John Milton: Poet, Priest and Prophet

A Study of Divine Vocation in Milton's Poetry and Prose


       

  John Spencer Hill



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Chapter 6

Paradise Regained


BOOK I:   THE VOCATIONAL FRAMEWORK

[175]   Paradise Regained begins with an identity crisis.1   When the young Jesus arrives at the Jordan to receive baptism, he does not seem in any way different from those other "sons of God" thronging the banks and awaiting the purifying touch of John the Baptist.   His obscurity and anonymity are, however, shortlived.   The "great proclaimer" recognises him to be the Messiah--and, immediately thereafter, there comes the divine annunciation establishing his heavenly lineage:

                              on him baptized
Heaven opened, and in likeness of a dove
The Spirit descended, while the Father's voice
From heaven pronounced him his beloved Son.       (29-32)

From this point onward, the Son's identity is a problem only for Satan.
      The annunciation at Bethabara does not lead (as one might expect) either to an explanation of the event from the mouth of God or to Christ's own understanding of the revelation, but rather to Satan's reaction and the calling of a council of devils.   As in Paradise Lost, Satan is the first speaker in the poem.   Although the events at the Jordan have been factually set down by the narrator, the first interpretation of these events belongs to Satan--and, for Satan, the crux of the annunciation is the identification of his adversary.   Is this "man" whom John has baptised the same as he who defeated the rebel angels and cast them, flaming, headlong from the height of heaven?   And what did the Father mean in proclaiming him "my beloved Son"?--for the phrase (as Satan later observes) is ambiguous:

[176]   The Son of God . . . bears no single sense;
The Son of God I also am, or was,
And if I was, I am; relation stands;
All men are Sons of God . . . .           (IV, 517-20)

The pattern of Satan's temptations and the inevitability of his defeat are predetermined by the fact that he never progresses beyond the identity problem and so is never able to meet Jesus, who has no doubt about the sense in which he is the "Son of God", on any common spiritual or intellectual ground.
      Aristically, Milton had to face the problem of making the satanic position credible.   If the dramatic conflict between Christ and Satan were to succeed aesthetically, then the confrontation in the desert would have to be made plausible for readers already aware of the outcome.   Christ would win, of course, and Satan would lose; but, if any degree of dramatic intensity were to be maintained, then the satanic position must not seem hopeless and utterly doomed from the outset.   Milton solved this difficulty in part by stressing the Son's humanity, his fallibility, and by presenting him as an "exalted man" rather than an incarnate deity.   But he added another and more subtle dimension to the characterisation of his protagonists merely by permitting Satan to speak first.   Before Christ actually appears in the poem or the nature of his mission is described by God, Satan is allowed to express his understanding and doubts concerning his antagonist.   Thus, the reader who (like Satan) has no clear conception of how the Son will be presented is first introduced to the satanic viewpoint.   For an instant, the reader is forced to share Satan's dilemma over the Son's identity and is invited, when he has no divine viewpoint to correct his understanding, to succumb to the self-deluding rhetoric of the Devil.   Since the reader has been given no counter-argument with which to refute Satan's conception of Christ, it is impossible as the poem begins to reject Satan's reasoning out-of-hand; and the reader's initial understanding of Christ is thus postulated on demonic casuistry.   Only gradually, as the Son fulfils his potential through responsive growth in rejecting temptation and as the reader's developing insight parallels Christ's own deepening awareness of his role, is the initial and satanic view of Christ rejected.   Having been himself, in some degree, the victim of Satan's rhetoric, the reader is in a position to accept the [177] Devil as a formidable adversary and to suspend his disbelief willingly, for Satan seems stronger than he really is.
      Satan tells those gathered in "gloomy consistory" to hear him that swift action is required in the face of this new threat:

Ye see our danger on the utmost edge
Of hazard, which admits no long debate,
But must with something sudden be opposed,
Not force, but well-couched fraud, well-woven snares,
Ere in the head of nations he appear
Their king, their leader, and supreme on earth.         (94-9)

