How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Four Themes in Milton’s Paradise Lost

Freize Détail of the Sainte Chapelle (Boulevard du Palais Paris, France), yet another view of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent.

Freize Détail of the Sainte Chapelle (Boulevard du Palais Paris, France), yet another view of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most splendid and influential works ever written in English. What is it about, how did it come to be, and how can today’s readers approach this wonderful work? And in the end, why would a modern reader want to read it? In a two-post series, our guest writer David E. Miller tells us all about Paradise Lost, and makes the case for plunging in to this magnificent work.

Miss Part I? Click here to start at the beginning.

Paradise Lost Part II

As discussed in the post “Milton’s Many Voices in Paradise Lost,” this magnificent epic tale tells the story of how Satan tempts Adam and Eve to disobey God and lose their place in paradise. In that post, you can read about the historical background behind the great poem, and how each major character helps Milton make his case for the existence of individual liberty.

Here, I will take up that theme in more detail, along with three other ideas that Milton promotes throughout the poem. It’s not surprising that such a vast work expresses more than just one big idea. Let’s take a look at four major themes I see in Paradise Lost.

And then, some words about why you would want to read it.

Major Theme: Freewill

Milton’s vision of Creation in Paradise Lost is highly organized. It includes Heaven, the stars and planets, the Earth, Eden, the deep tract of Hell, and all of the plants, animals, and reasoning beings that populate these places. Such an organized creation would seem to leave little room for independence and autonomy.

Eating the Forbidden Fruit. Painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530.

Eating the Forbidden Fruit. Painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530.

Milton shows in the poem, however, that reasoning beings are also separate from the creator, God the Father, and consequently free to range within the parameters of his creation in thought and action. For this reason, creation is in a continual kind of play or tension, in which humankind and even angels are free to push, to reconsider, and to question their assigned place and thereby have a hand in shaping creation.

In this way the rigid hierarchy of creation is balanced by a kind of co-equality. There are many examples in the poem of characters making a case to God, and God changing His mind as a result. Here are three:

  1. In Book III, the Son urgently petitions God the Father on our behalf rather than accepting the Father’s initial rejection of humankind for Adam and Eve’s sins.
  2. In Books V-VIII, Adam persists in questioning Raphael until the archangel reveals more of the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, as opposed to just passively receiving the portion of knowledge offered to him.
  3. In Book IX, Eve not only teaches Adam how they may more effectively tend to the garden, despite the fact that he has been charged to teach her, but she defends her own right to explore Eden on her own without a guardian.

While the tension between our own freewill and a tightly organized creation improves life for the better, Milton depicts all reasoning beings as free to reject God and attempt to find a path outside of creation. However, as Satan learns, finding an alternate path is impossible and will only end in eternal torment. There can be no path outside of what God has made. In spite of God-given liberty within the parameters of God’s creation, Milton does not believe we can go outside it to make an altogether new creation.

Tapestry of different scenes in Eden shows God's presence throughout Creation showing its organized nature and emphasizing God's presence throuhgout..

Tapestry ca. 1530 depicting an organized Paradise as a place where God is continuously present.

Major Theme: To “Justify the Ways of God to Men”

In the opening to Book I, Milton notoriously set himself a huge task:

That to the height of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men. (I.24-6)

Many scholars have argued that, admittedly, Milton does not accomplish this task. But then, how could anyone justify the ways of God? The very idea seems heretical, let alone mentally strenuous. And why would the human race need God to justify himself? This second question is easier to answer, since many aspects of God’s creation have puzzled and troubled humans.

In Milton’s day, just as in our own, we are often bewildered by life. If God is just, then why do bad things happen to good people? How can innocent children suffer horrific violence? Why do loved ones die too soon? What is evil, where does it come from, and how can Heaven remain seemingly unresponsive to it?

For Milton, the answer is freewill. Our experience of our own will as free, and our exposure to evil, are two sides of the same coin. The existence and extent of freewill is a contentious issue among some Christian denominations even today. But in Paradise Lost, Milton makes the case that our will must be free for our claims to virtue to be legitimate.

In the poem, Milton shows that only by freely and actively refusing to do evil can we claim to be virtuous. If there were no choice in how we could behave, how then could there be goodness? There could only be robotic obedience. Milton argues that God wants willing, not forced, obedience, and virtue that can withstand a test.

