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One of Britain's greatest poets, John Milton, was born 400 years ago last month. He is best known for the long epic poem Paradise Lost. This was written in his old age, when he was blind, out of favour with the government, and many of his friends had been killed.
From his earliest years, Milton wanted to be a poet and studied hard, becoming one of the best educated men of his time. He was distracted from poetry by the Civil War in England, when Oliver Cromwell fought against King Charles I. Milton wrote a great deal in support of Cromwell and became a Secretary to his government when the war was over. After Cromwell died and the monarchy was restored in England, Milton narrowly escaped execution. He wisely left politics and concentrated on poetry.
In Paradise Lost, Milton aims to "justify the ways of God to men". In thousands of lines of imaginative verse, he describes the rebellion of Satan, the creation of a perfect world and the fall of man. Then, in a fictional conversation between Adam and an angel, he describes the future course of mankind and the work of Jesus Christ. Adam becomes convinced that God's ways are perfect and exclaims:
"O Goodness infinite, Goodness immense,
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good."
The core of Milton's poem is therefore a celebration of God's plan. However, the most original things to be learned from Paradise Lost, if one is already familiar with the Bible, are not about the good thoughts of God, but about the evil thoughts of men and devils.
As a protestant theologian, Milton can only draw upon the Bible as a source when he describes the thoughts of God in salvation. But when he describes the way in which fallen minds think, he can draw upon his long experience of life, temptation and politics. He describes vividly the persuasive trains of thought and semblance of reason that can be involved when people are deceived, or deceive themselves. At the same time, he exposes their false motives, self contradictions, and failed logic.
For example, when Satan and his angels find themselves thrown out of heaven, into the lake of fire, they manage to convince themselves that they are in a better place, "preferring | hard liberty before the easy yoke." A show of logic is found again when Satan tempts Eve: "his persuasive words, impregn'ed | with reason, to her seeming, and with truth," cause her to eat the forbidden fruit. And when she has fallen, Eve perversely convinces herself that it is out of her love for Adam that she must cause him to fall with her.
We find something similar in the writing of the new atheists today. They claim to be reasonable and scientific, but their arguments rely on contorted logic and empty non sequiturs, such as: because Thor does not exist, neither does God; or, because God could not have evolved, he cannot exist. If Milton was "living at this hour", as William Wordsworth once wished, we would see him describing such arguments more eloquently than anyone else, but simultaneously exposing and puncturing them, as he does so often in Paradise Lost. The author is a British scientist.
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