These lines stress, of course, the urgency of opposing the Son and, as well, the satanic conception of Christ as a rival, a threat to the materialistic dominion of the devils.   But they also stress Satan's belief in the necessity and ultimate efficacy of action--even if it be no more than action for action's sake.   Patience is, for Satan, an unknown and incomprehensible state of being, and he is in no way prepared for his encounter with the originator of Christian heroism, where obedience is often passive.
      The poem's major vocational motif2 is introduced in the Father's monologue:

            this man born and now upgrown,
To show him worthy of his birth divine
And high prediction, henceforth I expose
To Satan;
                    . . . . . . . . . .
                                    I mean
To exercise him in the wilderness,
There he shall first lay down the rudiments
Of his great warfare, ere I send him forth
To conquer Sin and Death the two grand foes,
By humiliation and strong sufferance.           (140-3, 155-60)

The trial in the desert has been engineered by God as the means of leading Christ to an understanding of his mission and asserting his Sonship.   In the "great duel" with Satan he will learn how he is to "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1: 21), and the [178] spiritual conflict with the Devil will cause him to "lay down the rudiments/ Of his great warfare"--that is, to define in practice (though not necessarily in action, for the moment) the tenets of that Christian heroism which shall "earn salvation for the sons of men" (167).   For the Son the experience in the wilderness is a voyage of self-discovery; and the subject of the poem is, indeed, none other than Christ's deepening self-awareness, his growing understanding of his announced role as Saviour and his attainment through trial of that self-knowledge and that vocational insight which are the prerequisites of his sacred mission.   The victory over Sin and Death and the ultimate defeat of Satan, although implied in the spiritual conflict and victory described in Paradise Regained, lie beyond the direct and immediate concerns of the poem.   Before he is sent forth to conquer "the two grand foes,/ By humiliation and strong sufferance", the Son must be educated in the requirements of his vocation as Messiah.
      When Christ is introduced after his Father's monologue, he is presented as "much revolving in his breast" those vocational problems whose resolution constitutes the substance of the poem:

How best the mighty work he might begin
Of saviour to mankind, and which way first
Publish his godlike office now mature.           (186-8)

Guided by the Holy Spirit, he leaves Bethabara where John had baptised him and enters the desert alone to reflect upon the meaning of the annunciation at Jordan and to come to a fuller understanding of his role.   As our initial view of Milton's Samson had shown us a man caught in the disparity between fact and prophecy in his career as Israel's deliverer, so here the events at Bethabara have made Christ acutely aware of the discrepancy between, on the one hand, the prophecies concerning his mission and his inner assurances of potential, and, on the other hand, the recognition that to date he has accomplished nothing, that his premonitions of future achievement are "ill sorting with my present state" (200).   Although he knows himself to be the Messiah and has, with the aid of Old Testament prophecy, arrived at a general understanding of his mission, he does not know how he is expected to begin the active work of redemption. The time to act, to inaugurate his public ministry, has come; yet he cannot [179] discover either from scripture or from within himself any sure way to fulfil the authority he has derived from heaven.   Nevertheless, he knows himself to be under divine protection and guidance; and so, unlike Satan--whom we have seen to be committed to a doctrine of action--Christ is prepared to await the decrees of heaven with patience:

                by some strong motion I am led
Into this wilderness, to what intent
I learn not yet, perhaps I need not know;
For what concerns my knowledge God reveals.         (290-3)

We are reminded almost inevitably of Samson led off to Dagon's temple by the inner summons of God's "rousing motions".   The distinction, however, is that Christ already possesses as Paradise Regained begins the patience, faith and humility that the hero of Samson Agonistes earns through trial as the play progresses--and so, while Samson's vocatio specialis asserts itself in a sudden awareness of divine prompting just before the catastrophe, Christ is aware of his special calling throughout.   Like Samson, however, Christ must assist divine disposal by his own responsive choices.   In the postlapsarian world virtue is only truly virtue when it has survived trial and temptation--and the Son's virtue in Paradise Regained does not long remain fugitive and cloistered.
      Satan arrives masquerading as "an aged man in rural weeds" (314).   After outlining the miseries and hardships which the desert-dweller endures, Satan invites the Son to demonstrate his divinity by turning stones into bread, and the insidiousness of this seemingly simple request is obscured by what Arnold Stein has happily termed the "bait of charity":3

            if thou be the Son of God, command
That out of these hard stones be made thee bread;
So shalt thou save thyself and us relieve
With food, whereof we wretched seldom taste.         (342-5)

