Paradise Lost By John Milton Summary and Analysis Book XII

Summary

Book XII continues Michael's presentation of biblical history to Adam. He begins with the story of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel. Nimrod was known as a great hunter, and Michael adds that men "shall be his game" (30). By this the angel refers to Nimrod's rule over men that ultimately leads him to challenge God through the construction of the Tower of Babel. God stops this enterprise by changing the languages of those constructing the tower so that they cannot work together. Adam is upset that some men have dominion over others. Michael explains that because men cannot control their passions, other men take control of societies. God sends unjust rulers to control some groups so that they lose their personal freedom.

Michael goes on to explain that so many people in the world are wicked that God eventually decides to focus on the Israelites and their faithful leader, Abraham, who carries the seed that will ultimately produce the Savior. Here, Michael moves quickly through the stories of Jacob and Joseph followed by the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt to the rise of Moses as leader of the great exodus from Egypt. Moses leads the people into the desert, receives the Commandments from God, and begins to establish laws for the people. Adam asks why men need so many laws, to which Michael responds that the need for laws shows the degeneration of people. The laws help men remember to do those things that they should know to do by themselves. Even so, Man cannot truly be saved until Jesus comes to sacrifice himself for all Mankind.

Joshua eventually leads the Israelites to the Promised Land where they set up a society in which they are ruled by judges and kings. The greatest king is David whose lineage will carry the seed of the Savior. David's son, Solomon, will build the great temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. However, later kings will allow such a falling away from God that God will allow the entire nation to fall into captivity in Babylon. Factions in the society will fight among themselves for long periods of time until, under Roman rule, the Messiah will be born to a virgin.

When Adam expresses interest in the coming battle, Michael then explains that the Messiah's victory over Satan will not occur in a literal fight. Instead, the Son will become human in Jesus, will suffer for his beliefs, and will be executed. However, after three days, Jesus will rise from the dead, thereby overcoming Death that Adam loosed upon the world. Jesus will also send out disciples to spread his message to the entire world. Those who obey God's commands will be saved and have eternal life. At the end of time, Jesus will judge the living and the dead, and the truly faithful will enter the most wonderful paradise of all.

Adam is pleased to learn all that Michael has told him, and his greatest pleasure is to have learned that death will actually lead to a great reward. He says that his fall will now become a happy blame, or what some call felix culpa. The goodness of God will, through death, provide all Mankind with the chance to live eternally with God. Adam sees this possibility as an even greater good than his having remained sinless in Eden. Michael praises Adam for his reason and tells him to add faith, virtue, patience, temperance, and love to his understanding and he will lead a good life and ultimately be with God.

It is time for the humans to leave Eden. Michael instructs Adam to wake Eve and at a later time tell her all that he has learned from the angel. When Eve is awakened, she says that she has learned much from her dream. She knows that her place is with Adam, and that she will always go where he goes. Further she is comforted, knowing that the Messiah will come from her seed.

Adam and Eve leave Eden. Michael leads them through the Eastern Gate and down to the plain. Behind them they see the flaming sword that protects Eden from intruders. A brand new world lies before them, and they know that God will be with them. Holding hands, they make their way into the world.

Analysis

Book XII appears to be a simple continuation of Book XI, and, in fact, in the first edition of Paradise Lost, Books XI and XII were one book. In the second edition, Milton changed his original ten book format to twelve. One of the changes was the division that created Books XI and XII. Biblical scholars in the seventeenth century dated the Creation at 4,000 b.c. and the flood at 2,000 b.c. So Milton divided his original Book X into two 2,000 year sections, each ending with a savior — Noah in Book XI and Jesus in Book XII. He also arranged for a slightly different presentation in each book. Book XI is presented as a series of almost scene-like visions, each complete in itself. Book XII is much more narrative. Michael says that he will now tell the story, and he presents a grand sweep of historical events rather than a scene-by-scene account.

The historical events that Michael narrates in Book XII continue to develop themes and ideas that have run through all of Paradise Lost. The first event is the story of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel. Adam's concern about this story is the fact that one man has dominion over others. Adam comments that God gave Man dominion over animals but not over his fellow man. Michael admires Adam's reasoning but shows that domination of man over man is a part of Adam's original sin. When a person allows his reason to be controlled by either his appetite or his will, he reverses the proper order that God intended. God, seeing that Man lets "unworthy powers" (91) rule within himself, then allows tyrants to appear among men and assert authority over them.

This emphasis of reason as the pre-eminent faculty in Man is one of Milton's main themes in Paradise Lost. In the Inferno, Dante had divided all sin into three categories: sins of appetite, sins of the will, and sins of reason. The worst sins were those of reason because they perverted the part of man that makes him distinguishable from other creatures. In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve both commit sins of the appetite: she upon eating the apple, he in his passion for Eve above all else. Adam also commits a sin of the will by eating the apple even though his reason tells him to do so is wrong. However, neither Adam nor Eve commits a sin of reason; they are unable to deny seriously any of their actions. Satan commits the sins of reason. His speech to Eve is a perfect example. He uses reason to persuade Eve to eat the apple. By using his reason for fraudulent purposes, he commits what the Middle Ages and Renaissance would have considered to be the worst type of sinful act.

Milton evidently agrees with Dante's ideas of sin, at least in a general way. Throughout the poem, Milton makes reason stand out as the faculty that Man must rely on. In the story of Nimrod, Michael justifies one man's domination over another on Man's inability to keep reason at the forefront in decision making. All the evils that come into the world, whether they involve appetite or will, are really there because of a breakdown of reason.

In the second part of Michael's recounting of history in Book XII, the angel begins to focus on certain heroes within a specific culture — the Israelites. He tells of Abraham, alludes to Jacob and Joseph, presents Moses as a type of savior, and presents the history of the Israeli kings, beginning with Joshua leading the people into the Promised Land followed by accounts of David and Solomon.

