John Milton was not only England’s finest epic poet, he was also a major statesman and was regarded as one of the most important political and religious thinkers of his time. Living during the tumultuous period of the English Civil War, John Milton devoted his life (1608–1674) and his work to liberty in three spheres: the church, the family, and the state. As the Latin Secretary to the Council of State Oliver Cromwell during the English Commonwealth (1649–1660), he was in charge of all foreign correspondence; there and in his political pamphlets, he expressed the values of republicanism. Milton’s prose writings include many tracts that focus on liberty: from church authority, from the tyranny of custom, from the tyranny of monarchy. He defends freedom of conscience and freedom of speech (in the influential prose work Areopagitica), and he crafts passionate defenses of political freedom, including defending the execution of Charles I. Living not only during England’s seventeenth-century experiment with republicanism but also during the English Reformation, Milton’s Puritanism included radical stances on the key religious controversies of the day, including questions of religious authority, toleration, and doctrine.

While Milton aspired to be a poet in his youth and wrote the early masterpieces “Ode: On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” and “Lycidas,” it was only after the Commonwealth project collapsed, the monarchy was restored, and he was exiled from his deep engagement with England’s politics—after he had lost his sight while writing on behalf of English liberty (his blindness was complete by 1652), and after his life was threatened and he was imprisoned (in 1659, and his books were burned under orders in the same year)—that he wrote his major poetic works, in blindness and defeat. After his hopes for a better England had been dashed, he addressed the story of a lost Paradise. Paradise Lost (1667) was soon followed by Paradise Regained (1671), the story of Christ’s temptations in the wilderness, and Samson Agonistes (1671), modeled on classical tragedy and focusing on Samson’s last days among his enemies, the Philistines. These show not only his impressive biblical and classical learning but also an imaginative vision that has led many critics to describe his voice as prophetic. In Paradise Lost, Milton “adapts” the story of the garden of Eden from Genesis (45 verses) to an epic of ultimately 12 books and 10,656 lines. He asks questions the Bible does not, presses on contradictions in the story, and throughout addresses the problem of human suffering. His “grand style” is an English indebted to Latin; his meter is “blank verse” (unrhymed iambic pentameter); and in his epic, Milton is engaged in an adaptation not only of the biblical story but also of classical epic, taking conventions from Homer and Virgil—huge battles, noble speeches, lengthy debates, elaborate descriptions, invocations to the Muse—and adapting them to his biblical subject. Many other works have been inspired by Paradise Lost, among them Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and “Milton: A Poem,” Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Keats’s “Endymion,” Byron’s “The Vision of Judgment,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” and “The Dunciad,” and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. And adaptations continue—most recently, John Eaton’s new opera, Losing Paradise.

John Milton was not only a poet, thinker, theologian, and political figure, he was also one of the most astute “literary critics” of the Bible. That is not to say, of course, that the Bible was only a work of literature to him; scripture was the revealed Word of God. But it does mean that when Milton interpreted the Bible, he did so not only with the thought of a theologian and with the faith of a believer but also with the sensibility of a poet. For him, biblical theology was inseparable from biblical poetics—what the Bible means is bound to how it means—and it is no accident that despite writing a lengthy theological treatise, Milton wrote his own theology most forcefully in his poetry. He lived during a period when biblical interpretation was part of everyday life. The legacies of the Renaissance with its humanist emphasis on the text and the Reformation with its emphasis on interpretation of the Bible were to infuse common vocabulary with scripture. During the Civil War, soldiers carried a Bible into battle; before entering the fray, they sang its psalms; in the evening, parents recounted its narratives to their children; during Parliamentary conflicts, proponents cited its verses. The Bible was used in Parliament, in pamphlet wars, in education, in courtship, and in conversation to an extent that is hardly imaginable today. As Christopher Hill (1993) warns, “the Bible was central to the whole of the life of the society: we ignore it at our peril.”