But Christ is not deceived either by Satan's disguise or by the temptation which he perceives to be a trial of his faith; and with commendable wit he turns the words back upon the tempter with [180] the observation that "lying is thy sustenance, thy food" (429).   The essence of the temptation is this:   Satan invites the Son to presume by performing a miracle, to act on the knowledge that he is the Messiah but to do so without divine approval.   He asks him, that is, to take the Law into his own hands and so to become, like Satan himself, not only disobedient but also the rebellious rival of God.   But Christ, knowing that obedience does not always involve activity and that he must follow God's will--whatever that may be and whenever it may be revealed--rather than the promptings of his own or another's will, has learned (in Northrop Frye's words) "to will to relax the will, to perform real acts in God's time and not pseudo-acts in his own".4
      Repulsed and "now undisguised", Satan argues himself to be the agent of Omnipotence, a kind of junior partner of God.   In his divinely motivated role as official tempter, he maintains, he often freely offers his help and support to men:

                  lend them oft my aid,
Oft my advice by presages and signs,
And answers, oracles, portents and dreams,
Whereby they may direct their future life.         (393-6)

Satan's oracular claims elicit from the Son a positive statement of messianic vocation:   "God hath now sent his living oracle/ Into the world, to teach his final will." (460-1)   Up to this point his responses have been negative:   he has told Satan he will not do.   Here, both for Satan and himself, he outlines his messianic function in positive terms and at the same time asserts the alternative which he will oppose to the satanic exhortation to presumptuous action:   he is not a free agent but is rather God's "living oracle" sent to teach God's will and not to indulge his own whims.   In declaring that he is God's "living oracle", the Son unequivocally proclaims that he is the Messiah and thus solves the identity problem which has plagued Satan since the annunciation at Bethabara.   Satan, however, is unwilling to accept the identification.   Only an outright miracle--such as the turning of stones into bread--would suffice to eradicate or cast uncertainty upon his assiduously fostered delusion concerning the Son's identity.
      Satan terminates and at the same time extends the scope of his attack on Christ's faith with the designing suggestion that the Son [181] should imitate his Father:

Thy father, who is holy, wise and pure,
Suffers the hypocrite or atheous priest
To tread his sacred courts, and minister
About his altar, handling holy things,
Praying or vowing, and vouchsafed his voice
To Balaam reprobate, a prophet yet
Inspired; disdain not such access to me.         (486-92)

The request seems innocent enough--but two important principles are involved.   First, if the Son grants willing audience and even tolerance to Satan, then his obedience will be to the will of the Devil rather than to that of God.   Second, obedience to God and imitation of God, though yoked together by satanic implication, are not identical motives to action.   In asking the Son to imitate his Father's tolerance and mercy, Satan is inviting him to usurp and employ, as his own, attributes and functions pertaining to the Father alone.   Undeceived by the tempter's efforts to draw him into an act of presumption by insistence upon what Satan erroneously supposes to be the inalienable rights of divine Sonship, Christ counters the assault on his faith by an "act" of passive obedience:

Thy coming hither, though I know thy scope,
I bid not or forbid; do as thou find'st
Permission from above; thou canst not more.         (494-6)

And, uncertain how next to proceed against so formidable an opponent, a bewildered and (for the moment) defeated Satan, "bowing low/ His grey dissimulation, disappeared/ Into thin air diffused" (497-9).


BOOK II:   "LAWFUL DESIRES OF NATURE"

Book II opens with the reaction of the Apostles to Christ's disappearance after the annunciation at Bethabara.   Their doubt is not occasioned by uncertainty over Christ's identity--they [182] know him to be the promised Saviour; rather, it springs from their imperfect understanding of the messianic mission.   As with the Son himself (cf. I, 196-293), the Apostles' incomplete awareness of the divine plan precludes their understanding fully how the Messiah is to inaugurate and accomplish the task of universal redemption.   Unlike Christ, however, whom the Father had hailed as "This perfect man, by merit called my Son" (I, 166), the Disciples are average and therefore very fallible mortals.   And, whereas Christ had faced the vocational uncertainty of how best to prosecute the "authority . . . derived from heaven" (I, 289) by trusting in God for direction and resigning himself willingly to the active inactivity of standing and awaiting his Father's commands, the impatient Disciples respond to Christ's disappearance, firstly, by ever-increasing doubts and, secondly, by unnecessary and fruitless activity.   With diligence and zeal they searched for their "lost" Messiah--"but returned in vain" (24).   Then, having failed to find Christ and still unable to account for his disappearance, they gather "in a cottage low" and pray that God will return the Messiah to them.   But suddenly, in mid-sentence, the tone and direction of the speech changes, by abrupt peripeteia, from doubt to certainty and from a prayer for divine intervention to a recognition of the need on man's part for faith and patience:

But let us wait; thus far [God] hath performed,
Sent his anointed, and to us revealed him
                        . . . . . . . . . .
                                          he will not fail
Nor will withdraw him now, nor will recall,
Mock us with his blest sight, then snatch him hence
Soon we shall see our hope, our joy return.           (49-50, 54-7)

Allowing for the fact that the Apostles operate in a lower stratum of awareness than Christ and that they therefore entertain doubts and fears foreign to his perfect humanity, their choric planctus nonetheless parallels, with some thematic variation and change of emphasis, the Son's long vocational meditation in Book I.   And their patient submission to the divine will, their resolve to lay "all our fears/ . . . on his providence" (53-4), is the same in substance and intent as Christ's earlier self-abnegating statement of absolute trust (I, 290-3).   Like the Son, the Apostles have learned to [183] will to relax the will, a spiritual state which is the apex of self-knowledge and the apotheosis of human potential.
      Mary's soliloquy follows, mutatis mutandis, the same pattern as the Apostles' monologue.   Mary is initially troubled by her son's unexplained disappearance, and she senses, too, the tension between prophecy and accomplished fact in his career.   The "troubled thoughts" raised in her heart are, however, soon quelled by the same patient faith that had resolved the Apostles' doubts:   "But I to wait with patience am inured." (102)   And so it is "with thoughts/ Meekly composed" that Mary patiently "awaited the fulfilling" (107-8) of the prophecies concerning her son.
      After Mary's monologue, the scene shifts to the "middle region of thick air" where Satan addresses "all his potentates in council" (117-18).   His speech, like those of the Apostles and Mary, opens on a note of uncertainty and doubt.   Typically, however, and in contrast to the other speakers in Book II, Satan's doubt resolves itself into a determination to act--and he terminates the council with a renewed commitment to assertive self-expression:   "I shall let pass/ No advantage, and his strength as oft assay" (233-4).
      Meanwhile, the Son has spent forty days of fasting, "with holiest meditations fed":

All his great work to come before him set;
How to begin, how to accomplish best
His end of being on earth, and mission high.         (112-14)

Significantly, these vocational ruminations repeat the pattern to which I have drawn attention in the earlier speeches of the other characters in Book II.   The Son begins with a rhetorical questioning of Providence:

Where will this end?   Four times ten days I have passed
Wandering this woody maze, and human food
Nor tasted, nor had appetite;
                    . . . . . . . . . .
But now I feel I hunger, which declares,
Nature hath need of what she asks . . . .           (245-7, 252-3)

