Milton's Treatise for the Christian Soldier in Paradise Lost
While the War in Heaven, presented in Book VI of John Milton's Paradise Lost, operates as a refutation of the concept of glory associated with the epic tradition, the episode also serves a major theological purpose. It provides nothing less than a perfect example of how the Christian soldier should act obediently in combating evil, guarding against temptation, and remaining ever vigilant against the forces of darkness. It also offers the ultimate hope that Satan can be thwarted and comforts Christians in the knowledge that Satan cannot be victorious. At the same time, the example warns against the pretensions that Christians might have about being able to overcome Satan by themselves. Christians are reminded that the victory can only be won by the Son of God; at best, they can only confirm their allegiance and obedience to God through their service.
Throughout the poem Milton has tried to show two definitions of glory. The first lies in the assumption that war can bring glory to those who perform heroic deeds in its service. This is the view Satan holds, and is evidenced in his words to Abdiel, "But well thou com'st / Before thy fellows, ambitious to win / From me some plume" (vi, 159-161). The second defines glory not as something won, but something given. The Son affirms this definition when he explains to the loyal angels why he alone must end the war: "against me is all their rage, / Because the Father, to whom in Heaven supreme / Kingdom and power and glory appertains, / Hath honored me, according to his will" (vi, 813-816). James Holly Hanford perhaps best describes the conflicted feelings Milton had for war:
War, then constituted for Milton a precious illustration of the operation in man of spiritual forces and of the triumph in human affairs of the almighty will. Yet while valuing war for what it has to give of interest and beauty and insight into man's nobler nature, Milton none the less deplores it as an evidence and outcome of man's fallen state (221).
The "insight into man's nobler nature" is gained through war as "a precious illustration," not through the glory won on the battlefield. As an "illustration" war parallels the conflict and destruction brought into the world because of sin; therefore, the analogy of the Christian as a soldier holds true for Milton as it has for countless theologians. It is not war that Milton wants to do away with; it is the popular assumption that war holds glory and honor that he seeks to break down. Spiritual warfare against the powers of darkness is the command of God. God commands Michael and Gabriel to "lead forth my armèd Saints, / By thousands and by millions ranged for fight . . . / Them with fire and hostile arms / Fearless assault" (vi, 47-51). Hanford also notes that Milton's "hopefulness [for peace] is tempered, however, both by experience and by the implications of his theology, and he sees no prospect...