The “use” of the sacred text was not always savory, for the Bible was not only invoked to inspire ethics and goodwill but also asked to lend authority to less charitable positions: for bolstering self-interest, for justifying lawlessness, for slaughtering innocents, and for defeating enemies. Because God’s will was conveyed to fallen humanity and employed by fallen humanity, fallen interpretations of God’s word were not always synonymous with divine will. Between human understanding and divine will was a murky realm of interpretation. “It is no hard thing,” wrote John Hales in his Golden Remains (1659), “for a man that hath wit, and is strongly possessed of an opinion, and resolute to maintain it, to find some place of Scripture which by good handling will be wooed to cast a favourable countenance upon it” (cited in Hill, 1993, p. 43). The hermeneutical feats performed to turn the word of God into justification for any and every agenda had begun to make biblical interpretation overtly suspect; the hazards of interpreting the word of God were even notable to its interpreters. Shakespeare, among others, took this unholy instrumentality for granted.

(Richard Gloucester) —But then I might; and, with a piece of Scripture,Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:And thus I clothe my naked villainyWith odd old ends, stol’n forth of Holy Writ.

(Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Richard III, Act I, iii)

John Milton was no exception: he accused Justin Martyr, Clement, Origen, and Tertullian, among other church fathers of “the ridiculous wresting of Scripture” (Milton, Of Reformation, in Wolfe, Vol. 1, 1953, p. 551; all subsequent references to Milton’s prose will be to this edition) and the church of being “so rash to raise up such lofty Bishops and Bishropriks out of places in Scripture merely misunderstood” (Of Prelatical Episcopacy, in Wolfe, Vol. 1, 1953, p. 631).

With his three great epics, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, all based upon episodes in biblical narratives, Milton is surely the most biblical of English poets. His prose is also saturated with biblical citation: whether he writes on divorce, on censorship, on church government, on the sins of Charles I’s monarchy, or the virtue of Cromwell’s republic, whether he defends the English revolution or the justice of God, his method is to invoke biblical verses and, with them, biblical authority. As one who was an adept practitioner of biblical hermeneutics—even going so far as to craft consistency between two completely contradictory biblical mandates about marriage in order to justify his doctrine of divorce—Milton was well aware of the uses and abuses of scripture. His enemies cite the Bible as frequently as he does, so he must counter them by rejecting their use of scripture for “a wise man will make better use of an idle pamphlet then a fool will do of sacred scripture” (Areopagitica, in Wolfe, 1959, Vol. 2, p. 521). Those who misinterpret the Bible are guilty of “resting in the meere element of the Text” and of committing the grave error of “not consulting with charitie, the interpreter and guide of our faith” (my italics, in Wolfe, Vol. 2, 1959, p. 236).

How, then, does Milton choose to interpret the episode of the loss of Paradise from Genesis? Does he interpret this narrative according to the principle of charity? Milton seems to have chosen the most difficult test case from the spectrum of biblical narratives. It is a brutal story—the story of the temptation of innocent humanity by a vengeful Satan, the succumbing of mankind answered with the most terrible consequence, for man’s first disobedience “brought Death in to the world and all our woe.” How could this story, of the introduction of evil and of death into the world, be interpreted according to the principle of charity? It is plausible to read Paradise Lost as just that: an interpretation of the narrative of the fall according to the principle of charity, that is, according to the principle that the goodness and justice of God prevail and that they are even available to human reason. Adam and Eve do not live in Paradise without ample explanation of the goodness of God, and Adam and Eve do not leave Paradise without knowledge of God’s forgiveness, knowledge that their punishment will be mitigated and their disaster redeemed. In Paradise Lost mankind is offered motivation for obeying God: he is taught that God created the world and its creatures, given certain knowledge, not just intuitive awareness, of his contingency so that he could not deny his creator. He is given an explanation of the purpose of the divine law—to grant man freedom of the will—and he is shown the consequences of making the wrong choice with vivid descriptions of the punishment for Satan’s disobedience. Through these narrations and explanations, Milton’s God gives not only checks but also goads. Furthermore, the account of the fall of mankind could hardly have been made more sympathetic: at the hour of noon, hungry and alone, Eve is duped, and she falls, not for narcissism (although any such tendency is also depicted sympathetically, as part of her created nature), but for hunger for more knowledge. When Adam follows in sin, he is not deceived; rather, he falls for love of Eve. At the very moment when our sympathies should be farthest from the criminals who brought death into our world and all our woe, Milton makes their fall seem so understandable. Who would condemn anyone for craving more knowledge? Who would condemn anyone so devoted to a partner that he willingly shares his or her misery? And yet, throughout all this charitable interpreting, Milton unflinchingly depicts the first error as terrible: “earth felt the wound and nature through her seat gave sighs of woe that all was lost” even while those who commit it inspire our love and our compassion, not our stern judgment. After the horrible event, mankind is again offered not only an explanation of the consequences of the disobedience, with visions and auditions, but also, charitably, a disclosure of the final redemption, a disclosure that the terrible consequences of their disobedience will eventually end. Death will be that charitable end. In short, Milton endeavors to make divine justice, mercy, and goodness available to human reason. Whether or not he succeeds depends on the reader, who can freely accept or reject these charitable explanations; regardless, Milton certainly offered them. (It is no accident that grace functions in this way in the Arminianism Milton embraced: grace is offered freely, and one can either reject or accept it. Milton, as creator, is doubtless modeling himself on his Creator.) Milton sets out to exonerate a God who might seem punitive, to depict human freedom as no burden but a gift, and to understand the psychology of evil, even admiring the courage of one foolish enough to rebel against the Almighty. Charitable indeed.

