By means of what textual strategies does Milton seek to 'justify the ways of God to man' in Paradise Lost

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By means of what textual strategies does Milton seek to ‘justify the ways of God to man’ in Paradise Lost?

In this essay I will set out to show how Milton sets out to ‘justify the ways of God to men’ and the ways in which Milton strives to do this. I will firstly explain the political background in which Milton found himself writing in. I will closely analyse the opening Invocation of Book I, explaining how this sets out the rest of the poem, and vice versa. I will also look closely at the character of God, and what Milton means by ‘God’ and ‘justify, before offering a conclusion to summarise any points.

Milton’s great objective in writing Paradise Lost was to conduct a ‘great argument’ in order to ‘assert eternal providence, /And justify the ways of God to men’ (1. 24-26) . What the poet is claiming as his task is to demonstrate the ultimate justice of God, and thus to prove the existence of divine providence – that is, to prove the world is not ruled by blind chance, but that events have meaning or purpose. The poem is not a religious one in that it does not inspire religious devotion; it just has religious concerns. Therefore Milton’s intention to ‘assert’ and ‘justify’ seem almost out of place here, more fitting in a legal or political pamphlet. Paradise lost, in asserting ‘Eternal Providence’, attempts to uncover the hidden pattern of history in the context of a universe under God’s control.

So why did Milton feel a poem of this type was necessary?  Upon returning from a fifteen-month long tour of the continent, spent mainly in Italy, Milton set about defending the liberties of the English people, ‘God’s chosen race’, as he put it, from the tyranny of Charles I. Between 1641 and 1651 the poet published a number of political pamphlets arguing in favour of parliament and against a hierarchical Church government. Shortly after the establishment of Commonwealth in 1649 Milton was appointed Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State, publishing another two pamphlets in defence of the Commonwealth over the next five years. The poet began work on Paradise Lost in about 1658, despite being totally blind by 1652, and continued work on it until its final published form in 1663, three years after the restoration of the monarchy.

Why had God apparently abandoned his ‘chosen people’ during these turbulent years of revolution? Both the church and the monarchy were now re-established, and Milton was blind and in public disgrace. Who was to blame for the downfall of commonwealth ideals? Had Milton proved inadequate, and been struck blind as a punishment? Had the English people failed their God? Or had God failed his people? Milton set out with one aim, in an effort of epic composition, to ‘assert Eternal Providence, /And justify the ways of God to men’. For his subject he chose the greatest story of all time: the fall of man from paradise.

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For Milton, a devoutly religious man, the stories of the Fall of Satan and the angels, the War in Heaven, and the Fall of Adam and Eve were at the same time historical events as well as symbolic ones. As symbolic events they foretold man’s tendency for establishing ideals and failing to reach to them. Milton may have seen the failure of the English Revolution as a re-enactment of this particular historical pattern. From this perspective a narrative about supernatural and prehistoric events, as in Paradise Lost, can be seen to have relevance to events in history. In the ...

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