How Spiritual Hierarchy In Paradise Lost Is Constructed Through Structure

Milton’s Paradise Lost establishes a divine hierarchy of angels, men and their respective proximity to God. The characters of Paradise Lost develop a variety of different and often opposing ideas about the spiritual hierarchy. This is based on their different interpretations to the underlying rules that govern hierarchy action. These include the relationship that exists between rank and achievement, how freedom in the hierarchy is defined, and why one is promoted. Milton shows how the characters interpret the spiritual hierarchy. He also explains the consequences of their interpretations. The reader can thus struggle with the characters and come to conclusions which will help shape their spiritual approach. The reader will also be able draw comparisons with the hierarchies in the human and spiritual worlds. Milton uses the hierarchy of the spiritual world to lay a foundation for his theology. The reader is asked to struggle alongside the characters as they try to grasp the principles that are central to Christian thinking.

Milton demonstrates that the way a person views the relationship between rank established by God and spiritual accomplishments is crucial to their understanding of spiritual hierarchy. Milton makes clear very early in Paradise Lost how God is the one who decides on rank, not the other way around. God tells His Son directly in Book 3: “Thou…hast bee found/By merit more than birthright son of God./ Found worthyiest by being good” (III. 305-10). Even though the exaltation is seen as a distinct event from God establishing the original angelical hierarchy, one must remember that there is no time in Heaven. Ide states that “…this event in heaven isn’t the actual begetting, but rather a revelation of a previous begetting. This contextual difference is important as it changes the meaning and application of the term “birthright”. Milton is thus establishing through God that spiritual merit, not arbitrary factors like human hierarchies, was the factor which determined the initial establishment of all. This definition provides the reader with a solid intellectual base from which to begin analyzing the convergence between spiritual hierarchy, and meritocracy.

Milton uses Satan’s example to explain the relationship of spiritual merit with rank. Satan shows the folly it is to believe that rank represents spiritual merit. Satan begins by demonstrating that he believes that rank is the source of his spiritual authority. Durham notes that “”…Throughout the poem, [Satan] addresses each of his minions by title…as though titles were indicative (and to remind him of his superior rank).” (Durham 16,). Satan is unable to grasp that a rank does not determine one’s value. This prevents him from understanding that a spiritual leader rises by increasing his spiritual worth. Satan’s attempt to ascend by subverting hierarchy is a tactic which seems rational compared to the human hierarchy but fails in Heaven. The failure to achieve Satan’s goal shows that a misconception of the spiritual hierarchy is a major factor in forming an intellectual foundation when approaching spirituality.

Milton instead uses Abdiel to counter Satan’s wrong understanding of rank in the spiritual hierarchical system. Abdiel’s low angelic status is not a factor in the reader’s perception of hierarchy. Durham writes “… Abdiel is a demonstration that “a lesser angel can compete with an angel higher in rank, as long the lower being obeys the commands of God.” (Durham 16.) Abdiel gets his strength from God by reiterating his correct hierarchy as he exalted the Son. Abdiel says to Satan “God bids the same” when referring to the Son. He also asserts the Son’s great spiritual worth as a worthy candidate for heavenly authority. Abdiel’s own position in God’s hierarchy is not necessarily a direct change in title. However, he does become more respected and admired by God for his efforts to spread God’s word and obey God. Abdiel’s intellectual victory against Satan shows how spiritual hierarchy differs from human hierarchy.

The idea that spiritual hierarchy ranks are merely a reflection of merit is profoundly important for the newly created human. There are two tiers of hierarchy among men: Adam and Eve. Milton’s bold claim that the hierarchical rule that applies to angels also applies to men is both a statement in favor and against gender equality. Adam’s superiority over Eve is supported by their equal spiritual rank. This could be interpreted as Eve being able to surpass Adam spiritually, despite Adam having a superiority in creation. Milton’s engineered design leaves ambiguity in the potential spirituality of men and females, as well as who is most likely to be tempted.

