Alex's Reviews > Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost by John Milton
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Jan 02, 15

bookshelves: 2010, best-villains, reading-through-history, top-100, rth-lifetime
Read from November 23 to December 07, 2010

There's all this debate over why Satan is so appealing in Paradise Lost. Did Milton screw up? Is he being cynical, or a double-secret atheist? And why is God such a dick?

But no one asks whether, say, Shakespeare screwed up in making Iago so much fun; they just give him credit for writing an awesome villain. And that's all Milton's doing. Satan is tempting for us because Satan is tempting for us. That's the point of Satan! If Milton didn't make him as appealing as possible, he'd be doing Satan a disservice. And Eve, for that matter.

Similarly, God's a dick because God's a dick. You've read the Old Testament. He's not exactly all flowers and hugs there either. Again, Milton's just being true to his characters, and writing a great story while he's at it.

There’s slightly more to it than that, yeah. For example: it's hinted a little that God sets Satan up to fall. He gives a stern warning that anyone who disobeys him or his son will be cast out of Heaven. But since there's no sin or evil at the time of his speech, why give the warning? Isn't that like saying "Don't touch these cookies while I'm gone" to a kid who didn't realize there were cookies until you pointed them out?

Here’s my advice to people considering reading Paradise Lost: read the first two books. It starts with a bang, and it’s pretty amazing for a while. It slows down a bit in books III - VII, so if you’re not totally sold in the first two books (I was), you can either quit altogether with a fair idea of what Milton sounds like, or skip to books IX and X. IX is the actual temptation and fall (especially fun if you’re a misogynist), and X is an astonishing sequence where Adam and Eve contemplate suicide:

"Why am I mocked with death, and lengthened out
To deathless pain? How gladly would I meet
Mortality my sentence...
his dreadful voice no more
Would thunder in my ears." (Adam, X.774 - 780)

“We’ve totally mucked this up, and our kids are gonna justifiably hate us because we got kicked out of Paradise, and maybe we should just quit while we’re behind.”

But really, the whole thing is worth it. Took me a while – it’s intense stuff, so I found that I had to read a book and then chew on it for a while to process it before moving to the next one – but it’s cool.

In book VIII, if you’re cosmologically minded, Milton lays out the whole universe. Like Giordano Bruno, he understands that our earth is a tiny speck in the universe, and he gets that all the stars are suns like ours, and therefore could have planets like ours around them. He also thinks they might be inhabited; our species might not be God's only experiment. Elsewhere, other Adams and Eves may have faced the same test of the Tree of Knowledge - and they might have passed it. Isn't that an amazing thought?

In books XI and XII, Michael tells Adam sortof all the rest of the stories in the Old Testament, which of course boil down to:

“So shall the world go on,
To good malignant, to bad men benign,
Under her own weight groaning.” (XII 537 – 539)

That’s your fault there, Adam. Nice work.

He rushes through them though, and it makes me wonder whether Milton had originally intended to retell the entire Old Testament but got bored or intimidated or something. That would’ve been remarkable. Certainly Paradise Lost is better literature than the Old Testament is, and significantly more coherent.

It's also better literature than almost everything else. Second-best poem by a blind guy ever.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 54) (54 new)

message 1: by Aimeeeastwood (new)

Aimeeeastwood I was about to make a snarky comment about your nerdiness. but yes, that actually is really cool.

message 2: by El (new)

El Alright. You've convinced me to try reading this one again sometime soon.

Alex Dastardly plan: successful.

message 4: by El (new)

El How much experience do I need with the Bible to really dig Paradise Lost? I know you were/are reading that too.

Alex None, I think. Genesis is the most germane bit, since that's pretty much the story Milton's retelling; it helped me insasmuch as I knew Milton was being more or less true to the gist of it - like, I was able to make the point above that God is a dick in the OT as well as Milton - but now I've told you that, so you don't need to read it yourself unless you feel like it.

message 6: by El (new)

El Okay, I've actually read Genesis so I'm good. I started PL once before but life got in the way. Milton + crazy life = Mega-dick.

Alex And I think that relatively slow part in the middle has potential to throw people off.

message 8: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Old-school cosmology is nifty.

message 9: by Stacie (new)

Stacie You have convinced me to read the whole book - I only had to read certain books for my orals, so can't really count that as reading it...or can I?

message 10: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex It is, Cindy. Interesting seeing the many connections between Giordano Bruno's theories about the universe and Milton's; they more or less agree except Milton takes it a step further with this crazy Adam & Eve stuff.

Stacie, you get to count whatever you want, 'cause it's a book, not a thing to check off a list. I get irritated when I hear people bragging about, say, reading all of Chaucer. I did too, but I only remember like three of 'em, so how am I any cooler than someone who just read those three and didn't waste the rest of their time? You should read exactly as much of Milton as you're entertained by.

message 11: by Stacie (new)

Stacie Well, I may just give it a go at some point. I liked what I read before...I think it was books IX and X, and always said I was going to read the rest, but it just got buried under all the new, shinier books. But, your review really has convinced me to read it.

