John Milton was a famous 17th century poet. He is most famous for his epic, Paradise Lost, but he also wrote many brilliant shorter poems in preparation. From his Familiar Letters, we know that he felt called to write this epic, but that he hadn’t yet felt prepared enough to write about the Fall of Man. Through writing shorter poetry, he determined that he would be ready for his great work, and arguably one of the greatest works in British history.
One of Milton’s common themes to his writing is the importance of the transcendence. This idea, which has been explained by many thinkers and Church Fathers, has shaped the Liberal Arts. Through believing in something which transcends pastoral reality, people have a basis for forming their arguments. In seeing that the things of the earth fades, it is easy to see the validity in Milton’s claim that there must be something which transcends that which fades. Milton argues that people should focus on the things which transcend, such as God and soul, rather than things which ultimately will not have importance, such as earthly goods and fame.
Milton was not the first to argue this viewpoint. Many of the philosophers of antiquity argued this idea. In the Phaedo, Plato responds to questions for his lack of fearing death by simply stating that it is in the office of the philosopher to consider the afterlife, and ponder death, thereby preparing himself for death. By the time death comes, he should be well prepared in thought by philosophizing his whole life. While Plato believed in a different vision of the soul than Christians like Milton, he was right to focus on things eternal than mortal.
Further along in Western Tradition, Church leaders discussed the right treatment of earthly goods. St. Augustine of Hippo famously wrote about ordinate desires, and the hierarchy of goods. In St. Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine argues that everything is good in its order. For example, Love is good and from God, but when human love is placed about the love of God, through various means, it is tinted and becomes sinful. This applies to other goods, such as food or earthly possessions. God gave humans food and earthly things so that we can survive, but when these objects are placed above God, they too become distractions from the Good and therefore are not good anymore.
Milton builds on the argument of the powerful eternal glory over earthly goods through his rich poetry. Many of Milton’s poems allude to the great thinkers of the past, and enhance their arguments with iambic pentameter, or blank verse. He argues that mirth is a means for us to live, but he chooses melancholy. He uses light and darkness to highlight the Truth in God and the lies in the devil or inordinate desire. And he describes Jesus as a powerful yet merciful savior. A few of my favorite poems are On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, and On Shakespeare.
Jessica De Gree
Jessica teaches 5th grade English and History as well as 11th grade Spanish III at a Great Hearts Academy in Glendale, AZ. In addition to teaching, she coaches JV girls basketball and is a writing tutor for The Classical Historian Online Academy. Jessica recently played basketball professionally in Tarragona, Spain, where she taught English ESL and tutored Classical Historian writing students. In 2018, she received her Bachelor's degree in English and Spanish from Hillsdale College, MI.