By Dr. Emily E. Stelzer
I once participated in a panel on John Milton’s theology where a majority of those in the audience were non-specialists and Southern Baptists. In the question-and-answer portion of the event, someone from the audience raised a simple, important question that for some reason I did not anticipate, a question one would never have heard in a professional academic conference. As I recall, it was something like, “Why should we read Paradise Lost when we have the Bible?”
Given the tenor of the event, it is likely that this person accepted a “mere Christianity” reading of Paradise Lost, or the belief that Milton is earnest when he has his persona seek inspiration from the Holy Spirit, when he refers to the gospel and the Son of God’s redemption of humanity as early as the fourth line of the poem, and when he announces his poetic goal to “assert Eternal Providence/ And justify the ways of God to men.”
It was not clear whether or not the questioner was aware of a longstanding contrary tradition interpreting Paradise Lost as effectually subverting its apparent Christian message, a tradition that looks back to John Dryden in the late seventeenth century naming Satan the true hero of Paradise Lost (as recounted in the eighteenth century by Joseph Addison in Spectator 297) and to William Blake in the nineteenth asserting that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It was not clear how familiar the questioner was with the topic of Milton’s theological heterodoxies, including aspects of the Arian heresy clearly articulated in Milton’s On Christian Doctrine. It wasn’t clear how Christian, or what sort of Christian, the questioner believed Milton to be. I presume he was asking a scholar to weigh simple acceptance of God’s Word against the vigorous search to satisfy curiosity through the imagination, a false dilemma, but one readers of Paradise Lost are trained to appreciate, or at least consider.
The questioner was either asking why a Christian should not be content to read only sacred scripture on the topic of the Fall of Man, and should bother to tackle an 11,000-line poem that creatively expands the story told in Genesis 1–3, a poem that may be read with or without sophisticated nuance as supportive of the gospel—or he was asking why one would risk reading a work that could lead the reader away from inspired truth. He was asking either why one should read poetry at all, or more directly and with more specific assumptions about the poem itself, why one should read lies. He was either asking if the poem was a waste of time or asking if it was dangerous. The question was not for me, and I didn’t answer it. The esteemed scholar who did gave a characteristically brilliant and gracious response, but the question stays with me as an important reminder that the defense of poetry and of the humanities in general has to be addressed from multiple angles. From the days of Plato’s Republic, poetry’s detractors have included well-meaning political philosophers and pious citizens, not just some (also well-meaning) business majors and STEM advocates.
For those interested in why reading poetry matters, and why it matters to Christians in particular, a good place to start might be Dr. Jeff Green’s introduction or Dr. Lou Markos’s essay in this volume of The City. There are the traditional answers to the question of poetry’s value. Reading and writing poetry (by which is meant all imaginative literature) can exercise the imagination, long considered a distinctly human gift. Poetry can be the means whereby we imitate the Creator and learn to appreciate Art and Artist. Poetry can teach and delight. It can render important concepts more memorable through actively engaging the imagination. It can cultivate curiosity and wonder. It can provide vicarious experience and emotional release safely. It can fortify us against folly. It can teach us to empathize. Through wonder and empathy it can better equip us to love God and love others. And for the utilitarian reader, I’ll add that the study of literature can help develop one’s vocabulary and social and cultural awareness, thereby increasing one’s chances for effective communication, the respect of others, and yes, even a well-paying job. One can read more about the topic in such works as Aristotle’s Poetics, Horace’s Ars Poetica, Basil of Caesarea’s Address to Young Men on Greek Literature (4th century), or Sidney’s Defense of Poesy (1595), to start.
These general arguments on behalf of poetry may also be used to address the more specific question of what to do with fine writing, poetry or prose, that one may find distorted or disagreeable. That is this essay’s direct concern. What if, upon reading Paradise Lost, the sincere and pious questioner finds the character of Satan too skillfully and too impressively drawn? What if the message of sin and redemption is lost in Satanic rhetoric? What should one do with the temptation to protect the mind by removing from it all arguments contrary to one’s beliefs, opinions, and perspective, straw men excepted? What advantages are to be gained by the reader who trespasses into controversial territory?