But any vestige of self-centredness or doubt is quickly replaced [184] by selfless obedience:   "yet God/ Can satisfy that need some other way,/ Though hunger still remain." (253-5)
      The thematic pattern stressed in the opening half of Book II, then, is that of doubt and impatience yielding to faith and patience. Each of the characters--the Apostles, Mary, Satan, and Christ--begins with an expression of doubt, but each, except Satan, succeeds in denying the importunate claims of his individual will and placing his trust in the divine will which, he knows, will be revealed to him in God's own time.   The pattern is paradigmatic of the thematic development within the epic as a whole.   Paradise Regained is concerned with the annihilation of the self and the stages by which the Son--whose experience is exemplary--grows toward the final attainment of this ideal of theological "negative capability".   The protagonist of the poem is more than a symbol of salvation; he is an exemplar, a model for human imitation.   The reader is being informed that he must participate in the Son's agon in a real, rather than in a merely ritualistic, way; and it is the function of the monologues of the Apostles and Mary to remind the reader of his co-operative responsibility for his own salvation, by reinforcing the central thematic pattern (seen in Christ's responses to Satan) of progressively devalued self-assertion.   Satan, of course, is intended as a negative example:   his wilfulness, contrasted with the Son's selfless passivity, makes him God's rival; and his frustration and ultimate fate are warnings of the inevitable lot awaiting those who commit themselves to the delusion of self-sufficiency.
      Over half-way through Book II, the tempter reappears to renew his assaults.   Reminding the Son of his hunger and urging his "right" to "all created things" (324), Satan causes an exquisite banquet to appear out of thin air.   The banquet is designed to satisfy what Satan argues to be all "Lawful desires of nature" (230)5 and therefore comprehends all sensory and sensual gratifications.   The satisfaction of a bodily appetite in moderation is not in itself a sin, but it may become so if an ethical or moral issue is involved.   In "temperately" declining to partake of the banquet, the Son bases his refusal not so much on the gift itself as on the source of the gift and on the satanic implications that, if Christ eats, he thereby declares his "right" to all created things (II, 378-84).   Moreover, since Satan--in his customary materialistic manner--has offered to assuage only physical hunger, the Son, who is "fed with better thoughts that feed/ Me hung'ring more to [185] do my Father's will" (1258-9), trenchantly demands of Satan, "And with my hunger what hast thou to do?" (389)
      The tempter's next appeal is based directly on the identity and vocational issues.   How does Christ propose to come to power in Israel without powerful allies and riches adequate to retain an armed force?   Satan, therefore, counsels the amassing of riches and is, of course, prepared to show the Son--if he will sacrifice his patience and obedience--precisely how such wealth is to be gained.   The Son readily disparages the offer of wealth without virtue, valour and wisdom:   "Wealth without these three is impotent." (433)   True kingship depends not on riches but on virtue and wisdom, and it is available to everyone, for it is nothing other than man's sovereignty over himself--a sovereignty which becomes yet more kingly when it serves as the means of leading others to self-knowledge and the knowledge of God:

            to guide nations in the way of truth
By saving doctrine, and from error lead
To know, and, knowing worship God aright,
Is yet more kingly . . . .             (473-6)

This statement is the second positive vocational assertion in the poem.   At the end of Book I, Christ had declared himself God's prophet.   Here, at the close of Book II, he extends his vocational awareness by declaring himself his Father's priest, whose function is to teach--both by precept and example--the doctrine of salvation and to lead men from darkness into light.


BOOK III:   GLORY, FALSE ZEAL, AND PARTHIA

While there is no break in the action between Books II and III, Satan's offers--which proceed through a scale of worldly values--become less material in the third book.   The temptations of the second book concentrate on the lowest and most concrete objects of worldly attainment:   bodily luxury (in all its forms) and material wealth.   In the third book the emphasis shifts to appeals which are more abstract and, correspondingly, more subtle.
      Supporting his case with the youthful accomplishments of such military heroes as Alexander, Scipio Africanus and Julius Caesar, [186] Satan opens Book III by arguing that it is time for the Son, who has displayed greater virtue and personal integrity than any of these pagan conquerors, to seek glory in action:   "Thy years are ripe, and over-ripe" (31).   Essentially, the temptation is to presumptuous action and involves the usurpation of praises due only to the Father.   Refusing to play God, the Son scorns the brutish fame of conquerors and the praise of the ignorant multitude.   Against the illusory and transitory glory of earth he juxtaposes the "true glory and renown" that is spiritual and eternal, the fame of heroes who have achieved true renown without seeking it:

This is true glory and renown, when God,
Looking on the earth, with approbation marks
The just man, and divulges him through heaven
To all his angels, who with true applause
Recount his praises; thus he did to Job . . . .       (60-4)

Glory is God's gift to the deserving and is earned by patience and obedience to the divine will rather than by self-assertive and self-motivated action.   Christ is the Son and instrument of God, but his right to that title and mission depends upon his obedience to his omnipotent Father's will.
      The satanic frustration, which increases as Christ rejects each successive temptation, is the result of genuine confusion on the tempter's part.   It is, for example, inconceivable to Satan that the Son should scorn so lightly and categorically his offer of glory.   As an abstract object of ambition, glory--which Satan has sacrificed all in an effort to gain--is the highest attainment of which the satanic mind can conceive.   Glory is the reward of power and is exacted by God, who is Power itself, from all creation.   Satan's God is a tyrant consumed by vanity, who wields his absolute power with arbitrary indifference; and the Son, Satan reasons, should be the reflection of his Father:

Think not so slight of glory; therein least
Resembling thy great Father:   he seeks glory,
And for his glory all things made, all things
Orders and governs . . . .             (109-12)

[187]   The unchecked absolutism, which Satan's distorted view of God and His glory assumes axiomatically, is an object of envy; indeed, it had been envy (coupled with pride) that had motivated his abortive rebellion against the Creator.   At the same time, however, God's absolute power is--as Satan had learned to his sorrow--incompatible with any rival authority.   And Satan hopes that with demonic guidance the Son may be tricked into repeating the satanic experience.   If he can excite envy of the Father's power and glory in the Son, then Christ, too, will become God's rival.   But Christ, seeking God's glory and not his own, easily rejects the offer of glory.
      In all of his temptations Satan fails--but he never really understands why he fails.   It is his inability to anticipate and, after the event, to comprehend his failures that accounts for his growing frustration and confusion.   And the explanation of his ill success, although he himself does not realise it, is apparent in his "confession" in Book III:

                                    all hope is lost
Of my reception into grace; what worse?
For where no hope is left, is left no fear;
If there be worse, the expectation more
Of worse torments me than the feeling can.
I would be at the worst; worst is my port,
My harbour and my ultimate repose,
The end I would attain, my final good.           (204-11)

There is, it seems at first, a certain nobility in this unexpected confession, and the extent of self-knowledge revealed surprises the reader who has anticipated no such despairing admission of guilt from Satan.   It was, no doubt, a surprise to the Son as well.   And it was intended to be so--for Satan, following his confession with a plea for intercession, expected to catch the Son off-guard and so trick him into exercising his mediatorial office prematurely and thus presumptuously, and into extending mercy (which is God's function) to one for whom both repentance and forgiveness are alike impossible.
      Although designed as a ruse, Satan's confession reveals much about his distorted reasoning and explains in large measure his ill [188] success with Christ.   The importance of his words becomes apparent when they are set beside an instructive passage of satanic soliloquy in Paradise Lost:

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,
Farewell remorse:   all good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my good; by thee at least
Divided empire with heaven's king I hold
By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign.         (IV, 108-12)

Satan, it is clear, is not entirely dissatisfied with his lot:   ruling in Hell and on Earth as well is better than serving in Heaven.   The precondition of satanic dominion, however, is the espousing of evil and the rejection of good.   And Satan's view of himself is Manichean rather than Augustinian; in adopting evil as his good, Satan establishes himself--at least in his own mind--as a second positive cosmic force existing in opposition to Providence.   Evil is not merely a void created by the absence of good; it is a positive thing, and the satanic "empire" is the alternative to Heaven.   Thus, when the tempter in Paradise Regained says,

I would be at the worst; worst is my port,
My harbour and my ultimate repose,
The end I would attain, my final good,

he is obliquely arguing his claim to infernal dominion and his desire to consolidate his holdings.   But his devotion to evil and his substitution of evil for good have hopelessly distorted his view of his antagonist.   He thinks of the Son as his rival, a potential usurper, and attempts to treat with him as he would with a would-be Satan.   Since he has inverted the relative values of good and evil, Satan is unable to appreciate either the Son's nature or mission, and his temptations are doomed from the outset because they are aimed at an alter ego rather than at an opposite.
      The subject of Book III of Paradise Regained is kingship, a subject anticipated in Christ's statement about true sovereignty (kingship over the self) at the end of Book II. Kingship is the third and final aspect of Christ's office, the other two being his roles as prophet (Book I) and as priest (Book II).6   Satan knows from scripture that Christ is to rule Israel, and he interprets the [189] prophecy literally to mean that the Son is "ordained/ To sit upon thy father David's throne" (152-3).   And so, when the Son rejects the abstract theory of kingship and the necessity of immediate action to obtain his throne which Satan proposes, the tempter's literal-mindedness suggests that real and concrete examples of "regal arts,/ And regal mysteries" may have more appeal than mere theory.   Taking Christ up into a mountain, therefore, he displays to his view all the powerful cities and kingdoms of the earth, settling finally on Parthia, the foremost symbol of military strength and efficiency.   But "Israel's true king" has already explained to his uncomprehending antagonist that his reign is to be spiritual rather than temporal.   Here he is content to observe that all arms are vanity, an "argument/ Of human weakness rather than of strength" (401-2); his own weapons are spiritual, and his time to wield them and to establish his kingdom in men's souls has not yet come.


