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In Paradise Lost, John Milton endows angels with magnificent qualities, both positive and negative. Through symbolism, he shows their greatness. In a meaningful shift from earlier ideas of his time, Milton’s angels are shown to possess full free will. This capacity makes them creatures of choice, rather than a definite force of good or evil. They are shown to be superior to humans in some ways, but very similar in others, including their yearning to unify with God in a sexual, but not lustful manner. Three texts in particular explore these aspects and more of the divinity of Milton’s angels: Milton’s Angels by John Andrew Himes, Desiring Angels: The Angelic Body in Paradise Lost by Karma DeGruy, and Milton’s Warring Angels by William Kolbrener.
Milton employs symbolism throughout Paradise Lost to convey truths, but this is specifically explained in Milton’s Angels by John Andrew Himes, who analyzes the nature of both righteous and fallen angels in terms of Milton’s symbolism. This symbolism depicts great things- the worst of the sins and the best of the virtues of the world. These ideas show the reader both the meaning which the symbolism works to portray and the significance of all of the angels. Himes begins his argument by drawing on the “‘angelic’ fetishism of unity, authority, and spirit” seen in his time, which still continues today. But angels are imperfect, despite being celestial beings of great beauty, capable of true greatness. In Paradise Lost, many of these angels committed the ultimate sin, leaving God and “falling,” exercising their God-given gift of free will in a complete yet misdirected fashion: indeed, perfect in the complete use and advantage with which they made of their free will, but quite imperfect considering their ultimate choice is sin. And so, the gravity of the properties used to symbolize each angel should be all the more meaningful as angels have been proven to have free will, and do not necessarily have to choose as they do.
Milton’s Angels suggests that the angels, as with many of Milton’s other characters, are symbolic for one thing or another, writing that “the form, stature, attire, words, and actions of each are always consistent with its central nature,” on which he derives the symbolic quality. Although Milton does not openly express the symbolism of the angels within Paradise Lost, given Himes’ in depth analysis, it is highly plausible that this was the intended purpose. According to Himes, “the good and evil spirits, then, represent respectively the virtues and vices in the moral construction of the world.” This, indeed, is a strong level of symbolism to place upon any character. The seven spirits who rise after Satan and Beelzebub from the burning lake are intended to be the seven deadly sins, thus ordered: Murder, Lust, Pride, Envy, Covetousness, Gluttony, and Idleness. The fact that Milton would use creatures generally perceived to be both perfect and holy to represent the deadly sins shows life to be a little more “gray” rather than “black and white,” giving perspective on the shared gift of choice and free will.
What is particularly compelling about Himes’ analysis is not the common fallen angel, despite being bold and strong; his analysis of Satan, another fallen angel, pulls attention as well. In many theological expressions, Satan is the ultimate epitome of evil. However, instead of being the embodiment of all sins, Himes pairs him specifically with Ambition, perhaps speaking of a sort of chaos. “There is a hint of wandering, unsettled nature in the very word,” Himes writes, regarding Ambition. “[Satan] is the head of the whole body of demons. He is the principle of evil in general and the adversity of all good.” Despite Himes associating Satan with the symbolic vice of Ambition, he also shows how sins change in the face of circumstance by showing this symbolism morph depending on which archangel Satan speaks to. According to Himes, “Before the truth-loving Uriel he represents Hypocrisy; before the wise Gabriel, Folly; before the faithful Abdiel, Skepticism; before the righteous Michael, the lifeless ‘Letter of the Land’”. This makes sense, as sin affects all, despite individual strengths, and how it can be represented in different ways depending on the circumstance. This plays with the idea of Moral Luck, as even though a person may not commit a certain sin, had they found themselves in a different situation, they may have committed that sin simply because of circumstance. Different circumstances draw different vices out of people, and Satan fully represents this principle. According to Karma DeGruy in Desiring Angels: The Angelic Body in Paradise Lost, “In Milton’s world, the creation of God is about process and becoming rather than fixed states of being,” which plays directly into the concept of free will and the idea that states of being change. This explains why angels who were once good decided to follow Satan rather than the truth, and why angels tend to want to unify with others through sexual-like acts instead of simply relishing in their own selves: a selfish and vain act, but understandable given their comparatively supreme beauty to humanity’s.
In Milton’s Warring Angels, William Kolbrener, like Himes, comments on the “polarity” of the ideas of “angelic” and “satanic” from Milton’s Enlightenment origins. Absolute angelic polarity, however, is refuted in Milton’s Paradise Lost especially through the symbolism found by Himes in Milton’s Angels. “Milton’s critics often posit ‘difference’ or ‘unity’ as ends in themselves, where for Milton the two exist in productive tension.” He also argues that intuition and reason are not mutually exclusive, as even the angels must rely on discursive reasoning and cannot understand everything, despite having great powers to sense things. Though angels are divine beings, there “are many things of which they are ignorant.” And so, we know that despite their divinity, these celestial beings are not perfect. They have a full sense of free will, and not all use it perfectly. They lack complete knowledge. Although they are superior in many ways, they also share many similarities to humans in these points. But that is not to contradict their superiority. One of the ways in which they show this superiority is through their sexuality, a concept including the unification of more than the body, written about by Karma DeGruy in Desiring Angels: The Angelic Body in Paradise Lost.