The characters in Paradise Lost are all able to see the spiritual hierarchy from a purely objective perspective. However, their perception is often skewed by the rank they hold and how that affects the way the hierarchy works. In Book IV Satan is depressed, believing that his rebellion was a mistake. In his debates with himself, he temporarily suggests his folly stemmed from his position. “O his powerful destiny had ordained me / Some inferior angel, I was standing / Then / Happy; no unbounded Hope had raised / Aim” (IV. Satan, in 58-61, laments his position and believes that it was his ambition which caused his fall. Satan rejects this notion, believing that he could have been a lower level angel who fought God much in the same manner, but that angels higher up were still loyal. Milton shows Satan’s inability to understand spiritual hierarchy through his internal confusion over the impact of rank on hierarchy perception. This intellectual barrier is the main obstacle between Satan and the possibility of a spiritual redemption. It mirrors the difficulty the reader has with spiritual hierarchy principles. This allows the reader the opportunity to understand theological concepts both correctly and incorrectly.

Milton gives specific insights into Satan’s problem with the spiritual hierarchies. In Book V Satan rallies his minions and tells them to rebel. He then asks why any angel would accept the Son’s position as leader when all angels are on equal footing with the Son.

[The son] can… without law

You can’t even mistakenly believe that this is your Lord.

Look for the adoration of abuse

The imperial titles that assert

Is it not our calling to govern and not serve? (V.798-802)Satan argues that since the angels were created by God and so should the Son, both groups share the same level of freedom. Satan’s claim is a hypocritical one. Satan is happy to be the most influential and primary ruler of his minions as his carefully staged Hell conference demonstrates, but he does not see any merit in God appointing a leader who would have authority. Satan considers anything that would hinder his freedom, such as the appointment of an angel-guiding Son, to be a threat. Milton uses his argument on the nature of free will to frame a debate that is ongoing in Paradise Lost about the hard-to-understand concept that you are always free as long as you choose good. Satan’s hypocrisy serves to remind readers that his intellectual concept of spiritual hierarchy is what ultimately leads to his downfall, not his base motives.

Milton is trying to make the reader understand that the freedom of a person is not diminished by their acceptance of their rank, which is divinely determined. Satan is mistaken in his view of the hierarchical system as a prison that he wants to escape. In one of Satan’s most powerful lines, Satan says to Michael, “Thou fablest. But here to live free, or to reign, even if not this heav’n” (VI. 291-93). Satan’s statement that he was content with being free from the authority of the Son shows that his rebellion is not a result of power-lust. Satan’s idealistic motivation to achieve freedom is based upon his false belief that one could subvert the spiritual hierarchies in order to obtain freedom. Abdiel again offers an alternative view to Satan’s hierarchy. He tells Satan in the heavenly battle that servitude is serving the unwise and those who have rebelled against their worthier. 178-80). Abdiel illustrates here a key principle in Milton’s hierarchy of spiritual worth: that subversion will not allow you to leapfrog a more worthy individual. He reinforces the notion that one can always choose to do good. By explaining that servitude, or the loss of liberty, is caused by making the wrong choice spiritually.

Milton also introduces Milton’s notion that the individual’s perspective on spiritual hierarchy is influenced by their position. Adam is aware of how superior he is to Eve. This affects his interpretation of spiritual hierarchy. Adam’s understanding of the spiritual order is shaped by his desire to be in charge. As a result, he tends not to stick with the same position as the Son or Satan. Benet writes Adam attempts to emulate the Son when he asks Eve not to leave him. This would allow Adam to be able to deny Satan to both of them as if the Son had offered to die for all man’s sinnings. Adam, however, shows, as Satan did, that he also places a lot of faith in rank rather than potential merit. “But I can’t proceed. / But both my mind and my will are corrupted.” (X. Adam’s cry for help is heard in 824-25. Adam believes that the resultant fall of his status will make it impossible for his sons to gain rank. Understanding that Adam’s ideas about spiritual hierarchy are based in part on his perception of rank will help the reader to understand how these theological thoughts apply to real life.

Adam and Eve have different conceptions of spiritual hierarchy because Eve is at the bottom rung. Benet writes “Eve is tempted to emulate Abdiel because the status of Abdiel in relation to the high-ranking demons and angels are similar to Eve’s position in comparison to Adam. She suggests that Eve was motivated to act in a similar way to Abdiel, i.e. to show active obedience to God. Though Eve might not have done so because she could identify with Abdiel and his position of lower status, the fact that they had similar spiritual concepts is worth noting. Eve’s failure to defeat Satan is obvious, but she takes responsibility almost immediately for her actions, and helps Adam begin repentance.

