The Power of the Mind in Paradise Lost
Milton's Paradise Lost is a magnificent piece of literature, with many interwoven
themes and insights into human nature. All of these make attractive topics for essay
writing. For instance, it would be tempting to write about the relevance of the story as
seen in the principal fallen angels. Equally tempting would be a comparison of Satan
with Adam in terms of their heroic natures. Still, the most pervasive and most easily
proven theme of the poem has to do with the power of the mind to make life pleasant or
unpleasant, irrespective of the body's location. Milton establishes this theme through the
thoughts and actions of Satan, through the actions of the fallen angels, and through the
actions and feelings of Adam and Eve.
Satan seems adroit at creating his own mental environment-- his feelings are the opposite of what most people would expect from circumstances. He begins in Heaven where he should be happy, but he is unhappy about having a secondary role. His unhappiness leads to a revolt that results in his banishment to Hell. The fiery punish- ments of Hell steel him not to repentance, but to greater evil "for the mind and spirit remains invincible" (1: 139). Despite Hell's fires, he prefers rule over an infernal kingdom to supernal servitude. After establishing Pandemonium, he seeks to destroy Eden in order to wreak vengeance on God. He hopes to make God sorry for creating humanity. On catching sight of Earth hanging below heaven, Satan is profoundly moved by their beauty. He should feel joy. "But [he] in none of these / find place or refuge . . . so much more [he feels] Torment within" (9: 121). Earth's beauty is as meaningless as Heaven's if he cannot defeat God. He says, "For only in destroying I find ease / To my relentless thoughts" (9: 129). Satan's indomitable will causes him to be happiest in Hell and saddest in Paradise.
The fallen angels demonstrate the power of the mind to make the best of a bad thing. They have been cast down into Hell to undergo everlasting torment. Rather than lying around bemoaning their fate, the angels pull themselves out of the fiery lake and set about rebuilding their lives. Despite the gloom and the discomfort, they build a city. After Satan undertakes to seek out Eden, the other angels waste no time in busying themselves. In the words of the poet, "each his several way / Pursues, as inclination or sad choice leads him perplexed where he may likeliest find / Truce to his restless thoughts, and entertain / The irksome hours" (2: 524-527). Some run chariot races. Others engage in tearing up the landscape. "Others more mild, / Retreated in a silent valley, sing / With notes angelical to many a harp" (2: 546-548). Others still take part in philosophical debate "in discourse sweet" (2: 555). These angels give more an impression of being on vacation than of undergoing everlasting punishment. As long as they keep their minds occupied, Hell's torments are not so bad.
The experience of Adam and Eve before and after the fall clearly illustrates the
power of the mind to dictate the quality of existence. Before the fall, they live in an idyllic
state. Their lives consist of tending the garden, loving one another, and worshipping
God. In spite of this seemingly perfect setting, they experience disquiet even before their
fall. Eve languishes in discontent over her role as Adam's work mate. She wishes to be
more her own woman. Her restlessness troubles Adam, who worries about her. Eve's
dissatisfaction leads her to try to better herself by eating of the apple. When he learns of
Eve's lapse, Adam anguishes over her doom and his loss. To share her fate, he eats of
the apple also. At first, Adam and Eve notice no difference in their lives. Shortly
however, they awaken to a new awareness. They find themselves immersed in a sea of
blame shifting and recrimination. They pause briefly as grief sets in and they try
unsuccessfully to pull themselves together. "They [sit] them down to weep," after the full
impact of their loss hits them (9: 1121). This calm does not last long. "Their inward state
of mind, calm region once, / And full of peace, now tossed and turbulent:" the mental
repose they had once known is forever lost (9: 1126). They finish Book 9, "in mutual
accusation spent . . . but neither self-condemning. / And of their vain contest appeared
no end" (1187-1189). Physically, they are still in paradise; mentally, they have entered
the outskirts of Hell.
Milton shows clearly the power of these characters' minds to create personal Heavens and Hells. Satan is miserable because he is jealous of God, and this drives him to become God's opposite. His only happiness comes from thoughts of destruction and revenge. Servitude in Heaven is for him intolerable torment. His mind is a more terrible place than any Hell fashioned by God. For the fallen angels, Hell is not such a bad place. They keep themselves amused and revel in the freedom to do as they please. Hell's fires seem to burn less brightly because they keep their minds occupied. Eden is no longer paradise for Adam and Eve after their minds are opened to the knowledge of good and evil. The fruit that at first tastes sweet leaves a bitter aftertaste. The beauty around them is meaningless in the context of the ugliness they experience within. The erstwhile lovers become sources of mutual guilt and grief. Their opened minds are the worst of Hells. The mental states of these characters, rather than their physical circumstances, determine their happiness or sorrow.