Milton’s Treatise for the Christian Soldier in Paradise Lost
While the War in Heaven, presented in Book VI of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, operates as a refutation of the concept of glory associated with the epic tradition, the episode also serves a major theological purpose. It provides nothing less than a perfect example of how the Christian soldier should act obediently in combating evil, guarding against temptation, and remaining ever vigilant against the forces of darkness. It also offers the ultimate hope that Satan can be thwarted and comforts Christians in the knowledge that Satan cannot be victorious. At the same time, the example warns against the pretensions that Christians might have about being able to overcome Satan by themselves. Christians are reminded that the victory can only be won by the Son of God; at best, they can only confirm their allegiance and obedience to God through their service.
Throughout the poem Milton has tried to show two definitions of glory. The first lies in the assumption that war can bring glory to those who perform heroic deeds in its service. This is the view Satan holds, and is evidenced in his words to Abdiel, “But well thou com’st / Before thy fellows, ambitious to win / From me some plume” (vi, 159-161). The second defines glory not as something won, but something given. The Son affirms this definition when he explains to the loyal angels why he alone must end the war: “against me is all their rage, / Because the Father, to whom in Heaven supreme / Kingdom and power and glory appertains, / Hath honored me, according to his will” (vi, 813-816). James Holly Hanford perhaps best describes the conflicted feelings Milton had for war:
War, then constituted for Milt…
…on’s example and by Milton’s manipulation of the elements of the epic tradition. For Milton, putting down the epic tradition in favor of Christian doctrine exemplifies his thoughts on war. As a realistic pacifist, Milton saw war as the result of sin, but knew that because of the presence of sin in a post-lapsarian world, war on earth would only be ended by the Son, just as he ended it in Heaven.
Fish, Stanley Eugene. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967.
Hanford, James Holly. “Milton and the Art of War.” John Milton, Poet and Humanist: essays by James Holly Hanford. Cleveland: Press of Western Reserve U, 1966. 185-223.
Revard, Stella Purce. The War in Heaven. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1980.
Rosenburg, D. M. “Epic Warfare in Cowley and Milton.” CLIO 22.1 (1992): 67-80.