DeGruy speaks of sexuality as being a part of the fall of humanity. But the eros involved with the sexuality present before the fall goes past just a physical longing and love, but into a deeper desire to be one, to unify. In Rafael, Adam sees something he craves: a higher beauty and divinity than his own. He sees a higher understanding, a higher power of sorts. The unity he desires can be met by engaging in deep, soul-bearing conversations, as shown when he tries to keep Rafael with him. But a more perfect union is through a sort of sex, and he craves this as well, as this is a total unification, of body and spirit. This can be shown in other works: for example, in the Bible, Mary is known to be pure and holy, without sin, and such is in a state of grace unlike what most humans know. She is closer to God, and she trusts Him. And he gave her a child. Not to say that they had physical sex, but that she had a spiritual and physical unity with God few can achieve. This open-souled unity is what man craves to have with others- God, and with people in order to experience it with God, although this is often misinterpreted by those same people. With The Fall, Adam and Eve lost any unity they formerly had with God, and a hole formed that needed to be filled. In losing a perfect connection with Him, they also lost a perfect connection with each other, and the hole grew. Humanity seeks to fill this same hole through imperfect means. This “hole filling” is shown in the news, in pop culture, and in day-to-day living. Money and drugs are distractions. Alcohol numbs it. Sex and romance attempt to fill it with inferior connections. But this hole is made for God by the absence of that perfect unity. Even the angels feel a need to engage in unifying activities, despite their close relations with God. A desire to know and to be known. To love and to be loved completely in order to “be one” or to “unify.”
The desire to “be one,” especially in addition to eros, can become a lust for bodily pleasures with another person. Even the angels engage in a pure form of this “oneness,” but it is different from the sex that the media portrays. It is a sex of the soul and the body. It is a total giving of self, as one does for God in times of adoration and praise. It makes sense, then, that angels are “desirable not only for their superior goodness and intelligence, but also for their incredible beauty and mutual enjoyment of their beauty.” They do not require another to be complete, but it is a good and desirable thing to be one with other beautiful creatures. In comparison, “humanity is rational, not fully intelligential, humans possess divisible selves that they must learn to train and temper, just as they have desirable bodies and originally divided, sexed, and gendered states that make them incomplete without their partners.” But although their means are different, the end desires are the same: unity.
These analyses bring the priesthood to question. Despite being stereotypically spiritually superior to the rest of the lay people, they possess free will and did not have to choose this greatness. Few had experiences in which God physically spoke to them, asking them to choose the priesthood. For most, discernment continues even through the seminary, with their time in seminary acting as “the dating period” before marriage as in the vocation to matrimony. Despite having a calling towards the priesthood, they generally also experience a calling towards the married life, and know that they would be equally happy in either life they choose. For a priest who does not yearn for the type of relationship a marriage entails cannot fully minister to the people- he must have a heart which desires the souls of the people around him. And so, his vocation was not pre-determined. A priest is not simply a priest, but a person who rose to meet his calling and chose God above his other desires and the conflicts holding him back, and thus is great and will theoretically continue to achieve greatness throughout his vocation. It was a choice, just as it was for the angels. A superior goodness and closeness with God is always a choice for both angels and humans, as free will was bestowed upon both. When healthy, the sexual energy the angels and humans both possess is not so much a lustful thing as humans tend to think of it, but an appreciation of and longing to join with others, to be a part of all in the same way that a human may desire to “be one” with God. To share, to partake in. According to Himes, “Raphael’s entrance is charged with a sexual interest, but not a lust.” Instead, a wisdom and connectedness seen in those with a true understanding. Through celibacy, a priest may better form these holy, unifying types of connections with people around him without the use of a physical sex.
And so, an angel’s divinity is a peculiar subject. Filled with great potential for either virtue or vice, they are prime targets for magnificent displays of intense symbolism. Their ability to choose with free will just as humans can only adds to the magnanimity of their good choices and beauty, as angels are not simply predestined to be great forces of good or bad as Michael and Satan are often respectively portrayed as. This is a trait relatable to humanity, as is their need for unity with God and others. It is seen in the human craving for sex and other actions working to fill ‘the hole’ left from a lack of unity with God. The angels are beautiful examples of what humanity should strive for in regards to their faith, their values, their virtues, but also what they should avoid. While angels are beautiful, so, too, are humans beautiful, also made by the same infallible god.
“Milton’s Warring Angels: A Study of Critical Engagements. William Kolbrener, Milton.” Modern Philology 98.1 (2000): 58-63. Web.
Himes, John A. “Milton’s Angels” (1997)
Degruy, Karma. “Desiring Angels: The Angelic Body in Paradise Lost.” Criticism 54.1 (2012): 117-49. Web.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2005. Print.
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