John Milton: The Pagan Puritan

Percy Shelley and William Blake famously read John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost as the archetypal Romantic hero: the paragon of individuality who believes so much in his own self-worth that he rebels, hopelessly yet heroically, against his creator. C.S. Lewis accused the Romantic poets of reading their own impiety into Milton’s poems and dismissed any subversive readings; the poem should be read with the conventional belief about Satan surely held by Milton and his original readers. After all, Milton was a Puritan writing for a Christian nation.

Perhaps, though, the presupposition that Satan is the focus of the poem is mistaken. The poem does not begin with Satan, after all, but with the poet himself. What if the point is not that Satan is the villain, nor that he is the hero, but rather that Milton is the hero? Assuming that Milton and not Satan is the true protagonist of his poem will cast light on the intrinsic political motivations of Milton’s magnum opus.

Before the poem begins, Milton announces his decision to forsake the modern invention of rhyming and imitate the heroic verse of Homer and Virgil, an accomplishment he boasts is the “first in English” and which recovers “ancient liberty”. But his imitation of the pagans goes beyond stylistic choices. After his announcement to reclaim heroic pagan verse, Milton invokes the Muses–an odd way for a Puritan poet to begin his Christian poem. A conventional pagan practice, it is absent in Scripture and the Church Fathers. But perhaps a close reading of Milton’s invocation will exonerate him of the charge of paganism. Afterall, the “Heav’nly Muse” invoked in Book 1, is the one that “on the secret top/Of Oreb, or of Sinai, dids’t inspire/That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,/In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth/Rose out of Chaos” (I.6-10)[1]. So perhaps the “heav’nly muse” is Milton’s eccentric way of referring to the Holy Spirit.

But we have reasons to believe that this “heav’nly muse” refers to something other than the Holy Spirit, for a few lines later, Milton invokes the Holy Spirit by name: “And chiefly Thou O Spirit…Instruct Me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first/Wast present” (I.17, 19-20)[2]. The beginning conjunction makes either a compound predicate where the Muse/Holy Spirit from line 6 is asked to both “sing” from line 6,” and “instruct,” from line 19 , or a compound clause where the Muse is asked to “sing” and this new subject, the Holy Spirit, is asked to “instruct”. That we are dealing with the latter is made clear in the first line of Book 7. Milton again invokes the Muse, this time by name: “Descend from Heav’n Urania, by that name/If rightly thou are call’d”.[3] Urania was one of the nine pagan muses, also invoked by the sixteenth century poets Du Bartas and Spenser, with whom Milton seems to imply that the classical tradition cast shadows of the substance that is divine revelation. However true this may be, to suggest that pagan muses and gods are angelic is to suggest something contrary to what is actually revealed in Scripture. St. Paul explains that the deities of the pagans were not angels but demons (1 Cor. 10:20), an assertion repeated throughout church history. St. Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, identifies the inventors of pagan tales as “devils.”[4] Elsewhere, Paul explains that prior to the incarnation, God allowed a degree of grace to those who operated under the pagan gods’ influence, but now “commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Milton finds himself in the uncomfortable position of disobeying Scripture by invoking demons to retell what is in Scripture.

Even if the “Heavn’ly Muse” from line 6 of Book 1 is indeed the Holy Spirit, consider the nature of what Milton is asking it to do. This muse is the same muse that inspired Moses to write Scripture, yet he asks it to aid his song that “pursues/Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme” (I.14-5)[5]. And what is the thing heretofore unattempted in prose or rhyme that Milton now attempts? He wishes to “assert Eternal Providence,/And justify the ways of God to men” (I.23-4)[6]. If Milton’s poem is a yet unattempted justification of God to men, one might ask: what the hell is Scripture? If we take Milton seriously on his own terms, his poem is inspired by the same muse that inspired Moses. But Milton does not simply claim that his poem is on equal terms with Scripture. His poem does not interpret Scripture but seemingly improves upon it, for Scripture is evidently insufficient to justify the ways of God to man. Something “unattempted yet” needed to be written.

Contrast Milton’s audacity with St. Ephrem the Syrian, whose poems, like Milton’s poem, “retell” the Garden narrative with one crucial difference: St. Ephrem recognizes Scripture’s authority as a unique repository of divine revelation. He begins his Hymns on Paradise:

Moses, who instructs all men 
With his celestial writings,
He, the master of the Hebrews,
Has instructed us in his teaching–
The Law, which constitutes
A very treasure house of revelations,
Wherein is revealed the tale of the Garden.[7]

St. Ephrem knows the authoritative account of the Garden has already been written. It is not for him to offer a new account of the Garden but to first marvel at and then understand the scriptural narrative. As he reads the divine revelation, his “intellect…soared up in awe/as it perceived the splendor of Paradise.”[8] His writing is a response to his reading of what God has written, through Moses. Milton, on the other hand, does not need Scripture. He makes no direct reference to it in his invocation, except to call upon its source, the Holy Spirit, to now inspire him.

