Rejecting Divinity: The Heretical Christ of Milton’s Paradise Regained

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When parallels are drawn between the young radical intellectual who composed the anti-prelatic tract Of Reformation and the elder master poet of Paradise Regained, the path to a more complete grasp of John Milton’s poetic vision is approached. The link between his progression as a poet and his radical support for the toleration of scriptural interpretation then crystalizes, producing a more precise understanding of the intentions that lie behind Milton’s portrayals of heroism.

Milton undoubtedly attempts to reform scriptural conceptions of heroism throughout Paradise Regained through his radical displacement of Christ from the traditional Christian Trinity. Although much of the scholarship on Milton’s Paradise Regained and Christian Doctrine focuses on his heretical Arianism, there is still much to be explored in Milton’s corrections of what he believed to be prelatical corruptions of the New Testament. In Paradise Regained, Christ, like the poet, being closer to God, can justify the ways of God to readers through his wholly human responses to Satan’s wily temptations and wonderfully perverse discourse. Only through Christ’s externalization of independent, rational intuition through dialogue with an interlocutor can he achieve a level of humane heroism unprecedented in the New Testament. Christ’s bravery lies in his human obedience to, and the externalization of, his own intuition, as previously elucidated by the indispensable critic Marshall Grossman in his “Poetry and Belief in Paradise Regained, to which is added, Samson Agonistes.”

In addition to Satan’s overt temptations of Christ throughout Paradise Regained, the text implicitly reveals Satan’s implicit temptation for Christ to perceive himself as fully divine, which would not hold up in Milton’s theological system. In Milton’s narrative world, Christ’s renunciation of his own humanity and perception of himself as a divine part of the Holy Trinity would remove his altruistic human agency. To give into Satan’s subtle, sophisticated, scholastic temptation of the divine would, in Milton’s view, dismantle Christ’s ability to participate in rational discourse, nullifying his capacity for productive intellectual agency. The narrative of Paradise Regained absolutely hinges upon Christ’s refusal to perceive himself as divine, fulfilling Milton’s revisionist masterstroke: the creation of a distinctly iconoclastic Arian hero.

Milton’s Christology

To what extent was Milton’s Christology influenced and shaped by the beliefs of Arius, and is this question of any true significance for contemporary Milton scholars? Milton’s theological opposition to include Christ within the traditional Christian Trinity carries great weight; indeed, the scholarly debate over this particular Miltonic heresy has been a lively one extending as far back as Jonathan Richardson’s 1734 defense of Milton’s orthodoxy.
To best address these questions, one must recognize that Milton’s heterodox view of Christ is not merely an academic question. As Michael Lieb aptly notes in his Theological Milton, “those who held heterodox beliefs (especially Antitrinitarian beliefs) during Milton’s time faced the real possibility of imprisonment and death” (262). Rowan Williams, author of Archetypal Heresy: Arianism through the Centuries, also claims that Arianism was regarded as “the archetypal Christian deviation, something aimed at the very heart of the Christian confession… [Arianism was] irrevocably cast as the other in relation to Catholic (and civilized) religion” (73). In the ecclesiastical art of The Middle Ages, Arius is often depicted alongside the figure of Judas, implying his role as the consummate betrayer of Christ, and subsequently, of Christian belief.

Although Paradise Regained touts a markedly Arian subtext, Milton had every reason to mask the heretical undercurrent of his narrative. After all, even Sir Isaac Newton kept his own denial of Christ’s divinity to himself to avoid getting expelled from Trinity College, and this concealment took place a generation or more after Milton (Iliffe 43). Clearly, Milton faced more than enough danger already after the Restoration; to risk tipping his hand too clearly that he might be an Arian or Socinian would have placed Milton’s own freedom—and possibly even his own life—in grave peril. Then, throughout Paradise Regained Milton would have good reason to be subtle, ambiguous, and nuanced with his treatment of Christ in the poem, all the while working an Arian undercurrent into the poem’s narrative. Thus, aspects of Christology in Paradise Regained can be read as both heretical and safely orthodox. After all, traditional Biblical doctrine states that Jesus was wholly human and wholly divine (i.e., not a demigod).  Ultimately, a Trinitarian might possibly read Paradise Regained as about the wholly human Christ without feeling that Milton denies Christ’s wholly divine station. Trinitarian readers of Milton’s era who were aware of Milton’s inclusion of the Messiah in Paradise Lost might very well presume that the Messiah of Paradise Lost is equivalent to the Christ of Paradise Regained, as the war in heaven long precedes the incarnation in Christian chronology. Despite these ambiguous precautions taken by Milton, a heretical anti-Trinitarian subtext certainly thrives in Paradise Regained.

