Throughout the decades, various intellectuals had their own view of the universe and understood the concepts of Heaven and Hell differently. The distinction in perceptions depended on various factors, such as the historical period, societal rules, personal experiences, and philosophies. For instance, an English poet and philosopher John Milton viewed Heaven as pure and bright, while Hell was the total opposite and represented evil and darkness (Lawry, p. 1). He believed that individuals “derive their existence and value from union with God, the source of being and meaning and beauty” (Lawry, p. 1). In general, Milton’s work is one of the first significant visualizations and revisions of the notion of an afterlife as it provides millions of people with a general view of how the universe operates. Therefore, the given literature review will focus on conceptualizing the notions of Hell in Milton’s writing.
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It is primarily necessary to mention that the early representation of Hell by John Milton was highly medieval; however, with time, the poet rejected this concept. The intellectual’s poem “Paradise Lost” was written with an essential consideration of the works and opinions of medieval authors (Myers, “Milton’s Theology”, p. 34). It is clear that without paying attention to the literature of the past, Milton would not be able to develop “Paradise Lost” as he did (Myers, “Milton’s Theology, p. 34). It is through the comparison and the understanding of distinguishing features of various time frames that people can understand the concept of Hell. On the other hand, throughout the poem, the readers can experience that Milton started to reject the views connected to the Middle Ages, left the problems of the past alone, and embraced the future (Lawry, p. 13). Thus, “Paradise Lost,” written long after the medieval period, portrayed the final break with the old tradition, which dominated society for many years, and brought new purpose and opinions.
According to Milton’s thought, Hell is the total opposite of Heaven. While discussing Hell, the poet sees it in various ways, which both describe it in comparison to paradise and as a separate world. Through the representation of different events happening there, Milton shows that it is a place for punishment and an area where demons exist while imitating life in Heaven (Otten, p. 40). The significant difference is that the interactions, songs, and contests of demons are all disgusting and unethical in comparison to the purity and genuine beauty of Heaven (Lawry, p. 8). Milton is able to describe demons in such a way that continually gives a chance to the readers to see their distinguishing features from the angels who serve God (Hart, p. 2). The poet mentions four specific demons, who speak to the council, and specifies the names of many more of them (Hart, p. 2). Even though the purpose behind this listing is not clear enough, it provides an opportunity to compare angels and demons.
The concept of Hell takes a new form in Milton’s overall approach that influenced various representations of the given place. For instance, there is a tendency to view Hell as a derivate of one’s mind in which a person descends to by free will (Williams, p. 46). In “Paradise Lost,” Milton mentions that every human being carries the ability to make choices without any limitation or interference (Williams, p. 46). This idea means that individuals are responsible for their actions, and no one pushes them to the terrible world of Hell. According to the poet, Hell is also a place where Satan resides, which is one of the critical features of the conceptualization (Samuel, p. 26). There have been a considerable number of debates regarding the fact that Satan is portrayed heroically in the work of John Milton since it is the central character of the poem (Pace, p. 3). However, even though Satan, in Milton’s work, acts like a hero, God is the one who has to be admired and idealized (Pace, p. 3). Thus, through the portrayal of Hell, the intellectual suggests its central figure and indicates that people enter it by free will.
In addition, there are many other characters and aspects, except Satan, that made this place unique and opposite to Heaven. Various vital figures in theology and religious dogma gave Hell several different features, ranging from physical location to a state of mentality (Gardiner, p. 115). Milton’s Hell has an unqualified certainty, and this is because the author is a poet of absolute (Herman, p. 7). His descriptions of Hell are complete and detailed, which gives a chance to take into consideration all the necessary elements of it. Another crucial feature of Hell is its tight relationship with the idea of punishment (Thuswaldner and Russ, p. 14). Different types of torture are correlated with particular sins committed during life and are the main way of treating individuals in Hell (Thuswaldner and Russ, p. 14). Consequently, it can be stated that Milton’s Hell includes many distinguishing elements that played an essential role in constructing a clear view of this place.
Furthermore, one of the crucial characteristics of Milton’s Hell is its division into four different components. The first one is the external Hell, where all the punishments for sins take place (Jordan, p. 19). The second Hell is the area of disobedience and propagation of evil (Jordan, p. 19). The third one is hell-on-earth, and the fourth is the psychological Hell (Jordan, p. 19). Milton believed that internal Hell is the worst of the four since it cannot be avoided as any other particular place (Jordan, p. 19). While the physical Hell generates the hierarchy of demons, the psychological one creates Satan and demons in the mind of an individual without any order (Williams, p. 40). Another essential feature of the four hells is that they are connected to the idea of punishment and involve different tortures for sins (Thuswaldner and Russ, p. 14). Hence, for Milton, Hell is not a single place where all the actions are happening but rather a mixture of areas with different activities but one purpose – to punish.