If Milton really is a prophet, whose words are aided by God himself, he is unlike any prophet recorded in Scripture. Unlike Milton, the Old Testament prophets do not ask God for their vision or commision; they are called to it, and then they tremble and balk. Moses hesitates before the burning bush: “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11). When God tells Jeremiah “before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations,” he responds, “behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child” (Jer. 1:5-6). When God reveals his glory to Isaiah, the prophet exclaims “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isa. 6:5). Prophets are chosen. They do not ask for divine visions and tremble with humility. Milton wants to “assert Eternal Providence.” He resembles less the Old Testament prophets and more Simon Magus who, upon seeing the Apostles perform miracles, desires that power for himself. When he offers to pay St. Peter for the power of the Holy Spirit, St. Peter rebukes him: “Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee” (Acts 8:21-22).

Of course, Milton would be aware of all this. He knew his Bible better than most anyone living or dead. So why would he think he could “assert Eternal providence” by invoking a pagan deity to write something “unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme”? Knowledge of Scripture is secondary to the presuppositions one has about Scripture prior to any reading of it. For Milton, his scriptural hermeneutics mirrored the new skeptical epistemology developed by René Descartes. Writing a few decades before Milton published Paradise Lost, Descartes outlines the principles by which one comes to truly know anything. Like Milton heroically setting out to write something “unattempted yet,” Descartes sets out “like a man who walks alone, and in the dark…to seek the true method of arriving at knowledge.”[9] In order to arrive at the “true method,” the old methods, namely logic and mathematics, had to be disregarded. While logic does contain “true and sound precepts, there are, at the same time, so many others mixed up with them, which are either harmful or superfluous, that it is almost as difficult to separate them as to extract a Diana or Minerva from a block of unprepared marble.”[10] His formal training in logic proved to be an obstacle in truly gaining knowledge. Likewise, the old method of geometry “is always so tied to the inspection of figures that it cannot exercise the understanding without greatly tiring the imagination” and algebra “is so subjected to certain rules and numbers that it has become a confused and obscure art which oppresses the mind instead of being a science which cultivates it.”[11] With the traditional methods of gaining knowledge defenestrated, Descartes cultivated four rules and “took a firm and constant resolve never once to fail to observe them.”[12] The first of these rules directly influenced Milton’s hermeneutics:

The first was never to accept anything as true that I did not know to be evidently so: that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to include in my judgements nothing more than what presented itself so clearly and so distinctly to my mind that I might have no occasion to place it in doubt.[13]

After rejecting the traditional methods of accessing truth, Descartes will accept only that which presents itself as “clearly” and “distinctly” to his mind. Milton adopts a similar epistemology for coming to know Christian doctrine. As Descartes rejects the traditional methods of logic and mathematics, Milton rejects the church’s traditional role in interpreting Scripture in favor of a radical individualism. He asserts, “It is not therefore within the province of any visible church…to impose their own interpretations on us as laws, or as binding on the conscience; in other words, as matter of implicit faith”[14], and that “an acquiescence in human traditions, whether written or unwritten, is expressly prohibited”.[15] Elsewhere he states: “The scriptures, therefore, partly by reason of their own simplicity, and partly through the divine illumination, are plain and perspicuous, in all things necessary to salvation, and adapted to the instruction even of the most unlearned, through the medium of diligent and constant reading.”[16] Such remarks resemble earlier magisterial Reformers and may not necessarily lead to a total rejection of church tradition. But, given what we have seen of Milton’s self-aggrandizement in Paradise Lost, and what we will see shortly of his views on Scripture, perhaps he is an example of Protestant hermeneutics degenerating into interpretative solipsism. Just as Descartes, when freed from traditional methods of knowing, can access what is “clear” and “distinct” to his own mind, Milton, when freed from traditional interpretative norms, will access what is “plain” and “perspicuous” in Scripture. Furthermore, when one does encounter “public exposition” of the Scripture, it “can be of no use to him, except so far as they are confirmed by his own conscience”.[17] Descartes warns that setting out on his new method is not for everyone: “The mere resolve to divest oneself of all one’s former opinions is not an example to be followed by everyone”;[18] so, too, does Milton. Only a “diligent” and “constant” reader of the text will be able to “confirm” with his own “conscience” the meaning of Scripture.

