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Table of Contents
Here is a list of the themes in Paradise Lost. They will all be studied more extensively in the discussion of the poem.
1. JUSTIFYING THE WAYS OF GOD TO MAN
The poem explains an entire theology. It is about the coming of sin into the world through the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan after his defeat in Heaven. If Milton has justified the ways of God to man, all our questions about our relationship to God should be answered by implication from the poem. The success of the explanation of course depends on whether you accept the Christian world view-even whether you accept Milton's special brand of Christian individualism. The task of explaining an entire physical and moral system is not one we attempt today. We divide our systems, believing that the world is too complex for a single theory to explain.
2. GOD'S OMNIPOTENCE, OMNISCIENCE, AND FREE WILL
The poem insists that all events are brought about by choice. Satan chooses to rebel, Adam and Eve choose to eat the apple, knowing the consequences. Every man and angel has free will. At the same time, God knows everything that is to happen. But his foreknowledge has no effect on choice-the universe is like a clock God winds up and sets going: each of its parts performs without interference from God.
You will keep puzzling over this explanation throughout the poem. It sometimes seems that God is callous about his creation because if he is omnipotent, why doesn't he stop evil from happening? On the other hand, perhaps God does not have the power to stop the clock or alter it once it's got going. In that case, there must be something even more powerful than God which programs him. It's an endlessly fascinating question. The poem will give you lots of examples for a continuing argument.
3. INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY
Everyone makes his or her own decisions. That means no one can blame anyone else for what happens. But there is a great deal of blaming in the story. Only when people accept responsibility for their own choices do they find peace within themselves and forgiveness and mercy from God.
4. THE TRUE NATURE OF FREEDOM
True freedom is total submission to God's will and acceptance of what he wants in the world. It is freedom from self and self-will. Satan symbolizes the wrong kind of freedom, rebellion against just authority. You are free when you understand where you fit in relationship to God and in the hierarchy of nature.
The highest exercise of man's reason is to understand and love God-and to trust him. This means accepting what may seem illogical to human reason. It also means not trusting human reason. Human reason may deceive because it is limited and cannot necessarily penetrate God's purposes, which are beyond logic. It was perfectly reasonable for Eve to conclude that she would not die because the serpent had not died when he ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. But she was limiting fallible human reason. She ought to have gone beyond the logical argument and trusted true reason-God's word.
6. THE HIERARCHICAL ARRANGEMENT OF THE UNIVERSE
Everything is arranged in an order, beginning with God at the highest point of all, going down through the angels to man, and from man down to beasts and plants. Each part of the hierarchy has its own order: in Heaven, the angels are lower than God and must take their orders from him. On earth, Adam is closer to God than Eve, and she must take her orders from him. The poem is about the violation of the order, first by Satan, then by Eve, and then by Adam, who puts Eve ahead of God.
7. HISTORY HAS A PURPOSE AND AN END
Although devastating in its results, the Fall is only part of a historical process. Adam's fall leads through many generations to the incarnation of God the Son as Jesus Christ. His fall is therefore a "happy fault" ("felix culpa") because it leads to the fulfillment of God's purpose. When Christ dies for man, he begins the process of redemption which eventually leads to the Last Judgment and the Second Coming. This will be the end of history, for then there will be a new Heaven and a new earth.