding the warning because they are too innocent. The warning is useless. Theirs is not “self-aware” sinning like Satan’s. Eve sins out of careless folly, vanity, and pride…not a “self-aware” wish to rebel. Adam’s sin was that he loved Eve more than he loved God, whom he was supposed to love above all else. This is the difference between Satanic sin and human sin. Satanic sin is about the sin itself; human sin tends to rope in emotions about other people.  


Now that I have a good idea of what Milton was trying to say in Paradise Lost, I’m ready to attack the first book! 🙂


1. “Republican,” at the time, meant a person who believed that the people should govern themselves (as opposed to a monarchy). 

2. Charles Mathewes, The Great Courses: Why Evil Exists, Lecture 18.

3. This is the title of a well-accepted contemporary critical analysis of Paradise Lost: Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, by Stanley Fish.

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