John Milton – “Paradise Lost” Book 3 (ctd.)

Milton includes in his Paradise of Fools also Empedocles and Clerobeus, who both committed suicide either to be considered gods or to reincarnate, and then gives a lot of space to Catholic friars, monks and those who are buried in Dominican or Franciscan weeds “to pass disguised”. Either he misses the point or he is being deliberately uncharitable: the people who are buried in Dominican or Franciscan habits (the practice is still alive, as the story about Jane Wyman shows) are members of the third orders, organizations of lay people who lead religious life outside convents. Being buried in a habit was considered a privilege and you couldn’t just decide to play dress-up on your deathbed. Anyway, whatever they wear, it is not going to help them, and Milton describes with a dose of what strikes me as not very Christian glee how when they reach St Peter’s wicket and will be ready to put their foot on the first step to Heaven, they are going to be blown away by a sudden gust of wind into the Paradise of Fools, followed by the ragtag collection of their relics, beads, and indulgences.

All the while, Satan is pacing on the outside of the crystalline sphere, looking for a way in. Finally he reaches a beautiful gate behind which there is the stairway to heaven. But not all that glitters is gold and Satan knows he can’t climb it. The staircase is not always there and Milton makes various suppositions why it was let down: either to dare Satan to try and climb it or to taunt him by showing what he lost. Next to the stairway there is the opening leading to the earth and Satan peering through it feels like a scout who after a perilous journey through the night finally climbs a hill in the morning and sees from it a wonderful city “with glistering spires and pinnacles”.

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