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Darwin and Milton: From Paradise Lost to the Origin of Species

Neil Thomas
Image credit: Gustave Doré, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: Professor Neil Thomas’s new book, Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design, is available now from Discovery Institute Press.

In view of his frequently noted tendency to pick up on the ideas of others, it is unsurprising that Darwin chose the just published first volume of Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology trilogy (1830-3) to take with him aboard the Beagle on his famous voyage to the South Sea Islands. In time to come Lyell’s geological ideas of geological “uniformitarianism” would come to underpin Darwin’s own theory of biological gradualism which underlay his postulated process of “natural selection,” a process which Darwin saw unfolding over a similarly protracted, quasi-geological time-scale. It might not however at first glance seem quite so obvious why he chose to take John Milton’s 17th-century epic masterpiece, Paradise Lost, and why he claimed to have favoured the epic over all the other reading matter he took aboard with him.

At this early stage of Darwin’s life, his seafaring companions were apt to rib Darwin for his devout beliefs. They felt that the young Darwin could come across as a trifle “pious” in his frequent recourse to Scripture to prove this or that point of principle being debated aboard ship. So did Darwin regard the 12 books of Milton’s extensive work as a form of devotional reading? Seen in that light it might seem only natural for Darwin to carry with him his dog-eared portable Milton, but I think it unlikely that this was the whole story.

An Ambiguous Exemplar

For there is a further implication in his choice of reading on which Darwin’s numerous biographers have remained silent. Many readers and critics down the ages have noted that Paradise Lost is a mightily ambiguous exemplar of devotional literature. Some in fact have read it as quite the opposite of the justification of the ways of God to man it claims to be. In the last two centuries it has been regarded by no few critics as a theodicy manqué rather than as an unexceptionable demonstration-in-verse of God’s beneficence to humankind. To be sure, Milton begins his work conventionally enough:

            What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low, raise and support;
That to the heighth of this great Argument [=theme]
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.1

Yet the heroic depictions of Satan as the great military commander of the fallen angels has struck many as being suspiciously reminiscent of such peerless heroes of the Classical tradition as Titan and Achilles in their opposition to the tyrannical and arbitrary Greek gods. Satan’s speeches to the fallen angels certainly embody the Greek military ideal of death before dishonour, “Princes, Potentates, /Warriors, the flower of heaven, once yours, now lost… / Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n.” Milton himself in his rebellion against the notion of the divine right of kings had rejoiced in the execution of the absolutist Charles I and the subsequent advent of a parliamentary democracy, coming in future time to deprecate the eventual restoration to the throne of Charles II,2 and his character of Satan rebels against a despotism which God embodies throughout the work. God is (in Satan’s words) “our grand Foe, / Who now triumphs, and in th’excess of joy / Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n.” This conviction provides the motive for Satan’s defection from Heaven, illustrated in his address to the other fallen angels where he describes himself as the bringer of freedom: “I come no enemy, but to set free / From this dark and dismal house of pain” (a reference to Heaven, their erstwhile abode).

“The Devil’s Party”

Such stirring purple patches of revolutionary rhetoric make it unsurprising that literary critic William Empson, in a famous study, described Satan as the de facto hero of the epic in a cosmic revolt against divine repression.3 The atheist Empson went on to write of the internal tension which must be experienced, he claimed, by all orthodox Christians on reading the epic, claiming that anybody not “imprisoned by their own [= Christian] propaganda” would be impelled to see Milton’s God as “monstrously wicked.” This was a view which had in fact already been foreshadowed in William Blake’s famous contention that Milton had been of the devil’s party without knowing it and by Shelley’s view that Milton’s Devil is morally equivalent to Milton’s God since “Milton has so far violated the popular creed (…) as to have alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his God over his Devil.”4

As is abundantly clear from the historical record, disputes over the royal prerogative (embodied in Charles I’s defence of the doctrine of the divine right of kings against the democratically mandated demands of parliament) led to the civil wars of the 1640s in England and eventually to the subsequent execution of the King. The later restoration of the Stuart monarchy with the enthronement of Charles the Second in 1660 meant for Milton the English nation’s tragic rejection of its God-given right to republican freedom. ParadisLost (1667) was written in the shadow of this Stuart restoration to the throne and republican sentiments may have lain behind Milton’s strikingly idiosyncratic treatment of his subject matter. 

Aspects of Milton’s own political disappointment may be discerned behind the rebellious spirit of his Satan. The fact that Satan gets the best lines (God’s words come over as legalistic and uninspiring) may imply a barely concealed theological subtext, an extended cry of dereliction on Milton’s part in the face of recent political developments — developments which, given his antipathy to monarchy, he can have viewed only as the very antithesis of providential. A directly parallel situation was in fact recorded by the diarist Samuel Pepys who lived through the same troubled time as Milton and together with his employer had himself once harboured republican dreams. Pepys reported in his diary on a perceptible diminution of faith on the part of his employer and patron Edward Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, after the Restoration. As Pepys’s biographer, Claire Tomalin noted, “The Earl’s disavowal of the faith of his youth was understandable, since for him and his former [anti-monarchist] party, religion had failed.”6

Darwin and the Divine

With these factors in mind the intriguing question arises as to whether Darwin could have chosen Paradise Lost as reading material because he found his own, ambiguous attitude to the divine reflected so felicitously in the matchless power of Milton’s verse. This is not of course to deny that Milton cannot be enjoyed innocently as “pure” poetry of the art-for-art’s sake sort. The late 17th-century writer Joseph Addison would later complain of Milton that “he writ no English” which is in a sense perfectly true because Milton created a higher, transfigured idiom all his own with the capacity to bewitch generations, the result being that Addison’s complaint is now often glossed as a de facto compliment. Milton in fact wrote what present-day linguists might term a “superposed” variety of English bristling with Latinisms and other learned exoticisms which cumulatively reach such a pitch of stately majesty as to be reminiscent of Church organ music at its most sonorous. It is more than possible then to lose oneself in the purely aesthetic dimension of Milton’s craft.