In his dogged commitment to the processes of reason, Milton asks questions of the biblical narrative that the Bible does not ask: Where does the serpent come from? Why does God command Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit? He presses contradictions in the biblical narrative that the Bible story gracefully elides: How can God know the outcome and not determine it? How can man be condemned to death, but Adam and Eve go on living? He demands that the story offer explanations for more than the biblical narrative purports to explain: the nature of evil, of divine justice, aspirations and limits of human knowledge, the relation between the sexes, between man and nature, man and God, and the origin of just about everything. And so powerful is his reading of the brief biblical story, so compelling his interpretation in his own epic, that generations of readers have proceeded to confuse Milton’s narrative with the Bible’s. They think that Satan, rather than a serpent, tempted Eve, that Satan fell from Heaven before tempting mankind, that Eve was alone during her temptation, that Adam fell for love—none of which are biblical. In the Bible, the story of a paradise that is lost takes up only 45 verses. The narrative is cryptic, and, as Erich Auerbach described in his important distinction between biblical and Homeric prose, it brings certain parts into high relief while others are left obscure (Auerbach, 1953, p. 23.). While Auerbach describes the story of the “sacrifice” of Isaac (Gen 22), his insights are equally applicable to the fall in the first chapters of Genesis:

"In the story of Isaac, it is not only God’s intervention at the beginning and the end, but even the factual and psychological elements which come between, that are mysterious, merely touched upon, fraught with background; and therefore they require subtle investigation and interpretation, they demand them. Since so much in the story is dark and incomplete, and since the reader knows that God is a hidden God, his effort to interpret it constantly finds something new to feed upon." (1953, p. 15)

About two millennia later after the terse biblical story of the fall was written, Milton presumes to fill in its background, turning full light upon it, but when he does so, he not only lights up the background of the story but also illuminates his understanding of it: “what is dark in me illumine.” He invokes the Celestial Light to brighten his reason:

So much the rather, thou Celestial LightShine Inward, and the mind through all her powersIrradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thencePurge and disperse, that I may see and tellOf things invisible to mortal sight.

(III. 51–55)

Painting descriptions, seeking causes, offering explanations, exploring motives, and delineating consequences to make a fairly unintelligible story intelligible: for Milton, these are the methods for interpreting according to the principle of charity.

When Milton applies his brush to filling in the dark background of Paradise, he fills it copiously. Charity abounds. Paradise is a place where our first ancestors know no deprivation, feel no dearth. Paradise has more fruits than Adam and Eve can possibly eat, more varieties of trees than they can possibly know, more growth than they can tame. Remarkably enough, Eve describes Paradise that way to her tempter; in the face of his wily allusion to a prohibited fruit, Eve recalls the bounty of Paradise’s gifts:

many are the Trees of God that growIn Paradise, and various, yet unknownTo us, in such abundance lies our choice,As leaves a greater store of Fruit untoucht,Still hanging incorruptible, till menGrow up to thir provision, and more handsHelp to disburden Nature of her Birth.

