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The world I see around me every day is one based on reason, scientific principles, tolerance, freedom, and most of all, a deep-rooted skepticism toward any form of absolute truth. When I think about Paradise Lost, I cannot help but to ponder what implications Paradise Lost has in this cold post-modern world. The world was a very different place in 1666, and not to say Milton’s ideas where meaningful to everyone in the 17th century, but for many people today Paradise Lost is, to put it rather bluntly, little more than a fairy tale. My thoughts have led me to one question; can a post-modern society such as ours learn anything from Paradise Lost that we can use to help better our world, or do our vast technological skills and post-modern philosophies provide a sufficient means for us to find joy, happiness and meaning in our lives?
The post-modern world is full of complexity, skepticism, and moral ambiguity. Jean-Francois Lyotard, in “Defining the Postmodern,” explains that post-modernism arose from a rejection of modernism and its failed ideologies, ideologies that gave us such memorial events as Auschwitz, and have left us with deeply engrained feelings of skepticism toward our world and ourselves. Lyotard illustrates how mankind, in a post-modern world, “is in the condition of running after the process of accumulating new objects of practice and thought,” which to Lyotard is “something like a destiny towards a more and more complex condition.” Lyotard points out the implications of this ever increasing complexity when he observes that “our demands for security, identity, and happiness…appear today irrelevant in the face of this sort of obligation to complexify, mediate, memorize and synthesize every object,” and “consequently, the claim for simplicity, in general, appears today that of a barbarian” (1612-5).
Our world is in every way leading us into, as Lyotard points out, “a more and more complex condition” (1614). Truth, for example, was once thought of as a single transcendent idea, accessible by a means such as science, religion, or philosophy. However, as citizens of a post-modern world, we have to deal with a more complex definition of truth than ever before. Friedrich Nietzsche, in 1873, said, “truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions; metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigor” (878).
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Our increasingly complex condition, coupled with the evermore-ambiguous nature of meanings, leaves one without much to cling to. A mathematical formula that details the probability of the “Big Bang” along with Darwin’s theory has reduced human beings to products of a grand coincidence. The implications of this are horrifying; the definitions of good, evil, right, wrong, are all drawn into question. Human beings are forced to ask themselves whether or not their life, or anyone else’s life, has any more value than that of the smallest bacteria. But even if we can show human life to have value, we are then confronted with the question of finding meaning in our lives. The multitude of religions around the world promise mankind a meaningful life and a way to heaven, based on faith. However, faith too, by its very definition cannot survive the skepticism and scientific scrutiny of our postmodern world, and individuals that find truth in religion are looked upon by the post-modern world as having found their own “version” of truth. Truth, when thought of in this way, leaves many people in a situation where they feel they are no longer searching for truth, but rather for some “regime of truth” to which they can buy into, that is, until a better truth comes their way.
So how does the post-modern individual, with their ingrained skepticism of all things old and once hailed as truth, find anything in a poem like Paradise Lost that can return some remnant of truth to their own lives? The answer, I believe, can be found in an example in my own life. I have a friend, I will call her Simone because I do not think enough people have that name, said to me: “I don’t know what I want to do with my life; I don’t know what to believe in.” Simone is clearly a product of our post-modern society, and her questions imply that she is simply searching for her truth, calling, or at the very least some sort of meaning in her life. I responded only by asking her as few simple questions: What makes you happy? What makes you angry? What makes you cry? What makes you want to change something about the world? I then told her that the answers to those questions would guide her to her passion.
Passion is in all of us. How it got there, either by an evolutionary process or by God’s creative power, may be a subject for debate; however, either way, passion is undeniably part of who we are. Passion, arguably the one thing that separates us from the animals, is the one force that can survive the scorching skepticism of science and post-modern philosophy. Passion then, if one can find it within themselves as well as within the world around them, can offer the meaning that so many people feel is lacking in their lives. It may appear rather bold to assert that passion is a force powerful enough to give meaning to someone’s life, but here is the point where Paradise Lost ceases to be a 300-year-old poem and becomes timeless.
In Paradise Lost, Adam does not have to find his passion because it exists in him from the moment of his creation; Adam asks God for a suitable mate only a few moments after he becomes alive (Turner 658). In fact, Milton even implies that passion is what separates Adam and Eve from the angels. Raphael’s warning to Adam in book eight of Paradise Lost reveals the nature of angelic love when Raphael says:
In loving thou dost well, in passion not,
Wherein true Love consists not; love refines
The thoughts, and heart enlarges, hath his seat
In Reason, and is judicious, is the scale,
By which to heav’nly Love thou maist ascend. (8.588-92).
Human love, unlike angelic love, is built on more than just “Reason;” Adam is only “half-abashed” by Raphael’s warning because Raphael is only half-right in his assessment of Adam’s love for Eve (Turner 652-3). In human love, passion can coexist with reason in a way that makes human love more complex than angelic love (656). However, Adam’s passion, which is clearly for Eve, eventually leads to his fall; Adam eats of the forbidden fruit because he cannot live without Eve: “How can I live without thee” (Milton 9.908).
Milton’s lesson about the nature and power of passion, as seen by Adam’s willingness to condemn himself to certain death in order to sustain his passion for Eve, can be applied to our own post-modern world. Adam clearly values his passion, not just over reason, but life itself, and shows the importance of passion to human nature. If this lesson holds true, then the only question left to ask is how one can go about discovering their passion.
The 1998 film Pleasantville beautifully illustrates the process of self-discovery that leads to the realization of one’s passions in a way that we, as children of the post-modern era, can relate to. The “black-and-white” residents of Pleasantville have everything they need; they live in what could be called a perfect world. However, they also live in a world without passion, but more importantly, each citizen of Pleasantville lives a life without meaning. The town of Pleasantville at the end of the movie, now fully in color, is more than just full of passion; it is full of people who have found meaning in their lives. Jennifer finds her passion for learning, David for his mother, and Mr. Johnson for his art. Before they found their passions, they were just as lost as us, as inhabitants of a post-modern world, but now that they have found their passions they are better off than us in at least one way because their lives now contain more meaning than our own.
The answer to the question of exactly what Paradise Lost can teach us as inhabitants of a post-modern world is something that we have forgotten about ourselves: we have passion inside of us that has the potential to change our lives and our world, just like it changed the lives and world of the citizens of Pleasantville.
Foucault, Michel. Truth and Power. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001, 1667-70.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “Defining the Postmodern.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001, 825-32.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: Nortan, 1993. 1-304.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001, 874-84
Turner, James Grantham. “Passion and Subordination.” Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York: Norton, 1993. 643-61.