Spirits Immortal in and out of Time

The Temporality of Milton's Angels in Paradise Lost





Milton's angelic hosts provide a major structural counterpoint to the destiny of humans. This essay examines their world and fate specifically from the point of view of their existence in time. Angels are immortal, but they are not eternal beings. The annihilation of angels is not beyond God's power. Despite similarities in their prelapsarian condition, angels and humans do not share a common destiny. Unlike the fall of humans, the fall of angels is temporally irreversible. Milton maintains a complex duality with respect to the fallen angels in that they are simultaneously fallen into, and out of, time. On the one hand, they are locked up in time and their own existence, unable to pass through the ultimate remedy, death. On the other hand, they have abused their freedom and are therefore outside time, which is no longer a potentiality for them, either to fall or to be redeemed. Cut off from God and thrown back on their own resources, the devils produce a closed, circular world. Their memories are clouded and confused, but it is part of their punishment that they should remember while they have no reliable knowledge of the future. At the heart of their enterprise is a subjective and manipulative reinterpretation of the past, with disastrous consequences for the present and the future. In the allegory of Sin, Milton provides a rather surprising counterpoint to infernal self-deception. While the analysis is carried out from the perspective of temporality, the result is a complex picture of a cluster of concepts that are central to Milton's epic like time, eternity, createdness, knowledge, hierarchy, and freedom.