John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic poem in 12 books (10 in the first edition, 1667), running to over 10,000 words lines, about original sin, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise for disobedience to God’s command. It contains many surprises. Its author had, in Eikonoklastes, defended the execution of the former king, Charles I. In The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, he had advanced a remarkably liberal theory about the conditions in which a people can depose and replace their monarch, and choose the mode of government. His views on many questions of religion were highly idiosyncratic and in some cases heretical. In spite of these facts, more than 3½ centuries later, the poem is still seen as one of the towering works of English literature.

Two of the principle heresies held by Milton, and evidenced (though not glaringly) in the poem are Arianism and mortalism. Arianism is the belief that Jesus, the Son of God, was not “of one being” or “one substance” with his Father, and was not coeternal with him, but had a beginning in time. See Michael Bauman, Milton’s Arianism (1987) for … well, there’s a clue in the title.

Mortalism, as I’ve discussed before in connection with Andrew Marvell’s “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body”, is the belief that the individual’s soul and body are not separate or separable, but live and die together and are resurrected together on the Day of Judgment. Between the death of the individual and that last day, the soul has no more life or existence than the body has.

In the note on Marvell’s “Dialogue”, I wrote that mortalism, though branded heretical by such otherwise unharmonious authorities as Jean Calvin, Pope Leo X and the English Parliament of 1648, was “really no more than mildly heterodox in its implications”. What I meant was that it didn’t require its adherents to believe anything fundamantally at odds with the normal tenets of Christianity. In particular, it does not preclude belief in the Resurrection of the body. Perhaps it would have been more accurate if I’d said that the belief is “no more than mildly heterodox in its religious implications”. Its implications for Milton’s philosophy, his world-view, are quite startling. Milton was a mortalist, I now believe, because he was, in philosophical terms, a materialist. His mortalism is part of the evidence for his materialist conception of reality.

We know of Milton’s mortalism only because of De Doctrina Christiana a systematic working-out of his religious beliefs that was discovered and published only in the 19th century. De Doctrina was evidently compiled over a period of years, so we can’t say for sure when he arrived at the mortalist position, but at least it is clear that Paradise Lost is a late work, the second edition coming out in the year of his death, 1674. There is, as far as I can see, no direct evidence of mortalism in the epic, but the Father’s description in Book III of what will happen on the Day of Judgment is consistent with that belief. He tells the Son:

empty-spaceforthwith from all winds
The living, and forthwith the cited dead
Of all past ages to the general doom
Shall hasten, such a peal shall rouse their sleep.
Then all they saints assembled, thou shalt judge
Bad men and angels, they arraigned shall sink
Beneath thy sentence; Hell, her numbers full,
Thenceforth shall be forever shut. Meanwhile
The world shall burn and from her ashes spring
New heav’n and earth, wherein the just shall dwell … (III.327–35)

The first thing to note about this is that there’s no mention of souls being reunited with long-buried bodies: it simply says that “the cited dead” will “hasten” to the place of judgment, arguably without needing to be put back together first. The other point is that, if we take it that the sinful souls were already in Hell and the blameless ones in Heaven, though without their bodies, before the Son has pronounced Judgment, that would surely indicate a degree of prejudgment.

On the other hand, I have to admit that there is one passage in the poem where it seems that body and soul become separated. When the Archangel Michael is showing Adam what will become of his descendants, he presents an image of the murder by Cain of Abel:

Whereat he inly raged, and as they talked,
Smote him into the midriff with stone
That beat out life; he fell and deadly pale
Groaned out his soul with gushing blood effused. (XI.444–7)

To this, I’d answer that there’s no indication what became of the Abel’s soul. Did it immediately depart for Heaven or some other destination? Was it still alive, though the body wasn’t? Might it be the case that in this instance the word is being used as a metaphor for life?

It would be wrong to claim that Paradise Lost provides evidence that Milton held mortalist views. I prefer to argue that, if one knows about his mortalism from other sources, and ultimately from De Doctrina Christiana (which I haven’t read), that knowledge enriches and complicates the experience of reading the poem.

If the soul and the body live and die together, it follows that there is no such thing as a disembodied soul. That’s consistent with the idea that there is no “spiritual realm” separate and apart from the material one (parts of) which we can percieve with our senses. There are references to spirits in Paradise Lost but these spirits don’t exist in a distinct unsubstantial department of reality. Not everythig that is material is necessarily solid or tangible, any more than the medium through which radio waves, X-Rays or indeed light travels can be perceived by the unaided human senses.

