G.B. Johnston Hon. Mention 1997
W hile the War in Heaven, presented in Book VI of John Milton's Paradise Lost, operates as a refutation of the concept of glory associated with the epic tradition, the episode also serves a major theological purpose. It provides nothing less than a perfect example of how the Christian soldier should act obediently in combating evil, guarding against temptation, and remaining ever vigilant against the forces of darkness. It also offers the ultimate hope that Satan can be thwarted and comforts Christians in the knowledge that Satan cannot be victorious. At the same time, the example warns against the pretensions that Christians might have about being able to overcome Satan by themselves. Christians are reminded that the victory can only be won by the Son of God; at best, they can only confirm their allegiance and obedience to God through their service.
Throughout the poem Milton has tried to show two definitions of glory. The first lies in the assumption that war can bring glory to those who perform heroic deeds in its service. This is the view Satan holds, and is evidenced in his words to Abdiel, "But well thou com'st / Before thy fellows, ambitious to win / From me some plume" (vi, 159-161). The second defines glory not as something won, but something given. The Son affirms this definition when he explains to the loyal angels why he alone must end the war: "against me is all their rage, / Because the Father, to whom in Heaven supreme / Kingdom and power and glory appertains, / Hath honored me, according to his will" (vi, 813-816). James Holly Hanford perhaps best describes the conflicted feelings Milton had for war:
War, then constituted for Milton a precious illustration of the operation in man of spiritual forces and of the triumph in human affairs of the almighty will. Yet while valuing war for what it has to give of interest and beauty and insight into man's nobler nature, Milton none the less deplores it as an evidence and outcome of man's fallen state (221).
The "insight into man's nobler nature" is gained through war as "a precious illustration," not through the glory won on the battlefield. As an "illustration" war parallels the conflict and destruction brought into the world because of sin; therefore, the analogy of the Christian as a soldier holds true for Milton as it has for countless theologians. It is not war that Milton wants to do away with; it is the popular assumption that war holds glory and honor that he seeks to break down. Spiritual warfare against the powers of darkness is the command of God. God commands Michael and Gabriel to "lead forth my armèd Saints, / By thousands and by millions ranged for fight . . . / Them with fire and hostile arms / Fearless assault" (vi, 47-51). Hanford also notes that Milton's "hopefulness [for peace] is tempered, however, both by experience and by the implications of his theology, and he sees no prospect of doing away with war while human nature remains in its present unregeneracy" (222-223).
If Hanford is correct in suggesting that Milton liked war as an "illustration," then the War in Heaven must serve as an ultimate "illustration" of the duties of the Christian soldier. Stella Revard says, "In telling us that it is a war of resistance, however, Milton may be making it a type, perhaps the archetype, for that never ending struggle against evil in which the church militant is engaged" (112). If this is the case, then the absurdity of the episode (often attacked by critics as a flaw in the poem) should not obscure the deeper theological meaning. D. M. Rosenburg attributes the absurdity to "Satan's presuming that by 'implements of mischief' his troops will overwhelm the omnipotent deity" (74). He goes on to say that "Milton's satire, with its hyperbolic, fantastic, and grotesque features, undermines Satan's pretensions" (75). While this is true to a large extent, Stanley Fish goes somewhat further by suggesting that Milton makes very little distinction between the Satanic angels and the loyal angels. He says, "Clearly, the difficulty of regarding the War in Heaven as mock heroic is that the heroics of the good angels are also mocked" (180). If Rosenburg confines Milton's undercutting of the heroic to Satan, perhaps he is not quite as accurate as Fish who sees the undercutting going both ways. Perhaps the absurdity itself serves Milton's theological purposes for the Christian soldier in that it demonstrates how ridiculous it is to assume that heroic action serves as a means to attain glory.
One of the truly wonderful moments in the poem comes with recognition of the parallel that Milton draws between Raphael and himself. If Milton is using the war episode to instruct the Christian soldier in obedience, it should also be remembered that Raphael is using the story in the same manner with Adam: "how, last, unfold / The secrets of another world, perhaps / Not lawful to reveal? Yet for thy good / This is dispensed" (v, 568-571). As Raphael ponders the question of how he can make Adam understand the lesson, he decides that he can liken the spiritual to the earthly. He seems to like this idea and sums up the idea in his rhetorical question, "What if Earth / Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein / Each to other like, more than on Earth is thought" (v, 574-576). It seems that Milton, too, wants to use the spiritual example for his audience as well. At the end of Raphael's war narrative, he explains the purpose behind the story:
The discord which befell, and war in Heaven
Among the Angelic Powers, and the deep fall
Of those too high aspiring who rebelled
With Satan; he who envies now thy state,
Who now is plotting how he may seduce
Thee also from obedience . . .