Michael explains that God grew weary of the iniquities of the world, and left most nations to "their own polluted ways" (110). He turned his attention instead to "one peculiar Nation" (111), the Israelites, who were to spring from Abraham, a man faithful to God. This account by Michael explains why the Jews (Israelites) were the "Chosen People." God found the faithful man, Abraham, and decided to concentrate his attention on the people and nations that came from that individual. Rather than destroy the rest of the world for its sinfulness, God simply turned away from it to focus on Abraham and his people. Abraham obeys God's commands and goes into Canaan, a land that God promises to all of his future generations. There, Abraham establishes the beginnings of the Kingdom of Israel.

Another important aspect of the selection of Abraham and the Israelites by God is the passage of "the Seed." God had said that the seed of Eve would bruise the serpent, and in Book XII, Michael makes clear that "By that seed / Is meant thy Great Deliverer" (148-49). The "Great Deliverer" is, of course, Jesus, who will come to save Mankind from sin and death. Therefore, Michael's explanation about the Chosen People becomes clearer to Adam. These people, the Israelites, carry the seed of the Messiah; they are chosen initially because of Abraham's godliness, but they are chosen because the Messiah must come from them. Adam begins to see the point of Michael's history lesson.

The nature of this lesson is extended by the humans that Michael chooses to lift up as examples, particularly Moses. The figures of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and David are all, in varying degrees, prefigurations of Jesus. The practice of "typological allegory or symbolism" began very early in the Christian church. The basis behind this idea was to make the Old Testament more theologically compatible with New Testament for Christians. The general idea was that figures and events in the Old Testaments were types or prefigurations of characters and events in the New Testament. That is, Noah, as the savior of the world in Exodus, prefigures Jesus, the savior of the world in the Gospels. This sort of typological study went beyond the Bible. Classical heroes like Aeneas, Hercules, or Dionysus were sometimes presented as types of Jesus or other important New Testament characters. The justification for this sort of analysis was that God had control of the entire world, and so even in pagan societies, he had provided shadows that pointed the way toward Jesus and Christian belief.

Michael's description of Moses shows Milton's typological intentions. When the Israelites want to know God's will, they ask Moses to be their mediator, a function, which Michael says, "Moses in figure bears, to introduce / One greater of whose day he shall foretell" (241-42). In other words, Moses as mediator with God prefigures Jesus performing the same function in the New Testament. Earlier, Michael has stated the general idea that events and characters inform "by types / And shadows, of that destin'd Seed to bruise / The Serpent, by what means he shall achieve / Mankind's deliverance" (232-35). This statement is very close to a definition for typological symbolism. The characters and events Michael describes are "types and shadows" all pointing toward the Christ of the New Testament. Moses is the most fully explained of these types, but Abraham, Joshua, and David all serve similar functions. The Chosen People carry the seed literally and symbolically that will ultimately bruise the serpent.

Finally, Michael comes to the Savior himself. Here at last, in Michael's description of Jesus and his mission, Adam sees the complete working out of his fall and God's transformation of it. The Son, born of God and the seed of Adam and Eve, becomes Man, takes on Man's sins, and accepts death in order to overcome it. Thereafter, those who believe and accept God's laws will be able to overcome death also. Adam, at last, sees the entirety of God's plan and is exultant. He shouts joyously, "O goodness infinite! goodness immense, / That all this good of evil shall produce, / And evil turn to good" (469-71). Here Adam expresses the idea of the "happy fault" or, in Latin felix culpa. If Adam and Eve had not sinned, Jesus would not have been born, Mary would not have been sanctified, and salvation would not have come into existence. These things are greater than what would have existed if the fall had not occurred; therefore, Adam's fall was ultimately for the good.

The idea of the "happy fall" stands in contrast to the more common notion that Adam's action simply created sin and death and destroyed Man's chance for blissful, paradisiacal immortality. Both concepts of the fall existed in seventeenth-century theology, and Milton chooses to accentuate the felix culpa as part of his justification of God's ways to Man. By emphasizing the good that will emerge from the fall of Man, Milton makes the end of Paradise Lost, if not triumphant, at least optimistic. Adam and Eve are no longer the beautiful, but strangely aloof, innocents of Books I through VIII. At the end of the epic, as they leave Eden, Adam and Eve are truly human. Their innocence has been transformed by experience, and they now approach the world with a greater knowledge of what can happen and what consequences can follow evil actions. The pride they had in their inability to do evil has been replaced with the knowledge of what evil is and how easy it is to give in to both pride and evil.

In the end, Adam expresses what he has learned from Michael:

Henceforth I learn that to obey is best,
And learn to fear that only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deem'd weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simple meek; that suffering for Truth's sake
Is fortitude to highest victory,
And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life (561-571).

This lesson that God is always at work in the world, often through seemingly insignificant people and things, that the greatest heroes are those who suffer for truth, and that death leads to eternal life are the images of hope and possibly triumph at the end of the poem. Adam and Eve go forth at the end with each other — and with God. They know that through obedience, love, and reason, they can live good lives and overcome the evil that they have done. Their knowledge and their hope thus stand as Milton's justification for God's ways.

Glossary

arrogate (27) to claim or seize without right.

enthrallment (171) [Now Rare] enslavement.

obdurate (205) stubborn; obstinate; inflexible.

blasphemed (411) to have spoken irreverently or profanely of or to God or sacred things.

usurp (421) to take or assume power, a position, property, rights, etc. and hold in possession by force or without right.

loath (585) unwilling; reluctant.

marish (630) [Archaic] a marsh; swamp.

brand (643) [Archaic] a sword.

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