The next step of Milton’s hermeneutics likewise parallels Descartes’ epistemology. After deciding he can only be certain of what appears “clearly and distinctly” to his mind, Descartes must reconsider his sensory experiences, becoming skeptical about the external world revealed to him by his senses: “I shall now close my eyes, stop my ears, turn away all my senses,” he explains, because “all images of corporeal things…I shall consider them as being vain and false.” The “perceptions and imaginations” impressed on his mind by the outside world “are modes of thought” but only insofar as the perceptions and imaginations “reside and are found in me.”[19] What’s real is not the world itself but his experience of it. Descartes doubts any knowledge of the world around him experienced by his senses, an inversion of traditional epistemology.[20] Milton comes to a similar conclusion about the very thing that was supposed to be the source of all truth: Scripture. Through his constant and diligent reading, he discovers that the Scriptures themselves, like the church which has imposed its faulty interpretation on the individual, have been corrupted. He explains:

For the external scripture, or written word, particularly of the New Testament…has been liable to frequent corruption, and in some instances has been corrupted, through the number, and occasionally the bad faith of those by whom it has been handed down, the variety and discrepancy of the original manuscripts, and the additional diversity produced by subsequent transcripts and printed editions.[21]

So what is one to do? “The rule and canon of faith, therefore, is scripture alone”, but the scriptures themselves are corrupted.[22] How can anyone know what is true? Milton provides the way out: God has provided a “twofold scripture.” The first fold is the “written word,” or what he calls the “external” scripture; the second is “written in the hearts of believers,” or the “internal” scripture. These two are not on equal terms. Because the external written Scripture is liable to corruption, the internal is the more reliable: that “which is internal, and the peculiar possession of each believer, is far superior to all, namely, the Spirit itself.”[23] But isn’t the internal scripture also liable to corruption? Milton concedes that it is possible for an individual to be deceived, but “neither is it easy to deceive a man who is really spiritual.” When taken altogether, in Milton’s hermeneutics, the ultimate arbiter of doctrine is not church, tradition, or Scripture, but the “really spiritual” individual of “constant and diligent reading” who confirms with his own “conscience” any and all doctrine.[24]

For both Descartes and Milton, the external world, whether it be “corporeal things” or the “written word” of Scripture, is dubious in and of itself. What is more certain is the internal thoughts or private interpretations of the individual. In light of Milton’s hermeneutics, the opening invocation in Paradise Lost seems perfectly appropriate. If both the church and the written words of Scripture are corrupted, why should not Milton, the “really spiritual” man of “constant and diligent reading,” not call upon the Holy Spirit himself to “justify the ways of God to man?”

Milton’s relationship to Scripture explains the shocking claims at the beginning Paradise Lost. In elevating his own poem, Milton lowers Scripture. He concedes that perhaps, in its original form, external Scripture was a reliable source of pure doctrine, but history has irreparably corrupted them by the time of the seventeenth century. Knocking Scripture off its pedestal provides a crucial insight into understanding Milton’s intentions for his own poem. This insight begins by simply asking what it would mean for the Bible to be a human and not a divine artifact. An answer is found in the theological-philosophical account of tragedy and comedy by Patrick Downey in his book Serious Comedy, republished last year by The Davenant Institute.

Downey focuses his analysis on the deathblow dealt by the Bible to the political effectiveness of ancient tragedy. Before the Christian Bible, the ancients needed tragedy for political unity. Through the shared catharsis of the tragic hero’s downfall, the audience temporarily forgets their own insatiable and conflicting desires that threaten to destroy their city. The required forgetfulness is possible only if the tragic poet remains “hidden,” allowing the audience to lose themselves in the artifice, completely identifying with the tragic hero without the comedic breaking of the fourth wall. The purpose of breaking the fourth wall was to expose the artifice of all narrative and point the audience to the philosophical life of speculation, placing them outside the politically useful lie of tragedy. Outside the lie of tragedy, though, the pagan philosopher only finds knowledge of his own ignorance. The Bible, Downey argues, “is the first truly effective political comedy”[25] because it breaks the fourth wall while still unifying the audience. How is the Bible able to pull this off? Because the author is God himself, the author of both Scripture and Reality, whose narrative is not artifice which blinds us but the truth which saves us. The Bible both reveals the lie of tragedy and satiates the philosopher’s desire to know through divine revelation. The political unity inaugurated by Scripture is not of a temporal city but of the eternal kingdom, within which all earthly cities find their place.