Despite all the descriptions of Hell by Milton, his work received much critique from different researchers. It was stated that “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty, when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it” (Hart, p. 2). In other words, Miltonic Hell and his overall approach to revising these connotations led to misunderstandings and criticism regarding the accurate representation of this place. The leading judgment that Milton received concerning his view of Hell is that Satan and the devils do not struggle enough in the poem (Hart, p. 2). Moreover, it has been proved that negative comments regarding Milton’s Hell are correct since the depiction is too complicated and inconsistent (Hart, p. 2). This deviation was created because researchers found both favorable and adverse comments about Hell in the writings of John Milton.
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Nevertheless, the author’s work is still a significant point of influence in deconstructing the idea of Hell. While it is often associated with finality and frustration, which leads to the factor of escapism, Milton is able to provide different representations of this place (Buenting, p. 77). Milton’s description of Hell can also suggest valuable insight into preserving ecology if the text is analyzed through a neoteric approach (Bruckner et al, p. 67). Moreover, with the help of the poet’s work, Satan can be understood as the primary inhabitant of Hell, a master persuader, playing a critical role in interpreting the overall revisions of Milton (Knudsen, p. 30). “Paradise Lost” encourages us to accept that one of the critical aspects of Hell is the fact that the notion of freedom plays a central role in establishing whether a person becomes its inhabitant (Myers, “Predestination and Freedom”, p. 31). It is important to note that the Miltonic illustration of Hell and Heaven is designed around the idea of humanity, and God is represented as an unlikeable being (Pace, p. 3). Overall, it can be concluded that the contributions of Milton are essential for the broad understanding of the concept of Hell.
In conclusion, after analyzing the poem of Milton, it becomes clear that Hell is an extremely complicated concept that includes a significant number of details in itself. In other words, Hell cannot be studied as a standalone subject because a number of essential ideas are tightly associated with it. Even though Milton’s work has received several negative comments because of its complexity, it is still essential for the understanding of Hell and various processes happening there. It may be challenging to understand Hell because of the existence of contrasting ideas around this topic; therefore, this literature review focused on discussing John Milton’s vision of Hell. As a suggestion for future research, it can be useful to study the works of other intellectuals that represent different periods and highlight the variations in their perspectives.
After conducting a considerable amount of research and completing a literature review, it became clear that understanding hell is vital for individuals’ overall interpretation of the universe. Philosophers, writers, and scientists provide human beings with their thoughts and knowledge regarding the topics of Heaven and Hell. Therefore, the opinions may differ from person to person, depending on the views of intellectuals that they favor. For instance, the ideas of John Milton encourage readers to look at Hell from various sides and broaden their perceptions about this place. This reflection will prove that Milton plays a critical role in shaping modern people’s understanding of Hell and developing a sense of responsibility in the population.
The era in which Milton lived required the revision of many ideals. The author questioned the unshakable concepts of good and evil embodied in the images of God and the devil. It was Milton who was one of the first to approach the Bible as a literary phenomenon. The poet’s choice of specific artistic means transforms the biblical interpretation (Herman, p. 7). Milton portrays Satan as a beautiful being in his rebellious grandeur, magnifying his grandiose tragic figure. However, to please the Christian doctrine, portrays him angry and vengeful, instilling in the toad, then in the snake (Buenting, p. 79). Satan’s famous admission that Hell is within himself sets a distinctive tone for the narrative and, at the same time, communicates the primary truth, later accepted by all world literature.
Furthermore, the poet delivers an essential idea that Hell and paradise are not only beyond human comprehension but can also be found within people’s souls. Milton’s Satan appears in rebellious greatness; he often exalts his tragic figure, which goes beyond the biblical concept (Hart, p. 3). This is a manifestation of social investment where Hell is viewed as a source of tragedy. The image of Adam as opposed to Satan and his fall is depicted as a conscious decision of a hero who, seeing the fall of Eve, commits his sinful act while being fully aware of this. This shows that human beings are free to act in accordance with God’s laws (Williams, p. 46). People are responsible for their actions, and they can create their inner Heaven and Hell themselves.