It must be noted that Arius himself never conceived a coherent or authoritative ideology. Arianism was fabricated by a polemical Nicene writer named Athanasius who developed the term to the purpose of countering heretical developments within the early church (74). Despite the fact that Arianism is not a monolithic phenomenon with a well-articulated doctrine developed by the historical figure of Arius, Milton’s view of Christ as a belief in line with this fabricated, and much maligned, concept of Arianis further develops the importance of Christ as a non-divine human figure in Paradise Regained.

Yet, how can Milton be viewed as an Arian when he praises the “Trinal Unity” in On The Morning of Christ’s Nativity, and concludes his anti-prelatic tract Of Reformation with a hymn of triumph praising that “one tri-personal Godhead” (832)? The only proper answer scholars might point to is that somewhere along the line Milton’s beliefs changed, as he would later contradict these early statements with several rejections of Trinitarian beliefs both in his late poetry and prose. The following passage from Paradise Lost illustrates a fascinating delineation between The Son and Godhead:

……………… when at the holy mount
Of Heav’n’s high-seated top, th’ imperial throne
Of Godhead, fixed forever firm and sure,
The Filial Power arrived and sat him down
With his great Father, for he also went
Invisible, yet stayed (such privilege
Hath omnipresence) and the work ordained,
Author and end of all things, and from work
Now resting (7.584-591).

Here Milton illustrates the vivid, lyric vision of Christ outside of, but privileged by, God’s omnipresence. Additionally, Milton showcases his turn to Antitrinitarianism during the second chapter of his prose masterpiece Christian Doctrine, where he emphasizes the ninth attribute of God as “one,” or a single unification.

To safeguard his position, Milton cites proof texts from the Old and New Testaments alike. Kerrigan, Rumrich, and Fallon note that “this authority of the scripture he buttresses with appeals to reason: the simplicity of the Bible, the mathematical concept of oneness, and the axiom that God cannot be involved in anything that implies a contradiction” (1150). During the fifth chapter of Christian Doctrine Milton elucidates this point further:

If he [Jesus] did derive his essence from the Father, let my opponents prove how that essence can be supremely divine or, in other words, one with and the same as the Father’s essence… For the divine essence, which is always one, cannot possibly generate or be generated by an essence the same as itself… For a supreme God is self-existent, but a God who is not self-existent, who did not beget but was begotten, is not a first cause but an effect and is therefore not a supreme God (1188).

J.N.D. Kelly states that the fundamental premise upon which Arian doctrines are based is “the affirmation of the absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God, the unoriginal source [agennetos arkhe] of all reality” (32). If this acknowledgement of one God who is eternal, pre-dating existence, alone without beginning or origin, alone possessing immortality, and alone the judge of all, is the fundamental aspect of Arianism which excludes the possibility of a divine Son, then it is undeniable that this doctrine can be reconciled with Milton’s theological view of Christ as the “one just man” existing outside of the Trinity.

Athanasius’s doctrine can be reconciled both with a God that is “one first matter all” and with Milton’s belief that the soul dies with the body (432). Even if Milton’s theological view of godhead is singular, differing from that of Arius (if Arius can even be called an “Arian” for that matter), this does not clearly create a dominant perception of Milton as having an unqualified affiliation to any one systematic theology over another. After all, as Lieb states, “Milton’s attempt to distinguish between Father and Son on the metaphysical grounds of essentia and substantia [in his Christian Doctrine]” is contrary to Arian doctrine which makes no distinction between the two. The purpose of the analysis of Paradise Regained that follows is to ascribe Arian theology to Christ in order to prove that his strictly human composition is absolutely integral to his heroic refusal of Satan’s temptations.