As revolutionary as this is, though, the Bible’s cure for the civic sickness that ancient political tragedy merely bandaged over depends on the faith that the Bible is authored by God. If it is, then the Bible is a “serious comedy,” which must then become the ultimate referent for all other writing and political regimes, for it alone reveals the true Reality in which we must now live. If it is authored by man, it is simply a tragedy, whose author is hidden by “historical distance” and which unifies its audience through the “deceit of ideology”.[26] If Downey is right, the Bible cannot be both a tragedy and a divine revelation. It should not be surprising, then, that John Milton suggests that the Bible is a tragedy in his book The Reason for Church Government: “the Apocalypse of St. John is the majestic image of a high and stately tragedy.”[27] What pertains to the end pertains to the whole. If the end of Scripture is a tragedy, all of it is. As we’ve seen, for Milton, the true author of Scripture has been hidden by the corrupting influence of history and the ideologies of church tradition, so it can no longer serve as the “serious comedy” described by Downey. Without Scripture and its divine author as the starting point and ultimate referent of English political life, Milton can write his own tragedy in order to unify the crumbling polis of Civil War England.

The problem, however, is that ancient tragedy has already been unmasked: after Christianity, we have wised up to the artifice of narrative. We are now too painfully aware of the poet’s artifice and so he can never be “hidden” as he was for the ancients. The old medicine won’t work anymore. Without believing in the Bible as the “Serious Comedy” and without the potency of ancient tragedy, Milton writes what Downey would call a “technological comedy of modernity,” which is “a sort of comic writing that adopts the focus upon contrivance, the revealed poet, and subversion” from the Bible, but then attempts to make the the comedy’s happy ending “work outside the poem in the political life of both poet and reader”. However, the happy ending works outside a poem only if the poet is also the author of reality. Downey identifies Dante’s Divine Comedy as the first “technological comedy of modernity,” with Dante imitating God as both author and hero of his own poem. But Dante, Milton, and the moderns are “every bit as mortal as his readers,” and so “the overwhelming challenge of this modern ‘founder’ is how he can reveal his artifice and yet still be taken seriously.”[28] We have seen how Milton does this. He reveals his artifice before the poem begins with his exposition on his verse and begins the poem by invoking the Muse and the Holy Spirit and announcing his ability to “justify the ways of God to man.” The introduction serves the purpose of both revealing himself as the poet and assuring the readers that he should be taken seriously. He is, after all, being guided by the Holy Spirit.

The success of ancient Greece and Rome depended upon the greatness of their tragic poets to solidify their citizens into a cohesive whole through the means of catharsis. Surely Milton had a similar intent for an England wracked with political and religious division in the wake of the Civil War. Despite the pagan heart of the poem, it cannot completely escape the political reality inaugurated by Scripture. If the political cure found in the Bible depends on who the author of the Bible is, Milton likewise draws readers’ attention to himself: the tragic, blind poet-hero, rescuing poetry from the chains of rime and bringing light to our darkened intellects and unity to our fractured polis. As he suggests in his preface, he may be the English Virgil. If so, Paradise Lost is a pagan text dressed in Christian garb.

S.A. Dance teaches at a classical charter school in Northern California and writes on Christianity, culture, literature, and education. His essays have appeared in The American Conservative, The Federalist, and Quillette among others.

  1. John Milton, Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained (New York: Penguin Group, Signet Classics, 2001), page 5

  2. Milton, Paradise Lost, 5

  3. Milton, Paradise Lost, 159

  4. St. Justin Martyr, The First Apology (The New Advent):

  5. Milton, Paradise Lost, 5

  6. Milton, Paradise Lost, 5

  7. St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns of Paradise (The Life of Adam and Eve: The Biblical Story in Judaism and Christianity, University of Virginia)

  8. St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns of Paradise

  9. Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and The Meditations (London: Penguin Books, 1968), 39-40

  10. Descartes, Discourse on Method, 40

  11. Milton, Christian Doctrine, 40.

  12. Milton, Christian Doctrine, 40.

  13. Milton, Christian Doctrine, 41.

  14. John Milton, A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (Cambridge University Press, 1825), pp. 472

  15. Milton, Christian Doctrine, 479

  16. Milton, Christian Doctrine, 468-9

  17. Milton, Christian Doctrine, 472

  18. Descartes, Discourse on Method, 38

  19. Descartes, Discourse on Method, 113

  20. Aristotle states in his Metaphysics: “…of all the senses sight best helps us to know things, and reveals many distinctions”.

  21. Milton, Christian Doctrine, 475-6

  22. Milton, Christian Doctrine, 473

  23. Milton, Christian Doctrine, 475

  24. It is worth noting that Milton was also an unequivocal Arian.

  25. Patrick Downey, Serious Comedy (The Davenant Press, 2022), 5.

  26. Downey, Serious Comedy, 219.

  27. John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing, 2003), 669.

  28. Downey, Serious Comedy, 330-1


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