(IX. 617–624)

Paradise is so fecund that there are not enough midwives to attend her constant births. And according to Raphael, the God who so provided mankind did so out of generosity:

He brought thee into this delicious Grove,This garden, planted with the Trees of God,Delectable both to behold and taste;And freely all thir pleasant fruit for foodGave thee, all sorts are here that all th’Earth yields,Variety without end;

(VII. 537–542)

Gratitude for the bounty of Paradise comprises the heart of the liturgy in Adam and Eve’s evening prayer:

“Thou also mad’st the NightMaker Omnipotent, and thou the Day,… and this delicious placeFor us too large, where thy abundance wantsPartakers, and uncropt falls to the ground.But thou hast promis’d from us two a RaceTo fill the Earth, who shall with us extolThy goodness infinite.”

(IV. 724–734)

All of these passages are Milton’s elaborations of one verse in Genesis: “God caused to spring up from the soil every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, with the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden” (Gen 2:9). Here, as elsewhere, Milton interprets the Bible according to a biblical principle to come up with a new Bible. Presupposing the belief that the canon is not closed, that revelation is ongoing, Milton is its most recent recipient. The Muse who inspired Moses to write the Bible is the Muse Milton invokes to inspire his epic, Paradise Lost.

Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret topOf Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspireThat Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and EarthRose out of Chaos.

This Muse “prefers before all Temples the upright heart and pure.” Surely this is not a Muse of institutions (all Temples). Is this the Muse of charity? While the many descriptions of a bountiful garden may tend to convey that Adam and Eve have no experience of deprivation, the divine command prohibiting the fruit of one tree poses a serious challenge. For here, even in Paradise, God issues a strange command: “You may eat indeed of all the trees in the garden. Nevertheless of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall most surely die” (Gen 2:17). Why?, asks Milton. The biblical narratives offer little help: no explanation at all is given in the Genesis story; elsewhere, the scriptures describe God’s ways as unfathomable, beyond human reason, and as the “friends” of Job demonstrate, man is foolish or even sinful to presume to understand a divine justice. Milton nods toward the mystery of divine ways—“God to remove his ways from human sense / Plac’d Heav’n from Earth so far, that earthly sight, / If it presume, might err in things too high” (Paradise Lost, VIII. 119–122)—but he is nonetheless compelled to find answers to his questions. He is determined to render divine creation and redemption accessible to human knowledge; moreover, he even submits divine justice to human reason, intending “to justify the ways of God to man.” This requires scrutinizing that mysterious first command. Is it a fair command? A just command? Is mankind capable of obeying it?

Milton offers distinctly different explanations for the prohibition: one from God and his messengers, another from Satan. Whether or not the explanation that Milton’s God offers for his command is indeed charitable has been hotly debated for centuries. On the one side, his God has been depicted by Shelley in A Defence of Poetry (1821) as “one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments.” But on the other, Tillyard cautions: “It must not be thought that Milton blamed God for an unsatisfactory world. What he did was to blame mankind for having hopelessly thrown away their chances: they could have made the world a second paradise, and it was utterly their own fault that they failed to do so. Never for a moment does Milton disbelieve in this significance of the Fall. And in the sense that Milton believed God to be just he does not lose his faith in him” (1930, part 3, ch. 4, p. x.). I will demur from taking sides, because what is far more interesting is the very fact of the explanation of the divine command. That Milton tries to explain what is left unexplained in the biblical account is itself to interpret according to charity. Explanations, causes, descriptions, motives, revelations of the past and of the future: these are the methods of Milton’s hermeneutic of charity. For Milton, the first command is not an arbitrary law given by a voluntarist deity, nor is it a mysterious law whose motive is inaccessible. The divine purpose, stated clearly and repeatedly in Paradise Lost, was to give man choice, the exercise of reason, “reason also is choice” (III. 108, and cf. Areopagitica, where “reason is but choosing”). Far from intending to lower humankind through this command, God claims in the poem that his intention was to ennoble man by offering him freedom. True liberty always dwells twinned with right reason; man suffers outward tyranny when his own reason is enthralled to lower powers (XII. 83–101). Furthermore, if mankind is not free, “what proof could they have giv’n sincere of true allegiance? … what praise could they receive?”(III. 103–106).

