Milton and the Angels: The Long Shadow in Paradise Lost

Our age is so advanced that angelism has largely displaced the angels. Angelism is a doctrine suited to Modernism for which Milton supplies an epigraph, put in the mouth of Satan:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

C.S. Lewis, in his Preface to Paradise Lost, presents a formidable argument that Milton is not himself of Satan’s party in that great poem. I think, however, it is still possible to contend Milton makes his own contribution to angelism, though he intends not to do so.

In that respect he finds himself paradoxically dependent upon angels to bloody the narrative events necessary to Paradise Lost. Thus, perhaps despite himself, he is tempted to add to the angelology of his sources. Here lies that steady temptation to angelism — to an assertion of transcendence by virtue of his discursive intellect supposed autonomous, because immaterial, and therefore transcending material existence on its own authority.

My old mentor and dear friend Robert Hunter West, a scholar of enviable spiritual and intellectual virtues, surveyed the science called angelology, as that science was known to Milton. His findings are to be found in his Milton and the Angels, 1955. Professor West knew his topic to be of little interest to his academic contemporaries, but he knew it important nevertheless. Thus he observes that

To the modern reader, with no sense of a war still going on in the earth between angels and devils, no historical conviction of Satan’s mighty counterattack in the Garden, and no custom of looking at events as God’s providence over creation, the activities of Milton’s angels are likely ornately pointless, noticed out of proportion to their results in the poem itself.

Professor West’s academic world finds man’s own first disobedience, through which he would transform himself by knowledge out of his limited nature (a first act of angelism we might say), but an antique idea suited better to text book footnotes than to certain lines of Milton’s poem. Milton’s problem with angels could hardly seem an arresting one.

Professor West’s words appeared nearly half a century ago, the words of a Christian scholar of literature devoting his life to the world from within a secular — a state — academy. They were written at a point when the West was bursting with optimism at the prospects of possessing the world after World War II, an optimism noticeably diminished by our century’s end — one consequence of our proving victorious over Eastern totalitarianism through its own attrition. Out from under that Eastern rubble there begins to appear, incidentally, strange flowerings, so that with some bafflement we discover there a secret nurturing of spirit beneath the Satanic order which President Reagan — to the amusement of Western intellectuals — properly called an “evil empire.” In some of those emerging communities, wracked dangerously by nationalistic ideology, at present we no doubt find reemerging a serious concern for the angels as for many spiritual problems once considered closed — but considered closed in the West much earlier than in the East. Solzhenitsyn reminded us of this irony, gaining Western opprobrium in intellectual circles for his efforts.

More recently, Gerhart Niemeyer runs that risk, insisting as he does that the Communist ideology which enslaved the Eastern countries “was created in the West, and the intellectual and spiritual background which made this creation possible still continues.” The evidence of this truth is overwhelming at this moment, perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the declining academy. And now Crisis risks a concern for angels at an intellectual level, in an intellectual climate dominated by a contrary gnostic angelism.

Professor West, considering “Milton’s problem with angels,” reminds us that Milton is himself exceedingly learned about these high creatures, though we may see the science he possesses of them proves as challenging to him as a poet. Spirits, as Milton knows, and as subsequent critics of Paradise Lost have kept reminding him and us since Dr. Johnson raised the question — spirits allow no imagery of themselves to his dramatic purposes, especially sign imagery. A challenging problem indeed if he chose to dramatize a war in Heaven as a “place” quite separate from the place of Satan’s own closed mind. Even the seemingly more manageable conditions of God walking with Adam in the First Garden is challenge enough. It may well be that with this difficulty in mind Milton has the Angel Raphael articulate Milton’s additions to angelology. Raphael, walking in the Garden after Adam’s fall with the wretched creature, explains that angels through spirits are so “real” that they can eat earthly food and that they are even capable of making love in a way analogous to human sexual acts.

Had Milton held to his first intended epic about King Arthur, in the tradition of Sir Thomas Malory, he might not have found himself with this problem of perfect spirits to be made somehow palpable imagistically to the benefit of imperfect, sensual — though spiritual — persons as readers of signs. Theoretically, the poet might escape that burden somewhat through musical images, associating sound as beyond sight’s mundane limits, in relation to the music of the spheres — a more refined imagery than that of the more local food and sex. He might even justify the attempt as an intellectual act of transcendence of the material world through music as music as it relates to the science of mathematics. Both Plato and Pythagoras supply precedent. It is a strategy employed, indeed, by Milton’s contemporary, Descartes, in attempting a solution to his own species of angelism which ever since his introduction of it to the intellectual community has burdened Western thought. Descartes struggles, as scientific philosopher, to regain thought’s purchase upon the sensual world, his idealism proving an infectious angelism to which Etienne Gilson, as pathologist of idealism, provides an anecdote in his 1930s essays, now collected as Methodical Realism. (See especially his closing “Realist Beginner’s Handbook.”)