One may find a defense of such reading in John Milton’s Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England. Milton wrote this treatise to oppose the English Parliament’s Licensing Act of 1643, which required all printed material to be pre-approved and licensed by the Parliament-appointed Stationers’ Company. Milton’s 1644 treatise itself, like many controversial pamphlets in seventeenth-century England, was published illegally without such approval. The document had little to no impact on the Parliament of Milton’s day, but it promoted ideas that eventually led to the overturning of England’s Licensing Act in 1695. Since then, this work has come to be recognized as one of the most important and most inspirational documents in the free speech tradition.
The argument against pre-publication licensing in Areopagitica is perhaps mild by some contemporary standards. It does not argue against censorship—Some things, Milton conceded, should be censored—but it does argue against appointing a government official to decide whether a book or pamphlet is good enough, moral enough, patriotic enough, or safe enough to print before it has a chance to be considered in the public sphere. The whole treatise is worth the read, and my intent here is not to summarize it, but rather to look at the high compliments and challenges he gives to readers—compliments and challenges that we can still benefit from today.
Milton’s argument for liberty in the printing industry depends in part on his confidence that the well-disposed mind will be able to sort through good and bad in literature and other printed material. Quoting 1 Thessalonians 5:21—“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good”—Milton trusts that good readers will be wise and strong enough to weigh arguments that differ from their own ideas and beliefs, and will be able to discover truth even in unfamiliar and unexpected places.
Milton believed that pre-publication licensing, however so well intentioned to protect people from bad books, would be useless to curb evil minds that hardly need books to think of or practice evil; a “naughty mind” or a fool, as he writes in Areopagitica, may find ways to apply even the best books to evil purposes. He also believed pre-publication licensing would be harmful to virtuous minds that know how to extract the good from literature. Even “bad books,” the argument goes, “to a discreet and judicious Reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.”
In our fallen world, it is not only impossible to remove all evil, all folly, all instances of the godly suffering or the wicked triumphing; it would ring hollow, void of honesty and truth, if we were to do that with our literature. We would be creating a standard that the Bible itself would not meet, Milton avers. “Vice… should always disgust,” Samuel Johnson once insisted, but Milton candidly acknowledges and masterfully portrays the attractive side of vice, even while asserting its evil. This better equips the reader for the real world. Samuel Johnson also declared that an author should always take care to reward virtue and punish vice, but Henry Fielding reminds us of one small problem with the sentiment that the virtuous will certainly be made happy and the vicious certainly made miserable in this world: It isn’t true. Milton’s poetry also reminds us that, while Jesus may have already regained paradise for us, we are not yet there.
This leads to a short passage that concerns me now:
“Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates, and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.”
When Milton writes of promiscuous reading he is employing the Latinate adjective in its etymologically derived sense of mixed, common, or indiscriminate. He is referring to the benefits of unsystematic, unregulated reading—or reading that is regulated not by the government or another social institution but by the individual mind of the curious and virtuous reader. Such “promiscuous” reading offers the reader a vantage point for the surveillance of vice in safety. Wide reading leads to the acquisition of experience under the protection of fiction or prose, an opportunity to grow in wisdom through vicarious encounters with suffering and evil as well as with virtue and its potential rewards.
Reading widely (as well as observing life widely) can also fortify the reader against the weak argument (weak at least in this life) that one should be good because goodness is rewarded with pleasure. The shallow moral soil of tales that reinforce the dicta of our parents, teachers, and religious leaders may be appropriate in the early stages of cultivating the individual saplings of our culture, but growth to maturity requires deeper roots that draw water and nutrients from hidden places, roots that support the kind of inner strength and flexibility needed to withstand oppositional winds. That is, the maturation of good readers requires their reading arguments with which they do not agree, and imagining fictive scenarios in which they hope never to find themselves—at least not outside of the realm of the imagination.
