Renaissance Hierarchy and Cosmology in Milton’s Paradise Lost

John Milton follows some of the dominant conventions and beliefs of his age, such as the belief in the hierarchical order of all things in the universe. All beings were arranged in a hierarchy beginning from God at the top to the meanest of the inanimate class. Every speck of creation was a link in the chain of being thus it enhanced the dignity of all creation.

To begin with, there is the inanimate class which includes the elements, liquids and metals. Next in hierarchy was the vegetative class which had both existence as well as life. Next came the sensitive class which had feeling as well. All animals were a part of this. What distinguished man from beasts/ animals is the faculty of reason which man possesses. Higher up, angels and finally God completed the hierarchy. To an ordinary Elizabethan, this hierarchy was a part of divine order which was meant to keep everything in place. So if the Elizabethans believed in an ideal order, they were also afraid Jest it should be upset. Disorder to them meant cosmic anarchy. So when Satan tries to disrupt this natural, hierarchical scheme of things, he is thrown out of heaven.

Milton was exposed to the competing cosmologies of the time – Ptolemaic with its conception of a geocentric view of the universe and Copernican, with its heliocentric view of the Universe. Milton primarily follows the Ptolemaic system of the universe with the earth as the center though there is ample external evidence to suggest that Milton was familiar with Copernicus’ theories very well.

Milton’s universe started with the Empyrean Heaven, the abode of God and his angels. Heaven is separated from the New World by a golden chain. This golden chain by which the New World hangs on to the Heaven also serves as an opening for the passage of angels from Heaven to Earth. The center of this New World is the Earth around which revolved the sun, the moon, the seven planets, the fixed stars, the crystalline sphere and finally the premium mobile. Then there was further Chaos and finally Hell at the end. Chaos consisted of shapeless matter whereas the New World was conceived to be made up of the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

Milton’s Hell is a burning pool of fire where sinners are tortured and punished.

The presence of the two competing theories of the universe is suggestive of the public nature of the poem. He did not use the poem to propagate his own views, rather he allowed it to voice the range of opinions prevalent in England at the time.

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