Both Milton and Descartes have problems with thought as a temptation to angelism, though one suspects Milton is more uncomfortably aware of the danger in his freedom, especially since he must deal with it as poet rather than as scientist or philosopher — those callings allowing the protection of abstractionism. The poet is handicapped, since he must deal with reality at the sensual level of experience as primary to sensual imagery. He cannot bypass proximate material existence by formulae and be an effective poet. However that may be, there is nevertheless already in Milton a presence of intellectual disjunction relative to sensual reality, derived from his theoretical political and theological activism in that disturbed moment of Western history in the 17th century. It is a dangerous junction of the poet to history and nature, analogous in danger to the speculative concerns of Descartes which bequeath to us Cartesian alienation.

The disjunction in Milton occurs at the level of spirit commanded by intellect, and so is much more fundamental than it at first appeared to our own T.S. Eliot, the poet turned literary critic. Eliot warns us, early in the 1920s, that our literature suffers from a “dissociation of sensibility” in the poet, originating by his estimate at about the time of “Milton and Dryden” — a separation of thought and feeling affecting the thing made, the poem. It is in Milton’s poetry, especially in relation to his problem with angels, that we may discover the depths of the problem, remembering as we do that Descartes makes a more formal contribution to the separation at the same time.

We might say that Milton suffers a condition which Eliot will characterize (before he abandons his two categories as useless and superficial) as “Romanticism” in opposition to “Classicism.” And in relation to this preliminary distinction, we recall as well that our century in particular has made much of the problem of subjectivism in relation to literature, especially as applied to the “Romantic” poet, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose poetry the younger Eliot carried with him at all times. Subjectivism in relation to literary criticism has found in the academy, especially at about the time Robert West becomes concerned with Milton and the angels, the authority of philosophy as developed by Husserl and seized upon by Sartre.

The context of these literary concerns, and indeed of our academic philosophical concerns, seems most contemporary even now, but we already recalled them present to Milton’s Adam and might with reflection discover them present in Genesis‘ Adam as well: the question of autonomous authority as affected by willful subjectivism. The problem, then, is fundamental to our nature as free intellectual creatures, and we encounter it in the Modern era as addressed by far more orthodox minds than Milton’s or Shelley’s or the younger Eliot’s.

It is, for instance, a concern to Gerard Manley Hopkins as poet, and to his contemporary John Henry Newman as theologian, both of whom (at least in the last quarter of the 19th century) gave some disquiet to professed Thomistic theologians: Hopkins for his affinity to Duns Scotus; Newman for his emphasis upon man’s fundamental origin as created person in conscience itself. Cardinal Ratzinger, at the centennial celebration of Newman in 1990, defends Newman on this point:

Precisely because Newman interpreted the existence of man as originating with conscience, that is, with the relation between God and the soul, it was clear that this personalism was not individualism, and that the link with conscience did not mean there were no checks on the faculty of judgment. . . . It was always fascinating for me to see and reflect on the fact that conscience acquires value, dignity, and force only in this way: through its link to truth, to God.”

It is this question of conscience in relation to subjective authority (angelistic individualism) that haunts Western thought and letters, its shadow the dissociation of thought and feeling. By dissociation, intellect is tempted to conclude man to be two creatures in one — body and mind — but ununified as it was considered to be in the old traditional understanding by the formal presence of soul. Thus a decaying dualism sets in, in respect to our understanding of our own nature, a dualism unredeemed by the triune mystery attendant upon being itself. Man becomes creation’s antagonist in a closed, dualistic arena. That war emerges as between intellect and being, with intellect’s gnostic intent to become primary lord over being — becoming its own God served by angels of its own making, the “angels of technology.”

And Eliot is right in observing that the separation of thought and feeling, to the service of gnostic power as it now appears, becomes conspicuous at about the time of Milton and Dryden — and Descartes, we add. But just how deeply prophetic his recognition of the cause of our intervening decline under the deceiving banner of Progress, Eliot would not himself realize until the 1930s. One consequence of his vocal recognition proved a cry of his betrayal of poetry itself, the reality being his rejection of Modernism. The Modernist spirit in literary criticism had misread the signs in both his poetry and his criticism all along.

It is with Milton and his dramatic concern for angels that we have a primary concern, in honoring Professor West’s prophetic reminders of Modernist confusions — his occasion being a concern for Milton as poet engaging pure spirits which were to be made a literary presence through sensual imagery. We have suggested that Milton as poet is deeply affected by Milton as severe Protestant, in respect to his authority over signs through individual conscience. He is uncompromisingly committed to Holy Scripture as the ultimate authority over truth itself, a severe faith in the sign which may tend to overlook fallen man himself as mediator of Holy Truth as the sign’s proximate and necessary agent. The danger is more immediate than any question of Holy Inspiration, Holy Revelation, in scripture itself. For the problem becomes a present one to Milton, his own authority as a measure of truth as a Divine agent in measuring truth by scripture. By his own conscience as the measure of truth by scripture, he would judge acceptable or unacceptable whatever concept he or the intellectual community considers. The principle is one thing, dependent upon unshaken faith. The exercise of that authority in the proximate world proves quite another.