BOOK IV:   ROME, ATHENS, AND THE TEMPLE

The offer of Parthia is quickly followed by that of Rome, the symbol of opulence, luxury and decadence.   The wealth and power of Rome, argues Satan, are the keys to domination of the world.   Satan's literal interpretation of the prophecies concerning the Son's messianic vocation have caused him once again to offer Christ the wrong kind of throne.   Nevertheless, the repeated and uncompromising literalism of the tempter's understanding of the prophesied kingdom succeeds in drawing from the Son a further positive vocational assertion:

Know therefore when my season comes to sit
On David's throne, it shall be like a tree
Spreading and overshadowing all the earth,
Or as a stone that shall to pieces dash
All monarchies besides throughout the world,
And of my kingdom there shall be no end.         (146-51)

Satanic obtuseness had earlier forced Christ to articulate his functions as prophet and priest; here the Son defines, both for Satan and himself, the nature and aim of his ordained kingship, a [190] spiritual vocation which depends neither on time nor space and which is concerned with inner rather than external or worldly sovereignty.
      It is at this point that Satan both impudently and, in terms of his own success, inopportunely makes clear to Christ the reason for the trial of the kingdoms:

All these which in a moment thou behold'st,
The kingdoms of the world to thee I give
                    . . . . . . . . . .
                            if thou wilt fall down,
And worship me as thy superior lord.           (162-3, 166-7)

The boldness of the assertion is occasioned by the desperateness of the tempter's case. Christ responds to the reiterated offer of the worldly kingdoms simply by pointing to the necessity of patient obedience to the will of Him who is alone the one superior Lord.   Obedience to the Law and patient endurance have throughout been the Son's spiritual weapons against the formidable batteries of satanic casuistry; and Christ's assertion (IV, 181) that the tempter shall rue this bold and blasphemous request for worship is a reminder that the Son's passivity will give way, shortly, to the prophesied activity of bruising the serpent's head.
      With meiosis heightened by the irony of satanic obtusity, the tempter observes that Christ "seem'st otherwise inclined/ Than to a worldly crown" (212-13).   Satan's belated recognition that Christ's kingdom is not a temporal one leads directly to the offer of Athens, "the eye of Greece, mother of arts/ And eloquence" (240-1).   To this point, Satan's temptations have relied on the public glory to be gained from wealth and power; but there remains, as he comes to see, a type of eminence which by its very nature appeals only to a few--the glory of knowledge and intellectual achievement, a form of glory best represented by ancient Athens.   Nevertheless, Satan's perverted understanding leads him to treat the supreme accomplishments of Athenian culture--its literature, oratory, and philosophy--as mere stepping-stones to worldly power:

                              Be famous then
By wisdom; as thy empire must extend,
[191]   So let extend thy mind o'er all the world,
In knowledge, all things in it comprehend,
All knowledge is not couched in Moses' law,
The Pentateuch or what the prophets wrote,
The Gentiles also know, and write, and teach
To admiration, led by nature's light;
And with the Gentiles much thou must converse,
Ruling them by persuasion as thou mean'st . . . .           (221-30)

This temptation is the most sophisticated that Satan has been able to formulate, for it appeals precisely to that vocational desire that Christ had spoken of in his first meditation:   "By winning words to conquer willing hearts,/ And make persuasion do the work of fear." (I, 222-3)   But the Son, undeceived, rejects the offer of pagan learning, "sagely" observing that

                                    he who receives
Light from above, from the fountain of light,
No other doctrine needs, though granted true.       (288-90)

In other words, those men who, like Christ and the Old Testament prophets, are God's special servants, are divinely taught; their knowledge is the gift of inspiration, and, for them, that sort of learning which is obtained by "nature's light" is superfluous, often misleading, and invariably incomplete.   The epistemological premise of Paradise Regained is that conventional or natural wisdom--like the conventional sorts of power and glory offered earlier by Satan--is entirely inadequate for the Son's understanding and prosecution of his vocation.
      Still unable to understand the nature of the Son's prophesied kingdom--"Real or allegoric I discern not" (390)--Satan returns Christ to the wilderness where, abandoning persuasion for the tactics of fear, he afflicts the Son with "ugly dreams" and the violence of a fierce storm.   In the morning, Satan, "Desperate of better course", removes Christ to the pinnacle of the temple at Jerusalem, where the threatened violence of the nocturnal storm is actualised:

There stand, if thou wilt stand; to stand upright
[192]   Will ask thee skill; I to thy Father's house
Have brought thee, and highest placed, highest is best,
Now show thy progeny; if not to stand,
Cast thyself down; safely if Son of God . . . .       (551-5)

The Arch Fiend is constrained at last to resort to physical violence in an effort to force Christ either to assert his divine Sonship (by casting himself safely down) or to reveal himself as an impostor (by plunging ignominiously to his death).   But the limited scope of Satan's understanding proves inadequate once more to anticipate the Son's response--

To whom thus Jesus:   Also it is written,
Tempt not the Lord thy God, he said, and stood--     (560-1)

and it is Satan himself who, "smitten with amazement" (562), falls headlong from the temple's spire.
      The act of standing on the pinnacle both reaffirms and at the same time resolves the central structural and thematic pattern of the poem, that of a temptation to presumptuous self-assertion opposed by self-abnegating passivity and trusting obedience.   In placing Christ on the pinnacle, Satan means to force the Son into performing a self-assertive act; but, surprisingly, Christ responds by manifesting once again that selfless patience and obedience to the Father that has characterised his replies to the tempter throughout the poem.   Here, however, the Son's passivity is more significant:   the decision to stand on the pinnacle, to confirm obedience by avoiding presumptuous action, is a decision beyond purely human accomplishment--for it is impossible to stand upon the spire without aid.   The fact that Christ does stand, thereby performing the humanly impossible, marks the point at which the Son, having annihilated his individual and selfish will, is subsumed into the Father's will, of which he is henceforward the instrument.
      In vocational terms, Christ's journey of self-discovery and self-understanding ends, paradoxically, with the total denial of the self.   It is only as a result of his supreme act of obedient passivity on the pinnacle that he is able to enter finally upon his mission.   He is carried down from the temple by angels, who end [193] their hymn of praise with these words:

Hail Son of the Most High, heir of both worlds,
Queller of Satan, on thy glorious work
Now enter, and begin to save mankind.         (633-5)

Action, formerly the essence of temptation, is now, as the Son embarks on his messianic mission, enjoined as a vocational necessity.   And, as the curtain falls on the last act, the "undoubted Son of God" slips unobtrusively away to begin the task of transforming prophecy into fact.






Notes

[Click on asterisk (*) at the end of a note to return to the point you left in the text]


  1. The depth of my indebtedness to Barbara Lewalski's Milton's Brief Epic.   The Genre, Meaning, and Art of Paradise Regained (London and Providence, 1966) will become apparent as this chapter progresses. *

  2. I am concerned primarily with the Son's vocatio specialis as Messiah; however, the Son's "general vocation" and his renovation are also important themes in the poem:   "What illuminates the significance of the ministry is [the Son's] developing response to the call as it comes to him from his meditation on the recorded experience of his own people; and each of the poem's four books will be found to centre on and conclude with some significant aspect of the process of natural and supernatural renovation as De Doctrina attempts to define these." (Barker, "Structural and Doctrinal Pattern" [cf. Chap.4, n 7], p. 181) *

  3. Stein, Heroic Knowledge (cf. Chap 5, n 6), p. 91. *

  4. Frye, "The Typology of Paradise Regained" (1956), in Milton's Epic Poetry: Essays on Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, ed. C.A. Patrides (Harmondsworth, 1967), pp. 314-15. *

  5. In fact, however, as Michael Fixler has shown, Satan's banquet is knowingly designed to tempt Christ into violating Jewish dietary law:   see Fixler, "The Unclean Meats of the Mosaic Law and the Banquet Scene in Paradise Regained," MLN, 70 (1955), 573-7. *

  6. Milton discusses the "triple function of [Christ's] mediatorial office"--his roles as prophet, priest, and king--in DDC, I, xv:   cf. YP, VI, pp. 432-5. *



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Document Completed:   8:25 PM on 12/04/96