Cosmology in Milton’s Paradise Lost Essay
Cosmology in Milton’s Paradise Lost
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cosmos” as “the world or universe as an ordered and harmonious system,” from the Greek, “kosmos,” referring to an ordered and/or ornamental thing. When God created the world he had this in mind. To have a harmonious system in the universe where everything can live in peace and free of all worry. God was on top and everything was peaceful. Until the angles in Milton’s Paradise Lost had a fight. After the fight God banished these bad angels and had the last part of his universe created, hell.
This completed a very complex picture of Milton’s vision of the universe in the beginning. The encyclopedic writers of the early Middle Ages communicated a modest assortment of basic cosmological information, drawn from a variety of ancient sources, especially Platonic and Stoic. These writers proclaimed the sphericity of the earth, discussed its circumference, and defined its climatic zones and division into continents. They described the celestial sphere and the circles used to map it; many revealed at least an elementary understanding of the solar, lunar and other planetary motions.
They discussed the nature and size of the sun and moon, the cause of eclipses, and a variety of metrological phenomena. Another novelty was the frequent argument of the twelfth-century authors that God limited His creative activity to the moment of creation; thereafter, they held, the natural causes that He had created directed the course of things. Twelfth-century cosmologists stressed the unified, organic character of the cosmos, ruled by a world soul and bound together by astrological forces and the macrocosm-microcosm relationship.
In an important continuation of early medieval thought, twelfth-century scholars described a cosmos that was fundamentally homogeneous, composed of the same elements from top to bottom: Aristotle’s quintessence or aether and his radical dichotomy between the celestial and terrestrial regions had not yet made their presence felt. Cosmology, like so many other subjects, was transformed by the wholesale translation of Greek and Arabic sources in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Specifically, the Aristotelian tradition gained center stage in the thirteenth century and gradually substituted its conception of the cosmos for that of Plato and the early Middle Ages. This is not to suggest that Aristotle and Plato disagreed on all the important issues; on many of the basics they were in full accord. Aristotelians, like Platonists, conceived the cosmos to be a great (but unquestionably finite) sphere, with the havens above and the earth at the center.
All agreed that it had a beginning in time – although some Aristotelians of the thirteenth century were prepared to argue that this could not be established by philosophical arguments. Nobody representing either school of thought doubted that the cosmos was unique: although nearly everybody acknowledged that God could have created multiple worlds, it is difficult to assume that anybody seriously believed He had done so. However, where Aristotle and Plato disagreed, the Aristotelian world picture gradually displaced the Platonic. One of the major differences concerned the issue of homogeneity.
Aristotle divided the cosmic sphere into two distinct regions, made of different stuff and operating according to different principles. Below the moon is the terrestrial region, formed out of the four elements. This region is the scene of generation and corruption, of birth and death, and of transient (typically rectilinear) motions. Above the moon are the celestial spheres, to which the fixed stars, the sun and the remaining planets are attached. This celestial region, composed of aether or the quintessence (the fifth element), is characterized by unchanging perfection and uniform circular motion.
Other Aristotelian contributions to the cosmological picture were his elaborate system of planetary spheres and the principles of causation by which the celestial motions produced generation and corruption in the terrestrial realm. A variety of Aristotelian features, then, merged with traditional cosmological beliefs to define the essentials of late medieval cosmology – a cosmology that became the shared intellectual property of educated Europeans in the course of the thirteenth century.
Universal agreement of such magnitude emerged not because the educated felt compelled to yield to the authority of Aristotle, but because his cosmological picture offered a persuasive and satisfying account of the world as they perceived it. Nonetheless, certain elements of Aristotelian cosmology quickly became the objects of criticism and debate, and it is here, in the attempt to flesh out and fine-tine Aristotelian cosmology and bring it into harmony with the opinions of other authorities and with biblical teaching, that medieval scholars made their cosmological contribution.
But the most interesting point about Milton? s cosmology is this: why, when he knew of the discoveries Galileo had made with his telescope-as Book VIII clearly proves-and must have accepted the validity of the Copernican cosmology, wich our planetary system revolves, did Milton base his universe upon the Ptolematic pattern?
The answer lies in the literary advantages of accepting the older though erreoneous concept: it was known, and Copernicanism was strongly resisted and only slowly accepted; the Ptolematic system was orderly, it laid down limits within wich Milton found it easier to work, and it made God and man the two ends of a chain-man can ascend, onward and ever upward, to union with the divinity, and this could never have happened in an open-ended Copernican universe.
From the early through the late Middle Ages, Europeans moved from a disorganized, almost mystical way of thinking about the universe to an acceptance of a well-ordered, geocentric universe based upon the ideas of Greek philosophers such as Ptolemy and Aristotle. In this universe, the Earth was at the center and other heavenly bodies rotated around it in a series of concentric spheres . The entire system was powered by the primum mobile, or “Prime Mover,” which was the outermost sphere set in motion directly by God.
This Primum Mobile trasformed the love of God for mankind into energy and provided the impetus that made the whole universe rotate; It took some very creative thinking to make this universe work well. For example, the retrograde motion of the planets in which they sometimes seemed to be changing directions and moving backwards was explained by way of “epicycles” (see the diagram on the right below). Specifically, it was proposed that the planets rotated around a center point fixed in place on the sphere of that planet, causing the apparent change in the direction of planetary motion.
