Paradise Lost // Idolatry

May 29, 2017

Expressions // Idolatry in Paradise Lost

Milton wrote Paradise Lost in 1667, and, as with much of his prose, it is driven by what has been referred to as an ‘obsession with idolatry.’[1] Idolatry had long been an accusation levelled at Catholic worship by Protestants, but in the eyes of Milton and other nonconformists it was also becoming increasingly associated with the Church of England, first under the direction of Archbishop William Laud before his execution in the English Civil War, and then under the Uniformity Act of 1662, following the restoration of the monarchy and the accession of Charles II.[2]  Objections to idolatry derive from the Old Testament, notably the second of the Ten Commandments prohibiting the invention and worship of any ‘graven image’ of God, or of anything in heaven. Puritans believed, as Guibbory states, that this ‘forbade all representations in religious worship and ‘charged that religious worship had been turned into art’.[3]  John Calvin, for example, explains in his 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion that idolatry, as forbidden by the second commandment, is the act of ‘daring to make God, who is incomprehensible, the subject of our senses or to represent him in any visible form’.[4]  Calvin’s definition here certainly accords with the unknowable, ‘invisible’ God of Paradise Lost, but as Lewalski explains, it may be deduced from both his works of prose and Paradise Lost itself, that Milton’s own understanding of the term had a far broader scope. For Milton, and his ‘fit audience though few’,[5] the term might be expanded to denote the attachment of ‘divinity or special sanctity to any person – pope, king, or prelate – or to any human institution, or to any material good’.[6] Critical focus on Milton’s presentation of idolatry, then, is indicative of the deeper religious ideologies and topical concerns which govern the poem, particularly in its association with Satan and the other fallen angels.  Yet Milton’s decision to include it within Paradise itself speaks to a particularly puritanical fear of the human propensity to idolatry, even before the fall.  Indeed, the near ubiquity of idolatrous worship in Milton’s text, evident in the catalogue of fallen angels and the names by which they become known and worshipped by various human civilisations in Book I, as well as Michael’s forecast of all mankind’s error in Books XI and XII, demonstrates an awareness of, and concern for man’s susceptibility to idolatry.

The opposition between the ornament and ceremony that characterised the Catholic Restoration churches and the individualistic, interior worship favoured by Milton and his nonconformist contemporaries is effectively established in the first few lines of the poem.  Invoking the aid of the ‘Heavenly Muse’ to assist him in communicating and, hopefully, achieving the lofty heights of his ‘adventurous song’, the narrator juxtaposes two oppositional modes of worship, and indicates that which he believes to be God’s preference.  The ‘spirit’, we are told, prefers ‘before all temples the upright heart and pure’ (I.17-18).  The plural ‘temples’ and the encompassing determining adjective ‘all’ offer a stark contrast to the singular ‘heart’, emphasising the puritan notion that even the heart of one solitary but faithful individual is preferable to any number of physical buildings constructed in the name of God. The statement can thus be read as a re-assertion of the faith of the individual in a context of widespread, enforced idolatry, and the religious persecution of nonconformists.  The dichotomy between material exteriority and abstract interiority established by this initial reference to the ‘temple’ and the ‘heart’ (if we consider the ‘heart’ in terms of individual faith, as opposed to its concrete definition, of course), is one which extends throughout the whole poem, and it is thrown into even greater relief by Milton’s representation of Pandemonium and the fallen angels, and of Heaven, the Father, and the Son.


The construction of Pandemonium described in Book I is unambiguous in its references to the ornament and the wealth of the Catholic Church that Milton so abhorred. The council chamber of Hell is ‘built like a temple’, with ‘Doric pillars’, ‘cornice’, ‘bossy sculptures’ and a roof of ‘fretted gold’, a collection of details which have inevitably led to comparisons with St. Peter’s in Rome (I.713-23).   This is a significant point of reference since it not only describes the kind of idolatry that, in Milton’s view, defined the Catholic Church, but also unequivocally aligns it with Satan and the fallen angels.  The construction of Pandemonium is, moreover, implicated with what Harding has termed the ‘birth of Pagan error’, being the first of many temples to be built ‘against the temple of God’ (I.402) and thereby ‘foreshadowing key aspects of the postlapsarian world.’[7] Milton is more than plain about the ‘affront’ this act of creative invention presents to God.  The reach of the devils’ influence is also indicated in Book I: ‘their seats’ are ‘fixed’ next to the ‘Seat of God’, their altars are built ‘by God’s altar’, their ‘shrines within God’s sanctury’, and Solomon’s temple in particular is described as being built ‘against the temple of God’ (I.384, 388, 402).  This assertion of the close proximity of idolatrous worship to true worship compounds the vast historical and geographical scope already established by the range of civilisations referenced in Book I.  Indeed, idolatry is configured as an ‘infection’, from which civilisations must struggle to ‘scape’ (I.483), and this particular example suggests that idolatry has contaminated the gold the isrealites borrowed from Egypt.  The tense then shifts to the present with the introduction of Belial, who continues to perpetuate this act of pollution, ‘fills’ the ‘house of God’ with ‘lust and violenve’ and ‘priest / turns atheist’ (I.496, 494-5).[8]