Milton has asked that all commands be subject to the greater command of charity: “We cannot safely assent to any precept writt’n in the Bible, but as charity commends it to us” (II. 340, my italics). That principle of biblical interpretation enables us to better understand Milton’s answer to the crucial question of why God gave this command: to give the gift of human freedom. And that means only by understanding the first command through the principle of charity can Adam and Eve assent to it with confidence. They must see that command as a gift, not as an exercise of tyranny. So far from tyranny is Milton’s God that in his very command, he is offering the opposite: freedom. In Milton’s theological treatise De Doctrina Christiana, where he sets out to describe the nature of God, under the category of “divine will” Milton asserts not that God exercises his will in any way he chooses but that God is “supremely kind,” quoting a host of biblical allusions to support this contention (Exod 34:6; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 25:6) and others, culminating in 1 John 4:8: “God is charity.” Not only our understanding but also the divine will is defined as charity.

To interpret the first command according to charity suggests, too, that man is happiest under divine law. When Milton tackles the problem of divine justice head-on and at its theologically most sensitive place—the exile from Paradise into suffering and death—he does not hesitate to assert that reason can indeed demonstrate both the justice and the goodness of divine law. In his tract on divorce, he reiterates the reasonableness of divine goodness: “And he hath taught us to love and to extoll his Laws, not only as they are his, but as they are just and good to every wise and sober understanding” (Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in Wolfe, Vol. 2, 1959, pp. 297–298). Nonetheless, this understanding requires interpretation. And right interpretation requires not only the operations of reason but also faith, hope, and charity as guiding principles.

The right method of interpreting the scriptures has been laid down by theologians. The requisites are linguistic ability, knowledge of the original sources, consideration of the overall intent, distinction between literal and figurative language, examination of the causes and circumstances and of what comes before and after the passage in question, and comparison of one text with another. It must always be asked, too, how far the interpretation is in agreement with faith (De Doctrina Christiana, in Wolfe, Vol. 6, 1973, p. 582).

As it turns out, the intellect is not self-sufficient; ultimately it is aided by the help of the Spirit: “the truth, / Left only in those written records pure, / Though not but by the Spirit understood” (Paradise Lost XII.511–513; for Milton’s relation to the scripture, as developed in his theological treatise, see Schwartz, 1990, pp. 227–240). In his prose, Milton offers a fine paraphrase of his poetry: “The prophecy, then, must not be interpreted by the intellect of a particular individual, that is to say, not by his merely human intellect, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, promised to each individual believer” (Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in Wolfe, Vol. 6, 1973, p. 580). Everything we need to know, Milton writes in his theological treatise, is “supplied either by passages from the scripture” or by the “Spirit operating in us through faith and charity” (De Doctrina Christiana, in Wolfe, Vol. 6, 1973, p. 586). The Bible, he tells us (quoting 2 Corinthians 3:3), “is not only written in ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not only on stone, but on the fleshly tablets of the heart.” This means we have “a double scripture,” an external one and an internal one, and because the written one does not address many concerns and because it must be interpreted, “all things are eventually to be referred to the Spirit and the unwritten word” (De Doctrina Christiana, in Wolfe, Vol. 6, 1973, pp. 587–590). Beliefs deduced from scripture which are not informed by this Spirit are as misguided as Adam’s interpretive errors. He quotes Colossians 2:8: “look out, lest anyone rob you by means of philosophy and delusive vanities, based on human traditions and worldly principles, and not on Christ.” Even the prelates are guilty of this error, turning to tradition rather than the (double) scripture: “But let them chaunt while they will of prerogatives, we shall tell them of Scripture; of custom, we of Scripture; of Acts and Statutes, still of Scripture; til the quick and piercing word enter to the dividing of their soules, and the mighty weakness of the gospel throw down the weak mightiness of man’s reasoning” (Reason of Church Government, in Wolfe, Vol. 1, 1953, p. 827).

So much for the charitable intentions of the command itself. But how can a God who metes out such a punishment—“Die hee or Justice must” (III. 210)—be charitable? Even that harsh, stern, uncompromising verdict is explained, by the Deity, as an act of charity.