The angels in Paradise Lost are material beings, though their “substance” is much finer than that of the humans:

empty-spaceFor Spirits when they please
Can either sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is their essence pure;
Not tied or manacled with joint or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose
Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,
Can execute their airy purposes,
And works of love or enmity fulfil. (I.423–31)

The flexibility afforded by the absence of joint and limb is mentioned again when Raphael tells Adam that the angels are able to find love and happiness with each other:

Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy’st
(And pure thou wert created) we enjoy
In eminence, and obstacle find none
Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars:
Easier than air with air, if Spirits embrace,
Total they mix, union of pure with pure
Desiring; nor restrained conveyance need
As flesh to mix with flesh, or soul with soul. (VIII.622–9)

I take the last two lines of this passage to mean that souls could not intermingle without the “conveyance” of the body, and in this the angels are distinguishable from souls: they have bodies but ones so “soft And uncompounded” as to be capable of complete interpenetration. They also eat food, and are capable of digesting the same food as Adam and Eve:

empty-spaceTherefore what he gives
(Whose praise be ever sung) to man in part
Spiritual, may of purest Spirits be found
No ingrateful food: and food alike these pure
Intelligential substances require
As doth your rational; and both contain
Within them every lower faculty
Of sense, whereby they hear, see, smell, touch, taste,
Tasting concoct, digest, assimilate,
And corporeal to incorporeal turn.
For know, whatever was created, needs
To be sustained and fed … (V.404–15)

That the angels have material bodies is made very clear by the battle in Heaven in Book VI, the details of which would appear preposterous if the combatants had been immaterial spirits. The rebel angels discover gunpowder and make cannon, which they fire at loyal ones, who fight back by tearing hills out of the ground — Heaven has a landscape! — and hurling them at their adversaries.

The material nature of Heaven, Hell, Paradise and Earth is also evidenced by the manner of their creation. God, the omnipotent, does not make the universe out of nothing, ex nihilo, but rather by imposing form on part of the “void”, which is presided over by Chaos and Old Night. In Book VII, God instructs his Son:

And thou my Word, begotten Son, by thee
This I perform, speak thou, and be it done:
My overshadowing Spirit and might with thee
I send along, ride forth, and bid the deep
Within appointed bounds, be heav’n and earth;
Boundless the deep, because I am who fill
Infinitude, nor vacuous the space
Though I uncircumscribed myself retire,
And put not forth my goodness, which is free
To act or not … (VII.164–72)

I put “void” in quotation marks because it’s clear from this that the deep is not empty (“vacuous”), though it’s referred to as “void” later in book VII: “Matter unformed and void: darkness profound | Cover’d the abyss (VII.233–4). It’s formless and chaotic but clearly there’s something there, including “black tartareous cold infernal dregs | Adverse to life” (VII.238–9). It’s through this abyss that the defeated rebels fell for nine days and nights before arriving in Hell, and through it that Satan painfully climbed back up as far as Earth, to look at the newly created humans and assess the possibility that they might be tempted into sin. Afterwards, Satan’s (very physical) offspring, Sin and Death, built a ready and easy way over the deep, to facilitate travel between Hell and Earth.

Lines 168 to 171, quoted above, indicate that the matter contained in the abyss was formerly part of God, but from which he has withdrawn (“I … myself retire”) leaving it formless and “Averse to life”. This seems a roundabout way of providing oneself with building materials, and it may be at this point that Milton’s materialist account of the creation is least persuasive. It’s striking that here Milton spends only 4 lines on the origin of the chaotic material; the topic could certainly have supported a more extensive discussion. I’d like to write a bit more about it myself, but not until after I’ve read De Doctrina Christiana.

Milton lived in dangerous times. There were many on the Royalist side who, following the Restoration, believed (and said) that he deserved to be put to death for his defence of the regicide. He was, for a while, at real risk of death or longer imprisonment than he actually suffered. No one should be surprised therefore that he did not advertise his heretical beliefs. What he did advertise in Paradise Lost was his conviction that humans are endowed with free will. That wasn’t a heresy: it had been the professed view of the dominant faction — the Laudians — in the Church. It was surprising, though, to find somebody of Milton’s political outlook and history arguing so strongly for free will: in the England of the time, the relatively few republicans, the religious nonconformists, the opponents of the Restoration and the adherents of the Good Old Cause tended to be Calvinists.

He was firm in his convictions, though many of them were peculiar to himself, and unexpected.

Edition: Penguin Classics paperback, ed. John Leonard, 2000, corrected 2003.