Whether or not Milton personally had a strict allegiance to Arianism throughout the theological system artistically rendered in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Milton’s God is unique and indivisible, and his divinity cannot be shared or communicated directly. The essence of God cannot be imparted to Christ within this system: this would imply that God is divisible, mutable, and knowable. Instead, Milton’s one God brings Christ into existence from nothing. Although Christ enjoys an exalted station, he is a finite creature, a human of a different order of existence than God; in fact, according to the Arian doctrine that holds up in Milton’s system, “The Father remains ineffable to Jesus, and the Word can neither see nor know the Father perfectly and accurately” (74). It is therefore justifiable to perceive Christ as being subject to the same sinfulness, mutability, and temptation as the rest of humanity in the postlapsarian realm of Paradise Regained. Whether or not the concepts of Arianism fit neatly into the foundations of Paradise Regained fails to eradicate the fact that Christ’s denial of Satan’s temptations throughout Paradise Regained hinges on Milton’s conception of Christ as fully human. If Christ were not susceptible to moral mutability or sinful temptation, he would hardly be perceived by Milton’s audience, or conceived by Milton himself, as the hero of this brief epic. Although much of the Christian tradition has sought to insist that Christ does not ultimately need to choose between his humanity and divinity, Milton’s Arian thought may have led him to think differently. Milton’s portrayal of Christ as human is a calculated move on his part to exalt the rational propensity of humankind.

Just as the Christ of Paradise Regained represents Milton’s human ideal, a man of faith, temperance, and adherence to scripture to whom God is “ineffable,” let us now consider the idea that Satan is Milton’s embodiment of the kind of scholastic sophistry that was in direct opposition to the toleration of opinions based on scripture which Milton believed in and championed. In his Milton’s Arianism: why it matters, John P. Rumrich succinctly notes that Milton’s characterization of Arian beliefs in Of True Religion (1673) is illustrative of his own eventual turn away from the Trinity:

The Arian and Socinian are charg’d to dispute against the Trinity: They affirm to believe the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, according to Scripture, and the Apostolic Creed; as for terms of Trinity…and the like, they reject them as Scholastic Notions, not to be found in scripture, which by a general Protestant Maxim is plain and perspicuous abundantly to explain its own meaning in the proper words, belonging to so high a Matter and so necessary to be known; a mystery indeed in their sophistic Subtilties, but in Scripture a plain Doctrine (VIII.424-25).

Rumrich aptly recognizes that both Milton and Locke “firmly and consistently rejected what they regarded as excessive, speculative reasoning embodied in customary church doctrines” (79). Just as Milton’s own thought progresses from anticlericalism and an Arminian toleration stance to the “serious consideration” and eventual “endorsement of antitrinitarian tenets” through his Christian Doctrine, Paradise Regained’s Satan embodies the very same scholastic intolerance of opinions based on scripture that led Milton to personally adopt antitrinitarian views.

The Arian Heroism of Paradise Regained

Throughout Milton’s miniature epic Paradise Regained Satan tempts Christ to accept the idea of a Trinity that does not originate from biblical scripture, coercing Christ to engage in “excessive, speculative reasoning” about the nature of his own power—speculative thought that Milton viewed as characteristic of the senselessness of scholastic sophistry. Satan may be perceived as an embodiment of Milton’s anticlericalism as voiced in Of Reformation and his other anti-prelatic prose works, an embodied figure that a rational human being such as Christ has the power to reject through his devoted adherence to the hermeneutic process. It is important to note here that in Paradise Regained Milton speaks of Christ and not of “The Son.” Milton purposefully omits “The Son” since neither Christ nor Satan fully recognizes that Christ is, in fact, The Son. Both Satan and Christ must discover through discourse that Christ is “The Son” and that Christ as “The Son” is not God. Nonetheless, Satan would prefer Christ to identify himself as equivalent to God, for Christ would then surrender the altruistic agency of his rational argument.