I at first with two fair giftsCreated him endow’d, with HappinessAnd Immortality: that fondly lost,This other serv’d but to eternize woe;Till I provided Death; so Death becomesHis final remedy,

(XI. 56–61)

God the Father also offers an explanation in how he wants his sentence to be understood—not as a disaster, “all terror hide,” but as the fulfillment of justice. He directs that it be delivered compassionately by asking Michael to “intermix” the revelation of “my Covnant in the woman’s seed renrew’d.” The objective is to achieve an exquisitely defined effect, to “send them forth, though sorrowing, yet in peace” (XII. 111–116). This divine charity has its counterpart in the narrator’s acts of charity, his gifts of interpretation. The explanation for Adam’s sin is not that he disregards God, flaunting his command, but that he is unable to separate from the woman who was made of his flesh. When he falls, he is “submitting to what seemed remediless.” As the argument to Book IX explains, “Adam, at first amazed, but perceiving her lost, resolves through vehemence of love to perish with her.” Interpreting Adam’s fall according to the principle of charity, Milton has him fall for love. In a bold exegetical move, Milton takes the lines from the Bible that constitute the original marriage vow and has Adam utter them at his fall:

if DeathConsort with thee, Death is to mee as Life;So forcible within my heart I feelThe Bond of Nature draw me to my ownMy own in thee, for what thou art is mine;Our State cannot be sever’d, we are one,One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.

(IX. 954–959)

Adam would need to renounce his marriage, that is, to separate his flesh from his flesh, his bone from his bone, in order to obey God. Such obedience is hard. Overmuch love of a woman, dying for a woman: this may lack good judgment according to the narrator, but it is far from the opprobrious explanation given for Satan’s fall. He falls for envy, revenge, and pride—although, as a whole century of critics argued, even Satan’s fall is depicted with much sympathy for the defeated one.

How would the first command be interpreted according to the opposite principle, the principle of scarcity? We need not imagine such an interpretation, for Milton offers one. Not only Milton’s God and the narrator, but Satan is also an interpreter. He interprets the command of obedience from God, Paradise, the fall of man—and he interprets them all, not from the principle of charity, but the principle of scarcity. God is the great forbidder, who has given no fruits to man. Satan’s motives for acting—revenge against God, envy of man, and hate—are the precise opposite of giving, of caritas, of love.

What hither brought us, hate, not love, nor hopeOf Paradise for Hell, hope here to tasteOf pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,Save what is in destroying, other joyTo me is lost.

(IX. 475–479)

Satan explains that his method of temptation will be to feign Love: “Hate stronger, under show of Love well feign’d, / The way which to her ruin now I tend” (IX. 492–493). In his version, an envious God who is determined to keep man inferior denies him the knowledge of good and evil that would elevate him. Rather than regarding the injunction as strengthening us, enabling the exercise of our judgment and freedom, Satan interprets the command as designed to lessen us, to injure us.

One fatal Tree there stands of Knowledge call’dForbidden them to taste: Knowledge forbidd’n?Suspicious, reasonless. Why should thir LordEnvy them that? Can it be sin to know,Can it be death? And do they only standBy Ignorance, is that thir happy state,The proof of thir obedience and thir faith?

(IV. 514–520)

Satan does not understand the command as a sign of freedom (to reason), but as a deprivation (of knowledge) and a condemnation (to inferiority). Anticipating Nietzsche, he even equates this inferiority with faith. Satan’s thinking is based upon the presupposition that there is only room for one at the top, that only one can prosper and at the others’ expense (the Bible is often interpreted according to the scarcity principle; on which see Schwartz, 1998). Everything about Satan belies his presupposition of scarcity. He interprets the elevation of the Son of God as the diminution of his own glory: “by Decree / Another now hath to himself ingross’t/All Power, and us eclipst” (V. 774–775). He suffers from humiliation “Ay me, they little know / How dearly I abide that boast so vain, under what torments inwardly I groan / … The lower still I fall, only Supreme / In misery” (IV. 86–93). And he suffers from envy, believing that others unfairly have what he cannot have: “aside the Devil turn’d / For envy, yet with jealous leer malign / Ey’d them askance, and to himself thus plain’d. / Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two / Imparadis’t in one another’s arms while I to deepest hell am confined” (IV. 502–506) Other symptoms follow suit: his sense of injured merit “that fixt mind / And high disdain, from sense of injur’d merit, / That with the mightiest rais’d me to contend” (I. 98–99), his belief in winners and losers and the compulsion to compete to avoid feeling like the loser “To wage by force or guile eternal War / Irreconcilable to our grand Foe, / Who now triumphs, and in th’excess of joy/ Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n.” (I. 120–124).

