Modern criticism of Paradise Lost has taken many different views of Milton's ideas in the poem. One problem is that Paradise Lost is almost militantly Christian in an age that now seeks out diverse viewpoints and admires the man who stands forth against the accepted view. Milton's religious views reflect the time in which he lived and the church to which he belonged. He was not always completely orthodox in his ideas, but he was devout. His purpose or theme in Paradise Lost is relatively easy to see, if not to accept.
Milton begins Paradise Lost by saying that he will sing, "Of Man's First Disobedience" (I, 1) so that he can "assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men" (I, 25-26). The purpose or theme of Paradise Lost then is religious and has three parts: 1) disobedience, 2) Eternal Providence, and 3) justification of God to men. Frequently, discussions of Paradise Lost center on the latter of these three to the exclusion of the first two. And, just as frequently, readers and those casually acquainted with Paradise Lost misunderstand what Milton means by the word justify, assuming that Milton is rather arrogantly asserting that God's actions and motives seem so arbitrary that they require vindication and explanation.
However, Milton's idea of justification is not as arrogant as many readers think. Milton does not use the word justification in its modern sense of proving that an action is or was proper. Such a reading of justify would mean that Milton is taking it upon himself to explain the propriety of God's actions — a presumptuous undertaking when one is dealing with any deity. Rather, Milton uses justify in the sense of showing the justice that underlies an action. Milton wishes to show that the fall, death, and salvation are all acts of a just God. To understand the theme of Paradise Lost then, a reader does not have to accept Milton's ideas as a vindication of God's actions; rather the reader needs to understand the idea of justice that lies behind the actions.
The first part of Milton's argument hinges on the word disobedience and its opposite, obedience. The universe that Milton imagined with Heaven at the top, Hell at the bottom, and Earth in between is a hierarchical place. God literally sits on a throne at the top of Heaven. Angels are arranged in groups according to their proximity to God. On Earth, Adam is superior to Eve; humans rule over animals. Even in Hell, Satan sits on a throne, higher than the other demons.
This hierarchical arrangement by Milton is not simply happenstance. The worldview of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Restoration was that all of creation was arranged in various hierarchies. The proper way of the world was for inferiors to obey superiors because superiors were, well, superior. A king was king not because he was chosen but because he was superior to his subjects. It was, therefore, not just proper to obey the king; it was morally required. Conversely, if the king proved unfit or not superior to his subjects, it was morally improper to obey him and revolution could be justified.
God, being God, was by definition superior to every other thing in the universe and should always be obeyed. In Paradise Lost, God places one prohibition on Adam and Eve — not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. The prohibition is not so much a matter of the fruit of the tree as it is obeying God's ordinance. The proper running of the universe requires the obedience of inferiors to their superiors. By not obeying God's rule, Adam and Eve bring calamity into their lives and the lives of all mankind.
The significance of obedience to superiors is not just a matter of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge; it is a major subject throughout the poem. Satan's rebellion because of jealousy is the first great act of disobedience and commences all that happens in the epic. When Abdiel stands up to Satan in Book V, Abdiel says that God created the angels "in their bright degrees" (838) and adds "His laws our laws" (844). Abdiel's point is that Satan's rebellion because of the Son is wrong because Satan is disobeying a decree of his obvious superior. Satan has no answer to this point except sophistic rigmarole.
Further instances of the crucial importance of both hierarchy and obedience occur in both large and small matters. The deference with which Adam greets Raphael shows the human accepting his position in regard to the angel. The image is one of the proper manners between inferior and superior. Eve's normal attitude toward Adam reflects the same relationship.
The crucial moment in the poem results from disobedience and a breakdown of hierarchy. Eve argues with Adam about whether they should work together or apart, and Adam gives in to her. The problem here lies with both humans. Eve should not argue with her superior, Adam, but likewise, Adam, should not yield his authority to his inferior, Eve.
When Eve eats the fruit, one of her first thoughts is that the fruit "may render me more equal" (IX, 823) to which she quickly adds, "for inferior who is free?" (IX, 826). Her reasoning, from Milton's point of view, is incorrect. Freedom comes precisely from recognizing one's place in the grand scheme and obeying the dictates of that position. By disobeying God, Eve has gained neither equality nor freedom; she has instead lost Paradise and brought sin and death into the world.
Likewise, when Adam also eats the fruit, he disobeys God. Further, he disobeys by knowingly putting Eve ahead of God. Disobedience and disruption of the correct order result in sin and death.
Finally, in the last two books of the epic, Milton shows example after example of people who ignore the responsibilities they have and try to either raise themselves above God or disobey God's commands. The result is always the same — destruction.
The first part of Milton's purpose in Paradise Lost then is to show that disobedience leads to a breakdown of hierarchical or social order with disastrous consequences. Some have argued that Milton puts himself in a contradictory position in Paradise Lost, since he supported the overthrow of Charles I. In his political writings, Milton makes it clear that obeying an inferior is equally as bad as disobeying a superior. In the case of a king, the people must determine if the king is truly their superior or not. Thus, Milton justifies his position toward Charles and toward God.
Milton's theme in Paradise Lost, however, does not end with the idea of disobedience. Milton says that he will also "assert Eternal Providence." If Man had never disobeyed God, death would never have entered the world and Man would have become a kind of lesser angel. Because Adam and Eve gave in to temptation and disobeyed God, they provided the opportunity for God to show love, mercy, and grace so that ultimately the fall produces a greater good than would have happened otherwise. This is the argument about the fall called felix culpa or "happy fault."
The general reasoning is that God created Man after the rebellion of Satan. His stated purpose is to show Satan that the rebellious angels will not be missed, that God can create new beings as he sees fit. God gives Man a free will, but at the same time, God being God, knows what Man will do because of free will. Over and over in Paradise Lost, God says that Man has free will, that God knows Man will yield to Satan's temptation, but that he (God) is not the cause of that yielding; He simply knows that it will occur.
This point is theologically tricky. In many ways, it makes God seem like a cosmic prig. He knows what Man will do, but he does nothing to stop him because somehow that would be against the rules. He could send Raphael with a more explicit warning; he could tell Gabriel and the other guards where Satan will enter Eden; he could seal Satan up in Hell immediately. He could do a number of things to prevent the fall, but he does nothing.
From the standpoint of fictional drama, a reader may be correct in faulting God for the fall of Adam and Eve. From a theological / philosophical standpoint, God must not act. If Man truly has free will, he must be allowed to exercise it. Because of free will then, Adam and Eve disobey God and pervert the natural hierarchy. Death is the result, and Death could be the end of the story if Paradise Lost were a tragedy.
Justification of God's Ways
Eternal Providence moves the story to a different level. Death must come into the world, but the Son steps forward with the offer to sacrifice himself to Death in order to defeat Death. Through the Son, God is able to temper divine justice with mercy, grace, and salvation. Without the fall, this divine love would never have been demonstrated. Because Adam and Eve disobeyed God, mercy, grace, and salvation occur through God's love, and all Mankind, by obeying God, can achieve salvation. The fall actually produces a new and higher love from God to Man.
This idea then is the final point of Milton's theme — the sacrifice of the Son which overcomes Death gives Man the chance to achieve salvation even though, through the sin of Adam and Eve, all men are sinful. As Adam says, "O goodness infinite, goodness immense! / That all this good of evil shall produce, / And evil turn to good" (XII, 469-471). The fall of Man, then, turns evil into good, and that fact shows the justice of God's actions, or in Milton's terms, "justifies the ways of God to men."