The Christ of Paradise Regained simplifies the nature of God by stressing a preference for scriptural evidence over arbitrary human authority and dialectical reasoning over Satan’s metaphysical complications. Resembling a scholastic thinker, Satan brings metaphysical complications into conversation in a manner not unlike the sophistries of Athanasius, implicitly tempting Christ to further question the nature of his own existence as opposed to adhering to his individual faith in God’s will. Instead of depending on interpretive prescriptions similar to those of the bishops and ecclesiastic authorities of Milton’s own time, Christ adheres to his individual interpretation of the Bible, refusing to question why he is led into the wilderness. To restate his own words, “I am let / Into this wilderness, to what intent / I learn not yet, perhaps I need not know; / For what concerns my knowledge God reveals” (1.290-93). An absolute self-reliance on intuition in terms of Biblical hermeneutics is essential to the power of Christ’s human authority over Satan.

In Paradise Regained, Christ cannot predict the future. Christ is not all-knowing, divine, or omniscient. Rather, here Milton’s Christ is a human being who refuses to falter in the face of the prelatic prescription. “Who brought me hither / Will bring me hence, no other guide I seek” (Milton PR 1.335-36), Jesus proclaims in response to a disguised Satan during their first encounter in the desert, rejecting the excess of prelatic guides for spiritual interpretation and guidance. “By miracle he may [bring you hence]” (1.337), Satan replies, a brief statement that carries much weight, emphasizing Satan’s anxiety, fear, and mistrust in the divine will of God, as well as his temptation for Christ to perceive himself as a divine force capable of performing miracles beyond his mortal capacity. This mention of miracle reflects the perversity of Satan’s inner desire for Christ to be truly divine, a part of the Trinity capable of miracles, perhaps so he cannot be truly ashamed if his temptations fail. For if Christ is truly a part of God, there is no possibility that he would ever give into Satan’s temptations. If Christ truly perceived himself as divine, then in Satan’s eyes his own failure to tempt Christ would quickly be forgiven by his hellish crew in Pandaemonium.

“But if thou be the Son of God, command / That out of these hard stones be made thee bread” (1.342-33), Satan urges, tempting Christ to display his presumed supernatural powers, urging him to transubstantiate rocks into food for his own sustenance. In the true scholastic form of Trinitarian-endorsing prelates, Satan questions “a mystery indeed…in Sophistic subtleties [which is] in Scripture a plain Doctrine” (1188), but Christ need not indulge in such supernatural ruminations, for humanity lives not only by bread, but by the word of God laid down in the scripture, which he intuits and interprets through human consciousness, adheres to, and finally brings to light through reasoned discourse. The power that Jesus displays here was received through individual, learned experience with the scripture: “The law of God I read, and found it sweet, / Made it my whole delight, and in it grew / To… perfection” Jesus declares in Book I (I.207-209). Only after he has profoundly contemplated the laws of God through his individual study and interpretation of the scripture can Christ bring what he has learned of faith into rational discourse.

After his rational interpretations of the scripture, Christ “held it more humane, more heav’nly, first / By winning words to conquer willing hearts, / And make persuasion do the work of fear” (I.221-22), which emphasizes that Christ has chosen to interpret the Bible in a “humane” way in accordance with his human capacity for willful interpretation and analysis. Christ then denies the presence of divinity within him, choosing a humane path of rational discourse over the shock and awe of theophany. The outright choice is made to perceive himself as a rational human being as opposed to a divine entity. Additionally, Christ’s knowledge of what is most “humane” was not divinely imparted to him but acquired through independent study of religious texts. What is best known was gained through his interpretation of scripture, but that alone is not enough: what is gained through individual interpretation of the text, as with all literature in Milton’s view, must then be exhibited and tested through dialogue with an interlocutor. Thus, it is as much Milton’s plan as it is God’s plan, “To exercise [Christ] in the wilderness” (I.156) in order for him to insert what he has learned into human discourse. In many ways, passages like these throughout Paradise Regained help Milton enact the process by which reason is reconciled with faith.