The world is fallen, Milton always reminds us, and an attempt to extirpate all its tares is likely to uproot the tender wheat as well (Matthew 13:29). This metaphor from the Jesus’s parable is apt, but to this Milton adds that, where books are concerned, there is even some advantage to be gained from investigating the “tares” of literature; that is, the wise reader may derive good things even from the perusal of bad books.
Ever aware of opposing arguments, Milton in Areopagitica lists three potential objections to encouraging discursive or promiscuous reading, all derived from the obvious truth that bad books exist. As Milton lists these arguments, first, bad books spread [moral and intellectual] infection; secondly, they expose us to temptation unnecessarily, and, thirdly, they waste our time. Milton responds to each objection in turn. If we ban books because we fear infection, “then all human learning and controversy in religious points must remove out of the world, yea the Bible itself.” To the second and third objection, Milton insists that “one answer will serve, out of the grounds already laid, that to all men such books are not temptations nor vanities, but useful drugs and materials wherewith to temper and compose effective and strong medicines, which man’s life cannot want [be without].”
Milton concedes that there are “children and childish men” who, lacking this ability to extract the good, “well may be exhorted to forbear” reading books readily misunderstood, misused, or otherwise read to disadvantage, but we should not forcibly ban these books that may be read to good purposes by the wise. Granted, there is danger and risk in reading, and there is good reason for self-censorship, but that requires wisdom, too. Milton accordingly specifies that “books of controversy in religion” and “all such tractates, whether false or true, are as the prophecy of Isaiah was to the eunuch, not to be ‘understood without a guide.’”
Teachers of literature bear the awesome burden of modelling for their students how to wisely select literature, how to approach the texts to which they are led, how to determine which writings deserve more meditation and rereading than others, and how to wisely participate in discursive reading that enters intellectually unfamiliar and even hostile territory. When we as teachers of literature create our syllabus and choose our texts, when we moderate class discussions or point out a work’s key themes, symbols, images, contexts, etc., we are not only leading our students to the works we want them to know; we are leading them to develop their ability to read well on their own. We are influencing their taste as well as their ability to digest the good in what they read. And in preparing them to read anything that does not exactly correspond to the ideas and beliefs they presently hold, we must teach them to be scouts.
Jesus instructed his followers to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves; one way to honor that command is to “scan…error to the confirmation of truth,” to “scout into the regions of sin and falsity… by reading all manner of tractates, and hearing all manner of reason.” Milton’s argument thus depends on his optimistic view of the human ability to reason and to weigh arguments, and it inspires us to rise to the challenge of reading better, of reading more wisely, and to seek worthy guides who can train us in this enterprise.
* * *
Milton’s idea of reading as scouting here is not new, nor is it exclusively Christian; in fact, it has a classical basis. A century before Milton, the classically educated dramatist and poet Ben Jonson (overshadowed only by his contemporary William Shakespeare), took this idea as his personal motto, inscribing “tanquam explorator” on the front pages of many of his books. The phrase, which translates to “like a scout” or “as an explorer,” is found in Letter 2 of Seneca the Younger’s Moral Letters to Lucilius.
In this letter, Seneca advises his friend to choose his reading wisely. While he pays respect to Lucilius’s education and desire to learn, he warns, “Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady [vagum et instabile]. You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers [ingeniis], and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.” The brief letter reads like a pithy and timely defense of classical education, of being content with a canonical five-foot shelf of knowledge, of reading and re-reading the best that has been thought and said in the world.
In our world of information overload, it may be comforting to hear an argument for limiting one’s library. Seneca explains: “Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner.” Such a limit, it turns out, is also a challenge. When we read, do we think deeply? Do we meditate on what we read throughout the day? Do we let it work on us, change us, improve us? Do we even remember it? Seneca continues, “So you should always read standard authors [probatos]; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before. Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day.” Notice the advice to choose a range of “standard authors,” to reread them, to think many thoughts about them, and to select one thought a day for intense contemplation. For Seneca, these authors are standard or probatos because they have been proven worthy; they have been tried by tradition and they will bear the scrutiny of the neophyte, too. Senecan wisdom recommends a wide but wisely curated library of “master thinkers,” read slowly and repeatedly, with a view to fortification of the soul, brick by mental brick.