As we have already mentioned, God’s original spiritual hierarchy was not permanent. Milton reveals that there is more than one way to improve one’s status spiritually. Milton’s strategy of spiritual advancement involves assuming a position lower in the hierarchy to be closer to God. This is more evident than the Son taking on human form in order to redeem the world from its sins. God affirms this act would be ultimately a good spiritual step, telling him “thy humiliation will exalt / with thee also thy majesty to this throne”. 313-14). Milton is also very careful to explain that lowering your self does not mean you are removing yourself from God. God informs his Son, who has agreed to assume the human form (III), that by descending into the Man’s nature he would not degrade or diminish “his” own. 303-4). Milton’s words here are a reminder that God doesn’t view lower ranks as a sign of inferiority.

Adam and Eve show us how to lower one’s status in order to be closer to God. Eve offers to be punished for Adam and herself if God permits it. We see a physical, symbolic lowering of oneself that, although unanswered, gives the sense that spiritual renewal is possible. Later, the two lower themselves and weep for repentance. This passage is unique in that it contains the only repeated line in the whole text. God doesn’t answer the cries again, but the reader is able to recognize the significance of the scene because earlier, hierarchical implications had been established.

Satan’s reaction is exactly the same as when his position, and therefore value, are lowered. Abdiel is the example throughout Paradise Lost for someone who has the right conceptions of spiritual hierarchy. During their battle, Abdiel shows Satan his flaw. Abdiel tells Satan the angels at all levels in heaven are not “obscured” by Satan’s reign. They have become more illustrious because of him. Abdiel believes that the Son is not an authority who diminishes angels’ worth, but a spiritual conduit between God and them. Ide says that God is condescending in his exaltation “…. He now allows angels to have a more intimate relationship with God. Satan is unaware that in much the same way as Eve has a relationship with God through Adam, God’s Son gives all angels and Satan the chance to have a closer spiritual connection. Satan rejects the Son because he believes that it is the only link between God and angels.

Milton’s portrayal of ambition is another fascinating aspect of Paradise Lost’s spiritual hierarchy. Satan admits to his rebellion being motivated by ambition, at the very least for a short time. 40). Satan is unaware of how his concept of spiritual hierarchy causes him to be suspicious of the values and beliefs of other angels. This suspicion, which can reach cynicism, blocks any chance of redemption. Abdiel’s cynicism is clear when he rejects Satan. God congratulates Abdiel for his actions.

Well done Servant, you have fought well.

Whoever haste maintained, the better fighter.

The cause of the revolted masses

In words, truth is stronger than arms (VI. 29-32)

God explains Abdiel’s good deed as a struggle to protect the truth. Satan wrongly interprets Abdiel’s obedience to be an ambition to climb the social hierarchy. “But well thy come’st / To thy fellows / Ambitious to win / Some plume from me” (VI. 159-61), Satan tells Abdiel. Satan accuses Abdiel, not only for his detestable ambitions, but he also immediately assumes Abdiel was aiming to surpass himself. This suspicion demonstrates the extent of Satan’s misunderstanding about the spiritual order.

Satan accuses Jesus of having similar motives. In Book V Satan tells minions “The Great Messiah…/…speedily despite all hierarchies/ Is intending to pass triumphantly and give laws”(V. 691-93) Satan is making a double accusation here: First, the Son does not deserve to be king, and secondly, the Son has not paid for his duties. In this case, Satan is implying that God awards status or power to those who perform righteous actions, even if they are performed by a cherub at the bottom of the hierarchy. Satan is saying that his motivation for serving God and performing good deeds is to obtain status in the spiritual order.

It is possible to identify the way Satan sees God’s relationship as dependent upon mutually beneficial exchanges of service and rewards. Michals focuses on the way Satan, in Book 4, analyzes his choice to rebel in terms of economics. Michals writes that Satan’s “language” is a mixture of values, a feudal system of hierarchy, which is less based on reciprocal duties and more based on debts and payments. Satan cannot understand, then, why someone would want to serve God but not get a similar return. Milton’s narrator said earlier that God most appreciates service performed without expecting anything in return. This contrast shows the extent of Satan’s misperception, and its economic nature helps the reader to relate spiritual hierarchy with human hierarchies.