As Lyle observes, the argument that Solomon’s temple is built ‘against’ God declares both a fact of location, but also, and more importantly, an ‘act of aggression’.[9]  Lyle states that the temple ‘provides an explicit demonstration of how an artefact moves from its genesis of devotional practice to an idolatrous end’.[10]  Indeed, the allusions to Solomon’s Temple in Books I and XII provide further explicit examples of just how susceptible to idolatry Milton feels mankind is; that even the ‘wisest’ of men may still be ‘beguiled and led by fraud’ to engage in idolatrous worship’ (I.400, 401, 445).  Solomon, Michael tells Adam, shall build a ‘glorious temple’, and ‘such follow him as shall be registered /Part good, part bad, of bad the larger scroll / Whose foul idolatries will […] incense God; (XII.335-6).  The emphasis, is thus placed on the ‘idolatrous end’ of the temple: Solomon’s good intentions are acknowledged by the positive adjective ‘glorious’, but are nonetheless outweighed by the ‘foul idolatries’ that will soon incense God, much as his ‘bad’ followers outnumber the ‘good’.

Book III  begins with an address to the ‘Holy Light’ and the question ‘may I express thee unblamed?’ (III.1-3) The request for permission to ‘express’ heaven and the light of God without ‘blame’ highlights Milton’s own self-consciousness, and his awareness that his poem itself could be construed as idolatry, given that Paradise Lost essentially contains an attempt to represent God through art.  The difference is that the poem has a clearly didactic aim, as evident from the very opening lines, and Milton’s invocation of the Must in this instance is for the purpose of effectively ‘[justifying] the ways of God to men’ (I.26).  However, given the already explicit association of idolatry with Hell, and given the extent of its ‘infectious’ properties, it seems reasonable that Paradise Lost should repeatedly, and perhaps necessarily, ‘make claims for the non-idolatrous status of its art’.[11]

The narrator is seemingly granted the divine permission in order to express Heaven, but the relative ambiguity, and the circularity of his descriptive style only highlight the problems inherent in attempting to do so, even with the illumination of this ‘Holy Light’.  In comparison with the materiality and the rich frame of reference offered to describe Satan and the other demons in Pandemonium, the descriptions of Heaven, God, and the Son remain limited since they are, first and foremost, unquantifiable.  The angels, for example, are said to shout ‘loud as from numbers without number’ (III.346), and the Son is described as being ‘beyond compare’, possessing ‘love without end’, and ‘grace without measure’, all suggesting that Heaven transcends any human understanding of these virtues, and defies any tangible frame of reference (III.138, 142).  Indeed, the only person with whom the Son can be compared is the Father, but since God is expressed primarily through images of light, the result of this comparison is highly ambiguous to say the least.

God is ‘unapproached’, ‘throned inaccessible’, and ‘invisible / Amidst the glorious brightness’ which surrounds him, which emphasises the impossibility of recreating his image on earth (III.5, 377, 375-6).  The son, meanwhile, is referred to as the ‘Divine Similitude’ and ‘the radiant image of his glory’, and the notion that the Son is the ‘image’ of such an abstract concept as ‘glory’ again reaffirms this sense of incomprehensibility and immateriality (III.63).  ‘Only by worshipping a God who is transcendent, and rejecting all such material embodiments of the sacred, Milton supposes, can humans attain and preserve their proper freedom and dignity’,[12] and Milton is able to communicate that transcendence and intangibility through this particularly circuitous descriptive technique.  As a result, Milton’s attempt to absolve himself of the guilt of idolatry by invoking the ‘Holy Light’ demonstrates the inherent blasphemy of representing God through art, and the description of Heaven demonstrates the near futility of doing so at all, since God is immeasurable and unknowable.  The ambiguity o this description accords with Raphael’s response to Adam’s many questions: ‘Heaven is for thee too high / To know what passes there’ (VIII.121-2).