Satan’s recognition of the legitimacy of oracles in Paradise Regained suggests his preference for interpretive authorities outside of the biblical source material. For Milton, this provides another example of the popish episcopacy’s defilement of the Christian tradition. “Men generally think me much a foe / To all mankind: why should I?” Satan asks Jesus in Book I. Soon after this, Satan claims that with mankind he dwells “Copartner in these regions of the world, / If not disposer; 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” (I.392-96). Satan explicitly represents the episcopacy, misguiding the experience and initiative of individual thinkers and interpreters of texts religious or otherwise, perverting mankind’s initiative by manipulating, or claiming to manipulate, the very mechanisms of nature. Much like the false prescriptions of prelates, Satan steps into the deceptive role of intermediary between humanity and the divine forces of the cosmos, providing mankind with erroneous oracles, predictions, and ideas beyond those set down in the scripture.

Much like Athanasius and his perception of the Holy Trinity, Satan confounds individual thinkers, preys upon their fear of God, and asks them to buy into the excessive metaphysical questioning of nature that they need not ask, at least in Milton’s view. Indeed, Satan’s excessive questionings, sophisticated interpretations of events to come, and subsequent imposition of these predictions onto humanity, combined with his distrust in the unfolding of divine events, reflect the cowardice of the episcopacy in Paradise Regained. Under the episcopal government, according to Milton:

the obscene and surfeited priest scruples not to paw and mammock the sacramental bread as familiarly as his tavern biscuit…[the episcopacy is] a swollen tumor…a bottle of vicious and hardened excrements…a heap of hard and loathsome uncleanness, [which is] to the head a foul disfigurement and burden (822).

Whereas Jesus is indicative of the former modesty and republican spirit of the early bishops and fathers who pointed to scripture as the ultimate Christian authority, Satan embodies what Milton viewed as the vile corruption of false authority stemming from church representatives who penned episcopal texts that were for Milton “at times contradictory and at times corrupt” (Kerrigan, Rumrich, Fallon 806). As Barbara Lewalski illustrates in The Life of John Milton regarding Milton’s early anti-prelatical tracts:

His basic argument is the fundamental Protestant principle that scripture alone must determine all matters of religion, including liturgical practice and church government or “discipline.”… [Milton] instead appeals continually and often explicitly to the “spirit” of the gospel. By the standard of the wholly spiritual, humble, and egalitarian ministry instituted by Christ he finds the episcopal institution an abomination, meriting his almost visceral disgust. But his concept of a ministry without coercive power or tithes or any function not open to the laity, and his emphasis on all God’s people as prophets distance him from Presbyterianism, with its clerical authority, tithes, and repression of dissent. Milton is moving, even at this stage, toward Independency…Milton sees and presents himself in these tracts as a learned scholar, but one whose essential characteristic is an intellectual independence neither constrained nor needing support from human authorities (122).

By the publication of Paradise Regained in 1671, roughly thirty years after his early tracts against the bishops, Milton had finally moved completely toward “Independency” in terms of his religious convictions, yet the principles upheld and argued through the dialogue between Christ and Satan in Regained illustrates what Lewalski illuminates in the passage above regarding Milton’s early attitudes. Christ embodies humble, egalitarian tolerance of faith, while Satan embodies the “coercive power” of the episcopacy, yet I must press further here: there are many aspects of the young John Milton in the Christ of Paradise Regained, as Christ asserts an “intellectual independence neither constrained nor needing support from human authorities” (122).

As Satan embodies the corrupt authorities of the episcopacy, Milton himself seems to be embodied by the Christ of Paradise Regained, the learned scholar of scripture who asserts his independent interpretation of texts over the false prescriptions of episcopal authorities. Christ, much like the early Milton who championed tolerance for interpretation of scripture, seeks “no other guide” for his experience with the Bible (I.336).