Satan destroys God’s spiritual hierarchy by reducing God service to a transaction of mutual benefit. Not only him, but also other characters have lowered the importance of merit in the hierarchy. Adam, who has already shown a tendency to Satan’s view of spiritual hierarchy, also makes the same mistake. He says that God degrades those who face temptation. Benet claims that “…denies the benefits of loyalty …”. Eve reduces, too, the spirituality of hierarchy by mixing ambition with service. She tries to stop Satan because she expects appreciation from God, or Adam. These examples, which reduce the importance and significance of spirituality while retaining the dramatic action of the epic, demonstrate that Paradise Lost can guide readers from making incorrect theological conclusions.

This concept is also important for understanding the spiritual hierarchy in Paradise Lost. Two characters could be at different levels within the hierarchy, but still maintain the same degree of perfection. The idea that God has imbued all his creations with Godliness is one part of this perfection. Man, for instance, is made in God’s Image. In order to fully understand spiritual hierarchy, relative perfection is crucial because it allows a degree of equality to be established among those holding different positions. Relative perfect allows everyone to compete for God’s approval, without feeling like they are competing. Durham states that at the start of the war, “…all angels performed admirably…in battle, hierarchy rank is no longer important to the warriors (Durham, 18). Satan appears to be envious over the Son’s position of exaltation.

In the end, it is important to analyze the spiritual hierarchy in relation to Adam and Eve’s worldly knowledge. It is possible to argue that man’s incomplete understanding of the spiritual hierarchy was a factor in the fall of mankind. The reader’s spiritual experience of the concepts in Paradise Lost is negated by this position because the world accepts that man’s knowledge of God and Heaven is incomplete. The fall is explained by man’s incomplete understanding of God’s spiritual hierarchy. This is a more convincing argument. Benet argues that if man had a complete understanding of God’s hierarchy, it would be easy to choose not eat the fruit, “…and make obedience, faith, and love meaningless.

Benet believes that Adam’s and Eve’s trial is not about intellectual understanding. The fall of mankind is similar to the one of Satan and His minions because they did not know what their actions would lead to. This continuity confirms that Adam and Eve made a decision that was so simple, it could only have been possible if the spiritual hierarchies were studied closely. Benet continues to say that Michael had told Adam in Book XII, “Not intelligence but faith and love is the crucial weapon …” to resist Satan’s temptation.”

Milton is credited with arranging biblical characters into an easily-understood spiritual hierarchy. A closer look at the structure reveals that it is made up of a system of rules, concepts and other elements that both serve to maintain the story and to give meaning to characters’ theological discussions. A character’s perspective on the spiritual hierarchy can help us understand the reasons for their actions as well as their particular approach to the spiritual. Satan, as an example, appears to be bound by his duty due more to intellectual misconceptions than stupidity or evil. Adam and Eve may have also chosen to emulate models in heaven when they dealt with God or tried Abdiel. Milton’s engineered hierarchy structure can be examined in greater detail, and compared with Milton’s other theological essays.

Works Cited

The Works Cited is usually the same for both the original and paraphrased versions of a text, as the Works Cited should include the sources of the information used in the text.

Benet, Diana. “Abdiel’s Son and Separation Scene” Milton Studies. Vol. 18. 1983.

Charles W. Durham discusses how Abdiel, obedience, and hierarchy are portrayed in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton Quarterly. 26.1 (Mar. 1992). 15-20.

Fiore and Peter Amadeus “Freedom, Liability, And The State Of Perfection In Paradise Lost”. Milton Quarterly. 5.3 (Oct. 1971). 47-51.

Ide Richard S., “On the Begetting Of The Son In Paradise Lost”. Studies in English Literature from 1500 to 1900 were published in the 24th volume, 1st issue of the year 1984. 141-55.

Michals, Teresa. “Sweet Gardening Labour”: Merit, Hierarchy and Paradise Lost.” Exemplaria. 7.2 (1995).


  • camdynelliott

    Camdyn Elliott is a 35-year-old educational blogger and school teacher. She has been writing about education for nearly a decade, and her work has been featured on sites like The Huffington Post and The New York Times. Camdyn is the founder of the education blog Education Week, and she is also the author of the book "How to Teach Like a Pro: A Guide to Effective Teaching Methods for College and Career Students."

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