The universe, including Heaven and Hell, that Milton imagines in Paradise Lost was much more familiar to his original audience than to today's readers. Today the heliocentric view of the solar system and many more, at times baffling, theories about the universe and its creation are accepted without question. In seventeenth-century England, the debate between the geocentric view of the universe, proposed by the ancient Roman astronomer, Ptolemy, and the heliocentric view, advocated by Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe, Galileo, and others was still fiercely debated.
Through the years, critics have argued confidently about Milton's view of this debate, though these same critics have often been in disagreement concerning which side Milton accepted. Evidence exists that Milton might have met Galileo. Milton mentions Galileo's telescope in the poem (V, 262-62). But, when Adam asks Raphael whether the Earth is stationary with the rest of the universe circling it or whether the Earth circles the sun along with the other planets, Raphael (and Milton) equivocates, leaving Milton's own views unstated.
Of course, the geocentric / heliocentric debate is but one small part of the cosmos that Milton presents in Paradise Lost. In general terms, Milton describes a universe with Heaven at the top, Hell at the bottom, and Chaos in between. Earth dangles on a golden chain dropped from Heaven, and, by the end of the epic, a bridge connects Hell to Earth. To grasp the significance of this view of the universe, one must examine each part separately and compare the fictional / theological construct with the scientific knowledge of Milton's day.
At the top of the universe is Heaven. It is inhabited by God and those angels who did not rebel against him. The primary quality of Heaven is light. God is pure light of such quality that the angels must observe him through a cloud. The angels themselves are also a type of stunning, pure light but not comparable to the light of God because they give off colors. Raphael is described as being made of "colors dipt in Heaven" (283) in Book V. Milton's source for this Heaven of light is the first command of God in Genesis: "Let there be light, and there was light."
The name Milton uses for this light-filled Heaven is the Empyrean, which for classical authors was the indestructible realm of light or fire. Thus, when the war in Heaven occurs, it is between beings who are indestructible. God says that the rebellious angels can be annihilated, but exactly what he means is never clear. With that one exception, however, everything associated with Heaven or the Empyrean is eternal and indestructible.
Within Heaven, God sits at the top of a mountain on his eternal throne. He is shrouded in a cloudy mist because of the quality and intensity of the light he emanates. The Son is at his side. In orthodox Protestant theology, they are two parts of a tripartite whole — the Holy Spirit being the third. Each of these characters represents an aspect of God. God is the Father; pure reason and intellect, perfect unemotional justice. The Son is the more merciful side. He demonstrates pity, mercy, sacrifice, and hope. (The Holy Spirit is mentioned only in the prologues as the true Urania, Milton's muse.) In Milton's personal view, the Son and God are not the same. God created the Son who is so close to God that any distinction is imperceptible, even to angelic sensibilities. Theologically then, Milton was a Unitarian, though he never develops this viewpoint in Paradise Lost.
Below God and the Son are the angels. Traditional Christian thought grouped angels into nine hierarchical categories. The traditional Christian categories and hierarchies of angels were Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations or Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. Milton mentions all of these groups in Paradise Lost, but he does not adhere strictly to the hierarchies. Each of these classifications was called a choir. Each group of three choirs starting at the top with Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones had specific functions in relation to God.
It is readily apparent that Milton does not follow this arrangement of angels in his depiction of Heaven. The important angels — Michael, Raphael, Gabriel — are called archangels and certainly seem to be those closest to God. Further, when Satan approaches the archangel Uriel on the sun in Book III, he disguises himself as a cherubim, a "stripling Cherub" (636), obviously of lesser rank than Uriel. Moreover, Satan addresses Uriel as a "Seraph" (667), which is a confusion of two highly separated categories.
Milton's attitude toward the angels is at best hazy. Most of the time, he seems to follow the ancient Hebrew tradition that classified all angels as either angels or archangels, with the archangels being the more important and the closest to God. However, Milton also mentions all the other categories in several places. In the end, the only real conclusion is that with angels, as with so many other aspects of Paradise Lost, Milton follows his own ideas while maintaining at least the semblance of the traditional Christian doctrine and emphasizing the hierarchy. He acknowledges the hierarchy of angels but arranges it to suit his own views.