Seneca ends his letter with a representative key thought for the day. His topic is contented poverty, but what caught Ben Jonson’s and John Milton’s attention was the simile Seneca used to justify the way in which he acquired this thought: reading the works of a rival philosophy. Here is Seneca’s conclusion to Letter 2:
“The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, – not as a deserter, but as a scout. He says: ‘Contented poverty is an honourable estate.’ Indeed, if it be contented, it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbour’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough. Farewell.”
Seneca the Stoic ends his letter with a thought derived from the competing philosophy of Epicurus. The sentiment corresponds well with stoicism, yet Seneca refers to Epicurean writings as “the enemy’s camp,” and to reading in this hostile territory as the work of scouting. He advances an idea he finds there about contented poverty, drawing distinctions where he finds them necessary, but essentially agreeing with Epicurus. He latches onto the thought of being content with enough, selecting it as “the thought for today.” He fortifies his mind with materials supplied from a philosophical position other than his own.
* * *
What if we too looked at reading as scouting or exploring? What if we were willing and equipped to survey new and unfamiliar territory? What if we acknowledged the existence of philosophical opinions contrary to or different from our own and gave those opinions a fair hearing? What if we weren’t afraid to find something good, true, and beautiful in our adversaries’ written works? What if we read news of current events coming from angles we disagreed with and instead of feeding self-righteous anger we looked for something we could agree with, or a single thought worthy of a day’s reflection? What if, without entering a mentally fuzzy world of seeking to embrace all philosophies and all propositions as equals, we were willing to fortify ourselves against the rhetoric of our opponents by giving that same rhetoric its due, “not as a deserter, but as a scout”? Could it be possible that we could strengthen our own position by wisely and with open eyes surveying the positions of others? Could it be possible that what we let ourselves see may even lead to us advancing or improving our position? Could it be possible that such scouting might even win others to our side? I am not arguing for complacency with falsehood.
I imagine the apostle Paul on the Areopagus, surveying the altars revered by the Athenian audience he would soon address, including Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. He was freshly grieving at the number of idols he saw in the city, and it didn’t take much scouting to find a touchpoint—an altar to an unknown God—which he could use to lead his audience to consider his message. Paul was a polemicist, and in the middle of an ongoing debate with Athenian philosophers who “spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing,” he doesn’t shy away from rebuke: “Ye Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious….” But he also draws connections to his audience—“God…hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth”—and quotes words ascribed to the philosopher Epimenides of Crete and lines from the Greek poet Aratus in his sermon. The climactic moment, as it should be, comes with Paul’s proclamation of the Resurrection. The audience responds to the sermon, the effect of Paul’s scouting: some with mockery, some with piqued curiosity, and some, like Damaris and Dionysius, with belief that results in action.
For Milton in Areopagitica, the scout as reader seeks two objectives, virtue and truth. Also a polemicist willing to rebuke his detractors, Milton expects his reader-scout to wrestle with vice and with lies on the way to meeting these two objectives: “Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates, and hearing all manner of reason?”
Importantly, the scout is not confused as to where his allegiance lies, yet he is receptive to new information to be gathered from unfamiliar territory, and his actions are indeed shaped by his discoveries. The scout is also tasked with sharing his discoveries with others—he must bring back a report of what he sees from new vantage points.
In sum, here are some ideas of what it might mean to read tanquam explorator:
- Don’t go into new territory assuming you’ve already seen it all. Expect to learn.
- Don’t expect to change entirely either, to have no allegiance, or successively to shift your allegiance to the latest and loudest voice. A scout knows he represents a particular side. (Whether the lines are drawn by religious, philosophical, political, or literary-critical categories will depend on context).