Nevertheless, despite the purely intrinsic beauties of what critics refer to as “the Miltonic sublime,” it is difficult to imagine Darwin reading Paradise Lost for its incantatory cadences alone. For Darwin’s riven attitude towards his own religion meshes closely with the theological subtext which critics from Blake to Empson have discerned in Milton’s epic. That “conflicted” attitude to religion is shown at many points of Darwin’s correspondence with intimates, nowhere more illuminatingly than in a letter he dispatched from Down House on 22 May 1860: 

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.7

A Letter to Joseph Hooker

Darwin became no less “bewildered” towards the end of his life, a fact which is illustrated by two letters he wrote in or towards the final decade of his life. In the famous letter to his botanist friend Joseph Hooker (February 1, 1871), Darwin appears to warm to the purely material theory of spontaneous generation:

It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever [=always] have been present — But if (and & oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts and ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity etc., present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.8

However, the Darwin who to all appearances set so much store by his theory of naturalistic evolution was nevertheless capable of writing to another correspondent in 1879 of 

the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting, I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.9

It is clearly not possible to postulate at one and the same time that sentient beings are the result of divine creation and of a random chemical reaction, and this contradiction underscores Darwin’s abiding ambivalence on this subject. Perhaps the point at which Darwin came nearest to Satan’s attitude to God in Paradise Lost is reflected in the passage in his biography where he writes of God as a “revengeful tyrant.” The doctrine of everlasting punishment in hell, Darwin continued, was a “damnable doctrine” which would condemn his father, brother, and most of his friends. He had no more time for the Bible, he claims, than he did for the “sacred books of the Hindoos” and even expressed the opinion that he could “hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true.”10

Dissatisfied with Anglicanism

We may infer from such words that Darwin felt dissatisfied with the Anglican faith in which he had at least nominally been brought up. On another occasion he writes in his autobiography,

That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with all the other sentient beings and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost all endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one, whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.11

Those words contain a number of theological implications. On the one hand there is the tone of theomachy, that is, battling against the gods, familiar from the Classical tradition of Lucretius and the source who to his ancient Greek contemporaries was known as Epicurus theomahhos.12 Those two ancient authors felt that the morally compromised gods of the Classical pantheon made them unworthy of veneration. Darwin expresses a similar sentiment here, at first taking what C. S. Lewis would later call the problem of pain as a sufficient reason to disqualify God from respectful consideration, and even to register some doubt as to His bare existence. This comes close in its reproachful tone to Christ’s cry of dereliction on the Cross. And yet, in contradistinction to that tone but in line with his riven state of mind regarding spiritual matters, the reproach against God (parsing the above words more minutely) then modulates into one of exoneration of the Divine. His words may be glossed as an implicit form of theodicy in that God cannot be held accountable for the imperfections of the human/animal estate. This is because all moral imperfections must be chalked up to the hit-and-miss workings of natural selection which Darwin of course held responsible for humankind’s evolution after the moment of Creation. The theory of natural selection lets God off the hook, so to speak.

From this it may be concluded that Darwin might be claimed as a classic example of a person being in two minds, that kind of insecurity which modern psychologists, with their penchant for decanting old wine into new bottles, label cognitive dissonance. It was a state of mind to which Darwin was more than usually prone, and his questioning and at the same time questing state of mind stands out in sharp relief against the stance of doctrinaire certitude represented by some more gimlet-eyed members of today’s biological guild — a point which I cover more extensively in a forthcoming monograph provisionally entitled False Messiah: Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species as Cosmogenic Myth.

Notes

  1. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. by Christopher Ricks (London: Penguin, 1989), Book I, lines 22-26.
  2. See Margaret Kean, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. A Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 8.
  3. William Empson, Milton’s God, second, revised edition (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965), passim. On Satan as the ‘true’ hero of the work, see especially pp. 36-90. 
  4. Cited by Margaret Kean, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, p. 51. 
  5. In his diary for the fifteenth of July 1660 Pepys wrote: ‘I perceive my Lord is grown a man very indifferent in all matters of Religion’.
  6. Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys. The Unequalled Self (London: Penguin, 2002), p. 114.
  7. Written from Down on 22 May 1860, downloaded from the Darwin Correspondence project under https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-2814.xml.
  8. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7471”, accessed 3 June 2021: https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-7471.xml
  9. Charles Darwin to John Fordyce, May 7, 1879, Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter no. 12040, University of Cambridge, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCPLETT-12040.xml. 24.
  10. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882, edited by Nora Barlow (New York: Norton, 1958), p. 85.
  11. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, p. 90.
  12. See Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods. Atheism in the Ancient World (London: Faber and Faber, 2016), pp. 173-185.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.

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AchillesC. S. LewisCharles DarwinCharles ICharles IICharles LyellClaire TomalinDevilEdward MontaguGreek godsH.M.S. BeagleHeavenHellJesus ChristJohn MiltonJoseph AddisonJoseph Hookernatural selectionOrigin of SpeciesParadise LostPrinciples of GeologyreligionRestorationSamuel PepysSatanScriptureSouth Sea Islandsspontaneous generationTitan