In Paradise Lost, idolatry is also inextricably linked with monarchy. In his 1649 text Eikonoklastes, Milton writes that in addition to the tendency to religious idolatry, the people of England are also ‘prone to a civil kind of idolatry in idolizing their kings’.[13]  This equation of idolatry and kingship is certainly established in Paradise Lost among the fallen angels; Satan states that it is ‘better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’, and ‘though in ruin’, Beelzebub remains ‘majestic’ (I.263, 305, 304).  Book II opens with Satan seated ‘High on a throne of royal state’, and towards him the devils ‘bend / With awful reverence prone; and as a god / Extol him equal to the highest in Heaven’ (II.7, 477-79).

The images of monarchy in Paradise Lost are not, however, attributed exclusively to Satan, which slightly complicates the notion that kingship is always necessarily idolatrous.  God is referred to as ‘he who reigns / Monarch in Heaven’, and the action of the whole poem is essentially precipitated by Satan’s refusal to ‘serve’ this monarch (I.637-8), and a refusal, as Guibbory states, to engage in what seems ‘compulsory worship’,[14] a rebellion which could easily be read as analogous to Milton’s own objections to what he viewed as the enforced idolatry of the Reformation Church.  In other words, Satan’s ‘bold conspiracy against Heaven’s King’ is also Milton’s indirect and noncommittal way of ‘conspiring’ against his own (II.751).  Milton wrote in The Ready and Easy Way that a king, by his very nature, must be ‘ador’d like a Demigod’,[15] and it becomes clear in Paradise Lost that unlike Milton himself, the purpose of Satan’s rebellion is not an attempt to exercise a right to worship God in a different way, but rather to assert himself ‘as a god’ to be worshipped in his stead, stating, unambiguously, that he would rather reign elsewhere than serve God in Heaven (I.263).  This allows Satan to operate both as a ‘supremely dangerous representative of idolatry’ as well as a ‘strong, yet safe voice for Milton’s subversive opposition to the compulsory enforced formal worship of the English Restoration church.’[16]  The argument, of course, is that ultimately, the only figure deserving of such veneration is God.  Michael explains to Adam that ‘man over men / He made not lord’ instead ‘reserving’ that title for himself, and that for anyone to ‘extol’ another as God’s equal is to ‘usurp’ His authority (XII.69-71).

In Paradise, the presence of such actions that may be interpreted as idolatrous is equally challenging to Milton’s ideology.  As Eve relates to Adam her first memories, she remembers her own reflection in the water and its ‘answering looks of sympathy and love’ (IV.465).  She then confesses that ‘there I had fixed / Mine eyes till now and pined with vain desire / Had not a voice warned me’ (IV.465-7).  This admission is particularly significant in the disparity it marks between Adam and Eve, because it suggests that it is Eve’s natural tendency, with ‘unexperienced thought’, and without guidance, to attach love and sympathy to an ‘image’ (IV.457).  Whereas Adam is created with an intrinsic knowledge of, and dependence upon God, Eve must be instructed to turn away from her own image.

It is also significant that Eve’s creation is such that she is one step further removed from God than Adam.  Speaking to Adam, she states that he is ‘for whom / And from whom I was formed flesh of thy flesh’ (IV.440-1), and is therefore ‘to her as God.’[17] Whilst this renders Adam and Eve ‘a model for true worship’ in the sense that her ‘dependence on him is a model for human dependence on the creator’,[18] the inequality in their relationship is something easily seized upon by Satan when he arrives to tempt her to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  In Book IV, Satan observes her ‘coy submission’ and notes that her appearance ‘implied / Subjection’ (IV.311, 307).  His attempt to convince Eve to eat the fruit because she ‘shouldst be seen as a goddess among gods’ has the particular effect of exploiting her own sense of inferiority, elevating her not only to idol status, but also to a level equalling that of her male counterparts. According to Guibbory, ‘Eve’s form of idolatry is to be worshipped,’ whilst Adam’s is ‘the debased impulse to serve’.[19]