The disjunction of the “inner” and “outer” man proved a growing dilemma to the Renaissance poet like Milton, only partially solved for the poet by a society shifting from a formal hierarchy affected by nature and effected in nature. There occurs a progressive shift of the center of authority to intellect as autonomous, from which follows demand of “rights” leading to social, political, theological anarchy. The extreme is reached in the late 19th century by the emergence of that political agent conceived and rationalized in the West, but brought to action in the East, the “Anarchist.”

The public shibboleth justifying the aberrant spirit abroad as that spirit intrudes upon the person has been a new virtue, sincerity. By sincerity, not by truth, we are made free. If Baudelaire says with weary ennui to our naive consent that the Devil’s greatest victory in our world has been to convince us that he doesn’t exist, the greatest victory of gnostic intellect as self-justified in power has been to convince us that sincerity is sufficient to salvation. Thus sincere deportment, justified by conscience in decay, leads to the supremacy of a most manipulative principle: “Everybody’s got a right to his own opinion.”

Ad hoc order as convenience under the threat of outer chaos seems our only recourse. Our world, since the Renaissance at least, has struggled with an increasing failure to accommodate individual “rights” among individuals, rights over-riding all else. Anarchy, the political dream preparing the way for Marxist ideology, turns nightmare when subjective dream yields only outward chaos, against which at the moment not even the arbitrary ad hoc ordering of nature by current agents of that old fallen angel seem apparent. The mind as its own place seems appealing in a spiritual vacuum.

As for John Milton, wrestling with these disturbing implications of the war in Heaven: one might say his own conscience proved an implacable fallen inward angel helping effect an outward social, political, theological chaos — to put the dilemma as a poet might put it.

Dr. Johnson remarks of Paradise Lost, as Professor West reminds us, that spirit allows no image, and most especially imagery is disallowed to that perfect intellectual creature, the angel. Milton’s handicap as poet proves affected — i.e., limited — by his own peculiar gifts according to the limits of man’s nature. He is inescapably imperfect as maker because a fallen and so an imperfect intellectual creature. Further, he is burdened by a discursive intellect dependent upon the orders of nature for initial understanding of being itself. As incarnate soul, that nature sets him quite apart from that pure spiritual being peculiar to angelic natures, in envy of which we have sentimentalized that angelic nature as if our own. (See our most popular Christmas cards or the association of children in particular to angels because “angelic.”) How appealing to fallen nature. For as the poet himself may fear, Revelations and other scriptures seem to echo the poet himself as an angelic nature, sufficient to his “Romantic” denigration of rational intellect.

Our point put in a more limited way, his problem with the angels is that he is a highly learned, highly sophisticated intellect who as poet attempts a mythical poem, nevertheless restricted as maker. He cannot create but must make, so that he is necessarily dependent by his created nature on his limits as man created and upon the limits of nature itself in attempting to make his vision of a transcendent reality.

Ours has been a quick, even preemptory, sorting of confusions in respect to literary, philosophical, political, theological problems haunting us as Modernists abandoning belief in angels. We raise the problems, not solve them. But a helpful point of departure toward solution lies in my old friend and mentor’s signal work, Milton and the Angels. And in relation to the poet’s challenge as poet, occasioned by such real but unimaginable creatures as angels (let alone such baffling creatures as incarnate intellectual souls — man) he leaves us also an earlier book, The Invisible World: A Study of Pneumatology in Elizabethan Drama (1939). And a later one, Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery (1968). His last book of all responds to the growing confusions in our own social and political world in the 1960s and 1970s, though its title may not seem so: Reginald Scot and Renaissance Writings on Witchcraft (1984). That work is concerned with the intrusion of dark spirits upon the world of young intellectuals in olden days, but by implication with a return of those dark spirits to power in our world. For Robert Hunter West saw that our century has largely lost a “sense of a war still going on in the earth between angels and devils,” and he attempts to remind us of this continuing war and to call us to service in it.

It is the war which Milton attempts to dramatize as instigated by Lucifer, the Brightest of the Angels. Lucifer’s abiding intent, short of Judgment Day, is to make a hell of heaven by making a heaven of hell, according to his own “conscience” as sole authority by virtue of its willful separation from truth itself. How sincere that dark spirit is, now as then. And how variously we meet him withal, in the subtle wit of the Grand Inquisitor’s destruction of truth in the name of humanity to the humorous, slap-stick version of Heaven Mark Twain gives us as Huck Finn’s version of the Widow’s heaven.


  • Marion Montgomery

    Marion Montgomery (1925-2011) was professor of English at Georgia University. He also published poetry, short stories, and three novels, which focus on conflict between the Old and the New South.

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