One of the main ways through which Milton can be useful in creating the perception of Hell among contemporary world citizens is that he breaks stereotypes around this topic. Since ancient times, people held firm positions around the idea of Hell (Bernstein 9). While some human beings completely dismissed its existence, others referred to it as a symbol of despair and alienation (Bernstein, p. 9). Nowadays, many people believe that Hell is simply a place beneath their feet where all the dead individuals who were disobedient to God suffer. Nevertheless, as indicated by Cunningham, it is essential to develop an idea that Hell is a “force ruling a large portion of the world, gathering troops, and waging battle against the good.” It is not a place that becomes available to enter only after death but rather a concept that is determined to take over someone’s soul during a lifetime (Cunningham). For this reason, reading and interpreting Milton’s work can be essential in developing this opinion and creating a different perception of Hell.
In addition, Milton encourages individuals to understand that, as well as intellectuals, are responsible for investing in the development of perceptions concerning the idea of Hell. Walls suggested that anyone can deny the existence of paradise, hell, or various forces that rule over the world; however, no one should be indifferent about these matters (p. 1). A continual awareness is required to exist mainly because the population needs to be educated and hold significant knowledge about the fundamental questions of existence. For instance, the existing research on the theme of the afterlife had an enormous influence on contemporary culture, art, and literature and inspired millions of people to study the writing of the past (Finney, p. 1). Even though it may seem that the concept of Hell does not carry any importance for the organization of contemporary culture, its basic understanding is vital for every aspect of our life. With a substantial amount of knowledge of Hell, people can educate future generations and prove that human life extends far beyond the grave (Lange, p. 2). Thus, by suggesting various interpretations of Hell, Milton requires people to be responsible for the delivery of the most accurate information.
Overall, it is generally clear that everyone holds a different view of Hell. The differences of interpretations depending on the type of knowledge people receive during a lifetime, the religious groups they belong to, and the intellectuals whose works they read. After completing the literature review, it can be stated that the ideas of John Milton are quite diverse and offer various interpretations of Hell. Through his work, the poet makes a massive investment in the cultural development of modern society and encourages people to deepen their knowledge about Hell. Consequently, this think-piece describes the work of Milton as essential for breaking stereotypes and creating a feeling of responsibility to spread fundamental knowledge.
- Bernstein, Alan E. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Cornell University Press, 2020.
- Bruckner, Lynne Dickson et al. Ecological Approaches to Early Modern English Texts. Routledge, 2016.
- Buenting, Joel. The Problem of Hell: A Philosophical Anthology. Routledge, 2016.
- Cunningham, Vinson. “How the Idea of Hell Has Shaped the Way We Think.” The New Yorker, 2019. Web.
- Finney, Mark. Resurrection, Hell and the Afterlife: Body and Soul in Antiquity, Judaism and Early Christianity. Routledge, 2016.
- Gardiner, Eileen. Medieval Visions of Heaven and Hell. Routledge, 2018.
- Hart, Jonathan Locke. “Comparative Milton and Poetics.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, vol. 43, no. 2, 2016, pp. 282-302.
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- Knudsen, Live Hvalsbråten. Powerful Persuaders: A Rhetorical Analysis of John Milton’s Characters In Paradise Lost. University of Oslo, 2017.
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- Lawry, Jon S. The shadow of Heaven: Matter and Stance in Milton’s poetry. Cornell University Press, 2019.
- Myers, Benjamin. “Predestination and Freedom in Milton’s Paradise Lost.” Scottish Journal of Theology, vol. 59, no. 1, 2006, pp. 64-80.
- Myers, Benjamin. Milton’s Theology of Freedom: Volume 98 of Arbeiten Zur Kirchengeschichte. Walter De Gruyter, 2012.
- Otten, Terry. After Innocence: Visions of The Fall in Modern Literature. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.
- Pace, Jordan. God the Father or Mother Divine?: Subversive Theology in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Trinity College Digital Repository, 2017.
- Samuel, Irene. Dante and Milton: The “Commedia” and “Paradise Lost.” Cornell University Press, 2019.
- Thuswaldner, Gregor, and Daniel Russ. The Hermeneutics of Hell: Visions and Representations of the Devil in World Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
- Walls, Jerry L. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things That Matter Most. Brazos Press, 2015.
- Williams, Charles. Descent into Hell. Read Books Ltd., 2019.