Adam admits he is ‘weak / Against the charm of beauty’s powerful glance (VIII.532-3), highlighting the seductive ‘power’ of external appearances.  In this account of his weakness for Eve, Adam even goes so far as to suggest an error in the Father’s own creation: ‘Or Nature failed in me’ and ‘on her bestowed / Too much of ornament, in outward show / Elaborate, of inward less exact’ (VIII.534).  The use of such words as ‘ornament’ and ‘outward show’ in particular evoke the material forms and the ceremony of idolatrous worship,[20] and recalls the aforementioned contrast between exterior and interior notions of worship as understood by Milton and his contemporaries.  Raphael responds to Adam: ‘Accuse not Nature’, assuring him that wisdom ‘deserts thee not’ (VIII.561-3).  Ultimately, Adam eats the fruit ‘Against his better knowledge’, and though unlike Eve he possesses an awareness of this error, he is ‘fondly overcome with female charm’ (IX.998-9).  This, along with Raphael’s reference to wisdom, has parallels with Solomon, famous for his wisdom, and ‘whose heart though large’, is still ‘beguiled by fair idolatresses’ and falls to ‘idols foul’ (I.144-6).  His decision to eat the fruit in full knowledge of the consequences also highlights this freedom to choose, which the Father stresses in conversation with the Son earlier in the poem, but the idolatrous implication of making the decision to sin are made explicit as Adam is asked, ‘Was she thy God that her thou didst obey before his voice’ (X.145).

Lyle states that ‘for Milton, idolatry lurks in any artefact to which value can attach’[21], and in the postlapsarian world, the tendency to idolatry seems to be come all the more obvious.  After eating the fruit, Eve, for example, bows to the tree of knowledge, ‘as to the power that dwelt within’ (IX.835-6).  Later Adam, hoping that ‘by prayer’ he could hope to change God’s will to banish them from the garden, promises to build ‘so many grateful altars (XI.323-27), and says of the Garden, ‘here I could frequent / With worship, place by place where he vouchsafed / Presence Divine’ (XI.307, 317-19).  He talks, therefore, of investing with divine sanctity and worshipping place, when he ought instead to worship God, as Michael reminds him, saying that his ‘omnipresence fills / Land, sea, air, and every kind that lives’ and ‘surmise not then / His presence to these narrow bounds confined / Of Paradise or Eden’ (XI. 335-42).

The focus on idolatry in Paradise Lost therefore registers something of a pessimistic tone; that given this choice, the ‘greatest part of mankind’ is ‘corrupted to forsake God’ and transform his invisible glory’ into the ‘image of a brute’ (I.367-71).  Ultimately the propensity to engage in idolatrous worship is not intrinsic to any of God’s creations.  Despite its closeness to what Milton would consider true worship, and despite its infectious reach, humans have still been granted the ability to reject it.  Raphael tells Adam, nature ‘hath done her part’ (VIII.561), and it is therefore the responsibility of God’s creations to do their own part, by choosing to worship God, rather than ‘ornament’ or ‘images’.  That Heaven is empty of synonyms whilst Hell is rich in them provides us with a sort of linguistic analogue for both these types of worship: that to describe God comparatively shifts the focus onto another person, object, or place, which in itself is idolatrous.

[1] Achsah Guibbory, Ceremony and Community from Herbert to Milton (1998; repr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.147.

[2] Guibbory, p.187.

[3] Guibbory, p.17.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. By John Allen (Philedelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1855), p.343-344.

[5] John Milton, Paradise Lost in The Essential Milton ed. by Douglas Bush (London: Chatto & Windus, 1949), VII.31.

[6] Barbara Lewalski, ‘Milton and Idolatry’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol.43, The English Renaissance (Winter 2003), 213-232.

[7] Pitt Harding, ‘Milton’s Serpent and the Birth of Pagan Error’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol.47, The English Renaissance (Winter 2007), 161-177, p.161.

[8] Guibbory, p.200.

[9] Joseph Lyle, ‘Architecture and Idolatry in Paradise Lost’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol.40, The English Renaissance (Winter, 2000), 139-155, p.141.

[10] Lyle, p.140.

[11] Guibbory, p.193.

[12] Lewalski, p.214.

[13] John Milton, Eikonoklastes in Eikon Basilike with sections from Eikonoklastes ed. by Jim Daems and Holly Faith Neilson (Plymouth: Broadview Press Ltd. 2005), p.225.

[14] Guibbory, p.196.

[15] John Milton, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth ed. by Evert Mordecai Clark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1915), p.16.

[16] Guibbory, p.196.

[17] Guibbory, p.203.

[18] Guibbory, p.205.

[19] Guibbory, p.210.

[20] Guibbory, p.211.

[21] Lyle, p.40.

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  • Anna May 29, 2017 at 7:56 pm

    Some really interesting ideas here. Thank you