I like your theory about it being a book, but I like checking things off lists too! :)

message 12: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Well, yeah. Me too. But I respect myself less for it!

message 13: by Marieke (new)

Marieke Alex, i totally see how you would be the best thing that ever happened to High School English and why you want to be a teacher. you'd be great. except i don't think you would get to call God a dick in class. that would be the downside to teaching.

message 14: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Yeah, and you can't go home in the middle of the afternoon to smoke dope.

My brother once made fun of Senators (the government type, not the sports type) in a physics class he was teaching. Turns out one of his students was the daughter of a senator. He got into big trouble.

message 15: by Marieke (new)

Marieke What a crybaby! Alex, do you want to deal with crybabies and not make fun of senators?

message 16: by Marieke (new)

Marieke Cindy, is everyone in your family in the really hard sciences field??

message 17: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Ha! Nope, me and my brother are. Dad is in Econ. One cousin works for NASA in a non-technical job. Rest of the family - cousins, aunts, etc are 'other.' Yes, I'm putting engineering in 'other.' Because I'm mean.

(BTW, the Senators are some sort of sweaty sports team right??)

message 18: by Marieke (new)

Marieke The ottawa senators are currently a sweaty hockey team but once upon a time DC had a baseball team by that name.

message 19: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Aw, that's nice of you to say, Marieke. Thanks.

I do think there's a legitimate question about whether I could refrain from doing something like calling God a dick in class. My self-editing skills are sub par.

message 20: by Marieke (new)

Marieke we can attach a 7-second delay device to your mouth...

message 21: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex To be safe, we might have to make it a two-day delay. It sometimes takes me a while to figure out why everyone's staring at me in shock.

message 22: by Marieke (new)

Marieke Haha or you just get parents to sign forms acknowledging that you might say things that seem inappropriate but will get their kids really excited to read and learn.

Or you can do online lectures that you can edit.

message 23: by Fil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Fil Love that you referenced Bruno to your review. He was a genius!

message 24: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Yeah, Bruno is my homeboy.

Daniela I loved your review. You just summarized the whole book in a bitchy way but all true

Sally you underestimate Gods goodness completely. For lack of knowledge of the scriptures.

Daniela Hey Sally, remember it's a mock of the government in the time Milton was alive- kings, queens, princes. You could never see the king, and that's what Milton tried to express, but the church was bothering and he made the whole biblical story.

message 28: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex I didn't even know that, Daniela! Interesting. You're saying it wasn't actually about God? Or at least, not entirely?

Sally Well that's definitely a theory. I don't buy it. As if he wasn't deeply religious.
Also way oversimplified, like the comment above about God and Milton being cruel in the Old Testament.

Daniela John Milton lived after the Renascence, so there was a whole impact on theories of how the best government should be, like "the Prince" by Niccolo Machiavelli. But the Church was very powerful then, and anyone who was against it was killed- or worse- tortured. That's why Nicholas Copernicus published his theory after his death. So Milton wanted to protest about the government, the Church and the ethics that were in his time. He was rich enough to get education and close enough to the king to know all the things the crown did. To not get caught and tortured, he wrote "the Paradise Lost" to express his ideas. Why do you think God does nothing to prevent the human's disgrace? He is only "tall and wonderful", but always sends his Son to do the dirty work. That's what the kings did in his time. Send someone else to get the hands dirty. And if you read the Bible, Jesus wasn't even there in the first place!

Sally Impressive knowledge of that time period.

I'm not sure what you mean by "human's disgrace".

"He is only "tall and wonderful", but always sends his Son to do the dirty work. That's what the kings did in his time. Send someone else to get the hands dirty. And if you read the Bible, Jesus wasn't even there in the first place! " I can't understand what your talking about. It sounds like English is your second language. Can you try to be clearer?

Daniela Sorry, I meant: human's misfortune

Sally Oh..OK..well that is alot of theology. I would say I'm glad Jesus took a little of his own medicine. What do you mean that Jesus wasn't in the Bible?
Quiero saber su opinion. De verdad me interesa.

Daniela If you read the Genesis, Jesus is not even mentioned.

message 35: by Alex (last edited May 30, 2014 06:34AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex "Bible" is a pretty loose term, but it often refers to both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus is not a character in the Old Testament, which was written around the 5th century BC. I've read it, and I'm referring to it when I say that God is a dick; his relationship to humans throughout the OT seems troubled to me. They never do what he wants them to, he does a lot of punishing, and by the last half of the work he's basically retired, disgusted with the whole experiment. A great nonfiction book about it is the Pulitzer-winning God: A Biography

The New Testament, which I've only read parts of, presents a somewhat friendlier God; and of course this is where Jesus shows up. It was written somewhere in the first couple centuries BCE. A decent book about it is Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

I found this quote on Wikipedia:
Paradise Lost is, among other things, a poem about civil war. Satan raises 'impious war in Heav'n' (i 43) by leading a third of the angels in revolt against God. The term 'impious war'. . .implies that civil war is impious. But Milton applauded the English people for having the courage to depose and execute King Charles I. In his poem, however, he takes the side of 'Heav'n's awful Monarch' (iv 960). Critics have long wrestled with the question of why an antimonarchist and defender of regicide should have chosen a subject that obliged him to defend monarchical authority
I found plenty of mentions of your idea, Daniela, that Milton was talking about current politics in Paradise Lost; I think I'm going to stick with my idea that it's first and foremost about God. Sally is right, of course, that Milton was super religious.

message 36: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Really, you've read God: A Biography? What'd you think of it?