As “other guides,” the oracles in Book I of Paradise Regained are symbolic of the false claims made by prelatic and scholastic texts which Milton abhorred, equating the falsehood of Satanic persuasion to the pomp and excess of the episcopacy. These prelatic oracles are trumped by Christ, the individual human interpreter of the Bible, who claims that “No more shalt thou by oracling abuse / The Gentiles; henceforth oracles are ceased / God hath now sent his living oracle / Into the world, to teach his final will, / And sends his Spirit of Truth henceforth to dwell / In pious hearts, an inward oracle / To all truth requisite for men to know” (I.455-464). It is important to note that the “Spirit” of Truth that Christ mentions here in Book I of Paradise Regained is tantamount to and coeval with, the “spirit” of the gospel which Milton “appeals continually and often explicitly to” (122) in his anti-prelatic tracts. This “spirit” is pure, individualistic, and egalitarian, exactly the opposite of the traits Milton applies to the prelates who cram prescribed interpretations down the throats of worshippers like Satan presents false oracles to mankind.

Christ’s trumping of Satan’s oracles reveals that the “spirit” of individual interpretation and intuition regarding scriptural meaning dwells “in pious hearts, an inward oracle / To all truth requisite for men to know” (I.463-64); thus, Milton asserts his belief that each human being harbors his or her own “inward oracle,” and therefore, possesses his or her own capability to independently read and interpret scripture in a manner untainted by prelatic authority in order to attain true enlightenment. This reading attaches a new layer of meaning to the opening passage of Paradise Regained where we find that “Recovered Paradise to all mankind” is given “By one man’s firm obedience” (I.3-4). In this light, all of us can implement our own “inward oracles,” putting our subjective truths into trade toward the purpose of recovering hints of the prelapsarian past. Obedience in Paradise Regained becomes defined by strict adherence to one’s “inward oracle.” In the face of such willful individualism and rationalism, Satan, like an episcopal, shirks away, “amazed” and “dissembled” (648).

At this point we must shift focus to Book II of Paradise Regained where we find Satan in Hell expressing his curious concerns regarding the true nature of Christ. Confounded with an excess of metaphysical questions as to the nature of Christ’s being, Satan ignorantly assumes that in order for Christ to possess “amplitude of mind to greatest deeds” he must be “with more than human gifts from Heav’n adorned” and inherently contain “perfections absolute” and “graces divine” (II.137-38). Conversely, Christ is faced with the human trait of hunger. He even dreams “as appetite is wont to dream, / Of meats and drinks, nature’s refreshment sweet” (II.264-65). At this point, Satan asks for a divine explanation that goes beyond the limits of scripture. “How hast thou hunger then?” (II.319) illustrates Satan seeking a supernatural cause for the mental fortitude of humanity.

Subsequently, Satan offers up handsome youths, wine, Naiades, and “spirits of air, and woods, and springs, / Thy gentle ministers, who come to pay / Thee homage, and acknowledge thee their Lord” (II.374-76), yet Christ does not acknowledge the “homage” of those who acknowledge him as their “Lord.” Rather, Christ refuses to respond to this temptation to accept divine worship, giving all the glory to God, the “one first matter all” who is the true essentia of all things divine. Christ responds as a humble human being submissive to God’s path of necessity: “Thy pompous delicacies I contemn, / And count they specious gifts no gifts but guiles” (II.390-91). The gift of divine worship is identified by Christ as merely a beguiling effort on Satan’s part, just as the scholastics and prelates tempted worshippers of God with what Milton perceived as the pompous excess of Trinitarian belief.

The final temptation of Book II arrives as soon as the table of pomp vanishes: earthly glory. “What hope dost thou aspire to greatness?” (II.417-18) Satan asks, reminding Christ that as a poor son of a carpenter, “unknown, unfriended, [and] low of birth” (II.413), he lacks Earthly fame. If Christ were to perceive himself as divine or seek worshippers and attain wealth in pursuit of glory and false friendships, he would remove his capacity for intellectual agency in Milton’s view, erasing his ability to defend his beliefs manifested through discursive argument. If this were the case, Satan would win, dissembling faith from reason, oppressing individual interpretation just as Milton believed prelates would threaten free thought by prescribing excessive doctrines beyond those apparent in scripture. As opposed to accepting himself as a part of the divine Trinity, Christ rejects “the crown, / Golden in show…but a wreath of thorns / [that] Brings dangers, troubles, cares, and sleepless nights / To him that wears the regal diadem” (II.458-61), preferring instead the wisdom and virtue possessed by human beings who adhere to their uniquely subjective interpretations of scripture.

