Was Milton an Atheist?
Then thou thy regal Scepter shalt lay by,
For regal Scepter then no more shall need,
God shall be All in All.
Was Milton, the greatest religious poet in the English language, also the most important atheist poet in the English language?
In this quote from Book III of Paradise Lost, God the Father, whose determination to condemn Adam in the past tense for something he has yet to do has led to rhythmic and syntactical confusion, finally gets his groove back when describing his own annihilation.
Unlike Dante who is prepared to concentrate Godhead as a subjective rush, a blinding flash of light and love, Milton loves talk. And he makes God talk. Speech, particularly in an uninflected language like English, entails linear thinking, linear progression. This is unconvincing when attempting to justify a being who supposedly transcends Time itself. The highly heterodox and probable Arian (first noted by Dryden and Toland towards the end of the seventeenth-century), does not treat God the Son as coeval and consubstantial with God the Father but describes instead a kind of promotion ceremony. It is this very promotion which causes Lucifer to first question his purposes and allegiances.
Furthermore, Milton appears to favour a theory of creation ex ovo rather than ex nihilo. In other words, the universe is an unravelling of divine substance and all creation represents a modification of the very stuff of God. This belief is associated with the 16th Century German mystic Jakob Boehme. In the eighteenth-century it would influence the late works of the extraordinary mystic writer William Law.
I can present here (oh you lucky people!) a direct link to a book all about the influence of Boehme on Milton…
Now this “Big Bang” theory of all matter unravelled from the egg of concentrated Divinity means that matter in itself cannot be evil, only a modification of evil. It also lends itself to a kind of universalism. If everything is made of God then a benign eschatology cannot imagine divine matter being forever destroyed – or even wasted in a state of damnation. If evil is a modification not a substance (a wave and not a particle), then a blessed futurity must offer a realignment, a new and improved series of relations whereby cosmic harmony is re-established.
Now when we’re all transparent to the Will of God, when “God is All in All”, then presumably everyone is God. God is everywhere and God is everyone. Now the logical trajectory of pantheism is of course atheism. The “Divine” survives pantheism but God, conceived of as any meaningfully distinct term, disappears. God, therefore, in Book III of Paradise Lost, seems to be looking forward not only to his (and his Son’s) retirement, but to his own abolition.
There’s an important check to this theological imagining. Milton, for all his immense erudition, when all is said and done was not a systematic theologian. Despite writing a book on Christian doctrine, which he was wise not to publish, Milton’s intellectual strengths were poetic and political. However, he entertains a version of atheistic pantheism, perhaps because it is one way in which a revolutionary republican can endorse a story which confirms hierarchy and subordination.
Tillyard noted in the early twentieth century that Milton in the Garden of Eden would have scrunched that apple long before Adam and Eve did, and then written a pamphlet to justify himself. It is far easier to read the energetic polemicist into the transgressive speeches of his poem than into the awkward statements of religious orthodoxy.
Yet Milton was also a musical man. He knew that harmony and melodic resolution sound better after conflict and confusion.