Hell in Paradise Lost is the antithesis of Heaven. In a sense, Hell is an ironic parody of Heaven. Hell for Milton is literally the underworld. Heaven is the zenith of the universe, then there is the great gulf of Chaos and Night, and finally, at the bottom, underneath everything, is Hell.
The phrase associated with Milton's Hell that has occasioned much discussion is the statement that Hell, "As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames / No light, but rather, darkness visible" (I, 62-63). The idea of flames that do give off light and darkness that is visible has troubled some commentators over the years. But, while one may grant that the phrase "darkness visible" is oxymoronic, it is also meaningful. Heaven, which is pure light, is also pure goodness. Hell is the opposite, pure evil and pure darkness, in fact a darkness so pure that it is visible, a contrasting quality to the blinding light of Heaven.
At first, Hell seems like Dante's place of miserable torment. The fallen angels wake, lying on a lake of fire, surrounded by sulfurous fumes. However, this first image of Hell is soon replaced by a second. The demons build a capital, Pandemonium, with a palace and a throne for Satan, contrasting with God's throne in Heaven. The demons also have contests, sing, and debate, so that Hell begins to seem more like Dante's Limbo, not such bad place except that it is apart from God. Both these images are aspects of Hell for Milton; it is a place of punishment and also a place where demons live in a manner that ironically imitates Heaven. The difference is that the demons' games, songs, and debates are all corrupt and have no true end unlike the absolute beauty and truth of Heaven.
Milton will also introduce a third Hell, an inner, psychological Hell. At the start of Book IV, Satan has a soliloquy in which he concludes, "Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell" (75). This inner Hell is as much a part of Milton's universe as the physical lake of fire. In fact, for Milton, the inner turmoil that makes anywhere Satan is into Hell is probably the foremost Hell. Hell as a spiritual state that cannot be avoided is worse than any particular place.
In the physical Hell, though, the demons form a hierarchy of sorts. Milton lists no classifications of demons, but obviously some are more important that others. The demons who speak at the council are the most important and ironically match the archangels associated with God. Beelzebub, Belial, Moloch, and Mammon are the chief demons under Satan.
Besides these four demons who speak at the great council, Milton catalogs over a dozen more. Some of the names are familiar; some not. Osiris, Isis, perhaps Baal and Astaroth are recognizable names; Rimnon, Thammuz, Chemos, Dagon, and a number of others are known primarily by scholars. Milton has taken the names of numerous pagan gods who were worshiped by tribes that opposed the Israelites and made them into fallen angels, now demons. For an audience closer to the Bible and biblical literature than a modern one, all of these names resonated with meaning. Milton's point is that the pagan gods were once angels who, in corrupted form, became the false gods of those nations that opposed the Chosen People.
The purpose behind the cataloging of demons in Hell and the hierarchy of angels in Heaven is not made clear by Milton, but the two groups are obviously comparable and intended to be so. Similarly, the different aspects of Hell are usually set up in an ironic contrast with a counterpoint in Heaven. The hierarchy of Hell is not a real arrangement based on superiority and inferiority. Satan has taken control, but in actuality all the fallen angels are essentially the same, a point made clear when they are all turned into snakes and both their importance in the universe and their degrees in Hell vanish. In Heaven, the hierarchy is real; in Hell, a sham.
At the top of Milton's universe is Heaven with God on his throne; at the bottom of this universe is Hell, with Satan on his throne. In between the two is Chaos with his consort Night. Chaos and Night are depicted as characters, but they are actually personifications of the great unorganized chasm that separates Heaven from Hell. For Milton, relying on earlier writers and thinkers, Chaos was the formless void that existed before creation. It was the abyss, the darkness, and the mighty wind out of which God created first Heaven and, later, Earth.
Chaos also physically demonstrates the profound width of the gap between Heaven and Hell. Not only is Hell at the bottom of the universe in Milton's design, it is at the bottom of an almost limitless and unimaginably disordered space. Milton describes Chaos as "Eternal Anarchy" (II, 896) and a "wild Abyss" (II, 917). He adds that it is "The Womb of nature, and perhaps her Grave, / Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire, / But all these in their pregnant causes mixt / Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight" (II, 911-914).