God the Father says in Book III that all beings were created free, “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall”:

Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have giv’n sincere
Of true allegiance, constant faith or love,
Where only what they needs must do, appear’d,
Not what they would? What praise could they receive?
What pleasure I from such obedience paid,
When Will and Reason (Reason also is choice)
Useless and vain, of freedom both despoil’d,
Made passive both, had served necessity,
Not mee. (III.102-11)

Unfortunately, not everyone chooses to do good. So why should those who choose to do good suffer for others’ evil choices? While many would say this is what makes God unjust, for Milton, this is the very reason why God is just. God extends the same freedom of choice to everyone and will judge all hearts and actions at the end of time. The alternative would be a God who is a mere tyrant, bending all wills to his own without anyone’s consent.

As the angel Raphael instructs Adam,

Our voluntary service [God] requires,
Not our necessitated, such with him
Finds no acceptance, nor can find, for how
Can hearts, not free, be tried whether they serve
Willing or no, who will but what they must
By destiny, and can no other choose? (V.529-34)

Major Theme: The Desire for Knowledge

Tapestry of different scenes in Eden shows God's presence throughout Creation showing its organized nature and emphasizing God's presence throuhgout

Forbidden? Or just seized too soon?

Is it wrong to want to learn and to know more? Could eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil really be sinful? In fact, isn’t Satan on to something when he appeals to Eve’s capacity to reason, and her desire to learn, that knowledge is deeply satisfying? Certainly an intellectual giant like Milton who devoured books and learned many languages would find God’s commandment not to eat from the Tree in his search for Knowledge perplexing.

But what Satan withholds from Eve is that God does indeed want us to grow in knowledge and understanding, but rather through the safe process of living a life obedient to God.

Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat from the Tree because to do so would be an overreaching, akin to what Satan and his rebel angels have done. They are trying to reach the end of all knowledge without following the lifelong process that makes knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven clear and meaningful. This lifetime journey requires obedience to God, patience, and what Adam calls the “contemplation of created things” (V.511)

Snake as Satan: Milton’s Idea?

Major Theme: Christian Heroism

A significant contribution of the poem is its reevaluation of the concept of heroism from Milton’s Christian perspective. Normally we think of heroes and heroines as morally good, physically strong, attractive, sufficiently armed for danger, and skilled in their weapon of choice. These are the qualities of the great men and women of mythology, folklore, and popular culture.

But what is true heroism as the Bible illustrates it? This is of paramount interest to Milton.

You can read Milton’s defense of Christian heroism at the beginning of Book IX. Formerly, Milton writes, “wars” were the only subject “deemed heroic.” Here he has in mind the legends of King Arthur and classical epics like The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid. The heroes of these stories are largely marked by their fighting abilities. This is not the kind of heroism that Milton found in his readings of the Bible.

Milton contends that it is really “patience” and “martyrdom” that make a real hero. In the poem we find endurance and dignified suffering in the Son, who offers himself as a sacrifice for humanity, as well as Adam and Eve, who despite the prophecy of their future hardships in a fallen world, resolve to learn how to build a paradise within, “happier far” (XII, l. 587) through the cultivation of an inner virtue which finds its accomplishment in good deeds. Heroism, then, is within anyone’s reach.

Paradise Lost depicts the same episode from Genesis as this painting, showing God rebuking Adam and Eve for eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve. Painting by Charles Joseph Natoire, 1740.

Why Read Paradise Lost?

Why should a modern reader take on a poem like Paradise Lost?

This is a great question. I’m tempted to give some straightforward answers.

You should read Paradise Lost because:

  • It’s the only classical epic written in English in modern history.
  • Many widespread beliefs about the Fall in modern Christianity are actually Milton’s interpretations (identifying the serpent who tempts Eve with Satan, for example).
  • Milton championed natural law and the power of the human mind even before the Enlightenment.
  • Milton’s ideas about human nature and political theory were profoundly influential on America’s Founding Fathers.
  • Only the Bible has a larger scope and scale (and Milton might actually argue this point!).

But there is an even better reason than all five of these to read Milton’s great work:

You should read Paradise Lost not only for the depth of its thought but also for its splendor.

When I was a graduate student studying Renaissance literature, I shared an office with a young woman who was studying for her MFA in Creative Writing. She always carried Paradise Lost with her. Why? Not because she wrote in blank verse like Milton; she never did that. She never used Milton as a model for her own work.

She carried the poem with her for its splendor.

In 2015, I taught Paradise Lost for the first time to college freshman (along with other authors like Shakespeare) in an intro to literature class. In a class poll at the end of the semester the poem was voted as the class favorite. Why?

For its splendor.

When I think about what authors have been most influential on succeeding generations of writers, Milton is always the first to come to mind, because of that quality of splendor in his writing. Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Moby-Dick, the poetry of Blake, Shelley, and Coleridge may have come into being largely because of the splendor of Paradise Lost.