The seven known planets orbited the Earth, each one? atmosphere pushing round the one next inside it by friction ; all of this motion created a beautiful “music of the spheres” which could not be detected by humans (at least not until after they died and went to heaven), but which provided pleasure for angels and other supernatural beings. The outermost orbit, that of the planet Saturn, was itself surrounnded by the spere of the fixed stars (Book III,481) and outside that again was the vast expanse of the waters of firmament, also called by Milton the Crystalline firmament, as distinct from the waters on the earth and under the earth, had been used by God as an insulating jacket esigned to protect His Chaos through wich Satan flies at the end of Book II.
The whole universe was suspended from Heaven (also frequently called the Empyrean) by a golden chain. Since medieval Europeans had no conception of a vacuum, it was believed that the heavens were filled with a celestial fluid that flowed as the spheres of the universe rotated, thus sustaining the motion of the planets. In Heaven, God sits on His throne supported by four seraphim, the most powerful of the nine orders of angels wich had remained loyal. he middle Ages believed literally that it was Divine Love that made the world go round.
The rebel tenth who had revolted under Satan had been hurled down into another dread realm, Hell, created for them to occupy beyond the domain of Chaos and Old Night to the outer surface of our universe. Deceiving Uriel, regent of the sun, he flies down to Eden. The subsequent movements of both Satan and the guardians of Paradise are explained in Books IV and IX with detailed astronomical references.
Just as the physical universe was thought to be centered around the Earth, the psychological universe of Medieval Europeans revolved around humans. Any understanding of the psychology and behavior of individuals at that time requires a consideration of the person’s desire for eternal salvation. For Medieval European Christians, time had essentially two divisions: The brief and insignificant one in which they lived out their sinful lives, and the cosmically enduring one in which the suffering or joy of their souls would occur.
In Medieval Europe, there was no room for abnormality or nonconformity, as ANY deviation was considered to be the work of the devil. A hierarchy was everywhere in all things. People accepted their place in the social order no matter how lowly it might have been, and everything in the world had the potential for symbolizing something supernatural. People perceived messages from God in virtually every natural and human event. However, By the 17th century, the Copernican and Galilean models gained ground, and replaced this worldview.
It was still an attractive philosophical construction and one that persisted for a long time in the collective Renaissance consciousness. Milton, who chose to use the Ptolemaic cosmology for his Paradise Lost, was not alone in Renaissance literature to hold on to the Medieval worldview, if not in scientific earnest, as a poetical conceit (cf. Donne’s “The First Anniversary” and “Good Friday, 1613”). Nothing less than the creation and ordering of the universe defines the scope of Paradise Lost.
The epic explores its cosmological theme in theoretical discussions between Adam and Raphael and in the narrator’s descriptions and metaphors. Further, Milton imagines Satan surveying the universe in an expedition of discovery through a new world in his fall from Heaven and his passage through Chaos to Earth. Adam tries to understand the earth’s physical place in the universe and its associated ontological and theological value as the home of man.
He wonders aloud about “this Earth a spot, a grain,/ An Atom, with the Firmament compar’d/ And all her numbered Starrs, that seem to rowl /Spaces incomprehensible” (PL8. 17-21). Milton asks us to imagine the first man struggling with many of the same questions a Renaissance thinker, contemplating new models of the universe, must have considered. In response to the theory that everything revolves around the sun and not the earth, philosophers were forced to question the importance of man’s role in the universal order.
Raphael, responding to Adam’s concerns, suggests there is no reason “bodies bright and greater should not serve / The less not bright, nor Heav’n such journies run / Earth sitting still” (PL8. 87-9). Yet, the poem does not answer all such questions directly, and scholars often find it difficult to determine Milton’s attitude toward science. In these debates, it is helpful to remember that Milton was not a scientist but a theorist.
He did not contribute to scientific knowledge so much as to an understanding of what new scientific ideas might mean to traditional Christian cosmology. He meditates on this in conditional modes, as does Raphael in his description of the universe: “What if the Sun/ Be Centre to the World” (PL 8. 122-3). In the mid-sixteenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus and his followers, most notably Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, disturbed the entire Christian world by proposing a heliocentric model of the universe that displaced the earth, and by extension humanity, from the center.
As the Reformation progressed, resulting theological debates acquired political importance and Milton, as a politically conscious theologian, addressed these issues in Paradise Lost. Critics debate the extent of Milton’s interest in the advancement of science. Catherine Gimelli Martin notes that many find “his cosmology stands on the wrong side of the great scientific revolution initiated by Copernicus, furthered by Galileo, and completed by Newton” (“What If the Sun Be Centre” 233).
However, Martin argues that classifying Milton as scientifically backward is a mistake resulting from our modern society: “we too easily forget that during this formative period, no ‘advancement of learning,’ scientific or otherwise, could yet be conceived as succeeding apart from the requisite disclaimers about the folly of seeking superhuman knowledge and the proper assurances of humility before heights of Divine Wisdom” (Martin 231-2).
Modern readers tend to treat scientific knowledge as inevitably progressive and therefore expect in Milton an appreciation of our modern scientific values and knowledge. As a rationalist, Milton must have admired the new sciences but, as a classicist and a Christian theologian, he had not yet placed scientific knowledge ahead of piety or biblical knowledge. William Poole notes the danger of seeing in Milton an advanced scientific philosopher and warns: “we should be extremely wary forcing Milton into clothes he does not fit” (“Milton and Science: A Caveat” 18).
However, within the middle ground, scholars agree with Martin that Milton appreciated the value of scientific thought and development, although he may have doubted the reach of this branch of human knowledge. Cosmology appears in Paradise Lost through direct scientific references, incorporation of new scientific theories into various characters’ worldviews, and warnings against seeking beyond the limits of human knowledge. Martin observes: “Galileo or his telescope is approvingly cited on five separate occasions in Milton’s epic (the only contemporary reference to appear at all)” (Martin 238).