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Milton’s better fortitude : a study of the nature of heroism in Paradise lost Jones, Paul Arthur

Abstract

Because critics have continued to discuss Paradise Lost according to classical standards of heroism, the question of the poem's hero has been needlessly vitiated. Not until Milton's concept of heroism is clearly understood can any scholarly discussion of the epic's hero, or heroes, proceed. Our endeavour in this present study will be not to discover the poem's "hero" so much as to understand clearly that form of heroism, those qualities of character and action, which the poem espouses. Milton found that the classical heroic ideal was sharply at odds with his understanding of Christian heroism. He rejected the destructive, self-glorifying, self-reliant hero, epitomized by Achilles, in favour of one who would embody the Christian ethic of love, humility, and faith. In attempting to define artistically "the better fortitude/Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom" in Paradise Lost Milton begins by painting in Books I to III an impressive picture of false heroism in Satan and by presenting the alternative of true heroism in the Son. By undermining the classical heroism of Satan while exalting at the same time the nobility of the Son, Milton orients the reader to the standards of heroism upon which the epic is founded. The first main movement within Paradise Lost dealing with the heroic nature of Adam and Eve consists largely of a process of education instituted by the Father through the Archangel Raphael intended to clarify for man the issues involved in maintaining his original heroic standing. The War in Heaven serves to emphasize for both unfallen man and the reader the heroism of obedience by displaying a showpiece of Christian fortitude, Abdiel, and by revealing the terrible results of disobedience which befall Satan and his followers. The first movement concerning the heroism of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost ends in the trial of their obedience, the heroic contest between man and Satan. The fall is significant for Milton as a negation of those qualities which are involved in his concept of heroism, and he implies that if noble acts of Christian heroes are more glorious than those of other heroes, acts of villainy by the former are more heinous than the sins of the latter. Doubt, revealed first in Adam by his questioning of divine providence in his talk with Raphael, prevents Adam from exercising the heroic faith which would have sought a solution to his dilemma in an appeal to the love and wisdom of God. The second main movement within Paradise Lost dealing with the heroism of man is complementary to the first, consisting largely of a process of education instituted by the Father through the Archangel Michael by means of which Adam and Eve's heroic stature is restored. Milton stresses here the importance of God's grace for the existence of true heroism. The patient submission of Adam and Eve to their expulsion from Eden is an act of Christian heroism which signifies their restoration as heroes.

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