Milton, in his masterpiece Paradise Lost, gives a more determinate nature to the Christian muse now that Dante has bridged the value gap in the epic lineage (For more on Dante see my previous post).
For the subject of his poem Milton selects not only the theme of sin but that of the progenitor to all sin. That original committed in the garden of Eden.1 The cause of humanity’s expulsion from paradise into our fallen state as knowingly incomplete mortals with not only the capacity of evil but also self-conscious shame and guilt.
Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing heavenly muse […]2
However, like Dante before him, Milton knows he requires inspiration of the divine to achieve his task of producing an enduring epic. The challenge of producing an epic worthy of the lineage appears to Milton to be beyond the capabilities of mortal men. Although, despite his Christian meekness before such grandiose tasks Milton has a more confident invocation than Dante slipping in a boast of the quality and innovation of the poem yet to come:
[…] I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.3
Milton certainly takes the Christian epic in a more assertive direction. This is the confidence of a metaphysical system in it’s prime and also follows the joyous themes of the victorious crescendo of Dante’s Commedia in Paradiso. Milton describes the positive eschatological light which emanates from the metaphysical providence of God:
[…] what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.4
Paradise Lost is a work which seeks to “Illumine”, this contrasts sharply with the meandering of Dante’s Inferno. Light and truth are prominent and often conflated, being also prominent and combined in Christian scripture. This is in opposition to the the Homeric and Virgilian heroism which is an unseen divinity working through the ‘godlike’ mortal in a way which is self-evidently honorable. The God of Christianity is a unification in light of the primordial divinities, casting aside any doubts of a singular metaphysical truth in an assertion of sheer self-evident confidence, which can be taken for revelation or as the chauvinistic sin of Christendom.
Milton wishes to assert the goodness of the unified Christian God and the righteousness of following Christian values to the mortal souls of the earth who are lost and in the highest eschatological danger.
Milton bases the narrative of his epic on Genesis 3:1-24, a comparatively tiny section of the Bible. Milton obviously expands greatly on what can be extracted from the narrative in the Bible itself but retains the potency of the Christian values which inspired him. Milton's work provides a key insight in the epic lineage on the seismic shift in values that the establishing of Christendom had and has had on both explicit and implicit values (for more on the theory of explicit and implicit values see my book: Missing Axions: Philosophy for Disorientation).
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Penguin Classics, 1996. Book 1, 1-6.