Accordingly, Satan imagines that everyone cannot attain godhead, even though that fulfillment is explicitly enunciated by God the Father: “Then thou thy regal sceptre shalt lay by, / For regal Sceptre then no more shall need, / God shall be All in All” (III. 338–341), and Raphael teaches Adam of this possibility early in their conversation: “time may come when men / With Angels may participate, and find / No inconvenient Diet, nor too light Fare: / And from these corporal nutriments perhaps / your bodies my at last turn all to spirit, / Improv’d by trct of time, and wing’d ascend / Ethereal, a wee, or may at choice / Here or in Heav’nly paradises dwell; / If ye be found obedient” (V. 493–501). Does this deferred, conditional achievement mean that, as the colloquial expression goes, the glass is half-empty or half-full? With that promise of “all in all,” a hermeneutic of charity is beginning to look very much like faith. Raphael, who interprets that promise according to the principle of charity, sees it as achievable. As Milton asserts in his theological treatise, De Doctrina Christiana, “saving faith” is “the firm persuasion implanted in us by the gift of God, by virtue of which we believe, on the authority of God’s promise, that all those things which God has promised us in Christ are ours, and especially the grace of eternal life” (De Doctrina Christiana, in Wolfe, Vol. 6, 1973, p. 471). Milton proceeds to offer his interpretation of Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for.” He writes, “Here substance means that we are persuaded that the things hoped for will be ours, just as firmly as if they not only already existed but were actually in our possession” (De Doctrina Christiana, in Wolf, Vol. 6, 1973, p. 472). For Satan, who interprets according to the principle of scarcity, the glass is half-empty, that is, the promise is empty: “as far from granting he, as I from begging peace.”

Milton is perhaps most overt about the problem of interpretation in his poetry in the last two books of Paradise Lost. There he confronts Adam with the task of interpreting all of biblical history, and we should not be surprised that his stress is repeatedly on the hermeneutics of charity. Since the eighteenth century, critics have been complaining about the last two books of Paradise Lost. The real drama of the epic has ended in Books IX and X with the fall of our first parents (except for the inevitable swift expulsion achieved in four lines, XII. 637–640). But in Books XI and XII, the epic not only illustrates the consequences of that disobedience for Adam and Eve’s progeny in horrid visions and narrations, it also recounts the rest of biblical history, with Milton broadening his debt to biblical plot far beyond the story in Genesis. These Bible stories are not dramatized as Adam and Eve’s story is; they are taught, and the lesson is in biblical hermeneutics. In these final books of Paradise Lost, Milton portrays the angel Michael teaching Adam how to interpret the Bible.

As Michael opens the Bible, first to Adam’s sight and then to his hearing, Adam responds to each biblical episode. “Cain and Abel” provokes a complete misreading. After their respective sacrifices, when Cain murders Abel, Adam responds indignantly, “Is Piety thus and pure Devotion paid?” The sight of death provokes despair: “Better end here unborn. Why is life giv’n / To be thus wrested from us?” Indeed, Adam is prompted, when he sees the horrors of death, to ask the same question about divine justice that haunts Milton throughout his work—why man, made in his Maker’s image, could suffer such deformity.

Can thusTh’ Image of God in man created onceSo goodly and erect, thought faulty since,such unsightly sufferings be debas’tUnder inhuman pains?

(XI. 507–511)

The answer, that man has given away that divine image when he rejected divine guidance and disfigured himself, sobers his indignation, and the promise—that man will be restored—tempers his despair.

Adam misinterprets the Bible just as radically when he responds to it with elation. His vision of the “sons of God” cavorting with the daughters of Cain inspires a misguided delight.

True opener of mine eyes, prime Angel blest,Much better seems this Vision, and more hopeOf peaceful days portends, than those two past;Those were of hate and death, or pain much worse,Here Nature seems fulfill’d in all her ends.

(XI. 598–602)

Now he must learn that such pleasure seekers, if “unmindful of thir Maker,” fail to achieve goodness.