What do I mean by splendor?

Milton understood the power of words. He wrote not only to persuade others to see things his way, but also to astound.

Paradise Lost has the full poetic range. The work is filled with perils, shadows, and imposing primal forces. But the verse can also be delicate and tender.

Milton believed that everything in the universe was made of the same stuff or prime material. The perilous, beaked mountain, supernatural beings like angels, and even a meek lover like Adam were God’s creative variations of the same essential matter.

It’s uniquely Miltonic to think of the human experience in such grand terms. We are not unlike mountains and angels. Read Milton to regain the grandeur of life.

Sunrise over a crop of hay suggests splendor of creation and of Milton's poetry in Paradise Lost.

Link to Paradise Lost Part I discussion: Milton’s Many Voices in Paradise Lost

Photo Credits

Frieze Detail from Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France. François de Dijon [CC BY-SA 4.0 ] via Wikimedia Commons.

Paradise (Eating the Apple) by Lucas Cranach the Elder,  1530 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

Paradise Bliss Tapestry. Kampeneer, after Michiel Coxie [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

Apple. Photo from Pexels.

Snake. Photo by Donald Tong  from Pexels.

Natoire painting-God scolding Adam and Eve. See photo credits in Paradise Lost Part I.

Sunrise. Photo by Jonathan Petersson from Pexels.


  1. Somnath Sarkar

    Great article on the the themes of Paradise Lost ….. Nice elaboration.

    • MJ Booklover

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Kevin

    I appreciate the content in this article, specifically the bit on Christian Heroism. I failed to identify that theme, but now that you mention it, in contrast to other great epics, I actually appreciate Paradise Lost more. Milton’s display of Christian heroism is a refreshing change from those aforementioned war-centered epics. Not to mention, the conception of heroism being inextricably linked to war heroes will have consequences on a society, even if such a conception is justifiable. So, thank you for pointing that theme out in a blog post accessible to lay readers like me 😉

    I did want to point out one error.

    In your second bullet point under the heading, “You should read Paradise Lost because”, your example that “identifying the serpent who tempts Eve with Satan [is a Milton interpretation]” is either incorrect or poorly stated.

    If you are trying to say that Milton is the first person to identify the Serpent as Satan, then you are misinformed (happens to the best of us). Arguably, John the Apostle was the first to make that connection, when he twice refers to Satan as “the serpent of old” (Revelation 12:9; 20:2). It is true that some believe John the Apostle was trying to link Satan to the Leviathan in Isaiah 27 and not to the Serpent in Genesis 3. Even still, many early Church Fathers identified Satan as the Serpent. Justin Martyr made this connection in circa 160 AD (see chapter 45 of Dialogue with Trypho). As did apparently Tertullian, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and Augustine (see here). These are some highly influential theologians that made this connection well before the Seventeenth Century when Milton was writing.

    If you are trying to say that Milton simply employed the already-existing interpretation that Satan is the Serpent and popularized it, then you did not articulate this point clearly. I also would remain skeptical of such a claim considering such influential theologians as Tertullian, the man who coined the term “Trinity” (in Latin), and Augustine, who is praised by Catholics and Protestants alike, had already made this connection. Not to mention, I am sure most lay readers of Revelation would probably read “the Serpent of Old” in Revelation and make the connection to Genesis 3 before they would make a connection to Isaiah 27.

    Anyways, I just thought I would leave this note for your edification. Have a wonderful day!

    • MJ Booklover

      Great information. Thank you for contributing to the discussion!

    • David E. Miller

      Hello, Kevin. Thank you for your kind words and your enthusiasm! I appreciate how thoughtfully you engaged with this particular question: who was it that conflated Satan with the serpent in Genesis? This is significant, of course, because no Biblical author assigns such an interpretation to Genesis 2-3. That may be our first point of departure.

      In the post, I claimed that “many widespread beliefs about the Fall in modern Christianity are actually Milton’s interpretations (identifying the serpent who tempts Eve with Satan, for example).” This is true! It does not negate the fact that earlier readers of the Bible may have imposed a similar interpretation on scripture. But I feel strongly that no other author devises and develops Satan’s role in Genesis to the degree that Milton does. This leads to my next point—that while it may be useful to source the origin of an idea, it is of equal value to investigate how interpretations (or knowledge more generally) become culturally fixed. This is, I would argue, one of the great claims of literature. Through the centuries, people have largely learned their history, their theology, their basic understandings of reality through imaginative writing rather than essays on church doctrine. Milton, however, no doubt read medieval philosophy, especially Augustine, whose ideas he developed extensively (as some critics, like C.S. Lewis have argued).

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