- Acknowledge the useful, good, true, and pleasing aspects of the other side. Like Moses learning from the Egyptians, Daniel learning from the Babylonians, or Seneca the Stoic taking advice from Epicurus on material contentment, be teachable, and respect and use what you find for good. You may benefit from once-foreign ideas in surprising ways.
- Don’t try to take it all in, especially not at once. Find the most important ideas and meditate on them one at a time. Reread the proven “master thinkers,” and don’t assume you’ve extracted everything you can out of a text upon first reading. Find a guide or teacher you trust to mentor you through the process of selecting, scrutinizing, and savoring literature.
- “Prove all things” and “hold fast that which is good”; honestly consider that which confronts you, and don’t let the valuable things you discover slip away. Meditate. Ruminate. Digest.
Finally, one might be tempted to use this scout metaphor as a justification for aggressive reading, of reading only to refute. Not every written thing we disagree with must be read militantly or aggressively, and even the act of military scouting or exploring pays respect to a worthy opponent by looking carefully into that opponent’s activity or resources. While there is a place for polemic, we should avoid confusing aggressive reading with vigorous reading, or assuming that gracious reading and vigorous reading are opposed. Vigorous reading helps us know, and knowledge equips love. Over a millennium and a half ago, Augustine wrote in his work On Christian Doctrine on the importance of reading charitably, which Alan Jacobs has brought to wider attention not too long ago in A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. Perhaps the most important discovery in the battlefield of ideas is to realize that the war you fight is not against your fellow man, even if he thinks differently from you, and even if you fear or fight the real consequences of his ideas.
If you go to New York City and stroll Fifth Avenue, you’ll eventual come to the Library Walk, a collection of plaques with inscriptions about books and the thoughts they inspire. One of them features this quotation: “When there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good persons is but knowledge in the making.” If you go inside the New York Public Library, you’ll find these words inscribed into carved wood above the door of its famous Reading Room: “A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” Both of these quotations are from John Milton’s Areopagitica. If you go to Chicago and walk along Michigan Avenue north of the river, you’ll come across the beautiful Gothic building housing the offices of the Chicago Tribune. Carved into one of the stones gracing the exterior walls of this building, these words may be read: “Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to my conscience, above all other liberties.” That too is from Areopagitica.
The honest questioner who so helped me begin thinking through the ideas here about poetry, scripture, reverence and respect, and reading and disagreeing has done me a great service. I hope the opinions here are “but knowledge in the making.” I could have taken this essay another route and listed in this space just a small percentage of the instances where Paradise Lost is indebted to the Bible. But I imagine if that honest questioner was also encouraged and challenged by that afternoon’s discussion, as I was, he very well may have picked up a copy of Paradise Lost to see for himself. Perhaps he found there a new and unexpected friend.
 Hughes, Merritt Y., Ed. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003. 727.
 Hughes 727, 730.
 Hughes 727.
 The Rambler No. 4. Mar. 31, 1750.
 The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, book XV, chapter 1.
 Hughes 729. Emphasis added.
 Cf. Hughes 747.
 Hughes 729.
 Hughes 731.
 Hughes 730.
 Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius. Trans. Richard Mott Gummere. Loeb Classical Library. Vol. 1. 1917.
 Acts 17:21–22, KJV. See the entry for deisidaimōn in Brill’s New Pauly. Biblical commentators disagree about the connotations of this word.
 Acts 17:26, 28.
[Editor’s Note: Christianity and the Classics image from Nicolas Poussin’s The Triumph of David, c. 1630, found at Wikipedia Commons.]
About the Author
Emily E. Stelzer, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Literature and Program Coordinator for English and Great Texts at Houston Baptist University. Her research and teaching interests include Shakespeare, John Milton, early modern metaphysical and devotional poetry, and menippean satire. Her book Gluttony and Gratitude: Milton’s Philosophy of Eating (Penn State UP, 2018) explores food metaphors and Augustinian concepts in Paradise Lost.