As Book III begins, Satan is unready to give up on his temptation of supernatural power and divine glory. He continues this strain of temptation:

……………….. Or wert thou sought to deeds
That might require th’ array of war, thy skill
Of conduct would be such, that all the world
Could not sustain thy prowess, or subsist
In battle, though against thy few arms.
These godlike virtues wherefore dost thou hide?
Affecting private life, or more obscure
In savage wilderness, wherefore deprive
All earth her wonder at thy acts, thyself
The fame and glory, glory the reward (III.16-25).

Satan tempts Christ to showcase his supernatural power and to use this power to subjugate a human race that would honor and worship him as God. Despite this temptation, “what delight to be by such extolled, / To live upon their tongues and be their talk, / Of whom to be dispraised were no small praise?” (III.54-56) By refusing worship, Christ places himself outside the Trinity through dialogue with an interlocutor, displaying his human obedience to, and the externalization of, his intuition. This, as evidenced by Marshall Grossman, is the true “heroism” of Paradise Regained, and this brand of heroism is within the confines of Arian thought: to make Jesus perceive himself as divine would be a form of pompous idolatry, making Milton just as vulgar as the scholastics he so vehemently opposes.
Refusing war and conquest, Christ discovers his true identity: a wise, true, temperate human being who aspires to a kind of glory that “may by means far different be attained / Without ambition, war, or violence; / By deeds of peace, by wisdom eminent, / By patience, [and] temperance” (III.89-92). This display of Christ’s denial of violent, glorious ambition reflects his refusal of prelatic ideas and his adherence to the Word. Here, the perverse desire to seek fame through amending and supplementing metaphysical theories to scripture is analogous to using divinity as a means to achieve earthly glory.

Although Satan’s corrupt poetic ornamentation of geographical and historical panoramas in Book III reflects the temptation of earthly experience and glory, what most supports Milton’s portrayal of a fully human Christ in this Book is Satan’s temptation of Christ to conquer humanity, to bring humankind to servitude under the oppression of divine force, and to supremely reign over the human world. However, Christ does not recognize himself as possessing power beyond human capability and seeks no oracular prediction of events; nor does he seek any explanation of or addendum to God’s promise of his eventual reign. Christ responds, “Means I must use thou say’st, predication else / Will unpredict and fail me of the throne: / My time I told thee (and that time for thee / Were better farthest off) is not yet come” (III.394-97), exhibiting firm patience and adherence to scripture above the ambiguous predictions of prelates.

After refusing to acknowledge the possibility of employing divine power to the ends of forcefully conquering and reigning over humanity, Christ condemns the idolatrous tribes that Satan suggested he dominate. “No, let them serve / Their enemies, who serve idols with God” (III.431-32) Christ states. This statement is ironic, for in addition to condemning idolatrous acts Christ refuses to make himself an idol by rejecting the theoretical possibility of a divine conquest. Milton has figured his own stance into his version of Christ through his refusal to allow mankind to idolatrously worship a human as an object of divinity. As Milton states in his prose work Christian Doctrine, to worship Christ “who did not beget but was begotten, is not a first cause but an effect, and is therefore not a supreme God” (1188), would certainly be considered an act of idolatry.

When Satan tempts Christ to worship him as a potential recompense for the prize of Athens, he essentially reiterates his last temptation for Christ to make an idol out of himself, duplicitously masking the scholastic appeal of idolatry with a slightly different form, yet in essence it is same temptation. For Christ to view himself as divine equates the same heresy as worshipping Satan. Here, Milton expresses his own heterodoxy as an absolute truth, flipping orthodoxy on its head through dramatic irony. Milton transmutes scholastic orthodoxy into heresy while uplifting the truth of his convictions within the subtleties of his epic narrative.