But listen not to his temptations; warn
Thy weaker, let it profit thee to have heard,
By terrible example, the reward
Of disobedience; firm they might have stood,
Yet fell; remember, and fear to transgress. (vi, 897-912)
Milton's message to his "fit audience . . . though few" (vii, 31) is exactly the same as that set down by Raphael. Milton warns the Christian soldier that he has an enemy, Satan, who wants to destroy mankind. Satan's most powerful weapon is his tempting rhetoric, but the Christian soldier must not give in to temptation. Secondly, Christian soldiers must heed the "terrible example" of Satan and the rebellious angels, taking notice that as creatures subject to the same authority, they too may fall if they do not "fear to transgress."
In this carefully constructed lesson, Abdiel is the first example of what is expected of a Christian soldier. For Milton, Abdiel represents the first line of defense in the spiritual war. Abdiel's unwavering faith in the face of great adversity inspires the Christian to stand firm when tempted to do evil. In Paul's writings to the Ephesians he advises them to "Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil" (KJV Eph. 6:11). In the following verses Paul explains what "the whole armour of God" entails:
14 Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;
15 And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;
16 Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.
17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (KJV Eph. 6:14-17)
It seems obvious that Milton draws on this biblical reference as a basis for his theological comparison between a heavenly war and a spiritual battle on earth fought between Christians and the powers of Satan. The martial analogy given by Paul fits the epic tradition perfectly, and allows Milton to comment on the issue of faithful service to God on the part of angels and men.
After Abdiel fails to convince Satan and the rebellious angels that they are wrong to go against the authority of God, he leaves their company in a manner that is in keeping with his faithfulness:
From amidst them forth he passed,
Long way through hostile scorn, which he sustained
Superior, nor of violence feared aught;
And with retorted scorn his back he turned
On those proud towers, to swift destruction doomed. (v. ll. 903-907)
Although at this point, Milton has not dressed and armed his angels for war against Satan, Abdiel has, in effect, "put on the whole armour of God." He carries "the shield of faith," he girds his loins "with truth," and he wears "the breastplate of righteousness." Clad with this protection, Abdiel has no fear of the evil assembled around him. The idea of turning one's back conveys a sense of vulnerability because one cannot see the danger coming from behind, nor does the back armor afford a great deal of protection in terms of literal armor. With the "whole armour of God," Abdiel can turn "his back" without fear because of the omni-directional protection implied in the term "whole."
God rewards Abdiel with praise that serves as an example of the type of reward waiting for the Christian soldier. The commendation "Servant of God, well done,"(vi, 29) places emphasis on Abdiel's service. God explains the real significance of Abdiel's actions by pointing out that bravery in the face of physical harm is less significant than the bravery required to go against the masses: "And for the testimony of truth hast borne / Universal reproach, far worse to bear / Than violence" (vi, 33-35). In this light, it is easier to understand why God calls the impending battle against Satan the "easier conquest" (vi, 37). For the Christian soldier, "stand[ing] approved in the sight of God" (vi, 36) is made possible by wearing "the whole armour of God," that symbolic protective gear of truth, righteousness, faith and salvation. If standing against the masses is the harder conquest, then the Christian soldier must have a long-suffering perseverance like that demonstrated by Abdiel. Perhaps the Apostle Paul left out one of the pieces of armor in his list: the back plate of perseverance.
If Abdiel is the first, Michael is the second example for the Christian soldier. As the second example, Michael represents a deeper, more advanced theological paradigm. While Abdiel's faithful service is more easily recognizable, due, in part, to God's acknowledgment, understanding Michael's service requires a greater understanding of the principles of the Christian soldier. As has been mentioned, Michael receives a direct command from God to lead the loyal angels against the rebels and to evict them from the kingdom of Heaven. There is no hesitation on his part; he immediately sets out to obey the divine mandate. Raphael describes how Satan "Saw where the sword of Michael smote, and felled / Squadrons at once: with huge two-handed sway / Brandished aloft, the horrid edge came down / Wide-wasting" (vi, 250-253). Evidently, Michael strives to do his utmost against God's foes. Here he seems truly heroic, but his labor is cut short as he makes the mistaken assumption that he can end the war: "The Great Archangel from his warlike toil / Surceased, and glad, as hoping here to end / Intestine war in Heaven, the Arch-foe subdued" (vi, 257-259). Michael knows that bringing down the enemy general is a sound military tactic; for without its general, the army's troops merely scatter in disarray.
