Milton’s and Pope’s Conception of God and Man -- By: Alfred Owen Aldridge

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 096:384 (Oct 1939)
Article: Milton’s and Pope’s Conception of God and Man
Author: Alfred Owen Aldridge

Milton’s and Pope’s Conception of God and Man

Alfred Owen Aldridge

The conflict in English literature between materialistic deism and orthodox evangelical Christianity is best shown by a comparison of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Pope’s Essay on Man. Pope undoubtedly epitomizes deistic philosophy, and Milton, although departing at times from literal Biblical interpretation, embodies the fearless dynamic and evangelical spirit of Christianity. Nevertheless, the two poems have a similar object. Milton’s poem is intended to “justify the ways of God to men,” and Pope’s is designed to “vindicate the ways of God to man.”

By “the ways of God,” Pope means merely the moral order of the universe. He analyzes good and evil to prove that the moral principle behind the universe is benevolent and beneficent. He is interested in things as they are, and maintains that the universe, representing the ways of God, is just as it should be. Milton, by the “ways of God,” means vastly more than the moral order of the universe. He means also divine relationships which transcend the natural and moral orders. The “ways of God” has a spiritual significance, and connotes a mystical communion with supernal forces as well as objective observation of the moral order.

In their conception of God also, the poets differ widely. The God of Pope is the God of the Religion of Nature, sometimes identified with nature and sometimes regarded as the force controlling nature. Pope’s religious views vary from deism to pantheism. In spite of the fact that Pope

was a professed Catholic, the God of the Essay on Man is not the Christian God. Pope disregards revelation, and accepts nature as his all-sufficient deity. He views natural law and order in the universe as indubitable proofs of the existence of a Supreme Being, and maintains that no further knowledge of his qualities and attributes is possible. God represents merely order and benevolence in nature, and beyond this all speculation and apostrophizing are in vain. Pope’s God is little more than an impersonal force. He has absolutely no concern with individuals in the world, but acts through universal laws. He does not possess personality, and therefore communion between man and God is impossible. Pope’s Essay leaves no basis for mysticism, prayer or personal worship.

Of course, his personal religious views as a professed Catholic may have been divergent from his philosophical position in the Essay on Man. It is pertinent to state, however, that while one of Milton’s chief interests was the study of theology, and his theological knowledge was consequently profound and extensive, Pope...

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