In a definitive moment from Book IV reflective of Milton’s eventual denial the Trinity, Christ rejects Satan in the following passage:

………. Wert thou so void of fear or shame,
As offer them to me the Son of God,
To me my own, on such abhorred pact,
That I fall down and worship thee as God?
Get thee behind me; plain thou now appear’st
That evil one, Satan forever damned (IV.189-94).

Here Christ identifies Satan by name only after he has attempted to make an idolatrous worshipper out of him. Although Christ has refused this temptation through reasoned discourse, Satan attempts to turn his language against him by tempting him with the prospect of Athens, where he can perhaps opportunely refute “their idolisms, traditions, and paradoxes” through reasoned discourse (IV.234). Christ ultimately rejects the temptation of Athens, implying that intense philosophical discourse has attempted to over-intellectualize the “plain Doctrine” of scripture much like Athanasius and the scholastic prelates (VIII.424-25). “For all his tedious talk is but vain boast, / Or subtle shifts conviction to evade. / Alas what can they teach, and not mislead; / Ignorant of themselves, of God much more, / …Much of the soul they talk, but all awry, / And in themselves seek virtue, and to themselves / All glory arrogate, to God give none” (IV.306-15). This passage reflects the overly intellectual theorizing of the scholastic prelates of Milton’s own time as much as it does the philosophy of Stoicism.

For Milton, the prelates, like the Stoics, give glory to themselves in selfish, satanic ways, refusing glory to God. They appropriate sophisticated terms in line with the “Fortune and Fate” of the Stoics, replacing antiquated jargon with new terminology of the Trinity. Milton’s major problem with Zeno of Citium is equivalent to his problem with Athanasius: “Who reads / Incessantly, and to his reading brings not / A spirit of judgment equal or superior …Uncertain and unsettled still remains, / Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself” (IV.322-26). Shallow prescription of how to interpret scripture without the substance of manifestly true or applicative action inevitably leads to corrosive scholastic sophistry and passive subjugation. Accordingly, Milton preferred an active and individualistic study of scripture and advocated for the tolerance of biblical interpretation. To Milton’s mind, it was essential for learned people to take it upon themselves to formulate subjective ideas through discourse with interlocutors, and to put those ideas into trade to properly test whether or not these ideas can endure in the face of rational opposition. Hence, Milton presents the dialogue of Christ and Satan as the crux of Paradise Regained: the battlefield of discourse is the true testing ground for ideas.

Despite alluding to The Son’s Arian mortality through his acknowledgement of Christ as “firm/ to the utmost of mere man both wise and good, / Not more” (IV.534-37, emphasis added), still perplexed as to the true nature of Christ as a mortal being, Satan places him atop the highest pinnacle of the Temple of Jerusalem and commands him: “show thy progeny” (IV.554). Satan’s act reveals both his doubt that a mere mortal can stand on the pinnacle and his presumption that a miracle is required and God must provide one. Christ, who represents Milton in opposition to Satan, Milton’s prelatic embodiment, cites the Bible, “Tempt not the Lord thy God,” and Satan falls, mirroring his initial defeat and plummet through Heaven, yet another divine location, in Paradise Lost. Standing adamantly in the face of temptation, The Son becomes the metaphoric rock that dashes Satan, fulfilling the Protevangelium. Milton intends his readers to assume that Satan recognizes Christ as The Son of God and a mortal man, and he is thus utterly confounded. While Christ gives all the glory to God, Satan has failed in his temptation of Christ to recognize himself as part of the Trinity. Instantly, both Satan and Christ are granted a “full awareness of his [Christ’s] divine Sonship” (522).

While Satan’s potential victory inevitably demanded idolatry, Christ stands on the conviction of his own independent belief, and Milton posits Christ as a model for the rest of mankind. This ending provides comfort for those who lost the revolution in England with the reassurance that the fight will continue underground as “unobserved” as the Christ returning to his mother’s house in the final lines of Paradise Regained. If the people persist in consulting their “inner oracles” for truth, continue to resist idolatry and the regalia of prescribed thought, and persevere in putting forth their ideas through reasoned discourse, then they can stand as firm as Christ on any pinnacle in the face of the temptation of homogenized thought.


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