At this point it must be noted that Michael's sword "from the armoury of God" should be recognized by the Christian soldier as a symbol for the Bible, God's holy word. The reference from Paul in Ephesians 6:17 has already been pointed out, but Hebrews 4:12 provides the reference for Michael's fight with Satan:
12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (KJV Heb. 4:12)
When Michael swings his sword at Satan, the "dividing asunder of soul and spirit" is exactly what happens. The sword, "deep entering, sheared / All his right side" (vi, 326-327). The stroke, however, does not decide the battle, even though Satan is carried from the field on a litter. Raphael explains that the angels cannot die in such a manner; therefore, Satan quickly recovers, proving to the Christian soldier that even the best attempts of men and angels cannot defeat Satan. The Christian soldier, no matter how well armed, can only stop Satan momentarily, and therefore must be ever vigilant.
On the third day of the war there is a change of command. Michael receives yet another order, that being to stand aside. The Son commends the loyal angels under Michael's command for their faithful service, just as Abdiel was commended: "Faithful hath been your warfare, and of God / Accepted, fearless in his righteous cause" (vi, 803-804). While Abdiel receives a personal commendation, Michael is not singled out for his expert leadership. Ordinarily, a general is removed from command due to ineptness, but that is not what is happening here. On the contrary, Michael has performed his task skillfully. The universal approval for all the loyal angels is a reflection of not only their service, but of Michael's as well. On this note, Fish expertly sums up what he believes to be the ultimate lesson drawn from Michael and his angels:
Whether or not they have been successful in an absolute sense, Michael's warriors have successfully discharged their obligations. Within the framework permitted to them, they do what they can, and the intervention of a power greater than theirs in no way alters the reality of their personal achievements. (God may not need their work, but they do.) The angels are joyful because Christ's coming signals the completion of their tour of duty and thus gives them legitimate cause for self-congratulation. (194)
Abdiel and Michael may both have wanted to end the war themselves, but they joyfully obey the Son's command to stand aside.
Echoing Fish's observations, Revard makes a crucial point regarding the relationship between the Christian soldiers and the Son
For embattled Christians and loyal angels alike the war is paradoxical. Theirs is a struggle they cannot win: none but the Son of God possesses the power to crush Satan. But should they for one moment doubt the value of this struggle, Messiah and his cause would be undermined and they themselves undone. Satan must be resisted by the faithful on earth and in Heaven. While Christ neither needs nor will use their strength to effect the victory itself, it is their support that will make the victory glorious (116-117).
The Son does have "the power to crush Satan," but he does not: "Yet half his strength he put not forth, but checked / His thunder in mid-volley, for he meant / Not to destroy but root them out of Heaven" (vi, 853-855). Since the Son does not fully employ his power against Satan, obviously the Son has no need for Michael and his angels to help. Their effort up till now has been a stalemate; in fact, this is how Milton interprets Revelation 12 : 7-10, the biblical basis for the whole war episode. As Revard correctly points out the loyal angels give their support by having faith in the Son and their faith coupled with their complete willingness to play the spectator results in a true acknowledgment of real glory.
In order that the loyal angels may understand why their efforts are not required, the Son explains:
Therefore to me their doom he hath assigned,
That they may have their wish, to try with me
In battle which the stronger proves, they all,
Or I alone against them, since by strength
They measure all. (vi, 817-821)
Here again is the refutation of martial glory. If the rebel angels "measure all" by the force of their arms, the Son will teach them exactly how they should measure themselves against him. In the same manner, the Son's sole victory will prove to all his supremacy, not because he needs to win glory by victory, but because the loyal angels, as well as Christians, need to have their faith supported by this demonstration of the Son's awesome power.
The Son goes forth alone to secure the peace and restore Heaven to its proper order. God says, "War wearied hath performed what war can do, / And to disordered rage let loose the reins, / With mountains, as with weapons, armed, which makes / Wild work in Heaven, and dangerous to the main" (vi, 695-698). Warfare, as the direct result of sin, has transformed Heaven into a kind of Hell. God explains to the Son that "the glory may be thine / Of ending this great war, since none but thou / Can end it" (vi, 701-703). The Son's involvement in the war symbolizes his crucifixion as he bears all the sins of mankind. As only he can restore heaven from its degradation, so too can only he restore man from his fallen state. In Book III, after the Son has volunteered to die in Man's place, God calls the Son "worthiest;" likewise here, God uses the same word "worthiest," affirming the Son's authority over the rest of Heaven's subjects. Of course Milton draws attention to the comparison by having the Son undertake the battle and emerge victorious on the third day of the conflict. Christians immediately recognize the significance of the third day as the day in which the Son rises victoriously from the grave. By this comparison, Milton affirms the role of the Son as Savior, both in Heaven and on earth. Similarly, Fish's statement that "Christ's coming signals the completion of [the loyal angels'] tour of duty" implies also that the second coming of Christ can be seen by the Christian soldier in the same light. These three victories of the Son closely parallel each other in Milton's theology.