Adam is evidently an unstable biblical interpreter, whose skill needs to be honed. His teacher explains:

good with badExpect to hear, supernal Grace contendingWith sinfulness of Men; thereby to learnTrue patience, and to temper joy with fearAnd pious sorrow, equally inur’dBy moderation either state to bear,Prosperous or adverse:

(XI. 358–364)

To interpret according to the principle of charity is to understand that each tragedy of human history will be redeemed; hence, the intermixing of loss and gain should not generate swings from despair to elation, but the more stable sorrow that knows peace. Milton’s oft-noted emphasis on the Flood at the end of Book XI, separating as it does the biblical visions from the narrations, pausing between a world destroyed and another created, underscores the theology of re-creation that informs his work (Schwartz, 1993). When we assign that metaphor of a “half-empty or half-full glass” to the world itself, we see the risk of interpreting the Flood according to the principle of scarcity. If there is only one world and it is inundated, only complete destruction and despair can follow. But when Adam learns to read the Flood story with charity, he understands it as enabling a second chance, a new cleansed world. Here, Adam gets it right:

Far less I now lament for one whole WorldOf wicked Sons destroy’d, than I rejoiceFor one Man found so perfet and so just,That God voutsafes to raise another WorldFrom him, and all his anger to forget.

(XI. 873–878)

Throughout the final book of Paradise Lost, the Angel must temper Adam’s premature enthusiasm for the restoration wrought by Christ. (For a fuller reading of the biblical hermeneutics at the end of Paradise Lost, see Schwartz, 1988, pp. 123–141.) Before then his progeny must endure the tragedies of history, and before then he must be exiled from Paradise. The heavenly instructor’s final lesson is that Adam and Eve live in faith, “though sad” for the evils past, “yet much more cheer’d / With meditation on the happy end” (XII. 603–605), and this balance of sorrow and hope, deeply considered by Milton theologically, informs the many yoked contraries in the final lines of the poem, where Adam and Eve leave Paradise weeping but wiping their tears. For Milton, to interpret the Bible (that is, our past, our present and our future) according to the principle of charity is not to succumb to despair or elation but to achieve inner peace, and to interpret biblical/human history with charity is to maintain faith that the achievement of outer peace is possible.




  • Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard Trask. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953.
  • Hill, Christopher. The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution. London: Allen Lane, 1993.
  • Schwartz, Regina M. “From Shadowy Types to Shadowy Types: The Unendings of Paradise Lost.” Milton Studies 24 (1988): 123–139.
  • Schwartz, Regina M. “Citation, Authority, and De Doctrina Christiana.” In Politics, Poetics, and Hermeneutics in Milton’s Prose, edited by David Loewenstein and James Turner, pp. 227–240. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Schwartz, Regina M. Remembering and Repeating: On Milton’s Theology and Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Schwartz, Regina M. The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Tillyard, E. M. W. Milton. London: Chatto and Windus, 1930.
  • Wolfe, Don M. Complete Prose Works of John Milton. 8 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953–1982.

Further Reading

  • Danielson, Dennis R. Milton’s Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Ferrell, Lori Anne. The Bible and the People. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Gallagher, Philip J. Milton, the Bible, and Misogyny. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.
  • Hamlin, Hannibal, and Norman W. Jones, eds. The King James Bible after 400 Years. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Kerrigan, William. Prophetic Milton. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1974.
  • Lemon, Rebecca, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, and Christopher Rowland, eds. The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
  • Lewalski, Barbara. Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.
  • Lieb, Michael. Poetics of the Holy: A Reading of  Paradise Lost. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
  • Lieb, Michael. Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 2006.
  • Lim, Walter S. H. John Milton, Radical Politics, and Biblical Republicanism. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2006.
  • Loewenstein, David, and John Marshall, eds. Heresy, Literature and Politics in Early Modern English Culture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Martz, Louis L. The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955.
  • Myers, Benjamin. Milton’s Theology of Freedom. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006.
  • Patrides, C. A. Milton and the Christian Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.
  • Radzinowicz, Mary Ann. Toward Samson Agonistes: The Growth of Milton’s Mind. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.
  • Rosenblatt, Jason P. Torah and Law in Paradise Lost. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
  • Sansone, David. “How Milton Reads: Scripture, the Classics, and That Two-Handed Engine.” Modern Philology 103 (2006): 332–357.
  • Shoulson, Jeffrey S. Milton and the Rabbis: Hebraism, Hellenism, and Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
  • Shuger, Debora K. Sacred Rhetoric: The Christian Grand Style in the English Renaissance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Sims, James H. The Bible in Milton’s Epics. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1962.
  • Steadman, John M. Milton’s Biblical and Classical Imagery. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1984.
  • Wittreich, Joseph Anthony. Interpreting Samson Agonistes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Regina M. Schwartz