You're right, of course, to guess that I'm an atheist.

message 37: by Marieke (new)

Marieke Jesus is not really in the Bible at all. Just second and third hand reports of him in the New Testament, collected and written down long after his death. Right?

message 38: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex I think that's true, yeah - that none of the Gospels were written by dudes who actually hung out (or purported to hang out) with Jesus. Not TOO long after his death - maybe starting with the next generation? Sally? You're the NT expert here.

Huh, Sally seems to have deleted her last post.

message 39: by Sally (last edited May 30, 2014 01:03PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sally Yes, deleted my post. I wanted to think a little more about this since it's a common attitude towards God and the Old Testament. Somethings I'm thinking about:
1. Why does calling God a Dick bother me?
-Because calling anyone a dick is something I only hear from 5th graders?
-Because it brings God to our level in the same way that those old "Got Jesus?" bumperstickers did?

2. It's really hard to discuss the Bible to people who don't know it well.
-I don't think you've read the Old Testament, nor even a handfull of the 2000 yrs of thoughts on it. "God's a dick because God's a dick. You've read the Old Testament. He's not exactly all flowers and hugs there either." He's not all flowers and hugs (who said he is?) but He's also not simple a cruel punishing tyrant. He's also shown as full of love and "creativity"

"Jesus is not really in the Bible at all. Just second and third hand reports of him in the New Testament, collected and written down long after his death. Right?" Total ignorance of the Bible. Yes, he's there: The Gospels. No, he didnt write an autobiography. Picasso is in his Biographies, even though he died way before they were written (I feel like Im responding to Vacation Bible school Kids). Of course they were written almost a hundred years after he died. It doesn't take an expert to know this basic Theology. And of course after a hundred years we're getting biased and fuzzy reports about him.

3. The Miles book
very well written for sure. But my problems with the book are my problems with your points. Almost exactly. As if your Ideas of God are based on that book more than on the Bible itself. I just keep thinking how right you both are at times but how much you leave out. I actually believe what many of my fellow annoying Catholics and Christians say "Your ideas are so narrow. How much they leave out"...Your take on the bible just seems horrible narrow.

Overall, I cant help thinking (and I'm sorry to sound harsh):

1. You don't know Theology or the Bible.
2. Your missing so much of the Bible.

If you care, here's what I get from the old Testament God: A total mystery. He makes no human sense. I cant pin him down. why did he do the crazy stuff he did?

If I was forced to treat my God as a literary character, I would say he's the most complicated character I've ever read about. The last thing he is is simple to describe. He is precisely NOT that.

I wrote this in a rush, I gotta get outside. Yeah, I know how crappy this writing is...

message 40: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex This is gonna sound weird, but it's starting to seem almost like a Catholic person and an atheist interpret the Bible differently!

Sally Not so simple. Forget I'm Catholic. Imagine I'm an Atheist. I wouldn't change a word of what I wrote. It seems to me you have no reply. You have one liners. That's all. No real knowledge of this subject. So forget my religion and try to deal with my points.

message 42: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex It's also starting to seem like you and I have different opinions about the value of arguing on the internet!

Sally Arguing? I want your opinion. You've given it to others. Others that like what you say. I'm not gonna get all nasty with you about it (I'm also not gonna pretend to agree with you so we're all happy-friends) but if you don't want to answer hard feelings.

message 44: by Marieke (new)

Marieke Here's a tip: don't say that a person doesn't know anything about something and then expect them to offer you answers. It's pretty clear you aren't actually interested in having any kind of debate. Making assumptions about a potential debate partner's lack of knowledge based on a review and a couple of comments is not the way to have a discussion. Doing that is an indication it's a waste it time to "debate" with you.

message 45: by Marieke (new)

Marieke Or rather, exchange opinions.

message 46: by El (new)

El Sally wrote: "Arguing? I want your opinion."

Isn't the review itself an opinion? Why does he (or anyone) need to elaborate or prove themselves for you?

Sally Alex, To end our (non)discussion, This much is clear:

Not once in our discussion did you address what I was talking about. You had no problem discussing other historical issues. You were then unable to answer some very simple things we disagree on. You just kept ignoring what I disagree with. You don't want discussions unless it's from people who will cheer you on and are in full agreement with you.

It seems the only "Dick" we should be talking you. Or do we only use that word when were talking about God?

message 48: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Ha! That's awesome. Don't say another word, Sally, that was perfect. I probably would have ended on " you", but that's just nitpicking.

message 49: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Nope! I'm deleting anything else you say. I'm not going to let you ruin your own perfect burn, Sally.

Daniela I just love goodreads

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