In Book I Satan says, "Innumerable force of Spirits armed / That durst dislike his reign . . . / In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven, / And shook his throne" (i, 101-105). Satan's own term "dubious battle" carries two meanings. Satan means that the war's outcome was in question, suggesting that they might have won. The other meaning calls into doubt Satan's optimistic tone. Raphael's account of the battle directly refutes Satan's claim: "Under the burning wheels / The steadfast empyrean shook throughout, / All but the throne itself of God" (vi, 832-834). The picture Raphael gives in Book V of God and the Son light-heartedly shrugging off Satan's vain attempt to usurp the throne shows that the outcome of the war was never in question. Everything in Heaven shook except the throne of God. It is the Son's mighty chariot that does the shaking of the "steadfast empyrean." If the Son's might alone completely overwhelms the Satanic horde and does not shake God's throne, how then can Satan claim with any authority to have shaken the throne with his puny force (in comparison with the Son's)? Also, God knew the outcome beforehand; therefore, God was never concerned that Satan might prevail.
As a final breaking down of the glory associated with war, Michael informs Adam that the Son's ultimate victory over Satan will not come in the form of a battle: "Dream not of their fight / As of a duel . . . / Not by destroying Satan, but his works / In thee and in thy seed" (xii, 386-395). Not only was the Son remaining obedient to God's specific command to throw Satan out of Heaven by holding back his power in the battle, but the Son knew that the way to defeat Satan was not found in violence, but in divine love. For the Christian soldier this may seem somewhat disheartening at first, but as the true nature of spiritual warfare is revealed, that it is merely an analogy for perseverance under excruciating conditions, the Christian soldier will welcome the final proof that the Son's glory is consistent with God's concept of glory. The Son's sacrifice establishes once and for all that Satan's notion of martial glory is hopelessly wrong.
In the meantime, the Christian soldier must remain on guard. The inspiring picture of the Son's ultimate victory may not provide enough comfort. Adam recognizes this dilemma; fearing the power of Satan's forces on earth he asks, " will they not deal / Worse with his followers than with him they dealt" (xii, 483-484)? To which Michael replies, "Be sure they will, . . . but from Heaven / He to his own a Comforter will send, / The promise of the Father, who shall dwell, / His Spirit, within them" (xii, 485-488). As Michael goes on to explain, it is the Holy Spirit which will clad the Christian soldier in "the whole armour of God" spoken of by Paul. This image of "a Comforter" promised by God helps the Christian soldier in the tough times to come.
The war, then, illustrates a powerfully divine message to those suffering in the service of God on earth. While providing inspiring figures such as Abdiel and Michael, the war serves as an example for the Christian soldier to follow. Dressed in the "whole armour of God" and armed with God's word, the Christian soldier must stand ready to do battle against Satan's legions, even when it seems that the only thing one can do is to stand. The final victory is reserved exclusively for the Son, but Christian soldiers, like loyal angels, must not think of their service as useless. In resisting the devil, they may only come away having thwarted his designs temporarily, but the important thing for them to remember is that they themselves did not fall. As this last point seems to be Raphael's whole motivation for revealing the story to Adam, Milton does not want the point to go unnoticed.
Instead of glory belonging to those engaged in battle (on both sides), the notion of glory is clarified through the Son's example and by Milton's manipulation of the elements of the epic tradition. For Milton, putting down the epic tradition in favor of Christian doctrine exemplifies his thoughts on war. As a realistic pacifist, Milton saw war as the result of sin, but knew that because of the presence of sin in a post-lapsarian world, war on earth would only be ended by the Son, just as he ended it in Heaven.
Fish, Stanley Eugene. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967.
Hanford, James Holly. "Milton and the Art of War." John Milton, Poet and Humanist: essays by James Holly Hanford. Cleveland: Press of Western Reserve U, 1966. 185-223.
Revard, Stella Purce. The War in Heaven. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1980.
Rosenburg, D. M. "Epic Warfare in Cowley and Milton." CLIO 22.1 (1992): 67-80.