In Paradise Lost, Satan has to journey across Chaos to find Earth. This journey is long and arduous and is one of the accomplishments of Satan that makes him seem heroic. In Book II, Satan, with no clear idea of where he is going or how to get there, sets out across Chaos, intent on finding God's new creation. If the reader forgets Satan's motive, to corrupt and destroy, then Satan becomes the heroic individual, pitting himself against the universe.
The Earth that is depicted in Paradise Lost is different from the Earth we know today. Milton describes Earth as a creation by God after the rebellion of Satan and his followers. Raphael tells Adam that God created Earth through the Son to keep Satan from feeling pride that he had "dispeopl'd Heav'n" (151). Earth and Man were created so that Man, through trial, could reach the state of the angels, and Earth could become a part of Heaven. To that end, the Son creates not only Earth but also the heavens surrounding Earth, and all that lives on Earth. All of these, he suspends from Heaven on a golden chain. The great image in Paradise Lost is of the Son, a celestial architect with a golden compass, plotting out the universe in which Earth will exist.
After its creation, Earth, like Heaven and Hell, has a hierarchical arrangement. Also like Heaven and Hell, this arrangement is understated and vague. On Earth, Paradise — the Garden of Eden — is the paramount place. The hill from which Adam receives his vision of the future from Michael is apparently, though this is not stated, the highest place on Earth. So when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden, they leave the perfect place on Earth and enter a world that is both flawed and unknown.
On Earth, Adam is the superior being. He was created first, and Eve was created from his rib. Adam is also the paradigmatic Man, the pattern for all who will come later; likewise Eve is the pattern for all women. But, in relation to each other, Adam is superior both in intellect and ability. Eve is more beautiful, but she has been created as a slightly inferior helpmeet to Adam.
Together the two humans are superior to all other living creatures on Earth. Raphael's speech beginning at line 469 in Book V makes it clear that all of the creatures of Earth can be arranged in hierarchical order. The idea that the entire universe is hierarchical was basic to all thought in the seventeenth century. The first serious expressions of the equality of man were still over a century away.
The position of Earth in Milton's universe also reflects a hierarchical arrangement. Heaven is the top of the universe; Hell, the bottom. Earth is attached to Heaven by a golden chain. Had Adam and Eve not fallen, there is a sense that at least metaphorically the chain would have slowly pulled Earth up to Heaven so the two places could merge. The fall changed the nature of the original plan. The fall, however, did not change the connection of Earth to Heaven. The chain remains, although at the end of Paradise Lost, a wide bridge across Chaos connects Hell to Earth. Man must either find the difficult way up the chain or stroll across the wide causeway to Hell. The easier pathway is obvious.
The final aspect of Earth in Milton's universe is its position in relation to the scientific knowledge of the day. As noted, Milton was well aware of the scientific theories of his time. He certainly knew the Copernican heliocentric theories and probably accepted them. As with so many specifics in Paradise Lost, though, Milton's description of Earth does not reveal his personal views of the geocentric / heliocentric controversy. The chain that attaches Earth to Heaven attaches not only Earth but also the heavens that surround Earth. The universe humans see in the night sky is only a small part, removed by God from the gigantic Chaos which surrounds Earth. Adam's question concerning whether the chain connects to Earth with the sun and stars rotating around the planet or whether the chain attaches in some other way so that Earth rotates around the sun is never answered. Raphael simply says that some questions are better left unanswered, and that God laughs at Man's attempts to understand how he made the universe.
Milton's refusal to give a straight answer to the geocentric / heliocentric debate may have a better rationale behind it than simple bet hedging. Milton consciously wrote Paradise Lost for the ages. He saw it as the great Christian epic following in the tradition of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Tasso. The scientific questions concerning the universe were questions still hotly debated in Milton's time. If Milton had had Raphael explain exactly what God had done, and then, at some later date, that explanation was shown to be false, a serious flaw would exist in Paradise Lost — God would be incorrect. By having Raphael equivocate on the answer, Milton allows God to be eternally correct. God knows how he created the universe and how the solar system works, but he does not share that information with Man in Paradise Lost.
In the end, Milton's cosmos is one of the great imaginary cosmographies of Western literature. Almost as many depictions of Milton's cosmos exist as do of Dante's Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. It is a fictional world that presumes to represent the real world. As such, it is an achievement that is almost as impressive as the epic for which it was created.